ORCAS ISLAND —
The first time author Richard Bach saw his seaplane after a near-fatal 2012 crash he was wrought with a mixture of intense guilt and fierce loyalty.
For the longtime pilot and Orcas Island resident, flying has not only influenced his works, most notably the 1970 best-seller “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” it has become a cornerstone of his life.
Even as he recuperated from massive brain, chest and spinal injuries suffered in the crash, Bach knew he would again take to the air in his beloved “Puff,” a single-engine Easton SeaRey amphibian plane.
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“I’ve had 41 airplanes, and Puff had a personality. When I first bought her I really loved her,” said Bach, 77. “I was ferocious that Puff had to be rebuilt. It was very, very important. I had a relationship with that little spirit.”
But first, Puff had to be crated up and shipped to the Florida company where he had purchased the plane so the aircraft could be rebuilt. Bach took the resurrected Puff on its maiden flight over the swamps of south Florida late last year.
“It was as if someone you loved had died and came back,” said an emotional Bach. “It was as if time had realized there had been a terrible mistake. She was perfect. It was as though there’d been no crash.”
He added, “It was so important for me that she live again.”
Puff’s resurrection has mirrored Bach’s own journey back from the crash and the injuries that could have easily taken the life of the famed author.
From the moment he awoke from a coma at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, Bach was insistent on resuming his life on Orcas — a life of writing, flying and stretches of solitude.
Sitting in his living room on a tan plaid sofa on a recent morning, the wood-burning stove roaring, Bach recalled flying Puff on Aug. 31, 2012, to visit a friend on neighboring San Juan Island.
Bach said he was convinced he was about to land near Friday Harbor when the aircraft clipped power lines 40 feet in the air. The last thing he recalls is hearing the “whispering” of blades of grass on the landing gear of Puff.
“I don’t remember the impact,” he said.
A week later, when he awoke from his coma with serious head injuries, he was tethered to a ventilator because he had suffered respiratory failure.
Bach blames himself for the crash. A friend had told him about the power lines on San Juan Island, but he admits that he had simply forgotten about them.
Bach calls the crash “a blessing” because his near-death experience resulted in powerful visions, ones he wrote about in his spiritual memoir “Illusions II: The Adventures of a Reluctant Student.” In the book, released through the Kindle Singles platform earlier this year, Bach talks about going to an alternate world, a “pretty” place where there were children playing in a countrylike setting.
While in this dream state a voice asked three times if Bach wanted to go back to Earth. Knowing that he needed to return to his family and to tell the story of his brush with death, Bach opened his eyes; his ex-wife and good friend, Sabryna, was there in the hospital room waiting for him.
Reality set in quickly after the accident. He endured months of tough recovery at the hospital, in a rehabilitation center and later at home. The only remaining injury for Bach is hampered vision in his left eye.
Bach is spending a good portion of his time working with a small team to develop jonathanlivingstonseagull.com, a website devoted to life, death, love, flying and the famous title character from his beloved book, a seagull who refused to conform and longed for a life beyond that of his flock. He calls the site “a meeting place for people who are fans of Jonathan Seagull.”
Site developer Jaimee Newberry said the site is a way to introduce a new generation of readers to the book. Newberry said the site is expected to go live March 31.
During his days of solitude on Orcas Island, where his constant companion is an elderly Shetland sheepdog named Maya, Bach writes and does mostly phone interviews. Sabryna often visits, bringing bags of groceries or making him fresh-squeezed juices.
Bach’s home atop a mountain offers a commanding view of water and specks of green islands. Small airplanes can be seen darting between clouds.
He has traveled to Florida several times since the accident to visit the company rebuilding Puff. He plans to fly the plane back to Orcas Island in a few months.
A pilot since he was a teenager, Bach said he wasn’t nervous about returning to the air. He said his first few flights after the crash were “like I’ve always flown.”
“It was absolutely beautiful. It was simple,” he said. “Whatever my head hit did not hurt my flying skills, fortunately.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.