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Montana plane crash survivor shares his story

Montana

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Reef Hogan and his mother Kelly talk about Reef surviving the airplane crash that killed his father Brandon in the mountains near Ennis on July 30. Hogan is recovering at his grandparents home in Billings. | Larry Mayer, Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Montana (Billings Gazette) — Reef Hogan guesses the odds of being in a plane crash are about one in a million.

Those chances are actually closer to one in 11 million, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Just a few months after crawling from the plane crash that put him in the hospital and killed his father, Reef already has aims to get back into the air.

“He told me, ‘You have to be strong in a world that’s weak,’” said the 16-year-old from his home in Billings, where he is living with his mother and grandparents.

On July 30, Reef, his father and their flight instructor took off from Helena Regional Airport on a clear morning bound for Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Less than an hour after takeoff, their Cessna 337 Skymaster spiraled into the mountains near Ennis Lake. The impact cracked the plane open, stranding the three passengers in the Gallatin National Forest.

“I can remember everything,” Reef said.

He can remember seeing the flight instructor, who was piloting the plane, flying out of the left seat of the cockpit as the plane hit trees. He can remember the smell of oil mixing with pine at the crash site. And, he remembers the last conversation he had with his father, Brandon Hogan.

“He said, ‘I love you son.’ And I said, ‘I love you, too.’”

Although both he and the flight instructor survived, neither was in any condition to trek through the forest. Hogan’s ankle had swollen larger than a grapefruit, and the flight instructor suffered a compound fracture to one of his legs. Hogan used his own belt as a tourniquet for the pilot.

Brandon Hogan, 52, did not survive the crash, but his cell phone ensured that his son would. Looking through his father’s flight bag, he found the phone. With just 9% left on its battery life, he managed to reach a Madison County dispatcher. While they waited for rescue, the young flight instructor wondered out loud how Reef could forgive him.

“It was very touching, and I’ve got no hate toward him. He’s a good guy and just in his early 20s. We’ve stayed in contact and both said that a plane crash isn’t going to stop us,” Reef said.

After five hours, Reef was in the air again in a rescue basket dropped by a Life Flight helicopter.

“They don’t warn you how dizzy you can get in one of those,” Reef said.

Reef eventually landed in Bozeman. To treat his injuries, staff in the Bozeman emergency room cut through the flight suit Reef was wearing — his father’s flight suit that he wore to keep warm after the crash. The flight suit, along with everything in it, went into a plastic bag. That plastic bag went into a landfill. Those treating Reef didn’t realize that they had thrown away a piece of Brandon Hogan that his son wanted to keep, his father’s Rolex watch.

When Reef woke up from spinal surgery, he asked Dr. Ben Smith what happened to his flight suit, his wallet and his father’s watch. Smith, whose own father died when he was in 8th grade, looked through Reef’s room, then he made calls to search through the crash site and the helicopter that brought Reef to Bozeman.

“When I heard ‘We think it may have gone out with the trash,’…before I knew it, I was driving faster than I probably should have to the dump,” Smith said.

With family members and a hospital staff member, Smith plucked through mounds of trash at a local dump for several hours. A safety officer helped guide their search, while another employee operated a plow. About 10 feet deep into a pile of garbage, Smith said he spotted the flight suit. He felt something heavy inside the left breast pocket.

“That was more gratifying than any surgery I’ve ever done,” Smith said.

A video posted to Facebook by Reef’s mother, Kelly Kriskovich Hogan, shows Smith handing the Rolex to him while he laid in a hospital bed. He also held the bag containing the ripped and bloodied flight suit.

“What a blessing it was to have Dr. Smith. We were there until the morning of the funeral for his father, and Dr. Smith offered to drive Reef to the funeral. I had no idea how to care for him as far as transferring him from the hospital to car,” Kelly Hogan said.

Reef has screws in his body now, in his ankle and back. The impact of the crash shattered his heel and ankle, fractured two of his vertebrae and cracked his sternum. While he suffered no head trauma, he went into the Bozeman hospital room with a cut above his eye. His right arm still carries scars from lacerations.

Kelly Hogan launched a GoFundMe page for her son’s recovery. Insurance offered through her employer did not begin until two days after the accident, leaving her and her family with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills to pay. To date, it has raised about $13,000.

Although he needed a walker to attend high school classes three days a week since coming to Billings, Reef has since transitioned to a wooden cane. Along with classwork, he has physical therapy sessions and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he should be physically recovered by July of next year, and he should also be back inside of a cockpit.

After testing out of high school, Reef said he’ll enroll in the aviation program at Rocky Mountain College to continue his ambition of becoming a pilot.

“I want to go back up to their hangar and visit sometime. There’s a special feeling about being in a hangar…It’s just comfortable…I want my own airplane, a little runway and a tiny house with a hangar,” Reef said.

In following his father’s passion for flying, Reef will become a fourth-generation pilot. Brandon Hogan, a former student at Rocky Mountain College, used his career as a film producer to go from piloting his grandfather’s de Havilland Chipmunk to flying in a U-2 spy plane. His career took him to Afghanistan and Iraq, where he made a documentary about helicopter pilots for the 1st Air Calvalry Brigade, and he also had a chance to introduce his son to astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

“It’s a disease,” Brandon Hogan told the Gazette in 2008 after speaking to students at Rocky Mountain College. “I fell in love with flying and never deviated from the course.”

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