Ec 35v Medical helicopter
Airbus EC 135 Medial Helicopter similar to the one flown by Jonathan Godfrey on January 10,2005

Huntingtown, MD – He can remember everything up to the three seconds before the impact and then it goes blank–his memory picks back up at the moment of waking up, at the bottom of the Potomac River, surrounded by the wreckage.

Today Jonathan Godfrey continues to work as a flight nurse for the helicopter crews of the DC Children’s Hospital and has gone on to become a co-founder of Survivor’s Network. But on Jan. 10, 2005 he faced the defining day of his life, as he woke from his helicopter crash, and began a desperate fight for his life in the frigid waters of the Potomac. His goal now is to transform the life-altering crash into something positive. Along with networking and assisting other survivors, he has taken the next step forward in coming to terms with his accident by writing his story.

“I went and started volunteering at the spinal cord injury rehab hospital and eventually they encouraged me to go to nursing school,” said Godfrey, who had been inspired to join the medical field after visiting his grandfather in the hospital.

It was during his studies in nursing school in San Antonio that Godfrey first saw the Helicopter EMS teams in action. Due to the highly trained nature of HEMS work, Godfrey knew he would need to gain experience before he could join. It was only after 10 years of work as a nurse that Godfrey found an opening. He applied for a position based out of Fredericksburg. In spring of 2004 Godfrey got into his first flight job, working with a flight company attached to Children’s National in DC.

“There’s little road maps in the air for helicopters to fly in,” said Godfrey of Washington DC’s highly restricted airspace.

It was while flying under these restrictions that his crew encountered their most harrowing day. On that winter night Godfrey’s flight crew had just begun their shift. Forced to fly less than 200 feet above ground, so as to stay within flight corridors, the helicopter took a low pass over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. At the time, the bridge was under construction, and had cranes on barges, reaching over 300 feet into the air. Godfrey felt the external impact on the helicopter, and the start of his 150 mph plunge toward the water. It’s the last part of the crash that he remembers, before waking up in the water.

“Absolute scariest imaginable moment in my life,” Godfrey admitted. “If you sat and thought about it, waking up submerged, in complete blackness and not knowing where you were and what had just happened to you, you’re gonna panic.”

Godfrey, right-handed, was most shocked when he found his right arm dislocated and with a compound fracture sticking out of his flight suit. The several other broken bones could be dealt with in time, but the completely ineffectual attempts to use his right arm added to the panic. It was only after a moment of thrashing around in the blackness of the near freezing water, that he calmed enough to remember his training: wait until all motion has stopped. Godfrey had been regularly trained in the scenario of a helicopter crash. He waited to let the motion stop and gather his composure, before finding a reference point and unbuckling himself from his seat, which had been ejected 40 yards from the rest of the crash. Finally free of the seat, he began the painful swim up to the surface.

Godfrey was eventually pulled out of the near-freezing water after spending over an hour, floating, and waiting for rescue. After slowly recovering from an incident that left him with 11 broken bones, Godfrey soon found a great shift in his life’s purpose. At the time, Godfrey had believed himself one of, it not the only survivor of such an accident. Upon learning that there were others like him, he began searching for other survivors.

“I had heard of this crash that had happened earlier the same year as my crash, in January,” said Krista Haugen, co-founder of the Survivors Network for the Air Medical Community. In October of 2005, her aircraft had landed on a rooftop helipad and lost engine power on take-off, causing it to crash in the courtyard below.

Haugen went on to meet fellow crash survivors Megan Hamilton and Teresa Pearson, who felt a connection in their stories. They began to pursue opportunities to speak about their experiences and branched out to seek out other survivors. After meeting with Godfrey, the Survivors Network formed as a way to understand the confusion of their accidents and learn to live with what happened.

“We typically are the ones to bring order from chaos, and we’re the ones helping other people,” said Haugen. “So when we find ourselves in a situation where we need help or we need to be rescued it’s an unfamiliar place to be.”

One of the big challenges in overcoming such an incident is dealing with the surprise nature of how rapidly a flight can go bad.

“I realize how quickly things happen, and you know you sort of lose your innocence and your naivety,” said Haugen.

Haugen realized her survivorship was to continue to focus on her advocacy and work as a nurse, but not to return to helicopter work. For Godfrey, a mixed approach came about. After a year and a half, he left his flight company and became a transport nurse for Children’s National. He began work with both ambulance and helicopter transport nursing.

The advocacy of the Survivor’s Network has also helped to inspire safety changes. FAA flight regulations have been steadily improving, while the industry itself has made efforts at incorporating autopilot and night vision goggles into nighttime operations. Advances in national weather reporting infrastructure have also been vital as inclement weather is a leading factor in crashes.

In his spare time, after working a full schedule and advocating industry improvements, Godfrey has begun the task of transforming his experience with his many speaking engagements into a book.

“Maximum Impact: a Story of Survival, is the title I use,” said Godfrey.

As much as the title suggests the story of Godfrey’s 150 mile per hour impact with the waters of the Potomac, the line has a double meaning. The story is about the crash, and the loss of his friends, Schaefer and Kielar on that day, but it’s also about overcoming the feeling of victimhood and becoming more than just a survivor. It’s as much Godfrey’s story as it is the story of his industry and the people who have devoted their lives to the work.

“I want to have a maximum impact on my community and my fellow pilots,” said Godfrey.

Despite working full time, Godfrey has set the goal of finishing his book by October.