By Mark Ellis —
Shortly after takeoff from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, pilot Frank Pisano heard a sputtering sound in his right engine. Then the engine went dead. His wife Janan was sitting next to him and didn’t hear the sound through her headphones, but she heard his anguished cry to air traffic controllers: “Mayday!”
In their brief, four-minute flight, and the horrific fireball that consumed the plane after they crashed on the 405 Freeway, God displayed his awesome power to save their lives in a cascading series of intricately timed and perfectly sequenced miracles.
They took off at 9:30 a.m. on Friday June 30, 2017, the start of an extended Fourth of July holiday for many other travelers plying the busy freeway situated next to the airport. The Pisanos intended to fly to Scottsdale for a three-day vacation.
Frank, a financial planner, is the type of person who leaves nothing to chance. “In flight preparations, we follow real strict rules,” he notes. “It’s all about safety. We had some work done on the plane two weeks before. The day before we took it up and had an uneventful flight.”
They approached several couples to see if they wanted to go with them. Four couples turned them down for various reasons – which turned out to be one of many critical factors that contributed to their survival.
Frank is no novice as a pilot, with over 800 hours of flight time under his belt, including more than 500 hours in their 42-year-old, twin-engine Cessna 310.
“At about 400 feet the right engine started sputtering. It scared the hell out of me,” Frank says.
After the engine died, he immediately went to full power, full props, and full fuel. “I made sure the gear was up and the flaps were up, which they were. I immediately feathered the prop so we would get less drag on it and turned down wind” to circle back to the airport.
He knew the risk involved during take-off, with the plane climbing at a steep angle. After the loss of an engine, his small plane could flip upside down and crash.
“If another couple had been in the plane it may have flipped and crashed,” he says, knowing the additional weight at such a critical moment might have doomed their chances.
Remarkably, Frank was able to level the plane. “I raised the dead engine three degrees and had full rudder on my left foot. So the plane is flying on a slight angle,” he recounts.
But at 400 feet he knew he was in an inherently dangerous situation.
“Mayday! Mayday” he declared to the tower.
“State your intention,” came the reply.
“I’m coming back to land at John Wayne.”
After his emergency declaration, the airport’s normal flight operations shut down. “Southwest Airlines was coming in for a landing and they told Southwest to go around. There were three other jets behind them that had to circle,” he says.
Janan, feeling helpless, closed her eyes and began to pray. “God is with us, God is with us,” she said quietly, over and over.
Frank’s mind was racing at hyper speed. I’ve got to get this plane down. I don’t want my kids to be orphans. I can’t hurt Janan, he thought.
The tower called and said, “297, your gear’s not down.”
The momentary distraction caused him to stop providing full power and he started second-guessing what he was doing. He had not been planning to put the gear down until he lined up with the runway.
Suddenly he realized he was descending too fast. To make it to the runway, he had to clear 16 lanes of the 405 Freeway, miss the concrete center divider, fences, light poles and freeway signs – not to mention the congested traffic.
As soon as he put the landing gear down, the plane fell out of the sky like a lead balloon.
“Hold on tight!” he yelled to Janan.
They hit the center freeway divider, which ripped into his left fuel tip tank, triggering the explosion. “There were light poles in the center of the freeway that I missed by inches. If I hit the light pole I would have blown up. I would be dead. That’s one of the miracles,” he says.
“The first miracle was at 400 feet that I was able to level the plane. I’ve been trained well, but God obviously helped.”
As they careened across the southbound lanes at 80-90 miles per hour, he saw they were headed straight at another barrier on the edge of the freeway.
But his plane clipped the front of a pick-up truck, which spun them around so the wing hit the barrier. “If we had not hit that truck, we would have gone right into the barrier headfirst and we would be dead,” Frank says. It was the third miracle.
The truck they clipped happened to be driven by John Meffert, an off-duty fire captain on Catalina Island with 21 years experience. He had just come over on the Catalina Express from Avalon, docking in Long Beach. But he met an old friend on the ferry, which delayed his journey by about 10 minutes.
If his trip had not been delayed by those critical minutes and seconds, the Pisanos would not have survived.
The plane came down hard and erupted into a fireball, the impact shattering six vertebrae in Frank’s back and five vertebrae in Janan’s back. Janan’s head apparently slammed into the steering column and she was bleeding profusely from the wound. Both were unconscious briefly.
Frank woke up first, saw the flames, and cried out, “Get the hell out of the plane…it’s going to blow.”
When he glanced at the left wing he could see flames 30 feet high. The only exit door was on Janan’s side.
“If we had another couple and had to evacuate four people, we might not have gotten out,” he says.
Janan opened the door and was able to get out, but Frank was caught under the dashboard.
“Come on!” Janan yelled at him.
“I can’t. My legs are stuck,” he cried.
Janan crawled back into the plane to save her husband’s life. The right and left wing were on fire, the cabin was engulfed, but miraculously, they were not consumed.
Frank thought to himself, God, I’m ready to go. Take me. She’s safe, so my kids won’t be orphans.
“Get the hell out of here,” he yelled at her.
“I’m not going without you,” she replied. It’s a wonder Janan could even move with a broken back and gaping head wound. “Frank, you’ve got to lift your leg.”
“I can’t.” At that point she lifted and he lifted and his foot dislodged. But she didn’t have the strength to pull his body out.
Fire Captain John Meffert, the first responder, got out of his pick-up truck (that had just been hit) and raced toward the plane, thinking to himself that anyone on the plane must be dead.
Then he saw a sight he couldn’t believe. In the midst of the flames, there was Janan’s head bobbing up and down, trying to pull out her husband.
Meffert’s training is not to go into burning cars or buildings when they have been engulfed to that degree. But when he saw Janan, he thought, If she can be in there I can be in there.
He lunged forward despite the danger, stuck his arms around Frank in a bearhug and said, “I got you,” and pulled him out.
When Meffert dragged Frank out, Janan sat down on the pavement by the southbound barrier.
Then the second responder arrived on the scene, who happened to be an ICU nurse that had just finished her shift at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. She began triage using supplies thrown over the airport fence by emergency personnel at the airport.
The third responder, a bartender named Federico from Mozambique Restaurant in Laguna Beach came running over and said, “I don’t know what to do, but I am here to help.”
“Stop her bleeding,” Captain Meffert barked.
Federico took off his yellow teeshirt and wrapped it around Janan’s head and held it tightly. Then he bent down and said, “God is with you; God is with you…” repeating the same prayer Janan made before they crashed.
Meffert used his training to support Frank’s neck with a C-collar and prepare for their transport to the hospital. “His training was critical,” Frank says. “God just kept giving and giving.”
“Think about the timing,” Frank marvels. “I missed the light poles by inches and if John’s truck had been there two seconds faster my left prop would have ripped his roof right off and killed him instantly.”
“John’s timing was perfect. Nobody but God can make that happen. With that type of crash I should have been burned to a crisp.” Another miracle is that nobody on that busy freeway got hurt.
Frank and Janan were taken to OC Global Medical Center in separate ambulances. Frank was able to call his son on the phone and tell him to come immediately. “That’s the last thing I remember until I woke up July 5th,” Frank says. Physicians put him into an induced coma because of breathing difficulties after he kept pulling his breathing tube out.
“I’m told that while I was unconscious people were coming into my room and placing their hands on my legs and praying. I never found out who they were.”
After two weeks, the Pisanos were transferred to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, California, and a doctor came up to Frank and said, “I have to be honest with you. When I saw that plane crash (on TV) and I saw them take you to OC Global I said to my wife, ‘Let’s pray God takes him right away so they don’t suffer.”
“He thought we were burned to a crisp,” Frank says. “It’s like God put his hands around the fuselage where we were sitting and said, ‘I’m not going to let anything happen to you.’
“He protected us!”
After they were pulled from the plane, the intense fire caused the headphones they were wearing to become a melted ball of plastic.
Now, two months later, Frank and Janan are convalescing at home, both wearing “turtle” braces and walking, but they are not supposed to bend or reach for objects. Considering all that could have happened they are quick to give praise and glory to God.
“That is the biggest miracle of all time,” Frank says. “If you don’t believe in God listen to this story and tell me there isn’t a God up above. This was not luck.”
“It’s unbelievable I didn’t hit the light poles or any signs. If I had to do it again there is no way I could do what I did.”
Before the accident Frank didn’t give much credence to miracles. “I knew they happened, but I never expected them to happen to me.”
Fire Captain Meffert also believes God protected them that day. “I’m a firm believer in miracles,” he says, “and the 30th of June was one of the biggest miracles I have seen and been apart of.”
“Prayer is so powerful!” he exclaims. The Pisanos “had God’s ear, his eyes, and his caring hands” over them “and all of us on the ground.”
If you want to know more about a personal relationship with God, go here