After 3,500-Foot Fall, Pilot Flying High Again

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It was a hot summer day in August 2012 when Lt. Hunter Davis, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force, was practicing freefall training near San Marcos. During the low altitude jump, his main parachute malfunctioned and left him with an estimated 30 seconds to respond.

 Hunter had missed advanced freefall training before graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. When he reported for duty in San Antonio, he was advised to seek experience at a civilian training center.

Wearing his new jumpsuit, Hunter was attempting his first low altitude jump. When his main chute malfunctioned, it tangled him up in a cocoon. People on the ground saw him fighting with the parachute. Hunter was upside-down and spinning, head-first, toward the ground.

His cut-away system also failed. Hunter worked his way out and grabbed the riser cord. Fighting centrifugal force, he used all his strength to pull himself up and avoid landing head first. With no inflation from his chute, Hunter fell 3,500 feet.

Landing parallel to the ground, he saved his head but shattered his pelvis.

Hundreds of miles away, in Houma, La., Hunter’s mother Dana Davis, received a call from the jump center. Hunter was being evacuated by air to University Medical Center Brackenridge.

She was told it was not likely he would survive.

Dr. Ben Coopwood was the first to see him at UMC Brackenridge. He was surprised to find Hunter talking coherently and trying to triage his own injuries.

He had expected he would be pronouncing Hunter dead on arrival.

He would later learn the patient grew up in a medical family. Hunter’s father, Dr. Robert W. Davis, practices medicine; his mother is a clinical social worker; and his sister, Dr. Robin Davis, was a neurology resident at the time of the accident.

After making his own assessment, Coopwood told Hunter’s parents that they needed to hurry. Fortunately, a friend in Houma offered his private jet to fly them to Austin.

During their travel, Carol Nicks, licensed social worker, kept them apprised of Hunter’s condition by phone. The Air Force pilot had suffered multiple fractures to his spinal vertebrae, a dropped lung, torn arteries and lacerations to multiple organs.

When they arrived at the hospital, Carol met them at the door.

“One of the greatest privileges of ER social work is the opportunity to serve as a lifeline to families who desperately want to be at the bedside of their loved ones,” Nicks said. “Hunter’s parents repeatedly called for updates while traveling to Austin. My hope is that we were able to give them some sense of peace during this difficult time.”

More than a dozen people were in the room with Hunter. He had been stabilized, ventilated and sedated. The team had been trying to hold on for his parents to see him.

Within 90 seconds of their arrival, he was taken away.

“As Hunter left the room for a procedure everyone hoped would stem the bleeding, I turned and began to try to thank the staff and tell them a few things about Hunter that would characterize who he was as a person beyond that very broken body in front of them,” said Dana. “All of the staff respectfully let me speak, and then each of them told me what their role had been in caring for our son.

“In the many long months that stretched out ahead of us, I never forgot those moments spent talking, albeit briefly, with the ER staff – and I never shall. It was a few moments of pure grace in a place where grace is sometimes hard to recognize. Your talented and busy staffers each took a moment to tell a heartbroken mother that they recognized the patient in front of them for who he was – a beloved son, a brother and a bright and talented pilot.”

Two days later, he was stable enough for surgery to repair his pelvis. If he survived all of these injuries, it was expected he would need at least a year to recover.

Three days after the accident, Hunter was transferred to San Antonio Military Medical Center at Brooke Army Medical Center. He spent two months in the hospital, three and a half months in a wheelchair, then crutches and months of rehabilitation. And by April 2013, just eight months after the accident, he was back in the saddle as an Air Force pilot.

“Full recovery from an injury as severe as Hunter’s is uncommon,” said Dr. David Laverty, one of his surgeons. “However, Hunter made an impression on me. He is a man with great energy and motivation, and he is in great physical shape. He clearly took this unfortunate incident and made the most of it.”

Today, other than a tiny amount of weakness on his left side, it’s almost like the accident didn’t happen. Hunter is grateful for his second chance at life.

As Hunter told the Austin American-Statesman, “They were instrumental in preserving whatever career I had left If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t have survived. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to come up with the right words to thank them. I just hope my life can be a tribute to them.”

On May 27, Hunter was the featured speaker at UMC Brackendridge’s second annual Trauma Survivors’ Reunion, an event that leads into Seton’s annual Austin Trauma & Critical Care Conference.

Hunter’s brief speech was entitled, “The Five People You Meet When You Don’t Go to Heaven.”

And now, he’s thinking about flying helicopter ambulances when he leaves the Air Force in four or five years.

The American-Statesman story can be read in its entirety if you are a subscriber. KVUE-TV, KXAN-TV, KEYE-TV and Fox 7 also did stories on Hunter Davis and his family.

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