Mormon Prophet tells harrowing story of a near death airplane crash for 45 years. Internet sleuths dig up contradictory details.

The current Mormon prophet is President Russel M. Nelson who is the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For 45 years, he has told a faith promoting story about a near death experience he had flying in an airplane.

“I was in a small airplane and all of the sudden the engine on the wing caught fire. It exploded and burning oil was poured all over the right side of the airplane and we started to dive toward the earth. We were spinning down our death. Oh, this woman across the aisle, I just was so sorry for her. She was just absolutely uncontrollably hysterical. And I was calm. I was totally calm, even though I knew I was going down to my death. I was ready to meet my Maker. We didn’t crash. We didn’t die. The spiral dive extinguished the flame. The pilot got control and started the other engine up. We made an emergency landing out in a field. But I though, through that experience, if you’ve got faith, you can handle difficulties knowing that with faith, you can handle difficulties knowing that with an eternal perspective that all will be well. In Luke 21, “The Earth shall be in distress, nations with perplexity, the seas and the waves roaring. Men’s hearts failing them for fear.” What we’re seeing is a prediction that in these latter days that people will be afraid. Men’s hearts are failing, and that includes women, because they forget their identity and their purpose. The heartaches will come. I’ve lived through the death of a wife and the death of a daughter. I’ve seen the troubles that divorce brings. Children or grandchildren go astray, disability, illness, injuries. For the individual who is weak in the heart, fearful in the heart, be patient with yourself. Perfection comes not in this life, but in the next life. Don’t demand things that are unreasonable, but demand of yourself improvement. As you let the Lord help you through that, He will make the difference. I’m so grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ that allows me that kind of strength in these tumultuous times. “

He told the story again just recently in March 2021.

“I’ve had some unforgettable moments traveling. One occurred years ago while flying to the inauguration of a university president, where I was to offer the invocation. It was a short flight in a small two-engine plane. We were halfway to our destination when the right engine suddenly exploded, spewing flaming fuel all over the right side of the plane. The plane was on fire, careening to the earth in a spiral dive. I expected to die. Miraculously, the dive extinguished the fire. The pilot was able to restore power to the other engine and make a safe landing. And I actually made it to the inauguration on time. “

Anyone experiencing and event like this would certainly be shook. Being in an airplane that catches fire and being forced to land in a field? That would be traumatizing. Throughout that traumatic, dramatic experience I was surprisingly calm. My entire life flashed before me. While approaching what seemed to be certain death, I was at peace. I knew my wife and I were sealed to each other eternally, and our children were sealed to us.

In a recently released book about his life entitled Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russel M. Nelson by Sheri Dew, President Nelson goes into more details of that harrowing experience.

On November 12, 1976, Russell Nelson had boarded a commuter plane in Salt Lake City to fly the quick route to St. George, Utah, where he was to give the invocation at the inauguration of W. Rolfe Kerr as the president of Dixie College.

It was a short hop of less than an hour in a small, two-engine propeller plane.  Only four passengers were on board.  The pilot had just announced that they were halfway to St. George when the engine on the right wing exploded, spewing oil all over the right side of the aircraft and then bursting into flames.  In an attempt to douse the flames, the pilot turned the fuel off, causing the small plane to go suddenly into a free fall death spiral.

The woman across the aisle from Russell began to scream hysterically.  But Russell felt calm.  “It was the most amazing thing,” he said.  “I thought, ‘My wife and I are sealed.  Our children are sealed to us.  I’ve honored my covenants.  I’ll meet my ancestors and go on to a glorious resurrection..
He was, however, impressed with how quickly and comprehensively the mind can work.  “It’s true, your life does flash before you.  I had a bright recollection and perfect remembrance of my whole life.  One major thought was that all of the framed awards and honors on my wall, the various clothes I’d worn — tuxedos and uniforms and doctoral robes — didn’t mean anything.  What mattered was that I had my garments on and had been faithful to the covenants I’d made in the temple.  I knew I was going to die, but I knew I would be fine.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Mormon faith, he is referring to the fact that he and his wife were married in a Mormon temple and therefore will live together forever even after death.

President Nelson was also quoted in a 2006 Deseret News article describing the event.

Those who have lived to tell the tale about a brush with violent death often recount the horror of knowing they were about to die, as did a woman on a small plane with Elder Nelson several years ago. One of the engines blew up and the plane caught fire, sending it into a steep dive as they were en route from Salt Lake City to St. George.

What mattered in that moment were his life choices, he said — temple ordinances he had participated in, including marriage to his wife, and the deep assurance that though she would become a widow, she would be taken care of financially and they would be reunited after death.

As it turned out, the plane made a safe, emergency landing and he would live to see his wife, Dantzel White Nelson, die first, in February 2005. At age 80, he became a widower, after having previously lost one of his daughters to death as well.

With the addition of the details of the date of the flight, type of aircraft, and the flight path, some savvy Internet sleuths started to pour over NTSB accident reports from around those dates to see about a plane catching fire, doing a death roll, and having to land in a field. Surprisingly, they couldn’t find any records of those details. What they did find was a report about engine trouble and a landing at a Delta, Utah airport.

NTSB reports

“Second incident occurred November 11, 1976 involving Piper PA 31 N74985. Pilot experience rough engine on scheduled flight between Salt Lake City and St. George. 3 passengers on board. Engine was feathered and precautionary landing made at Delta, Utah, per instructions in company manual. Investigation revealed cylinder base studs sheered. As a result of occurence, Sky West changed maintenance procedures by checking torque studs at each 100 hour inspection. No damage to aircraft. No injuries to crew or passengers.”

While the day of this incident is 1 day off from his story, it does seems to be the incident report – a flight from Salt Lake to St. George, and no other reports around that time talk about a plane sustaining damage from spewing fiery oil all over the right side of the plain.

So what do I make of this? In my opinion, he decided to embellish the details in order to impress upon his audience of believers in the Mormon faith that if you follow all of their teachings that you don’t need to be afraid to die. Unfortunately for him, he gave too many details and folks on the Internet have cast doubts on the validity of his story that the plane did not spew flaming fuel all over the right side of the plane and landied in a farmer’s field. Instead, they had some trouble and landed peacefully at a Delta, Utah airport which is about half way to St. George.

HT to Mormon Discussion

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Comments

  1. Human memory is incredibly inaccurate. I try to attribute these embellishments more to showing the subjectivity of the mind in recalling events, and how our recollection changes over time to fit into our current paradigm.

    It will be more telling as to his intentions whether, now that the truth of the event is out, whether he apologizes and corrects the record, or whether he continues to share inaccurate details.

  2. Thanks for taking a break from offering advice and news on how to be more successful at earning and using miles to report on some loony, rabid anti-mormon’s one-sided “investigation”. Or am I just missing the earning and using miles-related theme here and the plane factor here is just a slightly pathetic justification/excuse to get in an attempted dig on a particular church you don’t like? Guess there’s not enough mean-spiritedness and divisiveness in the world as it is. Thanks for using your blog to add to that.
    (Be better.)

  3. As a commercial pilot I’ve occasionally written that if people took a little time to understand aviation and how aircraft work they would be much calmer as passengers and generally far better informed about their traveling environment. Unfortunately the airlines seem to have decided to treat passengers like idiots and never seriously discuss how flight works or how their system functions so well. And it doesn’t help that, as usual, the news media plays up the rare accidents. (Granted the information is all out there, but most people don’t really know how to look for it.) So it’s no surprise that time, perhaps a false memory and a little drama can turn a minor situation into a Hollywood epic. That probably happens with many things every day but it doesn’t need to; another reason why passengers occasionally get crazy on airliners.

  4. @joseph – totally agree though the difference between safely landing in Delta Utah and doing a death roll with an engine on fire seem quite polar opposites

  5. Perhaps some embellishment by the author of the article as well. This is not an NTSB report (come on you “internet sleuths” at least tell the truth in your sluething) and not a direct investigation into the incident, this was a report on SkyWest engine failures and not very detailed. Perhaps there is some embellishment by the story teller, however, if you’ve ever been in a light twin engine aircraft when the engine fails, there can be an extreme amount of yawning and aircraft motion may feel very uncoordinated and unusual especially if the pilot isn’t well versed in these events (Skywest in the 1970’s was hardly an “airline” at the time; note the other reports of single engine Cessna failures). This yawing, uncoordinated flying coupled with the sounds of increased thrust and torque on one side and silence on the other would feel like an airplane heading to a spiral and would definitely scare the pants off normal passengers until the pilot got it under control (seconds do seem like minutes when you fear for your life). As far as the engine, if it was leaking oil or fuel it could have briefly caught on fire, note that the report isn’t an NTSB report it is the CAB which was the predecessor to the FAA.
    Like most air carriers at the time, Skywest would have downplayed any report to the CAB in an effort to avoid additional scrutiny and fines that could arise out of poor maintenance procedures or someone screwing up a repair (this wasn’t the NTSB going out and looking at the aircraft, this compiled report comes from stuff SkyWest would have self disclosed to the CAB). Not sure if “cylinder base shearing” would have caused oil to leak but there is certainly fuel and oil in the area that could have sparked (the report is far from complete). The CAB report is from an investigation into SkyWest engine failures, NOT into the incident itself and certainly not by the NTSB. The airline, Skywest, possibly/probably self reported the information as a precautionary engine shutdown as opposed to an engine failure (again this could avoid additional scrutiny and fines from the CAB that would bring). As far as the emergency landing in a field, Delta. UT, in 1976, would have seemed a far cry from a regular airport, I couldn’t find any reports on when it got it’s paved runway, once you land in Delta there was possibly an old radio antenna and place for aircraft to park, but it appears isolated and in the middle of nowhere once you land there, so while not really a field, it would not appear to be a normal passenger airport. As you can see by the authors small embellishments in his article the human brain uses our life experiences and bias to influence us, perhaps he intends to tarnish the reputation of a good man (is there really any other reason for the article), while the story teller relates his story to his trust in God and the small miracle he felt he had in his life. As for me, I’ve told a few “fish stories” over the years too. I’m a former PA-31 pilot who’s dealt with engine failures before (same type of aircraft as referenced in the article), FAA inspector (yes I’ve dealt with carriers that try to hide maintenance problems), accident investigator, SkyWest pilot, pilot who gas landed at Delta, UT several times, and current airline Captain.

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