Quaker Valley grad back in pilot's seat after 2009 crash

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The moment American Airlines International Captain Brian Cole called out the words, “Positive rate gear up,” he knew he was back where he belonged.

It was the first time Cole — a Sewickley native who has flown for American Airlines since 1986 — had been able to return to the captain's seat since suffering back and neck injuries when Flight 331 went down in Kingston, Jamaica, on Dec. 22, 2009.

The plane he was piloting then was destroyed, but all 154 people aboard survived.

For 3 12 years, Cole, 53, who has lived in Juno Beach, Fla., since 1993, has been struggling to recover, with the goal of returning to the air. Now that he reached that goal, the 1978 Quaker Valley High School graduate said he wants to reach out to local family and friends to tell them how he's doing.

He and his older brother, Rick, who lives in Florida, still have an apartment here and own Cole Funeral Home. Their parents, the late Jeri and Richard Cole, owned the Richard D. Cole Funeral Home from 1961 to 2003. Cole's younger sister, Ronna, lives in New Kensington.

His first return trip, was Feb. 27 from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport bound for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, then to Cancun, Mexico.

His co-pilot was Pittsburgher Dan Billingsly, who Cole worked with almost 30 years ago when he flew as co-pilot for Cole on a twin-engine propeller aircraft through the Bahamas and southern Florida.

Cole was hospitalized for three days after the Kingston crash.

“My back and neck took the brunt of the impact, and through months and months of physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage and yoga, I was able to change and adapt my lifestyle to live with my ailments and forego any surgeries.”

Last September, Cole started treatment with Dr. Peter Lambrou, head doctor for the Center for Aviation Medicine in Moon, who helped him get his medical clearance to get back into a jet. In November last year, he received his final medical clearance and was able to start re-qualification training in January.

Rick Cole said he is happy to see his brother flying again.

“There was a point when he was in a lot of pain, and he didn't know if he would ever fly again,” he said. “If you would have seen that cockpit after the crash, you would wonder how anyone could have survived. It was a miracle.”

Earning a degree in aeronautics from Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla., Cole said he knew when he was 9 years old he wanted to be a jet pilot.

His father, a B-17 tail gunner in World War II, would take Cole and his brother to the Beaver County Air Show.

“The first time I saw and heard a jet make a pass by the crowd, I was hooked,” said Cole.

The divorced father of three sons said he is a believer that fate and chance are not accidents.

“I believe God sometimes thrusts us into situations that there are no answers for — like why or how or when. I believe we must savor those moments and learn from them and decipher them so that in the future we can teach and maybe save someone else from having to endure the pain or the anguish of a certain event,” he said.

“I believe what I have witnessed through this experience will and has made me a stronger, better father, brother, friend and definitely a better pilot.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or jbarron@tribweb.com.

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