An ‘Angel’ earns his wings

By on December 19, 2018

Craig Groff is a flying ‘angel’ who’s lucky to be alive.

The Lititz pilot’s plane went down last week while carrying the precious remains of a small child who died at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. Groff, a volunteer with Angel Flight East (AFE) — a non-profit which provides free long-range air transport needs for kids and adults with medical conditions —navigated his Columbia 400 in a perfect emergency landing near Scranton. But, despite this incident which could have been far worse, it’s not why Groff, 56, considers himself to be blessed.

He’s volunteered with the AFE for about a decade donating not only his personal time, but his plane and the fuel needed for each trip. Groff’s truncated trip to Binghamton, N.Y., started from a request last Monday by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia asking Angel Flight East to transport a child who had passed away.

The Lititz Good Samaritan volunteered quickly before 16 other interested pilots could.

Craig Groff prior to boarding his Columbia 400 plane for Binghamton, N.Y. on Dec. 11. The flight ended with an emergency landing near Scranton.

“I jumped on it so fast because I really wanted to go,” he said. Groff arrived at Lancaster Airport, gathered his flight plans, and performed pre-flight checks prior to getting the all-clear nod.

He first flew to Wings Field in Montgomery County. He arrived safely there with no complications, met with the funeral director who had possession of the child’s remains, and set off to Binghamton. All seemed well until he was just east of Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport when he felt a small shudder in the front of the plane. It was a bit concerning at first, but Groff made some adjustments. But seconds later, the aircraft again trembled, and the cockpit gauge indicated a drop in oil pressure. After a few moments, he noticed what appeared to be something protruding from the cover of the plane’s engine.

“Soon after that, smoke poured into the cockpit,” Groff said. “And when that came in, I called Wilkes-Barre, wanting desperately to land.”

The engine stopped about a minute later.

“At that point, I was gliding,” he said. “I had no engine.” If that wasn’t bad enough, Groff realized that he must negotiate two approaching ridges to reach the airport safely.

“I’m checking my altitude, and I’m looking at those ridges,” Groff said. “I knew that if I had tried to get to that airport, I would be a dead man.” He noticed a large farm to his left and contemplated a desperate landing. It was a risky move, but he had few options.

“What we’re trained to do is look for a spot or a field…look for somewhere to land,” Groff said. “The location was two to three football fields in size. To me, it was huge.” Still, there were several trees which stood between him, his precious cargo, and a safe landing.

“You keep your cool, but you’re in a situation where you need to make the proper decision,” he said.

Groff banked around knowing that he needed to keep his speed up in order to make the “runway” — and braked hard as the Columbia 400 touched down. The tires hit a gravel path and he bounced around the aircraft. Going forward, he noticed a driveway that went right, and then turned left onto a road. And straight ahead was a brush area which he collided with. The impact would slow the plane down.

“When the nose wheel dropped off, my gear drove into the ground just enough that my back end swung around and the tail ended up right on the road.”

The landing was a success.

There was some damage to the plane — including major harm to the wing — but the priceless child’s remains still inside were completely safe and unharmed. Groff was also uninjured. Although the plane had come to a stop, Wilkes-Barre Airport was unable to reach him. Groff’s calls to the tower failed because he was on the ground surrounded by mountains. As luck would have it, a pilot above responded to Groff, then relayed his GPS coordinates to the airport.

Within minutes, several first responders, as well as a member of the FAA, were on the scene and the road was closed. Groff was able to inspect the engine up close at the scene, and noticed that “it looked like catastrophic engine failure. There were so many holes; one I could put my fist through,” he said.

Officials have since transported the plane to Richmond, Va., for inspection.

“It will then be determined if it can be fixed or totaled,” Groff said.

In the meantime, it’s a waiting game for answers.

There was some damage to the plane – including major harm to the wing–but the priceless child’s remains still inside were completely safe and unharmed. Groff was also uninjured.

The remains of the child were retrieved by a funeral home and transported to its destination.

Locally, Craig Groff has been in the bus transportation business for over 40 years, currently heading up Groff Inc., a company responsible for over 20 buses and vans for local school districts. His side company, Pennsylvania Bus Sales, sells used buses. This is what has afforded him to own his plane.

Ironically, at the scene of the emergency landing, he noticed delayed school buses waiting for the road to open and asked state troopers to allow them to pass.

“They were gracious to let them through,” Groff said. Even though he was far from home, Groff’s concern was to “keep the buses moving along smoothly,” just like he’s been doing in Lititz for years.

One of the first people that Groff contacted after the accident was his flight instructor.

“I said, ‘I just can’t thank you enough. You trained me to handle that situation at the most difficult time’,” he said. Groff, who cites his strong faith as the reason for his safe landing, said he’s ready to get back into the air; and eager to donate his time again for those in need.

“What prepared me for this was back in 1974 (when) I gave my heart to Jesus Christ my lord and savior,” he said.

“That dictated no fear of death. In a heartbeat, I’d do another Angel Flight.”

Groff said blessings come when “you get to help and bless others.” “I’m grateful and I’m thankful,” he said.

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@ or 717-721-4423


One Comment

  1. Mary k Groff

    December 19, 2018 at 12:45 pm

    What a awesome job of reporting you did on my Sons Angel Flight Thank You Cory Van Brookhaven.

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