It was Friday evening, and Larry and Donna Hicks were about to watch the six o’clock news in their lakeside home at Palos Verdes Estates outside Troy, Alabama. Hicks was a 52-year-old retired Sergeant Major with the Marines, now working as a conservation enforcement officer for the state of Alabama. He had arrived home from work half an hour earlier, and he and Donna had talked about going to a movie, but decided against it.
The TV news was just starting, when they looked out the window and saw a small plane flying down the shoreline of Palos Verdes Lake.
“I wonder if he knows about the power lines,” Larry said, just as the aircraft suddenly shuddered to a halt, flipped over, and headed straight down into lake. Hicks was already running out the back door as the plane hit the water, yelling behind to his wife, “Call 911! I’m going to see if I can help the pilot.”
Fortunately, Larry’s brother, Wayne, had left a 14-foot aluminum johnboat, with an electric trolling motor, at the lake in preparation for bass fishing that day, then had not shown up. Donna made the call to 911, and ran outside in time to see Larry commandeering the johnboat, headed toward the Air-Cam, which was about 100 yards off shore.
Years before, when Hicks had been stationed at the Marine Air Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, he had spent two-and-a-half months, part time, in an intense Search and Rescue program. A major got him into it because he thought Hicks would be good at it since he was muscular and into weight building. The training was specifically directed toward saving pilots who had gone down in water in fixed-wing or rotary-wing planes. Hicks learned how to get pilots out of planes that had crashed upside down. However, he remained in the telecommunications unit, and never had the opportunity to use his specialized training.
The engine of the Air-Cam was hot when it hit Palos Verdes Lake, and the airplane was smoking in the water. High octane aviation fuel from a ruptured fuel tank floated over the surface making greasy patterns. The back half of the aircraft and a broken wing were sticking up from the water. Hicks climbed out of the boat onto the wing and tethered a line to the plane to keep the boat from floating away. The heavy smell of gas assaulted his nostrils. It was only later that he thought about the danger of the plane blowing up.
The water was murky, and Hicks had trouble getting his bearings underwater. The plane had crashed in the middle of an underwater “stump field,” but luckily had missed hitting any trees. The first time down, Hicks ran out of air and was forced back to the surface without locating the pilot. The second time, he felt the back of the man’s neck under his hand. After another trip to the surface, he took a deep breath, and descended a third time.
Larry’s military training–the repeat drill of what to do until it became second nature–took over: “Locate Pilot, Extract Pilot…” Hicks felt for the pilot’s seatbelt; fortunately, it was one he recognized by feel from his training in the military. He released the belt, and the pilot floated into his arms. Hicks swam to the surface, pulling the man with him. The pilot had bones sticking through his legs, and his feet were turned the wrong way.
The man was bleeding through the nose and mouth, and was no longer breathing. He had drowned. The Troy police had arrived on the lake bank by now. Larry yelled to the officers,”He’s not breathing,” and he heard one police officer say to another, “He’s dead.”
Hicks hauled the man up against the wing that was sticking above the water and put a modified Heimlich maneuver under his ribs and pulled up to get the water out of his lungs, then started modified CPR. The inert figure coughed up water and blood, then on the fifth breath, started to breathe. “I’ve got him breathing again,” Hicks yelled to the rescue unit on the shore.
Hicks gripped the wing of the plane with his left hand, lying on his back in the water, supporting the pilot on his chest with his right arm to keep his head above water. He felt a stinging sensation from the aviation fuel, which worsened until he was in great pain. He found out later, the top layer of his skin had burned off.
The rescue unit brought out an extra boat, put the pilot on the backboard and floated him to shore. Larry tried to follow the four members of the rescue team as they walked out of the lake, but his legs gave way. He and the pilot were transported to the Troy hospital.
While Hicks was being treated for the gasoline burns on his upper body, he heard the helicopters arrive to airlift the pilot to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.
Word was out almost immediately that a light plane had crashed, piloted by celebrity Jack Roush, NASCAR and Winston Cup car owner since 1988. An aircraft aficionado, friends of Roush had arranged for him to fly the Air-Cam, a specialized aircraft built specifically for photography, as a birthday gift.
Roush was initially put on a respirator, with a trauma team working on him. He had inhaled water and gasoline and suffered closed-head injuries, rib fractures, a collapsed lung, compound fractures to his left leg, and broken ankles. He did not remember anything from the time of the accident until he woke up in the hospital that weekend.
Amazingly enough, six days after the accident, Roush was running his business by telephone from his hospital bed. By Sunday, he had arranged for Larry and Donna to be flown by private jet to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit him.
Six weeks later, Roush piloted a plane from his Michigan home and hobbled around on crutches at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team. Larry and Donna were by his side.
Larry Hicks has no doubt that a Higher Power was at work in Jack Roush’s incredible rescue. If the Air-Cam had hit the high tension power lines instead of the support wires as it did, the plane would have gone down in flames. If it had crashed on the ground or hit a tree in the underwater stump field where it landed, Roush would have been killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to a movie that evening, as they had discussed, or simply been in another part of the house, they would not have seen the plane go down, and Jack Roush would have died. If Wayne Hicks had not left the johnboat ready to go, there would have been no rescue.
But, most amazing of all, Hicks was one of a small percentage of the populace with the specialized knowledge necessary to save a pilot in an upside-down plane from a watery grave. And, one other thing was necessary to save Jack’s life, which is that Hicks is a man of action who did not hesitate to put himself at risk to save a stranger’s life.
Larry Hicks was recognized with many honors as a result of his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal of Heroism, the Carnegie Award for Heroism from the Carnegie Foundation, the Kiwanis International Robert P. Connally Medal for Heroism, and the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Medal for Heroism. The story of the rescue appeared in People magazine, and Larry and Jack were on the cover NASCAR Illustrated.
Larry exhibits great pride that he lived up to the United States Marine Corps Code of serving his country with Honor, Courage, and Commitment, with selfless service.