Jackson, Wyo. • When Charlie Peet felt the engine sputter on his canary yellow kit-built airplane, he headed straight for the runway.
He’d taken off from the driveway in front of his house and buzzed his landing strip, a mowed stretch of grass next to a life-size moose statue on his Grumpy Moose Ranch, when the engine started to run rough.
“With a rough engine that thing could quit on me any time,” Peet said. “I came in high and fast because if the engine quit, I wanted to be on the runway. I just wanted to survive it.”
His wife of 51 years, Marty, who often watches him fly, suspected trouble when she saw the typically graceful single-engine plane start making jerky motions. ThenCharlie Peet attempted an emergency landing and the Zenith CH 701 came in too fast, hitting the ground hard. The plane bounced and dove nose down, chewing dirt and grass as propeller blades snapped and parts flew before it flipped. The impact thrust him headfirst into the dashboard.
“I thought, ‘Oh, God, this is serious,‘” Marty Peet said. Then within what felt like a few seconds, she saw him crawling out the side door. “I could tell he was going to be OK.”
The May 16 crash marked the second time Charlie Peet, 85, survived an airplane crash with bumps and bruises. Nearly five years ago he crashed the same plane on his ranch, near Highway 191 and Bryan Flat Road southeast of Hoback Junction.
Much like an off-road vehicle, the Zenith Aircraft Company’s short take-off and landing kit is meant to be an “off airport” flying machine. Zenith describes the aircraft as designed to suit both sport pilots and first-time builders. Peet built the plane in his barn and successfully flew it for three summers before the first crash.
On June 28, 2013, Peet flew the plane from Driggs, Idaho, and landed safely at his ranch. After lunch he went to fly again, took off, went up about 50 feet and then the plane “decided it didn’t want to fly anymore,” he recalled, attributing the stalling to hot weather.
“It slipped sideways,” he said, “and I just cartwheeled into the ground.”
That time, Peet walked away. He later discovered he broke his ankle, but he still goes for long hikes.
This time paramedics responded.
“I have a feeling that circle in my head is the instrument that’s missing. I think I popped it out,” Peet said, pointing to the cut on his forehead and then the crumpled dashboard inside the upside-down aircraft during a tour of the wreckage.
Peet thinks he briefly lost consciousness, but he remembers crawling out of the plane with his head bleeding profusely. A painting crew that was passing offered painting rags as compresses to stop the bleeding. A neighbor, who is a nurse, also responded. Peet said you don’t know how well your emergency services work until you use them, and he had nothing but praise for Teton County’s emergency responders and St. John’s Medical Center staff.
“It’s just great being a small town like this ’cause the hospital, the ambulance, everything is so personal and good,” he said. “Everything works so smoothly and everyone is so nice.”
Peet had spent years repairing his plane, which sustained major damage to the wings during the first crash. May 16 was the maiden voyage since those repairs.
“This one’s totaled,” he said. “I was going too fast, but I was doing the right thing with a bad engine.”
Peet’s knack for flying and mechanics started young. He got his pilot’s license at age 19 in 1951. He was a teenager during World War II, he said, “so there was sort of a spirit as a youngster in those days of you’re going to do something in the military.” Peet joined the Air National Guard and worked as a mechanic.
Peet later worked for the airlines and in California real estate in the 1960s. No stranger to danger, his adventures have included buying Humphrey Bogart’s yacht, Santana, and sailing it around the world with Marty; finding pirate treasure while deep-sea diving; receiving the U.S. Coast Guard’s top award for saving five people off the California coast; finishing third on his Harley-Davidson in the 9,000-mile Trans Amazon Rally; and helping raise a bear cub on a Montana ranch, among other exploits.
“If you tell all he has done, it sounds preposterous,” Marty Peet said. “Nothing scares him. He’s lived about 29 lives.”
Charlie attributes his survival skills to a Religion 101 course he took freshman year while attending a Catholic college in St. Paul, Minn. His teacher, a priest, taught him that “God gave you your intellect, your ability, reason. … In your mind you can solve your problems.”
Peet tested that advice one Christmas Eve in St. Paul when it was 15 degrees below zero and windy. He lived 3 miles across a lake from his in-laws. Everyone, including buses, drove on the lake as a shortcut. The ice was more than 18 inches thick, he said. He was driving home with his 2-year-old son when in the dead center of the lake his front wheels smashed through the ice. He grabbed his son, opened the door and threw him out behind the car. Peet’s coat caught on the door handle, and he got pulled into the water. He hyperventilated and then tried to relax until he hit bottom. Then he freed himself and swam up to the hole illuminated by taillights.
He couldn’t pull himself out with his heavy wet clothes. Then he remembered the priest’s teaching: “There’s a solution in the back of your mind; use it.” So Peet put one arm up on the surface of the ice and let it sit there and freeze, then he did the same with the other arm, anchoring himself so he could pull himself up and out.
“I pulled myself right out of the water. I picked up my son, and we got a ride home,” he said.
“You know the biggest killer we have is panic; it shuts off your brain,” Peet said. “It stops you from thinking about what you should really be doing.”
So when his plane engine started to run rough last week, he said, “I locked on my problem at the time 100 percent to get this airplane on the ground by the moose. I got it as close as I could.”
With a chuckle, he added: “Somebody said I almost hit the moose.”
Peet attributes the rough engine to putting a new valve on the fuel line, a process that allowed air into the fuel. He ran the engine several times to get the air out. But the plane has two fuel tanks and he was likely running off the tank that hadn’t been repaired. He suspects the engine switched tanks as he flew, to the line with the air in it, making the engine pulse. In retrospect, he said, “If I’d have flown it a little longer it would have been fine” because the air would have been cleared out.
“My best bet was to come down, and I did the best I could,” he said.
Even though Charlie doesn’t panic, the same can’t be said for Marty.
“I’m used to being in near-panic, living with Charlie,” she said.
Peet quit riding motorcycles four years ago after a motorcycle crash in Florida. Now he said it’s time to hang up his wings. So what will he do for adventure? He’s got plenty of human-powered ideas, like exploring the Yukon.