COWAN, Charles

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Mooney wreck, Santa Catalina Island, 2008

COWAN, Charles (1934-2008), his wife Jeanien Cowan (c. 1952-2008), and friend Patricia Carmichael (c. 1947-2008) were killed in the crash of Dr. Cowan's Mooney on Santa Catalina Island. Stanley Carmichael survived the crash.

In the News~

October 25, 2008 [RDF]: “Dr. Charles Michael Cowan, a cardiologist who practiced in the Inland Empire for many years, and his wife, Jeanien Rickett Cowan, died October 20. Charles Cowan began his cardiology practice in San Bernardino in 1972 and later worked as a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Riverside. He was born June 25, 1934, in Jersey City to Joseph and Rebecca Cowan. He graduated from Ohio State University; completed medical school at New Jersey College of Medicine; had internships and residencies at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City, Grady Hospital in Atlanta and a fellowship in cardiology in Detroit; and served on the faculty of the School of Medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit. His family said he was an adventurer, athlete and a lover of life. He enjoyed white-water rafting, running, fishing, skiing and swimming and built his aircraft, the “VariViggen,’ which he flew for many years out of Rialto Airport. He also ran marathons, completed the ‘Iron Man’ in Hawaii, and finished the ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ triathlon in San Francisco. He and his wife, Jeanien, traveled ‘to the ends of the earth.’ He is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Sherry and John Hanover, son and daughter-in-law Billy and Supranee Cowan; step children Jennifer and Brian Buck and Brandon Haber; brother Ken Cowan; grandchildren, Sidney, Jacob and Carter.”

November 21, 2008 [OCR]: “Stanley Carmichael woke up. It was Monday, Oct. 20, 2008, and he was on a dry hillside, under a brilliant blue sky on Santa Catalina Island. He struggled to rise to his feet. He and his wife and another couple, all veteran travelers, were heading back to Orange County after a weekend trip — a relaxing spell of live jazz and sunsets and golf-cart rides and long, lazy coffees on a deck overlooking Avalon Bay. When Carmichael came to the top of the hill, bloodied and dazed, he felt no pain; adrenaline and shock masked it. Instead, Carmichael, 64, looked about 30 feet away, at the wreckage of a just-crashed small airplane. He saw flames spread near what was left of the cabin. And then a thought came to him: They're still inside. Minutes earlier, Carmichael had been sitting next to the pilot, Dr. Charles Cowan, his close friend and neighbor. Behind them, in a tightly packed four-seat Mooney M20J, sat their wives, Patricia Carmichael and Jeanien Cowan. Their destination was Corona Municipal Airport, 20 minutes away. Carmichael, wearing jeans and polo shirt that were now tattered and stained, didn't really think about that as he wiped dirt from his mouth and face. He didn't think about Charles Cowan, 74, an esteemed cardiologist who'd been so easy to get to know when the Carmichaels moved next door 4½ years earlier. He didn't think about Jeanien Cowan, either, a 56-year-old who could be mistaken for his wife's sister because of their physical resemblance - both were tall, slender, blonde, with easy, honest smiles. Carmichael didn't even have time to dwell on his wife of 27 years: elegant Patricia, 61, a die-hard Obama supporter and community volunteer who gave him good-natured grief for being a Republican. As the plane burned, all Carmichael could think about was getting away from fire. He tried as best he could to stagger back up the hill, using a left foot that was virtually shattered. Hours later, as he sat in a hospital bed — his swollen face distorting his features, and his heart swollen with sorrow over his wife and friends, most likely killed on impact — Carmichael's mind went back to the seconds before the crash. Cowan had been struggling to lift his plane off the runway, which sits about 1,600 feet above Avalon near the highest point on the island. As the plane picked up speed for takeoff, it rocked back and forth. It wasn't getting off the ground. Soon, there would be nowhere to go but down. Just before the terrain dropped away, at about 1:15 p.m., Cowan turned to Carmichael and said what would be his last words: "I'm sorry."”

The neighbors talked from their patios. They had each other over for dinner. They went together to weddings and birthdays and family functions. The bond between the Carmichaels and Cowans was easy, unforced. Stanley Carmichael mostly worked out of his house, but sometimes commuted to his insurance business in Downey. His wife, an Alabama girl who used her smarts to go far beyond her humble roots to become a medical malpractice attorney, was spending her early retirement giving back to the less fortunate. Pat Carmichael and Stan traveled to Panama to give wheelchairs to children. She went to Kenya to deliver teddy bears to orphans. She taught English to day laborers on Laguna Canyon Road. The Carmichaels had been to Germany and Egypt in September, and were planning a trip to Brazil and Argentina when they heard about a weekend jazz festival on Catalina. "That sounds like fun," Stan Carmichael told his wife. They asked the Cowans if they wanted to join them. "We'd love to go with you," Charles Cowan said. "Why don't we take my plane?" Seems like a good idea, the Carmichaels thought. A plane would be much quicker than driving to a port and schlepping items onto a boat to cross the 25-mile channel, then doing it all over again three days later. And the views, from the plane, would be amazing. Why not? Cowan was a nearly 30-year pilot, but he'd never had the Carmichaels in his recently purchased plane. Charles Cowan flew out of Corona Municipal Airport on Friday, Oct. 17 and picked up the Carmichaels and his wife at John Wayne Airport. The takeoff was textbook. Like all good flights, their 20 minutes in the air were uneventful. And their time in Catalina was just as smooth. They stayed at a friend's three-story house overlooking the famous Catalina Casino in Avalon. They drank wine and ate well and slept in. They toured the town in golf carts. Pat Carmichael had considered leaving early to take the ferry back on Saturday so she could give a testimony at her church, Laguna Presbyterian, Sunday morning. But church officials told her she could move it back a week. So she stayed. Too soon, it was time to fly home. Just before takeoff, Charles Cowan asked his wife if she wanted to sit next to him for the flight back — next to the plane's only door. "No," she said. "I'll sit in the back with Pat." So Stan kept that seat. The four put on bulky headphones. Cowan communicated with airport officials. The others sat silent. The winds were light. The sky was clear. The temperature was 64 degrees. The plane roared to life. Cowan steered toward runway 22 and hit the throttle. They had plans that evening — plans for the rest of their lives.

Since Oct. 20, when he survived a plane crash on Santa Catalina Island that killed his wife of 27 years and two of their closest friends, Stanley Carmichael, 64, has been surrounded by loved ones. In-laws, kids, friends. In the past month, Stan has been offered a parade of condolence and affection. "I haven't really grasped the reality of it yet," Carmichael says from his Laguna Beach home, where his wife's walk-in closet stands empty, her fashionable clothes stuffed into 20 brown cardboard boxes bound for charity. The victims — Charles Cowan, 74, and his wife, Jeanien, 56, and Carmichael's wife, Patricia Carmichael, 61 — left behind children and grandchildren and friends all over the world. They also left behind Carmichael "You shouldn't even be alive," a Federal Aviation Administration investigator told him in his hospital room. Seconds before the four-seat airplane hit the hillside full force and caught fire, Carmichael was ejected. How is a mystery. Carmichael, an insurance entrepreneur, was sitting in the front passenger seat next to the plane's door. "The only thing I can surmise is that my hand was resting on the seatbelt release and somehow I unsnapped it," Carmichael says. "The door must have flung open when the right wing of the airplane hit the ground, and I was thrown out." A cause of the crash won't be known for months. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board indicates that Cowan's plane never lifted off the hilltop runway before it plummeted over the edge and clipped a tree, finally stopping and burning in a ravine. What is known is that even though Cowan had been a pilot for nearly three decades, he'd been flying the M20J for about eight months. Could the plane have been overloaded? In addition to the four adults, the plane held three duffle bags and three suit bags. And, Carmichael wonders, too, if Cowan had problems with the relatively short runway atop Catalina. "We're considering all possibilities," NTSB investigator Elliott Simpson said. On Monday, Oct. 20, at about 9:30 a.m., before taking a taxi to the airport, the two couples enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in Avalon. "What are we doing eating like this?" Carmichael recalls saying of the large meal. They packed their bags to prepare for their 12:30 ride to the airport. When they arrived, Carmichael recalls Cowan admiring another plane tied to the tarmac. "That's a beauty," he said. Another small plane took off. Then it was their turn. Everyone kept quiet as Cowan prepared for takeoff. About halfway down the runway, Carmichael felt the plane rock back and forth sideways. "I was thinking, 'Man, we should be off the ground.'" Cowan seemed to be struggling to keep the plane stable and get it in the air. He was running out of runway. "Something's wrong," Carmichael thought. An instant before they ran out of runway, Cowan told his friend, "I'm sorry." An instant after that, Carmichael explains, "We went over the edge and I saw the ground approach." Minutes later, he woke up near the burning plane. He hobbled to get away, but collapsed about 60 feet up the hill, just as airport workers and emergency personnel approached. It was at this point that Carmichael remembers thinking about his wife and friends. Then, still dazed, he saw the burning plane and thought one thing: "I've got to get back inside." But a rescuer, he doesn't know who, told him otherwise: "No. We've got to get you away from here. Other people will be down to help them." Then the whirlwind resumes. He remembers a woman holding his hand before he was flown to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where he spent three nights. Besides a left foot broken in four places, Carmichael suffered cracked ribs, a swollen jaw, bruises and cuts, and a welt across his chest from the seatbelt. Other injuries aren't so easily measured. The Cowan family has seen sudden, unexpected death before. Jeanien Cowan was Cowan's third wife; his second wife was murdered 11 years ago, during a car jacking. A few days after the crash, seven relatives of the Cowans took a boat across the channel to visit the crash site. They found shards of burned clothing near the wreckage. They collected stones and formed two crosses to memorialize Jeanien Cowan and Patricia Carmichael, and a Star of David in honor of Charles Cowan. If he lets his mind go there, Carmichael can torture himself with endless questions. What if Patricia's speech at her church hadn't been rescheduled and, as planned, she'd taken the ferry home early Saturday? What if Jeanien Cowan had sat next to her husband in the front of the plane, as Carmichael had invited her to? What if they'd traveled by boat? "You want to get 'what ifs?' out of your vocabulary," Carmichael says. Instead, he focuses on what was - and what is. "I am fully convinced the last five years of her life were my wife's best. She would say, 'Stan, I love my town. I love my friends here. I love my church.'" Patricia's dog, Chloe, a bichon frise, comes up to Carmichael as he looks out a window at the ocean. The haze, for the moment, is obscuring Catalina. "There's nothing I could have done," he says. It will be weeks before Carmichael will be able to drive; three months before he can put weight on his injured leg and, with luck, walk normally again. "I think God had a purpose to keep me here; that there's a reason. "Why was I thrown out of the plane? There's no logic to it." He plans to carry on his wife's volunteer work. "My priorities," he says, "have changed."

Carmichael's longtime housekeeper, Toni Rodriguez, tidies up. "Every time, before they went on one of their longs trips, I would say a prayer for them," Rodriguez says of the Carmichaels. Then her eyes turn glassy. "But because this trip was so short, and they were just going to Catalina, I didn't say a prayer," she explains. "I just told them, 'See you next week.'"”

November 10, 2009 [OCR]: “Pilot responsible for Catalina crash, investigation finds. The actions of a small plane's pilot were the cause of the October 2008 Catalina Island crash that claimed the lives of three Laguna Beach residents, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined. The investigation found that Dr. Charles Cowan, a 74-year-old cardiologist, lost control of his Mooney M20J plane Oct. 20, and that loss of control was listed as the probable cause of the crash that killed him, his wife, Jeanien Cowan, and Patricia Carmichael, a friend and Laguna Beach resident. Stanley Carmichael, Patricia's husband and a passenger on the plane, also suffered serious injuries but survived. The investigation results, released Monday, found no mechanical problems with the plane and the toxicology report found no drugs or alcohol in Cowan's blood. At about 1:20 p.m., Cowan took off from the island airport's runway and was reportedly heading to Corona Municipal Airport, when the airplane "began to wobble" and touched the runway again, according to the report. The plane then veered off the runway, back on the runway and finally descended into a nearby valley and crashed. The report found Cowan failed "to maintain aircraft control during takeoff for undetermined reasons" and also failed to end the takeoff before there was enough runway to stop. The Los Angeles County coroner performed the autopsies and determined the cause of death for both rear-seat passengers and the pilot as "the combined effects of blunt force and thermal injuries." According to the NTSB's investigation, Cowan's autopsy showed he suffered a "cardiac event" around the time of the accident, but "the pilot had not reported any symptoms and was actively controlling the aircraft and speaking with the surviving passenger during the accident."”