Pastor gives up piloting after third crash

Gary Miles
The Detroit News

Having just walked away from crashing his plane in a high canyon in the mountains of Wyoming, the Rev. Steven Stam had a phone call to make.

“Well, I’ve made a decision today,” Stam told his wife, Karen, from the hospital bed in Laramie. “I’m not going to put you through this anymore.

“I had a mishap,” he recounted on Friday. “Quite a serious one.”

Stam, 67, a retired pastor from Holland, informed his wife that he would give up flying, a passion of 22 years, after breaking his back in his third plane crash in less than a decade.

An NTSB report out last week put the blame for the crash on Stam, saying he should have acted to prevent a developing engine problem.

His first crash came in 2009, when he was flying a 1977 Grumman American Lynx and attempted a go-around at a Holland airport but collided with trees.

Steven Stam

His second came in July 2015. He was turning in a 1966 Alon A2 Aircoupe near Lake Michigan when the engine quit.

“That was just a textbook dead-stick landing,” he said. “I just picked a spot and put her down.”

Stam ended halfway out the windshield of the plane, but his injuries weren’t serious. The NTSB determined earlier this year that the plane was too low on gas to get through the turn.

On Sept. 11, Stam was flying his newly purchased replacement airplane home from Davis, Calif., when trouble struck again. His 1965 Alon was cruising at about 9,500 feet after departing Laramie for Cheyenne, Wyo., when the engine started losing power.

“I was losing RPMs and airspeed and altitude; I was sinking fast,” Stam recalled. “I was flying over the canyon where Interstate 80 cuts between Cheyenne and Laramie.

“I was way above the edges, then sank down into the canyon.”

Stam immediately suspected carburetor icing, a condition in which the water vapor in humid air freezes as it enters the carburetor and chokes off air flow to the engine. Stam activated the plane’s carburetor heat to melt the ice, but it didn’t stop his precipitous descent, he said.

A photo of Steven Stam's plane, shortly after he crash landed near Holland State Park on July 19, 2015.

“I was just trying to stay between the canyon walls,” he said. “I was concerned about (truck) traffic, because it looked like I was going to have to put down on I-80.

“I pretty much knew I was going to die at that point,” he said. “I was sure I was going to slam into the side of the mountain.”

Stam thought he still had several hundred feet to descend when the plane hit.

As luck, fate or divinity would have it, the plane clipped the cement median wall and came to a stop just short of a cliff face.

“That slowed me down enough that I didn’t slam into the canyon wall,” he said. “Two inches higher or lower -- lower I would’ve slammed into traffic. I just cleared the highway and fell short of the canyon wall.”

A retired pastor of the Reformed Church in America in Holland, Stam said he misses flying.

“I kind of grieve the loss of flying, on the other hand I have no interest in climbing in a plane and taking off,” he said. “I’m a little touchy.”

Stam said not many people have associated his role as a pastor with his rare experience of surviving three different airplane crashes.

“People said, you know, God apparently was with me, but I don’t claim that I have special approval,” he said. “We’re just glad to be on the green side of the grass.”

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