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"It was intense:" Pilot shares story, road to recovery following blimp crash at Erin Hills

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Wis. (CBS 58) -- It’s hard to forget the dramatic images of a blimp falling from the sky, outside Erin Hills Golf Course during the US Open in June. The pilot, Trevor Thompson, narrowly escaped the final explosion.

“It was intense. There’s nothing like a burn pain,” said Thompson who was back in Wisconsin Wednesday to check in with his trauma doctors at Froedtert Hospital and Columbia St. Mary’s.

Thompson suffered a lacerated liver, a broken back, and burns to his legs, arms, and neck. He was taken by Flight for Life to the trauma center at Froedtert Hospital. He was there for a week.

“I was having a problem with the spinal cord, so they waited four days before they did the surgery. Once that was successful, they moved me over to Columbia St. Mary’s where I spent the next three weeks in the burn unit,” said Thompson.

Thompson, who says he’s been a fixed wing pilot since a very young age, only started flying thermal airships, or blimps, seven years ago. The US Open weekend was his first time flying in Wisconsin.

“We were planning on flying all week. Then I ended up staying a month,” Thompson laughs.

His wife, Lorraine, was in Wisconsin but not at the course when he crashed.

“I found out through a friend who I’d met in Milwaukee, and she told me via text that she heard something had happened,” said Lorraine. “It was panic.”

Panic wasn’t his first thought.

“I was very conscious working through my procedures – shutting down the engine, shutting down the fuel, strapping the seatbelt. Then when I began to descend nose down, I don’t remember anything at that point.”

He does remember seeing green grass.

“That’s when I jumped out and realized my back was broken and did the army crawl and was then met by my ground crew chief who pulled me away.”

His fireproof suit and gloves likely saved his life.

As for what went wrong, Thompson says that’s still unclear. The winds picked up, so he was trying to land when a thermal pushed him back up 500 feet. That’s when he heard multiple envelope panel tears.

“We actually don’t know what happened, but we know what it caused, which was a failure of the whole airship of the outside fabric. It did happen quite quickly and caught fire quite quickly.”

The NTSB released an initial report in June, saying the crash was a result of in-flight envelope panel failure.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office essentially cleared a nearby landowner who called 911 to report the blimp, saying it scared his cattle. At the end of the call, the man asked if he could “shoot it down.”

“There is the potential that a properly placed bullet, or multiple bullets, could bring this down; however [it’s] unlikely. Unfortunately, the bulk of the airship was destroyed in the aftermath, so there’s not a lot of evidence,” said Thompson.

Thompson says the NTSB is expected to release its final report in 6-8 months.

Until then, Thompson is focused on recovery in Atlanta with his family, his wife, and 16-year-old son, who he calls his support system. As a way to heal, a counselor suggested he re-visit the scene of the crash, which he’s done. He’s also already flown a blimp again. While apprehensive at first, Lorraine says she couldn’t stop him from doing something he loves.

“I’m relieved that went well,” said Lorraine with a smile.

“If you get in a car crash, right, you’re not going to never drive again. If you fall in love and get your heart broken, are you not going to fall in love again?” said Thompson. “If it’s something you love to do, you’re going to do it.”


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