and his story of Survival
In The Beginning
Ian’s interest in flying began early thanks to his father who was an engineer in the RAF—they were always around aircraft. That didn’t change in school when he joined the CCF, Combined Cadet Force. He also had a great deal of interest in water, swimming, board diving, and sailing, so he decided to combine his two passions and applied to the Royal Navy as a pilot.
Ian's dad with grandkids
Ian tells me during the aptitude tests he learned that he didn’t have the hand/eye coordination to become a military pilot. He didn’t give up his dream; instead he joined as an observer and ended up flying Anti-Submarine (ASW) Sea King helicopters in both the ASW and SAR (Search and Rescue) roles.
When I asked Ian what his greatest flying challenge was, he’d said, “My initial training in the Royal Navy was fairly difficult but I hung in and once qualified I established myself quickly and grew into the life fairly easily. After watching Topgun (yes really) in the eighties, flying fast jets became my dream. The RN had no jets with back-seaters so I had only one option. My biggest challenge therefore came when I decided to transfer to the RAF and onto the Tornado F3 fighter. I now found myself in at the deep-end competing with other course members, only a little over half my age. The flying was very intense with a very steep learning curve, but I enjoyed it and was good at it so I felt it was the right decision.” But the flying would not be Ian’s greatest challenge.
January 10, 1996, Ian Weaver’s day started like every other. As a Navigator Instructor he was to be number two, of a three aircraft formation, on an air-combat mission. They briefed prior to the flight and planned to reach 15,000 feet. They had just begun an exercise where one jet was to be the enemy and tried to shoot down the other two, and they transitioned to the exercise area. Airborne and contact with the ‘bounce’ aircraft made, the engagement commenced. But due to an error in judgment, Ian’s jet and the enemy aircraft collided.
Wing to wing, almost head-on.
1000 mph closure rate.
This was the day that changed Ian’s flight plan called life.
Ian’s crashed changed his world, but he survived. At the end of this post, I’ll share a link to the details of Ian’s accident, and his amazing recovery. But what went on in the mind, heart and soul of someone who faced death, or being a quadriplegic on a ventilator for the rest of his life, is the story I’m sharing today.
The Next Challenge
Karlene: "Did you have any conscious memories at the moment of impact, or during the ejection?"
Ian: "None at all - I was probably knocked unconscious as the canopy jettisoned and thanks to the brain injury I have never recovered any of those memories. All the accounts I have given of the ejection are from third party reports combined with what I know from the accident investigation."
Karlene: "When you awoke you had said you thought you'd died. When you realized that this was a living hell what did you think and feel?"
Ian: "My first memories were of a young boy’s head stuck on a tray and traveling above me on rails. Everything else was bright white. The head would appear; the boy would stare at me with big blue eyes and laugh. Then he would disappear again. I couldn’t move in any way. I was paralyzed from the neck down and had a huge weight hanging from a cradle screwed into my skull to immobilize and extend my neck. At this time the pain hadn’t registered.
I couldn’t make any sense of it, had no recollection of the accident and had no idea where I was. That’s why I thought I must be dead. I was in and out of consciousness at this point and the hallucination of the boy on the tray was a combination of head injury and morphine, or so I’m told. The pain hit me when I woke up fully. I can’t describe it really, but it’s like the worst pain you can imagine magnified ten fold. And it was constant. The only pain relief I was on was morphine, but as the pain was neurological; caused by the damage to the spinal cord and the brain it had little or no effect. Again I could not convey this to anyone as I couldn’t speak.
The pain wasn’t addressed for about 2 weeks. I also became aware of people and was told I was in hospital. I was intubated so couldn’t talk, and I had no idea why I was in hospital. I assumed I’d had a car crash and then worried about my family; had they been involved, were they injured or worse. This is despite the fact that my wife (now ex-wife) was beside me at the time. It was about 24 hours later that I was told it had been an aircraft accident, and was told that no-one else was badly injured."
Ian's Mum and Dad
Karlene: "Did you know you were going to make it, and did you dread the possibility of being paralyzed?"
Ian: "Did I worry about being paralyzed? This may seem strange but the thought never really entered my head. I knew I couldn’t move but had no idea of the prognosis (which wasn’t good) and the pain was such that I thought of little else. I was also ‘away with the fairies’ most of the time and did not really think about the future. As an aside, about 2 weeks prior to the accident my wife and I were watching a program on TV about quadriplegia and had glibly said that if it happened to either of us the other should smother him/her with a pillow. Thankfully she didn’t :) By the time I was putting rational thoughts together I was slowly on the mend and had recovered the use of my right leg, so being paralyzed never really worried me."
Karlene: "Did you ever think you would survive, and or recover?"
Ian: "I did think that I would never make as good a recovery as I have. Again, because I was getting better, the thought of dying was never really a factor. When my brother kissed my forehead in the early days I thought he was saying his goodbyes and that worried me a little. Speaking to him since, I think he probably was. I seemed to be the only person that didn’t think I was going to die. Another time was when they removed my breathing tube and I couldn’t breath. I blacked out and as my vision dimmed I thought I was dying.
Another small episode that worried me was when I got some feeling back to my throat after about 3 weeks. I was off the ventilator by this time but could feel an obstruction very deep in my neck. I thought my vertebrae had shifted and I could feel the ‘kink’ in my neck. This caused quite a lot of panic, and they had to remove the feeding tube that passed up my nose and down my throat. Once it was out I could accept that the tube was what I could feel and not my bones! They then had to re-insert the tube, which wasn’t pleasant - serves me right for making such a fuss!!
Did I want to die? Well yes, but only because of the pain. I used to beg to be ‘put down’ or put back into a coma until I was better. As time went on and I recovered use of three limbs the pain focused into the right arm and shoulder. I was never expected to get any movement back to it so I repeatedly asked to have it amputated to take the pain away. Apparently it would have made no difference; the pain being similar to phantom limb pain."
Karlene: "What were the feelings when your family came to visit you? How did they react to this new life ahead of you?"
Ian: "I remembered my wife and close family being around ever since I woke up. There was always at least one of them around whenever I was awake, for about 3 weeks. They were always very positive, though I did used to get a little irritated when they praised every improvement, for example “Ah look, he’s feeding himself with a spoon” Of course I didn’t realize at the time that this was their way of dealing with things. At the time it probably made me appear ungrateful for all the time and encouragement they gave me but they do now know just how much it all meant to me.
I didn’t see my kids (Jenni 10 and Chris 8) for about 3 weeks. It wasn’t felt they should see me until I’d made some improvement. It was quite difficult as I couldn’t hold or hug them and they just wanted to climb onto the bed with me. It was lovely though and I was on my best behavior; I was still having some weird moments at that stage and could say some pretty outrageous things! As far as my new life was concerned ... it wasn’t something we discussed. I think everyone saw it for what it was and every little improvement was ‘better than they expected’ so everything was a bonus having accepted that the accident had happened. Privately I’m sure my family must have had some terrible moments wondering as to the future, but it was never something they burdened me with."
Jenni, partner Abbey and Grandkids
Son Chris and Grandkids
Karlene: "What was the initial prognosis?"
Ian: "I was not aware of the initial prognosis, which is probably a good thing. On the first night my wife was told, and I quote from my medical records of which I have a copy, “He will either die in the next 24 hours from the head injury or he will be quadriplegic and on a ventilator for the rest of his life.” As it was I left ICU on my own two feet. Okay I was being held up by 5 nurses and they shuffled my feet along between them, but it was a small victory. After I started to make “a miraculous recovery” I was expected to be okay, though I was told I would probably never have use of my left arm, and that I would be crippled with neck pain after a few years. Believe it or not my only thought was to prove them wrong."
Ian's Brother Paul
Ian, Sister Karen and Brother Paul
Karlene: "Determination to prove someone wrong can move mountains, and you’ve proven that. Where are you now physically?"
Ian: "Physically I’m in pretty good shape. I can walk, talk, play golf, run (sort of), and lead pretty much a normal life. I still can’t play the piano though!! To look at me or listen to my voice you would probably never guess it had happened. My left arm is probably working at about 50% and has a lot of muscle wastage due to the nerve damage in the shoulder. I still have a lot of pain in the upper arm and shoulder and nothing in the way of pain killers helps. Consequently I am on no drugs at all. I have permanent pins and needles in three fingers of my left hand. All these things get worse when it’s cold or I’m tired. They are all manageable.
The worst thing I suffer from is a constant burning sensation over my body. It’s mainly my feet, lower legs and backs of my hands, but can spread as high up as my kidney area and lower back. In those areas the skins temperature sensing seems to have reversed. For example, cold water feels burning hot so swimming, going out in the rain etc is a little traumatic. Again this gets worse if I’m cold or tired and is probably the only thing that wears me down. It cannot be addresses with drugs, so just something to live with. I’m 1.5 inches shorter that before the accident. I get just about zero neck pain. My lower back goes into spasm a couple of times a year (fairly common with any ejection) though touch wood, it hasn’t happened for quite a while now. I have pain in my pelvis periodically; from the site bone was removed for a graft into my neck. That’s about it physically. Mentally I’m good to go, with the only adverse effect being very poor short-term memory. No post-traumatic stress or flash-backs etc. Oh, I don’t like flying much these days!!"
Karlene: "I am sorry you are still in such pain. But it’s so amazing how far you’ve come. What do you attribute your success to?"
Ian: "Easy - sheer bloody-mindedness and a massive stubborn streak inherited from my mum. From the moment I ‘was aware’, I have been getting better. As I said earlier I wanted to prove them wrong. Whenever anyone said “you’ll never be able to do that” or “you shouldn’t try that” it was like a red rag to a bull. It started with walking and eating and has progressed to running, golf, weight training, work (instructing in a Tornado simulator, now retired) etc., etc. I even went para-gliding on my first holiday out of hospital. I was also told I wouldn’t be able to learn new things ... so I went and enrolled for an Open University degree in computer programming and passed the two years that I did with flying colors. I might even finish it one day if I have time. Of course I can’t claim all the glory. There were some brilliant surgeons involved and the level of care and support I’ve received since day one has been nothing short of outstanding."
Karlene: "Gratitude is wonderful. But you need to take this credit. Those fabulous doctors were doing their jobs, but your attitude and determination made a miracle happen. And your family's support. I'm sure there were many dark hours, how did you get through them?"
Ian: "The most difficult thing was and still is the pain and sometimes it gets me down, but at those times it is the love and support of my family that gets me through."
Karlene: "You mentioned an ex-wife earlier. Are you married now, or do you have a girlfriend?"
Ian: "I was married at the time but divorced 4 years after the accident. I think it changed us both. I re-married eight years ago to the most wonderful and beautiful lady, Fran, and now have three step-children to add to the two of my own. I also have two grandchildren courtesy of my daughter Jenni."
Fran and Ian
And step-daughter Georgie
Karlene: "Congratulations on your growing family. What would you say to the readers about surviving with so much pain and adversity?"
Ian: "In my experience the accident only ever brought out the good side of people (except on the London underground - see my accident story). The support I’ve had from my family and friends, medical staff and the Royal Air Force has been fantastic.
All I can say is ‘believe in yourself.’ If it’s physical adversity then do the best you can - the human body is a marvelous thing and the power of healing comes from your own inner self. I truly believe that if I had just accepted what the surgeons and doctors told me then I would be in a wheelchair today. Instead I set out to prove everything they said wrong and so far it’ has worked. If it’s something that can’t be overcome, in my case pain, then be strong and learn to deal with it. I know that sounds harsh and easy to say, but if you bow down to it then I believe it will only get worse.
Talk about it with your loved ones harvest their support. If you just get grumpy about it and complain all the time then you will only alienate them. In the 16 years since my accident I don’t think I’ve ever felt sorry for myself and I will not let it influence the way I live my life. Foolhardy at times some might say but I believe if I didn’t feel this way that it would be a ‘slap in the face’ to all those that gave so much to save my life and make my life worth living."
Karlene: "Ian you are an inspiration to all. The kind of pain you live with daily and your ability to still smile and move forward without complaining is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. We will all look forward to reading the book."
For now, everyone take a moment to read about Ian’s accident, recovery, and the people who found him, and help along the way (and the underground).
The story is amazing: Ian’s accident
Enjoy the Journey!