When the engine sputtered and went quiet, three passengers put down their playing cards, and the fourth, sprawled across the backseat, sat up. The pilot, who had flown so much that the passengers called him Sky King, looked at the fuel gauge, which showed a quarter of a tank remaining. Odd. He switched to the left tank, in which he'd saved a small amount of gas. The engine remained silent. Eight hundred feet in the air, the suddenly powerless 1973 Cessna 210 began to fall.
You could call it a miracle if Scott Johnston of Australia wins the world saddle bronc championship at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), which will be held Dec. 3-12 at UNLV's Thomas and Mack Center. But as his wife, Jane, reminds him, maybe the miracle is mat he'll be mere at all. The 26-year-old Johnston, who is fifth on the money list at $71,934 but within reach of No. 1 Rod Hay, couldn't ride a carousel horse early this year. "It seems like a long time ago," he says, holding two-week-old Michael, the youngest of his and Jane's four children, at their home in DeLeon, Texas.
On Nov. 4, 1998, Johnston was with bareback riders Mark Garrett, 33, and Garrett's brother Marvin, 35; bull rider Thad Both-well, 30; and the Garretts' friend and longtime pilot, Johnny (Sky King) Morris, 60, in a borrowed single-engine airplane. They were en route to the Grand National Rodeo, the last official event of the regular season, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif. Johnston was 16th in season earnings, one spot out of a place in the NFR, but he was optimistic. The horse he'd drawn for his first-round ride, Ram Power, was a live one.
When the engine quit at 2 p.m., the plane was 70 miles from the San Carlos, Calif., airport. Morris, who had logged more than 18,000 hours as a pilot, had just flown over the Lodi airport but didn't have enough speed to turn back. He dropped the plane into a cluster of oak trees, shearing the wings off, before crashing into a dry creek bed on the edge of a vineyard. So powerful was the impact that the prop and engine came loose and flew 35 feet in front of the rest of the aircraft, which ignited like a marshmallow.
Bothwell pushed open the cabin door and fell out. Mark Garrett, the only passenger who had not been wearing a seat belt (he was the one lying across the backseat) and the only one whose back was not broken by the impact, dragged his brother from the copilot's seat to safety. Johnston stumbled out but returned when he saw that Morris was on fire. Flames from under the dash had risen up the pilot's legs, then engulfed his hands when he tried to tamp them out. Mark Garrett attempted to open the pilot's door but could not. "We have to get Johnny!" Johnston yelled, and he began working to free Morris of his seat belt. By the time Mark dragged him clear, Morris had suffered, in addition to the broken back, burns over 47% of his body and a severe blow to the head. For 30 minutes Morris kept asking, "Did everybody make it out?" Everybody did, Mark said. Two weeks later, Morris died.
The 1999 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association media guide features a picture of Johnston on its back cover. He has his right arm extended behind him at 10 o'clock, parallel to his horse's bucking legs. The photo's prominent placement is appropriate; Johnston, Rookie of the Year in '96, is one of rodeo's top talents. Yet the picture is not of his wildest ride, and you get the feeling he wishes it were. In discussing the accident, Johnston drinks four cups of coffee and looks as if he's about to explode out of his chair. Yes, he wondered if he was right with the Lord. No, he didn't think he was going to the. Yes, he thought it eerie to hear branches scraping the side of the plane. No, he doesn't think about it every day. Johnston is a doer, not a talker—or a listener, for that matter.
He grew up in Brewarrina, New South Wales, in Australia's remote southeast interior. Of his family's 20,000-acre ranch, Johnston says, "It was the smallest place around." That's where his grandpa Jack rode bucking horses and, bruised and cash-strapped by the experience, urged his son, John, to avoid the sport. John listened, but when he tried to pass on the same message to Scott, it didn't take. At age 17, Scott entered his first rodeo. He won.
This is the kind of headstrong behavior that his wife, a nurse, learned to expect after she met him in '92. The first time Jane watched Scott ride, he got caught in his rigging and was dragged alongside the horse, which stepped on him repeatedly. Its hooves ripped off his chaps, jeans and skin. Johnston finally got free, but instead of counting his blessings and applying his dressings, he went to his truck for another pair of pants. He had three more events to ride in. Scott and Jane were married in '94, traveled the Canadian circuit in '95 and came to the U.S. a year later when Scott joined the PRCA.
This season Johnston had to buy new equipment. Only two hats, belonging to Morris and to Marvin Garrett, were spared in the airplane blaze. Morris and Johnston were believed to be worst off and were flown by helicopter to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Jane, waiting at the San Carlos airport, was summoned to the flight school office, where she spoke to Mark on the phone. The plane had crashed, he said, but everyone was alive.
When Jane arrived at the hospital, Scott grabbed her hand and before she could panic said, "I'm all right, I'm all right!" Three days later, his fourth and fifth vertebrae were fused with two metal rods. The operation went well, but doctors scratched their heads when they saw Johnston's spine, which had been pushed back so far it was nearly poking through his skin. They fit him for a back brace and told him he'd be wearing it for six months. They weren't even close.