Chapter 1: My 1979 Plane-Crash Near-Death Experience
Many people around the world today are having “Spiritually Transformative Experiences” (STEs), remarkable experiences of consciousness that have a strong positive psychological and spiritual effect on the individual. STEs tend to change the experiencer’s values and beliefs in a more spiritual and more altruistic direction — a powerful STE causing what is often called a “spiritual awakening.” A person’s entire world view and, their ideas, values, priorities, and beliefs may change. I have often heard people say after a powerful STE that their perception of reality — and their whole personality — has been transformed and propelled in a far more spiritual direction. For this reason I have come to call these powerful transforming experiences “Spiritually Transformative Experiences” (STEs), a phrase I coined in 1994.
I speak from personal experience. In 1979, when I was twenty-six years old, I had a powerful Spiritually Transformative Experience, a Near-Death Experience, which would change the course of my life forever. My childhood was fairly ordinary. My father and mother were both European immigrants who came to Canada to seek a better life after the brutality of the Second World War. I was born and raised — along with a sister and two brothers — in the pleasant, upper-middle-class suburbs of Toronto. Raised a Christian, I participated in Sunday School and, as a teenager, in the church choir of my local United Church of Canada. I believed in a God both because I had been taught to do so and because the belief gave me hope that the world — and humankind — might somehow survive its history of senseless violence and repeated wars.
Because I was considered academically “gifted,” I was placed in a special accelerated school program, Etobicoke Advancement Classes. One benefit of this was that I developed a tremendous love of reading. In high school during the late 1960s to early 1970s, I listened to the music of the Beatles, was introduced to the writings of Alan Watts and Timothy Leary, and became fascinated with their discussions of the so-called mystical states of consciousness that could be glimpsed through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. But it quickly became clear to me that people should be able to reach these mystical states — if they did indeed represent some type of union with the Divine — without the use of drugs. This thought led me, like many others of my generation, to explore Eastern philosophies, meditation, and yoga.
During university and medical school I began to practise hatha yoga and to read books on positive thinking. In my last year of medical school, I took a meditation course that claimed that regular meditation would help me relax, study better, and get better grades in my exams. Being a dedicated medical student, I was eager to do well in my final examinations. I began to meditate daily. I took to meditation immediately. It felt natural to me, as if I were a duck being introduced to swimming on water for the first time.
In December 1979, after a few months of regular twice-daily meditation, I had an initial experience with consciousness expansion during a deep meditation that I did not understand fully until much later in life. I now know that this was my first adult Spiritually Transformative Experience — a Kundalini Awakening experience. I will describe this experience in chapter 4 on Spiritual Energy/Kundalini Episodes. Following this kundalini awakening, however, I returned the focus of my attention to my medical-school studies and exams, and for the time being put aside thoughts about my extraordinary meditation experience.
Then on March 27, 1979, during the final year of my medical residency, I had another, much more powerful STE, my first adult Near-Death Experience. This experience was so transformative that I could not push it to the back of my mind. It changed my life forever. In retrospect, I wonder if perhaps my meditation-induced kundalini awakening in some way helped prepare my consciousness for the powerful Near-Death Experience I had a couple years later. This 1979 plane-crash NDE marked the beginning of a profound spiritual transformation in my life.
The Plane Crash
In the spring of 1979, as part of my residency in Family Medicine at the University of Toronto, I was assigned for one month to a small, rural hospital in Sioux Lookout that provided service for a number of isolated First Nations villages in remote, isolated areas of Northern Ontario. On March 27, 1979, my supervising physician designated me to accompany an Indigenous woman, Jean Marie Peters, who had measles encephalitis, on a medical air evacuation from Sioux Lookout to Winnipeg, Manitoba. She needed the more specialized medical facilities there to treat her rapidly deteriorating condition.
During the flight, I was required to supervise her care, giving her the intravenous drugs needed to stabilize her condition and manually pumping a breathing bag, at regular intervals, that would send oxygen directly into her lungs through an airway tube that was inserted through her mouth.
The plane, a six-seat, twin-engine Piper Aztec, was packed. The patient was strapped onto a stretcher directly behind the pilot’s seat where two of the original six seats had been, with the oxygen tank wedged behind the seat normally used by a co-pilot. Sally Irwin, a nurse who had also been assigned to the flight, and I were seated beside the patient.
When the plane lifted off the runway, I was so busy tending the patient that I didn’t notice a heavy snowstorm had begun. But by the time we had flown for thirty or forty minutes and were about twenty miles from Kenora, a town on Lake of the Woods, the storm had become a near-blizzard. Suddenly, I noticed a change in the sound of the twin propellers. I looked up and saw that the right propeller had stopped. The pilot, Gerald Kruschenske, was vigorously pushing buttons and pulling levers. Something was obviously wrong. Shouting over the roar of the engine, I asked what was going on. He shouted back that everything was all right. About ten seconds later I was reassured when the right propeller started again. Everything seemed to be back to normal, and I returned my attention to the patient.
A few minutes later the left propeller started sputtering. Looking up, I saw that the right propeller was still working but the left propeller had now stopped. Alarmed, I shouted again at the pilot Gerry to find out what was happening, but he didn’t answer. He was desperately pushing buttons, pulling levers, and pumping handles in an attempt to restart the left engine. I noticed we were flying quite low over the trees and hills. Unbeknownst to the nurse Sally and me, Gerry had been in radio contact with the Kenora airport for some time and was trying to make an emergency landing there. He had already made one attempt, but, flying with only one engine in the howling wind, he couldn’t maneuver the plane into proper position. The airport then tried to direct him to a landing strip on the frozen lake. Through the raging snow, he saw what he thought was the landing strip and made an attempt to come down, but again he couldn’t get the plane into proper position. As he fought to pull the sluggish plane up again and take another try at the landing, he saw a hill near the edge of the lake and realized instantly that the plane would never clear it. Taking his only option, he cut the sputtering right engine and headed down, praying the ice would hold.
Although Sally and I realized something was wrong, I had no idea how desperate the situation was — until I looked out the window and saw the second propeller die. Both engines were gone.
“Oh my God,” I thought, “we’re going to crash!” A wave of intense fear and panic overtook me. “God, help! I’m going to die!” I mentally cried out.
Then, immediately after my mental cry for help, I suddenly felt a wave of profound peace and calm descend upon me. With the descending calm, I heard an inner voice comforting me. Verses from the Bible — verses that I didn’t know by heart and wasn’t consciously trying to remember — flowed through my mind, as if they were being poured into my consciousness by some external force: “Be still, and know that I am God.” “I am with you, now and always. ” As the words penetrated the depths my soul, I became flooded with a sense of peace, and the presence of God. I was no longer afraid. It felt like a force-field of peace had descended upon me and pushed away all of my fear. My mind was still. I knew that God was there, and somehow I knew with absolute certainty, something I had never known before: there was absolutely nothing to fear in death. I felt enveloped and protected by God’s peace.