Burns’ burns Blog

Perry Burns was 13 years old when he was involved in an airplane accident which led to life changing injuries. Here he tells his story, and explains why his burn scars haven’t defined him, but made him.

Saturday 1st June 1968 dawned bright and clear.  A beautiful English summer’s day.  And I was about to fulfil a boyhood dream.  My family was enjoying a long weekend at a caravan rally on a farm with friends.  The only cloud on the horizon was that my father’s business partner had to pop in to the office for an hour or so.  No problem except we were in Sussex and the office was in Bedfordshire.  But still no problem; his small 4-seater plane was parked at Gatwick Airport, just down the road.  We’d be there and back before tea.  What excitement!

The thrill of getting into that plane at Gatwick.  The flight up to Leavesden. The boredom of sitting in the office while he messed about with endless files.  And then back to the airfield.  As we climbed into the clear blue-sky Ronnie said “I’ve got a surprise for you”; could this day really get any better? “The farm has a field just right for landing so I called your Dad before we left and told him we would be landing right next to the caravans.”

Wow! My friends were going to be sooooo jealous.  We cleared the London Terminal Manoeuvring Area and checked in with Gatwick Control who cleared us to land on the unlicensed field.  In line with standard practice, Ronnie reported Souls on Board and vital statistics including the amount of fuel we were carrying (a lot!). The details of the final approach are of interest to aviation enthusiasts but suffice to say that having found the farm, buzzed the caravans to let them know we were there we found ourselves on final approach.

Something went wrong! Too slow on approach.  Stalled. A Wood. A tree. Impact.  Crashing, Tearing. Tumbling.

Silence.

I opened my eyes and all I could see was the colour orange.  Everywhere.  Just Orange.  I was 13.  I was dead. Obviously. Clearly when you die everything goes orange.  Doesn’t it?  I heard Ronnie screaming to my right.  Which was odd, because he was siting next to me on my left.  I turned my head and then I saw the blue flickers in the orange.

OH MY GOD.

FIRE.

And with all that fuel on board.  I need to get out. Fast.  I dropped to the ground and found myself in a tube consisting entirely of flame.  But, the first of many miracles that day, there was a tiny exit route.  I didn’t need a second invitation.  I dived through it and amazingly got clear of the fireball almost instantly.  My jeans were ablaze and my shirt was gone.  I rolled over and tried to get clear of the intense heat.  Ronnie emerged a second or so later.  He was on the other side of the inferno but I couldn’t get to him.  He was ablaze from head to foot.  I screamed at him to rollover.  He went down and I lost sight of him in the undergrowth.

My father had somehow managed to get into the wood and started running into the wreckage screaming my name.  I called to him and he ran over and started smacking my bottom. “It wasn’t my fault” I cried.  I found out later that I was still ablaze and he was putting out the flames with his bare hands.

A farm hand carried me out to the farm manager’s cottage.  There were 3 doctors on the Caravan rally and miraculously they had morphine with them.  So there I was. Half my body weight.  Black.  Bloody from an injury to my eye (I recovered my sight 2 months later), stinking of aviation fuel, a big red “M” on my forehead, bewildered and trying to understand what had just happened.

Astonishingly there was an ambulance from Worthing Hospital returning empty from transferring a patient to London, which was passing the farm when we crashed.  They took me to Worthing where I was stabilised and then on to The McIndoe Burns Unit at East Grinstead.

I remember arriving there and them working on me all night.  To assess a burn patient’s survivability, the doctors multiply the percentage of full thickness burns by the victim’s age.  If the number is more than 600 the patient is made comfortable and given only palliative care.  I was 13 and had 45% burns.  14 or 46% and this story would have ended in 1968.

I have no recollection of the next three weeks during which time Ronnie sadly passed away.  His final words were “I’m sorry.  I didn’t see that Bloody Tree”.

The next two months were characterised by pain, indignity, a never-ending procession of operations and a hospital-based teacher who insisted that I was to continue with my education notwithstanding my injuries.  On the first day I met her, she asked me to do some assessment tests.  But I was ill, only had 3 working fingers on my left (non-dominant) hand and felt that if there was any upside to this sorry mess, it was at least that I was missing school.  When she arrived in my sterile room the next day, I pleaded sickness.  She wasn’t having any of it.  And truly I think she started my mental rehabilitation.  She explained that either my disfigurement could define me or I could define it.  She made me write “I must do my homework” ten times by the next day.  And I did.

3 months later I was told I was ready to go home.  My scars were livid, vivid and sore.  Each morning I woke wondering when I would be back to normal.  No one ever explained that I was scarred for life.  I didn’t realise that for weeks.

For months I had to wear elastic bandages to help with the blood flow in my legs, dress the skin grafts with emollient cream every day and deal with sub cutaneous infections.  As an  outpatient I was under the immediate care of the Burns Unit at Mount Vernon but still visited East Grinstead twice a year where I sat in the waiting room with members of the Guinea Pig Club. These brave men were WW2 pilots many of whom had been terribly burned by dashboard fires aboard Hurricanes and had the most horrific burns to their faces. Their surgeon, Archibald McIndoe was a pioneer of burns surgery and set out the framework for treating them (and as it turned out, me).  I am incredibly fortunate that my disfigurement is only to my arms and legs.  Whenever I found myself feeling sorry for myself I thought about sitting in that waiting room.  I really had nothing, whatever, to complain about.

After a few weeks at home it was time to go back to school.  My classmates had written to me (judging by the brevity of some of the letters, somewhat reluctantly and under instruction) and although I was hardly the most popular boy in class (bit of a swat to tell the truth) I was looking forward to my return. On arriving in the playground I was a bit puzzled as this wasn’t the usual ‘first day of term’ routine.  In fact it wasn’t.  It was the second day.  On the first day there had been a special assembly telling them that I was an invalid and had to be treated with special care as my skin grafts were still very fragile.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out what happened.

True I wasn’t subjected to physical abuse but I got plenty of “Go on then Burns, show us your scars – yer cripple!”, “not so flash now are you fly boy” and my personal favourite:  “show us yer burns then Burns”.  Fourteen-year-old boys aren’t supposed to cry and I didn’t.  But I seethed.  It got worse when I was excused Rugby and football.  I had to do the long muddy cross country runs though. Out of misplaced kindness or an early awareness perhaps of “Health and safety”, I was allowed to go around the water ‘jump’ rather than through it. This ‘skiving’ made it even worse.  I bitterly resented the cat calls and I HATED swimming (still do).  The undisguised stares were awful and I did everything I could to keep out of harm’s way – first in, last out of the pool etc.

My maths teacher, Eric Blindt was a friend of my parents and I think he had even been on the caravan rally at the time of the accident.  I was academically reasonably bright but he could see that I was miserable and that the abuse was going to harm my education.  So, he did something wonderful.  He spoke to the Sports master and got permission for me to skip games altogether and play badminton with him and some of the other teachers on games afternoons. Not only did I love the game but of course I learned that you can turn up on court in shorts and tee shirt and decent people don’t follow you secretly with their eyes when they think you’re not looking.  Later I transitioned to squash, joined a club and again found that when you behave as if there is nothing wrong, then other people do too.

These days 50 years later, I don’t hesitate to wear tee shirts and shorts.   People hardly ever stare and if they do I simply look at them straight in the eye, shrug my shoulders and say “Plane Crash”.  I have friends who have known me for years, have seen my scars and yet have no idea how I got them.  Every now and again someone will come up to me and say something like “Is it true you were in a plane crash?”.  My stock answer is “Yup, and if you want to hear the story it’ll cost you 3 beers!”.

In 1972 I spent the summer volunteering on a Kibbutz in Israel.  We worked from six in the morning until midday and then, after lunch lounged around by the pool until it was time to start the evening shift.  There wasn’t much else to do, and I still hated swimming but I wasn’t going to surrender and mope around in my room.  So, I manned up and put up with the sideways glances and surreptitious stares.  After about 4 weeks a second group arrived and whilst my crew had more or less got used to me by then, now it started all over again and I had to break the new lot in.  All except one person.  She never looked at my arms or legs – just me. We married 2 years later and had three wonderful children who in turn have presented me with even more wonderful grandchildren.

The burns didn’t destroy me.  They made me. And gave me the most precious gift I could ever have received.

Perry Burns
Chairman & Managing Director Working Capital Partners Ltd

 

 

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