CHINO — A few weeks after his fighter jet smashed into the ground in a crowd-silencing crash before 350,000 horrified onlookers at the El Toro Air Show, Marine Corps pilot Col. Jerry Cadick weakly whispered to those around his hospital bed that one day he would fly again.
Everyone nodded sympathetically, but few believed that it would happen.
The crash at the air show in April, 1988, crushed Cadick's face, broke his neck in three places and shattered five ribs. An arm and both legs were broken, and both ankles were splintered. A vertebra in his lower spine exploded.
Cadick's family, close friends and surgeons worried about whether the veteran fighter pilot would ever walk again, let alone fly.
But three years after his F/A-18 Hornet nosed toward earth from 2,150 feet and slammed into a runway at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Jerry Cadick is back in the cockpit.
It hasn't been easy, Cadick said of his recovery.
During his lengthy rehabilitation, he had to put himself back together both physically and emotionally. With the help of his wife, Vicki, he said, he "gutted out" the pain and depression and--worst of all--his forced medical retirement from the Marine Corps, where he spent 26 years and was in line for a possible promotion to brigadier general.
But not only is he now walking and riding his bicycle around his San Clemente neighborhood, he has obtained a commercial pilot's license and is flying again.
"There is life after the Marine Corps," the former group commander at El Toro quipped. "And it's pretty good."
In his first in-depth interview since his recovery, Cadick, 49, a Navy "Top Gun" fighter school graduate and highly decorated pilot who flew 150 Vietnam combat missions, talked about his career-ending crash and his new life away from the corps.
"It all happened in a six-month period or so. I broke my body, I broke a perfectly good F-18, failed to get promoted to a general officer . . . and got medically retired," Cadick said.
"All that stuff came down on me. I really hit rock bottom, and it was pretty tough, but it is over now," he said. "Really, nobody could help me. I had to help myself, and the only thing that cures that is time. So basically, I just gutted it out."
Metal rings now take the place of his crushed eye sockets. His limbs are held together by metal plates, bars and dozens of screws. But other than a small limp, he appears to be completely recovered.
"I haven't tried to get on a commercial flight yet, but I'm sure I would have trouble getting through the airport metal detector," Cadick joked. "I am pretty bionic. They did a great job of putting me back together. They even gave me my 20-20 vision back."
Cadick said the thousands of letters from well-wishers helped him through his ordeal.
During rehabilitation, Cadick got a master's degree in international business at National University. After raising money from investors, he recently started a commercial venture that deals with two important things in his life: airplanes and the military.
His company, Tactical Military Air Training Systems, based in San Clemente, is testing a unique laser and smoke system designed to let military pilots engaged in mock aerial combat know instantly if a simulated missile has been launched in their direction and if it has found its target--information that fliers now have to wait for until after the dogfight is over and they land and review videotapes.
Cadick said he hopes to sell the system to the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and several foreign countries.
Standing on the hot Tarmac at Chino Airport beside a vintage, propeller-driven T-28 combat trainer last week, Cadick told how a bright orange, specially equipped missile nestled under the aircraft's wing, dubbed ACEwinder, emits streams or puffs of white smoke, indicating a simulated missile launch or a laser hit.
As he talked, he moved closer to the plane. Finally, he turned to a reporter and said, "Let's go flying."
Watching Cadick in the cockpit, and his meticulous preparation before takeoff, left no doubt that this is where he belongs.
"This is worth all the money in the world," Cadick said over the intercom as he completed a "canopy roll" at 9,000 feet just east of Lake Elsinore.
He scanned the sky as if it was his place, a familiar, friendly world.
In the months to come, Cadick plans to lease a jet, maybe even a Soviet MiG, to personally test his smoke and laser system at supersonic speeds and at all altitudes up to 40,000 feet.
"I am going to test it myself, because I understand what a dogfight arena is," said Cadick, dressed in a tan jumpsuit with his pilot's call sign, Kamikaze, inscribed on a breast pocket and his "Top Gun" patch on his sleeve. "I will feel comfortable only if I go up and see what the missile does."