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Would-be pilot developed chronic fear of flying after surviving a plane crash

Laura’s dreams of becoming a pilot were dashed after the plane crash left her with extreme anxiety around flying.

A nuclear chemist who had dreams of becoming a pilot has told how her ambitions were shattered after surviving a plane crash that left her unable to walk for six months and with a chronic fear of flying.

Laura Lambert, 31, who is originally from Plymouth, Devon, was taking a weekend trip with friends in August 2012 when the four-seater aircraft they were travelling in began to lose speed, forcing her pilot pal to crash-land in a field.

Amazingly, the four friends all managed to climb out of the wreckage unaided but, over the coming days, it became clear that Laura’s injuries were more serious than they had at first seemed.

Laura works at CERN (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

Sat next to the pilot on the right-hand side of the plane where the impact had been greatest, Laura, who had recently graduated from university and was working at a brewery, had injured her head, causing a massive concussion, and her spine, damaging ligaments and tendons.

Unable to work for a year – due to the pain and because her mobility and cognitive abilities were affected – Laura, who moved to Vancouver, Canada, aged six, and had been in the plane with her then boyfriend and another couple, said: “It wasn’t obvious at first how badly affected I was by it. I think it was because, at first, I was in shock.

“Soon though, things got bad and I couldn’t sit up for more than five minutes without throwing up because of the concussion that lasted an entire month.”

The crash site of the plane that Laura and her three friends were in (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

She continued: “I couldn’t walk either from about a day on from the crash because of the pain in my neck and back and I pretty soon realised that I had also lost the ability to read.”

As a keen sportswoman who spent her weekends rock climbing in the summer and skiing in the winter, the accident was a massive blow.

But its truly devastating legacy was the crippling fear of flying she was left with – shattering her dreams of becoming a pilot.

Laura is a keen mountain biker (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

After months of physiotherapy, she was able to return to mountain biking, skiing and climbing- although not as intensively as before for fear of another concussion that doctors explained could be highly damaging to her brain.

Sadly, though, Laura’s plans to join the Canadian Air Force were forever shelved.

She explained: “I had wanted to become a pilot after university and had aimed towards that since I was a kid.”

 

She added: “But, after the crash, I couldn’t get into a plane without feeling an overwhelming sense of dread – so I knew that my dreams were over.”

Still, determined to try and conquer her fear, on the fifth anniversary of the accident, Laura completed a skydive from 10,000ft.

Now living in Geneva, Switzerland, where she works at CERN, the European organisation for nuclear research, Laura, who is dating Theo Rutter, 31, an engineer at CERN, said: “I like to take things to the extreme and push myself – so jumping out of a plane seemed like a pretty good way of getting over what happened to me.

Laura still travels despite her fear of flying (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

“It’s pretty scary, but I actually felt safer jumping out of the plane than being in it.

“I still hate the idea of flying, but I hate the idea that fear could hold me back from doing the things I want to do even more.

“I love to travel and see the world, and to do that you need to fly. So I grit my teeth and do it, knowing that getting to the other side is worth it.”

 

During an adventurous childhood in Canada, where her mother is from, Laura developed a passion for sports like mountain biking, which she enjoyed alongside studying chemistry at the University of Victoria.

She also loved air travel and longed to become a pilot, which led to her working part-time for a year in the Canadian Air Force during her degree, in preparation for joining full-time after graduation.

Sadly, that changed after that fateful day in August 2012, when, a few months after finishing university, she went to stay at an old friend’s family home in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, along with their respective boyfriends.

Laura (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

The pal had recently passed her private pilot license, so suggested that she take them from Victoria and back in a rented plane.

But while the outbound journey went smoothly, it was during their return flight from Salmon Arm to Victoria that things went wrong.

Laura recalled: “I had never flown with her before, but I knew she had piloted a few flights, so I really thought there would be nothing to worry about.”

 

She continued: “But before we took off there were a number of setbacks. For a start, it was a particularly hot day, which makes it more difficult to generate lift.”

Once up in the air, everything seemed to be in order, with Laura sat in the front next to the pilot and the two boyfriends sat behind.

But after 15 minutes, at a height of 2,500 ft, the plane began to slow and realising that they would not make it all the way to their destination, the pilot decided to turn back to Salmon Arm.

Laura skiing (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

Laura recalled: “We rapidly began losing altitude and the pilot started calling May Day.

“Pretty soon it was clear though that we weren’t going to make it back to Salmon Arm, so we’d have to crash-land.”

Thankfully, the pilot found a freshly ploughed field in amongst the forest, where they could land.

Laura skydiving in 2017 (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

But, realising that they were too high above it and with a clump of trees ahead of them, she dropped the aircraft down heavily onto the ground, causing it to somersault over the nose and land upside down.

Laura, who will not go into exact details of what happened, continued: “The next bit I don’t remember, but I have been told since that we all managed to get out of the plane ourselves and seemed to be OK.

“The emergency services arrived pretty quickly and we were driven to Shuswap Lake General Hospital where the doctors examined us and were happy that we were all fine to leave.”

Laura mountain biking (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

That night, however, while recovering from the shock of their lucky escape at the pilot’s family home, Laura felt an unbearable pain in her neck and back.

“The pain was utterly excruciating,” she said. “The next day we flew back again to Victoria, which now seems incredible after what had just happened to us, but I didn’t seem to mind, because all I could think about was how much pain my neck was in.

“My boyfriend had to hold my head throughout the hour-long journey back to keep my head braced.”

 

Going back to hospital the next day as the pain did not ease, scans on Laura’s spine revealed that she had damaged tendons and ligaments in her neck.

Soon after, due to the extreme pain she was suffering, it became clear to doctors that Laura had suffered head injuries, causing memory loss and concussion.

Staying with her parents for what she thought would be a few days’ rest and recuperation, she was instead there for a month, as her pain prevented her from moving.

 

“The recovery really sucked,” she said. “Having been a really sporty, active person who only a few months earlier had been studying quantum physics, I couldn’t walk for 100 yards without the agony forcing me to stop.

Laura also lost the ability to read, because of a brain injury – taking six months to relearn the skill.

Finally cleared to return to work by doctors after a year, her dreams of becoming a pilot lay in tatters.

Laura rock climbing (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

She said: “Not only did I take a year to recover from the crash, but it also made me change career path.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do now and I love being a scientist.

“But now I take my life for granted a lot less and am determined to do all the cool things that I want to do – like travel and adventure – without fear holding me back.”

Laura skydiving in 2017 (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

And doing just that, Laura has now taken up track motorcycling and will soon be completing a track day in the UK at Donington Park race track in Leicestershire.

“I love the exhilaration of fast sports. I know they can be dangerous particularly for me having suffered such a bad head injury in the past.

“But you take all the precautions you can – and to be quite honest, I’d rather die happy than living a long and boring life.”