The rise and fall of Ilan Reich (p. 3)

By Jennifer Reingold, Fortune senior writer

The luckiest guy around

Reich was unconscious for about 20 seconds, just long enough for his Cirrus SR22 to go into a steep dive at the rate of 4,000 feet a minute (almost four times the normal speed of descent). He'd had a seizure, caused by a brain tumor about the size of a golf ball. And on that day in June 2005, not knowing whether he would black out again, Reich had two choices - try to bring the plane back up, or abort the flight and pull the airplane's parachute. He chose the chute - but as it deployed, he realized the plane was heading right for a group of fuel tanks. He improvised, gunning the engine with the parachute open, and somehow guided the plane to its watery runway. It was "an extraordinary act of risk taking," says Thomas Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a fellow pilot. "This guy is an extraordinary hero to us fliers."

That was little consolation to Reich, who scheduled brain surgery for Aug. 2, 2005, at New York-Presbyterian Medical Center. Though not malignant, the tumor had burrowed through several layers of the brain, making the operation a much more complex and dangerous process than was first thought. "The minute I saw this," says Dr. Michael Sisti, the neurosurgeon, "[I said] 'Oh my gosh. Thank God we're here today, but in the process of managing it, his life is going to change forever.'" Reich was kept awake but sedated for the procedure, and as the surgeon cut, he relived the trauma of the accident, screaming over and over, "I'm going to crash!"

When he emerged from the post-surgery fog the next day, Reich was paralyzed on his right side. He couldn't feel his arm, his torso or his leg. His shoulder was permanently dislocated, because he had no muscle control. He couldn't stand, feed himself, or hold a pen. His doctors told him that part of his movement would come back but that he needed to accept his new reality. Reich was devastated, depressed, furious - and motivated. Once again, he was determined to get back what he had. "It took me 15 years to climb out of that pit," he remembers thinking. "I was not going to spend 15 years in the pit again."

Two days after the procedure, Reich wrote an e-mail to his friends describing the hospital's rehabilitation program. "The objective is to enable me to walk (largely unassisted), and be capable once again of independently taking care of myself. My personal goals are a bit more ambitious: to regain enough nerve and motor control to play golf this fall [and to] go snowboarding in the winter."

Furious with what he saw as the glacial pace of progress at the hospital, he mouthed off so much that the nurses wheeled him to face a wall and left him there to sulk. He did so until he realized that he had enough strength in his right arm to make the wheel move. Reich spent the next hour frantically wheeling himself up and down the hall. His arm gave out, but he had gotten some mobility back in his shoulder - and decided that the only way back would be to do it on his own. "He really managed his own rehabilitation," says Sisti. "This guy took it like a challenge to be conquered."

On Aug. 19, Reich checked out of the hospital - early - refusing to use a wheelchair. "I couldn't walk. I was faking it," he says, his voice cracking for the first time in our hours of interviews. "I almost fell over every step." His youngest daughter, Robin, helped him practice everyday motions like lifting a glass, and he hired a trainer. He loved golf, so he went to Manhattan's Chelsea Piers several times a week, hitting bucket after bucket after bucket of balls until his shoulder released.

Despite his difficulties, he insisted on going forward with a trip to Italy at the end of September that he had planned with Ilene Fischer, a doctor he had met online (he separated from his wife in 2002). "Here's a guy who's half paralyzed," says Fischer, "and he climbed the Due Torre [two medieval towers] in Bologna." Within five months, Reich had been snowboarding and later learned to scuba-dive as well.

Reich is 52 now. Twenty years have passed since he reported to prison. He still has to think in advance about where to place his right foot, since he has no sensation in it. Although he remains numb on much of his right side, he has regained 95 percent of his range of motion, even after finding out in February 2006 that he had yet another tumor (in a less dangerous place this time) and enduring another, less difficult surgery.

With his past bound up in that three-volume set on the shelf, these days he's looking forward. He married Fischer on May 20 and says he might like to run another company. When we first spoke for this story in January, he told me it was unlikely he'd ever become an active pilot again. By mid-May, however, he'd changed his mind, and he says he hopes to persuade the FAA to give him his license back soon.

"There's a great saying among pilots," Reich tells me during our last interview. "You start out with two buckets: the bucket of luck and the bucket of experience. The bucket of luck is full and the bucket of experience is empty. You start learning how to fly, and every time you have a bad situation, you take a little bit from the bucket of luck and move it over to the bucket of experience. Hopefully ... you gain enough experience before you run out of luck." When you apply the saying to Reich's own life, it's clear he's not hurting for experience. And when it comes to luck? Either he never had much to begin with, or he's the luckiest guy around.  Top of page