In 1998, Harrison Ford told PEOPLE that his favorite place to be was in the air.
“It’s not so much the thrill as much as it is the satisfaction of learning a new skill. I wasn’t even sure I was capable of learning anymore,” he said. “I really like the responsibilities of flying. I like the places you go, the people you meet, the views you see … It’s where I feel engaged and comfortable and free. It’s become a big part of my life.”
Though he didn’t earn his pilot’s license until he was 54, the actor best known for playing Indiana Jones and Han Solo liked the idea of mastering something so “complicated and difficult” as going airborne.
“I was so identified with what I did for a living, and I enjoy it, have respect for it, and love the freedom and responsibility that acting provides,” he told Downwind magazine in 1999. “However, flying gave me the opportunity to create an identity other than Harrison Ford, the actor.”
Fear never seemed to be an issue for the father of five – especially since he narrowly avoided trouble in the skies on two previous occasions before crashing his small plane on a Los Angeles golf course on Thursday.
In 1999, Ford crashed his helicopter in a dry lake bed north of Los Angeles when the motor failed. “There was a mechanical failure while we were practicing power recovery autorotations,” he told National Geographic in 2008. “It was more or less a hard landing. Luckily, I was with another aviation professional and neither of us was hurt … and both of us are still flying.”
The next year, a wind shear damaged his six-passenger Beech Bonanza and forced him to land in Lincoln, Nebraska. Local reports blamed the emergency landing on a wind gust, which Ford was quick to dispel. “To simply say that a wind gust had blown me off the runway is to misunderstand the techniques of landing. This was a wind shear, where the wind totally comes from another direction.”
A Family of Fliers
Neither incident took the wind out of Ford’s sails. And his wife, actress Calista Flockhart, and their son Liam, now 14, learned to share his passion.
“Calista loves to fly and I’m thrilled because it’s so important to me and it’s the kind of thing that’s so much more fun with somebody who really enjoys it,” Ford told PEOPLE in 2003. “Liam loves to fly. Calista likes the process, she likes what she sees from the air, she likes seeing me happy. I think a lot of it has to do with that she loves to see me doing something that I love.”
Ford’s experience no doubt contributed to what one witness described as a “beautifully executed forced landing” on Penmar Golf Course Thursday.
“It’s not a crash,” explained Christian Fry, vice president of the Santa Monica Airport Association, to PEOPLE. “It appears that they had some sort of engine trouble during takeoff, which happens from time to time with airplane, but when that occurs, the beauty of Santa Monica Airport is we have the golf course, which runs parallel to our main runway. So, engine trouble, they appeared to have made a turn back towards the airport and didn’t have enough speed to make it to the runway, so he made a beautifully executed forced landing here at the golf course, so really just a great job by a very well-trained pilot.”
Ford has been eager to share his passion with others, especially youth. As the former Young Eagles Chairman of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Ford inspired a scholarship through EAA to “help young people achieve their dreams of flight at whatever level.”
“Pilots like to be responsible for their lives and are willing to train hard to do the work required to faithfully discharge the responsibility other people put in them,” he told Downwind. “I enjoy the pure freedom, and the beauty of the third dimension when you fly. We live in a two-dimensional world when our feet are on the ground, and getting in the sky is a rare experience that reinvigorates your perspective on things. Flying is always an adventure. I always enjoy the company of other pilots but like to fly alone too, although it’s nice to have someone along to admire my landing.”
• With reporting by NICOLE SANDS
More on Harrison Ford’s plane crash:
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• Harrison Ford Is ‘Battered but OK,’ Son Says
• Aviation Expert on Harrison Ford’s Crash Landing: ‘Everything He Did Was Perfect’
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