BOSTON -- Pilot Thomas Prinster vividly recalls the flames scorching him head-to-toe as he brought Pilgrim Airlines Flight 458 back to earth.
'It was like sitting in the middle of a bonfire,' says Prinster, pilot and certified hero.
Investigators said openly they were amazed anyone survived Pilgrim 480's flight through hell six months ago -- from the clouds at 4,000 feet to a landing on an ice-covered reservoir in Scituate, R.I.
Prinster is in Massachusetts General Hospital, recovering from burns and months of skin grafts. He expects to be discharged Aug. 27 to begin at least a year of outpatient therapy and wait for further operations.
Last Feb. 21, Prinster, co-pilot Lyle Hogg, and 10 passengers were on a routine commuter flight from Groton-New London, Conn., to Boston. Ten passengers were aboard their 49 -foot DeHavilland Twin Otter. All was normal until the smoke appeared.
'Very shortly thereafter, Lyle and I realized we had to get that plane down somewhere. It was like sitting in the middle of a bonfire,' Prinster said. 'We couldn't see out the windows. We couldn't see the instruments. We couldn't see each other. My thoughts were to get it down on the ground.'
Thick, black smoke filled the cockpit and the passenger cabin. Prinster and Hogg had to poke their heads out the side windows to see - and breathe.
A cockpit fire is one of the worst -- and rarest -- things that can happen in flight. Pilgrim 458's was only the second on-board fire the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated since its inception in 1967.
The NTSB last month blamed the fire on design deficiencies and inadequate maintenance of the windshield de-icing system, which spewed flammable isopropyl alcohol into the cockpit and fueled the blaze.
Passenger Harry Polychron, a USAir flight engineer and former commuter pilot from East Lyme, Conn., grabbed a tennis racket and bashed out three windows to help clear the thick black smoke.
Passenger Grant Reynolds, 16, of Anaheim, Calif., left his mother's side and began opening air vents as the plane trembled down from winter storm clouds.
The flames attacked both pilots, burning the pants off their legs, the skin off much of their bodies as they struggled to bring Pilgrim 480 down somewhere, anywhere.
Prinster and Hogg couldn't communicate, because the intense heat began melting their headsets, which had to be discarded.
Their hair was singed off, their fingers were on fire as they firmly held on to the steering yoke. The flames burned their ears raw.
'I just wanted to get the plane down, get the people off, and get myself out of there,' Prinster said.
He recalls spotting the huge, ice-covered Scituate Reservoir out his side window.
'We came out of the clouds and I saw the lake and kept it coming down. The smoke kept getting thicker and thicker,' Prinster said.
Hogg reached back for the cockpit fire extinguisher, but it was too hot to handle.
Prinster knew he had to stay at the controls despite the flames which burned 70 percent of his body -- all but his back and stomach.
'The choice is pretty simple. You either fly the airplane and take your chances -- or you leave the cockpit and certainly crash,' he said.
Prinster feels now his mind shut out the pain so he could concentrate on landing the small commuter plane.
'I couldn't do that again. I couldn't sit there and cook like that again,' the former Navy pilot said.
When the plane came to a halt, Prinster -- on flames, his charcoal black face hemmorhaging from severe burns --jumped out his side window onto the 18-to-24 inch-thick mantle of ice covering the huge reservoir.
Hogg and nine passengers helped each other out of the cabin, and then headed with Prinster for the shore line, where volunteer rescue vehicles arrived minutes later.
One passenger, Mrs. Loretta Stanczak, 59, of Manchester, N.H., died of asphyxiation. Her body was later found strapped in her seat in the charred skeleton of the plane, which was destroyed down to water level.
'Lyle tried to get a head count, but he couldn't,' Prinster said. 'Everybody was moving. It was a very confusing minute out there.'
Federal investigators called it a 'successful landing' in the sense that 'only one person died.'
Dr. Siegfried Kra, a Yale Medical School professor aboard the flight, described it as a 'Dante's inferno.' He praised Prinster for a 'smooth and brilliant' crash landing.
Prinster and Hogg and their wives are scheduled to fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, to receive the Flight Safety Foundation's 1982 Heroism Award on Sept. 8.
USAir pilot Vincent Green, an air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, recommended Prinster and Hogg for the international award.
'It was one of the most outstanding feats of flying I've ever encountered,' Green said.
Prinster said he feels 'flattered and very honored' about the award.
Both pilots were badly burned. Eight of the nine surviving passengers also were hospitalized.
Prinster, of North Kingstown, R.I., said he is making progress week by week after nine operations, most of them for skin grafts. He has also kept his good humor throughout a painful ordeal, cracking jokes with visitors. He expects another year of outpatient therapy and more surgery - skin grafts and possibly plastic surgery.
Prinster wears a protective body suit to keep scar tissue from swelling. He is getting painful therapy to regain full use of his injured hands. His fingers have little mobility because newly grafted skin is so tight.
'It feels like they are still on fire' from the pain of three hours of daily hand stretching exercises, Prinster said. 'I don't like pain. Fortunately, it is getting less and less.'
Prinster's flying began as a hobby at age 17, after his junior year in high school in Grand Junction, Colo.
'I sort of accepted the goal of a career as an airline pilot,' he said.
After graduation from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., he spent five years as a Navy pilot assigned to tracking submarines from carriers assigned to the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
He then settled in Rhode Island with his wife, Lindy. He taught flying, flew charters in the Providence area, and was hired by Groton-based Pilgrim as the small commuter line expanded in February 1979.
He expects to resume flying -- an avocation for 20 years -- but has made no decision whether to do any commercial piloting in the future.
'I probably won't have to think about it for another year,' he said, .
Prinster said he is not gun-shy about planes despite his ordeal.
'I think they're relatively safe. The figures prove that. There are far more people killed in cars every year than in planes.'
But he said the crash-landing made him more aware of the possibilitites of a problem in flight.
'I have a healthy respect for flying, a healthy respect for what could go wrong,' he said. 'The flying machines are still imperfect and the people who make them are still imperfect.
'An uncontrollable fire is the worst thing that can happen.'