Even from his hospital bed, stunt pilot Rob Harrison is thinking about the children who watched him perform Saturday in an air show where he crashed.
The 66-year-old pilot is in Memorial Medical Center in Modesto recovering quickly after surgery on both ankles, according to his wife, Susan Newman- Harrison. But he can't stop thinking about the kids in the audience he didn't get to talk to after the show.
"It's almost more important to him than flying," she said. "When the little kids come up to him and tell him how much they enjoyed the performance, that's his reward. For him to know the kids didn't get that part, it's really hard for him."
Barring an emergency like Saturday's crash at Modesto Airport, Harrison never misses a chance to meet with children after he lands. After a 12- to 15-minute performance, she said, he often spends more than two hours autographing, talking to children, taking pictures with them and, sometimes, putting them in cockpit.
The couple, who live in Claremont in Southern California, plan to send an autograph and temporary tattoos to any child from the audience who writes to Harrison via the "Kids Link" section on his Web site, harrisonairshows.com.
Harrison's health is improving each day, his wife said. He had no major injuries except to his ankles. He is lifting his legs and going through physical therapy.
"His recovery's shocking everybody, even himself," she said. "He's always done extreme sports. This is not his first accident."
Harrison raced motorcycles in the 1970s.
Newman-Harrison announced for her husband during Saturday's performance. The accident took place during his last maneuver, when he flew close to the ground to do "rolls on the deck," low rolls right over the runway.
"We were in communication at all times," she said.
When her husband crashed, Newman-Harrison said, she relied on her faith for strength.
"A sense of calmness came, and I just prayed and prayed and prayed. And when they came to get me and said, 'Rob wants to see you now,' there was a sense of relief and nothing else mattered at that point."
His accident happened about 1 p.m., out of view of most spectators. Those who saw the crash told authorities that Harrison's plane had been flying too low and that its wing clipped the runway, but the official government report could take 18 months to finish.
Harrison got his pilot's license in 1978 and has been flying air shows since 1993, his wife said. He flies about 20 shows a year. He hopes to fly again.
A Federal Aviation Administration inspector at Saturday's air show did not observe any violations, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA will investigate the crash that injured Harrison, known as "The Tumbling Bear." Investigators will evaluate pilot performance and whether the aircraft had been properly maintained, Gregor said. They also will decide whether federal regulations were violated and if current regulations are sufficient.
Penalties for pilots who are found responsible for accidents can range from a warning letter to the suspension or revocation of a pilot's license, he said.
Most air show crashes involving stunt pilots are fatal. Last year, 15 planes went down during air shows and there were eight fatalities, according to NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak. None of those crashes was in California.
General aviation fatalities in 2007 were down to 491 from 703 in 2006, making it the lowest annual total in more than 40 years.
There have been no fatal accidents this year in air shows, said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, a trade group in Leesburg, Va. There are about 275 air shows in the United States each year, he said, and about 400 aerobatic pilots.
Newman-Harrison said her husband doesn't remember the crash. She's not sure how long the couple, along with Harrison's 40-year-old son, Kent, will be in Modesto.
"His progress is going so well, it could be any day," she said. "But we're content here in Modesto. The people here have been fantastic. It's been a great welcome."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.