Course Correction: Waterskiing accident grounds aspiring pilot — but new door opens
As far back as he can remember, Liberty University graduate Cameron Row wanted to be a pilot. He pursued his career goal with vigor, soloing a plane at age 16 and earning his private pilot license at 17 (during the summer before his senior year of high school). Row, a Lakeland, Fla., native, then came to Liberty in 2013 and joined the School of Aeronautics, where he remained on the fast track to achieving his dream — Row earned his instrument rating by the end of his freshman year.
But things took a sharp nosedive for Row just days before he planned to return to Liberty after summer break.
On Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, Row was waterskiing on a lake near Orlando when he lost his balance and fell forward, causing the ski to strike the back of his head. He blacked out for a brief period of time, during which a friend, who is a lifeguard, jumped from the boat and pulled him to safety. Row came to, with blood pouring from his head, and was taken to the hospital. He was almost released the same day with stitches and a concussion before a “just-in-case” CAT scan revealed that he had escaped death by a tenth of a millimeter. The force of the injury caused a depressed skull fracture; the skull had shattered and fragments pressed up against the brain. If one of the fragments had gone any further, it would have killed him instantly. Later in the week, Row found out he had also broken two vertebrae and torn the oblique muscles on his sides. He underwent surgery to remove the fragments that week.
Despite the lingering effects of the recent injuries, Row opted to return to Liberty and begin his sophomore year, only missing the first week of classes for recovery.
“I basically just said, ‘I am either going to be in pain at home, by myself, or I am going to be with my friends at a great university where professors care and it can take my mind off of it,’” Row said.
James Mashburn, School of Aeronautics online chair and professor, was one of the first people Row’s parents called after the accident. When Row decided to come back to Liberty, they trusted him to keep an eye on their son.
Row said that the support from his friends and professors, especially Mashburn, helped him to push through.
“Liberty is so set apart from other universities and schools,” Row said. “All the professors are intentional; they care about you. In the (Liberty) community, you feel accepted, loved, and know people care about you.”
But the pain was not the worst fallout from the accident.
Because of the head injury, which puts him at an increased risk for a stroke, Row lost his FAA Medical Clearance to fly.
“It was hard; it felt like my dreams were shattered because that was the only thing that I had ever planned on doing my entire life,” Row said.
He had given up on a career in aviation.
“I told myself, ‘If I can’t fly, I don’t want to work for the airlines,’” he said. “It was just going to be too hard to be around aviation and not be up in the air. I would just be jealous of the pilots all the time.”
But Row had already secured a competitive internship with Delta Airlines working with flight operations the first semester of his junior year. Though apprehensive, he followed through on the commitment — and ended up “falling in love with the business side” of aviation.
As it turned out, Liberty was in the process of developing an aviation safety management program for non-pilots. The timing was perfect.
“Cameron met with us multiple times to help us develop this, even helping research courses to build a degree,” Mashburn said. “He was instrumental in pushing us to get this degree off the ground and is its first graduate.”
On Saturday, Row will earn a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Administration with both flight and aviation safety management specialties, as well as a minor in business. He also earned the School of Aeronautics’ annual Airmanship Award, which recognizes the graduate who has most demonstrated the character, integrity, and discipline of an outstanding aviation professional.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him for sticking with it and keeping a positive attitude when I don’t think a lot of people would have,” Mashburn said. “He is still going to be used in aviation by the Lord in an awesome way. He is a trailblazer for this program, and I think that is going to be a mark for him his whole career. He is going to go out and change things.”
Row’s determination also showed when got back into waterskiing within six months of the accident.
Row said it is “surreal” that graduation has finally arrived.
“For so long, it just felt like so many doors were being closed, and I didn’t know what was going on,” Row said. “I never really questioned my faith. I took the whole situation a lot easier than I thought I would, but that shows God’s peace that you can receive.”