It's a warm, sunny, cloudless day in San Diego, typical of the area for July. Jordan Lo sits in his mother's small sedan, parked in front of Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport, pausing in the silence and looking out at the dozens of small training aircraft parked on the runway.
“You told me that someday you would come here,” said Susie Lo, Lo's mother, from the driver's seat. “Today's the day.”
The last time Lo sat in a cockpit was more than a year prior, before his life changed forever.
His earliest memories of flying go back to when he was a toddler, watching “Top Gun” with his Army pilot uncle, and playing with his flight suit and helmet. Susie remembers him constantly quoting the movie, developing an obsession that he never relinquished.
During college, Lo met with a Navy recruiter out of curiosity, assuming his dreams of becoming a pilot were just that — dreams. However, he was surprised to hear he was actually qualified to attend Officer Candidate School and try out for flight school.
“I was ready for the challenge — I was ready for everything that came,” said Lo. “The moment to be in flight school, to complete flight school, to be winged.”
After successfully completing OCS and being commissioned as a naval officer, Lo reported to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, to begin his training.
Just two short months later, it was all over.
On April 30, 2017, Lo and eight other student aviators were walking to a restaurant in Perdido Key, Florida, when a car swerved off the road and hit the group. For Lo, everything went black. He has no memory of what happened.
Susie remembers getting a phone call late that evening at her Phoenix home. Confused at the Florida area code, she picked up and heard an unfamiliar voice on the line, sounding serious.
“He told me he was Lo's commander, and that Lo was in an accident, and that I should come to Pensacola as soon as I could,” said Susie, tearing up. “I just froze. All I could think about was seeing my son.”
On the way to Pensacola, Susie learned that Lo, who was in the back of the group of students, was in a coma and in critical condition.
After an initial surgery, Lo remained unresponsive. Doctors pulled Susie into an emergency meeting to discuss his options. As she remembers, she was told her son would most likely end up bedridden and on a feeding tube for the rest of his life.
She was given the option to stop treatment and pull the plug, letting him pass away instead.
Susie said that was never an option.
“I know for a fact that he wanted to live,” said Susie. “I calmly told the doctors that my son was not ready to die.”
Later that night, with Lo's father by his bedside, things began to take a turn; now on his third day in a coma, Lo's finger started to move. His father ran to get a nurse. The nurse called in other personnel and doctors, and began trying to communicate with Lo.
“Jordan, if you can hear me, give me a thumbs up,” Susie remembers the nurse saying.
He didn't move.
“Jordan, if you can hear me, move your finger,” the nurse asked again.
“Jordan, if you can hear me, flip me the bird,” the nurse asked.
This time, he complied.
“Basically I flipped them all off,” laughed Lo. “The doctor said all options of pulling the plug were off the table.”
Lo's road to recovery had just begun, however. He had a torn ACL and MCL, both calf muscles were torn, he was suffering from hemiparesis, which weakened the left side of his entire body, and had been diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury.
Doctors told Lo to expect the worst: he would probably never walk again, and if he learned to talk again he would be operating and thinking at a third-grade level.
Lo quickly proved them wrong.
In fact, he proved the doctors' predictions wrong at every turn. Every small step his physical therapists would give him, Lo said he'd double or triple and accomplish goals even faster.
Sixteen weeks after being confined to a wheelchair, one Friday Lo asked a physical therapist to use a treadmill for the first time. Although skeptical, the therapist let him step on, holding the sides, and take a few steps.
“I felt like I could walk a hundred miles,” said Lo. “It felt great.”
The physical therapist went home for the weekend and told Lo not to attempt to walk again on his own without help.
“So what do you think I did?” Lo asked slyly.
In his room, with Susie watching, Lo stood up from his wheelchair that evening and took small steps with his hands balanced against the bed. When he reached the end of the bed, Susie offered to give him a hand. He refused, and took those last steps on his own.
Lo was walking again.
“It was just another prediction that I checked off my list,” said Lo. “And it was a big one.”
The eight other students were now mostly recovered from their injuries, and had returned to flight training. They decided to surprise Lo during his recovery by giving him as a gift a flight suit jacket with a personalized “call sign” — a tradition in the naval aviation community where aviators are given a nickname to wear on their uniform.
Lo's new call sign was “Phoenix.”
“I remember looking at it and assuming it was because I'm from Phoenix, Arizona,” said Lo. “I said 'Get out — you're going to call me Phoenix because I'm from Phoenix? We haven't been through enough together?'
“And they're like, 'No, no, no, no, no — it's because you're going to rise from the ashes.'”
And for Lo, it all clicked.
“Your injury incinerates you to a certain point where you're left in ashes,” he said. “The call sign gave me a spirit in which I told myself I'm going to fly again — I'm going to get up out of this pile of ashes and make a life for myself that I want to live.”
Lo used his goal to motivate himself through the difficult and frustrating road to recovery, waking up every morning and putting on his Navy uniform.
“It's been fueled by my desire to serve,” said Lo on his efforts to recover.
Now more than a year after the accident, Lo, despite a lingering limp, is able to walk long distances, work out in the gym, and even go for long hikes with his friends. He's continuing his physical therapy sessions and continuing to make progress. And he's still on active duty.
But one goal remains: returning to the controls of an aircraft and flying again.
During a physical therapy session, Lo met a young Navy lieutenant who was a student pilot instructor in San Diego, where Lo is currently finishing his medical treatment at Naval Medical Center San Diego. She offered to take him up into the air.
For Lo, the only question was how soon he could go.
That day, he got out of the car and walked along the runway with Susie and his flight instructor, approaching a small training aircraft.
“What would Maverick say?” asked Susie jokingly, referencing Lo's favorite movie, “Top Gun.” She gave him a salute and watched as he climbed into the cockpit and took the controls next to the instructor.
Within minutes, Lo was back in the air.
“It was a sense of freedom — I left all my worries and concerns on the ground, and just went up there and spread my wings,” said Lo. “It reminded me a lot of my time in Pensacola and flying out there.”
Pensacola, Lo said, is always on his mind. While he still has more to accomplish before he can pass his flight physical and be eligible for flight school, returning to the skies is still his goal.
“I went into a coma wanting to be a naval aviator,” said Lo. “I came out of a coma still wanting to be a naval aviator. Nothing has changed.”
As for Lo personally, he said the experience changed him in ways he wasn't expecting.
“I believe I have a greater sense of mental fortitude now than I did when I was [at flight school before],” he said. “And I just want to live life to the fullest. It's a cliche saying, and I've heard it a thousand times, but I never really knew how important it was until I went through this.”