"I think my mom and dad would be proud," Pete Muntean tells PEOPLE in this week's issue
The memory of watching his mother performing aerobatic maneuvers high above an airfield in Culpeper, Va., in 2006 still feels unbearably fresh — and painful — for Pete Muntean.
“It was a beautiful day,” Muntean, who was 18 at the time, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “The sky was crystal blue — perfect flying weather.”His mom, Nancy Lynn, a pioneering aerobatic pilot, was executing a series of rolls at the Culpeper Air Fest when, during a low pass, a wing hit the ground, and the plane exploded.
“I can still almost feel the heat on my face,” says Muntean, who ran across the airfield and watched helplessly as the blaze engulfed her demolished plane. “She was screaming. I was screaming. It’s a horror I would never wish on anyone.” Lynn, 56, died from her injuries within 12 hours.
Nearly 18 years later Muntean has reclaimed his passion for flying and embraced his mother’s legacy to guide him as CNN’s aviation and transportation correspondent.
“I love aviation so much, and the closest thing to flying is talking about it,” says the 35-year-old pilot and flight instructor, whose father, Scott Muntean, miraculously survived a plane crash in 1993, then died from brain cancer seven years later.
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“Informing people is important," he shares. "I think my mom and dad would be proud.”
As the only child of two pilots, Muntean became fascinated with aeronautics while growing up in Annapolis, Md.
His dad got his pilot's license in the early 1980s partly to reduce his time spent traveling for his job selling aerospace electronics. By the time Muntean was a toddler, his mom, a plant manager for Procter & Gamble, had also begun taking flying lessons and had cashed in her pension to purchase an aerobatic biplane.
"Pictures of airplanes were all over the house," he remembers. "Even if I wasn't interested in flying, I wouldn't have had much of a choice."
Muntean was only 5 when his father lost an eye in a plane crash in Queenstown, Md. The loss of his mother 13 years later left Muntean — who served as her crew chief and play-by-play announcer at air shows — reeling and confused.
"She was a really talented pilot," he says. "There's not a lot of margin of error in the air, and I think she just made a huge lapse in judgment that day.”
A week after her death Muntean reluctantly climbed back into the cockpit, earning his pilot’s license eight months later. "You can't feel sorry for yourself," he explains. "You've got to keep going."
His experience announcing air shows piqued his interest in journalism. In 2008 he interned for then-CNN aviation reporter Miles O’Brien. Sixteen years later Muntean’s vast knowledge of flying has made him a rock star at the network.
While stories like the blown-out door on Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 have showcased his reporting skills — “It was like a scene out of a movie,” he says — Muntean also brings a critical eye to issues like the controversy surrounding mental health and pilots.
“The FAA has a very myopic rule that says if you seek any sort of mental health care or take medication, you lose [your ability to fly],” he says, explaining that some pilots forgo treatment to keep their license.
“Would you rather have a pilot who’s depressed and not getting help or a pilot who’s depressed and getting treated correctly?" he adds. "I hope that our reporting can lead to change in these regulations."
Muntean — who lives in Washington, D.C., with his girlfriend Melia Manter, 31 — has grown used to 4 a.m. calls from producers to jump on breaking news. Still, he tries to squeeze in flying time in the mornings “before things get churning” at work.
“It’s spiritual for me,” he says, explaining that’s when he feels most connected to his parents. “I can hear their voices, their wisdom and their instruction. I feel protected by them up there.”
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