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After Ben Wilson's iPhone fell out of the plane he was piloting at 9,300 feet in the air, he assumed he'd never see the device again. But he tracked the device to a pasture 90 miles away, and found it in perfect working condition ... with the help of a donkey.
Wilson, the owner of natural-gas equipment company Gas Corporation of America, didn't intend to test the durability of his iPhone or protective case. He was flying his Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine plane from Houston to his home in Wichita Falls, Texas, this week when his door suddenly opened about three inches mid-flight.
"That'll wake you up," Wilson, 74, said dryly in an interview with NBC News conducted via the fallen iPhone on Friday. "My Wall Street Journal got sucked out of the plane, and I just kept flying because we were close to home."
Once he'd landed safely in Wichita Falls, Wilson realized his iPhone was missing too. It must have been wrapped in the Journal, he reasoned, and he assumed the device was simply gone. The Wichita Falls Times Record first reported Wilson's story.
But Wilson's stepson, John Kidwell -- who is also the vice president of sales at Gas Corp. -- pulled up the "Find My iPhone" app on his own phone and was amazed to see Wilson's device pop up on a map. The iPhone was sitting somewhere in tiny Joplin, Texas.
Determined to retrieve Wilson's iPhone -- along with 250 contact numbers and 1,000 photos he didn't want to lose -- Wilson and Kidwell got in the car the next morning and drove the 90 miles from Wichita Falls to Joplin. Kidwell traced the signal to a fenced-in pasture, and the hunt began.
"I climbed the fence and this donkey trotted up to me and looked me right in the eyes," Wilson said. "He would not leave our sides. I think he was trying to help us find the phone."
The iPhone was sitting in plain sight in the pasture, nestled in thick grass below a mesquite tree that Wilson believes helped cushion the device's long fall.
"I said, 'You pick that phone up before that donkey steps on it!'" Kidwell said. "Can you imagine if it survived a 9,300-foot drop just to get stepped on by some donkey?"
Incredibly, the phone was in perfect working order with only a few scratches on the corners. The screen was intact, the phone still made calls and all other features worked as usual. Wilson had encased the iPhone in a protective case with an external battery pack, which was the only piece that snapped off in the fall and couldn't be found.
Wilson is "amazed" his iPhone is working fine after the 9,300-foot plunge, which he and Kidwell verified by checking his altitude over Joplin via the flight-tracking site FlightAware. He's happy to have his phone and his irreplaceable photos back in hand, but he's most happy to have met that strange, friendly donkey.
"I didn't get to talk to the ranch owner, but I want to send him a newspaper clip and tell him I'd want to adopt the donkey. He was a hoot," Wilson said. "We made a new friend and I got my phone back. Everything turned out real well."