Travelling By Plane
Fifteen hundred feet up in the sky I was a passenger in my good friend’s Cessna light aeroplane. We were flying over Humberside and going back to where we had taken off at Sandtoft airfield. It had been a pleasant day visiting friends in Skegness. The light was going to go in about two hours. So, we had enough time to land while still in daylight. George, the pilot, only had a pilots licence for daytime flying, I had never flown a plane at all.
The sun was low on the horizon, and I asked George if we’d have enough time to return and land before the sun went down.
He said, “Oh, yes it’s another forty-five minutes or so. Don’t worry, we’ll make it in time.”
I turned back and looked out of the window down to the green fields containing a few sheep. About ten minutes passed, and George coughed loudly and put one of his hands on his stomach as he said, “Oh, I feel sick.”
“Don’t be sick all over me, will you?”
He smiled at me and responded, “Well, I’ll open the door and be sick outside, so don’t worry.”
We both gave it a little laugh, and I didn’t pay it much more attention. Only a three minutes later George leaned back in his seat and said, “Will you take the controls for me for a while?”
“Oh, ok.” I held the yoke and felt a little anxious as I had control of an aeroplane with both of us inside.
George lifted his head backwards and started to hyperventilate. He had both of his hands on his chest. No sooner had that started than he relaxed and his hands fell down to his sides. It looked to me like he had fainted or passed out. I nudged him a few times and asked, “Are you all right mate?”
There was no response, nothing. So I tried to feel for a pulse on his wrist. I couldn’t feel anything, so I placed my hand on his forehead, and that was cold and moist.
I thought, “What do I do now? I’m going to have to fly this thing as there’s no one else.” This was my very own ‘Huston, we have a problem’, moment.
I knew there was a little button on the yoke stick that you pressed to transmit. So I pushed it and said, “Mayday, mayday, mayday!”
“Aircraft calling Mayday. This is Humberside radar.”
“Roger, this is Brian Hadley, onboard Bravo, Golf, Charlie, five. I’m a passenger in a Cessna, and my pilot seems to be unconscious. I’m in sight of Santoft, where we took off from this morning. But, I’m not a pilot. Over.”
“Bravo, Golf, Charlie, five, that is understood and are you visual with Sandtoft airfield?”
“Year, Roger. I’m coming up to it now. My height is, err…, thirteen hundred feet, and I haven’t a clue what my speed it at this time.”
“Bravo, Golf, Charlie, five, Roger. Have you done any flying before?”
“Negative.” I had served as a desk clerk in the R.A.F. for twenty years, so I know some flying terminology but never before flown a plane.
“Thank you Bravo, Golf, Charlie, five, Roger. When you move the yoke, are you able to actually control the plane?”
“Err, say that again.”
“Do you have any experience in controlling the plane?”
“Only holding this thing straight, trying to keep it level.” I had the yoke in my hand, I was just sort of watching it and watching my direction. I only know the yoke to move it up, down and from left to right and the throttle to vary its speed. I could see all the instruments. One’s your speed, your height and your angle of approach to the horizon. You’ve got one that tells you if you are going up or down. Lots deal with the engine, but I didn’t know anything about those, so I just ignored them. I had no idea how to use the wing flaps or rudder controls.
Air traffic control told me the best for me would be to head for Humberside Airport. It was some twenty minutes flying time away. But if I could make it there, it would give me a chance to attempt a landing at a fully manned international airport.
I could see the Humber bridge in the distance, so I asked, “Do you want me to head for the north tower of Humber Bridge?”
“Bravo, Golf, Charlie, five, Roger. That’s fine, head for that. Meanwhile, we are going to get a flight instructor that knows Cessnas and can talk you down. Over.”
I still had some sunlight and could see the instruments and the outside landscape. But, I had a concern in my mind that if I don’t land reasonably soon, I’m going to have to do it in the dark. What started as an innocent day out to see some friends has turned into a full-blown emergency.
It had been twenty-five minutes since I made the Mayday call. Air traffic control told me there was an R.A.F. search and rescue helicopter to my right side. They were going to lead me to the runway. I looked out to my right and saw a small black object in the air with a few different coloured lights blinking. Up until then, I had only heard voices in my ears, but now I could actually see something. I knew there was someone up here at my level that was going to help me.
As I approached Humberside airport, the flight instructor had yet to arrive. The light was fading fast. I pressed the radio button again and asked, “Any idea how to turn the lights on, on the dashboard? Over.”
“Bravo, Golf, Charlie, five, Roger. Sorry. Each Cessna tends to have a different switching system. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with that one.”
“Roger that, thanks.” I can now barely see any of the dials. So I no longer know my speed or height and flicking the wrong switch could be the end of my flight.
The lights switch was in fact next to the ignition switch. So I could have turned the plane electrics off if I had missed by an inch. In my continual vision was the pilot, my friend. So I contacted air traffic control and said, “The Pilots name is George Thornton. I don’t know anything about his medical history. My name is John Brown. Bravo, Romeo, Oscar, Whiskey, November. No flying experience what so ever.”
“Copy John, thank you.”
“I’m a gentleman I always introduce myself. Over.” I thought, if I panicked I was going to be on the deck. So I had to keep calm, and in fact, I tried to be as quiet and professional as possible. Although when the radio was off, I had screamed a few times, that made my throat hurt.
Finally, a flight instructor had arrived at Humberside Airport. “Hello John, how are you?”
“Not exactly in the best of spirits. Over.”
“Right, okay. Well, my name’s Roy Murray, I’m the chief flying instructor at the Morgan School of Flying. We’re going to get you down on the ground, okay?”
“That would be very helpful, thank you very much.”
Roy asked, “Have you flown a plane before this time?”
With the night sky closing in I was approaching Humberside International Airport. The following ten minutes I was being told the very basics of flying an aeroplane. Baring in mind that I was not able to see any instruments. To me, it looked like if you got in your car at night on an unlit road in the countryside. If you didn’t turn your car lights on, that’s what I could see.
“At this time my main trouble is that I’ve got no dashboard lights. Over.”
“Okay, well down by your right-hand knee there’s a load of rocker switches. If you put all of them up you’ll get some lights on something.”
“There seems to be a little confusion as I’m in the P2 seat on the right-hand side of the plane.”
“You’re on the right-hand seat?”
“Yeah, Roger. I’m not a pilot, the pilot is dead sitting next to me.” I knew that in my mind George was dead. If they made me mess around a bit trying to revive him that wouldn’t help, so I just said it straight out, he’s dead.
The air traffic control’s plan was to have me land on the shorter unlit runway two, six. Even though it has no lights, I’d be flying into the wind giving me a much better chance of making a safer landing.
Dusk, getting towards nightfall, I have only time to make one try at this, else it is going to go pitch black outside. So far, I’ve managed to keep the plane level. Now I’m facing my first ever flying lesson, at night, without any instruments and on an unlit runway. What a great first lesson scenario.
My primary interest was to get down and save myself and not make too much of a mess about it. Using only the yoke to direct myself and the throttle for my speed, I approached the unlit runway. I couldn’t see how high I was and I couldn’t position my self as I can see almost nothing in the gloom. I was looking for the runway, but I couldn’t see a thing. It was a black tarmac runway on a black background.
Roy was guiding me down, “Slowly, come down gently.”
But, inside the plane, I felt I had no chance of landing while I couldn’t see anything. You try driving your car with your eyes shut and see how far you go. There was no way I could land in the dark, so I turned the power on the throttle and pulled up.
Speaking with Roy on the radio, I explained my difficulties, and as it was dark. We agreed I should land on the long lit runway. There was a bit of a crosswind, but at least I could see where I’m going. So now it was pitch black, and I couldn’t see my speed or how much fuel I had in the tanks. The thought of the engine cutting out from lack of fuel started to enter my thoughts. I could occasionally see the flashing lights of the helicopter, but that’s all I could see. You are looking at a massive difference from flying in the daytime as opposed to night. You can view one way, look another way, then look back and you can be flying in a different direction. You think you are flying straight, but you’re turning or banking into the ground. I was trying to keep as calm as possible because if I didn’t, I would lose everything.
The plan was for the R.A.F. helicopter to guide me around to the lit runway. It’s been over one hour since I took control of the plane.
I was climbing, and I mustn’t have had enough speed as the left wing suddenly dropped right down. I was now facing the ground, spinning and the lights of the airport going around. I pushed the throttle forward as much as it would go and I managed to straighten the wings. This was undoubtedly the worst moment of the entire trip as I didn’t seem to be in control at all.
A few minutes passed, and I could see the main lit runway. Roy was helping my approach, “Keep turning right until you’ve got the centre line dead on your nose. Tell me what colour the lights are on the side of the runway, whether they are white or red.”
This is one system that can help, they are called Pappy lights at the side of a runway. Four red lights say I’m too low and four white lights say I’m too high. What I needed was two red and two white all the way down. I was coming in too high as I could see four white lights and I overshot the runway. I apologised to air traffic control, and they said it was alright.
I tried it three more times and overshot each time. I was usually coming in too high, so I lowered and slow down gently. Now I was too low with four red pappy lights, so Roy said, “Just flatten it off a little bit John, put a bit of power on.” About ten seconds later, “Put more power on as you are sinking a little. Power on!”
I could see the runway, and I just wanted to land on it.
“Bring it down and lower your throttle… Flair.”
On the final bit, I did the thing I should never do. I looked to my right and down to the runway when I should have been concentrating in front of me.
I hit the runway and bounced twice, I thought, “Oh god, not again.” After that, it remained on the ground. I thought, “Yes!”
The plane swerved to the left-hand side and moved off the runway onto the grass.
Roy said, “Keep breaking.”
The plane swerved to the right and stopped.
“John, that’s your first night landing, well done.”
Finally, after an hour and a half at the controls, I was on the ground and safe. I didn’t know how to turn the engine off, so I just waited, and the blue lights of the emergency services surrounded me.
Upon landing the medics found that George, my friend had died.
My thoughts afterwards were that I was just in a happy state of mind and my optimism kept me going. I’m a pretty lucky guy anyway as I went to buy a lottery ticket later that week and I won six pounds and seventy pence. So, something must be right after all.