‘Ev­ery pilot’s worst night­mare’

John Steed re­lives his crash-land­ing at Vir­ginia Air­port

Sunday Tribune - - METRO -

Cow­boys Don’t Fly by John Steed will be launched on Thurs­day at the Zim­bali Coun­try Club. The book is a mem­oir/ad­ven­tures of African avi­a­tion that in­cludes nine pages of colour pho­tographs. This is an ex­cerpt from the pro­logue.

IT WAS the eerie si­lence which fol­lowed the screech­ing of me­tal and rub­ber rip­ping across hard ground that briefly lulled my senses once my wrecked Cessna had stopped skid­ding on its belly af­ter the crash.

The young girl who was my only pas­sen­ger sat in the front seat be­side me, star­ing ahead in wide-eyed dis­be­lief as the dust of Vir­ginia Air­port set­tled around us. The years of train­ing kicked in and I heard my­self yell, “Get out! Get out! Fire! Fire!” The air­craft was filled to the brim with hun­dreds of litres of volatile Av­gas and the slight­est spark could turn it into a hor­rific fiery grave.

I wrenched open the pas­sen­ger door and pushed Deb­bie out, stum­bling af­ter her on to the air­field. The fire truck – siren howl­ing – was al­ready rac­ing across the grass to­wards us as we scram­bled to safety. Mirac­u­lously, the lit­tle fourseater, cov­ered in foam by now, did not catch fire. Slowly, the re­al­i­sa­tion be­gan to dawn on me – this was the only plane crash I had ex­pe­ri­enced in more than 3 000 hours of fly­ing span­ning nearly 40 years.

It is said that a drown­ing man sees his en­tire life flash be­fore his eyes in the few mo­ments be­fore his death. This may or may not be true, but in the af­ter­math of that ac­ci­dent, I felt a flood of emo­tions that evoked many of my life’s ex­pe­ri­ences fly­ing over the African bush. But those thoughts were for later re­flec­tion. Right now I had to come to terms with a crashed air­craft and a badly shaken pas­sen­ger who, cred­itably, was tak­ing the whole af­fair very much in her stride af­ter the ini­tial shock had worn off.

Vir­ginia Air­port is a tiny but busy light avi­a­tion field a few kilo­me­tres north of Dur­ban, South Africa’s sec­ond largest city. Bordered to the south by a golf course, there are res­i­den­tial homes to the north, while the west and east are hemmed in by a busy high­way and the In­dian Ocean. This is not a good place to have a com­plete en­gine fail­ure shortly af­ter take-off, ev­ery pilot’s night­mare.

It was Au­gust 12th, 2005 and the fol­low­ing day I was due to fly my Cessna 182 solo from Dur­ban to Harare in Zim­babwe, a trip I had flown many times be­fore. De­clin­ing a lift on the fire truck we walked to­wards the con­trol tower and to my sur­prise were ac­costed by a cheer­ful young man in T-shirt and shorts, with a bulky cam­era at the ready.

“Mind if I take a few pho­tos?” he en­quired.

I as­sumed he was part of the air­port man­age­ment and needed some shots for ev­i­den­tial rea­sons. Not a chance. As I was soon to dis­cover, our pho­tog­ra­pher was a free­lance jour­nal­ist and been alerted by a pal in the con­trol tower.

The Sun­day Tri­bune duly pub­lished the story and pic­ture. It was not long be­fore friends on Zim­bali Es­tate where I live started sidling up to me, ask­ing who that young lass was in the plane with me. They omit­ted to add “you dirty old dog…” which was what they were clearly think­ing. My stock re­ply was, “Funny you should ask. My wife keeps ask­ing me the same ques­tion…”

Ac­tu­ally, there was no juicy scan­dal. My wife An­nie knew all about the trip. Deb­bie was the fi­ancée of a friend’s son, was crazy about fly­ing, and had al­most com­pleted a Pri­vate Pilot’s Li­cence course. I had been asked to take her on a flip while do­ing a shake-down flight ahead of my Zim­babwe flight. Still, it was fun to en­joy some tem­po­rary no­to­ri­ety.

Two ques­tions haunted me. The first was what hap­pened, and the sec­ond was could I have han­dled it bet­ter? I never dis­cov­ered the an­swer to the first one. Ex­ten­sive tests af­ter the crash re­vealed no mal­func­tions. It could only have been that some dirt or wa­ter was tem­po­rar­ily sucked into the fuel sys­tem.

As to the sec­ond ques­tion, pic­ture the scene. It’s a clear sunny day at Vir­ginia Air­port with a light northerly breeze giv­ing a gen­tle cross­wind along the sin­gle tar­mac run­way. The fourseater sin­gle-en­gine Cessna is a plane I have flown for hun­dreds of hours with­out a sin­gle blip. The long-range fuel tanks in her wings are fully fu­elled for my lengthy trip the next day, and as I go through the pre-flight checks and en­gine run-ups, all seems per­fectly nor­mal. I am given take-off clear­ance by the con­trol tower, and when I push the throt­tle to full power and start the take-off run, my in­stru­ments tell me that ev­ery­thing is fine.

I ease gen­tly back on the con­trols and we are air­borne, climb­ing out to­wards the ocean on our right. The run­way be­gins to slip away be­low us. Then, sud­denly, there is com­plete si­lence as the en­gine stops dead and the pro­pel­ler wind­mills use­lessly in front.

All pi­lots train for this mo­ment and the stan­dard drill is to land dead-stick as near as pos­si­ble to straight ahead. To try and turn back to the run­way is in­vari­ably fa­tal as the laws of aero­dy­nam­ics will take over and the plane will stall-spin into the ground. So, OK, I do not fall into that trap, but be­ing mind­ful of the homes im­me­di­ately to our right and left, I slam my lit­tle craft too hard into the un­for­giv­ing ground with the in­evitable re­sult. I know in my heart I could and prob­a­bly should have treated her more gen­tly, but the one thing a heav­ily laden air­craft does not do well is fly with­out power, and as the speed washes off, you have to put her down. Fast. If not, you will fall out of the air in a low al­ti­tude stall and that usu­ally means death or at best se­ri­ous in­jury to the oc­cu­pants. I sup­pose it would be fair to ap­ply the re­mark teach­ers love to make in their stu­dents’ re­ports – “could do bet­ter”.

In a re­flec­tive mood af­ter this life-threat­en­ing event, I drove home to re­count the day’s events to my long­suf­fer­ing wife. Her re­ac­tion was swift and pre­dictable.

“That’s it – time you hung up your fly­ing boots and did some­thing use­ful in­stead.”

I gen­tly pointed out that planes had been a big part of our lives, and to chuck it all in now seemed a pity. An­nie’s re­sponse was swift.

“Make up your mind – it’s fly­ing or me!” So that seemed to be that. But I couldn’t help think­ing about a dis­tant day in Nairobi and the flight that started it all.

HOW the Sun­day Tri­bune re­ported the crash in Au­gust 2005.

JOHN Steed has writ­ten a book about his avi­a­tion ad­ven­tures.

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