‘Every pilot’s worst nightmare’
John Steed relives his crash-landing at Virginia Airport
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.