A convivial fly-out turns unnecessarily to tragedy, compounded by confusion among officials and a territorial dispute
Haunted by hindsight; could prompt action have avoided this tragedy?
We thought we had taken every adequate precaution for our first fly-out of the year, to an airport on the northern coast of France. Five or six club and owners’ aircraft were to be joined by the Cub of a new member, who had recently joined following his airline retirement. Having no navaids, the Cub would rendezvous for the sea crossing with a club Archer flown by one of our instructors. They would travel in loose formation to the French coast where the slower aircraft would land to refuel and meet the rest of us at our destination.
Our careful preparation paid off and the first part of the plan worked perfectly. However, after the Channel crossing, the Cub pilot decided fuelling was not necessary and, with the critical section completed, the Archer resumed normal cruise along the coast with the Cub happy to follow at its own pace.
Soon four aircraft, with crews and luggage, were on the ramp at our weekend destination and the group made its way to the arrival facilities — to check-in and await the Cub with its pilot and passenger. The formalities were handled by a man without uniform who was efficient and friendly. At one point another man appeared and engaged him in matter-of-fact tones, but with the usual high-speed delivery that renders conversation in France generally unintelligible to most Brits. I later realised though that, while far from fluent, my fifth-form French had picked out the words dans l’eau — in the water. If only I’d had the confidence to question this at the time...
So, all buzzing with the achievement and the adventure, we settled down to wait for our new friends before calling up transport to our digs. I don’t know how long it was but it was time enough — at least half an hour I suspect — for us to begin to wonder where aircraft number five had got to, when our pleasant official came back. The Cub, he now told us, had ditched, but we should not worry — a helicopter was on its way. (He may or may not have believed that, but we later discovered it was not true.) There was nothing we could do, we were told, so we should go to the accommodation and we would be contacted there when there was news of our friends’ rescue.
Following that advice was the worst mistake we could have made that day. What we should have done is immediately booked out four aircraft for local flying. Within minutes we could have put sixteen pairs of eyes in the air and retraced the track we had just flown, the one which our colleagues would have been following. The small bay, where the aircraft had to have gone down, was less than a dozen miles across.
We later discovered that the pilot had executed a perfect ditching, but he and his passenger had not been able to deploy the life-raft, so were dependent on life-jackets. In the water at any time of year — and certainly in early spring, when this trip took place — survival time is very limited. The difficulty of spotting one or two heads in the sea should not be underestimated, but it is indisputable that our friends would have had a far greater chance of being found and surviving if four aircraft had parallel-searched the planned track. We learned during the evening that they had drifted apart and succumbed to the cold and the shock.
There are many lessons here. Fuel gauges are famously unreliable, so don’t expect accuracy — fill up too soon rather than run out. Whoever you are, tyro or greybeard, don’t be too proud to own up to a mistake; better to land at a non-customs, un-flight-planned airfield (two were available) and commit technical offences than die. Even though fuel is low and the direct route over water is shorter, don’t take it — a light aircraft can land safely in many a field, but the sea is unforgiving.
The real lesson from this sad story, though, is don’t necessarily believe everything you are told, probably anywhere but especially, experience suggests, in France. Far from a helicopter being airborne within minutes, a French journalist later discovered that there was prolonged and crucial delay while two rescue sectors argued about in whose territory the Cub might have ditched. That seems to be borne out by the fact that the bodies were not located by French units at all but by a Channel Islands’ rescue aircraft.
The following day the local Gendarmerie commander went to suspiciously great lengths to assure us that every vantage point around the bay had been manned by observers — of course a futile exercise unless the Cub had come down close inshore, in which case it should have been spotted in the act by members of the public, who presumably report such things, even in the land of the Gallic shrug.
I remain haunted by the realisation that I could have asked if something had happened perhaps moments on from the ditching, since the second man either must have been from ATC or alerted by them following radio messages from the Cub. With that early information and a quick safety briefing among ourselves on tracks, heights, procedures and frequency, we could have been airborne and over the right area extremely quickly, just when every second counted — and perhaps the lives of two nice people might not have been so needlessly and tragically lost. Even doing so when we were finally told of the ditching might have saved them, for there was no rescue operation in progress for us to impede.
In the UK we have long been accustomed to astonishingly reliable emergency services of every description. For years one telephone call was guaranteed to bring whatever help was appropriate — Police, Ambulance, Fire Service, Coastguard, Mountain Rescue, lifeboat or helicopter. In this we have been privileged and one of a small minority of countries where this has applied. We are now learning by the day — and very much to our surprise — that, because of cutbacks needed to make money available for apparently more essential things, such services are being reduced and under strain, so that inevitably response has to be prioritised, which means that it can at times be delayed, with fatal consequences.
Perhaps this might prepare us better for flying elsewhere, to places — not always very far away — where efficient response and rescue services have never been taken for granted. Nowhere these days can it be automatically assumed that professionals are waiting to help. As far as possible we should plan to rely on ourselves.