A con­vivial fly-out turns un­nec­es­sar­ily to tragedy, com­pounded by con­fu­sion among of­fi­cials and a ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By ‘Anon’

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.

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