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... back on the horse...

... back on the horse...

By PeterHunter

… back on the horse…
Peter Hunter

May be I should be embarrassed - but this is a true story…

… one fine summer day around the fag end of the nineteen eighties - warmed by the sun's soporific effect - craving a quiet chat, perhaps a cream tea or a cake… I throttled back the engine of the small aircraft and settled into a gentle, unhurried glide down to my destination airfield…
Having treated myself to a rare day off work I intended to fly the glider I based at that airfield and later return to London in my favourite aircraft - the little Beagle Pup I was flying.
… but … intruding a little too slowly into my consciousness was the sudden realisation that the idling propeller was losing some of its revolutions - not many but maybe a hundred or so from the seven or eight hundred it had been revolving at as the little Pup gently descended down towards the grass runway ahead.
… the engine was failing…
… stopping…
Height above ground?
… one hundred and fifty feet…
At that stage as I later calculated I had only eight seconds flying time remaining before unscheduled contact with the ground.
In simple language, either an off-airfield landing or a crash - I was stuffed…
… whatever… you could call it a crash landing…
Almost unconscientiously my hands automatically changed fuel supply to the other tank as my eyes and brain scanned the ground below me. The lower revolutions from the engine were reducing the thrust from the engine into drag - as the slipstream drove the propeller around at decreased speed.
… effectively it was now an airbrake…
I was already on a glide approach… the drag from the windmilling propeller causing me to undershoot my glide path and if I continued without the engine producing more power I could not make the runway - or indeed the airfield.
There were few options remaining. Underneath me was sparse woodland - too many trees for an emergency landing and they grew bigger and bigger. Too my left was a garden centre - buildings, lawnmowers and parked cars - solid bricks and metal…
… it was definitely a no-land area… To my right was a field of tall, ripe wheat - my only option…
With only about eight seconds remaining I decided on that one… really the only option. Gently, carefully banking the machine into a shallow turn… nudging the nose down a bit, being very careful to maintain airspeed above the stall…
The engine failed to regain power - my own stupid fault; I had earlier selected the wrong fuel tank on my approach checks to the airfield.
Gently, carefully - with total concentration - it should have been the best landing of my life. But the wheat was five feet tall - a week before it was harvested… at this stage of growth wheat is very resistant if you try to part it rapidly… Ask any glider pilot who has landed in harvest-ready wheat.
… invariably it breaks their wings off…
… and I was now, unwittingly and unwillingly, a glider pilot - as I slowly and deliberately transmitted to the airfield control tower: 'Mayday - mayday - mayday. This is Golf Alpha Zulu Sierra X-ray. Engine failure - unable to reach airfield… going for cornfield right of centreline threshold...'
A light aircraft, landing in it at sixty-five miles per an hour, into a mature crop has but one result…
Almost subconsciously my brain, eyes and hands performed the choreography I had mentally trained for and practiced time and time again…
… automatically I switched off the electrics to the instruments - and the fuel supply to the engine - to minimise the chances of fire… Easing forward the door latch, I cracked open my door against the airflow as a precaution against it jamming - if the airframe distorted in a possible crash.
Finally, I pulled tightly at the ends of my safety harness until the straps around my waist felt snug and the shoulder ones bit, almost painfully into my flesh. Nothing else could be done… I felt no emotion - my previous life did not 'flash through my brain' - all I experienced was a feeling of pending embarrassment - of 'Fuck it - how would I explain this one away? How might I get out of it? What excuses could I make..?'
For a fraction of a second all felt normal and my brain told me I had got away with it… then this loud roaring started - as the main undercarriage and wings played a drum-roll with the stiff corn. Lower - until the nose wheel encountered the wheat - then the considerable drag pitched the propeller down into the soft ground and before I could fully understand what was happening the little aircraft was turning over onto its back… accompanied by a rapid soundtrack of tortured, tearing metal…
… a horrendous sound I will never forget…
My world, literally and metaphorically, turned violently upside down as the little plane somersaulted. All became dark, as the tall wheat smoothed my inverted cockpit - cutting out most of the light. Roaring - banging - the rending of aluminium grew louder - until finally subsiding into the intermittent 'pinging' sound of metal settling and the engine cooling.
As I undid the four straps of my safety harness - being careful not to fall on my head and sustain a neck injury, I became conscious of a claustrophobic lack of space inside the aircraft. As the 'plane had ended its somersault the lightweight aluminium roof had been partially crushed, the distortion squashing me into very little space…
… and it seemed very dark…
… additionaly I was covered with hundreds of shards of Perspex from the shattered windscreen and the side windows - but the main problem was the door…
… it had buckled and jammed...
… I could not open it…
By now I was becoming very conscious of the risk of fire - surrounding me was about a dozen gallons of high-octane petrol and the crash had probably ruptured the fuel tanks.
Whether it was a sense of risk or panic I do not know - but I managed, despite the confined space - to squirm ninety degrees to my left and kick the jammed door open far enough to wriggle out… I was later described by a crew member of the rapidly approaching airfield rescue team, as looking much like a seal surfacing from the ocean, as I emerged above the gently swaying yellow corn…
As the crash crew, from the converted Land Rover, fussed over me - I realised I was bleeding like a stuck pig from cuts to my head - indeed I still have some of the scars - and no longer enough hair to conceal them. Although I felt fine I thought it would be childish to deny the driver and nurse, that had, with blue light flashing, arrived at the field taking me into their ambulance.
It justified their job…
With the arrival of the farmer, it began to resemble a circus, as he concerned himself, not with my health, but worrying about whether I had insurance.
On the way to the hospital the young nurse was very chatty, but all I can remember was her observing; 'We don't normally get live ones from this airfield...'
… but I was very much alive…
As the casualty department staff prodded, probed and x-rayed - held up fingers for me to count and lectured me on the danger of delayed shock…
… making me promise not to drive a car for three days…
… they said nothing about flying… no doubt assuming that, was obvious…
I could not wait to get back behind the controls of an aircraft. Taking time, only to get a tea from the drinks machine, speculating that the National Health Service seemed too poor to offer a cup of tea to someone injured in an air crash. I rang my office and arranged for one of my programmers to collect me in the pool car - then got a taxi back to the airfield.
After arranging for the base maintenance company to collect the wreckage - I found the chief flying instructor from the flying club, drinking coffee in the airfield café…
'I know what you want…' he said… 'Are you sure you are OK?'
I knew he would not let me hire one of his aircraft without a safety pilot accompanying me. He could not be sure I had no delayed effects and in any case he had the club's insurance to consider…
'Yes - one who will sit on his hands - and keep his mouth shut…' I replied.
I then flew three faultless circuits with that young instructor - in a club Cherokee…
… I was back… I had fallen off the horse and was now back in the saddle…
My colleague collected me and drove me back to the office, with me wearing a blood soaked bandanna and looking like something that had been dragged out of a 'plane crash…
… it did my 'street cred' no harm at all…

End
© Peter Hunter 2012

Extract from Peter Hunter's auto portrayal Too Many Miles From A Land Of Rivers

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About The Author
PeterHunter
PeterHunter
About This Story
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Posted:
10 Mar, 2012
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