This story is by Philip Shepherd and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
One thousand-five hundred feet in the sky, I’m a passenger in my long-time friend’s Cessna aeroplane. We’re flying over Humberside, returning to Sandtoft Airfield.
Tony, the pilot, possesses a licence for daylight flying.
The sun sat low on the horizon and I asked Tony if we’d adequate time to return before sunset.
“Oh yes, it’s forty minutes, so don’t worry, we’ll make it in time.”
I twisted and peered outside to the grassy fields below. Ten minutes passed, and Tony coughed, placing one palm upon his stomach. “I feel sick.”
“Don’t be sick over me, okay?”
He grinned. “I’ll open the exit and be sick outside, so don’t worry.”
We chuckled, and I didn’t pay it further attention. Three minutes later Tony leaned backwards in his chair. “Hold the controls for me, will you?”
“Oh, okay.” I gripped the yoke and my eyes were darting around the instruments, none of which I understood.
Tony raised his head and hyperventilated. His hands clutched his chest, but seconds thereafter, he calmed and his hands dropped. He’d either fainted or passed out, so I nudged him. “You all right, mate?”
No response, nothing. I sought for a pulse on his wrist, but detected nothing, and my palm on his forehead felt moist.
What now? I must pilot this aircraft as there’s no one else. I understood there’s a button on the yoke you depress to transmit, so I pressed it. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”
“Aircraft calling Mayday. This is Humberside Air Traffic Control.”
“Roger, I’m Michael Johnson, onboard, err… Bravo, Charlie, five. I’m a passenger inside a Cessna, and my pilot is unconscious. We’re arriving at Sandtoft, where we departed this morning, but I’m not a pilot.”
“Bravo, Charlie, five. Understood and are you visual with Sandtoft Airfield?”
“Yeah, Roger. I’m approaching. My height is, err…” Hunting for the altimeter, “thirteen hundred feet, and I don’t have a clue about speed.”
“Bravo, Charlie, five, Roger. Have you performed any flying before?”
“Negative.” I’ve served as a desk clerk in the R.A.F. for twenty years, so I understand flying terminology but I’ve never flown an aircraft.
“Do you have experience in controlling the plane?”
“I’m holding this thing straight, trying to keep level.” I understood the yoke moves it upwards, downwards and from left to right and the throttle varies its speed. My view of the instruments, one’s your speed, your height and your angle of approach to the horizon. There’s one reporting you’re going up or down. Many deal with the engine, but I didn’t understand, so ignored them. I didn’t recognise how to operate the flaps, or rudder controls.
“Okay, it’s best to head for Humberside Airport. It’s twenty minutes flying time away, but you’d benefit from landing into the wind.”
I spotted the Humber bridge in the distance. “Do you want me to head for the north tower of Humber Bridge?”
“That’s fine, aim for the bridge. Meanwhile, we’ll locate a flight instructor who’s familiar with Cessna’s.”
The sunlight turned a deep orange colour, and I viewed the instruments. “But, if I don’t land soon, it’ll be dark.”
What started as an innocent day’s outing to visit friends developed into a full emergency.
Twenty-five minutes passed since my Mayday call, and A.T.C. informed me an R.A.F. search and rescue helicopter located to my right side. They would escort me to the runway. Peering to my right, I noticed a small black object in the air with different coloured lights blinking.
As I approached Humberside airport, the flight instructor hadn’t arrived. I depressed the radio button and asked, “Any idea how to turn on the dashboard lights?”
“I’m sorry, each Cessna has a unique switching system. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the instrumentation.”
“Roger that, thanks.” I can barely recognise any instrument. So, I no longer appreciate my speed or height and flicking the wrong switch could end my flight.
In my continual vision was my friend. So, I contacted A.T.C. “The Pilot’s name is Tony Thornton. I’m not aware of his medical history.”
“Copy Michael, thank you.”
If I panicked, I’d be on the deck. So, I had to keep calm and professional. Although when the radio was off, I’d screamed a few times causing my throat to ache.
A flight instructor arrived at Humberside Airport. “Hello Michael, how are you?”
“Not exactly in the best of spirits.”
“Right, my name’s Roy Murray, I’m chief flying instructor at the Morgan School of Flying. We’ll bring you down, okay?”
The night sky closed in, approaching Humberside International Airport. The following ten minutes I learned basic flying, without instruments. It’s like sitting inside your car at night on an unlit road without your lights, and that’s what I could see.
I kinda realised Tony was dead. If they made me try to revive him it wouldn’t help, so I said, he’s dead.
The air traffic control’s plan was for me to land on the shorter unlit runway, two, six. It has no lights, but I’d be flying into the wind, providing a stronger chance to land safely.
Dusk turned towards nightfall, and I’ve only time for one attempt, else it’ll become pitch black outside.
My first ever flying lesson at night, alone without instruments, and landing on an unlit runway.
My primary interest was landing and saving myself. Using the yoke to direct myself and the throttle for my speed, I approached the unlit runway. I searched for the runway, but it’s a black tarmac runway on a black background.
Roy guided me, “Slowly, come down gently.”
But, inside the plane, I felt no chance of landing while darkness blinded me.
You try driving a car with your eyes shut and discover how far you travel. There’s no way to land in darkness, so I increased the power and pulled up.
I explained my difficulties to Roy as it was black. We finally agreed I should land on the long lighted runway. There’s a crosswind, but at least I viewed where I’m headed. It’s pitch black in and outside, and I couldn’t detect my speed or fuel level. The engine cutting out from lack of fuel haunted my thoughts. I occasionally caught the flashing lights of the helicopter, and nothing else. It’s a massive difference from flying in the daytime as opposed to night. You can view one direction, glance another way, then return and you’ll fly in a different direction, spinning into the ground. I struggled to remain calm as if I didn’t, I’d lose everything.
The plan was for the R.A.F. helicopter to guide me to the lit runway. It’s been over an hour since fate handed me control of the airplane.
I was climbing, but mustn’t have maintained adequate speed as the left wing dropped downwards facing the ground, and the airport lights twisting around. I pushed the throttle forward and straightened the wings. This became the worst moment of the trip as I wasn’t in control.
A few seconds passed, and the main bright runway returned to view. Roy helped with my approach, “Keep turning right until you have the centre line on your nose. Inform me what colour the lights are on the side of the runway, whether they are white or red.”
This is one system able to help, they’re Pappy lights at the side of a runway. Four red lights say I’m too low and four white lights say I’m too high. I required two red and two white lights all the way down, but discovered four white lights, and overshot the runway.
Three more times I attempted, but overshot each time. I was too high, so pushing the yoke forwards I lowered and slowed. My new height was low displaying four red pappy lights, so Roy said, “Flatten it off a slight Michael, put power on.” Ten seconds later, “Put more power on as you’re sinking. Power on!”
Scanning the runway, I needed to land.
“Bring it down and lower your throttle… Flair.”
I committed my first mistake, staring downwards to the runway, when I should concentrate on my direction.
I struck the runway and bounced twice. After the third bounce, it remained. Yes!
The plane swerved to the right-hand side and exited the runway onto the grass.
The plane swerved further to the right and halted.
“Michael, your first night landing, well done!”
After two hours controlling the aircraft, I was on the ground and safe. I didn’t realise how to turn the engine off, so I waited, and the blue lights of emergency services surrounded me.
The medics discovered Tony, my friend, had died.
My thoughts during the following week were; I was in a fortunate state of mind that kept me going. I’m a lucky guy anyhow as I bought a lottery ticket and won six pounds and fifty pence. So, something must be right.