05:21

Crash

I fly a microlight – though this is not the hang-glider with a chain-saw engine that most people associate with that concept - but a sleek side-by-side two seater with a fully enclosed cockpit and a 120 mph cruise that I have flown to Libya. I keep it in a shed adjoining a small grass landing strip.

Yesterday evening I took off for a joyride – an apt description of the privilege of flight. There was traffic around Yeovilton and the controller requested that I remain under 500 ft. This is very low. It was a cloudy evening – but the air was smooth and occasional fingers-of-God lit the matt-green of a saturated Somerset, one in particular illuminating Glastonbury Tor.

I scanned the instruments and decided to change fuel-tanks. The switch is a lever that goes from 9 o’clock, which is the left wing tank, to 3 o’clock which is the right. 6 o’clock is OFF. I moved the lever from right to left and at exactly 6 o’clock it came off in my fingers. The fuel was now off, I had no means of turning it on - and I knew the engine would stop in about five seconds: a sphincter tightening moment.

I tried to push the (very small) lever back into its (very small) hole that I could not see. I also had no idea if it had fallen out or sheered off – in which case there would be no hole to push it into. The engine coughed. I tried twisting the stub with my fingers. The engine stopped and the propeller went dead-stick.

At that height there is less than a minute before contact with terra firma. The reality is that you have about fifteen seconds to set the aircraft up at the best glide angle, look around for a relatively flat field of at least three hundred yards that is into wind, without high crops, large animals, pylons, telegraph wires. trees on the approach or anything else to impede your landing. You have to get everything right first time. After that fifteen seconds your options have shrunk from around a half mile radius to just the fields within a hundred yards. I was trying to be calm but it wasn’t easy.

Yeovilton came on the radio. I declared a PAN - which means ‘I’m in trouble’ as opposed to MAYDAY which means ‘I’m in life-threatening trouble’. They kept talking and I asked them to shut up. I should have ignored them.

I selected a field that was roughly into wind and seemed roughly ok and headed for it. It was almost impossible to tell long grass from wheat in that light and after the recent rain. A few seconds later (and this is all happening very fast now) I realise I’m not going to make it. The options were narrowing by the second. To my left, but down-wind, was a long field with what looked like a wire fence separating it from another long field – a no-brainer if I had been a thousand feet higher and able to work my way round to approach up-wind – but by this time I was where I was and there was no viable alternative.

My aeroplane has landing speed of 40 mph – which means that, with no wind, it stalls and stops flying at that speed. If you are landing into a wind of 15 mph you will only be doing 25 mph over the ground - a good thing. If, on the other hand, you land down-wind in the same conditions you will be travelling at 55 mph along the ground - a bad thing when there is anything solid coming towards you.

I was now committed. I put on full flap, which slows the aircraft down and rounded out into the flair. The ground was rushing by and the float seemed to go on forever. She finally sank onto the grass but I could now see the fence coming up very fast – much too fast - and I knew there was no way I could stop before it. I steered between the posts. There was a huge bang and I was thrown forward in my straps as the nose wheel collapsed and she nose-dived into the next field slewing round to the right before coming to rest. Silence. The radio spoke. I could smell fuel. Main switch off. I pushed the canopy open and jumped out.

It was a mess: left wing with two big holes and cables hanging out, right wing covered in mud but no obvious damage except most seriously at the wing-root where there was a large crack and fuel dribbling out. Bits of propeller were scattered between the plane and the fence and the landing gear looked crooked. The nose wheel was broken and there was no means of seeing what it had done to the underneath of the fuselage.  The fence turned out to be a double one protecting a newly planted hedge. Thank God for insurance.

Lessons? Anything up-wind is going to be better. Don’t try and talk to anyone unless you have got a lot more time. Every foot of height gives you more options: if I had been at 2000 ft I would have been able to fly her out: if it had been at 5000 ft I would have been able to reach behind for my pliers and sorted out the fuel switch without landing. It was extraordinary bad luck that the lever came off at exactly 6 o’clock but extraordinary good luck that it didn’t happen over Woking on my way into Fairoaks Airport. There are no fields at all round there.
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