LONDON – A British pilot who was suddenly blinded by a stroke during a solo flight was talked safely down by a military pilot, the Royal Air Force said Friday.
Jim O’Neill asked for help after he went blind 40 minutes into a flight from Scotland to southeastern England last week. The BBC reported that O’Neill, flying a small Cessna aircraft, lost his sight 5,500 feet in the air.
“It was terrifying,” O’Neill said. “Suddenly, I couldn’t see the dials in front of me.”
The air force said in a news release that O’Neill initially believed he’d been “dazzled” by bright sunlight, and made an emergency call for help. He then realized that something more serious was happening, and said, “I want to land, ASAP.”
RAF Wing Commander Paul Gerrard was just finishing a training flight nearby and was drafted in to help the stricken pilot. Gerrard located the plane, began flying close to it and radioed directions.
“For me, I was just glad to help a fellow aviator in distress,” he said.
“Landing an aircraft literally blind needs someone to be right there to say ‘Left a bit, right a bit, stop, down,’ ” Gerrard said. “On the crucial final approach, even with radar assistance, you need to take over visually. That’s when having a fellow pilot there was so important.
O’Neill’s son, Douglas, said his father is an experienced pilot who has flown for nearly two decades. The 65-year-old is recovering in hospital where he is beginning to regain his sight.
“The doctors have confirmed that he suffered a stroke from a blood clot, but he doesn’t seem to have suffered any other ill-effects apart from losing his sight,” Douglas O’Neill said. “He says he went blind very suddenly and then, once he’d got over the shock, was able to distinguish a bit of darkness and light.”
In a recording posted to the BBC’s news Web site, Gerrard gives O’Neill instructions – “a gentle right hand turn, please,” is called for at one point – and he can be heard apologizing.
“You could hear the apprehension in his voice over the radio and the frustration he was experiencing,” said radar controller Richard Eggleton. “I kept saying, ‘Are you visual?’ and he would reply, ‘No sir, negative, I’m sorry sir.’ He kept on apologizing.”
With Gerrard talking him down, O’Neill’s plane hit the runway and bounced up again, the RAF said. It did the same on the second touchdown. On the third, O’Neill was able to keep his plane on the ground.
“It’s one of those things you might hear about happening in some sort of all-action film, but it’s hard to believe what they did,” Douglas O’Neill said of the RAF. “They were just tremendous.”