Worst aviation moment:
My worst moment was in September 1987 when I was instructing
on Number 1 (AFT) Squadron at RAF Shawbury flying Gazelle HT3, number
I was instructing 2 student pilots in mountain flying
techniques in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales. The sortie was part of
the final segment of the basic rotary course and both students were close to
graduating onto the advanced rotary course.
The plan was to fly both students in the same aircraft; one
flying 'hands on' in the right hand seat and one observing from the rear. We
would fly the first segment from RAF Shawbury into the mountains, carry out the
training detail for the first student, then fly on to RAF Valley in Anglesey
for refuel and lunch. After that, swap over students and then fly the same
sortie profile but in reverse.The first part went as planned and lunch was good
at RAF Valley.
Whilst departing RAF Valley Military Air Traffic Zone (MATZ)
along one of the helicopter exit corridors, flying at 500ft/ 120kts, 2 miles
out from the airfield, we suddenly encountered 2 Herring Gulls immediately in
front of the helicopter. My second student, 'McHoot' was 'hand on' at the time
and he correctly and instinctively swerved aggressively left to avoid the 2
birds. Unfortunately there was a 3rd one which none of us had seen and it
impacted the canopy right in front of my face. I recall the Herring Gull seemed
to fill my side of the canopy as it came crashing through the Perspex. I was
instantly hit in the face and chest by the severe windblast and fragments of
I felt the bird miss my head and pass by my right hand side
between the student pilots head and my own! We all were wearing standard RAF
flying equipment, namely a military spec flying helmet and a
lifejacket/survival vest. The passing dead bird ripped out my helmet intercom
connecting lead so I went electronically deaf and dumb almost
I remember smelling and feeling blood on my face and an
awareness that I was still in one piece with full motor functions. I looked
across at 'McHoot' who was looking at me with very wide eyes! I then became
aware that he was in the process of gently flaring the Gazelle thereby slowing
down and starting a descent to land. I remember shouting over the intense wind
noise ' I'm all right, now put this f*****thing down on the ground'. All of
this happened in a matter of seconds.
I quickly regained composure and survival instinct awareness
that my student might not get the forced landing bit right and we might yet
crash, so I shadowed him on the controls incase he lost it. He did however
continued to fly superbly all the way down to the ground. Meanwhile as the
speed reduced, the windblast noise reduced and I could start to think clearly
again. The student pilot landed us safely and I told him to continue to shut it
down. He had put out 3 MAYDAY calls during the decent, which I hadn't heard; an
RAF SARTU Wessex flying nearby on an instrument flying training trip heard our
'Maydays' and quickly came to our assistance (thanks Ken and all!).
Once the engine and rotors had stopped, all 3 of us climbed
out of the Gazelle and made sure we three were all right. My students, 'Bunny'
and ' McHoot' were fine, although shook up. It was obvious I was bleeding from
my face so ' McHoot' raided the cockpit first aid pack and bandaged a lengthy
but minor cut above my left eye. Needless to say we were all shuck up but very
relieved to be alive and well, AND on the ground. We all walked around the
Gazelle and looked at the damage. I had a camera with me so the pictures
accompanying this are from that day's event.
The impact shattered the entire upper left and centre of the
left hand side canopy blowing it all inside the c aircraft. The windblast blew
open both small rear side access doors, which smashed all the way open in the
airflow but did not detach from their hinges. It f they had, then I'm sure they
would have taken off the tail stabilisers and the tail rotor with fatal
consequences. Lady Luck was on our side in this instance. Most of the Perspex
debris got sucked out of the cockpit in the windblast.
'Bunny' was sitting in the back during this episode and was
lucky that he had sat behind 'McHoot' on the right side as a huge shard of
jagged Perspex we found lying in the back in the centre! Also, the dead bird
impacted the rear bulkhead dead centre, just above the top of the seat
about 'Bunnys' head height!
The SARTU Wessex landed close by and all 3 of us walked
over, jumped into the cabin and were flown directly into the RAF Valley medical
centre for assessment. A flight time of only 2 minutes from take off to
landing! During this short return flight, I went into minor shock and couldn't
stop shaking until I was inside the Medical centre. The 2 boys were assessed
fit and well as we had expected, just somewhat shook up. As for me, I was a
little battered but OK. I was later taken to Bangor Hospital for a
precautionary head X-Ray. All was fine I'm pleased to say. They did find an
undamaged brain in there!
Needless to say, we were all lucky to have survived that and
I was particularly lucky not to have been hit in the face by the bird. It would
have taken my head off and into the back seats! The birds' beak left a long
scratch down the right side of my flying helmet as it passed by! It was THAT
close. 'Bunny' was also very lucky not to have had the same thing happen to
We did have quite a few beers later that night to celebrate
being let off by 'Mr Grim Reaper Esq.' and toasted 'Lady Luck'; the next day
was debrief, paperwork and another medical check. By now I had a super black
eye and slightly bruised ribs, not to mention a 'neat duelling scar' in my left
On 4th Sep, only 2 days later, 'McHoot' and I went off and
flew that mountain flying training sortie together in Gazelle ZB628 just to
tidy things up and lay any ghosts to rest. Infact, whilst flying out of RAF
Valley on our way home, we flew over and looked down on ZB627 still sitting in
a field awaiting road recovery! We had a super training trip and enjoyed each
others company more than before.
'McHoot' handled the Gazelle extremely well for his level of
experience and I wrote him up for an RAF Green Endorsement award, which he
subsequently got. His skill saved 'Bunny's' and my life!
'McHoot' and 'Bunny' went on to have long careers in the RAF
helicopter world and I resumed instructing on Gazelles, barring a few
operational detachments and other duties until August 1993.