Saturday 22 August 2020

Experience: I landed a plane after the pilot passed out

The flashing lights of emergency vehicles streaming towards the runway made me realise people were preparing for disaster

I hadn’t flown very much in my first two flying lessons. The first few are really just introductions to a plane and cockpit, a run-through of the basics; you’re taken up and brought back down. I hadn’t spent more than 10 minutes in control of an aircraft, and my instructor was sitting next to me, carefully watching my every move.

At 4pm on 31 August 2019, I settled in to the two-seat Cessna 152 for my next lesson; 30 minutes later, we started to make our way back to Jandakot airport, Perth. As we cruised at 3,500ft, I noticed my instructor was staring out the window into the sky above us. I assumed he’d seen something, but there was nothing there.

Then he started to shake. I’d never seen someone have a seizure, but it was clear that was what was happening.

At that moment, thankfully, I was in control of the aircraft. If I hadn’t been, we may have started plummeting before I’d clocked what was going on. Instead, I ensured we were stable and then went into survival mode: we needed to make it down alive. First I decided to phone my wife. I explained what was happening, but then my phone cut out. I can only presume she thought that I’d died.
Max Sylvester: ‘Despite the calmness of the controller, there were moments of panic, made worse when I noticed the blood coming from my incapacitated instructor’s mouth.’ Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Once I’d figured out how to work the radio, I contacted air traffic control: “Emergency, emergency, emergency”, and told them who I was. The man at the end of the radio reassured me, confirmed there was no traffic, and that I should divert towards the airport urgently. 

He calmly talked me through every step as I began to fly us back.

For a while I flew the plane in circuits above the airport, familiarising myself with the controls and the sensations different movements bring. Despite the calmness of the controller, there were moments of panic, made worse when I noticed blood coming from my instructor’s mouth. With one hand on the yoke [control wheel], I used my other to keep his head upright: I couldn’t let him choke.

“I hope they don’t think I’m paying for this class,” I found myself saying to the controller, cracking a joke in order to bring back my focus. The severity of the situation began to dawn on me: the flashing lights of emergency service vehicles streaming towards the runway made me realise people were preparing for disaster. By now it was the evening, and soon we’d start losing light.

I was talked through a few practice landings. I’d fly us down towards the runway to get used to the experience, before pulling back to ascend into the air once again. Meanwhile, in a state of confusion, my instructor began to regain consciousness. Oblivious to what was happening, he started to press buttons and touch dials on the radio, refusing to listen to my objections. That was all I needed, I thought.
Only 40 or 50 minutes after my first contact with the control room, the voice in my ear asked if I thought I was ready to try landing. 

Attempt number five would be the one. As we descended, my mind ran wild: one moment I was thinking that landing so early in my flying career would be proof of my abilities. The next I imagined us coming down on a highway, ending up on fire or upside down. Focus, Max, I told myself. Then I heard the wheels hit the ground.

I taxied towards the terminal. The controllers presumed I’d stop on the runway, but this felt easy compared with what had just happened – I wanted to see the journey through to the end. Once at a standstill, though, my legs turned to jelly. It was 6pm by the time the ground team helped me step out.

Words can’t describe how it felt to hug my wife and grab my three children when I made it to where they stood waiting: we’d both been terrified the kids would lose their father – not that my wife let on to them what was going on. My instructor was taken to hospital; it turned out he had a brain tumour. Somehow, I’d managed to save both our lives.

Only a week or two later I was back in the cockpit; I didn’t quit my job in engineering to just give up on my plans to be a pilot. Now I’m making good progress on the 150 hours’ flight time I need to attempt my commercial licence qualification. Some people have said I should have been rewarded with more than an extra 45 minutes of experience added to my timesheet, but frankly, I am just happy to be alive.

(Source: The Guardian)

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