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The Bigger Picture

The Bigger Picture

Suffering an incapacitating inflight medical emergency with a non-pilot spouse in the right-hand seat is a recipe for disaster. How can we prepare for such an outcome?  

My wife and I were recently flying back from the Gold Coast via Tocumwal in New South Wales when we thought that we’d drop in on our gliding friends at “Toc” to say hello. It was a beautiful day and like all good stories everything was going well right up until our near disaster.

In the middle of a midfield crosswind we hit an enormous air pocket which despite our firmly fastened harnesses caused our bodies to become one with the roof of our little Archer. It’s at this point in time that all of you individuals out there that are “height challenged” can smile because my wife’s hair got a little ruffled from the experience while my cranium felt as if it had been hit by a pile driver. The problem was, I was the pilot.

Immediately after the event I’ve never felt pain as bad as my own voice rattling out the circuit calls as it smashed its way through the headphones mounted on the side of my head. I’d often wondered what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boxer’s knockout punch and now I just about knew.  Luckily for us I managed to hold it together just as the wheels touched down as the drums thumping away in my brain reached a crescendo.

So let’s play out this scenario a little. Let’s imagine that rather than being my enormous five foot ten inches (why do we think of height in imperial measurements?) I’d listened to my mother, eaten my veggies and sprouted an inch or so more. We hit the air pocket and my wife adjusts her hair just as she looks across at a comatose husband with a trail of blood dripping from his head wound. It’s then that my wife realises that she’s now the pilot in command of a metal box careering around at 130 kilometres an hour and a long way off the ground. Not good.

After this little incident it dawned on us both that getting a little training for my wife wouldn’t be such a bad idea. So what does an inadvertent flyer really have to know to get them down out of the air and safely on terra firma? I’d probably start off with how to press the little button on the “steering wheel” to talk. If you’re brave you could even go as far as how to change the frequency and which radio you’re talking on. In a high-pressure situation there’s nothing like having a helpful voice that can relieve some of the tension in the cockpit.

It really doesn’t matter if the radio call ends up being “help, I have no idea what I’m doing but my husband’s got blood coming out his ears and I’m now trying to fly the plane”. I couldn’t imagine any other pilot in the world that wouldn’t respond positively to a radio call like that.

So what’s next in the training course? How about a little flying practice? This is straight and level, this is how you turn and here is the “accelerator lever” that helps going up and down. Depending upon the individual a basic level of competency could be reached in an hour or two. In this time some of the scary things about aircraft could be dealt with such as; you can’t shut the engine off with the “accelerator” or flying upside down in a Warrior is an unlikely event.

Now that our loved one can at least keep the aircraft in the air I’d look at teaching them how to navigate. If you have a partner like I do then navigation is something that is right up there with brain surgery that often ends in tears when driving along the road let alone flying like a bird. So when I say navigation I actually mean, push the “nearest airport” button on the GPS, hit the enter button and then make the little plane follow the pink line. This would be followed by comments such as, “Yes, the plane is like a picture of us flying” and, “Looking out the cockpit is also a good idea.”

The final bit of training would have to involve a couple of hours of circuits. For most of us with fixed gear I wouldn’t worry about the “Downwind” checks. If you have a retractable then you might want to mention that landing gear on the ground is often a good idea. Once the wheels touch down then the instructor can get the plane back up to height and hand it over to the impromptu pilot. I wouldn’t worry about teaching how to do a touch-and-go; just how to get the wheels firmly fixed on the runway. Of course, learning how to use the brakes and how to cut the engine would be a real bonus.

My experience at Tocumwal reminded me of a tragic scenario that occurred in the United States some time ago when an elderly woman with little flying experience staged an emergency landing after her pilot husband had collapsed and died.

Somehow, this brave soul, Helen Collins, an 80-year-old grandmother without a pilot’s licence calmly and cool-headedly landed a light aircraft with one engine and virtually no fuel as her husband lay slumped from a fatal heart attack next to her.

The transcripts of her ordeal reveal a woman who remained clear and focussed, even as she repeatedly noted that she was running out of fuel and worried at one stage that she was approaching the ground too fast.

“You better get me in there pretty soon,” Helen stated early on. “I don’t know how long I’m going to have gas.” Even when she was conveying a sense of urgency, her voice stayed steady and she showed no fear – just a determination to deal with her predicament.

Helen barely mentioned her husband John, 81, a retired businessman, after making the initial call. But she later told her son that she knew he had died next to her. The couple had nearly made it home when he suffered the heart attack. She had taken some flying lessons decades ago, but had no solo piloting experience. They were just 10 kilometres south of their destination, where her family was waiting, when she made her emergency call to the control tower.

“I gotta land pretty quick. My back gauge shows nothing,” she said.

“OK, Helen? We’re going to launch another aircraft. It will come up and it will fly right next to you and it will give you instructions and it will fly right next to you and fly with you to the airport,” said an official from the dispatch centre.

A local pilot then scrambled into the air in another Cessna to fly alongside Helen as a wingman; while his wife, herself a pilot and flight instructor, talked to Helen from the ground. The pair circled several times as Helen struggled to line the Cessna up with the runway. “I don’t think I can circle again,” she said. “I’m coming in too fast.”

And then to make matters even more precarious, she revealed that her right engine had cut after the fuel finally ran out! That meant she would have to land using just one engine – a challenge for even the most experienced pilots.

Somehow, Helen landed the Cessna twin, which bounced off the runway and came to a halt after rolling about 300 metres, tipped up on its nose. Thankfully, the incredible octogenarian suffered only a cracked rib and minor back injuries in the landing.

“Great job, Helen, great job,” someone said over the radio. “Outstanding, Helen.”

What an incredible story. What an incredible woman.

I also have another story, not so much about learning to fly, but of taking steps to overcome a fear of flying.

A good friend of mine had a serious fear of flying and at its peak the fear was very real. A frequent flyer who regularly journeys interstate and overseas, traipsing between A and B in a metal tube suspended some 35,000 feet above the ground isn’t her idea of fun. So how’d she do it? How did she overcome her fear? Simple, she took a trial introductory flight in a light aircraft and she loved it so much she eventually became a pilot.

Despite being a regular air traveller, my friend dreaded aircraft and always turned to mush, especially when the plane started doing freaky things in turbulence. On one of her most recent flights to Thailand, the airliner in which she was travelling plummetted so suddenly and violently that a petrified flight attendant knelt in the aisle a sobbing mess. Not a comforting sight for a planeload of terrified passengers.

After that incident my friend promised herself she’d do something about her own fear and anxiety. And with a little encouragement from me, she decided to do a trial introductory flight.

The TIF was booked in a sleek PiperSport owned by an operator at Camden Airport, NSW. Now for someone like my friend, who thinks of a Boeing 737 as a ‘small’ aircraft, her mind would have been racing at the sight of a two-seater with a single powerplant bolted to the front. Not only that, but the day she was booked to fly was pretty ordinary: overcast and cold with intermittent rain, forcing the cancellation of the majority of the school’s bookings. But being the good sport that she is, she pushed ahead and agreed to give it a crack, even as her tummy did somersaults during the preflight walkaround.

Despite her fear of flying, my friend has an inquisitive mind and she’s fascinated by the science behind the art of flying an aircraft. Yet I was still a little bemused when she said that if she “really” enjoyed the TIF she’d seriously consider taking up flying lessons. “The more I understand about aircraft and how they work, the more comfortable I’ll feel,” she said. “And the more I fly the aircraft, the more I’ll understand it.”

Talk about guts. Anyway, to cut a long story short, she enjoyed the blast around Camden airspace. And she enjoyed it so much that she started flying lessons and is now the proud holder of a newly inked PPL. She even flies regularly with her husband as her most frequent passenger.

With all these examples in mind, no matter what the scenario, being the sole person with any aviation experience on board is a possible recipe for disaster. Most sensible caring people have life insurance but how many of us have thought to invest in a little training for the non-pilot spouses or friends that regularly fly alongside us? I’m sure that very few of us out there didn’t even think to pay a little extra for the person in the right hand seat. So, for now, my wife is about to receive a present of a few hours flying instruction. And apparently my friend’s husband is about to do his own trial introductory flight; just in case. Better to be safe than sorry.

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