“Out of nine lives, I spent seven, how in the hell do you get to heaven?” The shape I’m in” – The Band
It seemed like it would be another routine flight down to Morocco, where I was about to start filming “The Passion” a six-part mini series for HBO. I had prepped and loaded our trusty 35-year-old Cessna T210 the night before and strapped in 400KG of camera equipment – Arri’s, Cooke lenses… the usual junk.
Amelia is a single engine six seater, a station wagon of the air, that can fly high and for her class is about the fastest you can get. Rugged and dependable, for the previous eight years, she had been our steed. We had done without a car in order to be able to afford to keep her going – giving me the freedom to fly to wherever I might be filming in Europe.
As a child, I had read the works of Saint Exupery- the great French novalist and pilot who had pioneered many of the airmail routes in the 30’s. Later on I had suffered two plane crashes’s at the hands of other pilots – both human error. And so in my early 30’s I learnt to fly. By now I had amassed some 1500 hours, a full instrument rating and commercial pilots license.
I crawled off the end of the runway at Elstree that morning at dawn and headed south towards Biarritz, my first fuel stop. The French coast loomed ahead, lost below in an amber mist of fog. Engaging the autopilot, I sipped coffee from a flask and got back to reading a passage from “Southern Mail” – St Ex’s vivid description of this very route down to Morocco.
He pays homage to those elemental divinities – night, day, mountain, storm and ice, juxtaposing the journey with the reminiscence of a tragic affair, in which the uncertainties of love and flight somehow enhance the mystery of one and other. Like many of my favorite writers, St Ex conjures cinematic images that linger on with you.
An hour or two later, Biarritz came into view, its sprawling beaches guiding me into land.
With full fuel, refreshed with coffee and croissants, I took off around 11am and climbed up to 13,000ft on an IFR clearance across the Pyrenees. I settled into the cruise, turned on the autopilot and started on the latest draft of “The Passion” script, which had arrived the day before.
I was half way through ‘Jesus arriving by donkey into Jerusalem’, when I noticed a few high and towering cumulus clouds. They were rising before the mountain range ahead – nothing unusual and with 70% blue skies, +5 degree temperature outside – pretty routine weather.
The plane went through the top of a cloud, skidded out the other side some 10 seconds later and I thought nothing of it. There was a small glaze of frost on the wings that dissipated as soon as I turned on the anti-ice system.
I called Madrid and asked for a climb, as there was another cloud looming and started to ascend to 15,000ft. Madrid did not respond but I was used to Spanish air traffic, who judged your importance by size and tended to ignore a small single engined aircraft, regardless of being on an instrument flight plan!
I hit the second cloud-top a few seconds later. Almost immediately the plane was covered in ice – thick ice that seemed to envelop the airframe.
My pitot heater tube (which controls attitude, altitude and airspeed indicators… I.E. the important ones) was overwhelmed and deactivated. I can not exaggerate the suddenness, for it took no more than fifteen seconds. I was disorientated and I was loosing control of the aircraft. The plane was overwhelmed by ice. I had lost my instruments and had almost no indication of what was up or down.
I emerged from the cloud some 20 seconds later, in a developed spin, pulling several G’s. That means the aircraft had stalled. Amelia was out of control and now spiraling downwards at a rate of over 3500ft a minute. I knew the possibility of the aircraft braking up was very high.
Few survive such spins and a never in cloud without instruments.
Two weeks earlier I had been in Kansas completing my commercial pilots license. I had gone on a whim, just to ‘have it’ and prove to myself that I flew with a high skill level and as safely as I could. My examiner had been a retired Vietnam Army Colonel who had barked at me for three hours as I had tried to fly the check ride:
“Son we don’t take too kindly to faggot folks round here. I bet you got a lot of them faggots back home in Paris, France…”.
And his worst one:
” We got to get that fucking chimp out of the White House, he’s ruining this country”. (He was referring to President Obama).
But what I remembered now, was not his racist homophobic small talk but his spin recovery technique, that he had barked at me and said “will save your fucking stupid life”!
“Throttle to fucking idle, neutralise the controls and stamp on his fucking head”
The words echoed in my disorientated brain and I did just that. I neutralised the control yoke, pulled the throttle and stood on the right rudder with all my force.
No response and loosing precious altitude. I tried again and this time Amelia somehow lurched into level flight. I must have relaxed for two seconds before with great violence and like some “Matrix” movie, I was violently dragged (or best description), sucked backwards and into the cloud again. The immense power of this turbulent storm cloud pulled an 1800 kilo plane towards its giant Jonah mouth!
I emerged from cloud, again in a developed spin and managed to recover first time but now I was down to about 3000ft above the ground. I was out of altitude!
The throttle seemed to be jammed – (in fact it was the hot prop overwhelmed with ice). The wing started to drop again (imminent stall) and so I risked pointing the nose down 60 degrees. “Damn it Amelia, do not break up on me now”.
I hit the deice system again and called: “Mayday Mayday Mayday” “I need an immediate landing and vectors for the closest strip”.
Madrid Control did not respond despite three calls. Finally, a Ryan Air Captain came on the line:
“Dear mother of God – it’s a Mayday. Madrid, you must take action”.
They offered me some vectors to Madrid – 120 miles south! Utter idiocy – for there were airfields within 20 miles. I hit the the back button to my last frequency and Biarritz immediately cleared the airspace around me and vectored me for a straight in landing.
There were big bangs – as blocks of ice started to shed off the aircraft – it was as if the plane was braking up. One came straight at the windscreen – as if it would enter the cabin but simply ricocheted upwards. It was like being inside the worst 3D Imax action movie.
It was only at about 1000ft, with literally a minute’s altitude left, that I regained full control of the aircraft. I had no idea how badly the plane was damaged at this point. Would the plane hold up and make it to Biarritz – ten minutes flying time ahead?
The French ATC controller, calmingly talked to me all the way – sensing the danger, he quietly reminded me to check the gear, full mixture, flaps, landing speed and gave me a visual report on the plane and its potential damage. As the field came into view I could see all the fire trucks standing by on the edge of the runway. I felt a warm feeling of hope. I dumped the gear down and gently landed.
As I rolled out, I started to shake uncontrollably. “Out of nine lives I spent seven”…for I knew, I should not have survived this.
Over the next few months we looked very carefully at what had happened with experts from the Federal Aviation Authority and extreme weather pilots in the States. It would seem that I was hit by “clear ice” and severe convective activity, a phenomenon that is very rare and usually does not exists below 18-20,000ft. You find it at the top of towering cumulus clouds but it is unusual in Europe, most likely a result of climate change. A temperature change from 5 degrees, to below freezing inside a cloud is a very big change.
This was a similar incident to what happened to the Air France Flight 447, that crashed fatally en route from Brazil. The pitot tube is covered in ice crystals and you loose your instruments and become disorientated. They, were not so lucky.
Maybe my dysfunctional childhood played a part and allowed me not to feel fear and keep a clear head? Or maybe it was lighting film sets for a living, where we all pretend it is a matter of life or death?
What is sure, is that without the tyrannical Kansas Colonel barking at me, I would certainly not have recovered the plane.
I checked Amelia thoroughly with an engineer for a couple of hours but there was no damage, beyond a pitot heater that possibly needed replacing. I sat in the airport bar with the ATC controller that evening and we drank two bottles of wine. For both of us it was our first ever “Mayday”.
I took off the next day – with great trepidation. Never had flying been so hard. I flew South, across the Gibraltar straights down past Casablanca to Marrakesh, and on across the High Atlas into the desert. Clear skies but it was painful all the way.
St Ex was not the only one who had struggled with the elements on this route, in a small single engine machine.
At Quarzazate, the films very English producer, Nigel Stafford-Clark, (an ex pilot himself), was there to meet me:
“Well let’s just say I had a little turbulence over the Pyrenees Sir…”