Human Interest

Cessna 1965 150E

British Pilot Led to Ground Safely After Going Blind in the Air

November 07, 2008 02:29 PM
by Anne Szustek
The U.K. Royal Air Force guided 65-year-old pilot Jim O’Neill safely to landing after he suffered a stroke and went blind while flying his Cessna two-seater aircraft at 15,000 feet.
Last Friday, O’Neill, a pilot with 18 years of flying experience, issued a mayday alert to air traffic authorities when he realized he was unable to see the plane’s instruments.

“At first he believed he was blinded by sunlight because he had difficulty seeing his instruments,” said Wing Commander Andy Hynd, the operations commanding officer at the Linton-on-Ouse base of Britain’s Royal Air Force, to the BBC.

En route from Scotland’s Prestwick Airport to the English town of Colchester, located about 50 miles to the northwest of London, he was flying over the RAF base when, according to Commander Hynd, “he was happy to continue flying.”

When ground crews noticed that O’Neill’s Cessna began descending and turning, the Royal Air Force asked him whether he wanted to continue flying, “at which point he said no,” said Hynd. According to U.K. paper The Guardian, he asked the Royal Air Force to intervene when his plane had fallen to an altitude of 5,500 feet.

Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, the chief flying instructor at the Linton-on-Ouse Air Force base, flew 500 feet from O’Neill’s plane, guiding him to ground by telling him when to turn, descend and do cross-checks for landing.

Radar controller Richard Eggleton noted to The Guardian that O’Neill kept apologizing to the ground crew. “I kept saying, ‘Are you visual?’ and he would reply ‘No sir, negative, I’m sorry sir.’”

O’Neill safely landed at the air force base on his eighth attempt. His plane came to a full stop at the very end of the runway, where Royal Air Force medical services gave him an initial examination.

He was then transferred to Queen’s Hospital in Romford, England, where he remains in treatment.

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