When the ground comes up too fast for comfort

On March 23rd in 1995 I crashed my aeroplane.

Written down bluntly, boldly, just like that, it seems a flat uninteresting statement. The experience was anything but; if it didn’t change my life (and, sorry, it did not), it has led to a healthy respect for the physics that govern flying, as well as a lasting understanding of the climbers’ epithet: ‘gravity never sleeps’.

In 1995 I was then flying a flex-wing micro-light; you know those hang-gliders with engines you occasionally hear or see high above you. I was fortunate enough to have my own airstrip, courtesy of my mother-in-law, who had farm land in The Chilterns. But there was a problem. The strip ran nearly north-south where the prevailing winds in the UK are generally from the south-west. There was a wood on the western side and, at the northern end there was a line of trees. Right beyond that, was the Metropolitan underground line, running here on the surface.

Thus, any approach as near to into wind as was possible on this strip, had to be from the north, over that railway cutting and over the trees, meaning a steep sudden descent, one that had more than a few of my passengers yelping with fright. Landings were often tricky events to manage, even in the best of conditions.

On the day in question, I had taken off alone and flown westwards for what amounted to a training flight. I hadn’t flown for a while, and I wanted to get some airtime in. The flight out and back was uneventful. But when I returned to my airstrip I made what I considered a bumpy, rather scrappy landing from the north; the wind was getting stronger, more gusty and changeable in direction. I taxied to the end of the strip and brooded over that landing, not the wind that embraced it.

I always had my radio tuned to the nearest general aviation field when I flew off on a local flight. It let me know what they were up to and, if there was any doubt about possible conflict in the air, I would call them and tell them what I was doing. They knew where my strip was and pilots would fly clear of it.

As I sat on the ground, my engine still running I heard the Denham tower say to a pilot under their control ‘be advised, we’ve just had a gust of 38 knots go through.’ Denham was about five miles from where I was sitting. Somehow the key part of that message did not fix itself in my brain.

I elected to take off, make one short circuit around my strip, a standard pattern, at 500 feet. And so I did. If memory serves me right, I recall the take off as short and sharp, another indicator of the strength of the wind.

The turns, all to the left, were uneventful. I was over Carpenter’s Wood at 500 feet. I turned left again over fields, then left again onto the approach. And then I made my terrible mistake. Given the wind strength, I should have aimed deep into my airstrip, clearing the trees with plenty of height, then dropping onto the grass. I would have pulled up quickly, given that same wind on my nose, using my wing pulled hard back, to help brake.

Instead I made a standard approach, which meant I cleared those trees with a matter of feet below my undercarriage. I felt a giant hand – rotor over those trees, like breaking surf. It slammed my tiny aeroplane down onto the runway. There was, of course, far too much energy in the system for it to stay on the ground. The undercarriage flattened, then released, acting like a gigantic spring. We shot back into the air, completely stalled, by now a good 30 feet or more above the grass.

I heard a voice say ‘shit’ mild stuff in the circumstances, then we fell back to earth. The starboard wing dug in first followed by the nose on my open cockpit; then we were inverted. I felt my shin hit something- that really hurt – and my left thumb dislocated but, fortuitously, popped right back.

More serious, the engine was still running, now above my head, as was the fuel tank. I could not reach the switches to turn it off. I remembered at that exact moment, oddly, that no one at the farmhouse had known I was going flying. No one was going to come to my rescue. The world slowed to an agonizing post-crash elongated moment, which went on and on.

Somehow, though, I reached those switches, managed with great difficulty to extricate myself from under the wreckage. I walked off back down the strip toward the farmhouse. I rang my wife and said ‘I’ve just crashed the aircraft’. She was distant, unsympathetic. I think it hardly registered with her what had happened; why should it? After all, it’s not a very common conversation to have on a mobile phone.

I decided I ought to check myself into the local A&E, but when I got there the place looked like a war zone, and it occurred to me that were I to explain to the receptionist what had just happened to me, standing there, basically uninjured, if somewhat shaken, she would simply assume I was one of the sad and mad, and I would have a very long wait. I left.

The crash never put me off flying – after all, it was all down to pilot error – and after a few more years flying microlights, and more conventional aeroplanes, I switched to paragliders.

Every landing in a glider is an emergency landing – as there is no engine, there can never be a second chance. Paragliding, though, is pure flying: once you take off, if you want to stay airborne, you have to find thermals to give you lift. You fly like – and frequently with – the birds.

They say there are old pilots and bold pilots, but never old, bold pilots. I’ll drink to that.