I first posted this story on November 8 of last year. Today the UK's Department of Defence posted an account of how the stroke-blinded pilot, Jim O'Neill, had a chance last Friday to return to RAF Linton and thank his rescuers in person. Since November he's gradually been recovering his eyesight and was well enough for a friend to fly him back to RAF Linton in the same Cessna he was flying at the time of his stroke. O'Neill said "It was wonderful to meet Wing Commander Gerrard. He saved my life. Back in November he came alongside and calmly told me 'left... stop, descend... stop' until I reached the runway. I really don't know how he did it. This is a day I wouldn't have missed for anything." Read the account here.
Original post, November 8, 2008:
A friend of mine sent me this story from the British press, about a small aircraft pilot blinded in mid air by a stroke, and brought down safely to ground by a Royal Air Force ground controller and an aerial "shepherd". Here's a quote from the British Mail Online:
"The stroke put pressure on his optic nerves, rendering him completely blind.
Flt Lt Terry O'Brien, Linton's Air Traffic Control Officer, said: 'When Mr O'Neill contacted us we knew he had a vision problem but we thought he had been dazzled by the sun.
'He just kept apologising for not being able to land. He kept saying he couldn't see the airfield but I didn't realise he was blind.
'He came in but missed the runway, even though we are on a massive airfield.
'We then realised he couldn't see the runway and clearly the problem was getting bigger and bigger.'
Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, 42, a former Tornado display pilot, was then contacted in the Tucano.
He flew within 300ft of the Cessna and guided it down. It landed at high speed, bounced twice and stopped at the very end of the runway.
Group Captain Mark Hopkins, station commander at Linton-on-Ouse, said: 'The RAF has the best pilots and air traffic controllers in the world.
'Shepherding aircraft in this way is something we do from time to time, but this is a very strange case.'
Mr O'Neill runs a travel, hotel and conference booking agency.
Doctors are confident some vision will be restored when the swelling in his brain recedes.
His wife, Eileen, 63, said: 'It's a miracle Jim is here today. The RAF are heroes. They were so cool and calm and talked Jim down. Without them, he wouldn't be alive.
'We are a very religious family and I believe there was an angel on his shoulder as he came in to land, helping Jim alongside the RAF crew.'
The story put me in mind of Frederick Forsyth's short story about a similar aerial rescue, "The Shepherd", which, in a wonderful Canadian tradition, used to be read by the late and incomparable Allan Maitland on CBC's As It Happens. I was delighted to find a link to a recording of Maitland's reading - you'll need Real Player to listen. Enjoy.
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