|Who wants an autopilot when Ingrid Pitt is in control?|
If there is one thing guaranteed to get my juices flowing it is flying. There is something magical about that moment the wheels leave the tarmac and you fly with the birds. I love to just sit and watch aircraft of any sort, landing and taking off. Even on television. In the Summer I can easily be persuaded to go to Stapleford Airfield and just sit outside the clubhouse and watch the novices and the aces bump along the runway and leap into the air. For some reason the landing hasn’t got the same allure although if you are aboard the aircraft if is a moment of relaxation. I’ve always had this passion for aviation. As a child I was one of the lucky ones to be airlifted out of Berlin in a Dakota when the legendary Berlin Airlift was underway in 1948. That did it for me. Most of the time I flew in the big airliners after that. But then, on a flight to Geneva to work on a TV series, I sat next to a bloke who tried to chat me up. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything like that. Just the opposite in fact. My daughter, Steffie, was with me and she struck up a conversation with him. It emerged that he was a pilot. And what was more interesting, had his own plane. By the time we touched down in Geneva I had warmed to him. As we were about to part he asked me if he could take me to dinner sometime. I wasn’t averse to the idea so I gave him my telephone number. The day I got back to London I got a call from him and we had an hilarious dinner at Franco’s in Richmond. Six months later we were married in a little chapel on a friend’s Estancia in Argentina. And what has that got to do with flying?
Soon we were zooming around all over the place. If there was a landing field around where we needed to be we flew. The plane was a Piper Cherokee Arrow and I loved it. I was allowed to fly it whenever we went anywhere. My husband, Tonio, couldn’t understand that I preferred to sit for hours flying the plane manually rather than committing it to the dull business of flying on automatic pilot. I even took up glider flying to gain more experience but I wasn’t too comfortable without an engine in front of me to keep me out of trouble. One thing surprises me even now. I was never frightened when things went wrong, as they occasionally did. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination? One of the worse experiences I had was on a flight from Sunderland to Elstree. Elstree, by this time, was our aeronautic home. I was due to make an appearance on Friday Night Live. Next day we had made arrangements to pick up a friend at Elstree and fly on to Knokke in Belgium for lunch. So we decided to fly to Sunderland, stay overnight and fly back in the morning. The show over we grabbed a couple of hours sleep in a hotel and returned to the airport. It was a lovely morning. A bit cold and frosty but not a cloud in the sky. We needed fuel. But the fuel point wasn’t open. Tonio, went to the flight office and picked up a Met report. CAV-OK! Clear skies all the way. He calculated that we would have at least 20 minutes grace when we reached Elstree. So we climbed about and set off on our journey.
We were navigating on the Garston beacon, The sky was still a flawless blue. As we neared Garston we began to pick up a flicker of cloud across the wings – but nothing nasty. That all changed as we passed the beacon. Suddenly the cloud closed in and then the rains came. We were flying at 2,000 ft. We considered getting permission to fly above the cloud but decided that it was probably just a glitch on a perfectly beautiful day. Ten minutes later we weren’t so sure. The cloud was getting even thicker. Tonio called Manchester Tower. They told him that the cloud was there for the foreseeable future but at Elstree there should be a ceiling of around 1,000 feet. That sounded reasonable so we pushed on. When Tonio called Elstree the situation wasn’t so healthy. The cloud base was down to the ground and visibility 50 yards. Try the Alternate! The alternate was Luton. Just a few miles up the road and they could guide us down on their ILS. Except that they were having problems of their own. They had collected a snow shower and the snow ploughs were out on the runway. No problem usually – but we were already eating into what now looked a very niggardly 20 minutes safety blanket. Luton suggested Cranfield. Always very helpful in all sorts of situations. Except at that particular time they couldn’t give us any help as the Traffic Controller was having a break. Could we wait 10 minutes while they got him. The answer was no.
Things were getting decidedly nervy. Both the fuel gauge needles were banging on the stops and we had quite a few miles to go before the comfort of Stansted. Tonio called Stansted, told them he was short of fuel. They asked him if he was calling a PAN, a lower class MAYDAY. Tonio negatived that. He had enough fuel to get into Stansted. He was told the cloud base was at 600 ft. Not time for jollity but at least there would be time to see the ground before we hit it. They suggested that we did a 90 degree turn and lined up on the ILS (Instrument Landing System) . Tonio negatived that as well. As we edge down and broke out of the cloud at about 700 ft the unthinkable happened. The engine cut out and the propeller stopped. It wasn’t the only thing that stopped. I looked out. All I could see were brown, ploughed fields. Not a happy sight when you are contemplating a force landing without power. Tonio was peering at the fuel gauges. I did the same. ‘There seems to be more bounce on the other tank’, I suggested. He nodded and switched over to the left hand tank. Nothing happened for a minute and then the engine coughed and the prop started to spin. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life. Trouble was we didn’t know how long the miracle would last. Tonio wasn’t taking any chances. He called a PAN and made straight for the runway which we could now see running from left to right across our path. The plane drifted a little to the right to give us some room to maneuvre, did a sharp left hand turn and hit the runway about halfway along its length. The relief was wonderful. We trundled along the runway to the turnoff point but before we could make it to the parking area the engine slurped up the last dredges of vapour and once again stopped.
In aero-management terms it was not exactly a model flight. Tonio stills beats himself up about the basic mistakes he made. Not checking the date on the Met report could have been fatal. Starting off without having enough fuel to face out any emergency. But any landing you walk away from is a good landing. All I can remember now is the excitement of it. Not that I want to experience it again. But……
Motoring & Leisure – 19/12/07