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Pilot who goes blind while flying is talked down by an RAF pilot

(November 07, 2008)

Courtesy of: Stephen Moyes and

One moment Jim O’Neill was enjoying the glorious view from his Cessna plane at 15,000ft. The next, he couldn’t see a thing.

Rubbing his eyes, the solo pilot thought his sight had been temporarily hampered by the bright sunshine.

Then he suddenly realised that he had gone blind.

Helpless at the controls, Jim, 65, immediately radioed in a mayday alert and an RAF plane was scrambled.

It reached him in minutes and, flying alongside the stricken plane, the crew shepherded him to a nearby airport with instructions over the radio.

Ordering him to turn left and right, go lower or straighten up, Mr O’Neill finally made an emergency landing at the fourth attempt. Miraculously, he escaped without a scratch.

It is thought Mr O’Neill – who is seriously ill in a brain unit – had a stroke mid-flight and blood at the back of his head put pressure on his optic nerves, immediately blinding him.

Last night from his hospital bed, he said: “I should not be alive. I owe my life – and those of dozens of people I could have crash- landed on – to the RAF. It was terrifying. Suddenly I couldn’t see the dials in front of me.

“All there was in front of me was a blur. I was helpless at the controls.”

Mr O’Neill, who has 18 years’ flying experience, was taking the plane back from Prestwick airport in Scotland after a family break to Colchester, Essex, last Friday when disaster struck.

Before the RAF reached him, air traffic controllers tried to guide him to Full Sutton airfield near York. But alone and totally blinded, it proved an impossible task to land the Cessna safely.

When the rescuers finally arrived in a Tucano T1 – used to train military pilots including Prince William – they guided Mr O’Neill to RAF Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorks.

The Cessna four-seater careered off the runway on touchdown but quickly shuddered to a halt on the grass.

Group Captain Mark Hopkins, the station commander, said: “The Royal Air Force has the best pilots and air traffic controllers in the world. This team effort from Linton-on-Ouse lives up to that reputation.

“Shepherding aircraft in this way is something we do from time to time, but this is a very strange case. I’m proud we could get him to the ground safely.”

Mr O’Neill, boss of travel, hotel and conference booking agency Inntel, was checked over by RAF medics at first but later transferred to Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Essex.

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, Jim 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.”

Son Douglas, 37, added: “Without everyone staying calm he could have landed on a house, school or anywhere. He knows he’s a lucky man.”

Doctors have carried out an angioplasma on him and are confident some vision will be restored when the swelling in his brain recedes.

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