Listening to the recordings of the splendidly calm Chesley B Sullenberger's radio transmissions as he prepared to ditch his stricken airliner into the Hudson River impressed the hell out of me.
One afternoon in November 2001, I was locked in an unlikely embrace with a fridge/freezer as I manoeuvred it in a stiff-legged waltz across the drive behind the house, ready for the local council's collection service the next morning. There happened to be a thick fog, so I was surprised to hear a low aeroplane approaching. A very low aeroplane. Approaching. Very low.
I stopped and stared blankly into the mist, and at the last possible moment a light aircraft appeared an extendable ladder's height or so above the house and disappeared again into the whiteness.
There is a wooded hill behind us, and I had time to think, "Jeez, that's low. He'll be lucky to clear the trees," in a sort of 'but of course he will' tone of thought, when I heard the violent sound of breaking branches and the aircraft's engine appeared to stop abruptly.
I learned a lot about myself in the next few minutes. Principally, that I am not a Chesley B Sullenberger. I am not fashioned from the stuff of which cool-headed, laconic heroes are made. Headless and chicken spring to mind. My 999 call must have sounded excitable at best, and probably an octave too high. (When I reported an aircraft impacting trees, the operator remarked disbelievingly that they had not had any other reports to that effect. Sully's measured tones would have had them scrambling helicopters before he'd finished giving his name).
Conscious that any support would be some time to arrive and that I might be faced with people who were feeling not very well, I set off up to the wood in my gum boots carrying a fire extinguisher, some dressings and bandages, my mobile and my Boys Book of Light Aircraft. I was trying my best, but frankly, Mr Cool I was not.
When I got to the right part of the wood I clambered about in the misty undergrowth, looking down for wheels and bodies, and up for tail planes and the like. All I found was a few foil-wrapped packets of foreign coffee amongst the brambles. I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing, until I heard on the local news that an aircraft had made a forced landing at the Kent Show Ground, formerly the wartime Detling Airfield.
I found the report of the accident today. It is interesting that the Instructor stated that he had been flying at about 650 feet - significantly lower than the height of the treetops in this area. It also seems incredibly lucky that the place they came down happened to be a former airfield. Although the aeroplane was substantially damaged, with bits of tree around its nose and undercarriage, the two occupants were unhurt.
About a year later I recounted this story to a knowledgeable friend who told me that it was standard practice for smugglers to conceal drugs in packs of coffee. I was away up to the wood as soon as it was light, but disappointingly the packs I found (which I imagined had been torn out of some sort of hold or locker) appeared to contain nothing but ground coffee.