Ex-fighter pilot talks for first time about sea crash

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ON 3 November, two pilots in a light aircraft who were training off the south-east of the Island were forced to ditch into the sea after their plane developed engine problems.

The wind was strong, there was a rolling swell and, when things started to go wrong, the six-seat plane was too far from the Island to make it back safely.

Despite these challenges, the crew – instructor Duncan Laisney and student, but experienced private pilot, Paul Clifford – landed the aircraft on the water and were rescued by the RNLI within 45 minutes.

They were cold, a little wet, but otherwise unharmed.

For the first time, Mr Laisney – a commercial pilot who previously flew fighter jets in the Royal Air Force – recalls in detail what happened on that tense and dramatic day.

With more than two decades of flying under his belt – including combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan – his is a story of having the right experience, keeping calm under pressure, working as a team, having the right equipment in the right place, and having informed support and emergency services to help when things don’t go according to plan.

Setting the scene, Mr Laisney said: ‘When I left the RAF seven years ago and returned to Jersey, I was approached by the Aero Club about being an instructor there.

‘That role developed from instructing student pilots into teaching and examining qualified private pilots who wanted to further their training.

‘On the flight of 3 November, I was with a pilot who wanted to expand his instrument flying experience.’

The pair took off about 1pm – it was blue skies and, although breezy, everything was within limits for the training they were going to do that day.

After an instrument departure, the aircraft climbed to around 4,000ft to the south of Jersey. After around 30 minutes, Mr Laisney starting giving Mr Clifford some simple tasks to do. They then began to descend to 2,000ft to prepare for an instrument approach back to the Airport.

‘After about 30-45 seconds of level flight, we felt the first indications that we were going to have some trouble with the engine,’ said Mr Laisney. ‘It was a feeling of being thrown forwards in the strap of the aircraft; not a massive throw-forward but a definite sense of deceleration.

‘In the past, I have had engines that have started coughing or spluttering which you can diagnose as being a rough running engine but this wasn’t like that; the engine was smooth and it was still running; it just wasn’t producing enough power.’

Despite his long career, Mr Laisney had never experienced a loss of power like that.

‘I have had incidents when engines have completely stopped and I have been able to restart them but I have never experienced a loss of power while the engine has still been running.’

He added: ‘The priorities of flying are always “fly, navigate and communicate” and I have been teaching that for a long period of time, so I am pleased to say that I managed to do what I have always taught people to do, which was to fly the aeroplane first.

‘That involved looking around the cockpit to see if there was anything obvious that might be causing the issue. My co-pilot was fantastic; he was helping me out with that, and we were working as a team to see if we could diagnose the problem.’

But nothing they were doing was making the situation any better.

‘The deceleration took no more than 20-30 seconds and then you get to a point when you have to start descending; otherwise the aircraft will stall.

‘We began to lose altitude and then we got a message from Air Traffic Control. We had not got around to telling them at that stage that we had a problem.’

The controller could see that Mr Laisney was descending below the level that he had been cleared to, so checked if everything was in order.

‘It was a great interjection from them because it made us realise that telling someone externally was now our priority.’

Shortly afterwards, Mr Laisney formally declared an emergency. ATC then alerted the emergency services, offering the pair comfort not only that they knew where the aircraft was but also they had an idea of where it would end up.

From 2,000ft, the maximum gliding distance is only 2.5-3 miles so, being seven miles out, Mr Laisney knew that they were not going to make it back to the Airport.

Although he had never trained to ditch specifically, his RAF training had taught him what he needed to consider.

‘We carried on going towards Jersey, which was the nearest piece of land. When we were about 300-400ft above the sea, I knew then we were not going to climb away from this, and my focus turned to landing on the water.

‘When you’re ditching, you’re looking for two things: you ideally want to land across the swell or you want to land into wind. And in an ideal situation, you will be across the swell and into wind.

‘It had been a windy day in the morning and the swell was quite significant. That would have led me to land north-south, pointing north towards Jersey. But the wind was still quite strong, so I had a choice of either flying north along the swell or turning to the west and landing into wind.

‘I thought that would probably give me the best chance of survival: turning the aircraft on a westerly heading. So, that is what we did in the last couple of hundred feet, to make sure that we landed at the lowest possible airspeed.’

Describing the impact, he said: ‘The landing was a little bit like the film Sully. We had an impact onto the water with a rapid deceleration and a big surge of water that came over the canopy.

‘I think it was just spray that came over but [Mr Clifford] thought we may have submerged into the water and came back out again. We don’t really know but we had that enveloped feeling of being under water.

‘Quickly, that all dissipated and we found ourselves floating.’

Mr Laisney estimates that, flying into a headwind, the plane touched down at about 40mph.

He said: ‘It was very surreal – we had come from quite a noisy environment to the engine completely stopped, in the sea, bobbing around a little bit.

‘We looked across at each other – “Are you okay?” “Yup, I’m okay … are you okay?” “Yup, I’m okay”. Thankfully we were both fine and survived the landing so our focus turned to phase two, which was getting out of the aeroplane before it sinks and into the dinghy.’

The emergency life raft was where it should have been – immediately behind the pilots. The pair were also wearing lifejackets, which they inflated once they were on one of the wings.

Lifting the life raft out, Mr Laisney inflated it alongside the wing and planned to wait there, with the aircraft, for as long as they could.

They did not stay there long.

He said: ‘Planes do float on water but this one was about 45 years old and they are not perfectly watertight. I think even a brand-new aeroplane wouldn’t be completely watertight. It was quite rough too so, although water wasn’t flooding into the cockpit, we could see it coming in.

‘I knew it was going to sink, I just didn’t know it was going to sink as quickly as it did. It went down in about two-and-a-half to three minutes after the impact.

‘We quickly looked at each other on the wing and said: “Right, we need to get in that life raft.”’

After an intense period of activity landing and escaping the plane, sitting in the life raft gave the pair their first moment of reflection.

‘We were trying to rationalise it all and slow down our thought process. We were trying to do things correctly, and I knew that it was going to take a while for people to come and get us because it just doesn’t happen immediately.

‘We were able to assure each other that help would be on its way, but we should expect it to be a certain amount of time and not be distressed by that.’

A hand-held radio had gone down with the aeroplane but Mr Laisney had a satellite beacon which the emergency services could hone in on.

He pulled the pin to activate it, and it started broadcasting their location.

‘It only took about 45 minutes for the RNLI to arrive, although that felt like a lifetime in the dinghy,’ he said.

‘You have no way of knowing within that time if someone is coming for you or not; it is just a case of sitting and waiting. I don’t want to use the word “hoping” but I knew that people were coming to get us.

‘We knew that we had put that mayday call out on the Air Traffic Control frequency and they had responded to it. I knew the beacon was working and that satellites would be broadcasting our rough position, and the emergency services would be able to find us when they got closer.

‘Also, we saw some other aircraft going over the top of us and I thought by their pattern, they were not just randomly flying; they were looking for us.

‘They might not see us, because I know how difficult it is to see people in the sea, but at least I had assurance that people were looking for us.’

Mr Laisney recalls a ‘warm feeling’ of relief when he could see and hear a lifeboat on its way.

He said: ‘After about five minutes on the lifeboat, the adrenaline drained away and I was then focused on trying not to be sick, because it had been horrendous in the life raft.

‘The crew on board were fantastic – making sure we were medically okay. There had been water in the dinghy, and we were cold. They gave us a bar of chocolate and cup of tea.’

Back on shore, Mr Laisney eventually made it home, to a flurry of text messages. Later that evening, he made notes on what had happened and, the next morning, he contacted the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch, which is based at Farnborough.

‘I basically told them the story I am telling you now. They have concluded that process and have told me that we may never know what caused the issue, because unless we were to recover the aircraft, the chances of finding out more information are slim.’

But does Mr Laisney have a hunch himself?

‘I think it was something to do with fuel delivery. I don’t know if there was a constriction of the fuel going into the engine, or some contaminate in the pipes, or whether there was a blockage or a leak… something that had been caused by normal wear and tear.

‘We just don’t know but it struck me as something to do with the delivery of fuel to the engine.’

Looking back at his actions that day, is he confident he got everything right?

He replied: ‘Yes, I think we did get it right. And the person I was flying with was the person I wanted to be with in that particular incident because he was cool, calm and collected.

‘We worked together as a team. I didn’t have to worry too much about his feelings – he was taking care of mine, as well as his own.

‘We only had a short period of time to deal with that situation, and what helped me was thinking previously about what might happen if I did need to ditch, because it has always been a possibility flying around Jersey.

‘I do that with different emergencies that could happen to me. I mentally think about them when I’m sat in the crew room, having a cup of tea or a quiet moment. Obviously, I try to tell my students to do that as well.

‘It helps because when an event does happen, you can think back to what you were wanting to do in that situation, rather than carry out a series of actions or drills that might not be appropriate. It is just rehearsing all the “what ifs”.

‘I think the Air Force had helped me to think like that. It was my training and thought process beforehand that enabled me to act like I did.’

And has Mr Laisney learnt something about himself too, through the experience?

‘You are always learning about yourself because I have had a few incidents in my past where I’ve had to operate under pressure and I have always wondered how that would be.

‘That said, I have never been in a situation where I have not landed the aeroplane from having done a take-off.

‘It is the first time I have never been able to bring the aeroplane back. There is a bit of a feeling of guilt there because I wanted to make sure that I had done everything I possibly could to try to bring the aeroplane back.

‘Putting one into the sea is a big thing, so I have had a bit of a reflection on that, to make sure I did the right thing, which I think I did.

‘I don’t think there is anything that we would have done significantly differently. Had there been something, I would have wanted that to be a positive, and for other people to learn from it.

‘You don’t always get things right but importantly in aviation, and I’m sure it’s the same in a lot of industries, you want to tell the facts and get things straight. It’s great if you get things right but it’s just as important that if you don’t, other people get an opportunity to learn from that.’

Mr Laisney said that the experience hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for flying at all.

‘I haven’t flown out of Jersey since then but that’s mostly down to the weather being so poor recently. And obviously one of the aeroplanes I fly is now at the bottom of the sea.

‘But I have been flying light aircraft in the UK as I still fly part-time with the RAF.’

He added: ‘I was back to work with my commercial pilot’s licence straight away. Of course, there is nothing to say something like this won’t happen again, but I know I can deal with it if it or something similar occurred again.

‘I have that confidence. This wasn’t a stroke of fortune; it was something we thought about in advance, which is why we got away with it.’

Mr Laisney is the subject of the latest episode of the Bailiwick News Podcast.

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