A 77-year-old great-grandfather with no flying experience who managed to land a light aircraft when his pilot friend collapsed admitted last night that he "did not have a clue" what he was doing.
Instructors on the ground hurriedly briefed John Wildey over the plane's radio – helping him land at Humberside airport in eastern England with only a minimum of damage to the aircraft.
"I just didn't know what was going to happen with the uncertainty of it all. But in talking to me on the radio all the time, that was helping me," Mr Wildey said.
"I've never flown a plane before and I know you bring back the controls but I didn't bring them back hard enough. So really I was nose down rather than anything else. Then we touched and it was a right bump – two or three bumps. I suppose it was a controlled crash really."
Mr Wildey, a retired IT consultant, said he could not reach the brakes and at one point feared he would career off the runway.
The mid-air drama sparked a major rescue operation as an RAF helicopter was scrambled to help bring the novice safely into the airport near Grimsby, north Lincolnshire, on Tuesday night.
Roy Murray, a flight instructor who took part in the extraordinary rescue, said he felt "satisfied but sad" after learning that the pilot had later died. "He did a beautiful landing. I wouldn't be frightened to fly with him," Mr Murray said.
The instructor said the atmosphere in the control tower had been extremely tense. They had been alerted to the situation by a mayday call by Mr Wildey and air traffic controllers had ordered him to circle whilst they summoned Mr Murray, chief instructor of the Frank Morgan School of Flying.
But although the passenger admitted to having a dry mouth, he remained calm, bringing the Cessna 172 in at optimum speed and altitude after completing three practise circuits of the airport.
"It was tense at times, especially the last mile or so," said Mr Murray.
The control tower had been "ecstatic" when the plane touched down although there was no cheering and those involved in the rescue shook hands. The light aircraft was heading back to its base at Sandtoft airfield, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, at 6.20pm when the pilot collapsed.
An RAF Sea King helicopter from RAF Leconfield was sent to help guide the plane to the airport to Humberside where an emergency response crew was on standby.
The dead pilot has not been named, on his family's wishes. (© Independent News Service)