Miraculous escape after air crash on Suffolk coast

A PILOT and his passenger had a miraculous escape after ditching their plane at sea on the Suffolk coast following a suspected engine fire, according to an official report into the incident.

Pilot Gary Collings, from Ditchingham, near Bungay, and his passenger Mark Andrews, from Northampton, were rescued after the plane crashed into a sandbank,off Orfordness, near Woodbridge, on September 1 last year.

They were flying from Germany to Hardwick airfield, in south Norfolk, in a 1973-built Piper Cherokee when they began to smell burning and the engine started running roughly about 20 miles from the English coast, according to a report published by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

As a result, Mr Collings, who had over 570 hours flying experience, reduced engine power and made a Mayday call.

The report said the 49-year-old prepared to ditch the aircraft as the sea conditions were favourable and he considered that a glide to the coast was unlikely to be successful.

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He reminded his passenger of the ditching procedures and shut the engine down because of concerns about a possible fire in the engine compartment.

The report says that as the aircraft descended Mr Collings became aware that he might be able to reach land but decided the best option was to continue with the ditching as planned, as the sea conditions were good and there were several boats in the area.

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'He turned the aircraft into the wind and concentrated on the touchdown,' the report said.

'The aircraft touched down in a wings-level attitude. The pilot reported the impact was violent and the deceleration was rapid; 'it felt like the undercarriage had tripped us forward', he commented.

'The aircraft settled nose down and water ingress into the cabin was faster than he expected.

'The occupants' egress was slightly impeded by cables and headset leads, but once onto the wing they successfully deployed and inflated the life raft.'

The aircraft was never recovered and therefore it was not possible to diagnose the cause of the burning smell and other reported symptoms.

However, the report says that the pilot was well-prepared and always ran through the emergency landing/ditching procedures in his head before and during each flight.

Speaking to the Journal after the incident Mr Collings said: 'It was a scary moment. We are both alive and kicking – that is all I could hope for.

'If there is a message it is very simple, to air traffic control, Harwich lifeboat, RAF Wattisham, a couple of people who chirped up on the radio on the way down, the statistics are not good when it comes to ditching an aircraft and those people were first class.

'I would like to thank all those who helped.'

Thames Coastguard watch manager Karen Paradise said the pair were very lucky.

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