Unlucky.... Lucky

Posted on: 11th Jun 2009

That’s aviation. You need your share of luck and on Tuesday Peter Besenyei had a healthy dose. It all started with a three-ship flight led by Matthias Dolderer across southern Ontario from Windsor to Niagara to meet Jurg Fleischmann in the helicopter for a photo shoot over the Falls. We were cruising at around 2,000 feet when Peter reported a drop in oil pressure. Immediately to the north about 7 miles was St Thomas municipal airport serving the town just south of London, Ontario. We shepherded Peter that way. He’d lost power and was descending. With continued bad luck, he realised he’d run out of altitude over rough terrain just short of the runway… about a mile short. I’ve known Peter for over 20 years. He’s a very experienced aviator, well skilled in making tough decisions in the cockpit yet it was impossible not be very worried for him. He had opted for a good looking field with a new crop; the only decent option available and requiring a turn away from the airport. These machines do not have fat tyres so our worry always is the nightmare of being flipped over in soft ground. Peter’s touchdown was perfectly judged and all looked well for the first few hundred metres of the landing roll. As he reached a fast jogging pace, I thought he’d made it and then … the inevitable. One of the technical specifications all our race planes have to meet is that the roll-over structure (the turtle deck above and behind the pilots head) must be able to take such an impact to protect the occupant but seeing Peter’s MXS flip over was horrendous. The immediate impulse is to try and see a better landing spot at a sprintable distance and opt for a controlled landing to get assistance to the downed pilot asap. I’ve seen this type of situation a number of times before and I know that seconds really do count. These thoughts were dispelled very quickly by Matthias and myself, best not to create a double emergency. Matthias and I made a plan for him to stay overhead Peter while I would land at St Thomas and get help. The one minute approaching to land was intense with emergency services being alerted by the airport and a discussion about whether or not there was a helicopter based on the field but this was the point when the good luck factor started to kick in. As I touched down, Matthias reported that Peter was out and waving that he was OK. It was the end of a short-lived crisis. Peter was in an identical machine to mine and, knowing it’s sleek construction, I could not (and still cannot) shake off my incredulity that he could get himself out of an inverted MXS-R unassisted in about 60 seconds. Peter Besenyei had just added ‘Houdini contortionist’ to his list of enviable achievements! The rest of the afternoon was long and maybe the subject of a story for later. It’s a story about people and some wonderful co-incidences. But the main story was that Peter had plenty of bad luck… the engine problem and then the flipping over... but the deck of cards was stacked in his favour on 9th June 2009. Sure, without a race plane for the weekend, he’s probably out of contention to win the title this year, he’s lost a fantastic machine and he had a lousy experience. But he survived all-but unscathed and that’s all that really matters. Being the first to reach him a few minutes before the emergency services arrived to see him standing in the field taking pictures of his damaged MXS was an indescribable joy ... certainly not the dreadful vision I had had for 60 seconds some 15 minutes earlier in the day. There are many people to thank. We shattered an otherwise peaceful afternoon for the unsuspecting locals who handled the excitement wonderfully. The police and emergency services were really great (and I’m still amazed how quickly they were on the scene); Matt Martindale, Pete and everyone else from Supermarine, the local crop dusters who raced me around to find Peter; the farmer’s wife whose field Peter chose and many more. The Red Bull machine had things so well organised that within 10 hours of our take-off, Peter’s MXS had been craned out of the field, dismantled and trucked back Windsor some 200kms away, everything had been taken care of and a group of pilots were heading for bed after celebrating Peter’s good health. Now, it’s Thursday and time to focus again on flying fast in the track.