How I helped passenger fly plane
Teenager is left at the controls after the pilot faints but manages to stay in the air over western Sydney with help over the radio.PT3M8S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-35nfe 620 349 March 28, 2014
They are perhaps the last words a pilot wants to hear crackling over an aircraft's radio: "Help! Can someone help me?" In fact, Sydney pilot Paul Reynolds thought for a split second that someone may have been playing a joke when he heard the male voice on the airwaves at Forbes Airport on a hot day in January this year.
Mr Reynolds had been taxiing down the runway in his Piper Pawnee light aircraft, shortly after towing a fellow Southern Cross Gliding Club member into the air, when his thoughts were interrupted by the distress call.
I was determined I was going to help this guy. I realised it was a very serious situation
The 44-year-old finance worker from Sydney, an experienced pilot who was in Forbes for the Camden-based club's summer gliding camp, knew he had to take the distress call seriously.
Paul Reynolds: he took off and gave instructions to Troy Jenkins. Photo: Supplied
He responded calmly over the radio, requesting more information from the unknown male voice and asking what the problem was.
The information he received from the skies above was chilling: the pilot of the Piper PA-28-180 aircraft had suffered a seizure and passed out a few minutes after taking off.
Speaking on the radio was his 19-year-old passenger, Troy Jenkins, who had been forced to take the plane's controls. He had had no formal pilot training.
Took the reins: Troy Jenkins. Photo: Facebook
"That's pretty much the worst thing you want to hear," Mr Reynolds said.
"I've listened back to that recording, and it's a bit harrowing to listen to again.
"He certainly sounded distressed, but at the same time, there was no sign of panic. It was probably the least distressed voice that you could muster, given the circumstances." Mr Jenkins told Mr Reynolds that he had gone up for a joyflight with family friend and pilot, 61-year-old Derek Neville.
Troy Jenkins: he flew the plane for 22 minutes. Photo: Facebook
But about 10 minutes after take-off, Mr Neville had lost consciousness. Mr Jenkins couldn't even be sure if he was still alive. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report released this week said that a doctor later determined that Mr Neville had probably lost consciousness due to dehydration. Mr Neville told the bureau that he had stayed up late the night before the flight on January 25 and had consumed a "moderate amount of alcohol", before sleeping for about five or six hours, and drinking only coffee on the day of the flight.
But Mr Jenkins and Mr Reynolds did not know this during their conversations over the radio that day.
Mr Jenkins had been up in the plane a couple of times before with Mr Neville, and had even taken over the controls at one point previously. He had never landed a plane on his own.
Derek Nevile: passed out at the controls. Photo: Facebook
"It was an incredible situation for him [Mr Jenkins]. A family friend who had collapsed and was perhaps close to death, and then he was in an aircraft that he didn't know how to fly," Mr Reynolds said.
"I was determined I was going to help this guy. I realised it was a very serious situation." Mr Reynolds asked his fellow gliding club members to call triple-0, and requested other aircraft in the area to land to clear the skies.
He took off in his plane, talking to Mr Jenkins the whole time to let him know what he was doing.
"I just wanted to reassure him that people were helping him. I didn't know at that point if he knew at all how to manipulate the controls. The biggest question was, 'is this guy at least able to keep it level and straight?"' Mr Reynolds said.
"I wanted to keep a constant dialogue with him so I knew whether or not he was starting to doubt himself or whether things were starting to go wrong." Mr Reynolds said Mr Jenkins wanted to attempt to land as soon as possible, but the plane had a nearly full tank of petrol - enough to keep him in the air for at least three hours.
He said he convinced Mr Jenkins not to land, and instead instructed him to climb to 2000 feet and to repeatedly perform wide circles to the north of the airfield.
Mr Reynolds also broadcast a mayday call on the plane's behalf.
Soon, a rescue helicopter was sent to the airport, along with a twin-engine aircraft with a qualified instructor on board to help Mr Jenkins land the plane if necessary.
"Unfortunately there was really nothing anyone could do at that time for the pilot. I told (Mr Jenkins) that his one job, his sole job, was to focus on flying the aircraft. Essentially he had to look after himself first," Mr Reynolds said.
"From my perspective, it sounded as though the pilot was likely to have had a heart attack. He may already have been dead. The young guy couldn't be sure or not whether he was still alive." Incredibly, Mr Neville regained consciousness 22 minutes after blacking out and was able to take control of the plane.
But Mr Reynolds said his initial relief turned to trepidation when he saw from his position in the air that the plane was turning away from the airport and descending.
Mr Reynolds instructed the pilot where the airport was, and continually asked him his speed and altitude, hoping to keep him talking.
Mr Neville later told the ATSB that he did not recall any of the flight after the initial climb, until when the aircraft was lined up for a landing at the airport.
The ATSB said that the plane landed just short of the runway's threshhold, bounced once and veered off the runway during the landing roll.
The pilot was assessed by paramedics and flown to Orange Base Hospital. Mr Jenkins was not injured.
"I was incredibly relieved to see that the aircraft had landed," Mr Reynolds said.
"In my 20 years experience (as a pilot), this is the first time that I have ever heard of this happening in Australia. It has happened in the US, but it's an incredibly rare occurrence and it's certainly never happened to me before." Mr Reynolds praised the actions of Mr Jenkins, who he introduced himself to in person once they were both back on the ground.
Mr Jenkins even hopped back in the plane as Mr Reynolds taxxied it off the runway.
"He was a typical country boy. He said, 'Well, if I don't hop back on the horse, I guess I never will,"' Mr Reynolds said.
Mr Jenkins' mother also called Mr Reynolds the following day to thank him for helping her son.
As it turned out, Mr Reynolds had been staying at the caravan park in Forbes owned by Mr Neville and his wife. They did not charge him for his stay.