I don’t normally go for tear-jerkers, but this is a truly amazing story.  A refuah shlemah to pilot Jim O’Neill. 

Air traffic controller Sgt Richard Eggleton who helped save the life of pilot Jim O’Neill who lost his sight mid-flight. Photo: Ben Lack
Jim O'Neill, who suffered a stroke while flying his plane but was guided down safely by an air traffic controller

Jim O’Neill, who suffered a stroke while flying his plane but was guided down safely by an air traffic controller Photo: Eastnews/Peter Lawson

Jim O’Neill, 65, made seven aborted attempts at emergency landings before he finally touched down in his Cessna thanks to the RAF pilot who flew alongside him, giving constant instructions and reassurance over his radio.

Mr O’Neill, who is now being treated in hospital, said: “I should not be alive. I owe my life, and those of dozens of people I could have crash-landed on, to the RAF.

“It was terrifying. Suddenly I couldn’t see the dials in front of me. It was just a blur. I was helpless.”

Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, the pilot who acted as Mr O’Neill’s “eyes” as he flew beside him, described how the businessman kept apologising for his failed attempts to land.

As Mr Gerrard, 42, asked his fellow pilot if he could see the runway below, Mr O’Neill replied: “I’m sorry sir, I just can’t see.”

Mr Gerrard, a former Tornado display pilot, was already in the air carrying out a training sortie in his Tucano T1 turboprop aircraft when air traffic controllers asked him to respond to Mr O’Neill’s mayday call.

He said: “Landing an aircraft literally blind needs somebody to be there to say ‘left a bit, right a bit, down a bit, stop, down.

“On the crucial final approach when even with radar assistance you need to take over visually, that’s when having a fellow pilot there was so important.

“For me, I was just glad to help a fellow aviator in distress. I was part of a team.”

The drama unfolded on Friday last week when Mr O’Neill was 40 minutes into a flight from Prestwick, Glasgow, to Earls Colne, near Colchester, Essex, as he returned home from a family visit.

When his vision suddenly failed, he initially thought he had been dazzled by the sun, but as he began to pass over North Yorkshire he alerted air traffic controllers, who in turn contacted RAF Linton-on-Ouse, near York.

The station’s controllers talked to Mr O’Neill over the radio and he told them he had a problem and “would like to get down”.

Mr Gerrard intercepted Mr O’Neill’s Cessna 152 Skylane within minutes, flying just 500ft away so he could give the stricken pilot precise instructions on what to do.

It was a further 45 minutes before Mr O’Neill finally touched down at his eighth attempt, bouncing twice before coming to a halt at the very end of the runway, where an ambulance was waiting.

Radar controller Richard Eggleton, one of 12 people involved in the rescue, said: “You could hear the apprehension in his voice over the radio and the frustration he was experiencing. I kept saying ‘Are you visual?’ and he would reply ‘No sir, negative, I’m sorry sir’. He kept on apologising.”

His wife Eileen, 63, said “It is a miracle Jim is here today. The RAF are heroes. They were so cool and calm.”

His son Douglas, managing director of his father’s conference and events management company, said: “If you were walking down the road or driving a car it would be bad enough, but at 15,000ft it’s a whole different ball game.

“He thought ‘if I don’t land the plane I will be dead’ but he showed incredible determination.

“The RAF did a wonderful job to get his wheels down on the ground. I very much doubt whether anyone other than the RAF would have been able to handle this situation.

“They saved his life and my family owes them a tremendous thank you.”

Mr O’Neill, of Marks Tey, near Colchester, has now started to regain his sight in one eye.

Doctors believe he went blind because blood from a burst vessel put pressure on his optic nerve, and after an angioplasma procedure was carried out to clear the blockage Mr O’Neill has been told his sight should improve further once the swelling goes down.

His son Douglas, 37, said the family was hoping Mr O’Neill might be released from hospital in Romford next week.



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