Blind pilot's wish to meet his rescuers

A BRAVE pilot who landed his plane safely after suffering a stroke and going blind at 15,000ft has spoken of his New Year wish to meet his rescuers and say thank you.

Annie Davidson

A BRAVE pilot who landed his plane safely after suffering a stroke and going blind at 15,000ft has spoken of his New Year wish to meet his rescuers and say thank you.

Courageous Jim O'Neill kept his cool during his terrifying ordeal and managed to land his four-seater Cessna thanks to the help of an RAF pilot and air traffic controllers who guided him back to the ground.

The Marks Tey parish councillor made national headlines following the dramatic incident in October this year after which he was rushed to a specialist hospital for treatment.

After more than a week in hospital he was discharged to continue recovering at home and has slowly started to regain his sight.

Mr O'Neill, from London Road, Marks Tey, said: “My vision is coming back very slowly - I know it is improving and I just have to be patient.

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“My last check-up was on Friday last week and there has been a 15% improvement from when it happened when I had lost about 90% of the vision.

“It is like looking through a mystifying mist and it is so annoying - I can't read the paper for example but it is just a case of hanging in there.”

Mr O'Neill had been flying from Scotland to Essex after a family break when he suddenly lost his sight due to a stroke and made a mayday call for help to air traffic control.

Able only to distinguish a bit of dark and light, the semi-retired businessman was diverted to RAF Linton-on-Ouse aided by Wing Commander Paul Gerrard who flew alongside in his Tucano T1 turboprop.

After seven tries for the runway, he then landed safely on his eighth and final attempt after being guided in by Wg Cdr Gerrard and air traffic controller Richard Eggleton.

Mr Eggleton said later: “Being up there on your own without sight - it doesn't bear thinking about.”

Mr O'Neill said he still thought back to the experience regularly but at the time had been too focused on what he was doing to be frightened.

“I didn't have time to be frightened or experience any of those emotions because I was concentrating on doing the job,” he said.

“I suppose I was lucky and unlucky - I was unlucky to have a stroke in mid-flight but lucky it wasn't a stroke which affected the muscles I would use to get the plane back down.

“If it had been the kind of stroke which puts you in a wheelchair I would have had no chance, I would have had to come out to sea and keep going as there would have been no way to get the plane down.”

Despite his scare, Mr O'Neill has been taken on a flight twice since by friends and remains determined to fly again - hopefully sometime in 2009.

“My first big objective is to drive and then to fly but it is all dependant on my sight,” he said.

“The doctors can't guarantee how good my vision will get and can't guarantee how soon it will improve - it could take two years for the full improvement to come through.”

He has vowed to visit RAF Linton-on-Ouse to thank the people who saved his life by guiding him to the ground safely.

“I would really like to do that in the New Year - go and meet the people who helped me and say thank you to them properly.”

But in the meantime the 65-year-old has been enjoying a quiet festive period with his wife, Eileen, who he admitted had been given a “terrible fright” by his ordeal.

“She has been very good to me, looking after me and taking me out - she is now called Saint Eileen!” he joked.

“She called it a life changing moment and even a pal of mine has said that his own wife is being more attentive to him as if she has realised it could have been him it happened to.

“It has had a real ripple effect.”

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