Blinded pilot 'starting to regain sight'

AN HEROIC pilot who was guided to the ground by the RAF after suffering a stroke and going blind at 15,000ft has started to regain his sight, his son said.

AN HEROIC pilot who was guided to the ground by the RAF after suffering a stroke and going blind at 15,000ft has started to regain his sight, his son said last night.

Jim O'Neill was 40 minutes into the flight from Glasgow to East Anglia when the terrifying ordeal began, forcing him to issue a mayday call over North Yorkshire.

The experience pilot from Marks Tey, near Colchester, had been flying his four-seater Cessna towards Earls Colne airfield.

RAF crews were drafted in to fly alongside Mr O'Neill and help guide the 65-year-old down safely - landing on the eighth attempt.

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Throughout the dramatic, 45-minute ordeal the Marks Tey parish councillor was assisted by Wing Commander Paul Gerrard and air traffic controllers.

Last night he 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 and the RAF guided me safely in to land.”

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His son, Douglas O'Neill, from Colchester, said last night: "We heard from the hospital this afternoon that my dad is starting to get some sight back in one eye.

“That's the first bit of good news we've had since he went into hospital really.

“It's a matter now of waiting and seeing whether his sight returns. The doctors are talking about it being weeks and they are saying he may be allowed home within the next five or six days.”

He added: “My family and I cannot thank the RAF enough, without their training and willingness to help, I don't think my father would be alive today.

“The determination that my father showed to survive this incident and to land the plane safely without injury to others mirrors the determination he has shown in all other areas of his life.

“To show our gratitude to the RAF team who helped my father, we are going to host a special dinner in their honour.”

Wg Cdr Gerrard, 42, told how he was taking part in an RAF training sortie when he came to the stricken pilot's help.

He said: “For me I was just glad to help a fellow aviator in distress. I was just part of a team.

“Landing an aircraft literally blind needs someone to be right there to say 'left a bit, right a bit, stop, down'.

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

He described how he was flying a Tucano T1 turboprop plane from RAF Linton-on-Ouse last Friday when he was drafted in to guide Mr O'Neill down after he began to have problems seeing his instruments and, at 5,500ft, asked air traffic control for help.

He then dropped to about 2,000ft as he approached Full Sutton airfield near York but was unable to make visual contact with the airfield so was diverted to RAF Linton-on-Ouse some 20 miles away.

At one point Wg Cdr Gerrard was flying alongside, just 500ft away, giving instructions over the radio.

As he approached the runway on his eighth and final attempt the Wing Commander reassured him, saying: “You are doing okay, carry on, can you see the runway?”

When Mr O'Neill landed - with just two bumps - he came to a halt at the very end of the runway where he was met by the emergency services.

He was rushed to hospital before being transferred to a specialist unit at Queen's Hospital, Romford.

Douglas O'Neill said he and his mother Eileen, 63, were still struggling to come to terms with his father's "miraculous' rescue.

He added: "The doctors have confirmed that he suffered a stroke after suffering a blood clot but he doesn't seem to have suffered any other ill-effects apart from losing his sight.

"He says he went blind very suddenly and then, once he'd got over the shock, was able to distinguish a bit of darkness and light.'

Jim O'Neill founded Inntel, an internet hotel booking agency which is based near his home and his son is the managing director.

Douglas O'Neill said his father had been flying for nearly 20 years and was bringing the plane back to Essex after enjoying a family break in Scotland.

Radar controller Richard Eggleton, who was involved in the drama, said: “Being up there on your own without sight - it doesn't bear thinking about.”

Mr Eggleton said he was in regular contact with the stricken pilot but he noticed that he became more apprehensive as the drama unfolded.

He added: “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.”

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