London, Nov 8 : A lone pilot flying a four-seater Cessna aircraft went blind at 15,000ft when he suffered a stroke, and only made it safely to the ground after he was guided by an RAF wing commander.
Jim O'Neill, 65, a businessman with 18 years experience, was flying from Prestwick airport in Scotland to an airfield near Colchester, Essex on 31 October when the instruments on his aircraft became difficult to read.
O'Neill had at first assumed that it was only the glare of the sunlight as he flew over north England at 15,000ft, but when the dials blurred completely he realised the full horror of his predicament: he was a solo pilot who had suddenly gone blind.
The cause of the blindness was a stroke, which had put pressure on his optical nerve and robbed him of his sight in one eye and left him with very limited sight in the other.
Feeling the aftermath of a mid-flight stroke, O'Neill found himself unable to follow instructions from civilian air traffic controllers attempting to guide him to the nearest airstrip.
When the RAF staff overheard his predicament, they immediately launched a rescue and offered to send a military plane to fly alongside O'Neill and guide him in to land, issuing instructions to him over the radio.
Wing Commander Paul Gerrard, 42, was on a routine training sortie in a Tucano T1 turboprop plane when he received the order to come to the businessman's aid.
It was a very difficult situation as O'Neill, who runs a travel and conference-booking agency, was not able to follow orders to turn left or right or to adjust his height and speed, and it was only after seven attempts that he was able to manoeuvre his aircraft into the correct position.
Gerrard, a senior RAF instructor, flew alongside him at a distance of just 150ft away.
"For me, I was just glad to help a fellow aviator in distress," the Independent quoted W/Cdr Gerrard as saying.
"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 why having a fellow pilot there was so important," he added.
O'Neill, who landed with two bounces halfway along the runway at the RAF base, and came to a halt just a few yards short of the end of the runway, was immediately treated by RAF paramedics before being taken to a neurological unit.
The blindness O'Neill suffered was caused by a haemorrhage in his brain putting pressure on the nerves at the back of his eyes, and causing sudden blindness.
"It was terrifying. Suddenly I couldn't see. The dials in front of me were a blur. I was helpless at the controls. I should not be alive. I owe my life - and those of dozens of people I could have crashed on - to the RAF," he said.
Civilian air traffic controllers revealed that O'Neill O'Neill repeatedly apologised as he battled to reach safety, growing increasingly anxious.
"You could hear the apprehension in his voice over the radio and the frustration he was experiencing," Richard Eggleton, a radar operator who helped guide the blinded pilot, said.
The pilot's son, Douglas O'Neill, said his father had faced an almost impossible situation when he became blinded in one eye and had limited vision in the other.
"If you were driving a car it would be bad enough, but at 14,000ft 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," he said.