The Skies Above
September 11, 2018
Three mornings in a row, Jonathan Cobb awoke to a recurring vision: power lines and the green grass of a large, open, field hurtling up towards him.
Neither dream nor fantasy, this was a flashback to the terrifying moment he and a close friend plummeted out of the sky and into the soil of a Hertfordshire village.
Mr Cobb and his co-pilot John Beech had set off from North Weald in Essex on a typically warm June Saturday morning.
They planned a quick sortie up to Gamston in Nottinghamshire for an alcohol-free meal in honour of Mr Beech's birthday.
It did not happen. At least on the day they planned.
My research has found air accidents like Mr Cobb's are on the rise.
Five years ago, 654 accidents were reported to the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB), 13 of them fatal.
In 2017, the AAIB was notified of 708 accidents, of which 16 were fatal.
The image above shows the locations of all accidents investigated by the AAIB in the past three years.
But the rise in air proximity reports, colloquially referred to as 'near misses', is far more stark.
Numbers of near misses in our skies has risen nearly 60% in the past five years, according to the annual catalogues of incidents published by the UK Airprox Board.
The number of episodes posing the most serious risk to air safety - classed as 'category A' incidents - rose more than 100% in the past five years - from 22 in 2013 to 45 in 2017.
So, why the rise?
First, with the CAA recording a 37,000 rise in flights in 2017 over the previous year, our skies are increasingly busy.
Then there is the dramatic rise of the drone.
2017 saw 93 near misses involving drones. In 2013, that number was zero.
And what about the regional variations?
Well, ask the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) why there are more near misses and accidents in some parts of the UK than others and the organisation comes back with two, seemingly contradictory, answers.
Some clusters, such as those around greater London and the home counties, are a symptom of crowded skies: More aircraft equals more near misses and a higher likelihood of collisions.
Others - such as those over East Anglia, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire - are a symptom of largely empty skies.
"Pilots in this more open air space tend to relax and think they are in a much freer, more open, sky," says Jonathan Nicholson of the CAA. And that itself, he says, "can lead to an accident or an airprox".
In the map below, the near misses are shown in blue.
Bear min mind, that these are not all of the airproxes in the past ten years, only those categorised as A or B, which are those deemed to have compromised air safety
Four minutes after take off, Mr Cobb, a sales and marketing director from St Albans, noticed an oil pressure loss at an altitude of 1,900ft (580m).
"Something was clearly wrong with the engine," he says.
When he looked out of the cockpit he saw smoke pouring out of the engine.
"I asked John to declare an emergency and he made a Mayday call, by which time the smoke had turned really black."
Something was clearly wrong with the engine—Jonathan Cobb
"At anything below 2,000ft (610m), it is almost an instant reaction to consider not necessarily whether you can make an airfield or landing strip but to pull the parachute," said Mr Cobb.
"In my view, making that decision quickly, within seconds of the Mayday call, probably saved our lives."
The plane thumped into the ground in Bennington, Hertfordshire, with a force similar to a family car being dropped from 10ft in the air - bone rattling, for sure, but not fatal.
"This was a catastrophic engine failure of some sort. Why would you try to find an airfield or a field to tray and attempt a landing?
"I am now listed as number 90 of the pilots who have pulled the parachute (on a Cirrus)."
Doing so has, to date, saved more than 150 lives.
"Those that tried to make a landing and did not pull the chute are not with us anymore."
"We have spoken about it several times since," he says.
"We are grateful, we are still astounded.
"But it has changed the way we think about our flying and the safety aspects one has to take into account every time you get into a plane.
"A near-death experience on a Saturday morning is not what we set out to have."
Hundreds of the more than 2,000 incidents investigated by the UK Airprox Board in the past decade have involved military aircraft.
These include military planes, helicopters, gliders, drones and, in three cases, parachutists.
A short walk walk from the pilots' changing rooms at RAF Lakenheath, the Suffolk home of the United States Air Force's 48th Fighter Wing, lies a room called "the vault".
'The vault' holds all the classified information those with clearance need to piece together exactly what happened during a particular flight or mission.
"It has the voices, the sensor data and displays and it does not lie," says Colonel Donn Yates, who is responsible for six squadrons of combat ready F-15s at Lakenheath.
"So if something occurred in the flight we know exactly what happened. If someone did do something wrong then we will know."
The fighters of RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk have been involved in nearly 30 airproxes.
Recent incidents include two F15s coming within 500ft of a civilian B350 aircraft over Marham in Norfolk and an F15 passing close to a police drone at about 500mph (800km/h) during a low level flying exercise on the edge of Dartmoor.
Col Yates says part of the issue is that many people, including well-trained civilian pilots, underestimate the full size of an F15 fighter jet.
"So what looks close may not be as close as it is in reality," he says. "So when we see in reports people saying this person was 300ft or 500ft away in actuality, when we look at the tapes, we find the person was actually a mile or a mile and a half away."
Mistakes, however, do happen.
An RAF Griffin helicopter had to take "immediate evasive action" in Snowdonia during July 2017 after its crew picked up a fighter jet "closing rapidly" on it down the Llanberis Pass.
Fixed wing aircraft are barred from entering the Llanberis Pass.
It turned out the pilot involved had mistaken the Llanberis Pass for the adjacent Many Ffrancon Pass.
"The individuals found themselves in the wrong valley and they were wrong," says Col Yates. "They came back and reported it and we looked at it and said, 'hey, if this gets reported, we will admit fault'."
One F15 has crashed on British soil in the past decade. After going into a tail spin, the aircraft smashed into the ground close to homes and a school in Western Hills, Lincolnshire, in 2014.
Investigators found the crash was caused by sealant sticking out on the nose cap, which had changed the aircraft's aerodynamics.
We dodged a bullet—Col Donn Yates
"Our response was 'wow, that could have been really catastrophic' - not only for the community there but for our relationships.
"It was one of those things where we all took a sigh of relief that nobody was hurt, specifically from the community there and then obviously the pilot (who ejected safely and has since resumed flying).
"We dodged a bullet."
A cursory glance at the maps above reveals a significant number of airproxes and accidents happen over sea, often around the off-shore oil and gas platforms.
Mention off-shore helicopter flying to the regular fixed wing aeroplane pilot and they will most likely shake their head, look down at their toes and make a hushed confession: "I wouldn't do that."
Yes, they'll admit, running sorties out to the off-shore oil and gas fields is still flying. But it is a different type of flying. It is, they will say as they search for the right phrase, "something else".
The offshore helicopter pilots are the extreme mountaineers of the aviation world.
The risks, in poor weather, are high.
In 2013, a Super Puma helicopter ditched into the North Sea off Shetland with 18 workers from the Borgsten Dolphin platform aboard. Four people died.
In the past three years, the AAIB have investigated six accidents involving commercial helicopters out on North Sea platforms - three of them in 2017 alone.
Flying a helicopter in foul weather, says pilot Phil Breeze Lamb, who has 8,000 off-shore flying hours under his belt, is like "trying to balance a marble on top of an upturned bowl".
"Off-shore is an obstacle rich environment," said Breeze-Lamb, who has about 8,000 off-shore flying hours under his belt.
"There are cranes, gas vents and so on.
"There are obstacles everywhere - it comes down to good old fashioned airmanship.
"It can be very, very difficult.
"On a good day it can be a piece of cake. In bad weather, it is completely different. And night flying off shore is extremely difficult to do."
"It is often said an aeroplane is a flying machine. Well a helicopter is a machine that flies.
"The distinction is important because when a helicopter breaks, it breaks pretty quickly."
It was a hazy, near cloudless, March afternoon when flying instructor Paul Bazire was readying himself for take off from North Weald, in Essex.
Over the radio he heard a call from the emergency services to the control tower asking whether they knew anything about a two-seater Yak-52.
At that moment, on 29 March, 2014, Mr Bazire thought to himself: "That doesn't sound good."
He was right.
Two men - 50-year-old British Airways pilot Andrew Sully and his 29-year-old passenger Simon Chamberlain - had died when their plane, booked out for a 20 minute local flight, crashed into an oil seed rape crop near Chelmsford.
Mr Bazire found himself flying over the crash site on his return to North Weald.
"It was a sobering experience," said. All the more so when he learned who had died.
Mr Chamberlain, a young father with a very young child, was a well known and popular figure at Mr Bazire's flying group.
Mr Chamberlain had not planned on flying until Mr Sully asked him if he would like to join him.
"He jumped at the chance," said Mr Bazire. "He had the flying bug, who would turn an offer like that down?"
Mr Bazire, who runs the North Weald Flying Group, has himself been involved in two near misses.
One involved a yellow helicopter which passed unseen in front of him because it had merged on a hazy day into the yellow oil seed rape crop in the background.
The second, which happened during a landing at a private grass airstrip, involved a Yak pilot cutting directly in front of him from the wrong direction and without making any calls.
It was, says Mr Bazire, "a case of complacency on the part of the other pilot".
"Having flown from the airfield for years and as he hardly ever saw another aircraft moving he simply didn't bother with the accepted procedure.
"The lesson there was that even though you may doing the right thing, it is essential to keep a look out for those that might not."
Mr Bazire says the relatively high number of accidents and near misses in the south east merely reflects the high level of activity in the skies above.
"The skies in the south east are much more compressed than elsewhere," he says. "We have Stansted Airport and Southend Airport down the toad. It tends to squash people into an area.
"And when the weather is good all the general aviation pilots come out - even more so after a spell of bad weather."
So busy are the skies in his area of operations that his customers come from as far away as the Czech Republic and Poland.
Why? Because they are seeking the experience of busy skies: Skies in which they will be forced to communicate regularly with the other aviators around them.
"They say if you can fly here, you can fly anywhere," Mr Bazire says.
One in seven air accidents in the past three years were classified as training flights.
These 93 accidents have left 22 people injured, and two people dead (one in Buckinghamshire in 2016 and one in Northamptonshire in 2015).
Yet these figures have done little to abate those eager to take to the skies.
In the past year, more than 1,800 people from across the UK have won their prized private pilot's licence (PPL), up more than 100 from two years ago.
One of those hoping to join the UK's near 23,000 licensed private pilots is Lucy Golding, from Corringham in Essex.
As a woman in general aviation, she will be in the minority. Just 539 women in the UK hold a PPL for fixed wing aircraft (other PPLs are issued for other aircraft such as balloons and helicopters) compared with 11,865 men.
And at the age of 26, she would also be one of the youngest women. According to the most recently published CAA data, just six women under 30 hold a PPL for aeroplanes.
Not that Miss Golding gives a jot about gender statistics - she spent three years working as a docker at Tilbury.
For her, the allure of the skies has been a non-urgent, long burning but ever-present, attraction.
"We used to go to air shows a lot when I was younger," she said. "And it has always been in the back of my mind that I would like to fly some day, maybe as a hobby, maybe as a career.
"Then I did an experience day and that was what kicked it off."
Miss Golding is learning her skills in Essex, which has the fourth highest number of near misses of any county in the country.
"It is really busy," she says. "But my instructor is great and has a really good eye for other planes which might be out there and knows about all the regulations and the perimeters we can fly in.
"My eye for what is out there is getting better, definitely and I am getting better at picking out the little dots in the distance.
"I had never been in a light aircraft before I learned to fly. It is a bit bizarre at first because of how light it feels and if there is a knock of wind you feel it so much more. But I feel really safe when I am up there.
"We do extensive pre-checks before, after and during the flight.
"Safety is always on my mind."
A safer future?
"Aviation in the UK is really safe," says CAA spokesman Jonathan Nicholson. "We have one of the best safety records in the world. It is twenty times safer to fly in a light aircraft than to ride a horse.
"But, yes, we want to improve that further."
And while he does not claim the CAA has a silver bullet, he does believe it has something close.
A 'bronze' (or plastic...) bullet, if you will.
It is called a transceiver. It tells other aircraft of your presence in the sky as well as receiving similar communications from other aircraft.
Yes, such devices - in the form of transponders - are nothing new.
What is new, says Mr Nicholson, is the combination of small size and low cost.
A decade ago, the CAA tried to get private pilots to fit transponders to their aircraft.
The pushback from the general aviation community was strong.
Not only would each aircraft have to be significantly modified to fit a transponder, but the device itself could cost thousands of pounds. Some pilots also say the technology was already out of date when it was being touted. Not just that, but it did not allow them to see other aircraft, significantly reducing its purported safety benefits.
"When commercial airliners started fitting transponders (in the early 1990s) the numbers of near misses completely dropped - in fact they almost disappeared - overnight," says Mr Nicholson.
The CAA has been working with technology experts to create small aerial transceivers that can be popped into a cockpit and connected to a tablet computer.
Rather than thousands of pounds, the new devices are likely to cost about £400.
The CAA - which showed the technology to the BBC - is pleased with the results so far, but plan to continue current trials before once again trying to drum up interest in the general aviation community.
"I think we will see much more take up with the latest technology," said Mr Nicholson.
"If you can get people to freely adopt it without us having to put new laws in place then that is a win-win for everybody."
What pilots will make of these devices, however, remains to be seen.
Below is an interactive version of the maps at the top.