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Mayday to Morocco, filming “The Passion” for HBO




  Plane“Out of nine lives, I spent seven” - The Band

It seemed like it would be another routine flight down to Morocco, where I was about to start filming “The Passion” a mini-series for HBO. I had prepped and loaded our trusty 35-year-old Cessna T210 the night before and strapped in 400KG of camera equipment – Arri’s, Cooke lenses… the usual junk.

Amelia is a single engine six-seater, a station wagon of the air, that can fly high and for her class is about the fastest you can get. Rugged and dependable, for the previous eight years she had been our steed. My wife and I had done without a car in order to be able to afford to keep her going - giving me the freedom to fly to wherever I might be filming in Europe.

As child, I had read the works of Saint-Exupery, the great French novelist and pilot who had pioneered many of the airmail routes in the 30’s. He inspired me to fly (and unfortunately get involved with French women). I had suffered two plane crashes’ and a severed finger, at the hands of other pilots – both human error. And so, in my early 30’s I learnt to fly. 

I crawled off the end of the runway at Elstree that morning in the mist and headed south towards Biarritz, my first fuel stop. Le Touquet and the French coast loomed ahead, lost below in an amber fog. Engaging the autopilot, I sipped coffee from a flask and got back to reading a passage from “Southern Mail”, St Ex’s vivid description of this very route down to Morocco.

Pilot He pays homage to the elements – night, day, mountains, storm and ice, as they appear on his journey, juxtaposed with the reminisce of a tragic affair. The uncertainties of love and flight, somehow enhance the mystery of one and other as if they are part of a similar battle. Of course, for a cinematographer, these are profound images that linger on with you.

An hour or two later, Biarritz came into view, its sprawling beaches guiding me into land. 

With full fuel and more coffee, I took off around 11am and climbed up to 13,000ft on an IFR airways clearance across the Pyrenees. I settled into the cruise, turned on the autopilot and started on the latest draft of “The Passion” script, which had arrived the day before.

I was half way through ‘Jesus arriving by donkey into Jerusalem’, when I noticed a few high and towering cumulus. The clouds were rising before the Pyrenees ahead - nothing unusual and with 70% blue skies, pretty routine weather.

I went through the top of the first one and skidded out the other side some 10 seconds later and thought nothing of it. There was a small glaze of frost on the wings that dissipated as soon as I turned on the anti-ice system.

I called Madrid and asked for a climb, as there was another cloud looming and started to ascend to 15,000ft. Madrid did not respond, but I was used to Spanish air traffic, who judged your importance by size and tended to ignore a small single engine aircraft.

I hit the second cloud-top a few seconds later. Almost immediately, the plane was covered in ice – thick ice that seemed to envelop the airframe like a tentacle.

My pitot heater tube (which controls attitude, altitude and airspeed indicators… I.E. the important ones) was overwhelmed. I cannot exaggerate the suddenness, for it took no more than fifteen seconds.

I was disorientated and I was losing control of the aircraft. The plane was covered by ice. I had lost my instruments and had almost no indication of what was up or down.

I emerged from the cloud some 20 seconds later, in a developed spin, pulling several G’s. That means the aircraft had stalled and the forces on the airframe made moving one’s hands difficult. Amelia was out of control and spiraling downwards at a rate of over 3500ft a minute. I knew the possibility of the aircraft breaking up was very high.

In Europe, spin recovery is not part of flight training as it is deemed to dangerous. Once in the cloud with only partial instruments, one’s chances of recovering from a developed spin are very low.

Two weeks earlier, I had been in Kansas, completing my commercial pilot’s license. I had gone on a whim, just to ‘have it’ and prove to myself that I flew with a high skill level and as safely as I could.  My examiner had been a retired Vietnam Army Colonel who had barked at me for three hours, as I had tried to fly the check ride:

“Son, I know you got a lot of them homos back home in Paris France…but we don’t take too kindly to them faggot folks round here”.

And his next one:

“We got to get that fucking chimp out of the White House, he’s ruining this country”. (He was referring to President Obama).

“Did you say Chump?” I asked. “No son, you heard me, I said chimpanzee.”

But what I remembered now, was not the white supremacist statements but his spin recovery technique, that he had barked at me and said “will save your fucking stupid life”! “Even the RAF don’t teach you this bullshit”.

“Throttle to idle, neutralise the controls and stamp on his fucking monkey head” (meaning fully engage the opposite rudder from the direction of the spin).

The words echoed, in my disorientated brain and I did just that. I neutralised the control yoke, pulled the throttle and stood on the right rudder with all my force. (God bless Obama!)

There was no response and loosing precious altitude. I tried again and this time Amelia somehow lurched into level flight. I must have relaxed for two seconds, before with great violence and like some “Matrix” movie, I was violently sucked backwards and into the cloud again. The immense power of this turbulent storm cloud, pulled an 1800 kilo plane towards its Jonah mouth!

window view I emerged from cloud, again in a developed spin, the ground looming rapidly below and managed to recover first time. This time I was visual but now I was down to about 3000ft. I was out of altitude.

The throttle seemed to be jammed, the wing started to drop again (imminent stall) and so I risked pointing the nose down 60 degrees.

“Amelia, do not break up on me now”.
I hit the de-ice system again and managed to cry out: “Mayday Mayday Mayday” “I need an immediate landing and vectors for the closest strip”.

Madrid Control did not respond despite three calls. Finally, a Ryan Air Captain came on the line:

“Mother of God Madrid – it’s a Mayday, you must take action”.

They offered me some vectors to Madrid – 120 miles south, what fools! I hit the the back button to my last frequency and Biarritz immediately crackled into life, cleared the airspace around me and vectored me for a straight in landing.

There were big bangs – as blocks of ice started to shed from the empennage of the plane. One came straight at the windscreen and ricocheted upwards off the perspex. This was no green screen or computer-generated imagery. This was for real.

landedIt was only at about 900ft, with a minute’s altitude left, that I regained full control of the plane. I had no idea how badly the plane was damaged at this point, but I presumed it was seriously bent up. Would the plane hold up and make it to Biarritz – ten minutes flying time ahead?

The French ATC controller talked to me all the way – with alternate areas to ditch if I needed to and wind speed. As I became visual with the tower, he quietly reminded me to check the gear, and gave me a visual report on the plane.

I could see all the fire trucks standing by on the edge of the runway. Hope surged within me: I dumped the gear down and gently landed.

As I rolled out, I started to shake uncontrollably and wet myself. “Out of nine lives I just spent (at least) seven”...for I knew, I should surely not have survived this one.

Over the next few months, we looked very carefully at what had happened with experts from the Federal Aviation Authority and extreme weather pilots in the US. It would seem that I was hit by “clear ice” and severe convective activity, a phenomenon that is rare and usually does not exists below 20,000ft. You find it at the top of towering cumulus clouds, but it is unusual in Europe, most likely a result of climate change. Most Cessna 210’s do not survive such punishment and break up midair.

This was a similar incident to what happened to the Air France Flight 447, that crashed fatally en route from Brazil. The pitot tube fails and became covered in ice crystals and you lose your instruments and become disorientated. They, were not so lucky.

Maybe my dysfunctional childhood played a part and allowed me not to feel fear and keep a clear head? Or maybe it was lighting film sets for a living, where we all pretend it is a matter of life or death? What is sure, is that without the tyrannical and bigoted Kansas Colonel barking at me, I would certainly not have recovered the plane.

I checked Amelia thoroughly with an engineer for a couple of hours, but there was no damage, beyond a pitot heater that needed replacing.

That evening, I sat in the airport bar with the ATC controller Jean-Pierre. In silence, we drank two bottles of wine - for both of us it was our first ever “Mayday”.

I took off the next day with great trepidation. Never had flying been so hard. I flew South, across the Gibraltar straights down past Casablanca and on to Marrakech, across the high Atlas mountains and into the desert of Ouarzazate. Clear skies, but it was painful all the way.

I felt St Ex sitting beside me all the way, reliving his own struggles with the elements, fearing the machine that carried him and just trying to get through, as you often do in affairs of the heart.

At Quarzazate, the films very English producer, Nigel Stafford-Clark, (an ex pilot himself), was there to meet me:

“Good flight Tony?”

Plane
“Well let’s just say I had a little turbulence over the Pyrenees.”

by Tony Miller
 
 
 
TONY MILLER © 2019