I was flying across the Persian Gulf on Christmas Day, 1987, in my little toy aeroplane called the “Dalgety Flyer”, when the engine stopped.
There were 32 miles of sea to cover to get to Abu Dhabi to have a Christmas beer, but I was obviously not going to make it with a dead engine. It was midday, and a bunch of Iranian gunboats had already left port to look for people to murder later that afternoon.
The silence was frightening, with just the sound of the wind rushing past the cockpit of my microlight, a CFM Shadow aircraft weighing 150 kilograms (330lbs), about the same weight as a married couple. It was powered by a 447 cc Rotax air-cooled engine, half the size of a big motor-bike, but a fuel blockage in the third of my three tanks had stopped it dead. I was at 2,000 feet, and there was a tanker two miles ahead, going north. I thought I might ditch my aircraft next to it.
Abu Dhabi air traffic control was calmly professional. I could hear them vectoring aircraft toward my position after I shakily told them I was going into the water. They told me they had me on radar. Underneath my fright, there was relief that I did not have to continue the flight from England to Australia in time for the Bi-Centennial party, because ditching an aircraft normally means it’s a write-off, and it can be bad for a pilot’s health as well.
Turning into the wind, I looked at the sea. It was smooth, with no ruffles. I thought about putting on shoulder-straps, because the man who built the Flyer, David Cook, said that when ditching, shoulder-straps stopped the pilot mashing his face against the cockpit. As no one had ever ditched a CFM Shadow before, I was going to find out if he was right. But I could not get into the straps because the cockpit, about two thirds the length of a coffin with a bit more head-room, restricted my movements.
Just after noon, and 500 feet above the water, I radioed Abu Dhabi.
“I’m going in,” I said, “What a way to spend Christmas!”
There was no reply to this facetious comment. I held the aircraft off the water as long as I could, flying slower and slower, with the flaps full out. Having glued the aircraft back together only ten days earlier, I had been warned not to use the flaps because of the extra strain on the wings, but who cared in that situation? Then a wall of water smashed into the canopy, caving it in and bouncing it against my face. When it fell away I had the taste of the sea, warm and oily, in my mouth, but I had not mashed my face against the dashboard. The aircraft was lying right way up, wings flat and sea-water lapping over my legs, smack in the middle of the Iran/Iraq war.
Five minutes after going into the water a two-engined aircraft circled overhead. I had rescued my bags from the back cabin, including money and travellers cheques and was standing in the cockpit and waving occasionally. During the twenty minute wait for the helicopter I felt sure was on the way, I looked at the Flyer and thought, she isn’t damaged. Maybe if we pull her out carefully, I could fly her again?
Meanwhile the tanker I had ditched near carried on steaming away into the distance. An Arab dhow circled my aircraft, which made me nervous, but it did not approach me.
Then a helicopter arrived, picked up my luggage and then me (but not the Flyer) and took me to an oil rig for a cup of tea and then to Abu Dhabi. There, I met a young Arab who looked like a dark Lawrence of Arabia dressed all in white.
“My name is Rachid Abbad,” he said, “and you are under the patronage of Sheik Mohammed Ben Zayed.”
Like most of you, I had never heard of Sheik Mohammed Bed Zayed, but soon discovered he was the Armed Forces Minister in Abu Dhabi, at that time hawking in Pakistan. He had heard that King Hussein was the flight’s patron and felt that as a result my flight deserved his patronage too. This was because King Hussein is a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima, which makes him a very powerful figure in Arab countries. Rachid had been instructed by Sheik Mohammed to give me whatever I wanted to continue the flight!
I didn’t learn this until later, but asked, “Can you find me Mike Atkinson?”
Mike [Milton’s engineer] carried a spare engine in a handbag, while I flew with the other engine. The engines were called “Sweetie Pie” and “The Gobbler”. Sweetie Pie had done the world record back in England in September, while The Gobbler, in my opinion, used too much fuel. It was Sweetie Pie which I had flown into the water while Mike carried The Gobbler from airport to airport. He swapped the engines every fifty hours for servicing (Sweetie Pie is under my table as I write this).
Rachid was, surprisingly, not puzzled by my question. “No problem,” he said.
We leapt into his Mercedes 300 and two minutes later found Mike pacing in circles around the handbag with The Gobbler inside. He had been wondering what to do. Should he slip off to Australia before his ticket was cancelled? Or go back to England? He had merely been told that the Flyer was in the water but that I was safe.
“Mike!” I called out “I’m sure she will fly again. I don’t know what salt water will do to the aircraft, but we just need to get her out gently and put another engine on.”
Mike threw The Gobbler into the Mercedes and jumped in.
“What else do you want?” Rachid asked.
“Could you get us a helicopter and take us out and throw us into the sea?” Mike asked, “and not let anyone touch her until we arrive?” An aircraft is often much more damaged being pulled out of the sea than going in.
For a young lieutenant Rachid had a lot of clout; I think he was the son of a local sultan. He whistled up a huge Puma helicopter piloted by an Egyptian major and on Christmas Day evening we flew out on a compass course and found my little aircraft lying vertical, nose-up in the water. She had been kept afloat for six hours by the empty 5-gallon mixing tank in the back cockpit. There were two ships next to her, a tug which soon left and a work-boat called the NMS401. A dinghy was slowly circling the Flyer with an Englishman in the front. Mike and I jumped into the sea from the helicopter (I have always wanted to do that) and swam to the Flyer, laughing our socks off.
It was the best moment of the whole flight.
While we were swimming the helicopter left us and flew back to shore. The Iranians had chosen that moment to make their attack on two tankers to the north of us, perhaps including the one that had ignored me. Seven seamen were killed while we were in the water, and the helicopter was needed for search and rescue.
The Englishman on the dinghy hailed us. He said his name was Charlie Rogerson, that he came from Manchester, and he was a diver on the NMS401. It was our version of “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”
“Hello,” I replied, gulping water, “my name is Brian Milton and this is my friend Mike Atkinson. We’ve come to rescue the aircraft.”
Mike swam in a stately fashion with one hand full of tools to the dinghy, and Charlie towed us to the Flyer. I dived, took off my life jacket and tied it to the sunken tail and inflated it to make the aircraft horizontal again. Charlie threw us a rope and towed the Flyer to his ship. I asked him to get a camera and take shots of the Flyer in the water. Mike then stood in the flooded cockpit and karate-chopped and cut a big hole in the centre of the wing. He threaded a rope through the intersection between the fuselage and the wing and we put a crane on her. Then we dismantled the wings in the water (which was a bit difficult) and floated them to the crew of the NMS401.
The ship was a supply vessel which had been in the Gulf for a month and had run out of beer. It was Christmas Day, and if they rescued the aircraft successfully, we were the reason they were going back to Abu Dhabi, which also meant they would be able to get some beer! We were very popular. The Phillipino crew lifted the wings and then used the crane to lift the body. Mike and I climbed on board and looked her over.
“You’re right,” Mike said, “she will fly again.”
To cap it all we finally did get to celebrate Christmas, which few people celebrate in the Persian Gulf because it is not a Moslem feast. The captain of the ship, a man called Michel, was a Lebanese Christian who had cooked a big fat turkey. Mike and I changed into dry clothes and went to the captain’s cabin for turkey dinner and Christmas pudding with Charlie and Michel. Charlie told us about the local sharks that night, which we had not given a thought. He said most of them were friendly…if a shark can be friendly.
We got the Flyer on shore on December 26 and by December 30 had installed the Gobbler, the alternative engine. I cleaned off the salt by hosing the aircraft down day after day, and aided by the local Emirates Air Service Mike put in new instruments and a radio, flown out from England by our organiser Neil Hardiman. On the test-flight she went OK though I confess to being a bit nervous.
Milton successfully completed his adventure which was in celebration of Australia’s 200th birthday but he missed our big party by 3 days, arriving in Sydney on the 29 January after a journey of 59 days. Nevertheless his flight demonstrated the possibility of long distance intercontinental flight using an ultralight aircraft, then a relatively new aviation technology. This type of aircraft was initially developed as a limited application, low power, low cost leisure machine, but its limitations were seen as a challenge by some adventurous individuals such as Milton.