A Surprise Supper


It was a balmy evening in late summer, and I was flying home after taking part in a military exercise in Northern Germany. We had been on manoeuvres for a few weeks and I was looking forward to getting home for a good hot bath and a meal with my family. I was lucky to be given a front seat in a small army helicopter called a Gazelle belonging to the Army Air Corps.

The Gazelle is a fast sleek machine used for aerial reconnaissance but it can be lightly armed with machine guns or rockets for use in conflict. It has two front seats and behind that, there are either 3 passenger seats or a stretcher when used for casualty evacuation. On this day the pilot was sitting on the front right seat and I was on his left. We had one passenger sitting behind us.

When it was time to climb aboard, I put my rifle and rucksack on the back seat and secured them with a seat belt. As I climbed aboard the pilot carefully reminded me to keep my feet away from the dual pedals that were there on the floor in front of me. Once settled in the jet engine was started and as we waited for it to warm up the pilot went through his pre-flight checklist, which only takes a couple of minutes. The three of us had fastened our four-way seat belts and the pilot turned around and gave a thumbs up to the passenger in the rear, and to me, and we returned a thumbs up to him to confirm we were strapped in and ready to go.

It was always a thrill to fly by helicopter and especially the small ones where you really can see in all directions through the bubble of a front screen. On this day the sky was clear with just the odd wisp of cloud as we flew west towards the setting sun and the airfield which was our destination. It was going to take about forty minutes to get there. We were flying at a height of about 2500 feet and at a speed of 150 miles an hour, which is a good economical cruising speed. It was interesting to see the German plains stretching out below us; small hamlets, large farms and forests with lakes dotted about.

I was warm and comfortable and I might have dozed off if it was not for the constant chatter in my headphones from other aircraft and air traffic controllers who were monitoring our progress by radar and warning us of other aircraft in our vicinity. Suddenly there was an almighty bang, the aircraft shook and the large instrument panel in front of us lit up with many coloured lights – most of them red and amber – and the noise of a horn came abruptly over the headphones and did not stop. It was, of course, an alarming, and rather frightening experience and it seemed to me that we were likely to crash, though I had no idea what had happened.

After a few seconds, the horn was turned off and the pilot in a shaky but reassuring voice announced to his two passengers that we had suffered a birdstrike and that the jet engine had stopped as a result. We were now dropping without power and he was going to make a “controlled crash landing”. I later learnt that helicopter pilots practice this and the technical term is “landing with autorotation”. In simple terms that means the pilot leans the aircraft into a forward angle and drops the lever which controls the pitch of the rotor blades. That allows the blades to keep spinning, like the seeds of a sycamore tree, then as the helicopter is close to the ground the pilot applies maximum pitch to the blades which effectively lifts it up just before it hits the ground.

Our pilot was quick, and his immediate action resulted in our fast descent momentarily stopping just as we were feet above the field he had chosen to land in. Our landing was just a big thump, a hard landing is the technical term, but we were all uninjured and climbed out to see if the helicopter had been damaged. It seemed fine to me with an untrained eye, but of course, it was not going to fly away as the engine was badly damaged. The large bird, something like an eagle, had unusually flown, or been sucked straight, into the turbine.

The pilot had put out a quick distress call on his radio as we dropped out of the sky but once we were on the ground the VHF radio was no use and this was before the days of mobile phones so we were unable to tell our destination airfield what had happened. As we climbed out I thumped the pilot on the back in thanks for saving our lives and warmly shook the hand of my fellow passenger.

Over in the distance just a few hundred metres away there was a typical Westphalian country farm. It was very isolated in the middle of arable fields with no village or town within sight. A rough track led from the farm to a tarmac road a mile or two away. I suggested that we wander over to the house to ask if they had a telephone which we could use to inform the airfield that we were safe but in need of collecting. This seemed as good an idea as any so we walked to the house, leaving our weapons locked in the aircraft so as not to frighten anyone.

The farmer must have heard our noisy arrival for he strode out to meet us in the yard and greeted us in German. I responded in his language and explained the situation as best as I could and soon he was beckoning us into his home. Feeling a little uncomfortable in our rather muddy camouflaged uniform we entered the large rustic kitchen where the farmer’s wife was busy with pots on the large wood-fired stove. We were offered coffee and while enjoying that the two teenage daughters of the family came in and joined us. We asked to use the telephone and explained the situation to our headquarters and were told that a vehicle would be sent at once to collect us, but it would take a couple of hours to arrive.

It was clear from the kitchen activity and the plate laying in the adjacent dining room that the evening meal was about to be eaten. The table was laid for four but we noticed that a fifth-place was being prepared. I overheard the wife saying to the daughters that they would eat later as the new guests would eat first. Before we knew it we were being seated in the girls’ places and a marvellous meal was put in front of us. Such generous hospitality was remarkable and looking back it has always remained in my memory as an example of the natural goodness and kindness of humans which can be found all over the world.

It was easy chatting to the family with the girls, who were learning English at school, translating for their parents. In no time at all a Land Rover appeared, and with a soldier who was going to sleep in the helicopter overnight for security. We were soon on our way home rather later than expected, but at least we were all in one piece. The next morning a large Chinook helicopter with two rotors flew in and it lifted the small Gazelle back to base to be repaired

How that would have looked