x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Hero steers plane away from disaster

Pilot used his many years of experience when his microlight got into trouble, then selflessly helped his passenger to safety.

Phil Keating with his microlight plane at Al Jazeera Aviation Club in November 2008.
Phil Keating with his microlight plane at Al Jazeera Aviation Club in November 2008.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The pilot of a microlight aircraft is being hailed a hero after he steered the plane away from a crowd of families seconds before it crashed, then saved his passenger by shoving him out of the wreckage when there was a danger of it catching fire.

Phil Keating, 60, from Abu Dhabi, is in hospital with a fractured spine following the accident at Al Jazeera Aviation Club. His passenger, Peter-Christian Pinz, who is visiting from Germany, suffered an eye injury. The drama happened last Friday, shortly after Mr Keating, an IT manager and a retired wing commander in Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF), had taken his friend, Matthew Cochran, up in the two-seater Ukrainian Aeroprakt A-22.

As he stepped out of the aircraft, Mr Cochran urged Mr Pinz, his father-in-law, to have a go. As Mr Pinz's flight came to an end, Mr Keating prepared to land, then changed his mind and radioed to say he would make a second approach. The yellow plane rose for another attempt, but when Mr Keating turned, he knew something was wrong, he later told friends. His 35 years of RAF experience kicked in, and he steered the plane away from the clubhouse, where members' and visiting families were gathered, towards the soft sand of the desert. The plane crashed on the sand. Had it crashed on the nearby tarmac instead, it is believed that it would have exploded.

With the smell of petrol hanging in the air, Mr Keating feared the plane's wreckage might blow up, he said later. He unbuckled Mr Pinz's seatbelt and pushed him out. When Mr Keating tried to get out himself, he realised that he was unable to move. Luckily for Mr Keating, civil defence officers were on the scene in minutes. They got him out of the wreckage and took both men to Saqr Hospital. Mr Keating is a regular at the club, spending most Fridays flying the plane. Last weekend, he had invited friends for an aerial tour of the desert.

Mr Cochran said: "My family was in town from Germany and he said, 'Let's take the whole family out there'. It was a beautiful clear day. Everything was great. I had been up just 20 minutes before the crash with Phil in the same plane. I told my father-in-law, 'Get up there'. "I was on the ground playing with my wife and kids and the dog, and the next thing you know we're running out to a crash site.

"Phil knew what was going on. He said, 'The only thought I had was I smelt fuel. I had to get Peter out of one door and get myself out'." An investigation into the cause of the crash is under way. "We started our investigation the same day and it will be completed very soon," said Saif al Suwaidi, the director general of the General Civil Aviation Authority. "We don't have an idea about the cause because it is too early."

Mr Keating's spine was fractured in three places and he has been transferred to the Neuro Spinal Centre in Dubai, where on Monday he had surgery that lasting more than nine hours. His wife, Lindsey, and grown-up daughter, Holly, have remained at his bedside. Mr Pinz had reconstructive work on his eye at the Imperial Health Care Institute in Dubai yesterday. Mr Cochran said: "If you had to have a plane crash with anybody, I believe Phil is the guy you want. The reason he is alive and my father-in-law is alive is because he is such a great pilot."

azacharias@thenational.ae