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Pilot blinded by stroke in air is talked down

A 65-year-old private pilot left almost entirely blind when he suffered a stroke while flying solo at 15,000 feet was talked safely down by a military pilot flying beside him, the Royal Air Force said Friday.

The incident occurred a week earlier, when the private pilot, Jim O'Neill, was flying his single-engine Cessna home from Prestwick, in Scotland, to Colchester, in southeastern England.

O'Neill was about midway through his 350-mile flight when he radioed a mayday, saying he couldn't see his cockpit instruments, the RAF said.

“At first, he believed he was being blinded by sunlight,” Wing Cmdr. Andy Hynd, flight operations commander at the RAF base at Linton-on-Ouse, told BBC Radio. “And so he declared an emergency.”

The RAF controllers initially tried to help O'Neill land at another RAF base. But after he failed in several attempts to find the airfield, he was redirected to the Linton base, about 20 miles to the northwest, the officer said.

“But he still couldn't see the runway and he was starting to get distressed, so we thought it was best to send a plane to him,” Hynd said.

The Linton base's chief flying instructor, Wing Cmdr. Paul Gerrard, then took off in a Tucano single-engine aircraft, approached O'Neill's plane and flew alongside him at a distance of about 150 feet.

“He used his voice to guide him down by telling him to turn left and right, to lower the plane and to do his pre-landing checks,” Hynd said. “At very short range he still couldn't see the runway, and it was only at the last minute that he could. He landed about halfway down and came to a halt just at the end.”

Doctors said O'Neill lost his sight when a stroke caused an increase of pressure on his optic nerves, but that he would probably regain his sight eventually.

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