Former RAF pilot tells story of plane crash in RNLI 200 Voices podcast
Duncan Laisney talks to the RNLI’s 200 Voices podcast exactly one year on since he and fellow pilot Paul Clifford, had to ditch their light aircraft in the sea when it experienced engine failure off the coast of Jersey.
On 3 November 2022, three RNLI lifeboats were dispatched from St Helier Lifeboat Station in a bid to find Duncan and fellow pilot Paul Clifford, after they had to ditch their aircraft in the sea and climb into a liferaft as they watched the plane sink.
Duncan, who’s a former RAF Tornado pilot and has been flying for 25 years, takes listeners on a journey through the exact events of what happened that afternoon when their plane was enveloped by water, leaving them in the eerie quietness of the empty sea.
Explaining how he felt as the engine first showed signs of failing and the aircraft lost power, Duncan said:
‘I describe it best by someone is standing on your stomach if you’re lying down. You can feel a real tightening inside yourself, a kind of disbelief and pain which lasts for about 10 or 15 seconds.
‘That feeling, that tension inside… I knew that would happen, and you need to try an overcome it.’
After if became apparent the aircraft wasn’t regaining power and they would have to ditch it in the sea, they declared an emergency to air traffic control, triggering the emergency response on the ground. In 2½ minutes they were in the water.
‘The water comes straight over the top of the aircraft, over the top of the canopy and you completely feel enveloped.
‘It had been quite noisy and we’d been quite busy up until that point… because up until we actually touched down in the water, there was still a belief that we might be able to climb away if power suddenly came restored back to the aircraft.
‘Once we touched down… after that surge of water, we ended up with the engine shut down, just sat there in a really eerily, quiet environment – there was no noise.’
Quickly making the decision to get into their liferaft, the plane didn’t last long on the surface of the water.
‘It literally went nose first and the tail flipped up out of the water and then probably just went straight down to the seabed. I certainly wasn’t expecting the aircraft to start sinking in the time frame that it did… it was only a couple of minutes.’
Duncan had a personal locator beacon that he’d activated, but naturally thoughts of doubt were still creeping in.
‘You’re cold and you’re beginning to feel a little bit queasy… but the actual initial feeling is one of, “OK is anybody coming to get us?”
‘All the training I’ve done in the past in liferafts, I’ve always known that someone is there in a safety capacity, and if I get into trouble they are just going to come and haul me out.
‘But in real life situation you have those doubts in you mind, you don’t know if someone is definitely coming to get you and you’ve got to overcome that with a bit of rationality. And that’s what Paul and I – I think – did really well, we reassured each other.’
After staying as calm as they could in the liferaft, not knowing if or when help was coming, Paul and Duncan first spotted signs of the rescue effort when they noticed a French helicopter flying above them. Soon after they thought they could see an RNLI lifeboat.
‘The emotion we experienced was mostly of relief. Relief that first off we’d been found. In that dingy you always have that horrible feeling of doubt, but then when you first see the lifeboat coming towards you… you have that enormous, overwhelming feeling of relief that you are going to be out of this situation.’
Since their rescue last year, both Duncan and Paul have met up with the volunteer lifeboat crew who helped save their lives to talk about the events of that day. Duncan now shares a first-hand experience of the charity that saves lives at sea and the volunteer crews that give up their time to help those in need.
‘It’s an organisation of volunteers, people that give up their own free time for the benefit of the greater community, without which – inevitably – lives would be lost at sea.
‘They strike me as being an incredibly professional organisation that do a fantastic job when they are called upon in some pretty austere circumstances.’
The RNLI’s 200 Voices podcast is releasing a new episode every day for 200 days, in the run-up to the charity’s bicentenary on 4 March 2024, exploring captivating stories from the charity’s history and through to the current day.
The charity has been saving lives at sea since it was founded in 1824 and, in that time, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 144,000 lives. Funded by voluntary donations, and with lifeboats crewed by specially-trained volunteers, the RNLI is a truly unique rescue organisation with a remarkable 200-year story to tell – many highlights of which are shared through the podcast series.
Available across all podcast platforms and the RNLI’s website, listeners can hear from survivors, supporters, volunteers, lifeguards, celebrity ambassadors, historians and many more from across the UK and Ireland – and beyond.
To find out more about the RNLI’s bicentenary, visit www.RNLI.org/200.
Notes to Editor:
- Upcoming episode previews are available upon request.
- An audio trailer for 200 Voices can be downloaded here and a video trailer can be downloaded here.
- Find out more about the RNLI’s bicentenary at RNLI.org/200
- Catch up on all previous episodes by visiting RNLI.org/200Voices .
RNLI media contacts
For more information about the 200 Voices podcast series and upcoming episodes, contact Claire Fitzpatrick-Smith, RNLI Regional Media Officer, on [email protected] or 07977 728 315.
Alternatively you can RNLI Press Office on [email protected] or 01202 336789.
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.
Learn more about the RNLI
Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries