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Pilot tells of 'miracle' escape after crash landing vintage plane near Duxford

A pilot has said it is a miracle he survived after the vintage fighter plane he was flying crash-landed in a field and slammed into a tree at 130mph.

Dave Unwin, who lives with his family in Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire, was in the cockpit of a 1951 Hawker Sea Fury with fellow test pilot Eskil Amdal when disaster struck on Tuesday last week (August 4).

They had taken off from Duxford airfield in the afternoon and had performed a string of rolls, loops and turns for a magazine feature.

The Sea Fury aircraft that came down in Harston. Picture: Ted Chantler-Hicks
The Sea Fury aircraft that came down in Harston. Picture: Ted Chantler-Hicks

But then the engine suddenly cut out leaving the pair plummeting towards the ground in the multi-million pound aircraft.

As the main pilot on the day, Eskil took control and tried to level the plane off while Dave desperately searched for a field for them to land in.

With no landing gear down, the Sea Fury - named ‘Invincible’ - then hurtled out of the sky at 150mph, skidded across the field and crashed into a tree around five miles from Duxford.

Amazingly, both pilots survived with no major injuries. Dave, 59, suffered three spinal fractures and a broken rib, as well as a “brilliant” array of cuts and bruises.

The father-of-two spent two days at Addenbrooke’s before being allowed to return home. Eskil has also been discharged.

Dave, who has been flying for 35 years, said: “We should be dead; there’s no doubt in my mind, knowing what I do about flying and this particular aeroplane.

Dave Unwin with the Sea Fury plane before the crash
Dave Unwin with the Sea Fury plane before the crash

“I know someone in the States who had basically the same problem in a Sea Fury and he didn’t get away with it. It’s a miracle we’re alive.”

He said he was slowly feeling better, although the broken rib was incredibly painful.

“But if it hurts it means I’m alive so I’ll take it,” added Dave, who works freelance for Stamford-based Key Publishing.

“I’m also 2cm shorter than I was last Monday! I was 172cm and now I’m 170cm. I was wanting to lose some weight but now I’ve got to add some height as well!”

His wife Lizzie said: “The more I hear about it the more amazed I am that they survived. It’s down to Eskil’s amazing skill that they did.

“All of the emergency services and the staff at Addenbrooke’s were amazing too. We can’t thank them enough.

“It’s terrifying to think of what might have happened but I would never ask Dave to stop flying because he loves it so much.”

Recounting his ordeal, Dave said he and Eskil had gone flying as part of his job writing test reviews for Pilot magazine, in which he's written about a host of impressive aircraft, including a Spitfire and Flying Fortress bomber.

The Sea Fury aircraft that came down in Harston. Picture: Ted Chantler-Hicks
The Sea Fury aircraft that came down in Harston. Picture: Ted Chantler-Hicks

After performing a range of aerobatic manoeuvres at around 5,000 feet, they were both alarmed to see the oil gauge needles hovering on the red.

At around 2,000 feet and 160mph Eskil then made a ‘Mayday’ call to Duxford, hoping they would be able to limp back to base.

“There was a lot of smoke coming out the back by this time,” said Dave. “The engine was running rough but then it just stopped dead. The propeller blades were broadside to the wind at this point too so the drag was phenomenal.

“Luckily for me Eskil is a really good pilot and had the nerve and the courage to bring us down.

“When we got near the ground he just levelled off. We were flying to the ground at about 150mph and hit it pretty hard. It sort of skipped and then skidded, and then we hit a tree that tore the left wing off. It span us around and then we stopped. We probably went from 130mph to nothing when we hit the tree.”

Covered in blood, Eskil clambered out of the gaping hole in the side of the plane, checked Dave was OK and then collapsed about 15 metres away.

A Hawker Sea Fury
A Hawker Sea Fury

Aided by the adrenaline pumping through his body, Dave managed to get out of the cockpit just as he began to notice the smell of fuel.

By this time, around 5.15pm, people had rushed to their aid shortly followed by the emergency services, and Dave had to warn them about the threat of an explosion.

Someone then lent him a phone so he could call Lizzie and tell her he was alright.

“It was very surreal speaking to her as I was lying in a field,” he said.

As an experienced pilot, Dave, who is also a tug pilot at Buckminster Gliding Club at Saltby Airfield near Grantham, said he had been in some dangerous situations while flying but “nothing of this magnitude”. Despite this, the thought of dying never crossed his mind.

“I didn’t have time to think about that,” he said. “Eskil was flying but I was looking for a field for us to land in. If we’d been 10,000ft I might have had more time to get scared but it all happened so quickly.”

He added: “Scary as it was, it hasn’t put me off flying. As soon as I’m fit to fly I’ll be back in the cockpit.”

Pilot Dave Unwin
Pilot Dave Unwin

Just last month, Dave was behind the controls of a classic de Havilland Chipmunk pulling a banner across the skies above Stamford and Bourne paying tribute to the NHS.

“It’s kind of ironic really that having applauded the NHS I really needed it a couple of weeks later!” said Dave. “The people at Addenbrooke’s were so great. Once I’m airborne again I’ll be looking to tow that banner over the hospital to say thanks.”

There is an investigation currently under way into the cause of the fault with the Sea Fury.

The single-seater was a fighter-bomber that saw action in Korea with the Royal Navy. ‘Invincible’ - the plane flown by Eskil and Dave - is a two-seater, and was used for weapons training.

Worth millions of pounds and operated by the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation, it is hoped the plane will be restored and airworthy once more. It was reportedly involved in another crash in 1990 but was fixed and re-registered in 2018.

The banner being flown over Grantham
The banner being flown over Grantham

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