Emergency Landing on a Hotel Terrace

Treasures from The Pioneer Era, reported by Ernie Tanner:

In 1977 the president of the Swiss Aeroclub asked me whether some of their planes might accompany me on the flight across the desert to Cameroon. They wanted to seize the opportunity to have a helicopter with them as an emergency measure on their high-risk enterprise. And so I had an escort of twenty-two planes. No, not really an escort of course, because they all flew much faster than I did and they went ahead of me. This was my fourth crossing. We had arranged to meet up again in Olbia, Sardinia.

The weather was very bad over the Alps, so I chose the route via Geneva-Marseilles-Corsica to Olbia. The weather wasn’t exactly good here either and got perceptibly worse over the sea. In particular, a strong east wind was blowing that hampered my progress considerably. Then in the strait between the two big islands of Corsica and Sardinia, I found truly extreme conditions. Below me, the sea roiled and raged, throwing up wild foam against the steep shore, and it was getting towards dusk. I felt I was only inching forward, fighting against the wind, the advancing hour and the diminishing fuel. It became increasingly clear to me, that in this struggle, I would run out of fuel before I reached Olbia.

After what seemed like an age, I emerged from the wind tunnel that was the Strait of Bonifacio and flew along the steep cliffs that form the east coast of Sardinia. Due to the bad weather, I had to fly very low which meant I had no radio contact with Olbia. I had no other navigation instruments. Darkness was falling fast. I was level with a small seaside resort and needed to find a place for an emergency landing. A free space shone out in the harbor, but when I looked closer, I saw that it was the harbor basin and the parked cars were actually small boats. To my right was a steep slope with isolated streetlamps and windows shining here and there. How I longed to be sitting safe and sound in one of those houses, instead of inside this crazy helicopter cockpit with nowhere to land! In situations like this, you learn to pray even if you have never prayed before.

In my helplessness I steered the helicopter up the hillside into the unknown. There I discovered a hotel with an illuminated terrace that looked as if it would be large enough for a landing. As I drew nearer, a festively decorated Christmas tree came into view. Would it stand up to the wind from my rotor blades? Or would it have to sacrifice its life for mine? It swayed and shook. Its ornaments dancing wildly, as I carefully lowered the helicopter onto the terrace. But the tree stayed upright.

Faces, appalled and aghast, appeared from all sides. Only when the rotor stopped did the curious onlookers dare to approach. Who was this high-ranking guest who could afford to drop into this noble hotel in a helicopter? A policeman was on the spot immediately and asked me to accompany him to his office as quickly as possible for an explanation. After this test of nerves, I then had the privilege of sleeping in a comfortable hotel bed.

The hotel manager informed me that I had been extremely lucky. Beneath the terrace was a grocery store. If I hadn’t landed directly above one of the main supporting pillars, the ceiling would have collapsed, and I would have landed among the fruit and vegetables. Once again, I had escaped by the skin of my teeth.