Monday, January 02, 2012

Eighty-year-old pilot of crash aircraft hailed hero after missing house

The ultralight that crashed into Lake Hume. Photo: Peter Merkesteyn

Pilot Mary Neighbour.

AN 80-YEAR-OLD glider pilot has been hailed as a hero for narrowly avoiding slamming into a house near Benalla before she crashed nearby.

Mary Neighbour, a glider with more than 50 years' experience, was recovering in Royal Melbourne Hospital last night after puncturing a lung and fracturing ribs in the Sunday night accident.

"She's done a fairly heroic thing to avoid injuring four innocent people," the Australian Gliding Federation's Peter Gray said. "She put her life at risk to save others."

Mr Gray said that it appeared the glider had been caught in a downdraught.

Mrs Neighbour, from Glossop, England, tried to land in a paddock behind a Goorambat home but did not make it and crash-landed nearby. Kylie Martin watched in horror as the glider hurtled towards her home and family. Sitting on the deck, she was frozen in fear as the glider approached.

"This thing was coming towards us and I was dumbfounded," Mrs Martin said. "I probably should have grabbed the kids and ran a lot earlier than I did but I wasn't really thinking.''

Less than 100 metres from the Martins' property, Mrs Neighbour made a last-ditch bid to avoid them by swerving right. "If she hadn't turned, we wouldn't be here today," Mrs Martin said.

The glider slammed into the ground. "My daughter was screaming so I just got the kids inside as quickly as I could and dialled triple-0.''

For the past 10 years Mrs Neighbour and her husband, Ted, have spent the summer gliding at Benalla. It is believed she left Benalla in the light aircraft at 1pm on Sunday and had headed to Wagga before returning.

Meanwhile, witnesses said an ultralight pilot who crashed into deep water a kilometre from shore on Lake Hume yesterday had been flying only a few metres above the water and ''buzzing'' boats.

The accident came minutes after holidaymakers on the foreshore made frantic calls to police.

The terrified onlookers at Ludlows Reserve, about 15 kilometres from Wodonga, became rescuers as the ultralight's wing clipped the water and the aircraft ploughed into the lake about 3.30pm.

The bloodied and dazed 60-year-old pilot clung to the wing of his single-engine aircraft in water more than 30 metres deep, having taken off from Holbrook, NSW, at midday.

Ryan McPherson was driving a ski boat that the aircraft flew past just moments before it crashed. ''I guess he was 10 to 20 metres from us, flying about five metres above the water,'' he said. ''The first time he turned, the wing tip wouldn't have been more than a metre above the water. We all said this bloke is going to crash, and the next thing he's clipped the water with the left wing and went straight in.''

The pilot was treated at Wodonga Hospital for cuts and bruises and released late last night. He was breath-tested at the scene and a blood sample was taken at the hospital.

Wodonga police said the investigation would be handed over to aviation authorities.

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