Fergal Megannety back at the scene of the crash near Newmills, last week
Fergal Megannety can recall in detail his brush with death in October 1988 when he walked away unscathed from a plane crash near Newmills outside Letterkenny.
Megannetty, a photographer based in Letterkenny and his pilot, Stephen ‘Dobbie’ Robinson, from Coleraine, were on an aerial shoot flying a Cessna 152, when the aircraft, literally fell out of the sky, ploughing into boggy ground.
30 years ago this month the crash was, literally, front page news. The October 7 issue of the Donegal Democrat reported on its front page about a miraculous escape for both men, who walked away from the crash with minor cuts and scratches.
Megannetty can recall in minute detail the events of that day, and interestingly, he maintains at no stage, as the plane fell to earth from over 1,000 feet, did he think he was going to die: “Travelling at 80 mph I never feared that we were going to be killed. I felt we would have cuts and bruises and a few broken bones but death never entered my mind.”
Not surprisingly, the memory of his lucky escape remains vivid despite the passage of time: “I recall the crash as if it was only yesterday, and I have recalled the story numerous times down the years. I may forget something that happened last week or last month, but not the crash, even though it was 30 years ago.”
Recalling the story, Fergal explained that he had two run of the mill photographic jobs to do, both had to be done from the air, and there were no drones then.
“We hired the plane from Eglinton Flying Club in Derry for two hours and we got through the jobs fairly quickly. When we were finished Dobbie asked me, as we had plenty of time, was there anywhere else I wanted to go. I said let’s go to Gartan.”
Everything was going fine and both were enjoying the flight as they made their way to Gartan, but near Newmills, Fergal realised they were well below the 1,000 foot apron that small aircraft had to fly above.
“I noticed we were flying lower than normal. Those small planes were supposed to fly no lower than 1,000 feet. I often tried to persuade the pilots to fly lower but they would never agree.
“As we approached Newmills, I could see the ground was getting closer and closer. We were flying at about 80 mph at the time and that was as slow as we could go.
“I turned to Dobbie and I asked him were we going to crash and he said ‘the plane won’t rise for me hopefully we will get over the ridge’.”
Fergal could see the ground getting closer and closer but there was no sense of panic: “The strange thing all though we were travelling at 80 mph I never feared that we were going to be killed. I felt we would have cuts and bruises and a few broken bones but death never entered my mind.”
Plane smashed into the ground
Fergal describes how the plane just “smashed into the ground”, tumbled over and ended upside down with himself and the pilot hanging upside down, strapped in by their harnesses.
“I don’t remember how long passed whether it was seconds or minutes passed. But Dobbie turned and asked me if I was alright and I said I was fine and he said he was fine.
“The next thing I remember myself and Dobbie undoing the harness and getting out of the plane. We don’t know how we did it but we did it. We were dangling by the harness head down. How we opened it and released ourselves we simply don’t know.”
As they walked away from the wreckage an ambulance was already speeding up the road towards them. A local farmer had watched the plane’s descent and knew they were in difficulty. He had called the emergency services before the Cessna hit the ground. They were whisked off to Letterkenny General Hospital, x-rayed and thoroughly examined.
Remarkably neither man suffered any serious injury: “The only injury I had was a scratch across the top of my forehead.”
Looking back on the accident, Fergal points to two things that saved them. The soft, boggy nature of the land they hit was key to their survival: “The spot where we crashed was soft and boggy and the plane dug in. If it had happened a further five yards on it was solid rock and it would have been a different story altogether.”
In addition the fact that they both wore harnesses was critical. Fergal admitted that he rarely wore one, but that day as they were taking off, the door of the aircraft opened and he very quickly snapped on his harness.
The accident didn’t have any lasting impact on Fergal, it certainly didn’t stop him from flying, as hje explains: “I remember I got a call a week later inquiring did I do aerial photography and I was back in the air again a few days later. I have been up a number of times since and I have no fear of flying whatsoever.”
However, the need for aerial photography has reduced nowadays with the advent of drones.
Fergal still lives and works in Letterkenny while the pilot Stephen Robinson has moved to China where he lives full time. The two friends are still in regular contact and from time to time they do remind each other how lucky they were on that day back in the beginning of October 1988.
There was an international investigation into the crash because the plane was registered in the North of Ireland and the crash happened in the south. Pilot error was the official findings of the investigation
Fergal has other view on the outcome of the investigation but felt it was better let sleeping dogs lie.