"We knew we were unlikely to survive," says pilot after engine failure forced them to ditch plane in English Channel


Pilots Paul Clifford and Duncan Laisney were rescued from a liferaft after engine failure caused caused them to ditch their light aircraft in waters off Jersey’s south-east coast.

All three of Jersey’s RNLI vessels were requested by the Coastguard to search for the flight crew of a Piper aircraft, at around 1400 on 3 November, in Force 6 to 7 winds with 2-3m swell. 

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French search and rescue helicopter Dragon 50, the Channel Islands Air Search plane and Ports of Jersey’s boat Rival also responded.

The experienced pilots were doing advanced refresher training when the engine lost power. They raised the alarm and flew into the wind to slow down. Twenty seconds before they ditched, air traffic confirmed the RNLI had launched. 

Pilot, Paul Clifford said: “At the furthest point from the runway, the engine lost power. We did all we could to get the engine going again, but had to ditch the plane. We knew it was incredibly risky and we were unlikely to survive. If the RNLI hadn’t rescued us it would have been a different story. I don’t know of anyone else who’s been in that situation and survived.”

Locating the casualties was made simpler by the personal locator beacon they were carrying – a portable, battery-powered radio transmitter used to locate people in distress.

The pilots enter the liferaft after ditching their plane in the English Channel. Photo: RNLI

An RNLI Jersey spokesman commended the duo’s swift action and said: “They already had their lifejackets on, liferaft ready and were able to climb onto the wing as the plane took a few minutes before it started to sink. They also activated their personal locator beacon.”

St Helier inshore lifeboat located the liferaft in less than an hour, the two men transferred to the all-weather lifeboat (ALB) and were transported to St Helier where they were met by paramedics.

Nice moment: dolphin jumps out of the water before the rescued men are transferred to the ALB

James Hope, volunteer lifeboat helm at St Helier RNLI, said: ‘The casualties’ use of a personal locator beacon greatly improved their chances of survival and enabled us to find them in under an hour in the gale-force conditions. It’s very hard to spot such a small craft in such big swells, so to actually find two people eight miles out to sea in a liferaft is an amazing feeling; it’s why we do what we do.”

The RNLI’s key safety advice for anyone visiting the coast or venturing further out to sea is:

  • Whether you’re walking along the coast, out on the sea, or flying a plane, always have a means to call for help in an emergency.
  • If you are out on the water or further offshore, you might not be able to get a signal on your mobile, so more specialist equipment may be needed to ensure that you can alert the authorities and have them come rescue you, should you need it.
  • More information about how to call for help at sea can be found on RNLI.org here.

To see more dramatic rescue footage from the RNLI catch the final episode of this series of Saving Lives at Sea on BBC TWO this Thursday at 7pm, or catch up on iPlayer.

To donate to the RNLI’s lifesaving work go to GoDonate.org/RNLI