“Remember Marco, no one is watching and you have nothing to prove. Stay above 150 feet…”
These were the last words spoken to 22-year-old Marco Pheil by the chief flight instructor at Morningstar, Len Klopper.
When Pheil never returned from his solo run last week Tuesday, Klopper alerted emergency services and it was soon discovered that Pheil had tragically crashed his gyrocopter on a farm near Bloubergstrand.
Farm owner Seymour Currie, the first person on the scene, said Pheil’s body was “completely charred”.
“He still had his earphones on. It was horrific. I would never wish anyone to see what I saw,” said Currie.
Just a few hours later Klopper took it upon himself to phone the the Bredasdorp commercial pilot’s parents.
He knows Pheil’s parents well, and it was one of the worst things he’s ever had to do.
Says Klopper: “I have kids as well. Nobody wants to outlive their own children… One thing is certain. Marco died doing what he was extremely passionate about. Flying was his life and he was a natural talent. He was a fully qualified commercial pilot and grew up in a family of aviators.”
Klopper elaborates on the fateful morning when Pheil lost his life: “He was on six hours flying solo. In the morning session we went up and I instructed him on a specific set of criteria in crop spraying. Then after the flight he took a break and probably had some coffee.”
Pheil took off in reasonably windy conditions (10 to 15 knots), something not out of the ordinary at all.
“When aeroplanes and helicopters are locked away, that’s when gyrocopters come out. Windy conditions are very favourable for this type of aircraft,” he explains.
The Civil Aviation investigation into what caused the accident is still ongoing, but Klopper is quietly confident that Pheil was not to blame.
“Long before Marco died his employer also spoke very highly of him. He said he is a very competent and conscientious young man,” said Klopper.
All Pheil’s experience could not prevent him from crashing a few kilometres West of Morningstar airfield towards Blouberg Hills.
Right after the craft fell from the sky a fire broke out on Currie’s farm, destroying about 40 hectares of vegetation.
“When paramedics arrived on the farm they found the light aircraft completely ablaze and the surrounding veld burning rapidly. The pilot of the aircraft was already dead. Provincial services were on scene to extinguish the fire,” says ER24 spokesperson, Russel Meiring.
The local aviation industry is still in shock days after the tragic accident occurred.
Says Klopper: “A gyrocopter accident is very unusual. I have been a pilot for 30 years and trained over 70 pilots and have never come across something like this.
“If there is a technical issue with the craft at a higher altitude then it can be safely landed, but techniques such as crop spraying and game capture require one to fly at lower altitude and then it becomes dangerous, because you’re on the ground before you know it.”
Klopper insists that everything that could be done to ensure a safe flight for Pheil was done beforehand.
“There is no compromise on safety,” he says.
His attitude towards safety is backed up by the Safety Award of the Aeroclub of South Africa, which he won last year.
If all went according to plan Pheil would have completed his training in about four more hours of flying solo.