The night Lt Derby saved Michael Manley's life
Young soldier steadies chopper destined for crash
This is the 32nd in a series of close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of the society.
HE is now the director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Jamaica, but his 27-year career as an army officer is decorated with colourful challenges that made his name stand out at the Jamaica Defence Force's headquarters at Up Park Camp in Kingston.
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Lloyd Derby might not be sitting in his swanky office at Winchester Road near Half-Way-Tree guiding staff that includes air traffic controllers, had he not consistently exercised the precision judgement that has proven to save lives — his, and others.
One incident in particular stands out in his memory that could have had disastrous consequences had he not been alert and committed to keeping the widow-maker at bay.
A 20-year-old Derby, fresh out of military flying school — having joined the army straight out of Kingston College two years before in October 1974 — was assigned to copilot a helicopter transporting then Prime Minister Michael Manley and his team to public meetings in Port Maria, St Mary, and Bybrook, St Catherine.
It was two days before the general election of December 15, 1976, and the travel team that included Manley's son Joseph, Richard "Dickie" Crawford, Howard "Fudge" Aris (now deceased), security officer Rosie McDonald (Barker), among others, had arrived at the JDF base at Port Maria safely.
By the time the team was ready to leave, an unexpected event occurred. Derby's senior, the pilot in charge of the aircraft became disoriented in flight, forcing Derby to step in and save the night.
"It was an overcast and rainy night and we did a vertical takeoff so as we got above the power lines. The pilot experienced total darkness on his side, so he never knew where he was, up or down, and he was pulling up the nose of the aircraft when it did that. The helicopter was near a nose-up vertical position when it slipped back and went down," Derby stated to the Jamaica Observer.
"The pilot suffered vertigo (a sensation of dizziness) because he didn't have any visual references on the outside, his side of the helicopter. So the helicopter ended up in an unusually nose-high altitude.
"I warned him that the nose was too high, but the fluid in the inner ear canals, the three canals which basically tell you if you are right side of level of whatever the case may be, were responding to inputs that he thought he had seen. So he was pulling the nose up even further and the nose got to a point where the helicopter was about to be out of control."
In a split second, Derby said he made the decision to take over the chopper.
"I said to him, 'I have control', and as I said 'I have control', took control, and he released his control, because we have dual control of the helicopter, he said 'you have control.'
"He shouted out, 'Lord have mercy, we dead now!' Derby said, recalling his panic-stricken copilot once he realised what was happening. "The helicopter slipped back on the tail, it went inverted and went into a nosedive and we were heading towards the ground when I was on the controls. I pulled the helicopter out of the dive and brought it back to control flight.
When the craft was stabilised, the pilot decided that he would not continue to Bybrook, but go on to Kingston. Manley was informed of the change of plans and he accepted, Derby said.
Although Derby and his senior tried to reduce potential panic among Manley and his companions, the then prime minister had an idea of what was happening. Manley did pilot training in Brandon, Canada, with a view to joining the World War II effort, but when he completed his pilot training the war ended, so he did not see combat. Still, the former prime minister was always regarded by the flying fraternity as a pilot and had gained some amount of respect from those in the know. Manley was able to help calm the cabin crew, explained Derby.
"When the incident happened, the crewman who was with us disconnected his belt as if he was going to jump out. I don't know where the hell he was going. Mr Manley actually saved his life by disconnecting his belt and reaching across his side on the other side of the helicopter and grabbing the crewman. He said, 'Yyou not going anywhere'."
"When things settled down, he took the headset from the crewman and asked what had happened. The skipper told him he would explain to him on the ground, and that he didn't believe that he was in the frame of mind to go on to Bybrook," Derby said.
"When we landed the aircraft at Up Park Camp, I shut it down and secured it and by the time I went inside, Mr Manley was on the phone to Beverley Manley, his wife, saying 'Beverley, Beverley, you would never believe what nearly happened. We nearly died, Beverley, but a young lieutenant saved my life'.
"A couple days later I got a nice letter from Mr Manley, thanking me for having such presence of mind and for saving his life. He said that he would be forever indebted to me. I will eventually frame that letter," Derby said.
A newspaper report two days later inaccurately told a different story of the helicopter flying over Clarendon in Central Jamaica when it got out of control, plummeting towards the ground.
"That is not what happened. It wasn't even in the vicinity of what the report said and I don't know where the report came from," Derby said.
Later, rumours began to emerge that the mishap was a deliberate attempt to kill Manley and that the pilot and Derby were drugged so that the helicopter would crash.
"I know of the rumours that the pilot and I were drugged, but that was not so," Derby stated.
"The cause of it was vertigo — spacial disorientation. We both sat at the officers' mess while we were there in Port Maria. We asked for a snack, we got egg sandwiches, we both ate from the same platter, we added salt and pepper to it, and we had coffee.
"So if the pilots had been drugged, it ought to have equal impact on both of us. That was not the case at all. It was just disorientation which is a common thing when you are in a situation where you don't have outside references to determine whether you are properly upright and level.
"I can't say that in the situation I was afraid, because whenever something scary really happens to me while I am flying and [I get an] the adrenaline rush, I get an almost out of control trembling of the leg. That didn't happen then. I was well aware of my position and my situation and so I was able to take control and bring the helicopter back under control.
The expert pilot has experienced similar disorientation under different circumstances while in flight, where the challenge is to believe what your instruments are indicating, "regardless of what your ear canals are telling you", he said.
"It is a serious challenge and I well understand when somebody is disoriented how badly he can be affected if they don't have that skill to trust, believe and fly the instrument until you settle down and are able to see outside again," Derby said.
Although the incident that involved Manley had more impact because of the people involved, Derby argued that another in Chapelton, Clarendon years later, was far more dangerous than the Port Maria close shave.
He was the pilot of a flight that was on a reconnaissance mission in the area when the helicopter with army personnel — including Lt Horace Burrell, who later became Captain and head of the Jamaica Football Federation — got entangled in high tension wires, but the craft, miraculously, did not explode.
"It was close to the football field at Clarendon College and just to the north of that is a fairway with tall trees on either side, and that was our approach into the football field, because the wind comes out of the south, so you approach into wind from north to south.
Derby said they had flown onto the field earlier, picked up troops for an operation in the area and were now coming back to land, approaching the field from the south with the intention of turning around and coming back in.
"Ricky Lewis was my co-pilot, he later died in a motor vehicle accident in Fern Gully. He called out 'wires'. When he called 'wires', I saw them immediately and pulled on the stick, brought the nose up. So in bringing the nose up, some of the wires went underneath the helicopter and the skid broke those wires. One wire slammed into the windshield, rode up the windshield and went over the top. The most dangerous thing is when the wire goes over the top and gets caught in your rotating system and it squashes those tubes that operate the rotor.
"We just burst through the wires, so I wasn't sure how it had affected my rotor system, but I held the controls and we were just going north in a steady state. We were approaching the mountains to the north so I needed to do a controllability check to see whether or not I had controls, because if I didn't have controls then we were going to come down in a heap. So I did a slow controllability check and the rotor system responded, meaning that I had not lost control," Derby said.
The next course of action was to land the chopper in a nearby orange grove, which turned out to be owned by former parliamentarian JAG Smith.
"When I landed the helicopter, there was a man in the orange grove. He came out and said 'what happened, man?', and I said [by way of greeting] 'Fortis Forever' (Kingston College motto). It was JAG Smith on his property. So we told him we had to make a precautionary landing," Derby added.
The crew did a makeshift repair to the aircraft and flew back to Up Park Camp where an official report was filed to then JDF chief of staff Major General Robert Neish.
Days later, the Star newspaper alerted Derby and his flight crew that the helicopter had cut power in the entire north Clarendon. The report also erroneously stated that the helicopter had hit the high-tension wires, crashed at the foot of the hill and exploded. The paper quoted students of Clarendon College as its sources.
"The wires had recoiled and hit out the transformer atop a hill and there was an explosion. These were some 12,000-volt transmission line. We hit the high-tension wires and barrelled through several strands of these cables, but when it's not your day to die, it's just not your day," Derby stated.