A mountain guide pulled off one of the most incredible rescues of all time when he pulled a husband and wife from a plane which had crashed into a zip wire.
The pilot of the plane and his spotter, both in their 60s, were on their first ever flight carrying out an anti-rhino poaching patrol for a game reserve in South Africa when they slammed into the steel cable.
Pilot Peter and his wife Mary were left dangling 330 feet above the rocky wilderness after a them epark cable – used to propel people at 100mph down a ride at the Sun City Resort near Johannesburg – lodged on a single large bolt underneath the plane’s propeller.
Rescuer Rob Thomas, 51, climbed down the zip wire on his own and pulled the pair out alive after realising a rescue from above would have dislodged the aircraft and sent them plunging to their deaths.
A mountain guide pulled off one of the most incredible rescues of all time when he pulled a husband and wife from a plane which had crashed into a zip wire
The high wing Bat Hawk aircraft was swinging and rocking in the increasingly strong winds and could fall off at any second which would plunge the volunteer aircrew to their deaths below.
Rescuer Rob Thomas, 51, overflew the Bat Hawk by police chopper and saw at once that a rescue from above could not be done as the wash from the rotors would dislodge the aircraft.
So he decided he would go down the zip wire from the top on his own and secure the aircraft to the zip wire and then try and get the pilot and his wife out then lower them down to the ground.
An incredible operation involving the police, ambulance, game reserve and the Mountain Club SA Search & Rescue team was launched in a bid to try and save the terrified couple.
Mr Thomas said: ‘I volunteered as the Dope on a Rope to try and get them out and spoke to Peter on the radio and told him that I was coming down and just to not panic and stay totally still.
‘I had no idea why the plane had not fallen to the ground but when I got there I saw that by a remarkable twist of luck the cable had been hooked under a large nut beneath the propeller.
‘I was terrified the movements I was making may dislodge the aircraft because the wind had got up and I was being buffeted about so I just had to wait for the wind to die down to carry on.
‘I got the door to the cockpit open and the pilot was nearest me with his wife on the far side and they both had their safety harnesses on and were lying on their backs in rocket launch position.
‘I think it is fair to say they were terrified as they has spent many many hours facing upwards as their plane was buffeted by the winds wondering if the next gust could be their very last one.
‘It was also very hot with the temperature outside being in the high 30 degrees and they were inside a cockpit and were suffering from dehydration and were obviously very distressed.
The pilot of the plane and his spotter, both in their 60s, were on their first ever flight carrying out an anti-rhino poaching patrol for a game reserve in South Africa when they slammed into the steel cable
‘The pilot told me to rescue his wife first but I told him that was too dangerous as he was nearest me and that I could not get to her without getting him out first and that was the way forward.
‘The aircraft was in an extremely precarious positon and I told them to unlock their seatbelts and trust me and passed the husband an extraction harness and attached it to a trolley on the zip wire.
‘I told him to get out and join me outside the aircraft.
‘I then passed the wife an extraction harness and told her to do the same and attached her to the trolley as well and with the three of us attached got the guys at the top to pull us back upwards.
‘I was very concerned that if the plane fell now that with over 500kg’s plane weight suddenly not being on the cable we would be pinged all over the place and that would not be too pleasant.
‘We were an extremely heavy load to pull up a cable so when I felt we were far enough away for the plane to be safe I lowered a rope and told the husband to prepare himself to be lowered.
‘I would guess it was about 80m down at that point in high winds.
‘Unfortunately we were over a very thorny bush but he had his flight gear on so managed to cope and then I lowered his wife and fortunately a gust of wind blew her away from thorny bush.
‘I then abseiled down and with the three of us safely down we began to descend the slope but Mary had lost her shoes and the ground was very unkind to her so the police chopper came down.
‘It lowered a harness for Mary but with the wind becoming even stronger and a forecast of a thunderstorm we felt the plane could drop any moment and could land on top of the chopper.
Rescuer Rob Thomas, 51, climbed down the zip wire on his own and pulled the pair out alive after realising a rescue from above would have dislodged the aircraft and sent them plunging to their deaths
‘We decided that Peter and I would walk down and we met Mary at the ambulances below.
‘It turned out that this couple had volunteered to do anti-poaching duties with the Pilanesberg National Park to protect their rhinos and this was their very first flight in this actual area.
‘I presumed they were unaware of the Sun City zip wire that comes down from the mountain.
‘They had an incredibly lucky escape and after they were safely down the zip wire was lowered allowing the aircraft to be retrieved and it looks as if not too much damage has been done.
‘We could not risk lowering the cable with them in the plane in case it dislodged the plane.
‘I had a very sleepless night last night because I kept rerunning the fear of my movements dislodging the plane and sending Peter and Mary falling to certain death in my head.
‘It was a very unconventional rescue but it worked out very well and I hope that when Peter and Mary get over their shock that they will get back up in the air and help the rhinos’ he said.
The initial call was made from the pilot to air traffic control at 8.30am on Friday and Rob and his team of four were scrambled and flown from Johannesburg by chopper to Sun City near Rustenburg.
Rob said: ‘From the moment I was sent down the wire to reach the plane to the moment my feet touched the ground was about three hours and to be honest it seemed like a hell of a lot longer!’.
A spokesman for ER24 confirmed both patients had escaped injury but they were taken to a nearby private hospital for further assessment and both were believed to be in shock.
Russel Meiring for ER 24 said: ‘They explained to paramedics that the only thing they could do was not to move as they were scared that the aircraft would fall and take them to the bottom.
The Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Service called in the services of the Mountain Club SA Search & Rescue team and the police air wing to link up with the rescuers on the ground.
Spokesperson Santjie White said: ‘As they got there we quickly realised hoisting people out of the hanging aircraft would be very dangerous because of the high winds and thunderstorm risk.
‘One of the Mountain Rescue SA team went down the line and took them out of the wreck and connected them to himself and then away from the aircraft and lowered them to safety.
A spokesman for the Pilanseberg National Park said: ‘Our Bat Hawk named Mafolodi flew into the Sun City zip line and the pilot Peter and his wife Mary were rescued and were not injured.
‘They were just very very scared. Now they are safe we will rescue Mofalodi’he said.
The Bat Hawk is a high wing stealth aircraft used by many game reserves for anti-poaching patrols as it is extremely quiet and can fly very slowly and take off and land in just 30m.
The ZIP2000 ride at the entertainment resort of Sun City is one of the highest and fastest in the world and sends thrill seekers head first down a 1.25 mile wire at speeds of up to 100mph.
In 2011 business tycoon Arie Neven, 52, died instantly when he flew his Bell Jet Ranger 206 into the same zip wire on his way to pick up friends from a farm on the outskirts of Sun City.