She was alone in the dark, face green from the glow of a radar screen. Fierce winds were tearing into the air traffic control tower as Annie Geisow sat watching out for planes with pilots brave or stupid enough to try flying through the storm that was lashing the north coast of Scotland.
"I wasn't expecting anything," says Geisow, 27, who had just qualified and was on her first set of night shifts in sole charge of the control room at RAF Lossiemouth. "Then the light started blinking. I was horrified."
The sudden flash of red in a panel of green buttons was a signal that a pilot was in distress. "I knew it was probably bad," says Geisow, "but I had no idea how bad it was going to get."
She was about to be plunged into a drama just like a disaster movie, in which a lost and terrified pilot has to try and land blind in a storm before he runs out of fuel. With massive radio masts looming up to destroy him. And another plane heading straight for his. And the fate of countless people, in the air and on the ground, thrust into the trembling hands of a solitary young novice controller who must talk the pilot down... only he can't speak much English.
There is more. Much more. But Annie Geisow's actions that night in September last year earned her a major award, to be presented at Downing Street by the Prime Minister on Tuesday. Back then, she was just trying not to panic. "I was like this..." she says, gnawing her knuckles.
Somewhere out in the dark, being tossed about by the storm, was a small, single-propeller plane. Its pilot had set off from the Faroe Islands and tried to land at Wick, to the north, but Wick had closed after dark and it was now after midnight. "After I calmed myself down," recalls Geisow, "I got this chap on the radio. He was Russian, and very difficult to understand. We had a brief discussion, if you can call it that. I had to junk the technical language and keep it very simple."
She did manage to work out that he was almost out of fuel, so would have to make an emergency landing at RAF Kinloss, eight miles from where she sat. The two airfields work in tandem, and it was usually her job in the more sophisticated tower to guide in planes from a long way off, using radar until they reached the approach to Kinloss runway.
The only plane expected, much later, was a regular Royal Mail flight. But now this Russian had turned up and was in huge trouble. She would have to take charge of his altitude and direction, because the pilot had no idea where he was going. "You become responsible for keeping them away from the ground, other planes, everything," she says. "They're flying blind."
All the landing lights at Kinloss were turned up to maximum, a blaze that can normally be seen for miles. This time, though, it was hidden from the pilot by thick, low cloud. So Geisow started to transmit something called the Instrument Landing System, an electronic path the pilot could follow via his control panel all the way to the ground. "It was working," she says, "until he started flying off in a different direction."
The violent winds had blown him off course. "I just said, 'Are you lost?' He said, 'Yes!'" She guided him back to the beam but he was blown off it again. "To make it worse, his radio started to cut out. I was like, 'Oh, we don't need this.'"
She repeated his call sign over and over again, with no answer. "I don't know if his radio broke but I just heard little murmurings and cracklings. I think he was having a head-on-fire time. Or maybe he was getting a couple of vodkas down him," she jokes. "I would."
Geisow is not the usual RAF recruit. That much is obvious from the fiery tattoo climbing her calf under her uniform's blue tights. The daughter of two scientists from Nottingham, she studied law and travelled the world before walking into a recruiting office just because a friend had dared her, for a joke. "I wasn't militaristic," she says. "I wasn't fit. I was a bit punky. But when I listened to the recruiting office I thought, 'Hmm, why not? Pilots are sexy. And it's a very big challenge. I like those.'"
But on only her ninth shift she faced one of the biggest challenges in the air traffic control book, with little more to go on but an orange blip and a trail of grey blips indicating where the plane had been. "He was just flying round in circles. Imagine you've got your eyes closed and you're wandering around the room trying not to hit the furniture."
The furniture, in this case, was deadly. The unwitting pilot was no more than 150 feet above a series of huge electronic masts feeding vital signals to planes for miles around. "If he touched one of those he would crash and die. The transmitters would go down as well."
That would lead to an even bigger disaster. "My fevered brain said, 'Oh bugger. What am I going to do now?'" The pilot did answer the radio at last, and she got him to climb away from the masts, but he still couldn't see the ground. The control tower at Kinloss couldn't see him.
The only answer was to use her own knowledge of the landscape around the airfield to guide him right down over masts and houses and towers until he was right on top of the runway. But that was a very big thing for Annie Geisow. It meant breaking the rules, by guiding a plane lower than the level at which the radar in her lonely control room showed the obstacles.
"I was terribly afraid that I would descend him in to something," she says. "But he either came down like that or he ran out of fuel and fell out of the sky." The stakes were suddenly high for her too. "We can go to prison for negligence. I had that in my mind. But in the heat of the moment I was like, 'What's more important your life or my jail term?'"
Even from a mere 800 feet over the runway at Kinloss, the man still couldn't see it. She asked him how much fuel he had left, and mimics the strangulated, distressed voice in which he gave his answer: "'Not much!' He was flying on fumes. I was like, 'Oh God!' I'm not religious but I might have cast my eyes to heaven at that point."
Could it get any worse? Yes. The orange blip on her screen disappeared. The radar had failed in the high winds. Only a little white box showing his call sign and height remained.
Worse yet, another voice startled her. A Royal Mail transporter was coming down out of the sky, oblivious to the disoriented small plane buzzing below. They could have collided over the base, or homes nearby. Thinking fast, Geisow told the Mail man to circle until the crisis was over. Then she went back to first pilot and slowly talked him around a circuit of the airfield and down again. "I thought, 'Please do not die on my frequency!' Half a mile from the runway, he finally said, 'I can see it.'"
You might expect a shout of relief, or at least a choked "Thank you", from the lost pilot as the lights cut through the cloud and he was safe. But no. "He just dropped off my frequency. That was the last I ever heard of him." The RAF police were waiting for him on the runway.
What did Geisow do next? The answer is typical of this wry woman, and the RAF mentality. "I might have allowed myself a brief, 'Yeah!' But then I realised I had another aircraft that still needed to get down."
She went home expecting to be reprimanded for endangering the pilot. Instead she got a letter "on watermarked paper from someone with a lot of stripes on his shoulder saying, 'Well done.'"
The Ministry of Defence heard the story and loved it. Lives were saved, after all, and there were no dodgy wars involved. Its press office entered her for one of the Vodafone Life Saver Awards, and she won one of the 10 given out this year. The others include fire and sea rescue teams, a boy who crawled across a frozen lake to save his friend and a man who pulled a stranger from a burning car. "It's embarrassing," says Geisow, "to be compared to people like that. Another air traffic controller said to me, 'I can't believe you won that just for doing your job.'"
She was not offended. "When you join the military you are part of a team and everyone does a job that is difficult or dangerous or strenuous or puts some burden on them."
Bizarrely, the award judges included the model Nell McAndrew. But also among them were the Victoria Cross winner Johnson Beharry and John Nichol, the RAF Tornado pilot captured in the Gulf, who realised the extraordinary nature of what she had done.
So Flight Lieutenant Geisow will travel down from the fighter pilot training base RAF Linton-on-Ouse, where she is now based, to give Gordon Brown a rare good news day. "I think it's just shake hands, smile and don't say anything licentious or aggressive to the Prime Minister." What does she get to take back to Yorkshire? "I've got a naff certificate in a frame," says the modest heroine, grinning and playing things down again. "It's all quite overwhelming, really."Reuse content