Racing driver tells of escape from plane crash

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The Independent Online

The Formula One driver David Coulthard chartered an aircraft yesterday and flew to Barcelona to talk about his escape from the last plane in which he was a passenger.

Less than 48 hours after clambering from a blazing Learjet with his fiancée, Heidi Wichlinski, the 29-year-old Scot coolly faced the world's media to describe the crash at Lyons airport and pay tribute to the two pilots who died in it.

Coulthard flew to the Catalan capital ahead of Sunday's grand prix. Looking relaxed, smiling and posing for pictures in sunglasses and a grey McLaren team shirt, he told how he, Ms Wichlinski and his personal trainer, Andy Matthews, had escaped from the jet. And he spoke of his vain attempts to help the pilots, David Saunders and Dan Worley.

The journey, he said, began on Tuesday in Farnborough, Hampshire, and was to have ended in Monaco at his two-bedroom, harbourside apartment. He said: "I chartered a Lear 35 which is an aircraft I am very familiar with, although this aircraft is not one I'd used before. During the flight, the co-pilot informed us that we had an engine problem and that we had to make an emergency landing at Lyons airport, which was about 10 minutes away.

"We had time to prepare ourselves for the landing and got into the brace position. On impact the plane's wing tanks ruptured on the right-hand side and caught light."

In spite of the flames, Coulthard managed to remain calm enough to find an escape route. He said: "When the plane came to rest, the front of the cockpit had completely broken free and it became clear that the only way out was from the front of the aircraft. I followed Andy out and because of the debris it was about three or four feet above the ground. I then helped Heidi out. Once we were all out I immediately returned to the aircraft to see if there was anything I could do for the pilots. But there was nothing I could do and within a minute the emergency services had arrived to take over."

He added: "I would like to express our heartfelt sympathies for the families of the two pilots who behaved in the utmost professional manner throughout the incident."

Coulthard made his statement in front of hundreds of reporters, yet remained calm and collected, expressing himself determined to take part in Sunday's race. He said he was co-operating fully with the French investigation and added: "I appreciate there is a lot of interest in the incident.

"But my profession is motor racing and now I want the focus on this grand prix and trying to win the world championship." He was accompanied by Ms Wichlinski and Mr Matthews who had both agreed to fly with him to Barcelona, in spite of their ordeal.

Ron Dennis, who heads the McLaren Formula One operation, said: "As always we operate as a team and David, Heidi and Andy are a very important part of that team. Whilst we are in Barcelona supporting them and helping David concentrate on the forthcoming grand prix, our thoughts are with the families of the pilots."

A further statement on behalf of the whole McLaren team added: "The team's focus at the moment is to create an environment that will allow both David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen to perform at their optimum and in their usual professional manner at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix."

Coulthard is second in the drivers' championship after four races, 20 points adrift of Ferrari's Michael Schumacher.