A father killed alongside his son in a light aircraft crash was a hero commercial pilot who once saved 119 passengers from almost certain death, it emerged today.
Tragic Michael Willis, 73, and son James, 42, died when their plane plummeted to the ground following a mid-air collision during a race on the Isle of Wight on Saturday.
Today his devastated widow Jane – who watched her husband and son die – revealed how Michael became a national hero in the 70s after saving the lives of 119 holidaymakers on a commercial plane.
Jane told how hailstones the size of golf balls battered his plane’s fuselage during a fierce thunderstorm knocked off the nose cone leaving him without any navigational equipment at night.
But Michael managed to land the plane safely under manual controls at Luton Airport after using the North Star and Edgware Road as guidance.
Widow Jane, 65, from Stanmore, Middlesex, said he landed on the airstrip a ”hero” and his exploits were covered in national press.
She said: ”He took off from Majorca and was flying a really old plane with none of the equipment they have now.
”They went through a thunder storm. They lost the nose cone and the hail caused lots of damage. The plane was peppered with bullet hole marks
”He lost the navigation system but somehow managed to find Paris. He then used the North Star to get to London and found the Edgware Road and followed it north.
”He landed at Luton Airport a hero. The plane had bullet holes in it when it landed. The passengers were all clapping.”
Jane, who was married to Michael for 43 years, told how she watched on in horror from the ground as her husband lost his life on Saturday.
She said: ”All the marshals, two or three of them, started running across. I said to the woman I was sitting with ‘something’s happened’.
”The shock started to build up. It became the worst day of my life. I’ve always known Michael as a survivor and he always seemed to know how to manage a situation.
”He was quite a bit older than I was. He was too sensible, too practical, too much of a personality and too with it to die. It wasn’t plausible. We are all just trying to cope.”
Michael and son James, of Hillingdon, north London, crashed in a four-seater Mooney M20B aircraft on the final five-mile stretch of the Merlin Trophy race, Isle of Wight.
They collided with a sports aircraft and lost a wing before breaking up in mid-air and plummeting into remote woodland just after 5pm on Saturday.
The two occupants of the other plane involved in the collision landed safely and were not injured.
Michael shot to national fame in the late 1970s while working as a commercial airline pilot for Dan Air.
He was piloting a night-time flight from Majorca to Luton Airport when a heavy thunderstorm over France left him without any navigational equipment.
Michael used the lights of Paris to guide him towards the English Channel and then used Edgeware Road, London, and the North Star as navigational aids.
He landed safely at Luton Airport and was hailed a hero after all of his passengers survived the terrifying flight.
Jane revealed that thrillseeker Michael cheated death on two other occasions, when his scuba diving equipment failed underwater and a group of eight sharks encircled him.
Michael’s son Jonathan Willis, 38, was competing in the same race as his father and brother when he heard the call ”mayday, mayday, mayday”.
Jonathan, from Stanmore, Herts., said: ”The pilot who did the second mayday call said ‘there’s been a collision, an aircraft has gone down. It’s the green and white Mooney’.
”That’s when that icy cold feeling just hit me. We were just going over the finishing line at the time. It’s just that feeling of ‘Oh my God’.
”I think one or two people said that the wing had detached and that’s when I knew that it was almost certainly fatal.”