WHAT started out as a birthday treat ended as a military operation when Rob Jefferay took to the skies.
Mr Jefferay, 33, was enjoying his first one-hour flying lesson yesterday when pilot Tim Sharrat passed out and he had to take over the controls.
At first he thought it was a birthday prank but, when the RAF was called in to guide him to safety, it became clear it was no joke.
He said: "Everything was normal for about half an hour, and I was really enjoying the flying lesson.
"Then I noticed that the instructor appeared to have had a seizure. He was unconscious and not answering me, but I thought he was joking. "I thought it was some kind of prank that was part of the birthday thrill so I played along with it and got on the radio to the control tower."
The Piper PA28 had taken off from Barton Aerodrome, near Manchester, and was near Burscough, Lancashire, when the drama began.
Mr Jefferay, an engineer from, Wilmslow, Cheshire, added: "I got on to the control tower. I knew the call sign so I gave them that and told them the pilot was unconscious.
"They asked my altitude and I told them the dial said 1,500 ft and gave them some idea of where we were.
"I honestly can't say that I was worried because I was just concerned with keeping it in the air.
"It was not until we were about 30ft above the runway that the pilot came round and pulled us out of the landing.
"It was only then that I finally understood that it was all for real.
"It's the sort of thing you see on TV or in the movies.
"You don't think it's going to happen for real. I honestly thought it was an elaborate joke."
Ambulance crews, fire services and the coastguard were on standby as an RAF flight team helped the student pilot back to the ground.
By coincidence, RAF Woodvale had an RAF plane in the air on a training exercise and flying officer Max Craghill noticed the plane had got into difficulties.
He said: "I was able to talk to the student and explain how to make an approach to the airfield. I was able to reassure him and am delighted that a safe and successful landing was completed."
Paramedics treated the pilot at RAF Woodvale in Formby, Merseyside, before taking him to Southport and Formby District General Hospital.
Mr Jefferay's wife, Karen, was relieved that her husband had landed safely.
She said: "I knew Rob was flying when I heard about the incident on the radio, but I didn't connect it with my husband.
"Thankfully, he got down in one piece and hopefully the pilot will be OK, too."
Despite the ordeal, Mr Jefferay insists that he has not been put off flying in the future.
He said: "I got back in the plane at Woodvale and they flew me back to Barton.
"People have pulled my leg about flying on a wing and a prayer, and I suppose they are right."