By the Seat of my Pants:
Memoir of a Pilot

By the Seat of my Pants is a deeply personal memoir of courageous determination.
An intrepid but humble man refuses to allow his background of dyslexia and poverty to decide his future.

During WW2, as a Junker Ju86s bomber pilot with the Allied forces, he contends with makeshift maps, primitive instrumentation and limited fuel over the inhospitable East African bush.
As an Airways captain, he lands the first commercial aircraft at the opening of Heathrow Airport.
Trained to fly the 1953 Comet, which was doomed to disintegrate mid-air, pure chance keeps him alive.
He endures three wartime forced landings in the devastating African heat, with no fuel, little water and his whereabouts unknown? He belly-lands a Boeing with no one injured.
Read the prologue... Read the reviews...

Some pilots live to recount their most daunting, most perilous experiences. I was one of these lucky ones. 

I’ve had my full share of challenges during my thirty years of flying. But, on a moonless October night in 1960, piloting a Boeing 707, I came closer than I have ever come to disaster. 

It was an aviation nightmare. 

If I had had the luxury of time to speculate, I would have been certain that all ninety-one of us – my crew, passengers and I – were not much longer for this world.


Nairobi, Africa, 1960

Nairobi's control tower had informed me of the light rain and low cloud that came down to within a hundred foot ceiling. I was reluctant to divert to Entebbe, 300 miles away. The height of the low cloud was below the landing limits, but if the runway could be seen, then it was permissible to continue. 

Nairobi airfield's non-directional beacon, ‘let-down’ system was out of date – in fact, obsolete. The antiquated Embakasi NDB system utilised two locator beacons, and was characteristic of the outdated conditions still existent in Africa. It was scheduled to be replaced by the more efficient ILS1 that was used globally and regarded as the minimum, the essential safe landing aid for the more demanding jets like the Boeing.

We extended the approach flaps and our undercarriage and then, at a rate of 500ft per minute and an indicated airspeed of 140 knots, began descending to 5,600ft altitude – 300ft above the airfield. We would maintain this height until we had flown over the inner NB locator. Soon after that, we hoped to catch sight of the approach lights and the runway itself through any gaps in the low clouds. If no sighting was made, the throttles would be opened up for a ‘go around’ and the landing would be aborted. It all sounds so straightforward and easy, and of course I had done it on many, many previous occasions. 

Prior to reaching the inner NB beacon, I advanced the engine power as usual, to maintain speed and adjusted the elevator's upward trim to be able to hold the 300ft clearance above the ground. Then I allowed the plane to drift slightly below 300ft above the ground to make sure that I would be able to land off this approach.

Suddenly we slipped beneath the cloud’s base. At the same instance my co-pilot, Captain Brian Bird, called out, ‘Lights ahead.’ I looked up from the flying instruments to discover with horror that the runway's approach lights – now burnt forever on my mind's retina – appeared to be at a much flatter angle than they should have been. We were dangerously low. There was a sudden jarring impact and the rumbling sound of our wheels on the ground, invisible in the darkness.

Later, the Nairobi inspector was to find that there was a difference of sixty feet between my altimeter and that of my co-pilot. And both read thirty-five feet higher than they should have. The aircraft was flying much lower than both our altimeter readings. 

I immediately slammed the four throttles into take-off power and yanked the control column back. My instinct was to get back into the air safely and assess the damage. 


Never before in civilian flying had I been so shaken as now, but far, far worse was still to come.

I climbed to 8,500ft and requested the navigator to give me a course to Entebbe where there was the chance of better conditions. We would have to climb to above 30,000ft again to avoid running out of fuel. 

Our first indication of damage was when my Flight Engineer, Don Smith, reported that the pressurisation in the cabin, essential for passenger and crew survival at 30,000ft, was out of action. We would not be able to divert to Entebbe. We would be forced to land at Nairobi. 

The next devastating news from Don was that all hydraulic fluid had been lost. This meant we would not be able to hydraulically lower the undercarriage again. Nor could we operate the landing flaps to reduce our stalling speed coming in to land. Without flaps and with ‘clean wings’, we would be forced to fly at a higher rate of knots to avoid stalling. Our wheel brakes would also be non-functional without hydraulic fluid. Once on the ground, with no wheel brakes, we would not be able to slow the plane.

Then, to add to our plight, Brian, my co-pilot, and I also came to the shocking realisation that our most important blind flying instruments, the two gyro compasses2 and artificial horizons, as well as our two hand-setting directional gyros were dead. On top of that, we began to suspect the reliability of some of our other instruments, as well as our ADF receivers3.

We would have to resort to using our back-up bad weather flying instruments. They consisted of a pre-war Tiger Moth-type, basic ‘turn and bank’ indicator, and the emergency magnetic compass. But this compass was likely to become unstable whenever one executed any manoeuvres. It frequently gave a delayed response and only indicated accurately after the plane was again flown straight, level and at a constant speed. 

These basic instruments were totally inadequate to handle a large and fast jet efficiently, especially in the worsening weather conditions. With only primitive instruments, precision flying was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.


I was stunned and in shock. Understanding the enormity of our situation, I felt completely helpless. Automatically I was going through the motions of handling the plane, but what I felt was despair. 

Brian must have realised my state of mind, and he urgently asked, ‘What are we going to do, Chris?’

No matter what I felt, I had to pull myself together. ‘We’ve got to go down again … now.’

The tension in the cockpit was oppressive. Nobody spoke. My silence may have come over as calmness, but it was far from the truth. Into the silence, Don’s voice was urgent and shrill, ‘Captain, we don’t have enough fuel for another go-around. This is our only chance.’ If we missed the runway on this approach, we would all be goners. I had anticipated this bad news but it nevertheless came as another disheartening shock. 

Once more I began the bad weather let-down approach procedure. This required some hairy, blind-flying manoeuvres low in the cloud until the inner NB locator needle once more indicated that we were near the correct runway heading. Each of my actions was critical.

We passed over the inner NB locator. We were still in solid cloud. I let down further, anticipating the appearance of the runway's threshold lights. But, we never saw them. There was no break in the clouds. With every second that passed, I despaired of ever seeing the runway. 

Then, a miraculous gift. We were given a last minute, life-saving reprieve.

1 ILS – Instrument Landing System.

2 A gyro compass system has a remotely located unit for sensing the earth's magnetic field. It incorporates a gyroscope to provide stability. This operation requires electrical power. A variety of cockpit indicators can be driven by a gyro compass system, including a radio magnetic indicator (RMI) or a horizontal situation indicator (HSI).

3 ADF equipment determines the direction or bearing to the NDB station relative to the aircraft.

'By the Seat of my Pants: Memoir of a Pilot' is available from Amazon.

Here are some reviews:

Chris Rosslee entered a life of adventure spanning both war and peace times the minute he laid hands on a yoke. It started with early piston-engine aircraft to modern jets. His spirit of adventure carried him into his active retirement and later years. A must read for aviation enthusiasts and anyone wanting to read a true-life story lived to the full that one can only envy. Brilliant book!
I loved every aspect of this book, from the storytelling to the aviation stories and detail to learning more about the SAAF during the war as well as the post war development of commercial flying at SAA. The tale of his early days to his war years to his commercial flying are all equally absorbing. The book is beautifully written and a fascinating story of a fascinating pioneer of aviation in South Africa. Highly recommended.
A great story about learning to fly, and flying in the 1940’s and thereafter. Chris was one of the rare breed of aviators that truly saw the great change of learning on post WW1 aircraft to eventually commanding a B707. These were men of a courageous disposition. As someone who has operated many Johannesburg to Perth flights in some of the most modern airliners, I’m in awe of those that flew DC7’s, 3000nm from Mauritius to the Cocos Islands. Along with Fate is the Hunter and Chickenhawk, I would add this to every young pilot’s list of essential reads.
One does not have to have an interest or a link to aviation to appreciate and thoroughly enjoy the book ‘By the seat of my pants’. Rather than an autobiography it is a memoir of interesting events and exciting experiences during the life of Chris Rosslee. Memoirs start with his early life in South Africa, the trigger of his desire for and dedication to aviation, his wartime experiences as a bomber pilot, his time and experiences flying throughout Africa with its minimalist aviation facilities. Flying for South African Airways during the apartheid years when SAA was banned from overflying African countries, A competent and dedicated pilot and respected leader. After retirement from civil aviation his restless and adventuresome spirit drove him to purchase a sailing yacht which he cruised around the world for a number of years accompanied by his family. Other than a captivating and easy read, it is an inspirational story of a real life South African hero. The book is beautifully compiled and edited by Chris’s daughter Gail Iris Rosslee
I have just read “By the Seat of my Pants”. What an amazing read and a man. You must be so proud of him and his exploits. I even shed a tear after reading page 401. Great emotional stuff. Your dad was a legend in the aviation world and hopefully the book will get him the recognition he deserves.
It's one of the best flying books I have read, and I have read many. Your final chapter really rounded it off so well and knowing a few folks who lost their soul mates of many years, made it all so real for me.