If you’ve done much reading here, you know I like airplanes. So it might surprise you to learn that, as much as I like them, I don’t like to ride in them. Flying an F-16 or maybe a P-51?…awesome!!…sign me up. But a passenger in a jet?…no thank you please. I’m guessing it has something to do with control. If I’m the one doing the flying, that’s fine. To just sit in a plane while someone else flies is an entirely different deal.
As I come to Today’s History Lesson, I’m reminded of the joke where Robert and William were flying in a small twin-engine plane when it stumbled a bit in flight. The pilot came over the intercom and said, “I have to report that the plane has suffered an engine failure. But don’t be concerned. The plane was designed to fly on just one engine. We’ll be fine, but it will take us a bit longer to reach our destination. Relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.” Robert turned to William and said, “That’s a relief.” To which William replied with a roll of the eyes, “Just what I need…a longer flight. I suppose if the other engine goes out, we’ll be up here all day!!”
Of course, that’s not exactly how it works, as the members of British Airways Flight 9 discovered in most unpleasant fashion on June 24, 1982. Flying from London to Auckland, the Boeing 747 was carrying 263 passengers and crew over Indonesia when it flew into a volcanic ash cloud laid out by Mount Galunggung. A long time ago, we discussed how volcanic ash wreaks havoc on engines. Well, the 747 had four of them, and none were spared. One by one they surged and flamed out.
Since aircraft are reasonably good unpowered gliders, the stunned pilots began doing quick glide calculations to see how far they could travel. It became apparent that, with mountains in the area, they could only descend to 12,000′ before they’d have to turn away from potential airports and ditch in the Indian Ocean. Captain Eric Moody’s announcement to the passengers was, in retrospect, pretty humorous. But at the time, I doubt anyone laughed. Over the intercom he announced (and I apologize in advance for the naughty word), “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Uh…sure…I’m not in distress. Not the words I’d ever want to hear. But unlike so many passenger jet stories, this one has a happy ending. As the plane neared the 12,000′ threshold (and nearly 15 minutes after the last engine shut down), the crew were able to start one of the engines, which slowed the descent. Then another restarted, which allowed a very slow climb. And then the final two fired off.
It’s impossible to imagine the relief in the cabin. Passengers, many of whom were scribbling out farewell notes to families and loved ones, well…again, I can’t begin to know what they were thinking. Taken to the precipice and pulled back at final moment. I bet there was a lot of cheering when the plane finally touched down.
And maybe more than a few said, “Never again. I’ll ride a boat, I’ll ride a bike, I’ll walk. But never a plane ride.” That would be me.