I thought it topical to publish this today as it is my birthday as it was on the day this event happened. What a present it was!
What with all the plane journeys I have undertaken over the years I think I have been relatively fortunate in that a) I am still here and b) I am still not afraid to fly. One hears that flying is safer than driving a car but see how much that reassures you when you have one engine gone on a two engine aircraft somewhere over mid Atlantic. I can assure you that statistic is of little help as I personally discovered.
I was flying with my boss between Heathrow and Miami on an American Airlines 767. We had been put in seats 3 A and B in a nearly empty first class cabin and I had just tucked in to my favourite caramel topped ‘Ben an Jerry’s’ ice cream and settled down to watch ‘The Mask of Zorro (sad I know) on the in-flight screen. All seemed very well.
My feeling of well-being was shattered when we noticed there were some very scared looking cabin crew shuffling around. Something had clearly spooked them and this impression was confirmed when they delved into a storage container behind my seat and brought out a survival manual and a first aid box. I spontaneously wondered how the contents of the medical box would help if we plunged 35,000 into the ocean. It would take quite a few sticking plasters and gauze to patch us up after that I thought.
No announcements were made so one of us sidled up to a pale cabin attendant, identified us as being in the travel business and offered our assistance. She then explained about the engine malfunction on the starboard side resulting in it having to be shut down and that the remaining port engine could possibly malfunction too “at any time”.
We started to gradually reduce height whilst the captain talked on his radio to the authorities about our situation and requesting an airport to try and land at. I had heard that twin engine transatlantic aircraft are required by law to be no further than two hours flying time from an airport so I assumed we would be heading for Canada or northern USA. The instruction came that we should instead fly to Bermuda which was by no means the closest. I can only assume they sent us there because we would do less damage if we crashed. You se Bermuda airport is bordered on three sides by lagoon and the immediate area is sparsely populated.
The captain finally had to make an announcement. This was greeted by a stunned silence punctuated by the occasional scream. It certainly created a surreal atmosphere on the aircraft. The crew read, and re-read their emergency manuals, a few passengers demanded drinks. Many folk wrote short letters to their loved ones in case they may be discovered ‘afterwards’. To my shame I made them re-start the in-flight entertainment as I wanted to know if Zeta and Antonio lived happily ever after. I could not go to meet my maker without knowing that. Could I?
For some reason I could not stop thinking about that awful joke about the beautiful woman who, on hearing they were going to crash, stood up, took all her clothes off and told the stranger sitting next to her to “make me feel like a real woman for the last time”. “I will” he said, stood up, took off his shirt and said “here, iron this”. I looked at my boss sitting next to me and thought no. It would not be the same!
Anyway, we finally neared Bermuda and, by this time all preparations had been made. The crew had been great and even moved a frail old lady from the back of the aircraft to seat 1A in the hopes of getting her out quick. We offered our help again and this time they gave us a task. I thought it might be to take some ‘heroic’ position like opening the doors but it turned out we were to be used as human barricades! You see they were worried by too many people charging the exit and as we were both “large gentlemen” we were ideally suited for the task. There we were, possibly minutes from death and insulted over our weight. I vowed to go on a diet if we made it.
The captain told us his strategy. Basically we were between a rock and a hard place. If we successfully landed on one engine there would not be enough reverse thrust to stop by the end of the runway. If we tried to start the damaged engine on our final approach and failed it might have an equally catastrophic result.
In the end he went for the latter option and the time had come. We all got into the brace position and those that believed prayed. Incredibly the engine started and the AA pilot did the perfect textbook landing. The fire trucks wound their way back to their sheds looking like a swarm of slightly disappointed red bugs and one of the crew came on a speaker saying “thank you for flying American” I am not sure whether she was being ironic or not. Meanwhile I was asking around to see if anyone knew the ending of the Mask of Zorro.
I often think of that flight but strangely not always in a negative sense. There was a lot of bonding and human spirit shown. I also wonder what happened to those letters that were written and if any got shown. They would have said so many important things that only get revealed at times like that. Finally I learned never to tell my wife I watched the film rather than wrote her a letter!