An Emergency in the Air
I was returning from Israel with a group of 15 Christian pilgrims. We had driven by bus from Jerusalem to the international airport in Amman, the capital of Jordan where we had waited some hours for our flight’s departure. As the aircraft, a Royal Jordanian Tristar, lifted off the runway I could see in my mind an illuminated picture of the word “maintenance”. After a quick prayer for the journey I forgot the experience. It was after midnight, we were tired from our journey and we began to sleep. It was October 17, 1985.
After some 8 hours we touched down in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, where we were not allowed off the aircraft. During that stopover one of my group, a former safety officer in the US Air Force, showed me through the window from his seat, a row of rivets on the wing which had been vibrating severely during the flight. Rivets are not supposed to vibrate so he sent a message to the captain.
We took off and as the airplane climbed to about 23,000 feet I glanced towards the back of the cabin. I was seated about the center of the cabin. I noticed thin wisps of gray smoke coming from the galley at the rear. At first it looked like burning toast. But of course they don’t make toast on airplanes. The smoke increased filling the cabin until it was difficult to see. The smoke contained a heavy black carbon deposit. Passengers began to cough and splutter. A stewardess’ voice came on the intercom. She was obviously crying and trying to instruct us, between sobs, in preparation for an emergency landing. The aircraft was now in a steep descent and the captain appeared grim faced striding to the source of the smoke.
Cabin crew began handing us small towels saturated with water through which we were to breath. We were instructed to remove our shoes. We were told to discover under the seat where our life jacket was stowed but not to remove it until we were instructed to do so. We were instructed how to put the life jacket on and inflate it. And then we were asked to sit in a crouched position with head down near our knees with seat belt fastened. Our instruction was to expect a forced water landing.
My recollection was as if entering a timeless state. I mean by that, that I couldn’t remember how long the aircraft was in this steep state of descent or the relationship of events in time.
We were then given new instructions. This time to prepare for a forced heavy landing upon land but I cannot recall how long after the first preparation for the water landing that was. In these instructions we were told to keep our shoes off, to brace ourselves in a similar manner as above and when the aircraft came to a halt we were to leave all possessions behind, follow the illuminated line on the aircraft floor to the nearest exit. We were told that the doors would be open and we were to slide down the inflated chute to the ground. When the airplane hit the ground it was a smooth landing and in fact we were on the runway at our destination, Singapore airport.
The Human Reaction
As the smoke increased and the aircraft began the steep descent it was evident something was not right even before safety instructions were given by the crew. When instructions were given there was no mention or description of what the source of the problem was.
The aircraft was full. As I surveyed the passengers there was some quiet weeping. A father was quietly settling his young child. A little murmuring here and there. Evidence of an anxious conversation between husband and wife. Young mothers cuddling their babies closer. The cabin crew, especially the women, were disturbed and upset and that was particularly evident as one stewardess spoke over the intercom to the passengers. There was no sign of hysteria, no shouting, no blaming or abuse of the crew.
I was a private pilot. I had served in the New Zealand Air Force until a few months before this incident, not as a pilot but as a chaplain. I have flown in all types of aircraft and in a variety of circumstances both civilian and military. I have “flying in my blood” as they say. I had wondered how I would react in a serious emergency in the air. This was it. I discovered “a peace which passes all understanding” as the Bible puts it. I was fully aware of what was taking place. I was concerned for my group and how they were reacting. I knew one member suffered from claustrophobia and was especially concerned for her. As I caste my eye over each member of my group they were obviously peaceful, all heads down either praying or singing hymns.
After the event while we were waiting for our luggage at Singapore airport the conversation was not tense or strained. No one spoke of fear, either gripping or light. The fire was extinguished by the time we alighted the aircraft. We didn’t use the chutes; we used steps that were brought alongside the aircraft. From the outside we could see the evidence of the fire, blackening around the third engine, which is mounted in the tail section. I think the greatest reaction in our group was to being sent off for a long wait till the baggage arrived. The only instruction we were given was that it might be a long wait. There was no food available and we were each given a bottle of soda.
In this situation I had no thought that this could be the end of my life. My attention was devoted to those around me and in that sense I was occupied. My wife was not with me and there was no thought that perhaps I will never see her or our children again. In fact of the two movies I have seen of such an experience the Hollywood portrayals contained absolutely no similarity to my experience on October 17, 1985.
The Technical Report
Some weeks later, the member of our group who was a former U.S. Air Force safety engineer, received the technical report of the incident. A fire in the rear engine burned through the rear bulkhead and the hydraulic lines that enable control of the rudder for turning and the elevators for climb and descent were rendered unserviceable. This also accounted for the failure of oxygen masks appearing which would have been used to prevent smoke inhalation. Instead we were given wet towels to breath through.
A week after our arrival back home in New Zealand a friend who leads a prayer group wrote telling us that one of her prayer group had telephoned her early on the morning of October 17th concerned for our safety. She had prayed when she was awoken in the night and gathered the group together to continue praying. Considering the time difference [New Zealand is several hours ahead in time] we understood that the alert was received, by the awakened prayer, before the incident and the group met at the time of the incident. We are extremely thankful.