it's a great life, if you don't weaken (matociquala) wrote,
it's a great life, if you don't weaken

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The plane they call The City of Edinburgh.

This is for jmeadows, with whom I am watching History Channel dramatizations of really insane plane crashes (we're on Aloha Flight 243, now, which is a plane from which a third of the fuselage tore in flight [And that is why you should always wear your seatbelt on an airplane.]).

The best real-life narrative I know, complete with heroism, twists, turns, and a really sadistic author, is about British Airlines 009--an even freakier incident than Aloha Flight 243.

I saw this story on Dateline two or three years ago and wrote up a description of the program for my group on the Speculations site. Since then, Wikipedia has obtained a writeup, but hold off on looking it up until you've gotten to the end of the story, because it gives away the punchline.


Essentially, the story starts with flight 009, a BA 747, leaving London about an hour late, bound for Auckland via India, Kuala Lumpur, and Perth. They were pushing to make up time, and arrived at the Indian destination only a half hour late--to be greeted by the wreckage of another 747 (4-engine double decker aircraft, for those that don't know) alongside the runway; there had been a crash 30 hours previous.

They continue on to Malaysia without incident, refuel, and in the dead of night set out for Perth at 37,000 feet, across the shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean.

For full effect, you have to picture this story being related by the extremely British and extremely proper flight crew, chief steward, and three of the passengers. All of whom are of an age to remember little items of interest such as the Blitz, and rather unflappable. You know that London tube bombing "cup of tea" icon? Yeah, like that.

Our Story Begins:

...with the captain excusing himself to go to the loo, leaving the aircraft in the capable hands of his first officer. Who shortly notices white glowing specks flickering against the windshield. In under a minute, the entire nose of the plane and the windscreen are going white.

By the time the captain can be summoned back to the cockpit, the entire plane is glowing. Including all four engines.

Meanwhile, back in the passenger compartment, the chief steward notices smoke, and begins a search for a suspected fire.

The plane is still glowing, which the first officer has--reluctantly--diagnosed as atypical St. Elmo's fire. Meanwhile, passengers note that the engines are glowing more brightly than normal, but it's not enough to cause concern... until fireballs and flames begin shooting from the rear of all four engines.

In the cockpit, the flight engineer informs the captain, "We've lost the number four engine." Moments later, they lose number two, and then --as the captain tells the story, "And then Barry said, "Good Golly, we've lost the lot."

This doesn't happen on 747's, by the way--they're designed to land on one engine if necessary.

The engines cannot be restarted. A victim of gravity, the plane begins to descend. The flight crew make the executive decision to attempt an engine restart at 29,000 feet, where the air will be thicker. Meanwhile, the cabin is filling with smoke, and the chief steward is forced to report that the cabin crew can find no trace of a fire.

Bad enough?

The aircraft's electrical systems fail. Now they're in the dark, in the Twilight Zone, breathing through oxygen masks in the world's biggest glider. The engine restart at 29,000 feet fails cold.

The first officer's oxygen mask malfunctions. The captain now has to decide whether to fly with an unconscious copilot, or bring the plane down further to keep him conscious.

He continues his descent.

The first officer radios Jakarta, the closest airport that can handle a 747. The first officer has a lovely radio voice, by the way--they played the tape. Words to the effect of "Jakarta, this is Speedbird 9, inbound with four engine failures, need emergency clearance" are spoken.

Jakarta air traffic control mishears. "Copy, Speedbird 9, we understand you have failure of engine number four--"

(Pause) "No, we have lost all four engines." (Silence) "Possible we may have to ditch."

--and utter silence, as Jakarta is obviously going--'what the fuck!? Crash foam. We need crash foam--'

The aircraft is making for Jakarta. When they realize they have another problem.

There's a ten thousand foot mountain range between them and the airport.

The pilot realizes they are not going to clear the mountain range, and calls his CSO--who has been wandering around, joking with the passengers--to the flight deck to inform him that they are going to have to ditch it into the ocean. Mrs. Betty Tootell (the author of the book cited in the Wikipedia entry) says, "And it occured to me that it was odd that it seemed so important to act well, when we were all going to die and no-one would know if we behaved."

The captain related that when his CSO entered the flight deck, he--the captain--simply turned to the CSO and said, "Do you get the fucking picture?"

The CSO apparently did, and went back to do what he could do about the passengers.

The plane drops below 13,000 feet.

The weird glow, the fireballs, the smoke--all vanish. Engine number one restarts. Engine number three restarts. In moments, all four are back online.

The pilot and first officer and flight engineer look at one another, shrug, and turn back for Jakarta.

They begin to climb to pass over the mountains--

and it all starts happening again.

Aha! There's something at 13,000 feet that's causing cascading failures! We can stay down here and run on four--whups, make that three--um, three engines to Jakarta....

The lights of the airfield come into view off the port side of the aircraft. The captain turns to make his descent--

--the airfield disappears.

The windscreen has somehow become opaque.

The pilot manages to land the aircraft by essentially pressing his face against the side window while the copilot shouts out instrument readings. Mrs. Tootell (remember her?) said it was the smoothest landing she could recall.

The Punchline:

As soon as the ground crew took the housing off the first engine, the crew chief knew exactly what had caused the bizarre effects and cascading failures.

Any theories, before I spill the beans?

Tags: footnotes to history, no shit there i was

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