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Best of Airways — Two Turning, Two Burning

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Best of Airways — Two Turning, Two Burning

Best of Airways — Two Turning, Two Burning
July 28
14:00 2017

By John Marshall • Airways Magazine, December 2016


Well, not exactly burning. Comatose was more like it, but it doesn’t rhyme nearly as well. It is an apt metaphor, however, for a flight, I will never forget.

It began like most, a routine flight from South Asia to Frankfurt. The flight was a bit out of the ordinary because, for the first time, we were flying over the Soviet Union, taking a new route that had received government approval only after lengthy and tedious negotiations. That the route was needed at all was due to the increasingly frustrating and expensive detours made necessary by the constantly changing and volatile political atmosphere that pervaded the Middle East.

Ever since the inauguration of round-the-world service, on their way to and from the Far East, our flights had put in at Istanbul, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran. One by one, these stops had been denied us. So had permission to over-fly many countries, resulting in an inefficient, political tip-toe through the region, a slalom past hostile borders on the long flights to Asia. It was like creeping through a darkened house, trying not to wake the dogs.

Finally, after one of our westbound 747s had been forced to land at Damascus and then endure six hours parked in a remote corner of the airport in the August sun—all for the lack of the proper daily over-flight number—negotiations with the Soviets for an alternative were begun in earnest.

The flight in question, a heavily-loaded 747, lifted off from the runway at Karachi in the dark hours of a May morning, bound for Frankfurt, over nine hours away. As the blood-red sliver of the sun split the eastern sky, we crossed the Soviet border and put ourselves in the hands of Dushanbe Control. From this point on, we would be hostage to a single airway, tracing a long sinuous curve towards the northwest and Moscow. We left the last VOR station behind; there would not be another until just south of the Soviet capital. Ancient non-directional beacons defined the airway from here on. Some were strong and reliable; others were commercial broadcast stations that were impossible to identify.

As we cruised steadily westward, they appeared at increasingly frequent intervals, each requiring its own full position report, even though the green interrogation light on the transponder never ceased its glow. At one point, somewhere east of the Aral Sea, the guttural voice of the controller informed us with a scolding, “Clipper, you are 600 meters left of course…”

The sun rose higher and full daylight found the flight cruising steadily westward south of Moscow. It was time for a higher flight level and, after the requisite delay, Moscow Control duly granted it. I reached for the power levels and gradually eased them forward to begin the climb.

Suddenly the symmetry of the needles on the engine dials was rudely and abruptly skewed. No. 1 engine was showing unmistakable signs of cardiac arrest. Shaken abruptly out of our early morning reverie, we brought our full attention to the forward panel and to the recalcitrant engine. It was soon apparent that this was no momentary hiccup.

Our attempt at a quick relight was unsuccessful and, after some frantic negotiation with Moscow, we were granted a lower level. After several minutes of intense concentration, we settled in at our new altitude and assessed the situation. Engines do fail, albeit rarely, for no readily apparent reason, flaming out silently in retaliation for some unknown slight or momentary abuse that remains unknown to the flight crew. I was ready to chalk this one up to one of those mysterious afflictions.

The engineer and I ran the full shutdown and restart checklists on our stricken soldier, but to no avail. We made HF radio contact with the company through Portishead Radio in England and told them of our problem. An update of current weather conditions along the route confirmed what our earlier briefing had promised: a pleasant, relatively cloudless spring morning over most of Europe. I saw no reason not to press on.

As we cruised on our three engines, I took a closer, sharper look at the new and untested route over which we were now flying. It was the first time for all of us in these parts, and I realized that we possessed only the very basic and rudimentary information necessary to navigate the airway. I was painfully aware that we had no charts for any of the major airports along the way, with the sole exception of Moscow Sheremetyevo. During all the years spent plying the airline’s worldwide routes, tucked away in the route manual, there had always been a ready supply of charts for emergency airports, available for any contingency. They covered the jungles of South America, the ice-covered tundra of the Canadian Arctic, the outback of Australia, the deserts of the Middle East.

Our route was spanking new. I suddenly realized that any coverage of the eastern and central Soviet Union was glaringly absent. I made a mental note to do something about this oversight when we got home. Little did I know that this lack of airport information would soon nearly become a tragic omission.

An hour passed, then two. We bore into the spring sunshine in our crippled machine, flying just on top of a hazy layer that permitted glimpses of the green earth directly below but offered little in the way of forwarding visibility. Once into Polish airspace, the controllers became a bit more flexible, and we were offered a direct routing that would cut off a cumbersome dogleg and save us nearly 75 miles. Gratefully accepted.

I was beginning to feel that we nearly had it made; the East German border was not far away and, not long after, we would be starting our descent for our landing at Frankfurt. For once, we would not have to endure the tedious delay vectoring that was becoming the usual procedure for midday arrivals. I was even looking forward to a certain schadenfreude in informing the Frankfurt controllers, the most hubristic and overbearing in Europe, of our priority requirement.

It was not to be. I casually reached for the throttles to make a speed adjustment (this was before the convenience of PMS and FMS; we were a manual operation) and, in shocked horror, watched the temperature on No. 2 engine, the inboard companion to our fallen comrade, begin climbing to unacceptable heights. Other parameters followed suit. Fuel flow and RPM needles were settling in unaccustomed places on the dials. In a few seconds, the temperature, the most critical of the engine signs, would be over the red line.

I eased the throttle back, back, attempting to control the steady rise of the EGT. In a moment, it was full against the aft stop. The temperature continued its deadly climb. There was no other solution: I reached for the fuel shut off lever and administered the last rites, then turned to the First Officer and said, “We’re going to Warsaw.” Tiny, terrified tentacles gnawed at my brain, each screaming, “Fuel contamination.”

The serenity and complacency of our spring morning evaporated with the speed of a fleeing rabbit. The airplane was going nowhere but down, and we had better get to Warsaw before it did.

Fly the airplane! That hackneyed, oft-repeated phrase from countless proficiency checks hammered at my brain. I disconnected the autopilot and turned toward what I hoped was the general direction of Warsaw. A quick glance at the en route chart and a hasty tuning of the navigation radio swung the needle, confirming that I was pretty close to the mark. Fortunately, the VOR was called Warsaw.

Other priorities clamored for my attention. The First Officer was an experienced hand, and communications were already under way with the Polish controllers. “We’ll need all the vital data for the airport,” I said. “Runway direction, length, field elevation… all that stuff.”

Fly the airplane! The First Officer nodded at me without speaking; he knew full well what we needed. I picked off a 2-3 engine drift down speed from a chart at my elbow and searched my brain for the essentials of the two-engine approach profile. The next item on the two-engine approach checklist involved the computation of a Vref speed, a simple exercise involving the addition of a couple of calculated numbers, something we do routinely every six months in the simulator.

Suddenly and without warning, my brain suffered a total shutdown—for the life of me, I was unable to come up with the number. The First Officer glanced at me and casually offered the number for my crosscheck. Like a finger snapping in front of my face, I was back in the game.

Looking back, I feel that I was the victim of temporary sensory overload… too much too fast.

The Flight Engineer’s voice finally pierced my thoughts, accompanied by the waving of a fistful of checklists. I turned to him and we went ahead with the litany, familiar from the dozens of similar exercises done every six months in the simulator. Except that this was no drill; this was for real, with passengers in the back. The passengers! My God, I had totally forgotten about them! The flight service team were all Indian nationals, green and inexperienced. How would they cope? Maybe better than most, I hoped; they were fresh out of school and totally motivated. I rang the overhead call button for the purser, then turned to the rapidly growing list of tasks clamoring for my attention.

The First Officer thrust under my nose a scrap of paper with the vitals of Warsaw Airport, including the news that the instrument runway was only 2,500m (8,200ft) long. That seemed awfully short to me. The airplane was still relatively heavy. I asked him to inquire about an alternative. Thank heavens, the weather was relatively good. As we descended, I could see further and further ahead into the hazy sunshine.

The surface wind was 5mps. How much was that in knots? I searched my over-programmed brain frantically for the answer. Was it twice as much…or half? I tried desperately to remember details of Warsaw Airport from my only entry years before.

It was at precisely this moment that the Indian Purser appeared on the flight deck. He took a quick look at the frantic activity before him and concluded that he was probably going to die in very few minutes, and prepared to bolt the scene. I caught him in time and gave him a rapid-fire briefing of the bare essentials. Luncheon had just been set out downstairs; I told him to get as many trays put away as possible, as we would be landing very shortly. Just a routine precaution, I said. Right! As he exited, I picked up a hand mic and made the shortest passenger announcement of my career, just hoping it wouldn’t scare anyone to death.

By now, we were down to 3,000ft, and I peered ahead, looking for the airport. Below us were tidy plots of farmland, with thatched-roofed houses and barns situated here and there. Where was the airport? We had slowed down enough to put on just a bit of flap when, suddenly, both the First Officer and the Engineer, pointing excitedly out ahead of the airplane, shouted, “There, just ahead!!” I looked over the nose and, sure enough, there was the airport. Saved!

But, just as quickly, I could see that something was amiss. The runway alignment was all wrong and, besides, the surface was covered with trucks and tanks! At that very instant, the controller’s voice came over the air, shrill in its urgency. “Clipper, you are left, of course, turn right…”

Suddenly, like a veil lifting, it all became clear and I knew exactly where we were. In the recesses of my memory, I could see the chart from years past. I remembered a military airport north and east of the civil field; that was what we were looking at! A simple 270-degree turn was all we needed, and we would be parked on a five-mile final for our runway, pretty as you please. Please, God, let me be right!

I began the left turn, slowly pushing the power levers up with my heart in my throat. No one knew why our engines had quit, but contaminated fuel was very much in the forefront of my mind. Just let the other two keep turning, I prayed. Now we were below 2,000ft and, again, the controller’s voice barked in my ear, this time agitated and insistent. “Clipper, stop turn! Stop turn! Is forbidden to overfly city below 3,000ft!”

The First Officer turned to me in confusion. “What shall I tell him?” he asked.

“Don’t tell him anything!” I said. “We’ll talk about it on the ground.” If we make it to the ground in one piece. And aren’t thrown into a Polish prison, to boot.

My neck ached from craning to look up at where I knew the runway had to be. More power, more speed! Thirty degrees of bank, the landscape turning slowly beneath us. Keep running, keep running! I prayed silently to the gods of Pratt & Whitney.

THERE! Appearing through the smoke and haze was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, the white concrete of runway 15, stretching out ahead of us in the sun. Down with the gear, and the rest of the flap and, in a moment, my trembling hands planted the stricken craft onto the marks. We slowly rolled to the end and turned off. A few more moments and we were safely parked, our overworked engines ticking as they cooled. For a long moment, in the sudden quiet of the cockpit, no one said anything. Then, I became dimly aware of a strange muffled noise. It took a few seconds for it to register. It was the sound of my knees knocking.

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John Marshall

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