Published in June 2015 issue

It was bound to happen at some time; I had landed in the “Bridget Jones” crisis, parachuting toward my 30s with no seriously special person in my life.

By Nuala Galbari and Gary Winstead

For the past six months, I had been flying a pleasing little contract with one airplane and two crews, based on a Mediterranean island. I couldn’t really complain, yet many of those sunset walks along the beach or harbor were solitary. It was winter 1977, and approaching Christmas; I needed to get away for a little to regroup, so I sat down with my chief F/A over a glass of Villa Doluca, and asked her if I could take a week in London.

“Everything all right?” she asked sympathetically.

“Yes,” I replied, suppressing a groan. “I just need to reconnect with Notting Hill Gate, Selfridges, and friends.”

She gave me that knowing smile. “I’ll make arrangements with THY (Turkish Airlines) and we’ll drop you off at IST on Monday.” (Our airline connected with the London flight.)

Prior to the Mediterranean contract, I had occupied inadvisable lodgings in England, having rented a room in a house owned by a hypnotherapist. I hadn’t known at the time that he was part of a witches’ coven with some strange connections in that arena. However, I often felt ill-at-ease in his house and was grateful when the airline contract was offered, providing me with an opportunity to escape. I had kept my room for the summer but, when the contract was to be signed for a further year, I notified him that I would not return to London—news he did not take well, following, as it did, the disappearance of two Australian boarders who had left behind a colossal phone bill.

Upon my return arrival at LHR (London- Heathrow) in December, I chose to check in to a small, private, residential hotel near Notting Hill Gate, one I had visited before.

The Austrian landlord welcomed me back for the week and provided a small room overlooking the garden. I had hoped for a quiet week, but that wasn’t in the plans, so the hotel stay turned into an episode right out of Fawlty Towers, resplendent with similar characters (more on them later). Sitting in the tiny room on the first night back, I put a cassette into the player and sat down with a cup of tea, while listening to Rodrigo’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” The music seemed appropriate—I felt like I had definitely hit rock bottom.

Meanwhile, back on the island, N731 Tango, our trusty Boeing 720B, was also experiencing a tumultuous week. The crew was suffering from cockpit management resource issues with a newly-arrived captain.

Gary Winstead, our flight engineer, reported from the island, “We had an engine become uncontrollable on takeoff, which we aborted. We had been waiting for a big fan 707 from Berlin to replace N731T and had encountered problems with this engine for about one week. So, on this particular afternoon, we returned to the ramp, performed a shut-down restart then returned to the end of the runway for takeoff.”

The flight was scheduled to depart from ECN (Ercan) to ANK (Ankara) at 14:00 hours, and they had a full passenger load for the 45-minute duration.

Gary reported, “We made a normal takeoff and, shortly after rotation, the anti-skid showed all wheels were releasing [an instrument warning that the tires or wheels are too hot].”

Management of this situation requires leaving the gear down during the climb, resulting in a normal cooling of the wheels, a maneuver all pilots practice during training. If overheated wheels or tires are returned to the wheel wells where there is no air circulation, the tires and wheels may explode and/or catch fire.

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What happened next was inconceivable:

Captain: “Gear Up.”

F/E: (Grabbing F/O’s arm): “No! We have all wheels releasing—they’re too hot.”

Captain: “I said, Gear Up!”

Following the captain’s command, the first officer raised the gear. After about ten minutes, the F/E and F/O could discern a loud rumbling sound coming from the cabin, yet the instruments were not displaying any fire warnings or fluid leaks.

F/E: “Maybe I should go back in the cabin, raise the carpet and look at the main tires?”

Captain: “What difference will it make? We are going to ANK anyway.”

The remaining flight duration was 35 minutes.

Gary continued the story: “We landed in ANK with six main tires flat, and stopped quickly. The captain pushed on to the taxiway. At that point, I exited through the lower hole from the navigation station and encountered a smoking mess. I immediately returned to report to the captain; he simply nodded, but said nothing.

“We continued to the ramp, the captain powering up the aircraft, pushing her through the snow on the tarmac. As I recall, it took about 25 minutes to reach the ramp. During that time, the Turkish ground crews were signaling frantically to stop the aircraft, but the captain pushed on. The ground crew sent out a ‘follow me’ truck, whose driver waved his hands high in the air, signaling to the captain; still he pressed on, ignoring the communication attempts.

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“When the aircraft stopped at the gate, the passengers were quickly unloaded. The F/O and I stood in absolute shock, looking at the flat tires, and a long, deep groove that the aircraft had precipitously cut through the tarmac on the taxiway and ramp.”

The company received an invoice for $500,000 from the Turkish Airports Authority for the intended repair of the taxiway and ramp.

Gary concluded: “The following year, now working for another airline, I again passed through ANK. After landing, as we taxied in toward the gate, the captain said, ‘Look at THAT! Look at that huge, long hole in the taxiway and ramp! I wonder what the hell happened there.’ I smiled, but remained silent.” (Who knows how or where or even if the half a million dollars meant to repair that gash were spent.)

A few days after the original ANK episode, N793NA, a Boeing 707, arrived from Berlin and, following tire replacement, N731T was ferried to Berlin for maintenance; she returned to Cyprus for two more years.

I had also returned to Cyprus for two more years, and N731T was the last B720 I flew during my career.

As for the London trip, my week’s stay was punctuated by an ill-tempered chef, an overindulgent housekeeper, an inebriated waiter and an insanely jealous landlord’s wife who targeted any young woman staying at the hotel with seething remarks at the breakfast table, accompanied by a refusal to assist in the most minute requests. In a bizarre attempt to soothe the guests, the cheerful Austrian landlord would just keep laughing raucously, his red face stressfully creased.

The hypnotherapist had slunk off to his Hertfordshire witches’ coven. The London weather turned malevolent, and I packed up early and left for IST (Istanbul), connecting with our ECN (Ercan) flight to Cyprus, unaware of the tale of the blown tires and torn runway at ANK—and delighted to see N731 Tango awaiting my arrival at Istanbul.

Our crew tumbled into the bus at ECN sometime after 23:00 hours, opened wine and beer in the back, and continued on our merry journey over the mountains to Girne/Kyrenia.

Not long afterward, our aircraft was impounded at ANK for unpaid bills, its operating crew receiving a nice little holiday during the fractious negotiations.