Published in September 2015 issue

By John Marshall

The sun rises behind us, the rosy glow of the dawn pushing us along as we climb northwest over Sumatra. Below, the earth still slumbers in darkness, and cotton webs of fog trace the meandering rivers. Behind us, in the cabin of the old 747, sit 495 Indonesian Muslim pilgrims, bound for Mecca and the holy Hajj.

Under charter to Garuda Indonesia Airlines (GA), our 747 is part of a huge operation that, this year, will transport nearly 125,000 of the faithful on their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. For many, the journey will consume a life’s savings, hoarded for this holiest of undertakings. Most of their numbers are middle-aged or elderly and some are relatively well-to-do; the trip is not cheap. Of the thousands that begin the pilgrimage from their homeland, nearly 400 will never see Indonesia again, succumbing to the merciless heat and dehydration that this arduous journey entails. A few will vanish without trace. In two weeks, most will return, having satisfied their religion’s most sacred requirement—the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest of Islamic cities.

On its tail, our airplane carries the surrealistic image of the Garud, the mythical beast that is half-man, half-eagle; the chariot of the Hindu god Vishnu. There is irony in the fact that our aluminum chariot carrying Muslim pilgrims flaunts the likeness of an infidel god.

The operational environment is harsh and unforgiving. Middle Eastern summers are marked by oppressive heat. Sand and dust storms are frequent occurrences, making already-difficult travel even more so. Temperatures on the earth’s surface routinely reach 125°F. Airplanes don’t perform particularly well in such temperatures, and people, particularly westerners used to a more temperate climate, have a tough time of it as well. Available lift for takeoff is considerably reduced; fuel loads must be cut to protect the payload, and operations that would normally be conducted nonstop must now stop for fuel. Jakarta (CGK) to Jeddah ( JED) cannot be flown nonstop with 495 passengers aboard. Abu Dhabi (AUH) is now less than three hours away, across India and the storm-flecked Arabian Sea.

Puffy cumulus clouds begin to build and, as we near Chennai, on the Indian coast, they grow more ominous and menacing. Lightning flashes continuously from a long line just off to the right of our course; it rises far above our altitude. Through the canyons of white clouds, I can see the city below, nestled into the hills on the coast. We are now slaloming through halls of clear air between towering ramparts of white and grey. To the north, a solid line stretches from horizon to horizon. On the radar, it reflects as an angry red—the worst color— and I am thankful it is not 50 miles further south.

Suddenly there is a bang, then another, and then a sickening lurch that shatters our calm routine. All eyes snap to the instrument panel and the gauges that monitor the health of our big Pratt & Whitney engines. They steady momentarily and, for a period, I think it was a mirage, a blip in time that will not repeat. Wishful thinking. The bang repeats, like a recalcitrant child clamoring for attention. Compressor stall, I instinctively think. The number two engine is spinning down, its vital signs ebbing rapidly.

Harry, the flight engineer, reaches up with a practiced motion and quickly tries to revive the dying engine—to no avail. Jerry, my number one, is flying the airplane, and he struggles to keep the giant Boeing stable. As we take stock of the problem, I realize that our first priority must be to negotiate a new altitude. The height that is comfortable and optimum for an airplane with four healthy engines is considerably higher than that attainable on only three. We must descend without delay. Chennai Control (MAA) is not a radar environment— this is a developing country—and making our desires known to the Indian controller presents an immediate problem. We must start down soon. We are clear of clouds and I know that no everrevealing radar will betray us, so I nod at Jerry and tell him to begin the descent visually; we will keep a sharp eye out for other traffic. Often, just keeping an ear cocked to the radio transmissions will reveal more about the traffic situation than any controller. It takes several minutes, but we are finally able to communicate our predicament and are recleared to a level that we can safely maintain on three engines. Safely ensconced at our new altitude, the downside soon becomes apparent: much of the weather now towers well above us.

The number two engine is now recumbent; comatose and inert. Its only pulse is the force of the wind twirling the big fan. Harry goes through the litany of formal engine shutdown, virtually giving it the last rites, and we discuss trying a relight. I can see no reason not to, although, in my gut, I feel that it will be a futile exercise. We read the checklist together, going through the relight procedure, while Jerry is busy stabilizing the airplane on three engines at our new altitude. To our amazement, the engine lights off, but our joy is short-lived; number two will not run aboveidle power. It protests loudly and violently at any movement of the thrust lever. At idle thrust, however, everything is within normal operating limits, so we decide to let it run. Perhaps it will carry its own weight.

Other matters press for my attention. What is to be our course of action? The Indonesian authorities have been emphatic in their statements that landing in India with an airplane load of Muslim pilgrims is a definite no-no, and should only be undertaken as a last resort. Political considerations must be factored into the delicate equation along with the operational imperatives. Can we nurse the crippled aircraft a thousand miles to the far side of the Arabian Sea?

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I explore the options. We are nearing Mumbai (BOM) with every passing mile and, if we can possibly get a reclearance to a more northerly track, we will pass only 280 miles south of Karachi on our transit across the water. Karachi has a superb airport (KHI) in a Muslim country. Harry and I get to work figuring three-engine fuel specifics and also work out a worst-case scenario: What if we lose a second engine and are forced to proceed on two?

We switch to Mumbai Control and I begin the delicate negotiations for our new routing. I do not specifically mention that we are flying on only three engines, but I have to assume that the Chennai controller has already mentioned it. We wait several minutes until, finally, I can heave a sigh of relief as the word comes through: we are cleared as requested.

The flight deck settles down to some semblance of routine. Now, the critical factor is fuel. The airplane will consume nearly 17% more fuel on three engines than on four. Harry and I work and rework the figures, and then I take control of the airplane and have Jerry do the same. The hours and years of experience pay off—we all come up with nearly the same figures. For the umpteenth time, I plot the distance left to fly on the chart, and it all comes out to the same conclusion: we should be able to make Abu Dhabi with an adequate margin. Not bounteous, but adequate. Just a few miles to the north of Abu Dhabi is Dubai (DBX), and Muscat (MCT) is on the way. One thing that the Middle East has in great abundance is lots of long, unobstructed runways.

As we cross over the west coast of India just north of Goa, we take our first accurate fuel reading and get a pleasant surprise. The limping number two engine, pulled reluctantly along by its mates, actually appears to be carrying its own weight fuelwise. Our three-engine consumption numbers are now considerably better than the book predictions. I take a deep breath. Now, all we have to worry about is the other three engines holding together.

The monsoon clouds recede behind us, and only a few towering anviled cumuli dot the western horizon. The sea below is an opaque azure, featureless and smooth. Nearly 800 miles of open water lay ahead of us before we will raise the as yet unseen Arabian coast.

We settle into a routine, and the butterflies finally settle to an uneasy landing in my stomach. Back on autopilot, and monitored with wary eyes, our wounded machine soldiers on. I work the fuel figures once again and, each time, they are better.

Karachi passes abeam, unseen, almost 300 miles to starboard. We are now in communication with Karachi radio on the high frequency long-range radio net, an activity that is usually time-consuming and frustrating, and demanding of infinite patience. Today is no different. Atmospherics are particularly bad on this afternoon. Static and interference fill my headset. Using the same frequency, and usually at the same time, are not only Karachi, but also Mumbai, Delhi (DEL), Chennai, and Kabul (KBL), and probably others that I don’t know about. I spin the frequency control, searching for a clear channel. Voices rise out of the ether from across the sea; I hear Qantas (QF) and Swissair (SR) as though calling through some long dark tunnel. I picture their crews, content and snug in their cockpits, bound for destinations that cannot help but be nicer than my own.

I am ultimately successful in making contact; Karachi replies faintly to my persistent calls. I pass our position and estimate for landfall, at which point, we will be in range of the more reliable VHF controllers in Muscat.

We press on into the afternoon. The arc of the sun pushes the sharpening shadows across the cockpit. The slate blue expanse stretches below us, disappearing far ahead to the indefinite horizon. The sky is now nearly cloudless, a pale blue that reaches into the lemon yellow haze ahead, and the miles click off the inertial navigation readout with monotonous regularity. The winds against us have strengthened and our groundspeed, never earth-shattering on our three-and-a-half engines, deteriorates further. We monitor the three remaining Pratts with a watchful eye, alert for the slightest hiccup. I run the fuel figures again with the new data. It will be close.

The blue of the western sky finally dulls, and merges gradually into a dusky brown as we near the Arabian peninsula. Crossing the coast of Muscat, I can see straight down but, ahead, the terrain disappears into a dusty haze. It is like flying into a bowl of café au lait. Off to the west, the great jagged peaks of an anonymous mountain range break the monotony of the landscape. The sun has descended far enough into the sandy pollution to be sharply defined, a red-orange ball hanging and slowly descending. It barely makes a shadow.

The safety-valve airports pass beneath, unneeded: Muscat, Dubai, Sharjah (SHJ). Abu Dhabi is finally within our grasp, and our fuel reserve is comfortable, not lavish, but comfortable. At long last, we are close enough to pick up the automated weather and airport data and learn that the ground temperature at Abu Dhabi is a balmy 122°F. There is very little wind on the surface, but even that will feel like a blast furnace.

The controller in the tower wants to know the number of souls on board—a routine request when an aircraft arrives with less than its requisite number of engines doing useful work. I work out the figure and it comes to 517. It is the largest number of bodies I have ever carried aboard an airplane; all the more reason to be doubly careful here.

The landing is an anti-climax, the clone of thousands of engine-out exercises done over the years in the flight simulator. Safely down, we roll carefully to the end of the three-mile runway to ease the strain on the heat-sensitive brakes, and taxi slowly back to the terminal, the long day finally over.

Tomorrow would present a new and different set of problems; tonight, we will relax.