Published in May 2016 issue

By Nuala Galbari

I enjoy a day in the country, especially if I am near the coast and can luxuriate in the fresh scents of both meadow and ocean. Normally, I might travel on foot or bicycle, in a Mini Cooper or even on horseback. However, on this particular summer morning in the late 1970s, our mode of transportation through the countryside was rather more unusual, not to mention surprising to some unsuspecting livestock.

We had made our usual trip in the crew bus from the hotel through Cyprus’ Five Finger Mountains to Ercan. The journey had taken us past the olive groves below and the glorious abundance of anemones (anemone coronaria) in the valley, and finally through the village of Tymvou, where the men drank tea and played the backgammon boards while the women and girls worked in the fields.

The unusually gray and cloudy day tempered the searing heat of a Cyprus summer as we made our way to Ercan International Airport (ECN) for our planned 09:00 estimated time of departure (ETD).

It was no secret that the Captain and the new co-Pilot did not enjoy a very friendly bond, and the journey was rather quiet that morning, with only the Flight Attendants (FA) chattering away during the 45-minute duration, and the Flight Engineer attempting to remain neutral.

The three Pilots entered the flight deck without speaking and we, the Cabin Crew, began our pre-flight. We had 149 passengers on our Boeing 720 that morning; everything proceeded in a routine manner, with doors closing behind schedule at 09:15 hours. I gave the ‘cabin secure’ to the Captain, closed the cockpit door and strapped in for takeoff. We taxied out and then paused for about five minutes before our takeoff roll.

The number-four FA, seated beside me, said, “I’m not sure I like this Pilot combination, but let’s hope for the best.” As the engines powered up and we began moving, we looked at each other and laughed briefly.

To my mind, there is nothing quite as exciting as takeoff (I haven’t yet been to space, so I can only speak of comercial aircraft). It’s an exhilarating feeling to leave the ground, as though chains are being removed, and one’s spirit at once becomes lighter. We had been flying from this airport for a couple of years and we  knew the exact position at which rotation occurred; however, this morning, we exchanged second glances when the engines powered down again at the end of the runway. The passengers seemed oblivious at first, but we knew that we were about to leave our runway end safety area (RESA) and cross a field. We didn’t know we would first travel through various shrubs and flowers and come to a stop, not long thereafter, amid a flock of brown and white-faced woolies.

We jumped up and checked outside the forward and galley door windows for any signs of smoke or other concerns. The aircraft had stopped, the engines shut down, and the passengers sat rather stunned, still strapped in, and watched us intently for our command.

I opened the cockpit door and, before I could utter a syllable, the Captain said, “No need to evacuate—just ensure no one smokes.” The FAs checked the passengers—all of whom remained calm and cooperative—while I made an announcement. We attended to the passengers and I then spoke with the Flight Engineer to determine when the ground crew would arrive to assist with deplaning.

May 2016
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Now, I must confess that we had an amazing planeload of passengers that morning—a mixture of British expats and Turkish-Cypriots, as well as several German physicians and Turkish nationals. Once it was clear that we were all actually alive and well, while ensuring that no one ‘lit up’ (many of our Turkish passengers tended to be heavy smokers), everyone relaxed and the murmur of conversation slowly revved up while we waited for the poor chaps on the ground to reach us with the airstairs. The scene was clearly a page out of the Planes, Trains and Automobiles script—the tow truck was out of commission and they had to rig up some other vehicle to haul the airstairs over the grass and through the now-disheveled shrubs. The sheep were having a ‘field day’ (pun intended), watching curiously, having narrowly escaped the grim reaper themselves, and with the arrival of a UFO in their pasture, it was a wonder that they hadn’t scattered off to the closest barn. On the contrary, the woolies appeared interested in the goings-on and actually began to approach the aircraft, bleating rather loudly in the process and bunching together like something out of a scene of a Wallace and Gromit animated film. And there we sat in the countryside, with a great view of the flock from our windows, awaiting our stairs and possibly a bus—about 45 minutes in total. I believe that the ground operations crews were in shock themselves and had to recover before they could offer assistance, for this was a very small airport with only a few daily flights, and our airline consisted of a single aircraft—a Boeing 720-027 (N731T, Yankee Kilo)—which, at 17 years of age, was nearing the end of its service life. Apart from a few twigs and some evidence of wool in the gear, the aircraft appeared to be undamaged.

Then, at around 10:00 hours, our competitor for the Istanbul (IST) route— Turkish Airlines—lifted off, the Pilots likely gazing smugly at our grass-fed aircraft enjoying its short holiday on the sheep farm.

If the atmosphere had been sterile en route to the airport that morning, it was quarantined on the trip back to the hotel.

The Captain was seated at the front of the crew bus beside the driver, while the co- Pilot retreated to the rear, with the Flight Engineer and our Cabin Crew forming a buffer zone in the middle. The trip seemed endless; we alighted from the crew bus in quiet desperation at the hotel entrance and went our separate ways. It would be years before I learned what had happened that morning.

It’s fascinating how small the aviation community really is. I eventually met an old friend who had known the co-Pilot’s girlfriend. Reportedly, in the days before CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) had reached its zenith, the Captain would advise the co-Pilot that he would do the takeoff himself and then, as the aircraft proceeded down the runway at close to 90mph, the Captain would unexpectedly hand off responsibility to the co-Pilot by simply announcing, “You got it!” While this behavior was unprofessional and could endanger the lives of all on board, imagine if the Captain had suffered a medical condition; the co-Pilot would have been in any case required to react in a split-second.

That is just what the co-Pilot had done in this case, deciding to abort the takeoff. The co-Pilot didn’t remain on the island for much longer thereafter and slipped off quietly, without a good-bye party, returning to his native New York.

One more thing about that day in the shrubs. About 30 or so Brown and white sheep, their quiet grazing disrupted, had sauntered over toward the passengers and crew, and a number of them trekked back with us toward the terminal building, which was a bit of a distance. A British passenger yelled, in a high-pitched voice reminiscent of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, “Oh look! The sheep are coming over!”

No one appeared to have a camera on hand, but the station manager reported that the sheep had later found a cool shelter when the sun appeared, gathering beneath N731T’s wings. Thus, the day had not been entirely lost.