Aviation is fixated, quite correctly, on in-flight safety. From the humblest sailplane or microlight to the mightiest 747, safety procedures have to be completed, to ensure that aircraft don’t drop out of the skies like confetti.
Before any aircraft takes flight, it’s crew must conduct a thorough inspection to make sure that it is in a fit state to fly. Cabin attendants will check every door and overhead locker, and ensure that all of their required safety equipment is in place.
Their pilot colleagues will also be checking all flight systems thoroughly. There are two elements to this – the internal cockpit checks, and what is known in the trade, as the “walk-around” or the exterior preflight inspection.
Each item to be inspected is laid out in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, or FCOM, and follows a carefully planned and logical sequence so that no item is left unchecked.
As an instructor, strict adherence to procedures is part of my everyday working life.
Here is my lighthearted look at the external walk-around procedure for the Boeing B747-400.
I think it’s a little better than writing about the procedure I follow on my own, much smaller aeroplane.
Whilst our Jumbo’s on the ground, Before each flight, we must walk round, And carefully check so many things, Are engines fixed, likewise the wings, Are panels shut, are windows clean, Do nav lights work, do lenses gleam, And as a safety-conscious fellow, Be sure to wear your vest of yellow, To help you check before night flight, Be sure to use your bright flashlight, Do just what the FCOM says, Check the tyres, and gear door bays, Check the cowls, and drain mast pipes, Inspect the engine pylon stripes, Look at the fin, and check the slats, The lightning wicks, and Fowler flaps, For safety’s sake – what could be worse? Than looking forwards whilst in reverse! Check the brakes and steering too, The vacuum outlet for the loo, The outflow valve, the pitot head, Oh boy – you should have stayed in bed, Cos whilst you check in pouring rain, The captains in the warm – AGAIN!
In September 2005 I decided that I needed a new flying challenge. I was stale. I completed my Instrument Rating a few years prior, together with my Multi Engine Rating, and Night Rating. I needed to rejuvenate my flying mojo. To do that I required a new challenge.
I was fortunate that I had been able to put some of the more interesting types of aeroplane into my logbook since getting my licence in 1989.
Through both training schools and friends, I had been privileged to sample the delights of many different aeroplanes. Reviewing my logbooks, I see many different types, from 1930s biplanes to Modern Hot ships.
Whilst I had flown a good number of tailwheel aircraft, and had handled them, I hadn’t completed formalised differences training which is required in the United Kingdom to fly one.
The necessary training was a short course consisting of a minimum of 5 hours flying time. Naturally, this was open-ended, and the number of hours required to complete the training is dependent upon flying ability and aptitude.
I flogged round the circuit at Redhill Airfield in G-BMKB, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub under the guidance of my instructor, Jim. Jim was a highly experienced tailwheel pilot, despite him being in his early twenties.
My general handling abilites seemed to be fine. Take offs were, shall we say, interesting in the early days, but with practice I could get the tail up and correct the swing nicely.
Landings however, were a different matter. My early attempt saw the little aeroplane leap back into the air like a startled Kangaroo, or slalom left and right as I wrestled with the rudder pedals to stop it chasing its own tail.
Jim normally sorted things out, and it wasn’t long before I could land the aircraft nicely in a three point attitude. I didn’t like wheeler landings – and still don’t, but I regarded them as a necessary evil.
I see that I completed my training in the minimum hours required, and have a nice sticker in my logbook proclaiming that I was comptent to fly more interesting types.
Towards the end of August in 2007, I decided that I would invest in a group-owned aircraft. A colleague at British Airways said that he wanted to get rid of his share in a Super Cub based at Redhill, and the price was right.
On a Sunny Saturday, I arranged to meet him and he would let me fly it prior to the sale.
I arrived at Redhill to find the aircraft sitting on the ramp outside the hangar.
I was walking towards the aircraft when I received a text message telling me that the seller was delayed by half an hour and that I should “Have a poke about and see what you think”
I did just that.
I opened the window and door, and had a good nose round the cockpit, which looked well kept, clean and tidy. It also had a radio and a VOR. Luxury!
I unclipped the cowling, and took a dekko at the engine, and whilst I was peering intently into the void I heard a voice say “Good Morning, are you interested in buying a share in Betty Boo?”
He looking meaningfully at the registration – G-BTBU
“She’s known by everyone on the field as Betty Boo”
I guess he was in his early sixties, with a mop of grey hair, and oil on his hands.
After a bit of general chit chat, he finally cut to the chase, and asked me about my flying background.
“Are you a shareholder in the group?” I asked. I wasn’t about to give my background without good reason.
“Yes” he replied, “I am. Been in the group for years”
“Well, if you must know, I learned to fly as an Air Cadet about six miles from here at RAF Kenley, back in the seventies”
He fixed me with a steady look, saying “I used to instruct at Kenley in the seventies.”
“What’s your name?” I asked
“I’m Stewart Rhodes.”
“Bloody Hell!” I exclaimed. “Dusty Rhodes! You sent me solo in 1976”
I shook his hand, but I could see that he was not convinced.
Anyway, I ended up buying a share in Betty Boo, and enjoyed flying her, after I had been checked out by Dusty Rhodes.
How weird. Small world?
Yes. The same man taught me in 1976 in a Kirby Cadet MkIII glider, and then sent me off again 31 years later in my own aeroplane.
Stellenbosch Airfield sits 414 feet above sea leavel, just to the South West of the small town of Stellenbosch, in South Africa.
Whilst Stellenbosch may be regarded as a medium-sized town, it does have a population in excess of 77,000 and has its own University.
Stellenbosch is also located squarely in the Cape Winelands, sharing this beautiful area with the towns of Paarl and Franschoek.
We had decided that we wanted to get to know more about South African wines, and what better place to discover the finer points than to tour some of the one hundred and fifty-odd vineyards and wineries along the Stellenbosch Wine Route.
Needless to say, we allowed for a full day of just cruising around the different venues, sampling the wine, and enjoying the Cape Dutch architecture, which I think has a timeless elegance.
So, having had a full day of cruising some lovely countryside, and meeting some really nice people, we drove back to our Bed and Breakfast accommodation to shower and change, and then we hit the town and found a place to eat.
The next day, I had cunningly (or not so cunningly, as SWMBO knew all about it) booked an aeroplane at the Stellenbosch Flying Club. The aircraft was booked for 1400, so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and then had a wander around the town.
Arriving at the Flying Club, I could see that the distant mountains were wreathed in clouds, but it was still VFR, and therefore still flyable.
I was flying with an instructor, as I wanted to see the local area, and after the swift obligatory checks of my licence, ratings and medical, we walked out to ZS-BFC, a Piper PA28-180 Warrior.
A quick preflight inspection and we started up, taxied out, and then we were off, climbing out to the north-west.
Our flight was to route via the Franschhoek Pass, and head south-east down the valley, and then once out of the constraints of the mountains we would turn back northeast, and head up to the small airport of Worcester.
You can tell that this area has been historically influenced by its colonists; Most of the town names were either Dutch-Boer or English – hence Stellenbosch and Paarl, Worcester and Robinson.
In fact, Stellenbosch was actually a British military garrison town during the Boer War (1899-1902).
The climb out was quite turbulent, as there was a reasonable amount of rotor and turbulence rolling off the mountains, and with three onboard, the aircraft was a bit of a handful.
Dirk, the instructor was happy to let me pole the aircraft around, and sat there pointing out landmarks, and giving me headings to steer to enable me to safely enter the Franschhoek Pass. By this time, we were flying quite high, and I was playfully stroking the cumulus with the wingtips, whilst ensuring that I kept in the middle of the valley.
It was alll updrafts and downdrafts, but great fun, and a real experience,
The most thrilling aspect of this for me was that I had never been true mountain flying before. A few years previously, whilst hours building in Southern California, I took training to get checked out to fly in to Big Bear (L35) which sits at an elevation of 6,752 feet.
Part of my lesson back then was to appreciate that even in a turbo-powered Piper Arrow with retractable gear, the rate of climb at 12,000 feet was negligible.
Once over the mountains, dropping down to Big Bear City was fairly simple, but decelerating on touchdown seemed longer. Take off was different too, having to lean the engine before I even lined up, and boy, I used up a hell of a lot of the 1783m of tarmac before I dragged the reluctant aeroplane into the air.
This flight was positively ethereal, creeping down narrow canyons, with the peaks rising majestically either side (and above!), and the dunn browns and ochres of the flatlands slowly morphing into flint greys and olive greens of the mountain passes.
At Dirk’s behest, I rolled the aircraft gently to the right, and the pass we entered almost immediately opened out into a vast valley, illuminated as if it were a religious painting by bright, golden sunlight that bathed the countless vineyards in a golden glow. This highlighted the variegated colours – deep reds, violets, yellows and shades in between.
I imagine that this is the South African version of New England in the fall.
We continued to fly, eventually dipping down into Worcester, where we quickly gained clearance for a touch and go, and thence onwards to the smaller airfield of Robinson, to the east.
Another touch and go, and then we routed back to Stellenbosch using a more northerly routing, returning back via Duiwelskloof Pass, to the east of Paarl, and then back to recover at Stellenbosch.
After landing, and putting the aircraft to bed, we enjoyed a slow meander back into Stellenbosch, to enjoy a great supper washed down with some of the best wines in the world.
I look forward to my next trip abroad.
Maybe I should consider South America? Perhaps Argentina. They should have a few Cessnas and Pipers that I could lay hands on for a potter.
The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.
Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!
I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.
Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.
He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.
“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”
“I’m here” was his reply.
Situation normal then.
I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”
Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.
If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.
If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.
So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.
A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.
Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.
The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.
Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.
Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.
The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.
Looking across at me, he grinned.
“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”
“I have it” I responded.
I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.
The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.
I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.
“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”
I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.
“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.
After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.
Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.
He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”
I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.
Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.
He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.
Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.
Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.
Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.
However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…
I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.
There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.
A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…
A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.
A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.
It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.
After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.
Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.
The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.
I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.
My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.
Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.
I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.
I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.
Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.
The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.
“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”
“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.
The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.
I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?
I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.
The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.
I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!
Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.
On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.
So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.
My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.
Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.
By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!
Or so I thought…
I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.
Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.
It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.
Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.
The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.
Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.
An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.
After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.
I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.
Not back then with so few hours.
So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.
The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.
Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.
“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”
Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.
Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.
My God! I had read about this, but never done it.
I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.
I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.
I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,
Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.
I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.
I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.
I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.
The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.
Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.
I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.
I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.
It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.
I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.
I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.
I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.
I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.
I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.
I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.
About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.
Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.
“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.
I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.
She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.
Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.
Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.
Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.
I felt hugely foolish.
“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”
“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”
I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.
Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”
The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.
So, What did I learn?
I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.
I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.
Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.
The water dripped sullenly off my jacket, creating audible “plops” as the droplets hit the polished wooden floor, where they co-operatively coalesced into a minor puddle.
I smiled at the barista, as she cheerfully passed my coffee across to me, proudly announcing “Caffe Latte Medio”, as if she were conferring a knighthood upon me.
I walked to an empty corner table, and sat down, shoving my rucksack into the corner.
Pulling my battered laptop computer out of its cover, I set up; the battery was full, my mug was full, and so I settled down.
I have had a life-long interest – a passion for aviation that has spanned fifty years. My early schoolboy heroes were the wartime pilots from both the Great War, and World War Two. In my teens, the trailblazing pilots of the 1920s and 1930s caught my imagination, and I read almost everything about the early fliers that I could lay my hands on.
By the age of thirteen or fourteen, I was familiar with the great pioneers – Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Jean Batten, Sir Alan Cobham, Neville Norway, Elrey Jeppesen and Wiley Post.
Over the years, I became familiar with the names of hero pilots, Al Haynes, and his flight deck colleagues who heroically flew their stricken DC-10 jet to its infamous crash landing at Sioux City.
Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal whose aircraft ran out of fuel over the wastes of the Canadian prairies, and who successfully glided to a safe landing at Gimli, a former Royal Canadian Air Force base.
More recently Captain Chesley Sullenberger was hailed a hero after ditching his fully laden Airbus A320 into the River Hudson after a bird strike critically damaged both of its engines shortly after take-off.
All these accounts tend to stick in the minds of the public, due to the courage and swift decision making of the flight crew.
Little is said about their cabin crew colleagues, despite many of them having been instrumental in saving lives – and sometimes dying in the course of their duties, and the spotlight tends to focus on the pilots.
This imbalance is probably not deliberate, but needs to be corrected, so after a little digging around, I found some accounts of very brave and courageous cabin crew.
Take the case of Barbara Harrison. She joined British Overseas Airways Corporation in May 1966, at the age of twenty one as a Flight Attendant (or Air Stewardess as they were known at the time).
On the 8th April 1968 she was rostered to operate BOAC’s Flight 712WE to Sydney. This long-haul flight was flown by a Boeing 707 – long and tiring, routing via Zurich, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Mumbai, Singapore and Perth.
Sadly, the flight was doomed from the start. It departed Heathrow Airport at about three thirty in the afternoon. During the initial climb out, the number two engine caught fire, and was so severely damaged that it fell from the aircraft, leaving the rest of the left wing ablaze.
The flight made an immediate emergency return back to Heathrow, where it made a safe landing. However, the fire on the port wing intensified to the point that the cabin windows were actually melting. Once the stricken aircraft touched down, the situation was so dire, that the cabin crew were beginning to start an immediate passenger evacuation.
Barbara’s crew position was at the rear of the aircraft, and her emergency duties were to assist the cabin attendant at the aft crew station in opening the appropriate passenger door, and help to inflate the escape slide, and then subsequently direct passengers to the door to make their escape.
The pair eventually managed to open the rear starboard door, furthest from the fire and fired the escape slide, however, during the deployment, the slide twisted, making it useless. Bravely, the steward climbed down the slide, and straightened it, leaving Barbara in the cabin to organise the evacuation.
She managed to evacuate six passengers before the slide was punctured, and deflated, but despite this she managed to evacuate a further five passengers through encouragement and in some cases forcibly ejecting them down the deflated slide.
She then moved to the port rear door, which was extremely close to the blazing left wing, but she still managed to evacuate a further five passengers before that slide was damaged by the intensity of the fire, and deflated.
21 year old Barbara Harrison was last seen in the doorway, looking as if she were preparing to jump.
She disappeared back into the blazing cabin in a desperate attempt to save the four remaining passengers – including a disabled woman and an eight year old girl.
She was never seen alive again.
She was posthumously awarded the George Cross in recognition of her selfless gallantry that day – the only woman to have ever received the award in peacetime, and the youngest woman ever to hold the George Cross.
Digging a bit further, I found out about Neerja Bhanot.
Neerja was a senior Cabin Attendant working with Pan American Airlines. She was just twenty-three when she was rostered to operate Pan Am Flight 73, scheduled to fly from Mumbai to New York on the 5th September 1986.
The flight was to be operated by a Boeing 747-100 series aircraft, and departed from Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International carrying 394 passengers, 9 infants, and 13 Indian cabin crew.
Flight 73 was planned to land twice before getting to New York, with stops at Karachi, Pakistan, and Frankfurt in West Germany.
Arriving at Karachi at 04:30, Flight 73 had disembarked over a hundred passengers, and was in the process of boarding the first busload of passengers for the next leg of the trip, when the aircraft was violently taken over by four Palestinian hijackers.
The Hijackers identified themselves as belonging to the Abu Nidal terrorist group.
During the ensuing confusion, Neerja managed to contact the flight deck and give the alarm, and the flight deck crew, following corporate policy, immediately evacuated the flight deck, thus leaving the hijackers with no means of flying the aircraft away.
This escalated the tension, and a passenger was arbitrarily selected, and taken to the forward aircraft door, where he was brutally murdered – shot in the back of the head, and thrown onto the tarmac from the aircraft door.
As the Senior Purser on board, Neeraj maintained her professionalism, and kept the passengers calm in an effort to stabilise the situation.
She was ordered to collect all of the passenger passports, and give them to the lead hijacker.
Realising that holders of US passports would be at the highest risk, she briefed her colleagues to hide as many of the US passports as possible, and many were hidden under seats, and the rest thrown down a galley refuse chute.
Realising the situation could only get worse, Neerja removed the page detailing how to open an aircraft door from her cabin crew manual, and slipped it into a magazine. Passing down the cabin, she passed this to a male passenger sitting adjacent to the door, instructing him to read the magazine carefully and to refer to it again later if needed. The page contained full instructions on how to open the door safely, and how to deploy the evacuation slide.
As the hijack progressed, The aircraft ran out of fuel, resulting in the aircraft’s Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) shutting down.
The aircraft was now only lit with the emergency lights, and this obviously unnerved one of the gunmen standing by the forward aircraft door, who opened fire in the darkness, aiming at the suicide vest worn by another of the terrorists.
The shot was inaccurate, and the desired explosion didn’t happen, but the sudden gunfire acted as a catalyst, causing the remaining gunmen to detonate explosives and open fire indiscriminately in the passenger cabin injuring and killing many of those on board.
Neeraj bravely opened doors, and assisted passengers in making their escape. Shot in the hip, and bleeding heavily, she was eventually evacuated to the local hospital, where she died of her wounds.
Stories on the internet suggest that she was shot whilst shielding three children, one of whom was so inspired that he learned to fly, and subsequently became a captain with a major air carrier, although I have found no corroborative evidence for this, not even in documented interviews with the crew.
There is no doubt in my mind though, that Neeraj saved many lives with her selfless actions that terrible day in 1986.
More recently, on the 5th May 2019, Aeroflot Flight 1492 left Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport bound for Murmansk. Shortly after take-off, the Sukhoi Superjet was hit by lightning, sustaining damage to its fly-by-wire flight controls, autopilot and radios.
It returned to Moscow, where it made an emergency landing. During the landing, it bounced heavily, and burst into flames.
Twenty-two year old Maxim Moiseev was positioned in the aft section of the cabin, where the intense fire struck first. Unable to open his exit door, he directed his passengers forwards, but died quickly in his valiant efforts to assist his passengers.
His colleague, Tatyana Kasatkina stationed in the forward part of the fuselage managed to kick her door open, and forcibly ejected passengers down the escape slide, saving many lives as she did so. This was conducted whilst the cabin was filling with pungent, acrid smoke, and with intense fire. Temperatures in the cabin were so high that windows were melting.
In all of these cases, many passengers only survived as a result of the courage, selfless bravery and cool thinking of their cabin crew.
Call them what you will – Flight Attendants, Cabin Crew, Stewards and Stewardesses, they have as much to be proud of in an emergency as their flight deck colleagues.
Next time you fly, show a little respect for the “hostie” or “trolley dolly” that is serving your meal, or bringing you another Gin and Tonic. Behind the uniform, or the make-up and smile, there will be a brave, highly trained and caring person – who could be the difference between life and death in an emergency.
Draining the last of my coffee, I closed the lid of my laptop, the article finished.
The sky was an azure bowl, and the scent of new-mown grass lay heavy in the mid-morning sunshine. The playful breeze toyed with the surrounding tents, causing them to billow and sway, like an insane troupe of Turkish Belly Dancers.
I wandered along, past ranks of parked aircraft, each one trembling slightly at each soft breath of wind. To the other side of the runway stood a mediaeval cluster of tents, gazebos and stalls, each accumulating untidy gaggles of pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
The subdued hubbub of conversation was suddenly overwhelmed with the electronic hiss of the public address system. The disembodied voice of the commentator rolled across the airfield, bouncing back from the surrounding hills, the echoes garbled and distorted.
The announcement was garbled, but I caught a few words and realised that a lost boy was being held at the First Aid tent. I wondered idly where his parents were. At the Burger Van? The Mobile Bar? Or were they queuing to use the lavatories?
The murmuring was quiet at first – almost beneath the threshold of hearing, but it gradually became persistent, growing in volume and engorging with tone. Suddenly the day was split apart with the thunderous yet melodious note of three vintage aeroplanes flying in perfect formation – appearing low over the trees at the Eastern end of the airfield.
The staccato high-pitched whine of motor-driven cameras was just audible above the palpable growl of the engines. Every spectator looked skyward, envying the superb airmanship shown by the pilots.
The flight swooped majestically around the airfield, the sun glinting on the polished cowlings, refracting off wings as they looped and rolled above the South Downs. They were gone as suddenly as they arrived, and peace reigned once more.
As I continued my ramble towards the end of the runway, I heard the much softer note of another aircraft engine. I spotted a single light in the sky, which grew steadily until it metamorphosed into a small aircraft.
With its engine at idle, the aeroplane passed me, sighing softly as it touched down on the bumpy grass, its nose nodding up and down, affirming a good landing. As I watched, it slowed to walking pace, and taxied sedately towards the low Nissan Hut housing Air-Traffic Control.
A sallow youth wearing a very grubby High Visibility Tabard, stood glumly at the head of a vacant parking slot, and began to unenthusiastically wave his arms at the pilot, marshalling him into the vacant position.
More incoherence from the Tannoy indicated something would soon be happening. Looking up, I faintly recognised the profile of an aeroplane, obviously at high altitude – a ghostly insect crawling across the window of the sky.
Suddenly, the blue fabric of the sky was cross-stitched with a web of pristine white trails, each creating patterns of gently expanding white.
Blossoming into multi-coloured parachutes, each action-man figure oscillated like a small pendulum, expanding as they approached the white cross laid on the grass.
With a graceful pull on their control lines, each man arrested his descent, landing as softly as thistledown. An appreciative crowd clapped, as the team collected their deflated chutes.
Shadows were lengthening as I drove out of the car park. A Spitfire suddenly howled overhead, just in front of my car, its wheels already tucking up into its belly, its sides bronzed and gilded by the setting sun. Disappearing into the heat shimmer, it left only the echoes of its engine to testify to its existence.
So, you are going on holiday. Fabulous! You have packed your clothes for your two weeks away, you’ve bought your travel insurance, reserved a rental car, and still have a sore arm from getting the necessary inoculations and vaccinations.
But how much thought have you given to your personal safety on board the aeroplane?
If you answered “none” to this question, then you are part of the huge majority of air travellers who arrive at the airport blissfully ignorant of the potential risks attached to their chosen mode of travel.
Air travel is an extremely safe and efficient way of getting to distant places. Statistics seem to support this, including the oft-quoted “You are safer flying than you are driving in a car to the airport” Whilst this may have a degree of accuracy, the fact still remains that aircraft accidents do still happen, some of which are serious. With a little care and forethought, you can reduce your exposure to these possible risks, by taking some simple steps yourself.
So, back to my question. How much thought have you given to your personal safety on board the aeroplane? Or, to put it another way, when do you start thinking about your on-board safety? A week before travelling? The day before? When you are sitting in your seat, waiting to take off?
Modern airliners are generally very reliable, but there are phases of flight that are more dangerous than others. Interestingly, more aircraft accidents occur during take off and landing than at any other time of flight. This is particularly true in some of the less developed countries around the globe, where flight safety is degraded as a result of under-investment.
In the highly unlikely event that the aircraft should suffer a serious in-flight problem, an emergency landing may be needed, and it may be necessary to “abandon ship” down the escape slides. There may be limited time for the cabin crew to prepare you for doing this, so you need to think a little about the slides.
The slides are made of a very tough neoprene, and are inflated automatically should a door be opened once the aircraft has left the gate. Naturally, you will have been requested to watch the safety demonstration, and refer to the safety card, but the vast majority of you will have been far too busy reading the newspaper, and listening to your iPods to have done so!
The reason that I mention this here, is that despite the instructions to remove high heeled shoes, and to leave bags behind during a slide evacuation, some individuals still place more value on their laptop computer and their bottle of duty free than on their own lives, or those of fellow passengers!
Amazingly, during a fairly recent evacuation of a Boeing 777 in Houston, passengers were observed jumping down the escape slides carrying their wheelie bags, bottles, and other bits of variegated hand baggage. Selfish and stupid in equal measures!
You may then have to walk across broken glass and damaged suitcases once you get off the slide.
For that reason, you should consider what you would wear on the flight. Stout, flat-soled yet comfortable footwear such as Deck Shoes, Moccasins, Training Shoes, and Flat soled business shoes are a must. I recommend that you resist the temptation to remove these shoes and put on the in-flight socks until the take off and climb is completed and the aeroplane is safely in the cruise.
Approaches and landings carry a higher statistical risk of emergencies, so you should put your “sensible” shoes back on at the top of the descent. This is normally indicated when you hear the engine note diminish as the power is reduced, about 30 minutes before arrival time. You may also hear a passenger announcement from the pilots at this point.
I also recommend that you invest in a simple body belt, so that you can carry your passport and travel documents easily. Its more practical than carrying them in a shirt or blouse pocket, and it may save you being delayed if you do have to evacuate the aeroplane.
Those passengers who have footwear and a passport may be swiftly re-booked onto another flight. Those who don’t will probably have to wait for some time in the airport until their passports and belongings have been collected by airport staff.
Your last consideration before leaving home for the airport should be the rest of your clothing, and the material from which it is made. I recommend that you wear clothes produced from natural products, such as cotton.
These materials may burn in the event of fire, but they will offer you more protection from flames than man-made fibres such as Nylon, which is highly flammable.
Now, lets consider your flight. You have boarded the aeroplane, and have been welcomed aboard by a smiling Flight Attendant. Soft background music will be playing, and you will shuffle to your allocated seat. This is easy in a well-lit cabin.
Now imagine the same cabin, darkened, filled with smoke and full of passengers. Your ability to see will be severely limited. Therefore, you should count the number of seatbacks that you pass on your way to your seat. This will enable you to locate the exits in poor lighting conditions should you need to escape from the aeroplane in an emergency.
Once at your designated seat, you should stow your carry-on baggage in the overhead lockers. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this. Or could it?
This is an area for concern. The overhead lockers are not designed to carry very heavy items, yet passengers are often observed struggling to lift huge sports bags and holdalls, boxes, and even very heavy cases into the overhead locker above your seat.
In the event of a forced landing, these lockers may deform, resulting in the doors springing open, thus allowing the contents to fall on the passenger below – in this case you!
If you feel unhappy about the load in the overhead stowage, talk to a crewmember and ask, or even insist that the bag is removed from the overhead, placed in another locker, or put in the aircraft hold.
Now, before you sit down, you should use the opportunity to have a quick check of the area around your seat. Find the lifejacket stowage, and check that there is a lifejacket in it!
It may surprise you, but it is a sad fact that every summer, I witness passengers walking off aeroplanes with life jackets stuffed in their hand baggage. Not only is this a criminal act, it is also a very selfish one, bearing in mind that the jacket is safety equipment, and could potentially mean the difference between survival and death.
It is a legal requirement that a life jacket is available for each seat, and the aircraft will not depart until you have one – even if the only water you will fly over is the Manchester Ship Canal!
Most reputable European, North and South American and Australasian airline’s aircraft engineers will always check that every seat has a life jacket before the aircraft operates its first flight of the day. However, you may be flying on the third, sixth, or even the twelfth sector, so its always possible that someone has stolen the jacket as a souvenir since the engineering safety check.
Furthermore, you may be flying to a remote region on a carrier operated by a small and under-developed country. There is no guarantee that these checks have been performed, so you should take a peek to make sure that you have a lifejacket.
Once the aircraft is safely away from the gate, and starts taxying to the runway, the safety demonstration commences. This will consist of either a pre-recorded film, or a demonstration given by the cabin attendants.
I strongly urge you to watch the film or demonstration. You may be a regular traveller on a Boeing 737, or an Airbus, but each airline will have a different seating layout, different emergency lighting systems, and different types of safety equipment, so assuming that you don’t need to watch the demonstration is dangerous complacency.
Numerous safety items are covered on the safety demonstration; how to fasten and release your safety belt, how to use the drop down oxygen masks, and how to fit and secure a life jacket. You will also be advised to read the safety card, which will either be contained in the seatback pocket, or in some cases, riveted to the seatback in front of you.
The reason that you are instructed to read the safety card, is that it will contain information that the safety demonstration doesn’t cover. This will include how to open the doors and emergency escape hatches, and how to adopt the correct “brace” position in the event of making an emergency landing.
Pulling this card out to read it as the aircraft is skidding to a stop in a field is a little late in the day – so please read the information on the card whilst you are taxying out.
You may feel justified in ignoring the safety demonstration for numerous reasons. I was recently presenting a safety course and I asked a frequent flyer why she chose to ignore the demonstration. Her response was a common one: “It’s a bit patronising – any fool knows how to fasten a safety belt” Her frequent flyer colleagues all nodded their agreement.
Most passengers will be highly familiar with the operation of a seat belt, as they use one every day whilst driving the car. Think about where the belt release is. Its down by your hip.
Now, where is the belt fastener on an aeroplane? Its in the middle of your stomach.
Bodies have been recovered from wrecked aircraft, bearing trauma wounds to the hips, where the victim’s hands have been scrabbling to find the belt buckle that was in fact sitting in the middle of their stomach.
Some of these individuals survived the crash, only to be suffocated in smoke because they were unable to undo their seatbelts. Reviewing the operation of the seatbelt in the safety demonstration is done to remind passengers that the belt is different to the ones that they may be more familiar with.
You will also be shown how to put on and use the cabin emergency oxygen system.
Aircraft are pressurised to give a comfortable environment similar to normal air pressure at about 8,000 feet.
Very occasionally a fault may cause a drop in cabin pressure, and the air may become too thin to breathe comfortably. Therefore, oxygen masks will automatically drop from cubbyholes overhead each passenger seat. It is important that you put the mask on quickly, as it is possible to lose consciousness for a brief period if you don’t.
Many aircraft use chemical oxygen generators to produce oxygen, as it saves the requirement to carry large metal tanks. When activated, these generators combine two chemicals to produce oxygen, which is then delivered by a plastic tube to the mask. A by-product of this reaction is heat.
The generators are located in compartments built into the overhead lockers. Over time, they will be covered in a layer of dust. This dust heats up, and creates the smell of burning. This may create panic, as some passengers will assume that the aircraft is on fire.
So, what may happen in reality?
You may feel a slight popping in your ears and the cabin may start to become quite chilly. This is to be expected if the cabin altitude is rising. At some point the safety systems will detect the falling pressure, and the oxygen masks will automatically drop out of their stowages under the overhead lockers.
You may hear a pre-recorded passenger announcement that reminds you to put your mask on, and informs you that an emergency descent has been started.
If you have paid attention to the safety demonstration, you will have already grabbed the nearest mask, and will have put it on. The air flows as soon as the rubber tube is pulled.
Don’t worry about pulling the mask out of its connection to the air supply – the rubber tube is very strong and secured very tightly, and you do need to pull the mask firmly in order to start the oxygen flow.
Whilst this is going on, the Pilots will be doing their emergency drills. They will have donned their masks, and will have immediately put the aircraft into a fairly steep descent to get the aircraft quickly to an altitude where the air is breathable.
Modern aircraft wings are designed to create as much lift as possible, but lift is now the last thing that is needed. The pilot will have extended the speed brakes, which are large hydraulically operated panels located on the top surface of the wing.
Once these are lifted up into the airflow, they interfere with the lift, and the rate of descent is now much faster. They also cause some turbulence and noise, and this may add to the sense of alarm in the cabin.
However, you must remember, that the apparent feelings of being in extreme danger are deceptive, and whilst this is an emergency situation, you will be quite safe. Aircraft depressurisation is practiced by the crews regularly in the flight simulators, and is relatively easy to handle and resolve.
The last item that is normally demonstrated is the use of the lifejacket. Lifejackets are generally similar in operation regardless of manufacturer or airline. They will be simply placed over the head, and either tied around the waist with canvas cords, or secured with nylon webbing and plastic snap fasteners.
They are inflated by pulling a toggle on the front of the jacket, which discharges a CO2 cylinder into the jacket.
Although lifejackets are designed to have no “inside” or “outside” they are best worn with the CO2 cylinder outside, as the metal cartridge becomes very cold after discharging the gas, and may cause burns if left touching the skin. It is imperative that jackets are not inflated inside the aircraft cabin, as they will either get ripped, or will cause obstructions in a densely packed cabin.
Should you forget this, and fire your jacket early, you may deflate it easily by unclipping the inflation tube (the one that is normally used for topping up the jacket by mouth) and pushing your finger into the tube end. Inside is a Schrader valve similar to that used on a car tyre. Simply press the stud in the middle and compress the jacket to deflate it. Once outside the aircraft cabin, two or three deep breaths should re-inflate the jacket to the point where it will support you in the water.
If you are instructed to put on your lifejackets, then there will be an element of panic throughout the cabin. I strongly suggest that after you have donned your jacket and tied or buckled it up, you briefly release your seat belt and stand up!
It will be too late to discover that you have tied the jacket (and yourself) to either the seat frame, or your fellow passengers once the aircraft has ditched. Doing this ensures that the jacket is secured, and that you can still exit the aircraft when required to!
Aircraft typically have an approach and landing speed of anything from 150 knots (130 mph) to about 120 knots (105 mph) but in an abnormal or emergency situation this could be higher. As you will appreciate, under the rapid deceleration of an emergency landing, anything not secured in the cabin will become a projectile, and will travel through the cabin at very high speed. This will include unsecured items of hand baggage, food carts, and other pieces of aircraft equipment.
Aircraft structures are designed to withstand loads of up to nine times normal gravity, but under a crash landing scenario, these limits may be exceeded, and the cabin may start to deform during the deceleration.
The safety card will contain details of the correct brace position to be adopted should a forced landing need to be made. The brace position is designed to minimise the whiplash effects of rapid deceleration, and to protect the head from injury.
Some authorities suggest that bending forwards, and clasping your arms under your thighs will offer the best chances for survival. I personally prefer the brace position used by British Airways. This brace position is adopted by leaning as far forward as possible, and placing your hands over your head.
You should then place your feet flat on the floor, and move them backwards until they touch the baggage restraint bar under your seat. This will guarantee that your feet are behind the line of your knees, thereby ensuring that your legs won’t swing forwards under deceleration loads, and smash your shins into the seat structure in front of you.
I also suggest that although it is a natural tendency to interlace your fingers when you place your hands over your head, that you don’t do it!
If you are right handed, place your right hand on your head first, and then protect that hand by placing your left hand over the top of it. This will make certain that even if the baggage lockers above your head collapse onto your hands, you will not have all your fingers broken and will still be able to unfasten your seat belt, and still have the use of your good hand.
Taking your dream holiday trip of seeing Orang-Utans in the wilds of Borneo or Indonesia, may well involve a considerable amount of flying with air carriers of dubious or unknown quality. You wouldn’t travel without insurance or vaccinations – so surely investing fifteen minutes to watch and understand a safety demonstration is time well spent!
Now, its time to take a reality check.
According to the UK Civil Aviation Authority, during the period from 1992 – 2001, UK airlines carried 802 million passengers with no fatalities! Quite an impressive record in fact.
The biggest UK Airline operates 285,000 flights per year. Over the last five years, they have only had to evacuate an aircraft on two occasions. These evacuations were only conducted as a safety precaution, rather than as the result of a cabin fire. This means that statistically speaking, you stand a one in 712,500 chance of having to evacuate an aircraft.
To put that further into perspective, The UK’s Health and Safety Executive estimate that the chances of you dying as a result of an aircraft crash are one in 125,000,000 passenger journeys. In fact, they calculate that you stand a one in 16,800 chance of being killed in a road traffic accident.
So, you are relatively safe in the air – but how safe are you once you check into your hotel? Do you know the risks? Have you thought about your welfare? This will be covered in a later posting.