Air-raising stories of flights I didn’t fancy
A month or so ago an electrical storm over Melbourne had my 2.30pm flight from Sydney in all sorts of trouble. After two bouts of circling, a diversion to Canberra and a compulsory park on the tarmac long enough to watch a film, we finally disembarked at 9.20pm.
We had just spent the equivalent amount of time on that plane as a flight to Jakarta.
You can perhaps put this down to the normal vagaries of flying. But when you add in an industrial campaign and a twitchy company, it is fair to say that recently Australian flyers, or at least those who frequent the flying kangaroo, have tapped a rich vein of material for their almanac of aeroplane war stories.
So it got me thinking. What are my best (or worst) five? Well, here they are, in reverse order…
5. In 1989 travelling from Athens to Istanbul, the plane was parked about 100 metres out on the tarmac with free seating. When the announcement to board came it was effectively a starting gun in a sprint with hand luggage to the plane. With a fastest time at waddling the 100m of about 20 seconds, suffice to say I took my seat at the very rear of the plane.
4. In 1993, flying in Laos, we were in a plane that had a flight plan which involved climbing steeply for 15 minutes and then immediately beginning a long slow descent for the rest of the 90 minute flight. The effect of this was that the last 200 km of the journey were covered at an altitude of about 100 feet. As we shaved the tops of landmarks I knew were a long way from our destination I have never been more convinced that I was about to meet my maker. I shared this journey with the now Assistant Treasurer. He still bears the scars of where my fingernails were embedded into his arm.
3. On the same trip (this time alone) I had my one and only experience of flying in an old Russian aircraft: a Tupolev 124 from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The pressure mechanism on these planes was not quite right and so once we achieved cruising altitude the whole cabin filled with a seriously thick fog. I’m not the chattiest with strangers on planes but I was so nervous that I talked solidly at the Frenchman next to me for two hours. To this day I have no idea whether he spoke English.
2. In 1984 I went on a school trip to PNG which involved a lot of flying around the highlands in light aircraft landing on grass airstrips. Having been stranded in a village called Tsendiap for three days, when a rickety old plane arrived we were keen to get on board. “What’s your collective weight” asked the pilot. After some rough calculations we thought it might be about 900kg. “Hmmm” he said, “it’s going to be close … But let’s give it a try!” Utterly terrified, our urgent need to leave had evaporated. We hurtled down the strip in what felt like a go-cart with wings. The runway finished at the end of a cliff and the only way we knew we hadn’t died was when the runway disappeared and we kept going straight. We were so heavy that to gain altitude the plane had to zig zag back and forth in the air like a road on a steep mountain. On arrival in Mt Hagen all of us kissed the ground.
1. In the PNG highlands in the afternoon the weather often comes in and the skies cloud over. Consequently many light aircraft in the ‘80s, relying on visual navigation, didn’t venture out after noon. But with a day trip to Tabubil, again back in 1984, we had no choice but to traverse the Highlands on the way back to Goroka in the afternoon. “How are you going to do it?” we asked the pilot. “Well the highest mountain in PNG is Mt Wilhelm and it is 14,000ft, so we will fly at 15,000ft”, he replied. Good plan we thought. As we started our climb in an unpressurised cabin we were reassured when he pulled out his oxygen mask and put it on. Searching around for ours we eventually asked where we could find them. “Oh there aren’t any for you but don’t worry. Mine is only a precaution.” Scepticism would surely have turned to panic but for the fact that within five minutes every one of us had passed out (no kidding!) before coming to just as we were about to land at Goroka. Given this was the most dangerous flight I have ever boarded, our pilot’s passenger management skills were superb.
The Punch invites readers to share their aviation horror stories here. The first person to nominate “two weekends ago courtesy of Alan Joyce” wins a free bar of chocolate by email.
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