Bad times in the air



Any news of an airline disaster prompts one veteran correspondent to recall his and others' narrow escapes.

July 28, 1996|By Richard O'Mara

MANY YEARS AGO I got on a jet owned by Colombia's national airline. It was in the hot coastal city of Cartagena, and bound for the mountain capital, Bogota. We sat boiling on the tarmac for about an hour, until a drunk stumbled up the stairway and fell into a seat. Then he raised his head, and said in a slurred voice to the rest of us:

"Don't worry, the pilot will be along in a minute. I've been with him all night."

It was one of the longest flights of my life. On the ground in Bogota, I found out it was a joke.

But it had been a believable joke. The Colombian airline, Avianca, had one of the worst safety records in the world at that time. Some planes, it was said, just never came back.

But that was during the height of the Cold War, when the Iron Curtain concealed an even worse air safety record, that of the largest carrier on the planet: Aeroflot, pride of the Soviet Union.

I have been on a number of Aeroflot flights. They were all stimulating. No Soviet pilot, it was obvious, had ever been told to consider his passengers. No Soviet pilot ever missed an opportunity to push his silver bird into the boiling air of the deepest, darkest clouds, maybe just for the kamikaze fun of it.

On one flight to Novosibirsk, in Siberia, maybe ten years ago, I managed to find a seat. This was good fortune. About a dozen other passengers had to stand through the whole flight, from Moscow to Novosibirsk, a distance spanning nearly five time zones. They were like straphangers in a subway, without straps. They stood up, except for those moments when they were sprawled across the aisle or spilled on top of a seated passenger by an inconvenient air pocket.

When a plane goes down into a swamp like Valujet Flight 592 did, or disintegrates in mid-air, as TWA's Flight 800 has just done, and scatters parts of itself and the people aboard it into the sea, thoughts of those days always return. And thoughts of other days, and other disturbing moments.

Like the time we were crossing the southern Andes in an Air France jet. The hop from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Santiago, Chile, is a short one. But it can become suddenly turbulent, and aircraft are often buffeted by winds roaring above the peaks and not discernible on radar screens.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the pioneer French aviator and author, wrote about carrying the mail in that part of the world. He told of the winds above the deserts, their strength and wildness. He once related how he was bringing the mail up from Patagonia along the coast of Argentina, and noticed a light down below on his left. A few moments later he looked down again and saw the light had not moved.

He waited a little longer. Then, finding himself unable to put the light behind him, he reasoned that he had been blown out over the sea, and that the light below was a reflection of the moon. So he turned westward for a while to regain land, then continued north.

But still the light remained on his left, did not slide behind him.

It took him a while before he realized that the force of the wind was such that it had neutralized his airspeed. He was literally stopped by it in midair. His engine was just churning, eating gasoline, getting him nowhere.

Saint-Exupery survived, of course, because he was an expert pilot. One had to be to fly in those remote reaches in the aircraft of the 1930s, small planes particularly vulnerable to a malignant wind -- unlike the modern jets into which we so readily put our bodies, and our trust.

These can climb high. They can avoid turbulence by inserting themselves in more quiescent streams and levels of the air. They are fast, powerful, heavy, especially the jumbos.

So what gave the wind coming up out of those desolate valleys east of Santiago that day the strength to drop our aircraft hundreds of feet, then lift it up again? This whole experience endured only about ten minutes, but it was enough to make a lot of people on board suddenly sick.

A couple who had been sitting in the center of that 747 had crawled back to the toilets just before it touched down at Pudhuel Airport. A good thing, too: The moment the wheels screeched on the runway the movie projector fell from the ceiling the plane into their seats. It would have broken their heads like eggs.

I am very much afraid to fly. Most of my life I life I have been. Though it is a phobia that at times goes away, or ameliorates, it always comes back like a persistent malarial fever.

Things can go well for a while. Every flight can be smooth, unbumpy. Then...

It was a practice among pilots for South Africa Airways flying into Salisbury in the country north of their own then known as Rhodesia, to land their craft in an unconventional way.

In the mid-1970s this was the only airline flying into Rhodesia. The white supremacist regime of Ian Smith was under United Nations' sanctions and embargo, and the country's only link to the outside world was the then like-minded regime in South Africa.

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