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Over Fifty Years of Aviation Experiences and Close Calls

February 08, 2019

A casual look at three of the author’s frequent flyer accounts indicates some seven and a half million miles having been flown since those accounts were introduced. When the period proceeding that form of accounting is considered, as well as many other airline and private flights, a safe guess of the personal total would be something greatly in excess of having had a career as a professional pilot. There have been a fair share of close calls and mishaps over that period though they have diminished in frequency. Some of them are humorous and some were a bit scary.

A chronological coverage begins in 1969 on a commercial Lao Air Charter C-47 flight into Luang Prabang, Laos at a time when, only a few kilometers away, North Vietnamese tanks had just captured a CIA-backed Hmong Hill Tribe mercenary base. You might ask why that destination but that was the job and the real question is why a “commercial” aircraft rather than a “spook plane” contracted to the CIA. Those planes were already committed to flying casualties into Vientiane, Laos. So here we are in a C-47 much like the one shown below when my Thai associate wakes me up to show me the wing covered in oil and observe we are flying between the mountains rather than over them. I asked, “Why wake me to tell me I am about to die?” However, we limped in to land and then struggled through a couple of days in a very eerie setting with the Hmong piloted T-28 planes dropping their bomb payloads on the North Vietnamese in such close proximity to the air strip we could hear them. We were a bit relieved to move on to another part of Laos. The following week the Lao Air Charter plane crashed.

The next unusual flight was a few months later and also involved Laos travel. On this occasion, we were babysitting the U.S. Naval Inspector to check the quality control of our aviation fueling facilities around all of the garden spots of Laos. We were fortunate to get a Pilatus Porter plane contracted to the CIA which is an excellent STOL (short take-off and landing aircraft). More importantly, it was at our disposal so we could we leave if the natives got frisky. As the airstrip was a bit of a distance from the village of Baan Houi Sai, we flew a reconnaissance pass to check out the two roads into the little town so we could get a bite to eat. Upon landing the fuel inspector insisted that we take the shortest route into the village. Finally, he got the message that the Pathet Lao guerrillas controlled the shortcut and, though he was welcome to take it, we were taking the jeep down the other road. In this event, the destination route was more dangerous than the aircraft. 

The next interesting experience involved a helicopter which are, on first glance, not designed to fly. If you have ever been to the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, where helicopter pilots are trained, you would come to the same conclusion. In this instance, we were in a Bell helicopter with the big front bubble taking off from a lakeside in Sudbury, Ontario. The helicopter caught a massive downdraft that greatly inhibited it from lifting over a tree we were facing and ultimately wearing - but we made it. Later the emboldened pilot upended the bubble over the major Falconbridge Nickel smoke stack. There are no “old,” “bold” helicopter pilots.

The next adventure was landing a Falcon 10 on a private strip in California with an ambulance raising down the side of the aircraft as the pilot had passed a gallstone and was not doing well. On a subsequent Falcon 10 take-off in Tripoli, Libya, we caught a seagull in the left engine seconds before lift-off. Timing was everything as we would not have made it a few seconds later. The pilot braked and controlled the fish-tailing jet down to the end of the runway.

Have you ever come to the airport to catch a flight and the check-in agent informs you that your aircraft had crashed while in route to the airport? One more lobster dinner the expected night of departure deferred the departure time from Bar Harbor, Maine to Boston to the following morning. However, the previous evening the Bar Harbor inbound flight had crashed carrying Samantha Smith, the young girl who had corresponded with Gorbachev during the lead up to the end of the Cold War.

In the early 1990’s, the Russian roulette of flying was characterized by Aeroflot and their creaky Antinov aircraft. On the first departure from Moscow to Perm, one usually stared at the crashed wrecks that had merely been towed to the side of the runway. Once on the aircraft, the Aeroflot safety standards were called into question as there were no seat belts. When the sumo wrestler-sized flight attendant brought the non-descript juice, they waited for you to finish it as they only had three cups from which to serve the entire aircraft. The Russians all brought their own vodka for which they did not need cups. When the cabin was filled with food aromas, it turned out that the meals were for the crew and not the passengers. By the way, the glass nose on the fuselage contains a seat to which a machine gun can be installed to convert the commercial passenger plane into a combat jet of sorts.

Now, we evolve to a Delta flight in the mid-1990’s that lost a wheel on take-off from Gatwick in route to Atlanta. The first strange event was the bar shutting down quite early. Secondly, the captain came on and said he was going to lower the landing gear and a Falcon Jet (small world story) would fly by to reconnoiter whether we had lost a wheel. Well, we had, so we circled a long time to burn fuel. The next events are customary for a crash-landing, absolutely everything goes in the overhead, wet hand towels are distributed for potential smoke inhalation, and everyone is asked to hold their passports in their hands which one assumes are for unpleasant identification purposes. Well, we had a rough landing, but no fire and everything was fine as we were towed in. CNN attempted an interview to no avail as yours truly raced through the lobby to catch a connecting flight. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law happened to see the CNN account and advise home which caused some measure of unwarranted concern.

Another commercial mishap was Air China coming into Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia on a cold winter’s night from Beijing. On approach, it was apparent that either the Chinese pilot could not see the runway due to coal-induced black ice or was not paying any attention to the controls. Nonetheless, there was adequate time to grab the passport as learned in the Delta experience. The plane did a one tire, one wing touchdown and the pilot managed to gun the engine and take off. We were fortunate not to either catapult, shear the wing or burn. There was not one word from the cockpit while the pilot circled for an extensive time to either burn fuel, clean his pants or have shot of Chinese liquor to calm his nerves.

In any event, we eventually made it and the Chinese blamed the Mongolians for the damage that occurred to their aircraft. The airport never looked so good though this image was taken during the day.

The folks lined up to depart had to forego their trip to Beijing for at least one more day until another aircraft could be dispatched. When the head of Boeing for North Asia was asked whether it was safer to fly Air China or Mongolian Air, he said by all means Mongolian Air was the safest. The Mongolian pilots learned to fly on Russian aircraft that did not work and developed good skill sets while the Chinese learned from video games and simulators.

Lastly, we return to one of those aircraft that is not designed to fly and that is the behemoth Russian M-26 helicopter. Flying one in Mongolia is made a bit tricky in that you are surrounded by fuel given the long distances flown. Once on an M-26 trip, the U.S./Mongolian Ambassador awoke the sleeping author to advise that we were about to crash as all the lights in the open cockpit were red with plenty of noticeable alarms. Just like the earlier account in Laos, why wake someone up to tell them it is all soon to be over? In any event, we went down but no fire and relatively modest damage though we were stuck in the middle of the Mongolian steppe with no communication capability. Fortunately, some Mongolian hunters came along and ferried us to the nearest town for the week or so as we waited for spare parts and technicians to repair one of the few remaining helicopters in Mongolia. 

However, it is worth noting that our refueling services in Laos were less primitive over thirty years before though the tanks were underground due to North Vietnamese sappers trying to blow them up.

Hopefully, the final chapter of near misses occurred in a short take-off and landing bush plane in South Africa to fly from one game camp to another. Once the two of us were in the plane and lifting off, Joey said her door was not closed properly. Lift off is a bad time to disturb a pilot so I shouted “hold the door.” Shortly after that the pilot realized he could not control the ailerons. He turned to ask me what he should do as he could not lower the flaps to brake on landing which was essential in all bush camp flights. I told him I had no idea though the message may have been more forcefully delivered. A few minutes later he radioed the nearest South African Air Force Base and obtained permission to land there where he could use his brakes to control the plane on the runway. We landed, he closed the door and then off we went.

There are several take-aways from this commentary: (1) air travel today is safer today with reputable airlines, (2) war zones are most problematic, (3) helicopters are less safe than fixed wing aircraft, (4) stay away from Air China, (5) private aircraft are less safe than commercial aircraft and (6) do not wake anyone up to tell them they are about to crash. If they have their passports handy, let them go in peace.

The Elephant Caravan Necklace and Bracelet

Enjoy this charming, yet elegant, necklace and bracelet collection. These elephants are made of highly polished sterling silver and seem to be traveling in a delightful caravan.
Elephant Caravan
Laying Flat Necklace
Elephant Caravan
Laying Flat Bracelet

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