The flight engineer emerged ashen faced from the cockpit. He sat and placed both feet against the bulkhead that separated the cargo hold from the flight deck to brace himself.
“If I were you, I’d do the same,” he said. "We’re not going to get much closer than this.”
He had failed to close the cockpit door properly. It swung open to reveal a sea of warning lights flashing in every conceivable color—pink, amber, red—but none of them green. Every warning bell and klaxon rang and hooted. Sweat marks darkened and defined the neck and shoulders of both pilots. Their heads turned briefly in our direction, foreheads wrinkled with anxiety, until the urgency of the task at hand dictated their attention return to their instruments and controls.
The agent who had chartered the aircraft was a cockpit passenger in the jump seat. His long-standing problems with asthma were evident. Raucous choking sounds added to the cacophony of aero alarms.
Recall of my simple query prior to take off from our last port of call illustrated the extent and immediacy of the problem.
“How long is the next leg of the flight, Captain?” I had asked.
“Nine and a half hours” was the reply.
“And what is the fuel contingency?” was my then mildly interested follow up question.
“Plenty. Eleven and a half hours.” was the reassuring answer.
Less reassuring was a quick check on the watch. We had now been airborne for more than 12 hours. There was nothing on the horizon but the deep blue Pacific Ocean.
It had all started routinely enough. As much, that is, as any adventure into the skies with an aircraft filled with horses is, or ever has been.
I had applied for a research grant to study the effects of long duration aviation on horses transported long distances by air. The grant had come from two of horse sports’ major organizations. They wondered if the advent of relatively easy access to intercontinental air travel could prove attractive to the competitors in their ever-increasing schedule of far-flung events. Those organizations were pleased when the research elements caught the imagination of the BBC who asked to come along on a flight to film it.
The longest distance “routinely” travelled by equine passengers is from London to Sydney. At the time of this episode, this could only be accomplished by special cargo flights, which carried the horses in specifically constructed “air stables.”
This elderly Boeing 707 freighter had had a long career. Although once distinguished as a representative of front-line luxury passenger traffic, the aircraft had now lapsed into its final role as a freight workhorse registered in Africa. Its range was much more limited than the great Jumbo’s that succeeded it on the Boeing production line and into long-range service. It had to stop just about everywhere possible on its series of great kangaroo hops from the UK to Australia. Refueling stops were essential and plentiful. Toronto, Winnipeg, Oregon, Hawaii, Fiji and Auckland were all on our schedule.
What was unscheduled was the Captain’s decision to overfly Fiji and avoid Auckland to go straight to Sydney from Honolulu.
The unexpected headwinds were the reason for our extended flight time. Those winds and the abandoned intermediate stops were the reasons for the fuel crisis that was now unfolding in front of us.
Hate and anger are not parts of normal life, but in the situation that was now unfolding in the geriatric freighter, anger surfaced. I could have killed the pilot for the human error that was placing all on board in jeopardy. When he radioed ahead to Sydney Air Traffic control to explain our fuel shortage and request a priority landing, they had sought further details of just exactly where we were and exactly how much fuel we had left.
“That’s not enough. You’re not gonna make Sydney, mate,” was broadcast throughout the entire cockpit and through the still open door. Chilling words totally devoid of that legendary Aussie sense of humor. The controller advised a divert to Williamtown, the most easterly airfield in New South Wales. The closest one to our present position.
The problem with that was that Williamtown did not feature on the onboard civil aviation maps. Our crew had no idea where it was. It did not feature because it was military. A Royal Australian Air Force base. They frantically rummaged through every document they had in the cockpit to try to find it, as moment by moment, the fuel gauges relentlessly continued their now rapid progress to empty. Salvation came in the most unlikely form. A long-forgotten Thai Airlines in-flight magazine, hidden in the seat pocket. There on the back page, to everyone’s enormous relief, was a map. There was Williamtown!
We began our descent toward it. Normally, descent is accompanied by the use of wing flaps and air brakes. We had too little fuel to allow the luxury of burning it in that way. The crew shaved off altitude by banking from one side to the other. We could now see the horizon, but it was still a long way away. As it approached, agonizingly slowly, we had dropped down to 1,200 feet. We were still well short of the runway when we lost power from two of the four engines due to the acute fuel shortage.
The first two engines cut out. The third engine did the same at 800 feet. The plot went for broke by opening the throttle to the maximum at 200 feet. We rose briefly before the only sound left was the whistle of the wind as we glided towards the tarmac. We crossed the airbase perimeter so low that we would have taken the heads off of spectators. We touched down and rolled down the runway. No reverse thrust. No brakes. We rolled and rolled to our eventual standstill.
“What, you haven’t even got enough fuel to taxi off the bloody runway?” shrieked the voice from the control tower.
They towed us onto the apron of the airbase. Ignominiously. With a tractor. The rest of the team had been in the back of the aircraft throughout the drama. Unaware and oblivious to it.
“Someone should have told us,” they said in voices raised by the rapidly increasing awareness of just how close this had been.
The pending disaster had not gone unnoticed on the ground, either. The local TV crew had arrived just before us, not to witness and record our lucky escape, but in anticipation of exactly the opposite. To film us as shark bait in the immediate offshore.
As we opened the doors, the first thing we saw was their camera lens protruding through it. Our asthmatic friend had recovered sufficiently to roar “F___ off!” to the film crew so angrily that it obviated any chance of broadcast.
Fuel for our onward flight to Sydney was the most pressing priority. The bill for it on the charter agent's Amex card was $25,000.
Three hours after gliding into Williamtown, we left it under full power and swept into our berth at Kingsford Smith airport in Sydney. We were greeted there by the very shaken and ashen-faced chairman of the agency that had chartered “Air Maybe” for this flight. The closeness of the shave we had experienced became even more evident on further examination. Williamtown had been closed for runway repairs. It had only reopened three days before we got there. Our flight had been delayed in its departure from the UK by a week. Had we left on time and run into the same problems, Williamtown would not have been available to us.
A few months later, when the aircrew had been severely disciplined by the aviation authorities, the chairman of the chartering agency and I had supper together
“Do you know,” he pondered in almost Churchillian tones, “that’s it's amazing under those circumstances how slim the margins were between success and failure.”
“Ah yes, Winston,” I replied, “and how profound the difference!”
As for the BBC film of the whole incident, they called on the morning of the day that the film was to be broadcast.
“We judge the potential audience size on the basis of the number of reviews that the program gets in the national daily newspapers,” advised the producer.
“Good for you," I thought, and also thought that this had very little to do with me. Especially as the entire and very time-consuming effort had resulted in no more reward than a cup of tea when we were adding the voiceovers to the film at their studios.
“No, no!” said the producer excitedly. ‘We have 15 reviews!”
Again, I struggled to contain my indifference. That changed swiftly with her next comment. “An audience of that size will bring you into contact with fringe members of society,” she said. “Some of them will dislike you for the color of your shirt, or the way you part your hair, or any one of a myriad of other things that will antagonize them.”
She was right about the viewership. The TAM ratings showed that 9.5 million UK viewers tuned in to watch the program that night. It was the second-highest audience ever for any edition of that illustrious science and technology series and a widely hailed triumph for the broadcaster and its professionals.
Shown at 8:00 p.m., it was followed by the 9:00 p.m. news of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Whether so many were watching to see the unique spectacle of horses flying to Australia, or whether they were waiting to see Saddam being targeted, is a moot point.
Much more to the point, personally, was that the producer also was right about the “fringe members of society.” The first 24 hours post-broadcast resulted in a barrage of congratulatory phone calls and faxes that overwhelmed the workplace reception desk. The hate mail started to arrive the following morning!
All in the name of equine research.