How I learned to stop worrying and love ETOPS
Three emergency landings in a week
by Sean Mendis
(DISCLAIMER: The below narrative is based upon a true story but names have been changed, abbreviated or withheld for various reasons. Some details may have been withheld or modified to protect the privacy of individuals and organisations. Any resemblance to actual events or organisations should neither be assumed nor is implied.)
It is never pleasant to be woken up by that sound. It is especially unpleasant when you are 35000 feet over the Sahara and the sound happened to originate from #2 engine.
But lets rewind a bit to the beginning of the story.
It had been an uneventful week. I was grabbing a ride on the redeye up to London for a quick meeting in the morning followed by a return on the lunchtime departure. As is my custom, I request the jumpseat in advance and then grab whatever seat is available in the cabin. Saves us the airport taxes and saves space in the passport by clearing formalities on the General Declaration instead.
Chris is our captain tonight and he was flying his first trip on this route. GS, the lead engineer, introduces us when I came on board and we chatted for a few minutes as the ground crew finished up the loading. We had a relatively light passenger load today with only 106 on board the 184 seater, but the 5.7 tonnes of perishable cargo and 33 tonnes of fuel ensured that we would be departing with just a minimal underload from MTOW for the nearly-7 hour flight.
As the doors closed, I looked at the final manifest and saw that 2 passengers had been offloaded at the gate by security due to questionable documentation, bringing the final number down to 104. The seatmap showed that my favourite seat 1F was still open, so I told MM, the purser, that I'd take that seat if it was ok with her. She flashed me the same charming smile that had taken her all the way to the Miss World finals twelve years ago and told me to make myself at home.
MM is due for a check flight on her return leg, so we have a second purser, KM, on board tonight. The Flight Attendant in Business Class is MRE and she comes around to take my order as we taxi out. Since I'm technically a deadheading crewmember on this aircraft, I have to stay away from my usual Jack Daniels and just ask for a Diet Coke with ice and lemon.
We are airborne from runway 21 at 2355hrs with a flying time of 6:17 to Gatwick. As we cross 10,000 feet, the seatbelt sign pings off and I wander up to the forward galley to ask the girls if I can do anything to help. It is a light load so they thank me for the offer and promise to let me know if they need anything later. The cabin interphone pings and MM answers. I start to head back to my seat but she taps me on the shoulder and signals me to wait. I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. We go up to the cockpit and Chris explains that #1 engine is running a little hot. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem as we are still below the warning levels and things invariably cool down once we level out at 35000 feet, but Chris wants to go back to have it looked at. I do some quick calculations on the back of a napkin and figure we need to burn around 9 tons of fuel to get our landing weight down to an acceptable level. Chris concurs. That means around 45 minutes of circling with the gear down before we can land.
I turn on my mobile and send a quick text to GS regarding the situation. He's already at home, but he calls me back immediately and starts troubleshooting with Chris as the copilot informs ATC of our intention to return. Meanwhile MM has gone back to brief the crew. Chris finishes up on the line with GS and tells me that the plan will be to get on the deck as soon as our landing weight is within limits, conduct a test flight sans passengers to check performance at 30000 feet and if everything is clear, load back up and proceed to Gatwick. Duty time limits give the crew until 0442hrs to depart, so we have a few hours to work with.
We circle and land uneventfully at 0110hrs. Uneventful is a relative term though since we are still very heavy and Chris has to use full reverse thrust to avoid overheating the brakes. The fire trucks are with us in seconds and give us an all clear as we exit the active runway and proceed to ramp. We get the passengers and cabin crew quickly off into the terminal and GS and EG, the engineers, join myself and the two pilots for the VFR test flight after conducting a heavy landing check and signing off on the aircraft.
Flying on an empty aircraft seems simple enough, but there are protocols that need to be followed nonetheless. Security checks the cabin for any forgotten items of hand luggage while I quickly check all the galleys and stowage areas to ensure everything is properly stowed. Since there are only 5 of us on board and we are all on jumpseats in the front of the aircraft, we only need to arm doors 1. EG and myself arm and cross check the doors as we taxi out.
The test flight itself is quite anticlimatic. We observe a similar trend that arrests itself prior to reaching the "yellow zone" but then settles down to normal as we level out at 30000 feet. GS and Chris put the aircraft through some other maneuvers but after about 20 minutes they seem to be satisfied that all is in order. We come in to land without any drama and taxi to the ramp at 0330hrs where everyone is ready and waiting for a quick turn.
Crew, fuel, loadsheet, flight plan, passengers - we check the boxes off as we attempt round three for the night. All closed up and we are airborne at 0424hrs with 18 minutes of duty time to spare. The girls bustle around trying to get a very late dinner service done quickly, but most passengers had used their time back in the terminal to grab a snack there. I ask MRE for a croissant and muffin from the breakfast service instead and then recline 1F to try and grab a few hours sleep.
It is never pleasant to be woken up by that sound. It is especially unpleasant when you are 35000 feet over the Sahara and the sound happened to originate from #2 engine.
I'm out of my seat in seconds. Dawn has broken over the Sahara and we have a lovely clear view of absolutely nothing below us. Most of the passengers are still sleeping but there is a worried buzz from those who heard the sound. I head to the front of the aircraft where MM is looking a little concerned. I tell her to hang on for a bit while Chris gets the immediate situation under control and I'm sure he'll brief us right afterwards. Sure enough, he calls through a few minutes later and asks MM to come up to the cockpit and to bring me along.
Basic story is that #2 engine experienced a surge and had to be shut down. I won't go into the technical aspects of the shutdown here, but the bottom line was that we were now dependant on a single engine that had already shown a tendency to overheat (albeit within limits) at lower altitudes tonight. As we continued to descend from 35000 down to 17000, I could guess exactly why Chris had a frown on his face.
Chris briefs MM quickly and tells her to prepare the cabin for an emergency landing. She heads out to brief the cabin crew and Chris turns to me next. We are 32 minutes flying time from Algiers and he wants to go there, but short of the info on the Jepps he has no local knowledge of the field. I'm not sold on Algiers. How far are we from Mallorca? 38 minutes flying time says the copilot after a quick check. Can we make it there instead? Chris checks the guages. #1 is behaving herself so far. I press the case. We can get far better engineering support, emergency services and passenger facilities in Spain than in Algeria. The crew will certainly time out before we get the problem fixed, so passenger welfare becomes a major concern here. Chris scans the charts again and makes up his mind. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Some of you may have noticed that we have begun to descend. This is nothing to be alarmed about. One of our engines has been giving us some trouble, so we will be making a precautionary landing in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. We anticipate to be on the ground within the next 40 minutes. We apologise for the inconvenience but our first priority is always your safety when making these decisions. Cabin crew, prepare the cabin for landing."
As I get ready to head back to my seat, Chris asks if I wanted to come back for the landing. I do want to get my laptop out first though and run through the PMI diversion scenarios. Fortunately, as part of ETOPS operations, we maintain a pretty decent database of acceptable alternates and recovery procedures and PMI is one of our preferred options. After scanning the info, I am pretty confident that we can have the passengers out within 6 hours. No shortage of charter capacity available in Mallorca!
It seems like only a few minutes have passed, but I check my watch and the zero hour is fast approaching. I stow my bags and pass MM and MRE on the forward jumpseats as I head to the cockpit. "I just want to tell you both good luck. We're all counting on you." MRE collapses in giggles but the "Airplane" reference seems to be lost on MM I buzz the front office and let myself in using the keypad. As I strap in, I scan the instruments for a quick situation update. We're descending through 11000 for 9000 and we've just been handed off to Palma ATC. The one thing that jumps out at me is the idle thrust lever for #2 engine. Chris is nervously tapping his fingers on the other lever as we slowly descend over the Mediterranean.
As the island of Mallorca comes into view, Chris requests a wide turn and a visual approach to 24L. It is immediately granted. Fuel and souls on board is relayed. Rudder trim to compensate for engine out. Down to 4000 now on a 9 mile long final. Landing checklist. Cabin secure. Altimeters Set and Cross. Speedbrake Armed. Flaps 30. Gear down. 3000. Runway in sight. 1000. Chris is hand flying her down. 500. The fire trucks are rolling at a safe distance. 100. 50. 40. 30. 20. 10. Touchdown. Chris nails it perfectly. There is muffled applause audible from behind the cockpit door. We roll to the end of the runway and exit to hold short of the taxiway while the emergency services come and inspect us. Chris lets out a long sigh and we both clap him on the back in relief. He's done his job well and now my work begins. It is 0937hrs.
My first call is to Ops to advise of the situation. They are very relieved to hear we are on the ground safely. Next call to the CEO to advise him of the situation and to get a mandate to procure a subservice. He gives me the green light. I call Pete, an old friend who runs a charter carrier. He promises to check availability and get back to me. Then I call Mark, hoping for another dose of his magic. Mark is a broker who has access to planes that I never even knew existed. Back in July, he and I entered into aircraft leasing legend by procuring a Lebanese Tristar in Warsaw, ferrying it to the UK, getting it approved by the DfT and getting a noise curfew exemption for a 230am QC4 departure from Gatwick - all in a single Saturday afternoon of work! Mark doesn't even blink. He thinks he has a solution. Give him 10 minutes. Next call is to HH at the aircraft lessor. His first reaction is "holy f****** s***", which is actually quite funny when you hear it said in his laid back Scandinavian accent! While I'm on the phone, I get a text back from Pete. He can scramble a 737 to pick us up at 1520hrs. I call him back. Price is discussed. I ask for 30 minutes to confirm. I call Mark again. He has worked his magic. There is an MD80 already in Mallorca that can move by 1230hrs. The price is around half what Pete is asking. The deal is struck. It is 1003hrs. 26 minutes on ground and we don't even have a parking stand yet, but we have a rescue flight lined up!
A set of airstairs rolls up and a Servisair rep knocks on the door. I introduce myself and give him a quick brief of our plans. I give him the registration and parking bay for the MD80 and he relays it in Spanish to someone on his radio. Spanish Immigration rolls up next. I ask for a secure area in the terminal to hold the passengers since most of them do not hold Spanish visas. Some more rapid fire Spanish that goes over my head and they agree to give us some space in Terminal A for a few hours.
I ask the crew what they want to do. The pilots obviously need to stay in Mallorca to ferry the aircraft once she is fixed, but the cabin crew can either stay in Mallorca or deadhead up to London. They confer briefly and MM says that they will stick with me. I'm touched by the loyalty and tell them I intend to continue to London with the passengers. So be it. The passengers are disembarked into a bus and head to the terminal. MM and the crew secure the aircraft and we head off to join them. The girls make sure to leave a nice collection of beverages for the pilots. They've earned it today.
The passengers are nicely settled in by the time we arrive at the terminal. With that under control, I now need to get to an Ops center to set up the slots, fuel and flight plans for the rescue flight. I leave my credit card with MM with instructions to get some snacks and drinks for the passengers while I head up to the Servisair office.
The next 60 minutes are a whirlwind of calls, faxes, emails and telexes as signals are fired around the world to set up the logistics for the recovery flight. Mark has an aircraft in Helsinki which can cover our Gatwick outbound and I put him in touch with Eric at HQ to set that one up. Everything seems to be coming together as well as can be expected under the circumstances. It is now 1207hrs so we head back to the gate where most of the passengers are contentedly munching on the sandwiches MM has arranged for them.
The Servisair rep taps me on the shoulder. "Senor, your new plane is ready." We call for boarding. One passenger is quite shaken by the whole experience and isn't sure that he wants to continue. He's almost shaking. One of the girls takes him aside and quietly calms him down with some water. Hysteria can get very contagious. He sets his jaw, grits his teeth and walks onto the bus. Another lady takes the opposite tact. She gets in my face and starts yelling. She appears to be complaining about the quality of the cheese sandwich from the airport cafeteria. I find it hard to take her seriously, but I guess everyone has their own way of dealing with the stress. She eventually stomps off after vowing never to fly our airline ever again. The Iberia agent standing nearby smiles sympathetically. Irate passengers transcend cultural barriers.
Minor problem. We have a wheelchair passenger but they haven't been able to arrange the ambulift to load her onto the new aircraft. The girls offer to assist. KM grabs her luggage while two others get on either side to steady the old lady as she slowly makes her way to the bus. Quick headcount. All are aboard. Close up and lets go. I hop in the Servisair car and we speed off ahead of the passengers.
The MD80 is waiting for us on a remote stand. A team of rampers are busy loading the passenger bags but Spanish Customs are fussing over the perishable cargo. I quickly pop up to the cockpit, introduce myself to the captain and hand over the flight plans and fuel releases. He is a grizzled old Swedish guy with a gravelly smokers voice and salt-and-pepper stubble. While we are chatting, Customs comes on board and informs me that they need to seize the perishables as we do not have the requisite health permits for agricultural produce to transit Spain. I'm not in the mood to argue. I sign off on the seizure note.
New problem. AENA, the Spanish airport authority, want someone to pay the landing fees for the diversion before they will let us leave. I ask them to bill us through Eurocontrol as they've done whenever we've had to go into Madrid or Barcelona on ad-hocs, but he doesn't seem to understand what I'm saying. Doesn't matter. We hope back in the Servisair car and speed off to the AENA office. Fortunately, they take credit cards. He swipes and it is declined. Huh? I just used it to pay for the passenger snacks and it is nowhere near its limit. I call the bank. The very polite agent advises me that they have put a security hold on it due to suspicious transactions. Evidently somebody has been trying to charge landing fees for an aircraft in Spain. Well gee, you don't say. They release the hold and the transaction goes through. Back to the aircraft where everyone is now aboard and we are set to push. I scramble up the stairs and the door closes immediately behind me.
The MD80 crew have staked off a few rows at the rear of the aircraft for the crew and half the girls are already asleep there. I take an empty seat next to MM and she smiles wearily. They have been on duty for over 16 hours now with 2 emergency landings thrown in for good measure. We are airborne a few minutes later. Next stop Gatwick, inshallah. Third time lucky. It is 1342hrs. We were on the ground in Mallorca for exactly 4 hours and 5 minutes.
As we wing our way across the Iberian peninsula, I take the time to walk through the cabin and chat with the passengers who are still awake. Most are complimentary of our handling of the situation, but a few are still shaken. The MD80 has no catering aboard (sandwich lady would not be impressed) but the crew offer water and orange juice. Not many takers. Everyone wants a nap, me included. About 30 minutes out of Gatwick, MM gently wakes me up. Her UK visa has expired the previous week. This is not a problem when operating as a crewmember as she can benefit from a Section 7 exemption, but she is deadheading as a passenger today. Ah well, this is a minor issue compared to the other challenges we've had today.
As soon as we're on the ground, my phone rings. It is James. Evidently, one of the ethnic radio stations in London had broken the news that our aircraft had made a "crash landing" in Spain. Our airport office had been beseiged by calls from anxious relatives for the last few hours. One lady even showed up at the airport dressed in black wailing in front of the Easyjet ticket desk that they had killed her son. Easyjet kindly redirected her. Speaking of sons, that reminds me. I check voicemail and sure enough, there is one from my mother. "Ohmigod, I read on the internet that your plane had to make an emergency landing and now you aren't answering your phone. Are you ok? Please call me back immediately!!" I call. It is brief. "It's me. I'm fine but I'm busy." She seems pleased but I have no time for pleasantries. I promise to call back later for a longer chat. Fortunately the Chief Immigration Officer on duty is a reasonable sort and agrees to grant MM a 24 hour landing permit after I explain the situation. The crew head off to their hotel and I join James for a quick brief on the status of the outbound passengers.
All passengers had been informed about the delay as soon as the diversion was known and had been given lunch vouchers so far. One person requested to offload and had been taken care of. The inbound ferry from Helsinki was due in within the hour and we hoped to turn it around within 90 minutes. We had posted 2000hrs for the rescheduled departure and were optimistic of making that schedule. As we go through security to meet the arrival, I realise that my jacket was still in the closet of the aircraft in Mallorca. Dammit.
This departure goes smoothly. The passengers are actually in decent spirits and understanding of the situation for the most part. With our schedules already out of whack, I pull out 3 of our crew to deadhead back with the Finnish crew and support the service. We have a spare purser in Gatwick now that both MM and KM are there, so we can cover whatever flights we need to without them. The Finns are airborne at 1951hrs and I stumble to the hotel to finally get some sleep.
The next couple days are a bit hectic as the engineering team that scrambled to Mallorca works on the engine and gets the aircraft airworthy again. She positions up to Gatwick the next day (and I recover my jacket from the forward closet). MM takes the previous day's crew back, leaving the original crew in KM's care for their return leg the following morning. I'm ready to head back too.
Our captain on this leg is TKS. He's a quietly efficient man of few words and a strange sense of humour. He glares at me when I come aboard. "Chris says you are bad luck." "I don't know about that. We made it down safely twice didn't we?" He chortles and flashes me a wide grin. "And that b****** got 2 days by the pool in Mallorca too!" "Lightning doesn't strike thrice in a row." "Aye!". And thats that.
Boarding for this flight is quite the circus. We have an elderly couple who left their passports at Duty Free. A young couple with 3 kids that can't seem to stop quarrelling (the couple, not the kids). The entire gate is treated to the story of how the gift for his mother cost only half what the gift for her mother cost. A guy on crutches who demands an exit row seat to stretch his leg. And a young lady who seems a bit disoriented by the whole process and spends a few minutes trying to buy something from the vending machine without success. She thumps it a few times and then abandons the idea and boards.
As we liftoff from 08R, I can't help but sneak a peek at #2 to make sure she was behaving. The sun catches the Rolls Royce sticker on the cowling at a good angle and it seems like she is winking back at me. It's gonna be a quiet flight, I can feel it.
We are 43 minutes into the flight now and the beverage service is in full swing at the back. Suddenly there is a bit of commotion evident behind the curtain. I ignore it. A few seconds later, KB's urgent voice on the PA. "Ladies and gentlemen, if there is a medical doctor on board please contact a member of the cabin crew." The aisle is blocked by a number of passengers all trying to get a better view of the drama near the rear galley. KM comes hurrying behind me and we instruct everyone to remain seated.
The scene at the back isn't good. The vending machine girl is face down on the floor unconscious. She was walking to the lavatory when she suddenly went limp and fell forward onto the carpet. Her pulse is extremely faint. KB and MCA are trying to revive her but no dice. KM calls up to TKS and briefs him on the situation. I ask KM to page for any medical personnel, not just doctors. An old lady volunteers her services as a retired nurse and starts examining her. She is stirring slightly now that we have her on oxygen, but still not fully conscious. I go up to the cockpit and have a chat with TKS. Our closest diversion option is Paris. We have three options. We can continue for another 6 hours and hope she pulls through. We can go to Paris and risk grounding the entire aircraft with an overweight landing at an offline station. We can turn around and head back to Gatwick where we have full support. KM calls. The girl is conscious now but still very disoriented. TKS makes his decision. We're going back to Gatwick. 47 minutes till we're on the ground.
As TKS makes the announcement advising we are returning to Gatwick, one passenger flips out. He gets out of his seat and confronts KB who is carrying a spare oxygen cannister down the aisle. "This is ridiculous! How can you do this to me? I have an important meeting to get to. I am going to sue this airline!! You guys are a bunch of f****** morons! F*** you all!" KB has had enough. He grabs the guy by the shirtfront and delivers a memorable line. "Sit down and shut the f*** up. When we are finished saving this woman's life, we'll worry about you. Thank you." A couple of passengers nearby applaud. The guy is too shocked and just sits down.
The crew bustle around prepping the cabin for their third consecutive emergency landing. KM keeps a great hand on everything as she assigns the tasks. The girl is set up lying across the last row of seats with an oxygen cannister and MCA seated across the aisle to keep an eye on her. As we descend through 10000, I go back to my seat. For the first time I can remember, we are cleared straight in to 08R without any hold. As soon as we are on the ground, my phone rings. It's James. "You're coming in to stand 42. All services are standing by. They'll come to door 4". No sooner do we pull in to stand 42 than there is a set of stairs at 4L and paramedics racing up them.
We are on the ground for only 1 hour and 7 minutes. Great job by the ground crew considering we had to offload the girl, find her bags and offload those, perform a heavy landing check and top up our fuel. The medics take the girl off to hospital and advise us that her condition is stable but further details cannot be released due to privacy. I appreciate the sentiment, but it would help for us to know what exactly caused the problem in the first place.
The final leg of this trip is completely uneventful. We touch down at base just after midnight and the passengers disembark. KM and TKS conduct an excellent debriefing and we are almost ready to head home. Before we go, I take the opportunity to add a few words for the crew. "All of you will remember this trip for years to come. It is not often that so many challenges crop up in such a short period of time, but it is a tribute to your professionalism that we were able to handle every single incident succesfully. Reality will begin to set in soon. Whereas you acted in accordance with your training as the events unfolded, now that you are home you will have a chance to go over them in your mind and undoubtedly some of you will discover aspects of the situation that didn't occur to you before. Treat this as a positive learning experience. Talk among your peers, talk to your supervisors, talk to your loved ones, talk to me. A shared experience helps us all grow stronger. It has truly been a pleasure and an honour working with you guys this week."