Engine Failure in Boeing 737 emergency landing
Miracle Escape – (Drama in Real Life)
By Nitin W Shirsekar
I wish to recount an incident that happened a long time ago in the year 2002 when I was stationed at Chennai. Although time, they say is the ‘best healer’ and that memories grow dim, the incident is still etched in my memory, as fresh, as yesterday.
Sales folks (like some of us) travel frequently to other cities for work by air.
Air travel, statistically touted as one of the safest modes of transport in the world, sometimes shows us an ugly face that belays our belief and reinforces the notion that sometimes, statistics can indeed, go wrong.
Coming back to that eventful day, the morning progressed routinely.
Our team of two (me and my colleague who is now back at Chennai after a stint in Mumbai Office) finished our assignment at Vishakhapatnam and by late afternoon proceeded to Vishakhapatnam airport for the return flight to Chennai.
Check in was on time.
As we made our way across the tarmac by bus, I noticed that the aircraft readied for our journey was an ageing Boeing 737.
We were patiently aware, that the now defunct Airline, as part of its low cost structure, flew aircraft seconded by its parent airlines that sometimes had snags in them, especially on low density routes such as these.
Yet these thoughts hardly deterred us as we climbed aboard and smiled at the pretty stewardess before taking our seats in the rear section.
My colleague had opted for a window seat on the port side while I had opted for the other available window seat on his opposite side across the aisle. (Both of us liked the outside view, specially during take off / landing).
As the aircraft took off the Vishakhapatnam coast zipped past and the waters of the ‘Bay of Bengal’ dotted with small crafts and boats, came into view reflecting exotic shades of dark blue and turquoise before the aircraft was engulfed by clouds.
Our journey of about one hour (approx) would be almost entirely over water.
The aircraft turned once and reached its cruising altitude.
The seat belt sign winked out and a few passengers rose and made their way to the rest room.
The stewardesses made her rounds.
My colleague from the opposite window gave me a wiry smile from across the aisle.
It appeared a routine flight, incident free and monotonous like so many others.
‘They’ll serve refreshments in a short while’ I thought and reclined in my seat, settling down and enjoying the rhythm of the flight.
Closing my eyes I concentrated awhile on the slight perceptible motion of the aircraft as it rushed through the air.
The sensation could be felt through the forearms resting on the arm rests and the soles of the feet on the carpet.
I could not help but marvel at the technology that made travel in these dimensions possible, something that our forefathers could only dream off.
Even birds did not fly here.
The outside air would be rarified with almost no oxygen with temperatures reaching -24°C while we cruised at velocities nearing the speed of sound.
The earth (terra firma) as we knew it looked far and insignificant below.
I yawned lazily and my thoughts turned to my family.
‘We’ll be home soon…’ I realized and relished the prospect of meeting my wife and kids in the familiar comfort of my Chennai home.
It was a couple of minutes after I had closed my eyes that I felt a muted change in the surroundings.
A slight vibration and then silence, as if something had stopped abruptly.
The cabin lights went out and came back again in a second, now dimmed as if on take off.
A pinging chime sounded insistently in the cabin.
I noticed one of the stewardesses scurrying towards the intercom on the rear console.
On wing dipped slightly to port and the aircraft started to turn around in a wide arc.
As I gazed out of the window I felt the clouds slip backwards and upwards.
Are we landing so soon I thought..?
From the window I could see that the aircraft was descending steadily.
The intermitting rays of the sun falling on my arm through the window had slowly gone around and were now shining from the opposite windows across the aisle.
‘The aircraft had turned back from where we came’ I thought. ‘But why….’
Just then the stark voice of the pilot came over the public address system
‘This is your captain speaking. We have technical problems with one of the engines, which has been temporarily shut down.'
'There is nothing to worry.'
'Kindly keep your seat belts fastened and remain in your seats till further announcements.’
As the words digested and a stunned realization set in, the silence was broken again by another announcement.
‘In case bad weather persists over Vishakhapatnam we may have to belly land.
Please follow the instructions of the cabin crew in taking proper crash positions and use the life vests under your seat prior to evacuating the aircraft.’
Stunned silence descended around me and all bodily movements ceased.
It was as if the people inside the cabin for a few seconds had become inanimate objects.
A sudden hubbub broke the silence as realization dawned.
The 2nd announcement had shaken us out of our complacency.
The realization of multiple engine failure and a crash landing in the ocean hit us like a body blow.
My colleague sitting on the other side of the aisle looked at me in a peculiar way.
His expression said it all ‘Dear God !!
Why us… Why now!!!’
Turbulence rocked the aircraft as it descended below the cloud layer.
We could see the glistening blue ocean below the aircraft again.
But now its serene beauty that we had so admired during takeoff filled us with dread.
A cold watery embrace in the middle of no- where was an unwelcome prospect.
I pushed the thought from my mind as my fingers gingerly felt the coarse cloth of the orange life vest below my seat.
‘Hope it does not come to that…’ I muttered my throat, suddenly dry.
The sound of a lady sobbing nearby and the stewardess pacifying passengers was worrisome.
A child started bawling.
The confines of the cabin and the seat belt suddenly felt claustrophobic.
I wanted to get away, but knew that was impossible.
‘Nothing to worry..’ came the voice of the stewardess.
Smiling bravely, she patted an arm or touched an anxious face as she made her way forward.
‘Well be ok…’ she whispered as she passed by. But on her way back as she came alongside I noticed her eyes were moist…almost wet.
I silently cursed myself for staking my life with such an airline.
Even their crew appeared wet behind the ears.
I dread the prospect of ditching in such conditions, an ageing aircraft, a raw crew and bad weather to boot.
Thing could not have been at their worst.
My thoughts turned to my family who were at the moment blissfully unaware of my predicament.
Those were the days when mobile phones were still a novelty.
We could not have contacted our loved ones from inside the aircraft even if we had wanted to.
I stretched my head above my seat.
An aged gentleman had opened a copy of the ‘Bible’ and was anxiously reciting the verses his voice quavering.
On the seat behind me a middle aged couple repeated the litany of ‘Ram…Ram…Ram…’, their fingers clutched together on the arm rests, eyes tightly closed…faces tense.
What if …… I wondered as I looked around at the lighted interior of the aircraft, the quietly seated passengers and the primly dressed cabin crew moving around … what if… it all ended up in the sea.
Panic was beginning to get the better of me I realized and decided to calm down.
I recollected my childhood and the happy moments spent.
I thought of the good deeds performed and told myself nothing will happen.
I forced myself to believe and have faith in the pilots and the almighty.
‘This aircraft will make it to Vishakhapatnam on one engine and land successfully without mishap’ I told myself.
You’ll live through this.
A strange calmness in the face of adversity came over me.
I leaned back in my seat an closed my eyes.
My mind was a cauldron of emotions.
As the aircraft cruised on without mishap, I counted out the minutes.
It was a game of chance. If we hang on in the air for another 10 minutes or so we should be home and dry I thought. There was still the landing though on one engine.
The sudden crackle of the PA system brought much needed relief.
‘Cabin crew to stations for emergency landing’.
Great God…, I exclaimed as the coast slipped by once again.
‘We are about to make it’. At least it will not be a watery grave for us.
The landing was quick and jerky. Fire and crash tenders surrounded the aircraft as it rolled to a halt.
Cheers and claps sounded inside the cabin.
We were taken to a hotel and a different plane took us to Chennai the next day.
I did not immediately call my family that evening in order to avoid upsetting them and told them about the narrow escape only on arriving safely at Chennai the next day.
A small article appeared in the local newspapers the next day describing an emergency landing at the local airport and the incident was soon relegated to the archives.
Yet to me and my loved ones it was a stark reminder that life is a fickle mistress.
Let us be eternally grateful to the Lord for bestowing us the opportunity of living each day on this earth in good health and happiness with our families, and be happy in making our own little contribution to society and humanity in general.
Let us never forget that.