Have you ever been scared in an airplane? I don't think I have but maybe my memory isn't what it used to be. Truth be known, it never was. But I don't ever remember feeling true fear in an airplane. That's why whenever I hear somebody say they have, it gets my attention.

— James Albright




I write about one of the times I heard "I've never been so scared" from someone: here. That story takes place in the year 2001. This story happens in 1990 and comes from a friend of mine. He is a U.K. air traffic controller and his observations have many lessons for us pilots. Of note, this airplane crashed less than a year later. More about that: Case Study: ATI 102.


Photo: Cloudbreak at 200 feet, Easyjet Airbus 319 Geneva RW 23, December 14th 2016, Matt Birch (http://visualapproachimages.com/)


Familiarisation flights


As you have spent so much time writing your stories, your efforts and the resources on your website have inspired me to recount one of my own. So have a read for a change and see what you think of this.

April 1990

Six years into my ATC career, I was based in London at the ATC en-route control centre. The centre was just north of Heathrow airport and just south of RAF Northolt, in a place called West Drayton, in the middle of a housing estate. It wasn’t the nicest part of the world, but I was commuting from my home on the south coast an hour and a half away, and working where I did gave easy access to a lot of local airports where I could pursue my hobby watching and photographing airplanes.

As part of this passion, and as a perk of my job, I was able to arrange a large number of “familiarisation flights” for myself and a few of my like-minded work colleagues. This usually involved a phone call to someone's ops department, explaining what I did for a living, and expressing a desire to witness flightdeck operations as a means of promoting mutual understanding between pilots and controllers. After a while, I had established a network of contacts and a number of my colleagues and I took advantage of these opportunities to experience life at the other end of the R/T.

From a professional point of view it was (and still is) a rewarding experience, but as an airplane enthusiast it also gave me the thrill of flying on many different types of airplanes at minimal cost and usually with a front row (jump) seat. I continued to do this for many years, flying all over the globe in many types of airplanes, until the dramatic and world-changing events of 9/11 brought the majority of these perks to an end. The opportunities have since gradually returned, though not to the extent of those heady days in the late 80s and early 90s.


Photo: DC-8 N730PL, Matt Birch (http://visualapproachimages.com/).

So back to April 1990 - Me and my friend found ourselves half way across the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night, in the cockpit of a DC-8-62 freighter. The airplane's company operated a week-day service between JFK and Brussels under contract to a global distribution network. Through a contact I had made in their ops centre in Brussels, we had managed to arrange a trip to the USA and back for 5 days, flying on their magnificent, smoky, noisy and charismatic McDonnell Douglas DC-8.

Despite by this time having clocked up quite a number of flight deck trips, little did I realise what an eye-opening experience this was to be. Most of my trips thus far had been with other UK carriers, majors who by and large did things by the book. This was a experience which eventually brought home how naive I was back then - but even this didn't start to dawn on me until a significant time after the trip. After years more experience in this game, after reading books, websites, accident reports and countless further fam-flights and talking with pilots of various experience, I now look back on this as a stand-out moment, and I realise how close I may have come to being posthumously featured in one of your mishap case studies.

Anyways, having made our own way to Brussels from London via commercial airlines the previous day, we left Brussels on board the DC-8 around 3 am local time. The flight was captained by the laid back and amiable Chuck, and FO Sam, who was a flustered individual with little self confidence and a clear aversion to going to the gym. There were two jump seats for us behind the FEs position, towards the rear of the flight deck, and behind them two large yellow inflatable dinghies. These, we were told, were available for us if we felt the need for a nap en-route. There were also 2 courier seats between the flight deck rear bulk head and the cargo bulk head, but which were unoccupied on this trip. With FO Sam assigned as PF, we thundered out of Zaventem in the small hours, heading west and bound for NYC.

Having completed the formalities and received our oceanic clearance, there was little to do except monitor fuel burn and check the nav waypoints as we headed west for over 8 hours. About 20 degrees west, Chuck reclined his seat and announced Sam had control, and then he put on his Sony Walkman headphones and closed his eyes. This was my first clue to the fact that maybe this was not the kind of operation I was used to seeing. Still, we were aboard what to us was a classic and increasingly rare airplane, on a free trip to New York for 5 days of airplane spotting, and it was another adventure in our log books. Chuck was just laid back, it seemed.

An hour out from JFK, Sam was tasked to check the weather at JFK - this was around 5.30 am local time in NYC. The news wasn’t good - JFK was shrouded in fog, with RVRs approaching or below minima, depending on the runway. Much head-scratching ensued, along with studying the ops manual for minima criteria. Our alternate was Stewart (KSWF), which wasn’t ideal. The airplane, crew and cargo would all be out of position, and listening to the conversation between Chuck and ops, it was obvious even to me that the pressure was on to land at JFK. I can’t recall the exact numbers discussed during the approach briefing, but I’m pretty sure we needed 1600 feet (500m) RVR and the DH was 250 feet. We didn’t really have this, at least not for any significant length of time, and the minima were needed to at least legally commence an approach.

But after a short hold, the latest reported RVRs suggested that an approach to 4L was viable, and approach control vectored us for the ILS. Established on the localiser at around 10 miles, the RVRs then dropped significantly below what we required, and we were broken off the approach and vectored back to the hold. The approach controller said he thought that 4L was possibly suffering from the fog drifting in from Jamaica Bay, and suggested that 13L may offer a better option, particularly as several heavy departures from that runway may help dissipate the fog just prior to our approach. Captain Chuck concurred, and so we were vectored yet again, this time for 13L - I may have been naive back then, but I did notice there was no briefing review following the runway change. The abiding memory I have at this point was the New York skyline - the twin towers of the WTC and the tops of the GW bridge were rising majestically up through the fog bank as the sun was coming up and bathing the whole vista in a beautiful early morning light. Unfortunately, I got to see this twice. As we established on 13L, we got some kind of red flag warning in the FD - it turned out that inexplicably, the localiser was working but the glideslope was turned off. I still don't know how they managed to do that to us. We flew another missed approach, and were vectored back around to 13L, whilst the crew looked again at the remaining fuel. From my vantage point in the front jump seat I was able to once again admire the New York skyline. Then at around 800 feet, we slid into the fog.

I have kept a flying log book since my first flight in a BAC 1-11 when I was about 10 years old. Currently my sector total is 818 flights as a passenger/observer, with a hours total of 1900 and in 613 different airframes of various types - around 200 of these flights were as some kind of ATC observer or jump seat rider. This was, and still is, the only time I have ever felt really scared on board an airplane. Even the ancient Antonov AN12 freighter I flew on 18 months ago in Belarus, with bald tyres and a pretty apparent fuel leak in the number 2 engine, didn't scare me like this did.

Back at 800 feet, Sam was sweating profusely as PF, his eyes glued to the FD and being gently reassured by Chuck “watch the needles - I’m looking for the lights” , “400”….”300”….”OK - decision Sam, thats 250 - you got ‘em?” Sam hesitated “no I don’t see ‘em”. We continued to descend for what seemed like an eternity, but was only a few seconds - but a few vital seconds below decision height. I waited for one of them to call “going around”, but that call never came. Chuck calmly said “ I got it” and Sam relinquished control of the huge jet to the Captain, at 100 feet, in thick fog. Chuck landed the airplane, and as we slowed on the runway, I caught sight of the runway lights for the first time, as we looked for the turn off to the left. As we slowly turned 180 in the fog and taxied back down the parallel taxiway to the cargo ramp, the tower asked “Flight 102, how was the approach?” . “Tight” replied Chuck. We heard an Emery Express DC8 behind us being given the RVR and landing clearance. 60 seconds later it roared past us on the roll out with the reversers deployed. I was watching for the landing airplane out of Chuck's window as we were on the taxiway right next to the runway, less than 250 metres away - we never saw it.

Once on the parking stand, we thanked the crew for the ride, and they inquired as to when we were headed home. Chuck apparently enjoyed our company so much that he got their dispatcher to change his roster so he could fly us home a few days later. I wasn’t sure I wanted to fly with him again, but I didn’t feel in a position to refuse.

During our stay in New York, we took advantage of jump seat rides with Midway AL from LGA to MDW and back - this was a DC-9 one way and back on a MD-87, so it was good to see the difference between the old and (as it was then) the new.

We also took a trip with Trump shuttle (remember them ?) - they had an hourly service between LGA and DCA. I was particularly pleased with that one - the Boeing 727-100 I flew on was number 17 off the line, tail number N901TS, and was old even in 1990. Trump flew us down to DCA for the day - we went out on consecutive flights, but because of weather delays inbound to DCA, we had to hold remotely at LGA out by the holding point until our slot time. My friend Mac ended up parked right behind us in another Trump 727 and departed about 10 mins behind us in the end.

So a few days later, we were back on board the DC8 at JFK with Chuck and his FO John “I’ll warn you guys - the FE is a grumpy SOB” said Chuck as he settled in the seat. But Mac got talking to him - turned out he’d been on Constellations, Electras and just about anything else that had props and was built before 1970. When he found out we knew all about that kind of real flying, he was a kitten, and out came all the stories - “there I was when a mother of a lightning strike knocked out all the godamn electrics” and so on. The 7 hours back to Brussels just flew by.

We arrived at Brussels around 1 am. Chuck explained the airport was hot on noise and said he’d demonstrate a “low impact arrival”. He did have about 12000 feet of runway available, but he made a peach of a landing, and held the nose up as long as he could to bleed off the speed, but not so long as to drop the nosewheels, before the merest waft of reverse thrust slowed us for the turn off. I’m not sure if this is a technique you would endorse, but it sure impressed the hell out of us at the time.

I was 25 back then, with 6 years of ATC experience and a couple of dozen cockpit rides behind me. It was exciting, different, it was adventure. It was only with the benefit of my experience since, that I realise how easily that flight could have ended in disaster. In fact I think that since I have read so many accident reports and your excellent case studies, that I have come to realise just how fine the line can be between routine and tragedy.

Looking back on that experience, so many things were wrong, but only in the years since have those things become increasingly apparent.

Listening to your walkman as PIC in the LH seat whilst undertaking an Ocean crossing ?

The obvious bending under commercial pressure to get to destination ?

The lack of amended approach briefings following change of runways, particularly in poor weather when a missed approach was very likely ?

And even back then, I knew enough that without the runway in sight at DH, you go around. Thats what Sam should have done - not wait for Chuck to tell him to (which he didn’t)

PNF takes the controls at 100 feet and lands ?

There maybe other things I missed through my inexperience, but I saw enough.

All the things I did notice crop up regularly in those accident reports - thats what made me want to write this down. I keep thinking - yes I’ve been there, done that - and these guys got away with it.