Saturday, April 17, 2010

flying ashtray

She was laid up on the outskirts of Bournemouth Airport in the Southern Part of England. Nearly thirty years old now, she sat devoid of engines for nearly five years as her components were slowly robbed away for use on other airframes. Her fuselage and empanage was remarkably intact as she withered away, desolate and forgotten. People motored by every day and gave her nary a glance, and certainly few that saw her recalled how close to tragedy she had been, how a miraculous act had spared her a watery grave in the Indian Ocean and made her, for a time, the most famous airplane in the world.

It was in the spring of 1979 that she made her first flight, soaring over the spring green countryside of Seattle. Christened City of Edinburgh, she would early in life acquire a different nickname. She was a 747-236B, the 365th to be assembled. She carried msn 21635 and was registered G-BDXH. She entered service for British Airways in the late spring and was soon circling the globe.

She was only three years in service when it happened. Under the command of Captain Eric Moody as Flight 9, she was flying under the traditional British Airways call sign of Speedbird 9 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Perth, Australia at 36,000 feet when suddenly things were very askew. The windscreen was covered with light flashes resembling St Elmo's Fire. The wings and engines seemed to become engulfed in light and the smell of sulphur permeated the cockpit. Engine number four flamed out and was shut down, followed by engine number two. Within minutes, engines one and three shut down, almost simultaneously. Speedbird 9 was the world's largest glider.

Captain Moody made a most ominous announcement to the passengers:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."

By now, Speedbird 9 had already sent a Mayday to Jakarta and calculated that they could remain aloft for approximately 23 minutes before they would have to ditch in the Indian Ocean. Oxygen had deployed but not all masks were working, notably Captain Moody's was among the inoperative. He decided to make a dramatic descent to a point where the passengers would be able to breathe, and descended 6,000 feet in just over a minute. He had unknowingly saved the life of every one of the 274 souls on board.

With breathing restored, but perilously close to the point where they would have to ditch, the crew once again attempted to restart engines. And engine number four roared to life. Then engine number three restarted, followed in quick succession by engines one and two. Speedbird 9 was alive.

Descent had stopped and the flight was once again ascending when the St Elmo's fire reappeared at just under 15,000 feet. Ominously, engine number 2 began to stumble. The quickly shut down engine number 2 and descended to just under 12,000 feet, the lowest safe altitude to clear the mountains on the approach to Jakarta. Once preparing for landing, the flight crew noted very poor visibility. They would have to rely on an instrument landing, but a very complicated one in which the first officer monitored the airport's DME (Distance Measuring Equipment). He then called out how high they should be at each DME step along the final approach. They made their own glide slope. It was a very treacherous task. Once on the ground, they could not safely see to taxi through the badly sandblasted glass, and had to wait for a tow to the gate.

Ground crews quickly discovered that the engines were clogged with volcanic ash. Speedbird 9 has inadvertently flown through an ash cloud from an eruption of Mount Galunggung. The molten ash created the light effect passengers had noted, as well as completely sandblasting the windshield. Without realizing it, the pilot has performed the perfect maneuver- diving beneath the cloud into cool dense air where the ash would crystallize and break off, allowing sufficient cool air for the engines to restart. The action saved 274 lives and three year old 747 from a certain death.

The crew and passengers formed a group called the Galunggung Gliding Club by which they could remain in contact. The City of Edinburgh was restored and returned to service with a new nickname, the Flying Ashtray, bestowed on her by a very grateful crew. She flew through 2001 for BA and then from 2002-2005 for European Air Charter, whose bankruptcy caused her retirement and ultimate demise.

And then she was gone. On July 16, 2009, workers with cutting machines moved in to dismantle her. Within two days, she was nothing more than shredded aluminum. It's a terrible pity that she couldn't have a more noble ending, especially considering the two hundred seventy four souls who thought that they were goners are eternally grateful that the Flying Ashtray helped bring them home.

The grand old girl deserved better.

Read an excellent recollection here

See her sad demise here

1 comment:

A Lewis said...

I just saw this story on television this week. Amazing!