Hours of boredom, followed by…

We’ve been cruising through Russian airspace for several hours. Our altitude is 11,100 meters standard or 36,400 feet, and we’re going through the Stans. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, with a couple more Stans to go.

The airplane tonight is a 747-400M. With a takeoff weight around 900,000 pounds, this gleaming behemoth was christened “The City of Calgary.” It’s been in service for five years since it came off the Boeing assembly line in Everett, Washington.

This whale has the latest state of the art bells and whistles to keep us entertained. The glass cockpit is beautiful to behold at night. KLM spares no expense in getting all the best equipment, a pleasant change from some of the relics I’ve flown with three airlines in the States.

I’m sitting in the captain’s seat and officially titled as the second officer. The real captain is asleep in a bunk room behind me. Captain Karl and another first officer are wearing their official blue sweat-suit pajamas with big white letters saying “KLM Crew” across the back. Those two have been zonked-out for about three hours.

In the right seat is First Officer Marten. We do our well-rehearsed procedural dance steps as we fly on through the darkness. We share the same profession, but our cultures, history, and backgrounds are very different.

KLM 747
A 747-400 can weigh as much as 900,000 lbs. on takeoff.

In about 30 minutes we will pass over Afghanistan, where a civil war is raging. We were briefed to fly as high as possible while crossing that area. I’m supposed to radio the Afghans about 15 minutes ahead of time to let them know that we would be entering their airspace.

It’s an eerie sight crossing over Kabul on a clear night. A huge city with around 3.5 million people and the whole place is dark. If we dim the lighting and peer straight down, we can see some car lights and little streaks of light zipping across and disappearing. Occasionally there’s a flash at the end of those streaks. These are rocket propelled grenades being fired.

We’ve been in the seats for 3.5 hours and feeling the effects of flying on the back side of the clock. Both of us are yawning and ready for a break. Not to worry though. The guys in the back will be getting their scheduled wakeup call from us in about 10 minutes. Then it’s our turn to put on our blue jammies.

The Russian air traffic control system in 1994 is on the verge of collapse. English is the universal language in aviation but not everyone down below can speak “good” English. Russian controllers are using “throat mics,” which have been around since WWII. Not only are the transmissions garbled, the English-speaking pilots passing above are talking to an interpreter standing next to the controller below. That controller will radio directly to an Aeroflot flight in Russian, but the English communications are relayed through the interpreter.

The Russian radar displays are outdated. The large flat screens have small pieces of clear plastic called shrimp boats placed on the glass. Not all Russian centers remain this antiquated, but in the southern provinces they are.

We’re sitting on the flight deck and yawning on occasion. We do our flight plan entries and company communications. We make sure the many fuel tanks transfer the gas properly and the engines don’t run dry. I do some quick math and compare it to the flight plan. We still have enough gas to make it to Bangkok. Yawn… If I get really bored, there is a little knob on the nosewheel steering tiller to my left that I can spin. I slap it with my finger, and it twirls around like a fidget spinner.

I give the fidget spinner another twirl as Marten reminds me to ding the pilots sleeping in the back. I shift to my right and search the center console to find the ding button thingy. Where did it go?

I’m suddenly startled by a loud voice: “TRAFFIC – TRAFFIC.” What the heck?

The Nav Display is showing an airplane directly ahead of us at close range. The altitude display is showing zero.

Both of us lurch forward to look and see two dim lights approaching. One is red and one is green, and they are rapidly splitting apart. Those are the front navigation lights on the wingtips of another plane, and we are about to hit.

In seconds, the loud voice is back on the speaker shouting, “DESCEND – DESCEND,” and we are now in a full-blown Resolution Advisory. The closure rate of the two airplanes coming at each other is over 1000 miles per hour.

After what seems like an eternity of disbelief and indecision, my hands finally start moving for the controls. I’m starting to see some shadow outline of the airplane between the navigation lights. It’s really close.

RA
An RA in the middle of the night will get your attention.

Both of us grab the controls at the same time and we simultaneously push the buttons on our control yokes to disconnect the autopilot. A click-click sound can be heard, and I push. Now we’re both pushing.

With my brain in overload, I still have time to wonder if this is the end. I’m wincing and waiting for the impact. What will it feel like? Will things suddenly go black and be over? Will there be a loud crunch, followed by deafening noise and a freezing rush of air? Will we have some control, or will the tail fin be torn off and we slowly flat spin into the barren desert seven miles below?

The combined horsepower of the two of us pushing is too much and we are going down at zero g. I see my KLM dark blue tie floating up in my face.

Marten says the magic words, but he seems to be talking in slow-motion: “M-Y  C-O-N-T-R-O-L-S!” I sluggishly back off the pressure and remove my hands from the yoke.

The screaming “Descend” voice is gone but I hardly have time to notice. We are hurtling downward, and our speed is increasing very fast. We are approaching supersonic on sections of our wings and in a few moments the flight controls may be ripped off or rendered useless. Marten mashes the Auto Throttle button off as he pulls back the throttles on all four engines. We’re up in the coffin corner of the airplane’s speed envelope and we need to get control back quickly. Marten, ever so gently and with years of ingrained skill, tenderly nudges the nose back up to level flight. Things are better but we’re still in trouble.

I feel my hand reaching for the microphone and keying the button. A strangely calm voice says, “Center, KLM 877 is descending to comply with a resolution advisory.” It’s my own voice but it’s way calmer sounding than the screaming in my head.

We are up in the thin atmosphere and the throttles are now at idle. In level flight with no thrust, the aircraft’s speed rapidly drops. In less than 10 seconds we will be in a stall. Marten is steps ahead already and is pushing the thrust levers forward, just enough to stop the rapid decay of the airspeed. He fine tunes the throttles and puts the speed right in the middle of where it should be. Nice job!

There is no response from the Russian controller, so I push the button again. “Aircraft passing position NIDIR on Alpha 845 at 11,100 meters, say your call sign.” That airplane should be on our frequency but there’s no response again.

My right face cheek muscle is twitching uncontrollably for some reason, but I try to ignore it and press on. There are volumes of training procedures and regulations flowing through my mind. What should I be doing right now?

This whole event took place in probably a minute. The autopilot is now re-engaged, and we have a second to breathe.

“Holy Sheet… Holy Sheet!” Martin just kept repeating “Holy Sheet” in his Dutch accent. I pressed on with communicating. “KLM 877 is returning to 11,100 meters standard.” Finally, a distant voice comes through my headset and says, “KLM 877 what are you saying? I don’t understand you.”

I continue to attempt to get my point across to the Russian interpreter that we just missed another airplane and we needed to have the radar tapes marked and file a near-miss incident report. Not sure the Russians can even do this, but this is what we’d ask for in the States.

I notice the two guys in blue pajamas are standing behind us, along with the lead purser from the cabin. The captain is about six foot four with a commanding, deep voice. He calmly asks, “Wat is er gebeurdwhat?” (What happened?) Marten resorts to his native language and unloads in rapid fire, with his hands gesturing everywhere.

Radar
Russian radar at the time didn’t necessarily show every airplane.

The first priority was checking on the passengers. We were lucky that almost everyone was asleep and there were no food carts out. There were a few screams heard by the flight attendants and lots of drinks spilled but no injuries.

After several minutes of discussion, the crowd leaves. The captain goes back and changes into his uniform and returns with the other copilot. “Okay then. It’s time for you two to have a break and we will take over.” My wobbly appendages struggle to life, as I try to get out of the seat without doing a faceplant across the center console. I guess it will help if I first unbuckle the seatbelt. The captain reclaims his throne and Marten now vacates his seat.

We go into our bunk room suite. Marten is still muttering “Holy Sheet” as he fumbles with the sweatpants. I comment that the captain took that surprisingly well. Marten tells me that in 1989, the same guy was the pilot in command of the KLM flight that inadvertently flew into a volcano ash cloud in Alaska and lost all four engines. He was also sleeping in the bunk when that happened.

About a week later, I’m back home in Holland. A bright yellow Mercedes pulls into my gravel driveway. It’s Marten and he has news about our near miss.

Martin tells me that the other airplane that night was a Russian built Antonov An-124 Ruslan, one of the largest military cargo airplanes ever built and bigger than our 747.

About 20 minutes before our encounter, Russian ATC cleared the opposite direction Antonov to climb to an altitude above our cruising altitude. The lumbering giant takes longer than expected to get up to its approved height, but the controllers and Antonov crew don’t happen to notice this. It was pure bad luck that they crossed our altitude as we crossed paths.

The controller cleared the Antonov crew in Russian and we did not pick up the exchange. We do our best to listen to radio calls that impact our flight, but we didn’t understand the foreign language.

The older “steam gauge” Antonov was not equipped with a TCAS system like our new “glass cockpit” 747. Thankfully, the Antonov did have an altitude encoding transponder, which our TCAS system was able to read and give us a warning.

Because the TCAS warning was only a one-sided warning, the normal computed 40 second TA and 20 second RA timing was compressed. It’s still a guess on our part, but our best recollection is that it was only about ten seconds from the first “Traffic-Traffic” call to the “Descend-Descend” alert.

The Antonov crew had no idea that we were even there. I’d guess the guy in the left seat was also spinning his tiller wheel without a clue, and never realized how he almost died.

There’s no accurate way to tell afterwards, since neither of us were glued to the TCAS display as we passed. It is our estimation that we missed by only a few feet.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of TCAS.

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44 Comments

    • Glad you liked it Dave.
      I wish this was the only time I came close to getting taken out in an airplane but it happened a number of times.

      My book talks about the subtilties of making-it as a civilian trained pilot. I highlight my path as a starry eyed kid trying to make my the way up the food chain. It is not your typical success story.

      It should be published as an E-book in early 2021.

  • Had to climb one day to miss the tail of a 737 by about 15 feet with my C182 near Kelowna BC. Canada. They never saw me! Assumed they were decending, wrong…..leveled out just before we met.

    • Happened to a lot of us over the years.

      Can you imagine if the pilots in the Antonov had actually spotted us and also pushed to escape the collision?

      • I was wondering about that. Say it was another KLM 747 coming at you, would you have had the same resolution advisory? Doesn’t seem helpful.

        • If the other aircraft is/was equipped with a TCAS system, the two systems would talk to each other. The two computers would figure it out in a millisecond and tell one airplane to climb and the other to descend. It works well when everyone has TCAS. Most airliners and corporate jets in the States now have them but not sure about the general aviation fleet.

      • Hey Al, I just read your article about the “near hit” over Russia. I remember you from NWA days. I think we flew together on the DC-10. Anyway, good to know you’re still alive and kicking. Let me know when your book is published. I’d love to read it! I’m one of the VEOP guys who retired in Sept. Give me a shout!
        Tim Gause tylege@peoplepc.com

  • TCAS is great technology. When I was a mechanic at my former airline, I installed TCAS systems in their Boeings, DC’s and Airbuses. Once in a while we avionics guys got to go along on test flights / check rides. This was in the 1990’s when fuel was cheap and they could afford to fly an empty plane around for a few hours. One test flight I got to go with in an A320 had two first officers being checked out. We flew into FSD to do touch and goes, pretty exciting for me sitting in a jump seat. The sky was overcast; during one of our approaches in the clouds a TA alerted us. I could see the other plane on the display, as could the lady FO in the other jump seat. I forget what TCAS commanded the pilots to do, but they did nothing. I guessed we missed by 300 feet. I looked over at the lady FO, she looked at me with wide eyes and said “That was close!”.
    I never got in on any later discussions with the pilots about our near miss, I wasn’t a pilot at the time (I am a private pilot now), so don’t know if there were any repercussions, or why they didn’t follow the TCAS command. The other airplane was probably a commuter, and may not have had TCAS installed at the time.
    So that is my TCAS story that I thought I would share.

  • I enjoyed reading your story and look forward to your book. I am always amazed how two planes can so often come to be in the same spot in space epically in the lower altitude where I fly. As as a side note your 747 was built in the Everett plant, the only thing we build in Renton is the 737.

    • Excellent catch Brian! That part was an assumption my part. I did get a tour of the Renton facility a long time ago and thought I saw 747s on the line. My mistake.

      So which location did the 747s end up being assembled at?

  • Hi Al,

    I remember flying with you and your compatriots, always enjoyed it. Nice write up. Great to hear you are writing a book about you aviation career/adventures. I also retired from airline flying and just started rediscovering the fun of small general aviation. Me too, I am a big fan of TCAS. Had a few of those. Never as close as you, but enough to get the heart rate up.

    Gordon van de Bilt

  • As you noted Eric, the warning was the lower level TA or Traffic Advisory. There is no corrective action given with a TA. It’s merely letting the crew know that there is someone out there near you to look for and consult ATC. If TCAS still considers the traffic a threat, then it will escalate to a Resolution Advisory or RA. That is when the TCAS systems will tell one plane to go up and the other to go down (or another combination of verbal and visual commands) to prevent collision. Compliance with a RA is mandatory and immediate. Get the airplane moving and let ATC know right afterwards.

    The corrective maneuver of a RA is always a modification of climbing or descending and not a turn to the left or right.

    The system definitely saved my behind, and who knows how many hundreds of lives in both jumbos.

  • Very interesting story Al-thanks for sharing. I’m a retired corporate pilot, and a big fan of TCAS. Have had several alerts over the years, and even a few RA’s, which really gets your attention! Looking forward to reading your book. Enjoy your retirement.

  • Hi Al,

    If I remember well, and I do, I had 7 close calls between 1968 and 2012, some more “post-knee-shaking” than others.
    In line with your story, summer 1994, Rwanda genocide, DC10 FL370, flight to Entebbe, crossing Sudan/Uganda border, pitch-black night, “traffic – traffic – traffic”, on TCAS alt.diff = 0. We look outside and see green/red and flipper lights in front. We switch on landing lights and call Entebbe on HF, no answer, call Karthoum on HF, no answer, call on 126.90 inter pilot frequency over Africa: no reply…. so we decide to descend, 30 seconds later, a large aircraft passes right overhead. More radio calls: no reply.
    Report weeks later: the crossing plane was a Ukrainian Antonov, no TCAS (so no RA) on a flight from Goma (RDC) to France for the French Army (operation Turquiose).
    The cat has 9 lives, only 2 left.

    • I can totally relate Mark. Africa was much worse for near-miss situations than over Russia. Many times when flying from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, we had to alter course or altitude to avoid traffic. Most of Africa had no ATC or radar in the early 90s. Not sure what it is like now.

  • Great story! Had more than a few RAs save my butt during my airline career, too. One night, from Dulles to Philadelphia, fighting our way thru massive and plentiful nighttime thunderstorms, we finally passed the worst of it and thought we could relax. We started our descent and were looking at the approach. Just about that time, a Navajo climbed into us just south of PHL. We never saw him, just the TA followed by the RA. ATC had NO clue what had just happened. After that, my procedure is to gently fondle the controls anytime I get a TA just in case it turns to an RA.

  • Wow… thrilling story. Well written and highly entertaining. Terrifying for us Student Pilots. Eager to read your book! Thank you for sharing!

    • Although not considered an acceptable term to be using in these modern times… When I was going through training in the mid 80s, our instructors referred to all airspace below 10,000 feet in the US was called “Indian country.” Because of all the Navajos, Cherokees and Apaches flying around.

  • It has amazed me how my “close encounters” have always been in the vicinity of an airport while talking to ATC. Most were uncomfortably close but manageable. One which stands out was an opposite direction Cessna my 12 at pattern altitude, not talking, while I was on downwind to land. No TCAS and the Class D had no radar ability at the time. Suddenly a blue and white flash as he banked hard to the East and filled my windscreen with his presence. That one was scary, he departed the airspace and never uttered a word. I now have ADS-B in/out which helps, but “they” are still out there.

  • I remember a VFR flight from FRG to Bader Field, in Atlantic City in a Piper Archer. I would always listen to approach frequencies as I flew along. I may have asked for radar advisories and was refused. I heard one of the controllers say that their radar had been struck by lighting and was out of service. I believe it was the Maguire AFB Facility. I was flying at the correct altitude for a southbound VFR flight. I heard the controller taking to a company 737 and receiving a position report. I thought “Hey, I think that is near here!” I just kept my eyes open, and then in the distance I saw a small speck with wings then in seconds the shape of the jet, and then (silently) WHOOSH! it passed above me with a 500 foot separation. Man what a thrill to see that! The lesson I learned was to be really serious about maintaining my cruising altitude AND… Fly to the right on airways when ascending or descending. Passing a jet at minimum separation and at such speeds was a sobering experience!

  • Hey Al, greetings and salutations from one of the fortunate guys at NWA. looking back what strange career paths we all had. Refugees all! Close calls? We’ve all been there but your “pilot report” was eloquent. Capt PT.

    • Thanks Capt. PT.
      I think every experienced pilot has a group of stories that would be book worthy. The tough part is taking the time to sit for a year and put it in print. At least for me, it was easier said than done. Being locked down because of covid was my biggest motivator.

  • Al, you may have seen a 747 at Renton as Boeing brought the five 747 test planes into Renton to refurbish them for Pan Am. That would have been around 1969. The first of the five to come to Renton got a sinker off the north end of the runway and sheared off the landing gears on the seawall at the end of the runway. The plane slid up onto the runway on the inboard engines and stopped quite short.

    Ironically the landing gear sheared off just where the engineers said it would without rupturing a fuel tank. Also the landing gear and the engines were all going to be replaced for modified landing gear and engines because of the problems discovered in the many hours of the test flying.

    At the time I was a copilot on a B-720B for Western Airlines; formerly with Pacific Northern Airlines. Myself and four other Northwest and Western Airlines pilots had a FBO on Renton Airport and were watching the grand arrival of a 747 to Renton. Quite a sight.

    • I cannot lie Dick. I just flat messed up.

      When you are writing a 120K pile of words about flying, sometimes you recall something from 40+ years ago and just flat misinterpret where you were that day.

      I had an Alaska pilot buddy that I visited in Seattle. He drove me out to the 747 factory floor for a tour. That was back in 1980 or so and I thought it was Renton but it had to be Everett.

      I try to research everything I write about for accuracy in recall. Sometimes a short paragraph can take a week to doublecheck the facts. Still, things like this will still slip through the cracks on occasion.

    • If the editor is okay with it, I will try to post a note on here to let everyone know when it comes out.

      Thanks for your interest.

  • I started flying corporate airplanes in 1978. Between then and 1996 when TCAS came along I had three very close encounters in our Learjet, all on IFR flight plans in radar. The other airplanes were VFR. One in terminal airspace at PWK, one right over Teterboro at night and one at 17,500, a Kingair 200 VFR. After TCAS I’ve only had one time when I had to take evasive action and TCAS gave me early warning.

  • Al – Great write-up! I remember you from NWA. Those of you who went to KLM sure had an ‘interesting’ few years – there and upon return. Hope you ended up making a good career of it. I retired in 2011 – flying ‘older equipment’ now – 1940’s vintage 😉

    Drop me a note and we’ll catch up – albenzing@gmail.com

  • It can happen in a bug smasher too. I recall two incidents, both over the Columbia River in Washington north of Wenatchee. I was in flying south at 2500′ over the river in a C172 when a flight of two AT802 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) flew 300′ below me on the reciprocal of my course. About six years later, and south bound at 1800′ just a few miles south from the first NMAC a north bound Mooney flew below me close enough for me to see the pilot’s face.

    I guess “big sky, little airplane” works, but sometimes ADSB-IN might be helpful.

  • Al – Thank you for the excellent article. My Father was your captain on that flight and the story brings back dear memories of him (he passed away 20 years ago). I was lucky enough to share the jump seat on many flights over the ‘Stans’ (when it was still allowed for passengers) and I could visualize everything again as I was reading. Thank you !!

    • I’m so sorry for your loss Carl. Your father was a truly awesome man and an amazing aviator.

      This article was restricted to around 1000 words in length, so many in-depth details had to be left off. In my original story, I go on to describe how your father (In the same exact 747-400) was the captain on the flight that flew into the volcanic ash cloud and lost all four engines in Alaska.

      Your dad had nerves of steel.

  • Wow, what an amazing story! I have had a few near misses already in my career, but in much slower and smaller aircraft. Even so, I was alerted to one of them by foreflight and ads-b. Thanks for sharing this exciting story, here’s to hoping the rest of your career is much more boring!

  • I fly a small GA airplane with a factory-installed certified Ryan TCAD. Before the ADS-B requirement, I was on an IFR flight plan into the DC ADIZ at 7000 asl, and was in contact with Potomac Approach. I got a “traffic, traffic, traffic” at the same time that ATC called me and said I had traffic at my 12 o’clock, same altitude, closing. The faster the TCAD lady speaks, the closer the traffic… I saw an RV or similar dead ahead, so I immediately dove right, and about 1 second later he/she zipped by maybe 200 feet from me. The other traffic had apparently taken off from one of the airports below and did not have it’s transponder on until just before our near miss. I was still shaking when I landed at Manassas 15 minutes later…

  • Al, any chance you are related to the old timer who started Chaulk Airlines out of Miami in the 1960s? Maybe the spelling is Chalk, but I cannot remember. They flew amphibs out of Miami to the Bahamas. I applied for my first airline job there in 1963.

  • 2008 UNITED flight ORD to Hong Kong, always listen to ATC on UNITED flights; went over the pole, Russian ATC required 2 next eatimates, signed off ‘By By each time. Over China, first contact ‘Radar Contact” nothing else unit approach at HKG.

  • In 2000 the company traded from a C-90A (without) to a C-90B with TCAS. Every time I heard “TRAFFIC” before visual contact made me wonder how many I never saw in 30 prior years (14,000+ hrs) of GA flight. One was a wingtip on both sides of a Cessna 182 doorpost that turned into a 727 (circa 1972).

  • Hey Al, Great story! We KLM’rs had quite the culture shock on arriving in Amsterdam, but the airline did a first rate job in caring for us “transplants”. EILEEN and I wondered what happened to Al & Mary, now we know, glad to hear you guys are still kicking it. I retired from Delta/NWA after 22 years in 2013 and living in the Bay Area (always a commuter) except when based in SFO on the L-1011 for Hawaiian. Hard to believe we started our FAR 121 careers there in the hot Honolulu hangar in DC-8 ground school 35 years ago.
    Oh, BTW, the Eastern L-1011 that crashed into the Everglades was on approach to KMIA (not Orlando), the Captain, Bob Loft was a friend of my father, we all used to hunt together when I was much younger…still a shock. Andy

  • Great to hear from you Andy. Yes I remember the hot HAL hangar building with the dead rat in the wall, stinking up the classroom. Ah yes, the good ol days.

    Sorry for the error on the EAL L-1011. I will fix that.

    achaulk@msn.com

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