I have always considered myself a very lucky pilot – not one of those whose natural ability and subcutaneous talents seem to always preside, thereby rendering any threats harmless. I did manage (despite myself) to retire after a 38-year (and countless flight hours) career without going to the principals’ office or bending metal. That really is one of my greatest successes.
In all that time I can, fortunately count on one hand the number of flights in which I faced any real danger. Sure there have been a myriad of summer thunderstorms, winter ice and snow events and even a random engine shutdown or two…. yet in this business, that is ALL routine – we don’t think about it much past a few hours after their inconveniences into our lives. But as the saying goes around the hangar… “Hours and hours of boredom, interrupted by brief moments of sheer terror” – I did not escape without my minimal share of such “tele-novelas”….
I have been wanting to document this flight for decades, I have told this story a thousand times – to anyone that is willing to listen – then again – some don’t believe me. Hey! I know beyond any doubt that these events, are veridic and I stand as a witness that only by The Grace of The Almighty I (and countless others) have lived the rest of my life unencumbered by real tragedy.
So, here we go, welcome aboard….. (please refer to attachments for clarification).
- Time frame: Summer of 1987
- Aircraft: DC10-30
- Original trip length: 5 days
- Flight Crew: My seat position in the right seat, first officer (copilot). The captain – one of our most senior left seaters…. Sadly, the only fact I recall about the Second Officer (flight engineer) was his ambivalence.
- Original trip sequence: Memphis – Dover USAF air base, Delaware – Rhein-Main Air Base (Frankfurt, Germany). USAF “contracted charter – hauling beans, bullets and band aides”. Once in Germany, return per USAF directives. Outbound legs – all uneventful – nice layover in Mintz.
When we arrive back at Rein-Main (see airport diagram, it is the large facility depicted on the south/southeast area of the airport. South of the 7/25 parallel runways and east of 18/36 runway. It is now depicted as “GA” in this diagram.
So, “change of plans my friends” our ramp agent, Hans, tells us. The USAF does not have enough cargo to send west bound, so rather than going direct back to Dover, you all are now going to Stansted (London Stansted Airport (EGSS)). You are doing so empty and there you will pick up freight and go on to Newark. (This greatly troubled the Captain because it was two legs with an intermediate delay and all in one duty period)…could that play a factor later on?
Since the airplane had been fueled for our trip back across the pond, it was too heavy to land in London, and they began the defueling process….time and frustration mount.
Eventually, we were ready to go (with some “Ballast pallets”) for proper weight distribution. While our original departure time was mid-afternoon, after all the shenanigans, it was right at sunset when we departed and to add points for difficulty, a steady light rain had been falling for a while which reduced visibility….could that play a factor later on?
Our taxi out instructions were “Taxi to Runway 7L via taxiway S, W, A and L. Hold short of 7L”. So, we are supposed to, once we leave the ramp, to taxi westbound on the east/west parallel taxiway S until we intersect (90 degrees) with taxiway W, then TURN right and proceed past the extended centerlines of both 7/25 parallel runways until on the North side of the runways. Then we should make a right turn Eastbound at our first opportunity and then back almost immediately South to the approach end of our assigned takeoff Runway 7L. You with me?
As we begin our taxi on S, or guest Captain is grumbling about our unscheduled stop in jolly old England when Frankfurt ground control comes up and asks us to contact “Clearance Delivery” as they have a departure route change for us. Before complying with their instructions, I look over at our “happy camper” in the left seat and clearly ask him “Do YOU know where we are going”? I knew that my interacting with ATC would prevent me from keeping close tabs on his taxi route.
All I got in response was a waving of his right arm and a grunt….could that play a factor later on?
I quickly change frequencies and sure enough, receive an entirely new departure route. The departure required me to reprogram in the Inertial Navigation System (INS) a new sequence of waypoints. While I perform these tasks, I once again ask my fearless leader, “do you still know where we are going”? Once again, the response is a Cro-Magnon grunt and another waiving of his right arm. I sense the motion of our jet and expect any minute for us to decelerate in preparation for our upcoming right turn towards the North. It doesn’t happen – a definite tightening of my gut signals me to stop what I am doing and raise my head to look around.
At first, what I see doesn’t make sense. In a second or two, it clearly does! What I see is a perpendicular row of white lights to both our right and our left front and they are getting closer by the second! I go to speak, but my throat is literally so tight no sound comes out. I manage to finally scream “STOP” while I grab his arm. He complies, but not before the rows of white lights are BEHIND our cockpit windows. We are now squarely encroaching onto Runway 18/36!
It’s worth noting that there are specific instructions depicted on the airport diagram page that mandate to not proceed past the “Apron Control Area” (Intersections of taxiways S and W) without prior authorization from Frankfurt Ground Control. That is because of a dip in ground elevation at that particular spot which physically hides the silhouette of any aircraft from any visual obtained by the ATC Frankfurt tower…could this play a factor later on?
Once we rock to a complete and sudden stop, I inform the captain that we have encroached into the actual Runway 18/36. Please look at the airport diagram page, that puts us near the departure end of Runway 18.
He looks around and assertively says “No, we are not, tell them we have missed turning North onto W and are holding short of 18/36”. “But we are NOT I say”. Dueling conversations ensue. Part of me thinks, “Can we really get away with it? Gosh I don’t want to be in trouble”. Seconds seem like weeks. After his repeated commands, I comply and tell Frankfurt Ground Control exactly what I was told to say“. We are holding short of 18/36”. Roll the dice and hope for the best I reasoned. After all what’s the worst that could possibly happen…could this play a factor later on?
My very first clue for the real severity of this incident was the panicked voice of the German ground control official who literally screamed, “CONFIRM IMMEDIATELY you are holding short 18/36”. I looked over at the Captain who nods “Yes”. I reply with a knot the size of Texas in my throat, “Affirmative, holding short Runway 18/36”. All the while seeing the runway 18/36 white edge lights illuminate BEHIND us…could this play a factor later on?
After what seemed like centuries of silence of holding still, I looked to my right and noticed it was quickly getting brighter – much brighter – when all of a sudden, over the hump in the runway appeared a very large aircraft whose bright landing lights were mimicking noon. It was growing in size, accelerating by the second and the wingtip lights were (much like the runway edge lights) AFT of our 3 O’clock/9 O’clock line!
I screamed even louder and grabbed the Captain’s arm in desperation. Was this going to be Tenerife all over. He too saw the imminent danger and quickly released the brakes and, contrary to all approved procedures, put all three engines in full reverse. The airplane shook so bad I could not read a single instrument. The noise was deafening and the vibrations intolerable!
I am convinced that the earlier defueling and weight reduction of being empty of cargo were the main contributors to our successful backwards vector and the eventual retreat to safety. The very second we cleared that runway, the biggest Aerolineas Argentinas B747 passed less than 10 feet from us. He continued well past our position before finally lifting its nose ever so slowly, I’m sure it was on its way to Buenos Aires – a long, long way away.
Even now, 34 years later it’s so hard to describe what I felt. The exact sequence of individual steps which manifested themselves afterwards remain somewhat of a fog. Nothing more was said by anyone. No alarms and no concerns, we taxied over to our takeoff runway and departed, landing at Stansted an hour or so later. During that flight, I was totally robotic, doing everything almost as in an “out of body experience”. I was still trying to process what had just happened and how close we came to disaster.
While we waited in England to be loaded and refueled, I approached the Captain and said to him, ” Hey, we got to talk about what happened”, Incredibly, he replied, “What happened?, NOTHING happened, that’s what happened”. Oh boy! I then let him know of my concern of flying back over the ocean to the U.S. – at night – without having the engines inspected (after the vacuum cleaner event at zero airspeed in Frankfurt). He refused to a) write the engines up b) write any kind of safety report. Oh boy!
Eventually we flew to Newark. There we rested and a day or so later mounted another jet back to Memphis. Not ONE single word was ever mentioned about what had happened, and we had well over 11 hours in the cockpit between Stansted, Newark and Memphis. NOT ONE SINGLE WORD.
Back at home I found myself unable to sleep. It really affected me to the point of sitting up in bed covered in sweat. I came to understand that I needed to get this off my chest.
Fortunately, I knew a Captain who was not only an instructor, but also a Flight Standards check pilot whom I trusted implicitly. I called him at home on a day off and asked him if I could steal a few minutes. After a couple of glasses of lemonade in his backyard, I felt much better. He did ask me who it was and knowing he could easily find out. I told him, he nodded, and with eyes of understanding, silently verified my concerns. I was fortunate enough to never fly with that problem Captain again even though about a year later, while walking through the crew lounge, we met beak to beak. He glared at me, pointed his finger and shook his head. I knew he knew I knew.
This cornerstone incident has remained in the forefront of my mind and was pivotal in my initial interest into the field of crew resource management and human factors.
I get it, it was a different era, it was a different culture, yet tragically the results would have been the same. I am so Blessed.
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