Airline takeoff
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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.

rhein-main airport 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?

taxi route

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?

taxi note

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?

Hot airport ramp

I looked to my right and noticed lights getting brighter.

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.




Mario Jimenez
17 replies
  1. Phil
    Phil says:

    You did the right thing. That Captain had a dangerous level of arrogance. Had there been no consequences of his actions, what would he have learned? Hopefully he got a good dressing down, and just maybe it would make him think twice in the future.

  2. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Just reading of this event raising my blood pressure. I realize you were in a quandary as to how to resolve your concerns. You undoubtedly took the proper steps to share the experience with supervision personnel. No doubt the crew of that 747 would have shared their views, and those would have vindicated you. Sadly, your captain made a mistake that could have been very costly, but he chose to not own up to it! To me that would have waved BIG red flags as to his crew management capabilities. The event definitely needed to be exposed to the peers that be! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Another point is how much like the Tenerife accident this was. Impatient captain in command, his failure to recognize the full situation and disregard of other crew members, delays from original departure including off fueling, airport layout, ATC communications and lack of visual cues, and more. Just really almost unreal!! At least the captain utilized what resources he had to mitigate some of the threat! 10’ isn’t much, but it was enough, thank God!!

  4. Steve T
    Steve T says:

    Thanks for posting this. It reminds us that those 15 seconds of terror can happen even before you leave the ground. While the captain certainly displayed poor crew coordination — I don’t think it’s entirely correct to use “CRM” in this period — neither the PNF (author of the piece) nor the ground/clearance delivery controllers are completely without blame. Having the copilot head-down during the taxi left the captain the only person between the “bird” and catastrophe, and the controllers really should have been better organized than to issue an amended clearance while the airplane was taxiing in such a complex airport.

  5. T Vasilou
    T Vasilou says:

    Wow..I get it. But with your background why did you obey an illegal order to lie to the controller? Horror story..

  6. Flemming
    Flemming says:

    Wow – Lucky outcome – question. What about the 3rd pair of eyes – the 2nd Office / Flight Engineer ???

  7. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    We’ve all deferred to someone in authority over us to keep a job or keep peace in the cockpit. In corporate aviation, not only are you assured to fly with that captain again, you will fly with them until you leave that job. Imagine that being a Gulfstream and that captain is your boss. So glad this wasn’t a disaster and you never flew with him again. This was painful but thought provoking to read.

  8. Edwina
    Edwina says:

    As a CIRP peer volunteer, I’m really glad to know that as an industry we now have resources in place to help impacted crew deal a bit better with those “wake up in the middle of the night” moments.

  9. Are Cee
    Are Cee says:

    I always told my new FOs, you learn something from every Capt you fly with. It may be that you learn what you WON’T do when you get in the left seat, but you learned it, nonetheless.

    • Maio
      Maio says:

      Greetings— thanks for the comments. Yep you are spot on.
      I’ve always proffered there are two “flight bags” you carry. In which you deposit knowledge. A good one and a bad one.
      Over the years the bad one does seem to get heavier.
      Lots to learn.
      Be safe

  10. mario
    mario says:

    Different galaxy back then.
    These days ASAP & NASA-ASRS exist for a reason
    Back then —if u “whistleblew” on the wrong person- you were toast.


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