Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Fokker 50

Ever since I started flying a bit frequently I got more and more hooked up to those creepy television series like Aircrash Investigations (Discovery channel), Minutes before disaster (discovery again?) etc. Ironically though, these programs made me more worried than ever before. e.g: after watching an aircraft crash due to ice formation on its wings, I was so paranoid that last December (while flying back to India) I kept looking through my window for any ice on the wings !!!! My fear seems to increase exponentially when flying over large water bodies than over land !! This might sound stupid to many of you but I have a smart reason for that: ... am a bad swimmer and afraid of sharks!!! This "aero-hydro-phobia" led me to continually scan the waters of Lake Michigan for any "spots" (boats, ships etc??) while crossing it on my way to CA last summer !!! One more factor that adds up to my fear is the kind of aircraft am flying in ! For some unknown reason I feel totally unsafe inside those turbo-prop small aircrafts (the ones with propellers). They look more like toys and totally unworthy to carry people. What if you look through the window and one of those big fans suddenly stop rotating !!!

Now that I explained the nature of my aviophobia, let me come to the main story....

May 5th, 2009, San Juan Airport, Puerto Rico:
After a 4 hr flight from NYC, here I was at Puerto Rico, waiting for my connecting flight to Antigua (West Indies). There was a 3 hours lay over and I was thirsty..
It didnt take long to locate the only bar inside the lounge area. Now when in Puerto Rico, its a crime not to have a local Rum Punch!!! .. specially when Rum being their national drink! So after a lot of "gracias .. gracias", I came out of the bar contended: 3 absolutely refreshing rum punches (the best I ever had till then) in a flat 60 mins...
Back at the gate I took a seat facing the runway. It was a cloudy day and it was drizzling outside. If not for the rum, I would have started thinking about my swimming skills by now!!

So after waiting for almost an hour, I first saw "it" : a rickety, old and almost collapsing figure ... she was marching very very slowly towards our gate .. " GOD! NOT THIS ONE !" .....
But when the turbo-prop Fokker 50 came and stopped near our gate, I was sure ... "thats it ... I will be crossing a part of the Atlantic (2 hrs) in probably the worst aircraft one can ever imagine , and on top of that its a turbo-prop AND TO MAKE THINGS WORSE - the weather is absolutely crappy !!!". Although my e-ticket had told me that it would be an ATR-72-500!!! My first reaction was to look for a local map of the islands and see if there is any land in between San Juan and Antigua (I was almost certain that a crash landing is imminent!).... "What the F@#$ !!!" I thought, "How irresponsible!! .. they want people to fly in these pre-historic flying objects .. and plan a route which starts and ends on a runway WITH ONLY WATER IN BETWEEN!!!!!! " .. My mind was clouded with thoughts and questions "what if .....????"

Ever since I was a kid, I have been interested in aircrafts.. mostly military aircrafts though. But off late I developed this habit of reading about the craft in which I am supposed to fly (yeah! they give you the aircraft name in the e-ticket). Now you can describe this as a part of my aviophobia or my hobby ... even I dunno the answer!! Anyways,I knew these Fokkers run on Pratt & Whitney turbo props (not the reliable names like GE, Rolls Royce or Boeing), so the question was how long can it float if/when the fans stop rotating!!!???! Does it have life vests inside? what if the weather asks for an immediate landing !!! ... I was sweating, tensed and and and rum-med ...

"Passengers of Flight 5052 to St. John's, Antigua, please proceed for boarding" ...
the announcement broke my train of thoughts. For the first time in my life I was boarding an aircraft where I had seat 1 A (the first row after cockpit , since there was no executive class) but I was the first person to board!!!! because: The boarding was from the door at the back (apparently there is no other cabin door in these aircrafts except the emergency ones). The seat beside me remained empty even after the cabin doors were closed, "which means, I dont have to help anyone unlock his/her seat belt when the time comes!!!" .. well thats a good beginning %$@#@$%!!
I tried to make myself comfortable, fastened my seat belt and waited for the plane to start rolling. Just when I started to feel a little better, there came an announcement from the flight attended which raised my BP for the next 2 hours: "Ladies and gentlemen, since we do not have a packed flight today and some seats are empty, we need to re-arrange the sitting ..SO THAT WE CAN BALANCE THE WEIGHT INSIDE THE CABIN" . ....... AND .... I ALMOST FELL FROM MY SEAT!!!!!! These kind of an announcements not only make you anxious but raise serious questions about the aircraft's reliability as a means of public transport over the atlantic !!! "GOD SAVE ME!!... I HAVENT EVEN TICKED THE FIRST POINT IN MY BUCKET LIST !! THIS IS TOO EARLY !!! .. I DONT WANT TO BE A FOOD FOR THE SHARKS !!" :(

The take off was smoother than I expected!! But within 5 mins after taking off we could feel the air turbulence. The pilot announced that weather will remain almost the same for the next 2 hours, so we are supposed to keep our belts fastened throughout. But everytime there was a vibration ... I was getting ready to unfasten my seat belt so that when we land on the water I can dash for the nearest exit!!! Although, even after 35-40 mins that crash landing didnt happen and the plane was still flying - so I felt a little better, closed my eyes and started enjoying the rum :). It might have been about an hour or so .... because I woke up with an announcement that we will be touching down in another 20 mins. "Yes! its over !! But still a slight fear remains : bad weather, wet runways and a turbo-prop aircraft is not a very good combo" (thats what I had gathered from Discovery's Air crash Investigation series!!)

We could feel the loss in altitude as we descended towards the small island of Antigua. It was cloudy but sometimes we could get a glimpse of the pristine blue waters and the white sand beaches. It was breathtaking and only appeared for a few seconds. In another 60 seconds we were close to the airport and flying at a very low altitude, just about to touch down ....... and then it happened...
suddenly the aircraft started to bank on the left .. "a routine maneuver may be" .. I thought, but then it started swaying towards the right!!! I could see the runway below , and I could almost visualize a scene from one of the episodes: An aircraft swaying badly while touchdown.. hits the runway- wing first ... and topples!!!

As we neared the surface the sway became more and more drastic! It was as if the wings were actually going to hit the ground! There was suddenly a pin-drop silence inside the cabin! I looked towards the air hostess- And, when you see the air hostesses sitting with their legs tightly closed , and hands clasping very very close to their body and that plastic smile no more on their faces ... you can sense immediately that something is wrong!!! The aircraft was swaying vehemently .. if I remember correctly, we were just about 70-80 feet above the runway!!! "Thats it.. will crash in a few seconds!!" ....... Then in a flash I felt an immense thrust ... the force nailed me against the seat ...Almost everyone shrieked!! The aircraft was suddenly climbing up again at almost a 70 degree angle and with tremendous force!!!! It was like sitting on a huge swing! One moment you are coming down and the next you are going up with a heavy acceleration!... "An aborted landing!!! Probably they coudnt manage the first one and are now going in for a second attempt!"... We again climbed into the clouds.
I was scared and I must admit that a lot of faces of my near and dear ones, friends and family were flashing in my mind! The silence continued.. no one was in a state to utter a word.. except some occasional "shit" and "god" !! Later I thought the former must have been an atheist!!

Although you expect some voice from the cockpit in situations like these, but there was none! This transpired as a sign of tension inside the cockpit too! After hovering in the clouds for about 5 mins, we again started to descend.... the second attempt for a landing! As the runway became visible and we started loosing altitude I closed my eyes. I could feel the craft vibrating .. a slight sway to the left, then left again ... and then almost immediately the "thud" ... it was harsh!! shook everything inside!! But we were on the runway!!!! It took a few seconds for all the passengers to realize that we had touched down safely .. and the claps started ! ... The aircraft slowed down... "Ladies and Gentlemen Welcome to St. John's Antigua" .. the voice from the cockpit said .... and then it added "Please remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened while we taxi what's left of our airplane to the gate!" ... .. yeah right !

After I came out of the plane, I met a few people who were also traveling to Antigua for the same purpose as mine. And needless to say our eventful flight became a topic of discussion for the next 3 days!!

Later when the flight became famous among everyone in the conference (for which I was there), one of the pretty French faces asked me "Were you scared? God! I would have been scared to death!!"
"Well yeah, may be the same would have happened to me if I was unaware of the situation. But I knew it was common .. they show it all the time in Discovery channel!!!!"

.. afterall I was right ! .. I think I was the most prepared than anyone else in that flight! ... Because I was the only person who was sure that we were crashing ... MORE THAN ONCE !!

And, the next time you get the insane urge to go blasting through the skies in a pressurized metal tube over the atlantic, I hope you'll be smart enough to wear those life vests before hand. ... just in case!