septiembre 30, 2015

How To Fly Without A Landing Gear

We were coming from Tacna, Peru. March 1969. We had made a car trip from Trujillo almost 1500 miles away. The whole family, my father, my stepmother, my brothers Eduardo, Carlos and my sister Patty. Even the maid. We took a flight in one of those turbo propeller planes, all of which ended falling. The flight was bound for Lima, with layover in Arequipa. Once we approached to Arequipa and the announcement that we were landing came out, I felt the sound of the landing gear, but I didn’t see the wheels go down. I asked my father if on his side the wheels were down, and he said yes.

All my mental alarms were activated immediately and the adrenaline took over at that time. After making a few downs and spikes with the aircraft, the pilot calmly announced that they had decided to continue the flight to Lima due to a slight mechanical failure. At the time I thought you had to be pretty dumb to believe that it was a slight mechanical failure, but even dumber to think that people were going to swallow that story.

Finally, we continued the trip to Lima. The plane looked like a huge toad, jumping every 5 minutes to see if the wheels went down, but nothing. After almost an hour, all I could think was that I was too young to die, and it wasn’t fair. At that age, I still believed that life was fair (speaking of dumb...)

When we arrived to Lima, the pilot announced that in order to get rid of excess fuel, we would make a few laps over Lima. He never said why he had to remove the excess fuel, but I figured we all understood it was to avoid dying like sausages on a grill.

I just remember seeing from above the harbor of Lima, Callao, then the Regatas Club, San Cosme Mount  and again Callao, Regatas, etc. for over an hour.

At that time, my head was going over a thousand miles per hour. Above all, my guiding thought was “too young to die” illuminating the winding path...

Below were all the things I had wanted to do: become a millionaire, be a doctor, travel around the world, own Onassis's yacht, smoke Colombian weed, meet Natalie Wood, all together. At my side, a telephone with a direct line to God, somewhat worried because I hadn’t called him for a while.

I felt like I was in a lonely and wild beach with rough seas and a threatening tsunami that swept everything. This now completely irrational mental sea was basically a feeling of impatience telling me “to hell with it, if we're going to die, so be it, but Now!”

At the next level, playing an absolutely crucial role, there was what I call my terrifying imagination. It’s the one responsible for developing the "if’s" in my life and its job is to keep me scared all the time. It’s big, very big. It’s my brilliant imagination companion, which is very small and is in charge to save the day every once in a while with a great idea or an out of the box thought. Lastly, my positive imagination, minuscule, almost embryonic trying vainly to keep me positive. I feed her a lot, but seems to have a growth issue.

The brilliant imagination was thinking, what if we hit the sea? Even without a parachute, if the pilot flies slow and low, there is a good chance of survival. At least it...

Then it began to wander, thinking about different ways to build airplanes and safety devices to prevent things like this one. It ended up half crazy out there, with no one listening.

The positive imagination received a huge reinforcement from the captain, who left the cabin, greeted everyone, and before going back, like remembering something not too important, turned back and said very calmly and showing a tremendous confidence:
-        Oh, by the way, this is not a routine incident, but is not perilous at all, so don’t worry!

Clear! There it is! Here was the man in control; he knew what he was doing, so I sent the terrifying imagination to bed: go to sleep, you fool!

The terrifying imagination hadn’t been sleeping, (admittedly, it always ignored me), and had realized that we are thirteen passengers, and our family was in row thirteen of the aircraft. However, due to the remarks from the captain, it is half knocked out, until it convinced me to turn my head to look at the other passengers.

I saw a “gringo”, which at that point was already dead drunk, and couldn’t care less about anything. Then an old woman of about 70, who appeared to be in her first (and last) flight. She didn’t realize what was going on. Looked at me with that smile of older people, which only transmits some "I'm harmless" message.

In the last row, I found what my terrifying imagination was looking for; the two attendants sitting, one with tears in her eyes and the other praying with a rosary in her hands. I knew it! – The captain was an idiot and he already tried to fool me once with the slight mechanical failure! And now this! You, positive, return to dock, don’t be stupid!

Finally, we prepared to land. The flight attendants, courageously and with watery eyes, were giving instructions to all of us. We had to put our head between the knees, take off our glasses and the women their high-heeled shoes. We were shown the emergency exits, so we placed ourselves in the position that I envisioned in which my charred body was going to be found.

We began a descend that seemed endless. I couldn’t wait any longer. If I was going to die there, I wanted to know what was happening. I put on my glasses and rose up to look out the window. We were like five feet above the ground. I went back to place my head between my knees. Again, I couldn’t stand it. I looked out the window and saw the ground almost at my level. I bent down again and at that point, the plane touched land and began to vibrate deafeningly so I rose up again. Through the window, I could only see white smoke while the vibration wouldn’t stop. I noticed we were going a little slower, not much, but ultimately the speed dropped dramatically.

Suddenly, the plane made a violent ninety degrees turn and stopped.  We landed between applauses from ambulance nurses, firefighters and patrol officers.

I left the plane carrying my two year old brother Carlos and my brother Eduardo carrying our six year old sister Patty. Emergency doors were just doors. No ladder or slide. We had to jump at least five feet to the ground.

Once outside, my guiding obsession had disappeared, and I could afford to help my stepmother and a flight attendant walk without shoes on a ground with many sharp stones to reach a van.

I later learned that the old lady had a slight concussion because the maid pushed her through the door trying to hurry her up.

I couldn’t help thinking that the brand new ambulances on the side didn’t move at all. The two women were in a real crisis of nerves. In the van they were given a sedative, which an hour later still had them stupefied.

Around three o’clock, our old man decided to make the trip from Lima to Trujillo in the car. With the maid and the driver we were 6 adults (or almost) and two kids. A little uncomfortable.

I asked myself why he didn’t send the maid and the driver on the plane. After all, tickets were already paid.

It took me many years to overcome the fear of planes. The interesting thing is that one day, years ago, talking to my brother, he told me that because of that accident, he knew he would never get killed on a plane, because the probability was infinitesimal. Me, on the contrary, fatalistic, thought it was my karma. Today, the truth and all, I don’t care at all.

A month later, my father invited Captain Forno, the aircraft commander, to a barbecue at the house. They had a great time.

Three months later, he died in the crash of the very same plane in the Peruvian jungle, which had a single survivor, Giuliana Koepcke.

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