I watched my first close call while riding north on the Van Wyck Expressway years ago. A brightly painted Braniff 727 flew over me on its approach to LaGuardia Airport. Quickly, I knew something was wrong. The glide path was too shallow for a landing. Then the airplane began to climb and veer to the left. Up ahead, a second Braniff 727 rose into the air from the same runway banking hard right as it climbed.
Since that day I have witnessed or been involved in several near misses and close calls during the almost thirty years of my life as a frequent flyer. I have been on two flights where the pilot flew into dead air, once somewhere over the Carolinas on a flight from Jacksonville and the other over the Hudson River approaching LaGuardia. The first incident happened during meal service launching trays, meals, flight attendants, carts and unbelted passengers into the air. They retuned thanks to gravity with remarkably no worse for the experience except for spills, stains and a few bumps and bruises. The second was more dramatic being that much closer to the ground. Fortunately, we had prepared for landing and everything and everyone remained in place. The pilot quickly accelerated as he banked over the Meadowlands where he found good air. We passengers maintained complete silence until the wheels hit the ground.
Two aborted takeoffs, one in St. Louis and the other in Bermuda. In both instances, somebody had wandered onto the runway. I also witnessed a similar near miss at Houston (now Bush) Intercontinental Airport. An Eastern 727 about to land had to abort as a single engine prop plane crossed the runway in front of it.
I also lived through two near miss collisions while in the air. The first happened over the Alps on a clear morning. Alan Gardiner and I were heading to Paris from Kula Lumpur on a MAS 747 when I saw a dot on the horizon. The dot grew into a Swiss Air DC-10 that was desperately climbing as it crossed over us. I joked that it was so close that I could read the pilot’s name tag. His name was Hans. The second happened over New Jersey on an outbound flight from JFK. We were still climbing as I gazed out a window. Suddenly, the entire window was filled by a turbo-prop commuter airliner that crossed over my jet. Seconds later, it was gone.
I have lived through two touch and go aborted landings. The first happened in the late fall of 1990 on a flight from Copenhagen to Oslo on a SAS MD-80. Oslo was socked in as the pilot began his approach on instruments. I watched as we descended but saw only clouds. Down and down we went for what seemed to be forever. Finally, we broke through the cloud cover and to my shock, all I saw were houses. Almost immediately, the crew accelerated and quickly climbed out of there. Nothing was said until we reached cruising altitude when the pilot advised that we would shortly attempt a second instrument landing. His explanation for aborting the first was, “They brought us in too close the first time.” This begs the question, “To close to what?”
The second was my closest call of all. I was on a trip to visit Waterman Steamship in Mobile, Alabama and I traveled on American Airlines with my colleague, Louise Varnas. American was a new player on the route to Mobile having established a new hub in Nashville. We changed gates and MD-80s there. Before the airplane pulled back from the gate, the pilot announced: “Right now we are being held here because rain and fog conditions in Mobile are below the acceptable minimum. The airport does expect to re-open in less than an hour and I believe we will go tonight. But, if you feel uncomfortable, you may disembark and try again tomorrow.”
The airplane was less than half full and about a third of those on board decided to deplane. Louise and I discussed our alternatives knowing that we had a meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. the next day. I decided to put my trust in the pilot and Louise reluctantly agreed to join me.
As promised we left a bit over an hour later for the relatively short flight to Mobile. Conditions while now acceptable were almost down to the minimum and the pilot made sure the airplane was buttoned up for this instrument landing. Like in Oslo, it seemed to take forever and I’m not sure I saw the ground just before the wheels hit the runway or vice versa. Either way, we were too far down the runway to commit and the pilot hit the throttles to climb out of there.
Once at altitude he explained what had happened then advised: “I am going to give it one more try and if it’s too dicey, I’m calling it off and we’ll return to Nashville.”
Take two, this time he touched down where he wanted to, (more or less,) and slammed on the brakes and reverse thrusters pulling us away from our seats so only the belt stopped us from catapulting forward. I still have the imprint of Louise’s nails on my shoulder. Needless to say,
we both enjoyed a stiff drink once we reached the hotel.
When we related our experience at the meeting the next morning, Bob Parker, Waterman’s Risk Manager, looked at us quizzically. He shook his head and explained: “You don’t know how lucky you are. They just completed a long-planned runway extension last week.”
It occurs to me as I write this, the number two is prevalent throughout this piece. Whatever that means.