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|| News Item: Posted 2000-12-20

Air Scares
By Anne Ryan, Sports Shooter Midwest Correspondent

It was the NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls vs the Seattle Supersonics. I was excited that I got to use a United Airlines upgrade certificate for the four-hour flight from Seattle to Chicago. My friends started piling onto the 747, photographers Jonathan Daniel of Allsport and Beth Keiser of AP seated near me in the upstairs section. AP's Rob Kozloff was seated across the aisle from Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder downstairs.

The plane was full of sports writers, fans, and others traveling to Seattle for Game 3 of the 1996 NBA Finals. It was a routine I was quite comfortable with after years of traveling around the country for USA Today. The first three hours of the flight were uneventful, but then the pilot came on the loudspeaker announcing in a rather routine voice that we had lost hydraulics and that we would see a lot of emergency equipment along the runway when we landed.

Jonathan and I looked at each other, "What did he just say?" The way he announced it he could have been saying "I'm about to turn on the fasten seat belt light" or something like that.

We gradually got more information out of the flight attendant in our section. One of the engines had gone out (luckily the 747 has four of them). The landing gear would be lowered by hand. We would be able to land, but on the ground the pilot wouldn't be able to steer. We would have to be towed to the gate. "The pilot was being so jovial talking about how these 747s can fly on one engine" Jonathan said "He was cool and didn't seem panicked".

Luckily for us, we landed without incident.

There were plenty of fire trucks on hand, though, just in case. By then I had been flying on average every other week for USA TODAY for six years. I often wondered if I would ever experience a "mishap" on a flight. Nobody on the flight panicked or appeared frightened, but I did wonder briefly what the headlines would have been if we had gone down.

With all the flying we do in this business some of us have never been on a flight where there was an incident. Some of us, however, have seen more than our share. "With all the flying I've done it was just a matter of time before something like that happened", says Ron Taniwaki of Nikon. Taniwaki was traveling on the NPPA Flying Short Course several years ago on a Boeing 727 with the whole FSC staff when they were about 100 feet from landing in Denver.

Suddenly the plane tilted to the left Taniwaki estimates about 40-45 degrees, the wing coming very close to the ground. Taniwaki remembers seeing only pavement out the window and thinking they would be cart wheeling down the runway next.

The pilot hit the throttle and took off again. They circled around and he said, "Ah, let's try this again." The first time they had hit a micro burst or a very strong downdraft. Fortunately they landed the second time around. As he was deplaning Taniwaki noticed the pilot was visibly shaken.

Many of us have had missed approaches, in which the pilot takes off again as he/she is about to land. I was returning from Disney World with my husband and twin sons a few years ago to Chicago's O'Hare Airport when we were about to touch down. Right before we were to hit the ground the pilot took off again. He circled around Lake Michigan telling us he had to because there were strong tail winds and the previous plane that had landed had not cleared the runway. I thought, "Ok, now I've had my first missed approach."

As we came in to land again we were about to touch down and once again we took off. The irate pilot came on the loudspeaker again telling us that the same thing had happened again and that the air traffic controllers would have a lot of explaining to do. I was not expecting to have my second missed approach again so soon.

As we circled Lake Michigan again the pilot came on the loudspeaker several times complaining that the air traffic controllers were not allowing enough space between the planes. By the third landing, my sons, who had slept through the first two landings, started to wake up. Pete started to scream from all the pressure that had built up in his ears much to the chagrin of the passengers around us. Fortunately the third landing came off without a hitch.

Robert Seale learned on a flight recently that it is fairly common to have a near miss on the runway. Recently at Love Field in Dallas his flight had to take off again when they were about 10 feet from landing to avoid another plane that had wandered onto their runway.

"I actually had an off duty Continental pilot sitting next to me" says Robert " who told me if we had timed it a little differently, we would have been toast. He said this sort of 'near miss' incident happens to all pilots about once a year. Comforting, huh?"

Beth Keiser and her husband Pancho Bernasconi of the New York Times had a similar experience at O'Hare about two years ago. Their plane had just touched down when they had to take off again to avoid a plane that had landed on an intersecting runway. "There weren't a lot of 'ba-byes' at the end of that flight for the flight attendants." says Beth.

Sports Illustrated's Damian Strohmeyer has had more than his share of aviation mishaps. A long time ago he was flying home to Topeka, Kansas from Lincoln, Nebraska on a single engine Cessna in a severe thunderstorm.

"I awoke to hear the pilot calling a 'Mayday' as the plane was banked almost sideways by the driving wind and rain" , says Damian. " I can still remember looking over his shoulder from the back seat and seeing the altimeter spinning around as we went lower. I think he pulled it out and leveled back off at less than 1000 feet."

On another flight Strohmeyer was on a United DC-10 that never got enough elevation as it was taking off from Denver's old Stapleton Airport. It aborted the takeoff and skidded into a field. He and the other passengers actually had to evacuate the plane via emergency evacuation slides. On yet another flight, Strohmeyer was flying home from a Super Bowl in New Orleans on a Delta 727 that blew out one of its two rear engines.

The plane went into a dive for about five to ten seconds then they flew around the bayou and dumped fuel before they landed again at the New Orleans airport on a runway lined with fire trucks and other emergency equipment. Strohmeyer was also on a flight where the turbulence was so severe that a flight attendant was knocked unconscious, hitting her head on a kitchen cart as she fell to the ground.

Besides near misses, wind shear and technical malfunctions there are also unusual incidents involving passengers in the air. Gary Bogdon of the Orlando Sentinel was on an America West flight from Orlando to Phoenix a couple of years ago when a 6 1/2 foot tall passenger sitting a few rows ahead of him got into an altercation with a flight attendant over his seat assignment.

According to Gary "He then storms off screaming that if he didn't get the seat he wanted...that he was going to go and lock himself in the lavatory and sit there. Which he did." A little while later a pilot and a flight attendant convinced him to come out by telling him about the laws he was breaking and what kind of trouble he'd be in if he didn't come out.

On the flip side, Damian Strohmeyer was on a Russian built Aeroflot plane flying to Siberia seated in the back near the restrooms. Just before take-off a passenger went into the restroom and stayed in the restroom until the plane was airborne.

When the "Fasten Seat Belt" went off he came out and stood in the aisle next to Damian. He continues: "I ask the interpreter what the deal is, he just shrugs his shoulders, but it became apparent when the 'Fasten Seat Belt' light came back on and he returned to the restroom, that, yes, that's right, Aeroflot assigned him the restroom as his assigned seat."

Fortunately most of these things occur without disastrous consequences. USA Today's Bob Deutsch was struck by lightning twice on flights within a few months of each other. USA Today's Eileen Blass experienced wind shear upon landing in Dallas when her plane slammed into the runway from about 50 feet in the air.

Sports Illustrated's John Biever and Al Tielemans had to make an emergency landing in Kansas City while they were flying from Colorado to St. Louis when one of their plane's two engines went out. They landed on a runway lined with emergency vehicles and disembarked. "They got us a new plane and we got to the football game in the second quarter." says John.

Engine problems, microbursts and wind shear, lightning strikes and passenger rage, together we've seen all of these things, but former Sports Illustrated shooter George Tiedemann, flying with writer George Douglas Looney never expected what happened to him while returning to Newark International Airport from Chicago in the mid-80's. "The first indication I had that something wasn't right was on our approach to Newark. Since this is my home airport I know the normal aircraft approach patterns pretty well and whenever we deviate from the normal approaches I usually notice it right away." George says.

Tiedemann, watching the landing approach on the screen in the DC-10's bulkhead, noticed that they seemed to be circling the airport at an unusually low altitude and in his words, "thecircling seemed endless" and "ended in a quick jerky motion.

"Within moments, it seemed, we were touching down on the runway but with more down force than I'd even felt during the landing of a fully loaded C130 with all it's props reversed, that all but fell from the sky onto a very short runway just south of the DMZ between North and South Vietnam."

Usually, jumbo jets this size land with little sensation of every having gone form air to ground but as we slammed down on the runway at Newark the pilot slumped forward and out of sight. Now I'm elbowing Looney (who had been sleeping), alerting him to the situation as we race down the runway without the sound of the reverse thrusters being put into action to slow us down. Next I see the shape of a dark hand from the right side of the screen reaches across and pulls the pilot back into view but as the shadowy hand releases, the pilot again disappears from the screen.

The screen goes blank! the reverse thrusters now go into action like I've never heard or felt before. My seatbelt gets a real test as we pitch forward and the grinding sound of the squealing brakes increases in intensity the farther down the runway we go. At last, the aircraft slows and is brought under control..."

At the terminal the passengers were not allowed to disembark as emergency medical personnel rushed into the cockpit. When they were finally allowed to leave Tiedemann and Looney noticed two flight attendants standing off to the side with tears in their eyes.

The next day he read in the newspaper that the 52-year-old pilot had died of a heart attack. Tiedemann says, "The article went on to say that the copilot was aware of what was happening and had the aircraft under control at all times...if that was so, I would have never boarded another aircraft!" He called American Airlines to inform them that he was a passenger on the plane that night and was willing to talk to them about it. They never called back. George says "I couldn't help but notice that on my next American Airlines jumbo jet flight that the big screen was off during takeoff and landing."

AP's photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand, David Longstreath, witnessed a plane crash firsthand in 1997 as he was waiting at the Phnom Penh, Cambodia airport to catch a flight home. A Vietnam airlines flight, a Russian-built jet, crashed and killed all but one little boy aboard.

According to David, " Weather conditions were not bad, the pilot just missed and in the process killed himself and 65 people. I watched the plane go down, the fireball of the explosion and then two minutes later was standing in a dry rice paddy looking at and photographing the destruction and the carnage." David remembers a "feeling of utter hopelessness," similar to what he witnessed as one of the first photographers on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Fortunately for most of us these incidents, even the small mishaps are extremely rare in airline travel. When they happen most of us do not get to the point where we even believe it's the end. You just get an uneasy feeling until it's over. I try not to let my imagination go beyond that.

For me that incident in 1996 was the first of five separate airline mishaps in a one-year period. All my flights since then have been uneventful, the way I like them. As Damian puts it, "I'd have to concur about not being all that upset when I've had any of those mishaps on airplanes, except for the small plane deal, where I knew we were goners if he didn't get the plane going back up soon. The rest of them, while I felt uneasy, I never felt like death was imminent. I did make my peace though on each occurrence, you just never know..."

(Anne Ryan is a freelance photographer based in Chicago.)

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