CULTURE SCHLOCK — By Darren Garnick
August 24, 2001
EDITOR’S NOTE: Columnist Darren Garnick recently returned from a documentary film shoot in the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, located 1,200 miles northeast of Australia. Here’s what won’t make it in the film. (Part 2 of 2)
Had we burst into flames over Sydney International Airport, there would have been plenty of scrapbook material. Print and television reporters were hovering around the terminal, their necks arched up toward the clouds and the 103 passengers trapped inside Air Vanuatu Flight NF31. Ambulances and fire engines were camped on the runway. Our ill-fated jet was the lead story on the Australian national news.
Near-death experiences get more melodramatic each time they are retold, but there’s one delicious detail that will stay the same. My colleagues Chris, Pete, Scott and I were on the same plane as Vanuatuan President John Bani – plunging to earth on his impoverished nation’s Air Force One.
It all began in aisle seat 5D. I was absolutely psyched that no one was seated between me and cameraman Scott in 5F, meaning more elbow room and space to pile magazines. About 45 minutes after takeoff, the pilot breaks into his official pilot announcement voice, a friendly and conversational (but confident) tone.
“Folks, we just got word from Melbourne that there were some landing gear parts left on the runway. We think they may be ours.”
A few minutes pass.
“Folks, we just learned that the pieces on the runway do belong to us. We’re going to divert to Sydney Airport and fly over the control tower so they can check if anything is wrong.”
The idea of some air traffic controller checking the landing gear by looking up in the sky sounded ludicrous, but the pilot’s conversational tone seemed somewhat reassuring.
“Folks, we’re going to make an emergency landing in Sydney. But before we do, we’re going to circle around the airport for a bit to get rid of some extra fuel. We might be a little too heavy for landing.”
In retrospect, I should have remembered the direct relationship between gasoline and explosions. Yet, the hypnotic “too heavy” explanation oddly satisfied me.
“Please prepare for emergency landing.”
Perhaps the first time I ever paid attention to the flight attendant pointing to the emergency exits – or the laminated safety instructions card in the magazine pouch – I learned the “emergency landing position.” As effective as prayer or hiding under your desk during a nuclear attack, the strategy is to lean forward and use the seat in front of you as a shock absorber. A stewardess told me to take my eyeglasses off while crouching, probably so I would experience the crash less vividly.
I was nervous during the descent, but not panicky. Nor did I notice any fellow passengers freaking out. Maybe they envisioned what I did: A worst case scenario of a belly landing with lots of sparks. I did momentarily consider the odds of dying, however, thinking how my last words to the world would be from my journal. Journals, of course, are indestructible and usually emerge intact from airplane explosions. My last entry: How Australian customs agents took away my turkey jerky (see “Culture Schlock,” Aug. 17).
Then, there was my “Who Will Be The Hero?” game to fill up some more down time. I scrutinized the people around me and predicted their behavior in the upcoming crisis. Who’s gonna panic? Who’s going to help others get off the plane? (I cast myself in the hero role). Who’s gonna trample the elderly?
“HEADS DOWN! STAY DOWN! HEADS DOWN! STAY DOWN!”
A strange monotone mantra filled the airplane. The chanting stewardesses sounded like they were cheerleaders who lost their passion but still recited their lines loudly.
“HEADS DOWN! STAY DOWN! HEADS DOWN! STAY DOWN!”
As we were going down, cameraman Pete yelled out, “Hey Darren, are you going to write about this?” Of course I was. Like the journalists on the ground, I was thinking about good copy. But I’m delighted to report that the landing itself was anticlimactic, smoother than some rides on East Dunstable Road when it’s under construction.
Our emergency landing was all over the news that night. I watched the replay about six times. I was looking forward to seeing the next morning’s newspapers and comparing headlines (Sydney Morning Herald: “Tyre blowout sparks emergency landing scare.” Vanuatu Weekly Hebdomadaire: AIR VANUATU EMERGENCY LANDING WITH PRESIDENT INSIDE”).
At our hotel, we built up a camaraderie with the flight crew and other passengers, making jokes when we’d see each other at dinner or in the elevator. There were a few bitter people, those who focused on the lost vacation or business day. But most of us were just thrilled to be alive. It’s bizarre to say this, but almost crashing is kind of fun.
Darren Garnick has his laminated safety instruction card from Air Vanuatu Flight NF 31 hanging in his office. His “Culture Schlock” column appears every Friday in The Telegraph’s “Encore” magazine. Feedback and ideas are welcome via e-mail at cultureschlock (at) gmail.com.