A Triangular Affair

September 12, 2008

Maybe I’m just a control freak, but after ’Nam I took to flying passenger aircraft to restore some sense of purpose to my life, though the pay didn’t hurt much, either. I know some people think we’re grossly overpaid for sitting on our behinds and chatting up the stewardesses while a bunch of transistors do the heavy lifting, but I’m here to tell you it’s not like that at all.

We know exactly what to do when the transistors go on strike and only hard-earned knowledge and experience can get you home in one piece.

But not always. I’ve been flying Boeing 747s ever since when, and I think I know every trick that old crate can throw at you, but there was one time I had to admit defeat.

I was flying a Pan Am 747-200B – the last model to carry a flight engineer – out of Rio and bound for JFK on a course that would take us just over the northeast tip of the infamous Bermuda Triangle. I’d flown right through it a thousand times without a problem, so I wouldn’t have even thought about it, except I’d just been reading in a respectable journal that the mysterious disappearances there were easily explained.

It seems the sun continuously bombards Earth with charged particles that spiral around the magnetic lines of force joining the two magnetic poles, plunging to ground there, and where the lines converge at the poles they are actually strong enough to ionize atmospheric gases – hence the northern lights when the bombardment is strongest.

Nothing mysterious about that, but here’s the kicker: abnormal motion of Earth’s molten iron core can create temporary “false poles” almost anywhere, and the Bermuda Triangle is a favorite spot for a false South Pole, the ionization sometimes being strong enough to cause electrical machinery to fail as electrons become confused and leave their accustomed pathway in the plasma fog.

But, like I say, I’d crossed the Triangle a thousand times without incident, and anyway the control surfaces of a 747 are all operated hydraulically, so it didn’t even occur to me to deviate from our course. Nevertheless, as we approached Bermuda, I was draped over the engineer’s shoulder watching his instruments when suddenly, without the slightest warning, all four engines quit, the lights went out, and we started to depressurize.

Evidently we had arrived on a bad day, and our chance of surviving lay in gliding out of the bad zone, except that the 747, bless its heart, glides like a lead brick.

Although we lost power at 35,000 feet, we likely would hit sea level within 10 minutes, too far from Bermuda to land there.

After sending out a mayday, I told the engineer to pray and struggled back to my seat, only because that’s where I belonged.

Fortunately, the engines continued to windmill, generating barely enough hydraulic power to keep us stable, and I was too busy going through the ditching procedure to think about what might happen next.

Then, after six minutes, as suddenly as they went out, the lights came on, the engines responded to our restart efforts, and we leveled out at 5,000 feet. Evidently, the effect was altitude-sensitive and, no thanks to me, we reached JFK almost on schedule, and our passengers were highly appreciative of our skills.

But I never again want to feel so utterly useless, which is why I took up beekeeping for a living. There’s enough danger there to last my lifetime.n

 

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