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Rock Street, San Francisco

Emergency Light – Uninvited guests

There is no doubt about it, flying to-day is the safest means of transportation. The numbers are notable and to the greater part of us individuals whose bread originates from either region of common avionics, heading to and from the aircraft components terminal shows up unquestionably more hazardous than being open to question.

This is not to say that statistics do not occasionally catch up with us. If you work the airways long enough, there are bound to be aircraft which will never again come home, having met their fateful end at some remote (or not so remote) corner of the world. Some of us have even experienced the horror of seeing a blip disappear from our own radar screen. It is no fun having to write a report on an accident in which friends, even if only known over the radio, had perished. At times like that we mourn our dead, but we also learn to live with it, our training telling us to work even harder to beat the numbers.

Fortunately, not all emergencies end in a crash. Mostly passengers are not even aware that the crew of their plane and aerospace operations controllers have just had a chance to prove they are worthy of their  most things in aviation, some emergencies even have an element of fun while others sport features that would do credit to Mr. Hitchcock himself.

Well, for the funny kind, consider this. The Boeing 707 flying its long leg from India had been just one more blip on the controller’s screen, and winging its way, as it was, above most other traffic, their overflight was expected to be a piece of cake. The first sign of trouble came in the form of a missed position report, though with radar showing the plane firmly on its assigned route, this had not been considered overly serious. A few minutes later, however, when the pilot requested immediate emergency descent and permission to land in Vienna it became evident that there was something very wrong. Other flights were hastily moved to clear the way for the big jet which, if radar was to be believed, was by then coming down at a quite spectacular rate.

In a situation like this there are certain routine questions and answers that pass between the crew of the distressed aircraft and aircraft operations, aimed at establishing the nature of the emergency, the kind of help needed while in the air as well as after landing. Though the crew apparently had some difficulty in communicating, it was established that they would make it to the runway in Vienna, they did not require the fire brigade but they wanted some animal handlers to stand by after landing. This latter request as well as the funny noises coming over the radio alongside the hurried transmissions of the pilot did raise a few eyebrows, but obviously this was not the time to ask questions. The request was relayed to the center in Vienna, who, after requesting that the message be repeated, promised to start things rolling. Then it was time to transfer the flight to our neighbors.

Of course, a full report had to be made about the incident and to get the complete picture, we eventually telephoned Vienna center to fill us in with the missing details. What came out sounded quite incredible, though it was true to the last word.

The 707 was carrying a planeload of caged Rhesus-monkeys and a few of the more enterprising animals managed to get out of their cages. By the time the crew woke up to what was happening, they had a couple of uninvited visitors jumping all over the cockpit, throwing switches, pulling on the control wheel and overall, having great fun. From then on, all the crew could do was keeping the plane in the air, well sort of, desperately trying to catch up with whatever the monkeys had switched off, or on, for that matter. What had made things even more awkward was the insistence of the monkeys that the crew not interfere with their “work”, maintaining this “hands-off” policy with loud clacking of yellow teeth. In any case, the crew swore afterwards that landing a 707 with all four engines flamed out is pure fun compared to what they had been through!

Post Author: Lavern Vogel