Friday, May 09, 2008

Wolfman: When the wheels won't come up...

Feb 20 2008

The day started early, with a 4 AM wakeup call to get on the early morning flight (UA896) from Singapore to Hong Kong. Although I was a bit tired and heavy eyed, feeling the residue from last night’s Thai dinner and Chinese/Lunar New Year celebration, the flight was fine, with a very courteous United cabin crew, mixing mostly Japanese and Chinese flight attendants with one very out of place German. I think he was the token Caucasian (and male) on the team. Since I had boarded early and was sitting upstairs (row 15-G) and there was not much happening, the Captain invited me into the cockpit while we were still sitting at Changi airport. That’s always a cool visit, and generally it is one of the times I wish I had a camera with me when I travel. Not much that was memorable about the flight itself, except a bit of turbulence as we passed the East coast of Vietnam, roughly half-way between Da Nang and Saigon. OK, I know it’s now called Ho Chi Minh city. Sorry, but old habits die hard...

Hong Kong itself was rather uneventful. Of course there was he usual dash from the first flight to go back through security and head over to the next departure gate. Not enough time to have a drink in the Red Carpet club, but enough time for a Marlboro (or two) in the smoking lounge right next to the gate.

As in the old railway days, it’s time to cry “All Aboard” to get this train rolling for Chicago and home. Now the passengers stream into their seats, and some struggle to fit one more oversized piece of hand carry into the already stuffed overhead bins. Upstairs it’s quiet, everyone has settled in, exchanged names, and gone through their personal rituals as they prepare for a 14 hour flight. For me, that would be 2 aspirin (to prevent blood clots) and 2 over-the-counter Sominex sleeping pills.

Takeoff time, accelerating down the runway, V1, V2, rotate, wheels in the air, and we are going up. Hear and feel the landing gear coming in, flaps are being adjusted.

Oh-oh, we have a problem ! This is bad !! Something is really wrong ! Seriously wrong. Alarm bells are going off in my head.

Sound of a hydraulic pump in overdrive, being turned on/off. The plane is noticeably (to me) banking and listing to the left. Wind and engine sounds are all wrong. I suspect a flap has malfunctioned out on the left wing.

Still gaining altitude, but not as fast as we should. I look at the flight attendant in her seat facing me across the exit row. She looks at my face, and I look at hers, and we instantly know that the other one knows. This is not good. We have a real problem here. Obviously we are OK on airspeed, so it’s not critical. Otherwise we would already be swimming in the middle of a (probably burning) large fuel spill outside of Hong Kong harbor. Flight attendant phone rings, she talks for a few seconds, hangs up. She looks at me, then looks at my lap, and draws her seatbelt tighter. I do the same. Her tense chin says it all.

A few more minutes go by. The more seasoned travelers all know something is not right. Announcement now. One landing gear will not retract. The crew is attempting to bring the gear up. In the meantime we are still climbing, and circling south-east of the city out over the ocean. Safe for now. Obviously we can’t go to Chicago like this. Not as obvious to most passengers is that the gear may be stuck halfway, and it might not be safe for landing either.

After a half-hour the Captain announces it can’t be done, the gear is stuck, and it can not be retracted. We will have to dump our fuel over the ocean and return to Hong Kong. The good (?) news is that they think that the gear is down and locked, so they expect that we can land OK.
This time the passengers are really listening and paying attention as the crew repeat the safety instructions they had just performed an hour ago. Nobody is talking or reading a newspaper, all eyes are on the crew. Upstairs, here in the exit row, all four of us are each being given a one-on-one demo on exactly how to open up the large doors and activate the slides. This time, when they ask if we feel we can assist in an emergency we know this is not just an idle question. We clear out all the papers, carry-on items and anything loose, like headphones, from the areas around our seats and the exit row. The crew verify that we have our shoes on, and that the laces are tied. Nobody is smiling now. This is as real as it gets.

This is Gut-check time people. You are on a plane with a defective main landing gear, possibly it is not in the locked position, and you are getting ready to land at over 180 mph with 400 passengers and crew in a 400,000 lb airplane on runway 7-left in Hong Kong.

And there is absolutely nothing you can do to influence what is about to happen.

(A brief intermission ensues)

Later in the day I’m in a hotel room at the Marco-Polo in downtown Kowloon. The day is almost over, and I have helped some new friends destroy the better part of a bottle of Courvoisier cognac. Obviously we landed OK, but the gear could not be fixed quickly, and we have been delayed for 24 hrs on our flight to Chicago. United put everyone up at a variety of hotels, with the coach/economy passengers getting rooms at the airport transit hotel (a big block of grey concrete). That was not my fate. Given a choice by the ground crew, I picked the Marco, which is right on the water’s edge in Kowloon, near one of my former favorite hotels in HK (the now demolished Hyatt on Nathan Rd.), and close to great nightlife spots and dining.

OK, so in the end everything worked out. I arrived in Chicago, and got home to Maine about 24 hours later than expected. I racked up some hotel points that I was not expecting. Had some very nice meals in HK/Kowloon at United’s expense, and ended up with an interesting travel blog. Hey, do you know what it says on my new baseball cap from Hong Kong ?

“Life is Good”

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