A Traveller’s tale

It had been nearly 30 minutes since the last passenger boarded the Thai International DC-8 still sitting at the gate at Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport.

Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam

I was already tired, cramped, claustrophobic and anxious to be home.
I had left London Heathrow earlier that night en-route to Hong Kong.
I resented the cost-saver ticket that involved a change in Amsterdam and again in Bangkok.

The plane was full except for the row of three just across the aisle to the left and a half-row in front of me; two rows back from the curtain that separated the comforts of the forward cabin from the more Spartan environment of economy class. Still no word or explanation from the cockpit or crew.

I let down the tray attached to the seat in front of me to rest some magazines but the left side support was broken and the tray sagged as I caught the magazines before they fell between the seats. I took this as the kind of minor annoyance that sometimes comes with airlines that emphasise hostesses over engineering.

A few hours later I knew I should have taken it more seriously.

The view of the lights of the safe, warm terminal buildings through the remaining open door behind first-class was suddenly obscured by the bulk of a very large Dutch policeman.

His close-cropped, tight, yellow-blond curls, pale grey-blue golden-lashed eyes and smooth, almost-round baby face might have looked attractive on a woman, in an offbeat kind of way, but on this cop they were just plain menacing. He stooped through the doorway. Shuffling behind him was a slight figure cowered and hunched over .

Behind him was another man in a tired senior cop suit that had long-since moulded itself around the lumps of his notebook, radio, and Walther P5 9mm automatic.

At a nod from senior suit, goldilocks manhandled the smaller man to the empty row of seats across and a half-row forward me. I only saw the handcuffs when the cop unshackled the prisoner and pocketed them. He left behind a Thai male probably in his mid to late twenties. It was hard to tell as he appeared to have had a painful encounter with a steep flight of concrete stairs. Bandages and a few first-aid plasters didn’t hide the dried contusions and the plum-coloured swelling that soon would be a palette of bruises of cream through cerise to black.

The senior suit guy offered a bulky manila envelope to someone who emerged from the galley adjacent to the doorway. He signed a pad attached to the packet. The cop ripped off the top sheet, turned and left the aircraft with uniform cop following behind.

An attractive Thai young woman in the purple and mauve of the airlines livery closed and sealed the door behind them. The aircraft became another country. We trundled toward the threshold of the assigned active runway, 1R. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or more concerned when I heard the obligatory safety announcement routine.

“Radies and gentremen, prease play attention to safety announcement. The cabin clew will demonstlate the use of your seat bert and rife jacket …”

The steward was a giggly young fellow who seemed to rejoice in his slim, slight stature and stereotypical mangling of English r’s and l’s which made his pronouncement that we would be “…frying over water…” something of a worry.

Not a word about the damaged passenger across in 6B.

Then the familiar rising whine of the engines as the aircraft stopped, paused, shook as the power was applied and it surged and rumbled down the runway and then, with a final thump at the earth, the wheels cleared the runway and the four Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines dragged 158 tonnes of aircraft, baggage and humanity into the night sky as my plastic meal tray collapsed onto my lap.

The soft mauve pastels of the stewardess uniform complemented her smooth, olive completion. She tried to make the best of my skewed tray. I was not at all sure my more than half forgotten Thai was up to it, but I tried, hoping her English was better.

Pen arraie khun ti non?” I asked

“Matter with him?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Drug person from Amsterdam, taking back to Bangkok.”

There were two reasons this failed to quieten my concern.

The first was that I knew from living and working in Thailand for a couple of years was that there was an occasional free public attraction in Lumpini Park where the mandatory death sentence for convicted drug traffickers was administered with a machine gun.

Ironically, in Bangkok at that time cartons of local cigarettes, tax seals intact, were readily available in certain sois (lanes). These had the very bad local tobacco that tasted like smoking wood shavings almost entirely replaced with very good local marijuana and cost approximately two American dollars a carton. But there was a catch: each packet contained only 18 cigarettes as the repacking made them too fat to fit the full 20. Funny, though, I never heard anyone complain.

The second reason for my concern this night was that my band-aided fellow passenger appeared to be unrestrained. Tired, unarmed and not in the best of shape — but it occurred to me that the prospect of being publicly machine-gunned was probably worth trying pretty much anything to avoid.

In the 70s and 80s, even in economy on Asian airlines, the wine was French and the port Portuguese and the scotch was 12 years old. It was poured from real bottles into real glasses with a choice of cheese and it was ungrudgingly free and plentiful. It helped the night pass more easily — or as easily as nights pass in an 12-foot wide metal tube in the company of crying babies, squabbling children and incontinent adults.

The flight droned on into the night tracking the great circle route — the shortest distance between any two places on the earth’s surface. On a globe of the world this is like stretching a piece of string between two points. On a globe it makes sense, but on a Mercator map such as in an atlas, the plot looks like a curve and a long way round.

That made it feel counter-intuitive to head east in order to go directly to Bangkok, which I knew was certainly south of Germany which was where were were now headed.

After passing over Germany, Poland and The Ukraine, the polar route would take us over the vast empty steppes of southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and on toward the Himalayas, and close to Everest, the world’s highest mountain of 29,000 feet (8,848 m). By now the DC‑8 would need to have climbed to near it’s maximum service ceiling to safely avoid being impaled on these frozen peaks.

Mount Everest

If you are in an elevator and the cable breaks and safety brakes fail, you and everything falls at pretty much the same velocity. When an aircraft is thrown around by turbulence it can make a sudden and violent change of altitude, position and relative speed. Usually the airframe remains intact, but everything inside it tends to stay where it was — even if that is as much as 50 feet from the aircraft’s new height and location. It is not so much that people and service trolleys hit the ceiling; the ceiling hits them.

Sir Isaac Newton knew this even though he never travelled in a DC‑8, or an elevator for that matter. Tonight he would have been very glad not to be experiencing his laws of motion so dramatically demonstrated.

Anything and anyone not tied down was tossed violently around the cabin. The overhead storage bins squirmed and groaned and split open like a long, white sausage on a too‑high heat, spewing coats, duty-free and cheap souvenirs into the chaos of the cabin, falling on people and into the aisle among the spilled coffee and booze. Several passengers returned their recently-eaten meal to share around the cabin. The carpet on the cabin floor began to smell like a pack of very badly-behaved wet dogs.

From my seat there was enough light from the cabin windows, or perhaps a moon, to see the starboard wing flexing and twisting in the black, empty night as if trying to shake off the engines straining on the pylons hanging below then. I didn’t know how far we had dropped but I was told myself there was still room between us and the frozen white peaks below.

The engines clawed at the frozen blackness.

I tugged my seat belt tighter. That would help. Yes.

The plane was still being chucked around the sky but the cabin crew had by now secured the trolleys and themselves and sat tight to wait it out. There were no serious injuries as far as I could see. The turbulence subsided and the mess got sorted out but a lot of the overhead storage still sagged precariously.

The flight deck offered no word on these events.

As we entered Thai airspace from Burma, OK, Myanmar, the anonymous black night became hopeful salmon dawn. A change of attitude and engine note signalled the beginning of the descent to Bangkok’s Don Muang International airport. I wondered if the privileged of state, military and commerce were already at the first tee of the exclusive nine-hole course that separated the civilian runway and terminal from the adjacent and parallel military strip.

As it turned out, probably not.

It doesn’t take a pilot’s license or twenty years as a passenger to recognize the sounds of flaps being deployed or undercarriage extended for landing. I guessed we were now at 3,000 feet (about 900 metres) or less.

I had to guess because I could not see a damn thing through the opaque white below.

As we descended, the white fluff scudding past the window became more dense, more frequent and more grey. I could no longer see even glimpses of the tip of the wing. Then the outboard engine disappeared.

Ground fog.

Not unusual in this season, sitting thickly on the ground and possibly only between a fifty and a thousand feet deep.

Servos hummed and whined as both leading and trailing flaps fully extended. Even so, the shuddering suggested the aircraft was on the edge of stalling as the aircraft slowed and sank into the murk. The inboard engine vanished in the whiteness then there was nothing to see at all. The thought crossed my mind that is I couldn’t see anything looking sideways, what was the view from the flight deck like looking straight into it at around 140 miles an hour?

I knew that neither individually or in combination did this airport or this aircraft have the technology to put us safely on the runway in zero visibility. I also knew that this final approach had been going on far too long. The pilot was hoping for a last-second break in the fog. I tightened my seat again and looked for one of the small pillows that had been around during the night. There was not a sound or a movement in the cabin.

DC-8-66 (A slighty later model than the DC8 of this journey) Click for bigger picture.

A DC-8-66 of Thai International

Suddenly the Pratt & Whitneys screamed and roared as the four throttle levers were rammed to maximum and a combined 76,000 pounds of force (338 kilo Newtons) dragged the DC-8 up through the whiteness and shuddering back into the sky.

In aviation parlance this is called a missed approach.

In passenger parlance, when it is like this one, it is as scary as all hell. The continuing total silence from the flight deck and even the formerly-effusive but now unseen purser was less than reassuring.

We lurched back up to around 3,000 feet. What now, I wondered. The aircraft banked into a turn and held it. We turned 180˚ degrees.

Shit. He was going to give it another shot.

I supposed to myself that perhaps Don Muang approach had advised the captain that the fog was clearing as the morning sun warmed. I hoped this was the reason, and not that he had a really important lunch with someone.

After a while of heading what would be downwind if there was any wind, we bank into second180˚ turn to line up for another approach. Still no word of explanation from anyone and, looking through the window, still no ground.

The familiar sequence of rumbles, whines and thumps as the wheels are lowered and the flaps extended. The only sound in the hushed cabin is the quiet, steady drone of the engines throttled back for the descent. I breath deeply and exhale slowly as again we sink into the white abyss. Four or five rows back a baby begins to cry. Its mother shushes and nuzzles it to silence.

I am not a nervous passenger. More fatalistic than anything. I have had my share of interesting experiences including the kind of landings the produce an hysterical round of applause from relieved and grateful passengers. I recall a resolution I once made never to fly with a pilot who was not the same religion as myself, namely atheist. I figured that the less the captain believed in an afterlife the more likely he was to do his best to stay in this one.

I have a tight connection to make out of Bangkok to Hong Kong, but that seems a lot less important than it did last night. Part of me feels bored but maybe that is suppressing fear.

On and on and down into the nothingness. The cabin crew avoid eye contact. Never a good sign.

We must be there, over the threshold now. If he can see anything he must put it down now.

The engines scream as they are shot full of fuel. Again the DC-8 fights a tug-of-war with gravity and struggled, shaking, into the air. Jet engines older than these would not have pulled us out. They would havetakentoo long to respond and develop enough thrust.

Around 3,000 feet again. Still not a murmur from the flight deck. The passengers were now restless, some were agitated and very close to panic. It was getting very uncomfortable.

Again a 180° bank and turn.

I can’t believe it! That moment I understood the meaning of feeling a heart sinking.

The first attempt at landing at Don Muang may have been wishful thinking, the second reckless but this was madness! We should by now be having a free breakfast after diverting to Chiang Mai or Kuala Lumpur or any serviceable international airport.

As we turned in for the third approach another troubling thought came to mind; the distance between Amsterdam and Bangkok of around 5,600 miles ( 9,000km) must be close to the limit of this aircraft’s range in normal flight.

And this flight had not been exactly normal.

There is a frequent-flyer folk legend that goes: “all commercial flights have to load enough fuel to reach their intended destination, execute a missed approach and still have enough reserve to reach an alternative airport”. The legend makes no mention of fuel burned in a battle with the elements over the Himalayan Alps or three maximum power climb-outs and go-arounds.

Surely, I convinced myself, this time Don Muang approach had advised the captain that the fog had lifted and we would have the runway in sight clear in a few moments.

Apparently not.

The four engines screamed and groaned in protest as once again the throttle levers were fisted to their maximum. Once again the JT3’s pulled us out of disaster.

The bright morning light re-entered the cabin as we shuddered out of the fog bank. This seemed to bring the giggly purser back to the boil with the first words we had heard from cockpit or crew since Amsterdam.

“Raidies and gentlermen, we are ploceeding to our arrternative destination of Sattahip”.


That was it. No explanation, apology, reassurance. Nothing. And it probably meant nothing to most of my 180 predominantly European fellow passengers other than the hope of a safe landing somewhere. By now everyone was so stressed and exhausted that we would have accepted almost any we were told.

But for me it was Sattahip revisited. As we turned south to fly the 100 km at low altitude, I reflected on my last visit. Years ago I arrived there not in a plane, but in the back seat of the car of the Thai equivalent of a good Samaritan. My view was at best limited with my head on the lap of my wife who was breaking ampoules of smelling salts under my nose to keep me conscious.

I had crashed a rented 450cc Yamaha on an evening jaunt with my wife riding pillion on the Pattaya back roads. Mercifully my wife escaped with minor injuries. I had part of a tree through an arm, an eyebrow and eyelid dangling and had shredded my favourite shirt. My wife had flagged down a passing motorist who drove us to the U.S. military dispensary in Pattaya. The corpsman took one look and called the U.S. Air Force base on Sattahip’s airfield of U‑Tapao. At the time there was still a war going on in Viet Nam and U‑Tapao was a giant base for the B‑52 bombers of Strategic Air Command (think Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) and other assorted machines of war. They had a fully equipped military hospital there that was understandably well set up to deal with trauma.

The corpsman held his call and asked the Thai Samaritan if he could drive us to the base as it would halve the time of getting an ambulance to reach here and return. He agreed without a second thought. A few words into the handset and the corpsman helped me into the man’s car giving a my wife a handful of gauze-covered glass ampoules and hasty instructions.

I don’t remember much of the 40-minute trip but I do remember we were stopped the entrance to the base by American soldiers with serious-looking weapons. My Thai benefactor was not allowed to take me to the hospital.

“Security” explained a soldier with a carbine.

I felt ashamed.

All attempts to get a name and contact number to properly thank him or give him money for his trouble or at least to have the blood cleaned from his upholstery and carpet were refused with a concerned smile and reassurance of mai pen rai, mai pen rai — roughly “no problem, don’t worry about it”.

I was transferred to an ambulance and taken to the hospital. The man disappeared back up the road toward Pattaya with, I like to think, this life’s ration of karma filled to overflowing.

The hospital was the medical equivalent of fast food. By the time I had gone though X-ray and was on an operating table the surgeon was already looking at the pictures and beginning to tell me what was wrong and what he was going to do about it. Even in my dozy state I clearly remember him telling me with a detached cheerfulness: “It’s really appropriate that you are my last customer. You being a civilian and tomorrow I’m going back home to the U.S.A. and I will be one too. This is my last day in the military”.

A few hours and 36 stitches later I was being taxied back to the hotel along with my long-suffering wife and a container of military-strength painkillers.

U-Tapao airbase at Sattahip, Thailand. Click for bigger picture.

U-Tapao airbase at Sattahip, Thailand.(Click for bigger picture.)

My reverie was interrupted by the change of engine note. Below, through the window appeared the biggest and most beautiful expanse of bare concrete and asphalt I will ever see. My previous view of the place gave me no idea of it’s size. The runway is the longest, widest and thickest in this part of the world; more than three and a half kilometres or over two miles. I caught the twinkle of the early morning sun off the water of the Gulf of Thailand at the southern end of the runway before the DC-8 turned to line up on final approach.

This time we were down.

And out.

The plane was still rolling when the engines choked and died.

As the realization hit that seconds had averted disaster, the purser giggled into life on the P.A.

“Radies and gentremen, we have randed at out arrterlnative destination of Sattahip. Prease keep all camera in your hand baggage as this is a seculity miritaly area. There are severe penarties for irregal photoglaphy.”

From what I could see out of the window the really big secret was that there was bugger all there.

I mean nothing. No planes, no people, no hospital. Nothing.

The atmosphere inside the cabin was immediately uncomfortable, like an audience watching a production and someone misses and entrance. It was also getting warmer. No engines, no air-conditioning, no refrigeration. It was still early morning but the tropical sun beating on the fuselage was already a presence. The baby was crying again. A few of the older passengers looked distressed. It was getting stifling. After twenty minutes or so of re-breathing our own carbon dioxide, the forward-most door on the port side was opened. No through ventilation but air – sweltering hot, heavy air saturated with humidity. Beads of sweat broke out in seconds.

I got the attention of the cabin crew I had spoken with before. I asked about serving water at least. I have to believe that I didn’t understand her explanation that the water tanks had been emptied to lighten the aircraft. Fuel can be jettisoned, yes, but water? I didn’t know that was possible. Anyway she got together a few plastic bottles of mineral water she passed to the mother of the baby and the more needy passengers.

A figure in a shambles of a uniform ambled across the tarmac. His face craned up at the stricken DC-8, the combination of facial contortions and animated body scratching indicated simultaneous incomprehension and agitation. I had a glimpse of someone from the flight deck go to the door gaping open metres above the concrete runway. The exchange of words were too rapid and hushed for my part forgotten Thai.

Ambling guy left and returned fifteen minutes later with a few colleagues pulling a decrepit-looking wheeled stairway which was extended to the open doorway where it was secured with what looked like bailing wire. Several of the crew climbed down including someone from the flight deck.

On board, conditions were becoming dire. As the sun rose the cabin became a cramped sauna. The smells from the last night’s misadventures over the Himalayas emerged warmed over. As fine an aircraft as the DC-8 is, without power it was a hulk. Not even the toilets worked. I asked if we could get out and walk around. This was considered and after while the purser announced that we could disembark on the condition that we did not attempt to leave the immediate area of the aircraft and DID NOT take any photographs and took all our valuables with us. This guy had a script for every occasion.

In the shadow beneath the aircraft was every mode of humanity from a £4000 Savile Row suit resting his £40 haircut on his £400 briefcase to a couple of backpackers resting on each other. Everyone gave each other their space. Separate but equal. And by now equally very hungry and thirsty. I had a nagging thought; where was the guy being extradited? In all the goings on I had forgotten about him.

After an hour or so familiarising ourselves with every detail of the underside of a DC-8, were told that permission had been obtained for us to wait in one of the airport buildings.

Good news. The building was about two kilometres away A jeep appeared. This we were told was a service to transport the unwell and infirm. Good news for them.

On what was a long, hot walk for the rest of us I had plenty of time to take in the surroundings. Vines and roots and weeds clawed from every gap and crack in the runway. The surrounding jungle was reclaiming even this massive edifice.

Perhaps it was the heat or the lack of sleep and food and water or all three – but it was not hard to see the in the shadows of the deserted buildings and the shimmering mirages of the concrete wasteland, the shapes and sounds of the 7,000 American forces who once lived here. The devastating bomb raids on Hanoi of “Operation Linebacker II” over eleven days around the Christmas of 1972 was U.S. President Nixon’s last lash out at North Viet Nam attempting to force a more palatable settlement to the end of the war. The majority of the giant B-52s in those raids flew from the runway I was now trudging down.

In the last days of the war U-Tapao was overwhelmed, not by Viet Cong but by a desperate aerial armada of aircraft and evacuees fleeing south Viet Nam.

Picture by Hugh Van Es

Not the US Embassy. Picture by Hugh Van Es

At U-Tapao our refuge turned out to be a disused shed that might once have been a mess hall or such. The beams of sunlight through the rectangular openings in the remaining windows marked where air-conditioners had once pumped cool, dry air. Now they just let in the heat.

It seems that the reason the crew left the aircraft earlier was that they had been sent to forage for drink and food.

And jet fuel as it turned out.

The girls emerged triumphant from the surrounding jungle with a baht bus. (A light, usually decrepit, Toyota utility with hard seats set along both sides of the open tray and a rough canvas-like hood) they had plastic bottles of warm Coca-Cola (yes, it really is everywhere) and plastic bags of ice. Also some local snack food. As politely as I could I warned people not to drink the melted ice or put it in their cola. Those who ignored me would suffer later, hopefully somewhere where toilets were working.

Rumour thrives on ignorance.

This was before mobile phones and there were none of any other kind around.

The crew we could actually find to speak too seemed no more immune to rumour and speculation than the rest of us nor better informed.

“A fuel tanker was on the way from Bangkok … a substitute aircraft was on the way from Bangkok to pick us up … a convoy of buses was on the way from Bangkok to pick us up … the crew had found a tanker of military jet fuel and negotiated a deal to refuel our plane …”

The “military fuel” thing rang a worry bell. From what rubbed off on me from fellow travellers and flyers, civilian jet engines like the Pratt & Whitneys used a lower volatility fuel than warplanes.

The area outside the shed was a buzz of the fitter passengers people looking, listening, pointing and scanning the sky and horizon for rescue planes, rescue tankers, rescue buses, anything.

The sun rose and day wore on. Exhausted bodies lay on the rough floor of the shed. It had been a long time without sleep and a lot of stress between. Eventually even the numbers of the watchers and pointers outside dwindled in frustration and exhaustion.

It was almost dusk the second day out of Amsterdam when we were told to return to the aircraft. After the long trek back I seem to remember a nondescript tanker and a miss-matched ground starter unit and bangs and smoke and one engine catching and winding up and warnings about where to walk and avoid the engines and be careful up the step way.

Everyone is back in their seats — except I can’t see anyone in seat 6B.

Whatever was now in the fuel tanks seemed to work. We didn’t blow up as we climbed back into the early night air for the 100 Km or so back to Bangkok. The final, uneventful landing and taxi to a gate is an anticlimax, a let-down. The dying whine-down of the engines reflects the mood. The main door opens and the giggly purser performs his coda.

“Radies and gentremen, we have randed at Bangkok Internationar Airpolt. Thank you for frying Thai.”

No apologies, no welcoming committee, no free hotel or even a fruit basket.

I want to smack the little shit.

Copyright © Russell Cawthorne 2007 (text only)

6 Responses to A Traveller’s tale

  1. Challice says:

    I was riveted. It made me feel like I was there as well and I definitely would be classified as a nervous flyer (has a phobia for heights). Was appalled by the conditions of the plane and the lack of communication all the way around. Your finishing line made me laugh aloud as that is exactly how I felt at the end. I had to leave a comment because I enjoy reading something that takes me on the journey as well. A very interesting story thank you for sharing it.

  2. uttarakhand says:

    Good article. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    great read!¶

  4. Russell C says:

    Thank you for your comment.

  5. Aviatuer says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Russell. My only gripe, from a technical point of view, is this… “When an aircraft is thrown around by turbulence or takes a sudden and violent change of altitude in wind sheer, the plane changes location, hopefully intact, but everything inside it tends to stay where it was — even if that is several thousand feet from the aircraft’s new height and location.”

    It’s windshear, not “wind sheer.” And several thousand feet? Even in strong turbulence a plane is seldom displaced by more than 50 feet or so, and usually less.


  6. Russell C says:

    Aviateur, many thanks for reading this and for your professional observation. I edited the piece to remove the erroneous reference. As a layman-passenger I was really guessing at the windshear thing. I had no way of knowing the real cause or nature of the turbulence that night over the alps. I also took this opportunity to proof read and tidy and give a little tweak here and there.

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