The Day I Fell from the Sky
Or the QANTAS in-air accident that never happened
Adventure or disaster, as I have discovered over the years, is determined by transport. This can be on foot, or via a vehicle — but when I think about what is worthy of telling, it inevitably involves travel. Of course, that is not to say disaster does not befell one at home, but when choosing between falling off a ladder trying to clean the gutters, or falling 3km in 10 seconds whilst flying to Japan, guess which one is more interesting.
About that flight. In fact, about flying in general; I have a few tips. If there is one thing I have learned about air travel — never, ever, take your seatbelt off. Trip to the toilet is a necessary risk. Sit and hold on to the handle when you are in there. Speak to the people you are next to. And, as was told to me by an ex-Boeing engineer I sat next to once — if you survive a crash, you have 90 seconds to get out of this plane before it burns down. We hadn’t even taken off at that point. Great.
All commercial buildings have a burn rating. Some are 15 minutes, some are 3 hours. It is an indication of how long before the structure weakens and collapses on itself. A Boeing 747 has 90 seconds, apparently. As my German ex-engineer told me (Germans are not ones to mince words), you must punch and fight your way out. Do not help anyone, do not stop, do not pass go, do not collect $200. But that was a flight from Los Angeles to Brisbane. This story, was a flight from Cairns to Tokyo.
But in 1996, it made headlines in Japan for two days.
This was the first time I had been to Japan. It’s not that I had not wanted to go sooner — Japan had held fascination to me since I was in high school. However, I had never had the opportunity, or at least the means to go until I was 24. I regret not doing all I could to get there sooner. In 1996 I had worked on a Japanese movie called ACRI. It was a silly film really, about a guy that turned into a dolphin after falling in love with a mermaid. I don’t recall there being a particulary metaphorical subtext. But on the other hand, it opened a lot of doors for me. I met a lot of Japanese who remain good friends of mine to this day. You could call it a seminal experience. At that time, I was a visual effects compositor, working on films. I didn’t have time to travel, I was starting a career. Lucky for me, I was a natural at compositing — or so I fancied. Sticking one image over another and making it look right wasn’t that hard for me. I can’t explain why, but it was an easy fit. Fortunately, my work was well regarded, and the Japanese guys I worked with liked me for it. Next thing, I was on a plane to Japan for a holiday, or so I thought.
I flew from Brisbane to Cairns. I’m not sure why I picked the flight, but probably, mostly, because it was cheaper than the direct flight. I guess it should have been an omen that in Cairns they announced that the captain had been taken ill, and it would take three hours to fly a new pilot from Sydney to Cairns. A three hour wait in Cairns airport. There is not much to do in Cairns airport, so we’ll skip to the action.
My seat was over the wing — a window seat — which is my favourite. I had the whole row to myself, which gave me the impression that the flight was pretty empty. I was surprised to find out later that there were 220 people on board. I was the last row before the galley. I had just read a book called Tokyo Tribes, which was about the Bosozoku. I began reading another hot book from that time, Trainspotting — no doubt listening to my MiniDisc player. About 2 hours out of Tokyo the plane lurched suddenly. Most of the people we old Japanese tourists, most were sleeping, and the lights had been dimmed. I was reading and I had my light on. There was nothing special about the turbulence — just that bump and then gentle, slightly disconcerting rocking.
I had my seatbelt on, so it took a moment to understand why people around me were floating. They just raised up, like spirits, or a scene from a Miyazaki movie. It also took a moment for the people who were floating to realise they were floating. And then, as soon as we collectively realised that something was not quite right, the floaters were slammed into the roof of the plane.
Their bodies, their heads, and some their arms, went through the plastic plastic panels. The luggage lockers broke open proffered their contents to the melee. And then, like someone turned the gravity switch on, everyone and everything was dumped back down hard. To this day, I can’t forget the sound of the screams. They were awful, primal, and basically terrifying in themselves. I thought the plane was crashing, and flicked my blind open to try and see which way up we were. There was a beautiful sliver of sun on the horizon. The sky was teal blue, and at the intersection with earth, a yellow and red slice of last light. We weren’t upside down, at least.
People were still crawling on the floor when the closest flight attendant pulled herself into a chair, buckled up, put her arms and head on the seat in front and yelled, “Brace, brace, brace”.
We are going to crash… how do I survive this? People were still crawling on the floor, injured. I reached over and grabbed an old Japanese woman off the floor. With one arm, pumped with all the adrenaline surging through me, I picked her up and plonked her in a seat. Given my skinny noodle arms, it was superhuman, in retrospect. I buckled and tightened her seatbelt. She was crying. I looked behind me. A trolley had spilled out of the galley and was resting behind my seat. Cutlery had speared into the wall no more than 30cm from my head.
The next stage was silence. That was maybe more scary than the screaming. Everyone had gone silent at the same time. I kept watching the horizon, just checking. There was probably a point where I felt a little assured — we were still the right way up and still flying. The next noise that I heard was not human, but from the plane. It was like a monster under the plane had started moaning or maybe it was more like the sound effect they used to use when superman bent steel. The vibrations went through the cabin. Great, I though, we survived the fall, and now the wings are going to fall off.
We all sat in silence, listening to the plane crying for help. It was some time — maybe five minutes before the crew came rushing through the cabin. Medical kits were rushing past me. A call on the PA went out for doctors. A call then went out for translators. I soon found out why. The translating flight attendant had knocked out all her teeth on chair arm. Someone was going through the cabin looking for them. “Look for teeth, teeth!”, one of them yelled at me. “Under your seat!” I found none.
There was silence from the cockpit. There had been no announcement, which I thought was a bad sign. There was a lot of rushing, some crying, quiet moaning. As the adrenaline started to fade, I began to feel tired. One hour until Tokyo. Eventually, the pilot spoke. All I heard was “unexpected air pocket, radar didn’t pick it up. We’ve dropped in altitude, will take longer to land because we’ve also slowed down…”
I felt a great sense of relief when the plane landed. It was the fastest stop I’ve experienced in a plane. And instead of taxiing to the terminal, we just stopped on the tarmac. Spotlights beamed in through the windows once the plane came to a stop. Fire engines and ambulances circled us, flashing their lights. Camera flashes popped, and through it all I could see a mass of people on the ground. Must have been TV gold, being a serious incident on a Qantas plane (the airline that doesn’t crash). Another announcement was made — if injured, stay on the plane, if not, get off. As one of the lucky ones, I shuffled into the aisle and waited to get off. Behind me, two flight attendants were talking. They had thought they were going to die and the plane was crashing. I couldn’t wait to get off.
We were quickly corralled and rushed into a bus, kept away from the media who were yelling at us. An express ride into the terminal, and processed by customs in record time. My friend, Kagari Yasuda (nickname Tex), was waiting to pick me up. Quick, he told me, we’ve got to get the last bus — your plane was late!
I was happy to be away from planes. As the bus came over the crest of a hill, a light rain had begun to fall. For the first time I saw the lights of Tokyo rising into the mist. It was truly like Akira or a scene from Bladerunner — it was a city of science fiction. After the events of that day, I felt grateful to be alive. I breathed in the neon light, the energy of the city. Getting out at Shinjuku was like some sort of strange, futuristic nirvana.
Tex would show me the newspaper for the next two days, and the headline news about the flight. In Australia, it was no more than a footnote, and QANTAS made no attempt to address it with passengers or the media. Nothing much changes.
On the other hand, Tokyo instantly seduced me. Given what it took to get there, I would have been very happy to stay.