Procedures in airports and airlines have become so tiresome post 9/11 as to cause fatigue even before embarking on a flight. Innocent passengers are eyed with suspicion for trivial reasons like talking in loud voices or making gestures and why, even asking for an extra round of drinks. Much before Singh-Obama friendship blossomed in the South Lawn of White House, I was fortunate to escape from Uncle Sam’s wrath after raising the bar (no pun intended) for airline etiquettes onboard a routine US Airways flight. Don’t get me wrong, I was only high on a dreadful cocktail of fatigue and flying.
It was a few months post 9/11. Not the best of times to be flying in the US. We were a tri-service bunch of student test pilots and test engineers on a whirlwind study tour of USA towards culmination of the Test Pilots Course. As budding test crew, we were still a little wet behind the ears but every bit as precocious as Douglas Bader and Charles Lindbergh crossed! Show us anything that flies and we shall show you a hundred things wrong with it!
Soon after landing in the US, we were up against a packed schedule, jet-setting almost everyday across the continent. The first two days and nights were particularly strenuous with back to back visits across the east coast. Most of the initial flights were booked on a regional carrier flying the small turboprop Bombardier Q400 (pictured above). For those of you not familiar with this aircraft it would be worthwhile to note that in this aircraft, the undercarriage bay (bay for housing the aircraft wheels, in layman terms) is under the engine nacelle and the wheels are visible from the passenger cabin when lowered.
The initial excitement of our first trip abroad coupled with jet lag and disrupted circadian rhythm started taking its toll after second day. The third evening, a dozen sleepy souls were flying from Buffalo NY to Washington DC. Understandably, the capital city was guarded like a fort and any flight to or from DC was given a ‘twiceover’. It was again the small regional airliner and I remember boarding the aircraft with a degree of familiarity having logged some six flights in three days. A few civilian passengers, mostly senior citizens and business executives travelling to DC, made up the balance 35-odd seats. Pretzels and soft drink served soon after take off settled us down for the short flight of just over an hour. Sleep continued to evade me.
Over DC in an hour, the familiar landmarks of Capitol Hill, Washington Memorial, etc. were now coming into view. Most of us were glued to our windows eager to get back to the comfort of our hotel rooms. I was following every manoeuvre of the aircraft and thought it was about time the wheels were lowered. My eyes were focussed below the engine, ears straining to hear the dull thud of wheels locking down. Minutes passed as the plane winged over the Potomac to align with the runway on final approach. Down to about 1000 feet and descending, still no signs of the wheels coming down. Like all self-respecting pilots belted down in the passenger cabin of an aeroplane, it was but natural to suspect the competence of those in the cockpit.
The long hours of travel, sleep deprivation, jet lag and anxiety at the pilot’s apparent callousness all churned together in my stomach and started welling up with rising intensity. Imagine a group of young Indian test pilots being belly landed in the American capital. Surely, he can’t be doing this to us! And yet, the aircraft continued descending on short finals regardless. We were seconds away from disaster!
With the mind staring at impending disaster, I reacted instinctively and screamed at the lone cabin attendant seated near the cockpit door facing us “tell the pilot to go around, he has not lowered the wheels!”. Hearing me, three or four of my equally drained colleagues sitting by the windows also glanced out and started screaming in unison, some in chaste Punjabi ! The effect of four passengers screaming deliriously in the small passenger plane when just about to touchdown can only be imagined. All colour instantly drained from the air hostess’ face followed soon after by a flush of wild pink. She looked about to pass out. The fact that she could not comprehend a single word of our heavily accented outburst did nothing to help matters.
No sparks flew, no scraping metal, it was almost a copybook landing. The unmistakable drumming of wheels over the tarmac silenced our screams instantly. The next few moments passed without even a murmur as the aircraft rolled on smoothly. The other passengers and the cabin attendant held their breaths, probably waiting for a bomb to go off. It was the first time I felt ashamed after a perfect landing! I was overcome by a strange desire to disappear into the undercarriage bay.
It was the airline authorities’ turn to scream blue murder now! I assume the pilots had radioed the tower about a possible ‘hijack bid’ because we received a very cold reception. After the other passengers deplaned, the four of us (with yours truly identified as ringleader) were led under armed escort to an isolation bay. Attempts to register a protest at being detained went in vain as one of the cops explained how deep in trouble we were and how we would do well to stop digging further. Next few hours were consumed in investigations, identification & background checks about which the only thing I remember now is their incredulity at how a group of test pilots could mistake a Dornier 328 for a Q400! Unlike the Q400 aircraft, the undercarriage bay of a Dornier 328 is under the fuselage, making it impossible to see it from the passenger cabin (see pic below). Fatigue and expectancy had claimed another unsuspecting victim! Thankfully, we were not behind the controls.
The parting shot by one of the cops after our innocence was established summed it up perfectly “Geez, you guys seriously need to get some sleep”.
This was one advice we could not afford to ignore. There were flights to catch the next day.