All these stories appearing recently about Qantas and its deteriorating fleet reminded me of an aerial adventure I had way back in the days before the Internet or Britney Spears. I was flying the long leg from Canberra to Perth on a two-engine jet operated by what was then called Trans-Australian Airlines. It was a bare-boards affair by today's standards and, although I was seated on the right, on the aisle, about three rows back from the bulkhead behind the cockpit, there was no such thing as First Class. What I did get was a first-class look at the action when an "incident" occurred.
I was reading a paperback when I felt a slight jolt of the kind that occurs when a car has a transmission glitch. Then, about a minute later, I noticed a noise coming from the cockpit; the doorway was open and a stewardess was leaning in the open doorway to the compartment, apparently talking to the pilots and bracing the door open with her back. The noise was a barping sound, of the sort favoured by designers of electronic alarms. There was some urgent talking going on and I noticed that the woman in the doorway was clinging on to the doorframe and actually holding herself up with it, not just being casual. I then saw that I was holding my book at a funny angle. In fact my head was craning to the left to keep in line with it.
I looked around the cabin and realised that the aircraft was leaning to the right. I knew it was the aircraft and not just my inner ear being humorous because every other passenger in sight was adjusting their posture for the list. Nobody was yelping at this point, but there was an undercurrent of muttering. Then the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign pinged on. The aircraft was developing a seriously dexter inclination by now and the engine sound through the fuselage was sounding weaker. The angle of this tilt was probably only 5 degrees but it was enough to be disturbing. The talk from the cockpit was becoming more noticeable; no trace of distress but a tone of strictness as instructions were given in a terse voice and repeated back. I heard the word "restart" among it all; that wasn't a good sign. What had stopped that needed a restart? I guessed it was the right engine. I guessed right. The aircraft was beginning to make a long slow turn to the right and we were descending.
At this point I decided to put my head back in the book. There was nothing I could do about it and I didn't want to start discussing it with the woman sitting in the window-seat to my left. She was starting to make very faint noises of a hyperventilating kind. I wasn't being brave; I just didn't think anything would really happen. I knew two-engine jets were designed for safe single-engine flight and I assumed we were turning to make a landing at some diversion-site. After we'd described a full circle, I knew that wasn't it. Then the tilt began to really make itself felt and the word "stall" could be heard from the front.
I could see that my optimism was not going to be readily rewarded and I wasn't making any headway with the book. I'd read the same sentences over several times. Then a new stimulus arrived. In the very front seat on the aisle a man rose up to meet the occasion. He was about sixty years, white-haired and bespectacled; a tall rangy type. He was clutching his seat and wrestling himself upright in defiance of the seat-belt warning. He looked back down the cabin and called out in a preacher's voice: "Brothers and sisters! Put your trust in Lord Jesus! He shall protect us!"
The murmuring of the passengers had stayed within non-panic levels to this point but the preacher's words were a catalyst. At that time the religious revival which seems to be on today was nowhere to be seen. Organised religion, particularly Christianity, was probably at its nadir in Australia. Most of the passengers had probably only been in churches in recent years (if at all) to attend weddings and funerals and we surely weren't going to a wedding. I don't certainly know to this day the gender of that first person to crack, (and I never will) but I think the strangled shriek that came forth was uttered by a man. "I don't want to diiiee!", he bawled. That set a bunch of others off; women began sobbing, voices were raised to ask, "What's happening?" and the old favourite, "Are we going to crash?"
The stewardess at the front remonstrated with the preacher and got him back in his seat and then started calling for quiet and calm over the public address. It took a good five minutes to restore order and in that time the pilot managed the restart. Another jolt, a returning roar of engine power (welcomed with a cheer by some) and we were heading back on course and pleasantly horizontal.
The pilot announced over the PA that the fault had been a temporary failure of fuel supply to the right engine and that we were going to proceed to Perth as there was nowhere closer to land. And that we did, with no further alarms. We walked off the aircraft onto the tarmac (no airbridge in those days) and into the terminal and collected our baggage and...went on our ways. Leaving the aircraft, I saw the preacher talking earnestly to the chief stewardess, apparently assuring her of his honourable intentions and that he'd never expected the name of his God to be a synonym for a death cry. He was, apparently, a real minister of religion in country Victoria, Methodist or Baptist, and he was visiting relatives in Perth. I heard most of the yarn as I was getting my gear together and then making my way past to the door. Other people passing him glared at, ignored or sneered at him according to their taste. One disembarker laughed and interjected, "Good on ya mate!" as he passed. I saw that the woman he was speaking to had a frozen smile and was obviously just wishing he'd get to Hell out of there so she and the others could have a good private collapse in our absence. After all, they knew how close we'd really come to buying it.
I walked past with an impassive face (I think) and did just get the Hell out of the airport. There was no media pack waiting for us. In those days people in distress couldn't call ahead with mobile phones and raise an alarm. There were no such things. Nor were there counsellors or public relations flaks waiting. And I never heard another word about it. Not a word in the papers or on television or radio. It figures; the airline had no reason to draw public attention to it. The wholly government owned airport infrastructure had no reason to publish it. The people who panicked had no reason to brag on it. And here's how the loop closes: When I told a few people, they didn't believe me. Because if it had happened, why wasn't it reported? And everybody knew that Australian airlines didn't have incidents like that. That happened overseas, to foreigners. Like terrorist attacks.
I still have that book I was trying to read when it happened. It's volume one of a collection called The Past Through Tomorrow, and it's a collection of speculative fiction by Robert Heinlein about a future which didn't happen. Real events have made his stories redundant, but as the editor points out, the future he imagined may have happened somewhere in a parallel universe. I can find the exact page I was looking at in that book when all the above happened. Sometimes I take it off the shelf and read that passage and imagine I'm back on that plane hearing those words, "Put your trust in Lord Jesus!" and I feel a tingle up my spine. Works every time.