On a sunny April day 15 years ago my friend Julie and I were aboard Flight SQ222 as it gathered speed and with a wrenching thrust a petrel blue Botany Bay grew smaller in the distance as we left Australia behind, heading for Singapore.
A tall man sat next to me and because Julie is claustrophobic I took the middle seat so she could have the aisle seat. I was disgruntled at the prospect of spending the next seven hours stuck in the middle of the row..
Rob, the window seat man tells me he has his pilot’s license, he’s been with the Flying Doctor Service to stations all over the outback. He’s thrilled because he’s been invited to the cockpit once the crew have served the first meal.
We hit a lot of air pockets and the plane bumps along. The screen on the centre aisle shows our exact position and expected arrival time in Singapore.
After our meal the steward invites Rob to the flight deck. The Singapore Airlines stewardesses serve drinks. They are slim dark haired girls who sway along the aisles with that gentle grace common to these Far Eastern women.
Rob comes back and we get up to let him into his window seat. ‘Was that as good as you thought it was going to be?’ I ask. He seems strangely solemn, doesn’t look at me, only nods and turns to stare out the window. I wonder what has gone wrong as he seems so serious. What can he be looking at as it is now quite dark. I return to the Meg Ryan film on my screen.‘We’re going down! Why are we going down? That screen says we still have nearly four hours to go to Singapore, Carol! They’ve switched the screens off!’ cries Julie.
I turn to Rob, nudge him and ask if he knows what’s happening. He turns, shakes his head and continues his vigil staring into the darkness below.
‘This is your Captain speaking,’ says the tinny voice from the speakers. ‘We are dealing with a technical problem and are going to land shortly. I have no time to explain as I am busy dealing with the problem. Please fasten your seatbelts, put your chairs in an upright position and listen to the cabin crew for instructions.’
‘I told you we were going down,’ says Julie as she clicks her seat into its upright position.
‘What button did you press when you were up there Rob?’ I tease, but he stares at me with fear andterror growing in his face as I hold his gaze.
The normally sedate cabin crew race up the aisles, grabbing glasses empty or full without eye contact. Sleeping babies are lifted from cots, strapped into their mothers’ laps as air hostesses indicate oxygen masks instructing the mothers to attach their own mask first.
I wake the slumbering young German couple in front of me explaining that there’s some kind of emergency and we are going to land.
They look at me as if I am some kind of crazy woman and then take in the silent drama all around us. Still rosy faced from sleep they fasten their seatbelts and hold hands.
The plane lumbers on, rattling as if its bolts are being unscrewed and slowly, slowly we descend into the darkness.
A large man suddenly unfastens his seatbelt and stands opening the overhead locker. As he tries to pull his flight bag a steward pounces, wrenches the bag from him, pushes the man back in his seat and replaces the flight bag in the overhead locker slamming it shut. He stands over the passenger speaking sternly to him and then grim faced scans the rows of seated people as if daring anyone else to move.
‘All crew to emergency exits.’ We watch the crew strap themselves in, faces set, backs stiff with tension as they stare unseeingly to a point above our heads.
‘Can you see anything down there Rob? He must be landing this plane somewhere. Is there a runway that will take a plane as big as this?’ I nudge Rob again.
‘There are lights over there, the fire engines and ambulances are waiting for us. It’s Darwin, the only place we can land. But we’re still too high! Oh! No! He’s taking us out to sea!’
Rob turns to me, naked terror in his eyes. He thrusts his trembling hands into mine, his body shaking and shivering. ‘We’ll never survive a sea landing. There are too many of us.’
Then he relaxes a bit. ‘We’re turning around so he must be going back to try to land at Darwin.’
What’s happening?’ asks Julie from my left side.
‘Rob thinks we’re going to land in Darwin,’ I whisper in her ear.
‘They should bring us down away from the town. If we all die so be it but don’t have another Lockerbie,’ says Julie.
The lights cut out in the plane and we continue in darkness save the eerie green of the emergency lighting. Then the silence multiplies as the engines cut out. I am too terrified to speak and stare ahead thinking I will never see my family again.
Silence pulsates all around us. No babies are crying, the children are silent and no one speaks. No prayers break the pulsating fear that echoes through the steel tomb. We float as if on a glider, smoothly downward awaiting gravity’s cruel thrust. As if in slow motion we bend forward heads resting against the seat in front, arms clasped unfeelingly in full crash position. We land smoothly, gently and slow to a standstill. One by one we raise our heads and stare into the darkness around us.
‘What happened Rob?’ I ask.
‘A fire alarm went off in the hold when I was on the flight deck I couldn’t tell you. They’ve got the hold open now and there are no flames, so I think maybe it was a false alarm. I would laugh if I could stop shaking. I was so frightened. I thought we would all die.’
I feel Julie fumbling about on the floor and ask her what she’s doing.
‘You have to take your shoes off to get down the emergency chute, but my feet are so swollen I can’t get my shoes off.’ she explains.
‘Oh just leave them on. Let’s get out of here as quickly as we can.
Postcript: Six months later, the official report into the cause of the fire alarm going off on the hold is thought to be bees which were being transported in dry ice. The dry ice had set off the fire alarm and resulted in the emergency landing of flight SQ222 at Darwin airport.