Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 went missing Saturday morning and since then news agencies have simply confirmed and reconfirmed that we know nothing more. But we want to know. And, oddly I’ll admit, I’d like to know how it felt to be on board.
If there’s anyone who knows, it’s Mercedes Ramirez Johnson. In 1995 she became only one of four to survive American Airlines flight 965, which killed 160 people when it slammed into a Columbian mountain.
Mercedes in a better moment. Image via
Mercedes: I didn’t have any premonition or anything. We were just excited to get on the flight because it was one of the first flights out of Miami, down to Columbia, to visit family for Christmas. My dad used to work for an airline so I never had any negative feelings about flying. We just got on the flight.
I started out the flight with my mum in the exit row, but when the movie came on I moved a row back to sit with my dad. I remember it was a Sean Connery action flick, and my dad loved that stuff, so I watched it with him. I fell asleep half way through and sort of lost track of time.
Alright, let’s freeze Mercedes in the back of the plane. We’re now going to look at a different flight, this one from 2009, to see what pilots go through in a crash. This month’s still missing MH370 is drawing a lot of comparisons to Air France Flight 447, which vanished on route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. We’ll use the transcripts from the black boxes to see into the cockpit. They were pulled from the Atlantic after a two year search and the conversations between the pilot and co-pilot (in French and translated for the 2012 report) give a pretty creepy sense of how these things unravel.
0 h 44 min 26. Captain (Marc Dubois): There’s a bit of rumba in the air. (Referring to storms up ahead)
0 h 44 min 26. Co-Pilot (Pierre-Cédric Bonin): Oh well.
0 h 44 min 45. Captain: We can see Natal ahead. Good we weren’t hassled by cumulonimbus eh.
The co-pilot is an inexperienced 32-year old named Bonin who the incident report ultimately blamed for bringing the plane down. As they attempt to fly around the storms, the captain grabs a break and a second co-pilot takes his place. This is David Robert who is much more experienced, although Bonin stays on the controls. At 2:10 am the speed sensors become iced over so the plane automatically returns control to the pilot, who isn’t there. Bonin stays in control and things start to go wrong.
2 h 10 min 06,4. Bonin: I have the controls.
2 h 10 min 07,5. Robert: Alright.
Bonin immediately jams the stick down, pulling the plane’s nose up as though they’re taking-off. Reading through the reports, it’s clear this is a weird move as the plane begins to lose speed trying to climb in the thin upper atmosphere. Instead of climbing, they start to stall.
Mercedes: I remember waking up to feel a bit of turbulence but I wasn’t concerned about it. I remember looking around and seeing everyone just looking out their windows. No one seemed concerned but then suddenly, without warning, a pilot pulled the nose of the plane completely up. We were suddenly flying straight up into the air like we were on a rocket or something. When that happened, fear completely took over. I remember hearing parents trying to calm their children, while both men and women were screaming. It was pandemonium. As a passenger I knew it just wasn’t right and all I wanted was for them to fix it.
The Air France Airbus F-GZCP, the aircraft lost in the accident. Pictured in 2007. Image via.
In the Air France flight, years later, but with a similarly terrifying ascent, the co-pilot Robert, realises they’re stalling and tries to correct the situation.
2 h 10 min 27,0. Robert: Watch your speed! Watch your speed! (Meaning their ascent speed)
2 h 10 min 28,3. Bonin: Okay, okay, okay, I’m going back down.
2 h 10 min 32,2. Robert: According to that we’re going up. According to all three you’re going up so go back down.
2 h 10 min 36,7. Bonin: Okay, it’s going, we’re going (back) down.
Despite agreeing, Bonin seemingly doesn’t release the controls. They continue to lose speed, which is causing the plane to sink. The next bit of transcript is blank, with only a list of beeps and alarms as various systems respond to the mess. An electronic voice in English repeats the word “stall” over and over. Finally the captain shows up but idiotically doesn’t take the controls.
2 h 11 min 42,5. Captain: What are you doing?!
2 h 11 min 45,5. Bonin: We’re losing control of the aeroplane!
2 h 11 min 46,7. Robert: We lost all control of the aeroplane. We don’t understand anything and we’ve tried everything.
There is around two minutes where the captain tries to figure out why they’re falling. Finally he notices the controls are pointing them up.
2 h 13 min 38,6. Captain: Careful with the rudder bar there.
2 h 13 min 40,6. Bonin: But I’ve been at maxi nose-up for a while.
2 h 13 min 42,7. Captain: No, no, no, don’t climb.
2 h 13 min 45,0. Robert: So give me the controls! The controls to me, controls to me.
2 h 13 min 46,0. Bonin: Go ahead, you have the controls.
2 h 14 min 05,3. Captain: Watch out you’re pitching.
2 h 14 min 06,5. Robert: I’m pitching up.
2 h 14 min 07,3. Bonin: Well we need to! We are at four thousand feet. Let’s go! Pull up, pull up, pull up.
2 h 14 min 18,0. Captain: Go on pull!
2 h 14 min 23,7. Bonin: We’re going to crash! This can’t be true. But what’s happening?
That’s the last entry. All 228 people on-board died and it took nearly two years to recover the bodies and obliterated fuselage. Although the flight Mercedes was on hit a mountain and not the ocean, she describes the crash.
We were flying straight up and I concentrated on my mum’s voice. I could hear her praying very loudly so I remember thinking to just concentrate on her. It felt like an eternity but it was probably only twenty – thirty seconds. Then I remember hearing an enormously loud booming noise as the back of the plane struck the mountain. I’d never heard a noise that loud before and I flinched and put my head in my lap, just trying to put myself in a little a ball. And that was the last thing I remember.
Local news footage of the crash. Image via.
I didn’t wake up until the next morning. I had no memory of the night before and I just tried to retrace my steps because it just looked like I was in a rubbish dump and I didn’t know how I got there. Everything around me was just trash and broken furniture and Christmas presents everywhere. And then I saw all these people. Yes they were dead, but it looked like they were just peaceful and quiet, like they were asleep. It was just so surreal. Then there was an opening, like a hole in the top of the plane and I crawled towards it.< I was in hospital for nearly three months. My parents were killed and the doctors gave me a 30% chance of survival, so I’ll always be indebted to them. Now when I hear of plane crashes I think of the terror and panic that those people felt. Whether they survived it or not, I know that terror is universal and I just feel so sad for them.
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