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Plane speaking

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 18 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:813
  1. Louis Appleby, professor of psychiatry
  1. Manchester

    Ihave always had a fascination with plane crashes. For years I have read every detail of newspaper reports, mentally filing each incident by cause, airline, and warning signs. But the Qantas 747 that careered off the runway and crashed at the airfield perimeter while landing at Bangkok on 23 September last year was of particular interest. This is because I was on it.

    It was left to the cabin crew on the flight back to offer regrets over what had happened

    Afterwards, despite the darkness, every passenger claimed to have noticed something wrong as we landed—too fast, too far up the runway, not enough reverse thrust, or was it too much? The truth is, none of us had any idea of what was coming, not even the copilot who was making his welcoming announcement when it happened. Certainly there was no sign of a recent tropical storm in which, according to most media coverage, we were trying to land. There was a light drizzle, but it was no more a tropical storm than the showers that fall on Manchester every week.

    Suddenly the plane braked sharply, then rolled on, bumping and grinding over ground that felt nothing like runway. Lights, luggage, and overhead lockers fell around us. In my section of the plane the ceiling collapsed, giving us an enviable view of the dark vault above the cabin. When we stopped I could hear the crew still yelling “Brace!” Outside, the nose and both wings had been dented and warped. An engine on the right looked almost detached. The left wing was resting on trees. The front wheel had snapped off. The jumbo was flat on its belly, a traditional posture of surrender.

    For a moment we stared at the wrecked interior. Next to me was a young couple with whom I had exchanged no more than a few grins and grunts in the previous nine hours from Sydney. I asked them if they were okay, though it was clear that I was the one with the urgeto bolt for the exits. Then in a quintessentially English moment they said, “By the way, we're Dominic and Fiona,” and we shook hands.

    The lights of the rescue team took quarter of an hour to appear—it later emergedthat the control tower did not know where we were. The cabin crew kept us seated, assuring us that there was no fire. People began to take photographs. One woman got out her camcorder—the footage was used by Australian television. Finally, we were evacuated down the emergency chutes. It was a long wet slide, the kind of thing that would have you queuing for hours at Disneyland.

    The irony of these events is that the health service, in trying to improve the way it handles “untoward incidents,” is aiming to learn from the airline industry. I am a memberof the Department of Health committee that will report in the next few months. The airlines know better than anyone how to detect and investigate things that go wrong. As it turned out, there were also lessons in how they handled those of us on the receiving end.

    Within a few hours Qantas arranged everything we needed—a plush hotel in Bangkok, a relief flight to London, meals, telephone calls, and new toothbrushes. The airline's staff in Thailand did their best to keep us up to date on what was planned, though they also acquired a way of walking backwards when quizzed by exhausted and truculent passengers.

    They couldn't be blamed for the lack of information about what had caused the incident, though in the absence of facts media accounts ran riot. One Australian paper described how we almost went off a cliff. Several said we landed on a golf course. Nor could they be held responsible for the bureaucracy of others. The Thai immigration authorities, for instance, at first refused to allow out of the airport anyone whose passport had been left on the plane. And the airline was not the cause of the constant queuing, herding, and hanging about that filled our time.

    But there was the curious issue of saying sorry. In two letters handed out the following day and a talk from a senior official, Qantas apologised for the disruption to our travel plans. Our travel plans? As most of us were more concerned about the near disruption to our life expectancy, this seemed to miss the point. Perhaps sorry sounded too close to a confession. We imagined teams of lawyers working into the night, purging from all statements any hint of liability It was left to the cabin crew on the flight back to offer regrets over what had happened and to double the champagne rations to show that they meant it.

    As we took off from Bangkok, there was an awkward moment. This time there was a storm and the rattle of the overhead lockers as we picked up speed along the runway had us fingering our seatbelts as if they were rosary beads. To one side we could see yesterday's plane, stranded along with our luggage. When we finally dragged ourselves into the air there were sighs of relief in every row. After all, we now knew what no clinician can afford to forget—that even the rarest mishaps do sometimes happen.

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