Scary Disaster Movie . . . and then you discover that you are part of the plot

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Ever watched a scary disaster movie “based on real events” and then realized that you were in one of those events?   Maybe not, but such surreal experiences do tend to unlock suppressed memories.  That’s how the mind deals with situations when one’s life becomes a disaster movie plot.  Many of you may remember seeing the incident on TV.  It made national news and quickly resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounding most of ValueJet Airlines’ aging DC-9 deathtraps. Within a few months, ValueJet ceased to exist as a “brand name.”

Last night I watched a 1998 movie being streamed over my computer monitor as I was eating supper on a foldup TV table.  The fictionalized plot was basically, “Everything that has ever gone wrong at all air traffic control centers (including a controller going crazy and trying to kill the boss)” lumped together on New Year’s Eve at one regional FAA center.  Actually, the movie was quite entertaining. I thought it was about over, when the screen suddenly switched to a passenger jet, packed to the brim with passengers, being struck by lightning.

My body instinctively twitched from the memory of being struck by lightning last July 5th.  Then it tensed again when the old memory came out of nowhere and jumped up to being first place in line.  In the spring of 1977, I sitting next to the right rear engine on an old, decrepitated ValueJet DC-9 when lightning struck that engine and caused both engines to shut down. We were in the final approach of landing at the Atlanta Airport . . . perhaps a thousand feet up, but then dropped like a lead balloon. What I remember most is the screaming banshee sound of wind running though those dead engines, which was so loud that one’s brain couldn’t operate and one’s body was almost paralyzed.  We will get back to how I got into that airplane seat.

A few months earlier, I had taken on a temporary contract job with a German mechanical engineering firm in order to come up with the down payment on a house.  The firm had established its first office in the United States in the Atlanta Area . . . after the CEO had become impressed by the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.  His company designed and constructed robotic assembly lines in manufacturing plants.

The German, Spanish, French and Italian engineers sent to staff the office quickly found themselves lost.  They didn’t realize that they had be licensed in Georgia, nor did they understand our measuring systems or our construction methodology. Within the European Union nations, a professional license from one country is valid in another. Dixie building inspectors refused to approve construction drawings, stamped with a European license, written in German and dimensioned in the metric system.  None of the American engineers hired had worked out.  They were too provincial to operate in a multi-lingual, international environment.  European engineers get the same, broad six-year education as architects. They are expected to be renaissance men and women, who can speak foreign languages and get along with people of varied cultural backgrounds.

I had learned the metric system while working in a Swedish Town Architect’s office and could communicate in Spanish and French.  We quickly “hit it off” in the interview and was offered a very generous temporary salary to essentially be a “cultural tutor” for their staff.  I also helped the CADD draftsmen convert German-metric drawings into American-English system drawings.

Later, the company brought me back on a per diem basis to “ride shotgun” for construction inspection teams. That’s what got me in a disaster movie!  The German secretary received a discount voucher from Atlanta-based ValueJet Airlines that could save the company almost a thousand dollars when sending a large engineering team to construction sites.  She didn’t know about ValueJet’s reputation for crashing airplanes due to shoddy maintenance.

The movie version of the almost-disaster wasn’t nearly scary as the real event.  In the movie, flight controllers worked complex mathematical formulas to guide the crippled passenger jet onto the runway.  In real life, everything happened so quickly that only angels could have prevented a catastrophe.

The flight to Virginia went well because only Delta Airlines served that particular city.  However, we were also visiting a plant site near Raleigh, NC and so were booked on ValueJet for the return flight to Atlanta.  The flight started off with a very bad omen.  The fully-booked DC-9 barely got into the air at the end of the runway and rattled as the old engines struggled to lift the plane.  The plane continued to creak as flew southwestward. A woman on the plane was holding twin babies, who were constantly crying.* At least it was a flight lasting little over an hour and I would be out of the contraption before it fell apart.  *That scene was in last night’s movie.

Then dark thunderstorm clouds loomed over Metro Atlanta . . . the type that in the spring brings tornadoes.  Maybe two or three miles from the Atlanta Airport lightning struck the engine beside me.  Hail and dense rainfall pelted the plane’s body.  The engines began screaming.  The plane suddenly slowed and then dropped at least 500 feet.

All the babies were crying and several women were moaning.  The flight attendant handed one of the crying twins to the man beside her, who was not her husband or boyfriend.  The attendant then raced to the back of the plane near me and buckled up. That scene was also in the movie.  

The pilots got one engine working again.  The engine next to me was still screaming.  The plane’s body continued to creak like it would fall apart at any moment.  Never, at any time during the crisis, did the flight attendants verbally indicate to us that there was an extreme emergency going on. Despite their silence, I could see the terror in the eyes of the lady attendant sitting behind me.  She turned her head away, when I looked back at her.

In the few seconds that it took to reach the Ford Assembly Plant on the east end of the runway, the jet was barely a hundred feet above the building. Although theoretically a DC-9 could land on one engine, this one was too old and too poorly maintained to accomplish that feat.  At that point, most of us on the plane realized that we would be dead in a few more seconds.  I was thinking.  So, this is what is like to die in a plane crash.

According to the newscast, the rear of the plane was about 20 feet above the Atlanta runway, when the second engine produced enough power to keep the plane from belly-flopping (aka crashing) on the runway.  I couldn’t tell you the exact distance because at that point, I was praying that my death would be instantaneous and imagining what heaven would be like in two seconds.  Oh . . . and yes, I was also scared out of my wits.

When we hear the roar of the second engine and the plane lifted slightly, everybody cheered and clapped . . . but then the plane did not land.  Instead, the pilot gunned the engines and pointed the nose at least 30 degrees into the air.   We later learned that the pilots had forgotten to lower the landing gear during the excitement of engine and avionics control failure.

Then began the most terrifying phase of the flight.  The plane did not gain significant altitude.  We went almost the entire length of the runway with the tail being maybe 50-100 feet above the paving.  Worse still, because the right engine was damaged and therefore weaker, the plane drifted to the right.  Soon we were over the parallel runway and barely cleared a Delta 747 rolling along it.   We were actually over the landing lights of Atlanta Airport before the plant began to gain much altitude.  There was another round of applauds and cheers. 

The struggling DC-9 went right over my former high school.

That was short-lived.  Just as we were approaching from overhead my former high school, Lakeshore, the engines stuttered and the plane began dropping.  Instantaneously, my thoughts were, “Who would have thought that I would have ended my life within the very walls where I began it.” . . . But the engines revved up again and we did not crash. 

The ValueJet deathtrap managed to cut a tight circle around the airport to land where we were supposed to land.  However, rather than take us to a regular, accordion type gateway,  the plane sneaked around to a side entrance to the Atlanta terminal.  The passengers were forced to walk about 200 feet in the rain to reach the small door.  We later learned that ValueJet did this final insult so we would have no contact with anybody in the passenger waiting rooms about to board a Valuejet.

When the engines stopped, there was silence this time . . . no cheering, no clapping . . . we were all stunned to be alive.  The pilot came on the loudspeaker to thank us for flying ValueJet and apologize for “a little bit of turbulence.”   The flight attendants also thanked us for flying ValueJet and wished us a pleasant stay in Atlanta.  At this point, I am sure many of us were wondering, if it had all been a dream.

HOWEVER, that evening on the national TV news, I watched our ValueJet DC-9 waltz the length of the Atlanta Airport with its nose pointed over 30 degrees in the air. We were told that there were several points in time when the plane should have crashed . . . like when it was trying to take off in Raleigh.  It was overloaded and the engines were in poor repair.  The pilot should have landed the plane rather than trying to take off again so low to the ground, etc.  The director of the FAA announced that he was grounding all of the DC-9’s in ValueJet’s fleet, until they could be inspected. He also announced that a panel of experts to investigate the safety of the DC-9.  DC-9s had suffered 110 “total loss” accidents with 3,462 fatalities.

Two Southern Airways flight attendants survived here!

Almost exactly 20 years earlier to the day, a Southern Airways DC-9 had been struck by lightning, hail and massive amounts of water in a violent spring thunderstorm, while approaching the Atlanta Airport.  It crash-landed in a ball of flames. Sixty-three people on the aircraft (including both pilots) and nine people on the ground died. Twenty passengers survived with severe burns, as well as the two flight attendants. No wonder our flight attendants raced to the back of the plane.

Now you know what it is like to star in an airplane disaster movie a year before it is filmed.  Don’t try this experiment at home alone or in a cut-rate ticket passenger jet.

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