Thursday, November 5, 2009

L.A. Times Africa correspondent writes about journo taboo: fear of flying

[Picture credit:  European Union Aviation News of a downed Aeroflot plane in 2008.]

DATELINE AT LARGE (DM) -- OK, so it's not really a taboo, but flying around the world as a foreign correspondent, photojournalist or aid worker is often fraught with multiple perils.  Foreign correspondents and photographers, in particular, fly a lot -- A LOT (so do members of the military).

First off, flying to and fro is often romanticized in fiction and non fiction.  That's a bunch of ballyhoo nonesense.  Flying all of the time sucks.  It might be fun in the beginning, but as one begins to really roll the dice on playing the law of averages in flying all over the world, one tends to get nervous every time the rickety props (or jet engines) on some jalopy of a plane crank up.

Ms. Robyn Dixon, a verteran correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, brings us a rarely written-about piece on such trials and tribulations.

Her story will conjure many memories for those who have plied the air highways in planes run by airlines who cannot always be relied upon, like Russia's Aeroflot, who had a terrible track record in the 1980s and '90s, as Ms. Dixon notes:  "As a child, I loved flying. But my first posting raised alarm bells: In January 1994, three months after I became a correspondent in Moscow, a flight from Irkutsk to Moscow crashed, reportedly because the pilot ignored a cockpit warning that the engine starter turbine wasn't working. The engine burst into flames. All 124 people on board died.

"Soon after, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Hong Kong crashed because the pilot let his 15-year-old son fly the plane. The flight data recorders revealed that the boy unknowingly disabled an autopilot function, sending the plane into a 33,000-foot, 4-minute death dive.

"Every Moscow journalist had a terrifying story: flight attendants ferrying bottles of cognac into the cockpit; dual engine failures; emergency landings in the middle of fields when the fuel ran out; flights so cold that the beer passengers were drinking froze in their hands."

I flew Aeroflot one time from Moscow to New Delhi, but I was knocked out for that one, thanks to some of mother's little helpers, which is sometimes advisable if you don't want to get panicky when the plane suddenly drops a few hundred feet in mid flight for no apparent reason.

You can read Ms. Dixon's piece here, but I thought I'd throw in a couple of my own experiences for color.

March 2004:  While flying in a "Buffalo" (small twin-prop passenger jobbie) my French pilot, who was taking me from Lokichoggio, Kenya to Rumbek, South Sudan, decided to take a nap.  I was riding in the co-pilot's seat, as there were no other passengers on the aircraft after our first stop in Juba.  Flying over the Blue Nile swamps, I turned and noticed his chin buried in his chest, snoring having already set in (no lie!).  You know what I did?  Nothing.  He woke up after about three or four minutes and played rubber-neck chicken until we landed on the dirt airstrip in Rumbek, but not before we buzzed the landing area in order to make the goats and cattle run out of the way.

August 2006:  While flying in an African Union-run, Ukrainian-piloted Mi-8 Russian transport helicopter over the suffocating desert heat of North Darfur, Sudan our chopper began buzzing with some infernal noise alarms and we landed minutes later.  Our pilots pantomimed that the hulking beast needed some repairs, so there we sat at an A.U. peacekeeping base until they fixed the chopper.

December 2006:  Myself and two other correspondents and a photographer climbed into another Mi-8 chopper (this time an Ethiopian Army owned and flown Mi-8) on another dirt airstrip outside of a little Somali town known as Baidoa.  As twenty-eight of us poured sweat from our bodies -- mostly Somali VIPs (including the then prime minister and deputy PM) -- the chopper had to try three times to get off the ground.  There were only supposed to be a maximum of 16 people on the bird, by regulation, but that mattered little as I sat on the internal fuel tank, mattresses and bags of all kinds stacked all around us, and even on the PM's lap.  Once airborne, we stayed at a lowly 500 feet or so as we flew to Afgooye, just west of Mogadishu.  The worry was that we would be shot down at anytime by Islamist militants who were scattered across the countryside after Ethiopian troops had just routed them in pitched battles across the southern part of Somalia over the previous two days.  We landed on a dirt mound surrounded by several thousand Ethiopian soldiers and military assets.

July 2007:  The U.S. C-130 Hercules transport plane I was riding in at 2 a.m. from Baghdad to Mosul, Iraq dropped in altitude by what I estimated was a thousand feet as a fireball could be seen out the left-side port window of the aircraft.  The bearded special forces guys I was sitting next to must have gotten a chuckle as I yelped "Oh FU**!!!!!!!! -- FU**!!!!!!!!! -- FU**!!!!!!!!!  OH GODDDDDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!"  The plane suddenly leveled off, flying straight.  All of the clandestine and uniformed soldiers in the plane simply wrapped their arms into the plane's structural netting, which our backs leaned on.  Some of the soldiers who had been sleeping didn't move an inch!  I, on the other hand, thought it was all over -- my legs began lifting into the air when the plane lost sudden altitude.  I was scared.  The fireball had gone out, as seen through the port window.  One of the bearded SF guys sitting next to me, leaned over to me and said, "Don't worry, dude. If we were going down, you'd know it."  I resisted the urge to tell him I was prior Air Force, as he might have laughed more.  When we landed, one prop down (out of four on a C-130), nobody said anything about the mid-flight scare, so I got up the courage to ask one of the crew what had happened:  "Oh, that was just a maneuver," he said, which was total hogwash.  The plane took off still one prop down.

I have a hundred of those stories, as do other correspondents and photographers who have been at it a lot longer than I have.

But there was one of us who didn't make it through one of those scares:  Anthony Mitchell, my former co-worker and supervisor when I worked with The AP.  Mr. Mitchell died in a plane crash in Cameroon in 2007 while on assignment.  R.I.P. 

The moral of the story is that it can happen at any time and that thought is always nestled in the minds of those who fly around in jalopies operated by countries and airlines whose standards in aviation are not on par with those in the West, but even the West is not immune to plane crashes. 

Planes are hulking machines that we place a never-ending faith in to get us from one place to the next.  Sometimes it doesn't always work out.

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