From the Jaws of Death . . . .

At the Pearly gates!!!!

In hindsight, I must say, that trip to Hyderabad in November over two decades ago was Jinxed from the start. It was a last minute one, it had to be planned on the sly, been postponed once and meeting times rescheduled twice over.

Honestly, an interview call from the top management of Oracle in 1990’s was a dream chance - a great career opportunity and I had to make sure that my current employer (Nexus – erstwhile Aurelec) did not catch wind of it. It was normal for my office team to stop by at home to help parents for my wedding preparations (which was around the corner). I had to ensure none knew of the trip and so had to work it on the sly. With travel banned at home with the wedding a few days away, the story was a very close high ranking IAS official, a family friend, was at an ICU at Pondicherry and hence the last minute travel.

There were no direct flights from Coimbatore to Hyderabad and so had to get to Chennai which meant an overnight stay to get on to IC 440 leaving Chennai (then Madras) to Hyderabad by 7:00 AM. I reached Chennai (my cousin Uma’s place) the previous night by the Kovai express.

It was an eventful day for all the wrong reasons. The morning alarm did not go off so woke up late (5 AM) only to hurry with my morning chores and had to get on an Auto latest in the next 15 minutes. Dressing up I realized I had packed the wrong blazer and tie but had no choice. The Auto stand near my cousin’s place was empty and my brother in law had to drop me off at the closest Auto stand at Adayar. I was running very late and reaching the airport found the gates almost closing. Had to use the name of an airline senior manager (our family friend) to squeeze through past security and finally boarded the aircraft. Mine was a window seat right at the rear and once in, the toll of the previous day’s travel, the chaos of the morning sloshed me out and I was fast asleep after we were airborne.

In a way, the sound sleep was a blessing. Little did I realize that we had reached Hyderabad airspace in time, lined up for a landing, was turned down due to low visibility and were circling after a ‘Missed Approach’. Little did I realize that the flaps deployed for landing would not retract, slowing the plane down, forcing it to cruise at low altitude, burning up twice the amount of fuel. Little did I know that the captain decided to turn back to Chennai and we were on course back to where we took off from.

A nudge by a passenger behind woke me. There were hushed yet panicked discussions between a few set of passengers and a tensed steward passing by had very little info as well though she told us that ‘We are low on fuel and may need to make an Emergency landing’.

 I had been a student pilot and a student of Aero modelling at school / college and hence had a grip on the basics of flight. I immediately knew, this was a serious situation. Glancing out of the window, I could see the low altitude being maintained, the engines almost on a low hum (almost on vapor) and paddy fields as far as the eye could see. I instantaneously knew this was more of a ‘Forced’ landing (rather than an emergency landing). My pilot training and avionic knowledge was enough to tell me that the fear of an explosion on impact was negligible for the almost empty fuel tanks, but the thought of a disintegration on impact and broken bones by the dozens if we survived was scary. 

The call for landing did come by and we were all tucked in our seats, heads down, curled in a foetal position bracing for that dreaded impact. The few seconds seemed like eternity, as the pilot skillfully glided the huge aircraft on it last drop of fuel and its last bit of glide capability before settling it down on the slush of the paddy field which served as a good foam landing platform. The impact could be felt under the feet and the plane kept skidding for quite a distance before the slush and clay sand brought the massive airliner to a stop - nose down close to the Naydupetta/Sulurpeta villages on the NH5 (Chennai to Kolkata highway) .

There was awe, anxiety and fear all over as the emergency chutes were immediately deployed. Those in front and middle could easily slide down the chute as the nose down only helped the cause, while those behind, like me, had a 5 foot drop at the end of the chutes as the tail was up. Yet the younger and fitter ones like me did take the almost empty rear chutes and though we landed with a thud, the slush softened our fall – just like how it had done to the airliner. I must have looked like a scarecrow – dressed in a suit, but covered in slush and mud – in the middle of a paddy field.

Things then happened in double quick time. The villagers gathered around in numbers and started helping the old and the weak, brought in water and even some fruits. The airhostess was thoughtful enough to pass out water and whatever rations were left on the plane. A couple of film world celebrities added to the rush of villagers, who were very helpful. A couple of buses reached us from Tirupathi and we were whisked away to the airline office and were put on cabs / buses back to Chennai. Reaching Chennai around 5 PM took the overnight Nilgiri express to get back to Coimbatore the next morning as though it was a routine day trip. None at home even had the semblance of panic – for they could not relate to the incident on the news headlines to me ;-). In fact, I kept it away for from them for quite a few months, before revealing it to my wife.

Looking back, there seems to be a lot of positives that this incident has had on me and my persona. Strangely, I've not really had any trauma since the crash. I've thought of alternative scenarios once in a while: like the fuel tanks not being empty and an explosion ripping us apart, or a high tension cable snagging our descent electrocuting everything or if it had not been the wet, soggy, slushy clay soil of the fields, the plane would have disintegrated throwing us all over. Yet it was not something that I wake up with cold sweats or something I shudder when I discuss it today. Difficult or dangerous situations no longer seem to trigger panic nor does fear of death even seem to bother me. Extreme situations in subsequent flights - like heavy “Porpoising” due to turbulence or loss in cabin pressure when airbags are deployed do not even fluster me. Emotions are completely under control during dangerous and tricky situations possibly due to this near death experience, for having been to the point of no return, my mind seems to accept and live with danger.

Maybe, the time between me waking up to the reality around me and the landing in itself was very low , maybe I did realize that there was nothing really I could do to get myself out of that situation at that time, maybe the flying training had made me aware of the perils at a much early age – whatever it was, It took me almost a few decades to really understand that I had actually knocked at the Pearly Gates - before possibly being turned back. I was probably early on the line . . .  .

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