Saturday, 7 February 2009

Don't Pick Me, Pick Chesley

Listening to the recordings of the splendidly calm Chesley B Sullenberger's radio transmissions as he prepared to ditch his stricken airliner into the Hudson River impressed the hell out of me.

One afternoon in November 2001, I was locked in an unlikely embrace with a fridge/freezer as I manoeuvred it in a stiff-legged waltz across the drive behind the house, ready for the local council's collection service the next morning. There happened to be a thick fog, so I was surprised to hear a low aeroplane approaching. A very low aeroplane. Approaching. Very low.

I stopped and stared blankly into the mist, and at the last possible moment a light aircraft appeared an extendable ladder's height or so above the house and disappeared again into the whiteness.

There is a wooded hill behind us, and I had time to think, "Jeez, that's low. He'll be lucky to clear the trees," in a sort of 'but of course he will' tone of thought, when I heard the violent sound of breaking branches and the aircraft's engine appeared to stop abruptly.

I learned a lot about myself in the next few minutes. Principally, that I am not a Chesley B Sullenberger. I am not fashioned from the stuff of which cool-headed, laconic heroes are made. Headless and chicken spring to mind. My 999 call must have sounded excitable at best, and probably an octave too high. (When I reported an aircraft impacting trees, the operator remarked disbelievingly that they had not had any other reports to that effect. Sully's measured tones would have had them scrambling helicopters before he'd finished giving his name).

Conscious that any support would be some time to arrive and that I might be faced with people who were feeling not very well, I set off up to the wood in my gum boots carrying a fire extinguisher, some dressings and bandages, my mobile and my Boys Book of Light Aircraft. I was trying my best, but frankly, Mr Cool I was not.

When I got to the right part of the wood I clambered about in the misty undergrowth, looking down for wheels and bodies, and up for tail planes and the like. All I found was a few foil-wrapped packets of foreign coffee amongst the brambles. I began to wonder if I had imagined the whole thing, until I heard on the local news that an aircraft had made a forced landing at the Kent Show Ground, formerly the wartime Detling Airfield.

I found the report of the accident today. It is interesting that the Instructor stated that he had been flying at about 650 feet - significantly lower than the height of the treetops in this area. It also seems incredibly lucky that the place they came down happened to be a former airfield. Although the aeroplane was substantially damaged, with bits of tree around its nose and undercarriage, the two occupants were unhurt.

About a year later I recounted this story to a knowledgeable friend who told me that it was standard practice for smugglers to conceal drugs in packs of coffee. I was away up to the wood as soon as it was light, but disappointingly the packs I found (which I imagined had been torn out of some sort of hold or locker) appeared to contain nothing but ground coffee.


  1. So they only act on reports if there are multiple sightings? I'll remember that. Let's get to the important matter though - did your fridge freezer make it to the dump ok?

  2. And did you claim the ground coffee as treasure trove? At least you would have had some reward for traipsing all the way there in your wellies.

  3. I think my reactions concur with your own. Witnessing a car smash once I found myself racing towards one of the stricken cars (on its roof at this point) with a panicky voice in my my mind asking me what the hell I thought I was going to do once I got there... do you leave the occupants where they are? Do you haul them out? Do you check for petrol leaks? I didn't even get as far as dialling 999 - but then this was a time before mobile phones. Now of course everyone would film the accident, text their mates ("wkd car crash") and then call the emergency services.

  4. It is my one recurring nightmare to witness a plane crash and be rooted to the spot and unable to do anything.

    I am not sure I would be any use in a crisis. I wouldnt video it on my mobile but I would probably just gawp like an idiot.

  5. We get some very low flying planes over us, and I always worry something like that might happen round here.

    Your reaction was cooler than mine would have been though - I don't even own a fire extinguisher.

  6. What a strange experience! Would freak anyone out....and sorry that the coffee was...well. coffee! But what were you going to do with it if it hadn't been???
    I dont think any of us can know how we would react to a situation until it happens. To me, it sounds like you were quite organised.

  7. Did the coffee taste like mud? I mean, it would wouldn't it...having been ground that morning? (hahaha, laugh with me you know you want to)...actually, we get a few planes flying low here too and I son't know what I would have done in your circumstance. I know I have dealt with a few car accidents before (and a stab victim late one night in a seedy part of town) and there is something that just kicks in and you do what you have to. I guess there is a split second that perhaps we're not aware of that makes the decision as to what it actually is that you have to do...

  8. How strange - sounds like they did indeed jettison some goods that might have been incriminating.

    Did you drink the coffee perchance?

  9. If that happened in SA, the "coffee" would certainly not have left to decay in the woods. It would be grabbed or set alight (as they do in Kenya).

    Come to think of it, survivors of a crashed plane over here, would be trampled upon to get to the packages! So just as well that those things sometimes happen in rivers, landing strips and not in the neck of the woods.

  10. Don't underestimate the smugglability of ground coffee! When we went Interrailing and the train passed through Yugoslavia (showing my age again), a whole bunch of quite worryingly dodgy people got on and hid jeans and ground coffee all over the compartment. Nothing as glam as diamonds or fleeing aristocrats...

  11. You do know that the hottest drug in the world looks just like ... ground up coffee, I hear herojuana is currently selling at $60000 per gramme!!

  12. Fancy - It did. Someone once told me that fridges may start working again if you turn them upside down. But this was really too tall to make that a practical option.

    Madame D - Welcome. You know, I didn't. Although it seemed okay in its foil, snails had grazed on its exterior, and there was an off-piutting scent of fox in the vicinity.

    Steve - They would do that, wouldn't they!

    RB - I have rare but recurrent 'aeroplane falling out of the sky' dreams. I think they may be a legacy of a hairy independence flypast in the Sudan, which apparently had me and my Sudanese minder gibbering at each other under the car.

    Rol - Believe me, there was nothing cool in my reaction. I'm sure you'd have put a fire out with any means at your disposal...

    Justme - Bong. Although I used to make mean fudge. But I wasn't that organised. I should have got dressed first, for instance.

    Amanda - I think you would be a good woman to have beside me in a crisis. Well, anytime actually. But especially in a seedy part of town (you seem to know your way round...!)

    Laura - I didn't. I think. Although I can't remember anything about that summer, except the swirly colours...

    Virgin - You're making me feel guilty now!

    Lucy - That's very possible. It was strange, because they were only supposed to have flown from Lydd, and Lydd isn't known for its coffee (it's not known for anything, actually).

    Lulu - I thought you were joking but looked it up and you're not, are you. It's a long time on, but I might go back and check it out. In case you need any very stoned insects for your project.

  13. Oh yes, I know seedy alright. If you're in a crisis, I'm yer man then!

  14. Sounds like you were incredibly cool to me: gumboots, dressings, a fire extinguisher, and you didn't waste time getting dressed.

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