Disaster Threatens at Seven Miles Up
Allen Abernethy

It was June 1982, the Boeing 747 had 247 passengers including 8 babies on board and 16 crew members. There had been four quite separate incidents which were not perhaps disturbing in themselves but together could certainly be taken as a bad omen.

A lady who was travelling alone became agitated when the plane was taxing away. She got up from her seat and hurried to the exit sign at the back of the plane, desperate to get out. She had no English and nobody could understand what she said. The cabin crew had to restrain her and take her back to her seat. She showed signs of distress again later in the flight. Two Malaysian firemen travelling to New Zealand joined the flight, one of whom had had his travel arrangements altered three times. He was acutely aware of the superstition that such a happening was unlucky. The other fireman had been puzzled by the behaviour of his young daughter when his family were seeing him off; she would normally have been content to stay with her mother but on this occasion clung to her father, most reluctant to let him go.

The flight which had started at Heathrow stopped to change crew at Bombay and those passengers who were seated near the windows could see the smashed up remains of an aircraft which had obviously happened within hours. The next stop was Kuala Lumpur. It then took off in the evening for the flight to Perth. The weather was good, the plane was on automatic pilot and when the light faded, the sky became very dark with only the stars showing. There seemed to be a lot of smoke, even allowing that some of the passengers were smoking; and it grew worse. On the flight deck sparks started to fly in from the darkness of the night to hit the windscreen. Passengers who had a view of the engines became alarmed when they saw sheets of flame shooting from them. The crew were mystified, but more serious trouble was to come. First one engine failed, then another and finally the other two.

There was no option but to start a descent which would hopefully give some twenty minutes in which to rectify things before having to ditch in the shark infested waters of the Indian Ocean.

Many of the passengers were quite slow to realise what was happening and to complicate matters both the internal communications systems and the external radio links ceased to function. Gradually everyone became fully aware of how serious the situation had become but the cabin crew were wonderful, calming and doing their best to reassure passengers who by now were worrying, praying, holding hands, crying, wondering if they were imagining it all, but above all remaining calm.
A book has been written about this flight "All Four Engines Have Failed" by Betty Tootell.

Passengers and crew alike became more and more aware of the likelihood of ditching in the sea or as one passenger thought, a better option would be to hit a mountain and be done with it. The cabin crew never ceased their attempts at reassurance. I quote one paragraph from the book "Lorraine Stewart remembered the charming Scottish gentleman who had been talking to her earlier. She had been moved by his story. Widowed after thirty years of marriage, James Coghill from Wick had married a former childhood sweetheart only to lose her tragically after a mere six months. Now a widower again, he was journeying to New Zealand to join his step daughter and this was his very first flight in an aircraft. How was he coping, the stewardess wondered. Quietly she made her way towards him, checking other passengers’ masks on the way. She need not have been concerned for him - ‘see to the women and children first,’ he answered, ‘I’m just fine, young lady’.

Jimmy Coghill was born at Bilbster. He worked on the farm at Blingery before moving to Edinburgh. Eventually he returned to Caithness and worked in the distillery for ten years. He has two sons, one is an optician in Edinburgh, the other is a senior lecturer in electrical engineering and electronics at Auckland University. Jimmy was sitting on the right-hand side of the ‘plane and could clearly see out of the window. He had been invited to visit the flight deck and was waiting to be taken there. At first henoticed that they were flying into a cloud of some sort and smoke was starting to billow over the engines. Then the smoke turned into flames and the engines appeared on fire. The intercom was still working at this time and the Captain addressed the passengers. "We have a small problem, all the engines have failed but we are doing our best to get them working again." Now the only noise was the swoosh of the air as the plane rushed on its downward flight. One man took a photo of his wife with several people in the background and Jimmy was one of them. That photo is reproduced in the book. The uneasy silence was broken now and again by the ‘plane giving such a shudder that it appeared to be on the point of breaking up. Then like a burst of gunfire a forest of oxygen masks dropped down from above the passengers.

The thirteen minutes of crisis seemed an eternity to the passengers and crew. Then suddenly, having descended some five miles, one of the engines roared back into life and while this did not stop the descent it slowed it down considerably. Shortly afterwards a second one re-fired and this was followed almost immediately by the other two. Now the Captain was able to plan a landing at Jakatra but had to nurse the ‘plane along fearful that the engines might fail a second time and one of them did just that. As they came in to land the instruments for showing height above the airfield refused to work. The Captain was still able to execute a visual landing except the landing lights on the ‘plane were not functioning and the windscreen was effectively furred up except for a small area at one edge which allowed the Captain to do his best.

The ‘plane made a perfect landing while Mount Galunggung on Java which had erupted, was spewing red hot volcanic ash eight miles into the sky, unaware of the problems it had created.

Published 1997