Monday, January 21, 2008

Crash Landing

Senior First Officer John Coward must have the least appropriate name for a hero. With nerves of steel he guided his 777 onto the Heathrow grass, rather than parking it somewhere in the middle of Hounslow. Quite what he must have felt when the engines lost power in his final approach can scarcely be imagined.

It was hardly life threatening, but I once piloted a television programme that lost power and crash landed in front of six million viewers.

The programme was Panorama, in the days when it was presented live in the studio by David Dimbleby. One week, when I was in the director’s chair, the show looked as though it would be an extremely easy ride. With no studio guests, David had to walk across the studio, sit down at a desk, and introduce two films. We even had some standby films lined up in case anything went wrong.

With the thirty or so television monitors making the studio control room glow like the deck of a jumbo jet, the show took off with its portentous opening music. David went into the first link. “Good Evening. Tonight on Panorama…”

Just as he reached the word “Tonight”, all the screens in the control room suddenly went blank. All except four. Every single piece of film had disappeared, but there were four separate camera shots of David.

In vain, I gazed at the empty screens, willing the films to reappear. The technical crew were screaming into telephones. Oblivious to the approaching catastrophe, Dimbleby kept going.

“Our first film tonight…”

We had just ten seconds before David reached the end of his script. I braced myself for the inevitable.

“Here’s his report”, he announced. Then silence.

It took a few seconds for David to realize we weren’t going to cut away from him. Then he apologised to the viewers, and paused. I rang the telephone on his desk. The scene has been replayed many times on Auntie’s Bloomers Indeed, if you turn up the volume you can just about make out my voice at the end of the line.

“Er, David, we have a problem”.

“I can see that. Shall we go to the next film?”

“Er….there is no next film. And no standby.”

“So, what would you like me to do?”

“Just… keep talking”.

Which he did, for eight gruesome minutes. He talked about the studio, the cameramen, what he was going to have for supper after the show. In front of six million transfixed viewers.

It was a performance worthy of the adlib king Mike Neville during some of the many glorious breakdowns on Look North. But that was local news, and this was the BBC’s current affairs flagship.

Then, suddenly, the screens bounced back into life and I rang the studio phone again to put David out of his misery.

We did eventually find the cause. During the afternoon a fluorescent light bulb had gone out at the back of the control room and someone had rung up the engineering department to have it changed. Just as we went on air, a man in a brown coat arrived clutching a spare, found a switch marked “Power”, turned it off, changed the bulb, and exactly eight minutes later turned it back on again.

I do hope for Boeing’s sake something as simple as that lies behind the 777 problem. Because right now I wouldn’t live in West London if you paid me a fortune. It was bad enough living in Putney for 14 years, right under the flight path, with conversations drowned out every sixty seconds. We all used to fear that one day a plane would come down on top of us.

And yet the Government is seriously thinking of allowing Heathrow to expand and blight the lives of Londoners even further. Instead they should shut the whole thing down and build a decent airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary. Provided Boeing makes sure their planes can float.

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