Food and personal belongings of passengers strewn on the walkway after the aircraft went into a free-fall. Photo courtesy - klvn10
Food and personal belongings of passengers strewn on the walkway after the aircraft went into a free-fall. Photo courtesy – klvn10


CricketCountry writer Vincent Sunder was on the Cathay Pacific flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong on Tuesday when the plane hit “strong turbulence” as it passed over Japan. Here is his eye-witness account of the nightmare inside the aircraft and the narrow brush with death.


Winding up my business trip, I boarded Cathay Pacific flight CX879, which departed at 11.45 am PST from San Francisco to Hong Kong, en-route to my home town Bangalore. It was a fairly full flight, comprising mostly Asian travelers and predominantly Chinese. The gloomy weather in California had improved and the drive to the airport was very smooth thanks in all probability to it being Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday.


I chose the last seat via online reservation, which I normally don’t. The absence of any free aisle seat in the front rows and also the idea to board early and settle down for the 14-hour flight made me choose 73H — the worst row you can be in a turbulent situation. Yet again, against my usual routines of opting to read than watch movies, I watched two movies — eerily, the first was Gravity and then Krish3! The first being the story of a space craft in distress and the efforts of the protagonist to survive!


One had no clue of what was to come in a short while. One meal had been served since the flight had begun its journey, and it was roughly eight hours into the 14-hour flight to Hong Kong when the second meal was served. I put away the Ricky Ponting autobiography which I had taken a long time to complete since its purchase two months ago, on the side of my seat, to get ready for the meal. Having not slept much, and with an idea to have a post meal nap, I opted for a beer and was sipping it when the nightmare began.


No seat belt requirements had been announced, but as a matter of routine I had my belt secured. The Boeing 747 seemed to have suddenly been shoved around, and my recall is that of the plane losing height and plunging sideways. The food trays flew around and there were strong successive jolts. People in the rows ahead of me were thrown around, a few hitting the ceiling. Two baggage holds opened and the suitcases in them flew out.


As the huge aircraft bobbed violently, I held firmly to the front seat and wondered if this was the end. A watery grave? As against normal turbulences that last some seconds and ease up, the plane shook nastily, seemed to be momentarily stable, and then shook violently all over again. This repeated several times, adding to the fear and trauma that something was seriously wrong with the aircraft and it was all over. My thoughts were of my immediate family, and it was not very pleasant either. The thought of an air turbulence never crossed the mind during the incident, since it was way too violent in nature, and as one who had travelled for two decades and regularly as well, I had my fair share of bad turbulences which were nothing like what one was experiencing. My fellow passenger was doing the same as me: holding on to the front seat. I exclaimed in absolute fear, ‘This is really bad’. And the fellow passenger responded, “Yes, terrible”. People were screaming as the aircraft continued to shake and bounce violently, which lasted a good two or three minutes. It continued, with no announcement. No sign of any of the airhostesses or stewards. Those unfortunate souls must have been in far worse a situation.


There was a fair sprinkling of elderly people and kids, and there were screams and moans as some stability finally came around. “Did that last five minutes?” I asked my fellow passenger, and he replied it was more likely three minutes. The walkway was littered with food trays, cups and food. Again not sure of the time before it happened, but finally an announcement came that we had encountered an “unexpected turbulence”!


Gathering one’s wit and breath back, I picked Ricky Ponting off the floor and then realised my passport was missing from my shirt pocket. The fear of death had passed! I was looking for my passport. Thankfully I found it under the front seat. People seemed to have got their breath back, and some were using their smartphones to take pictures of the walkway. My age old USA prepaid phone had no good a camera, and I took pictures for my co-passenger on his iPhone. Thank goodness, airlines scrounge and serve small meal portions, else the mess on the floor would have been worse. The offerings were two types of rice and pasta so sure enough there was cooked rice strewn all over.


I asked my fellow passenger in the window seat to slide the window cover up so we could see outside.  Ironically, it seemed very normal, totally bright and clear outside. Some passengers had got up, and some were trying to put back their suitcases into the baggage hold, which wouldn’t shut. Someone screamed it was better to leave them on the floor than risk them falling out again.


I turned on the personal video, and the broadcasting system was resetting itself. My co-passenger’s video was in the same mode, but few across our seats seemed to be working fine. Strange! The display came up a while later and the map showed we were approaching Japan. Okhotsk Sea was one name that showed up. The time on my watch showed 8.00 PM PST, which was 9.30 AM IST on Tuesday. It had been around 15-20 minutes since the mid-air violence.


After a short while, the stewards and air-hostesses showed up checking if people were injured. A note of the seat number was being taken and they practically checked the condition of all passengers. Thereafter plastic bags came out, and the food trays and crockery were cleared out. Rolls of cloth were spread over the aisle, and the food on the floor was wrapped up. Announcements went up checking if there were any doctors or medical profession folks on board. Apparently none as the announcements got repeated at least on two more occasions. The reception of the announcements was also pretty poor, which some passengers commented upon.


There were a few food trays being taken around later, few cups of water before everything was exhausted. The next six hours were normal, which could have been no different given what we had momentarily experienced as time seemed to stand still for those few but scary minutes. I did venture a while later into the service cabin to see if any snack was available, and saw nothing around but some stewards applying pain balm on their legs and back. Was not a good sight at all. The staff did a magnificent job given the circumstances, and they must have gone through severe trauma themselves.


As the aircraft landed, we were surrounded by blue light blinking ambulances. There had been announcements for everyone to remain seated and let the injured be attended first. An army of medical personnel and police entered the aircraft. If what the airline staff did during the flight was commendable, the course of action taken after we landed left a bitter feeling. Those injured could simply have been removed from the aircraft for medical attention and the others who would have been starving for six plus hours could have been allowed to disembark. Instead we spent 30 to 45 minutes before we could leave the aircraft.


As we ‘last benchers’ got up from the seat, the Chinese gentleman on the adjacent aisle seat smiled and said, “We survived huh!”


“We sure did, thank God,” I responded.


“If the turbulence didn’t kill us, hunger would have given the way this was finally handled” — that was my passing comment to a steward, as I got out of the aircraft. In retrospect, given that an airhostess had been hospitalised in a critical condition, it begs the question why did they not land the plane at the closest airport for getting medical attention and also get food replenishments before we reached Hong Kong? Even if it were one life, and that too of an employee, Cathay Pacific would have done well to have got her medical attention in an ASAP mode rather than prolong her agony for six more hours. One hopes and prays she recovers and there is not much damage. More than the physical damage, there is a psychological trauma that can affect people after such an experience.


Now to see what the airline communicates to us passengers about the incident.


(Vincent Sunder aspired to play Test cricket, but had to struggle to play gully cricket! He managed a league side to title triumph in the KSCA tournaments. He was debarred from umpiring in the gully games after he once appealed vociferously for a caught-behind decision when officiating as an umpire! After two decades in the corporate sector, he became an entrepreneur with the objective of being able to see cricket matches on working days as well. Vincent gets his high from cricket books and cricket videos and discussing cricket)