Bad trip: The pilots locked themselves out of the cockpit!

Tim Wall's hair-raising tale of a flight during which the pilots locked themselves out of the cockpit.

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There was a weekly airline run from Bogota, the capital of Colombia, to the Amazon River outpost of Leticia, but the Colombian military offered a passenger flight that was cheaper and on a daily schedule. Nearly broke and in a hurry, I took the military flight.

The aircraft was a vintage two-propeller job. The interior looked like a set for a movie about World War II paratroopers, with the skeletal ribs of the fuselage arching overhead and the passengers seated on canvas straps with their backs against either wall. The glass in some of the small windows had been smashed out by previous passengers desperate for moving air -- once we descended from the mountains to the tropical plains, the temperature easily reached a sweltering 100 degrees. The vast jungle spread to all horizons, with the tops of the huge trees looking like a field of broccoli bunches.

Occasionally, a yellow-green river was visible winding its way sluggishly through the jungle like a slow but deadly snake. The fact that the pilot flew so low that we wouldn't have far to fall in case one of the sputtering engines gave way altogether was of little consolation, as there was not one square yard of open ground to land on for hundreds of miles in any direction. And even if we could land, the jungle would finish off any survivors long before a rescue team could get close.

We made the five-hour trip in the company of stacks of daily newspapers from Bogota, cases of bottled beer and other items deemed to be salable in Leticia.

The return trip featured some added attractions. After a few months as a modestly unsuccessful tour guide in Leticia -- this was back in the 1970s -- I returned to Bogota along with 20 or so other paying customers and a small mountain of burlap bags stacked against the back of the fuselage.

In the still, hot air, the contents of the bags soon made themselves known: a shipment of salted cod from the Amazon River, destined for Bogota markets. In the seat, or rather the canvas strap, to my right was an unshaven, badly drunk man who wore a sport coat over a yellowed T-shirt. His hands were all over a statuesque, dark-haired young woman seated next to him, professional talent from Leticia's well-known whorehouse. This establishment -- which provided the only entertainment in town save for a grade-D European adventure movie that was shown outdoors on a weekly basis via a projector powered by gasoline engine -- was in the practice of shuttling girls in from Bogota and back again on a regular basis, and clearly one of the customers had taken the opportunity to enliven his own return trip.

Finally, the man nodded off. This gave the girl the chance to lift one lapel of his sport coat, extract a wallet overstuffed with currency, slide most of the bills down her blouse and return the wallet to its original place. As none of the onlookers from the opposite side of the fuselage offered an objection, it appeared that no serious breach of etiquette had occurred.

My recollection of the Bogota-Leticia milk run was sparked recently by a United Nations report saying that airplane travel is one of the most dynamic growth sectors in the economies of developing countries. I'm sure this is so, and that the flights in the Third World have become more upscale due to underlying changes taking place in the 1980s and 1990s, such as wealthier drug dealers. Nevertheless, even trips in technologically advanced aircraft still can pose difficulties, as evidenced by the recent experience of a friend of mine.

A successful photographer on assignment in Africa, John took a commercial flight from the central region of the continent to Nairobi, near the east coast. He was alone in the first-class section; the rest of the passengers were aft in the economy seats. Everything went smoothly until one of the two co-pilots ducked out of the cockpit to make coffee in the microwave. He couldn't get the machine to work, so he called to his companion. As the other pilot left the cockpit, a heavy metal door swung shut behind him.

The pilot unleashed a string of curses, and then entered into a heated, whispered discussion with his comrade. John finally persuaded them to take him into their confidence, after promising he would reveal nothing to the other passengers. The door, they explained, was equipped with a special anti-terrorist lock, and no one, not even the pilots, could open it from the outside. On automatic pilot, the plane droned relentlessly eastward.

John luckily had a Swiss army knife in his kit. The three took turns attacking the screws on the door with the screwdriver attachment. By the time they had disassembled the door sufficiently to pry it open, the passengers aft were peering out their windows and remarking that they hadn't thought the route to Nairobi would take them over the Indian Ocean. After a quick U-turn, the plane landed. John stumbled down the staircase, fell to his hands and knees and, like the pope on a pilgrimage, kissed the ground.

By Tim Wall

Tim Wall is a writer who lives in New York state.


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