Look out below!

Luckless birds, wayward engine pieces and frozen aircraft stowaways are plummeting from the sky.


Elliott Neal Hester
October 6, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

There's an awful lot of stuff falling from airplanes these days.

Two months ago, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines 747 was forced to make an emergency landing when engine pieces plummeted to the ground. Amateur video captured a huge metal cowling as it fell from the Amsterdam, Netherlands-bound plane and landed on a crowded Los Angeles beach.

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Beachgoers scattered as fingers pointed toward the sky, tracing the path of the falling object. No one was injured and the plane landed safely. But the investigation uncovered interesting results. As might be expected, KLM was not blamed for the incident. The engine parts fell not because of shoddy maintenance or a mechanical explosion, but because of the flight path of a luckless bird. The Federal Aviation Administration said a Western sea gull flew into the engine, where the National Transportation Safety Board found the bird's splattered remains.

Plane collisions involving birds are quite common. Some 5,000 "bird strikes" were reported last year. But because such reports are voluntary, the FAA believes the actual number of incidents could be five times as high.

The problem has become so pervasive that some officials are aggressively seeking solutions. Because of the large number of birds hovering over Nepal's Kathmandu airport, hunters recently were employed to scare off the feathered creatures by setting off firecrackers or by shooting at them.

The hiring of hunters comes after two recent incidents in which airplanes collided with birds in Nepal. Last month, a Royal Nepal Airlines 757 was forced to cancel a flight after running into a bird during takeoff from Kathmandu. A few weeks earlier, another airline's plane hit a bird as it prepared to land.

Birds aren't always the source of trouble, however. Last month, when an engine exploded on a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo, pieces of the engine fell on a neighborhood in Jakarta, Indonesia. It's still not clear what caused the engine to explode. And although no one was hurt by the falling debris, 16 homes were damaged.

More homes were damaged in France several years ago when a chunk of ice fell from an airplane. Such an incident can occur when water leaks from waste valves beneath a plane's fuselage. Water freezes, and more water freezes on top, until it accumulates like an iceberg and eventually breaks off.

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This is what experts believe happened in December when an unidentified object slammed into a water supply dam near Sydney, Australia. "They have found a hole, but they have not found what made the hole yet," Sky & Space magazine editor Jonathan Nally was quoted as saying. "If it had been a meteorite there would have been stacks and stacks of reports of sonic booms or big fiery lights in the sky." There were no such sightings. The suspected ice created a crater that measured more than 100 square yards.

But there's more than ice and engine parts falling from the skies. In August, the right wheel fell off a Blue Panorama Airlines 737. The plane, which had just departed an airport in Spain, was forced to make an unscheduled landing amid emergency vehicles lining the runway in Rome.

A similar incident happened near Los Angeles in March. An American Airlines 757 lost its right nose gear, but managed to land safely with 105 passengers on board. Because the 757 has two wheels attached to the nose gear, it was able to land on just one. The wayward wheel descended on South Gate, a small community about 10 miles east of Los Angeles International Airport, landing in a gutter next to the sign for an Albertson's supermarket. It then bounced diagonally across the street, into the parking lot of St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church, stopping right next to a woman who was entering the church. "Maybe she prayed a little harder," the Rev. John Provenza told the Associated Press. "By the grace of God, it could have really been bad."

The grace of God became apparent again exactly 15 days later, when a landing gear door fell off a Delta Airlines 727. Shortly after Flight 1827 took off from Boston's Logan International Airport, the 30-pound, 3-by-6-foot metal door crashed into an empty street in a quiet residential neighborhood.

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But last month, God's grace was not in evidence. That's when the body of a Russian man fell from the wheel well of a KLM plane headed to Amsterdam from Moscow. The man was already dead when he fell, and his body was found in a water-filled ditch a few miles from the Amsterdam Airport. The body of another Russian man was discovered in the wheel well of the same aircraft. Both men were rape suspects who were apparently trying to flee police.

Because airplane wheel wells are not heated, stowaways often freeze to death from the subzero climate at 30,000 feet. But a few souls have beaten the odds. In August, mechanics found a man in the wheel well of an Air France 747 that had just arrived in L.A. after a seven-and-a-half-hour flight from Tahiti. Miraculously, the man survived after being rushed to the hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia.

What's even more astounding about the man's dramatic voyage is that he managed not to fall out of the wheel well.

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Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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