Ask the pilot

The strange tale of World Airways' decapitated DC-10. Also: What airline has the best barf bags?

By Patrick Smith
Published July 11, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

After I inserted the following sentence into my June 20 column, I stopped and thought for a minute: "People Express did something no budget airlines have done, which is expand into the high-stakes international market." For five minutes I wracked my brain to make sure I had it right. Had anybody tried it? No. I knew what I was talking about and let it stand.

Next time I should try using a book or something, or maybe that "Google" contraption everyone keeps talking about. Where do you buy one?

The airline I forgot about is World Airways, a budget carrier that several years ago embarked on a daring, if temporary, venture into the scheduled market. By nature a charter airline, World had partaken in the 1975 "Operation Babylift" out of Saigon, when it hauled orphans, some reportedly placed on board by their still-living parents, to a different future in the United States. One of World's scheduled runs operated between Anchorage and Frankfurt along the following route: Anchorage-Oakland-Kansas City-Baltimore-London-Frankfurt. Think about that next time you're stressed about having to kill two hours at O'Hare.

World eventually returned to the non-scheduled format, and remains in business today. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the recent Iraq conflict, World's DC-10s and MD-11s flew numerous troop and supply charters on behalf of the U.S. military. Somewhat ironically, they also specialize in yearly Hajj charters to Mecca from points around the globe.

I fixed the mistake in my column with the simple addition of the word "since," but not before a few of you caught me.

It's annoying for World to have slipped my mind, especially after one of their planes was involved in a strange and infamous accident right here at Boston's Logan airport in 1982, when I was a 10th-grade airplane nut.

On a cold, wet Saturday night in January of that year, a World Airways DC-10 landed on Logan's runway 15R, which at more than 10,000 feet was, and remains, the airport's longest strip. The plane, traveling 15 knots above the appropriate landing speed, missed its touchdown target and landed long, finally hitting the pavement some 2,800 feet beyond the threshold. Making matters worse, the crew had received a misleading condition report about the surface of the runway, which was ice-covered.

The plane, its sophisticated anti-skid brakes scratching helplessly at the slickly coated asphalt, was quickly out of room. Realizing they could not stop, the crew steered the widebody jet to the right of the runway centerline, into the snow and mud but away from the long, wooden approach-light pier at the end of the runway, its landing gear digging huge, black trenches through the snow. The plane decelerated through a field, crossed a taxiway, rolled down a rocky embankment and finally came to rest after belly flopping into Boston Harbor.

As it fell into the sea, the nose section of the DC-10, including the cockpit, forward galley and entryway, separated and broke away. Two people apparently were thrown into the ice-choked water and were killed.

I say "apparently" because even though the water was shallow and rescue crews were on the scene promptly, their bodies were never found. Certain local lore accuses the two passengers -- a father and son from Massachusetts -- of having staged their own deaths to collect insurance money. They became lost in the ensuing chaos of the rescue, the story goes, and hatched their scam after discovering themselves on a list of missing passengers. Thus they've become New England's answer to D.B. Cooper, the parachuting skyjacker who jumped from a Northwest Airlines 727 in 1971. Like Cooper, whose remains and tattered chute may someday be discovered in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, the two men are probably dead, their ghosts haunting the grassy perimeter of Logan International. But nobody knows for sure.

Two mornings after that accident, I was flying with my mother out of Logan on a trip to Israel. The sky had cleared, and I remember the DC-10, like some great wading bird, resting there past the end of the runway. They had already covered the World Airways name with a huge canvas, and I remember how strangely clean the fuselage had been broken, as if the nose had been cut away with a hacksaw, or cracked open around a perforated ring.

Many of you are probably familiar with a PBS-aired travel show "Globe Trekker." The program is produced in England and broadcast on American television regularly. As travel shows go, it's obviously geared for the 18-25 demographic, and its style can get under your skin -- lots of fast-action montages of the hosts making goofy ironic faces, and the filming is often done with that annoying color enhancement technique you often see in rock videos. Maybe it's just me, but after having to watch host Estelle Bingham belly-dance her way through Istanbul, I was ready to flush my passport down the toilet.

Where am I going with this? Well, one of the other hosts is a young American woman named Justine Shapiro. I have been secretly in love with Justine for some time now. In fact it was the show she narrated from West Africa that partly inspired my trip to Timbuktu last November. Imagine my astonishment when I learned that Justine Shapiro had been a passenger on that same World Airways DC-10 on that icy night in 1982. Who knew? She and I have always been soul mates, see, but this puts our kinship over the top.

(I'm thinking now of the song "Justine" by David J. -- formely of Bauhaus and the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy -- "You are omnipresent -- London, Paris Rome. But in a way, transience is your home.")

Anyway, Justine is the only girlfriend I've ever had who has survived an airplane crash. Indeed, she's the only person I have ever (not) known to experience one.

For those of us obsessed with air travel there is something almost mystical and romantic about plane crashes, and meeting a disaster survivor is akin to a little kid meeting his favorite ballplayer. Which isn't to trivialize the traumas of those who've been injured or lost loved ones. You might recall the opening essay in my column about the 10 worst crashes in history. Goes without saying it's a touchy subject, but if any of my readers have ever experienced an air crash of any kind, I hope you'll write and tell me about it.

Justine, however, gets first dibs on a personal reply.

Economy, business class, first class? Where the hell am I sitting and what's the difference?

To a degree, what each of these things means is open to interpretation, but there are four standard cabins: first class, business class, economy class, and Southwest. Just kidding. Southwest's cabins are actually, um, very nice. There are three: first, business, and economy. The latter is often referred to as coach or tourist. Within the industry, and sometimes on your ticket, these will be designated using the letters F, C, and Y respectively. Just don't ask me where the letters come from or why business class is C.

An airline may configure a plane with all three cabins (F, C, and Y), two of them (F and Y or C and Y), or just one (entirely Y). The setups will differ within an airline's fleet. Planes that fly only domestically are often configured differently from those scheduled for international runs.

The levels of service within a specific cabin also vary with destination. In other words, first class on a short flight can be very different -- with entirely different seats and amenities -- from first class on a long haul. If you've experienced both you'll know what I mean. First class between Miami and Minneapolis, or Madrid and Munich, is very nice, but on that same airline's widebody to Hong Kong or Sydney it's probably outfitted with 6-foot, fully reclining sleeper seats and your own personal mini-cabin.

In some cases it depends on the exact market, and flights of equal duration might not share configurations. New York-Rio and New York-Tokyo are both of similar length, but an airline might only have its top-of-the-line first class aboard one of them.

To insinuate some personality, airlines will frequently assign cabins names. Virgin Atlantic calls first class "Upper Class," while a China Airlines business cabin is "Dynasty Class." On Alitalia, premium passengers sit in "Magnifica Class." To sweeten the implications of "economy" or "tourist," British Airways sells tickets for "World Traveler" class. Its business class, meanwhile, used to be called "Club Class" but is now "Club World." Somewhere in the fine print, and in the price, you can figure out which of the traditional subdivisions they're talking about.

As mentioned in a column several months ago, as if the airlines' fare structures aren't treacherous enough, they've now taken to blurring the class distinctions. Airlines like Delta and Continental no longer offer a first class on many international runs, opting for a jazzed-up business class instead. Flying to Europe in Delta's "Business Elite" is better than any domestic seat, including domestic first class, but lacks the prestige of what's become the standard for international first class. That is, fully flat beds and other extravagances. Continental even came up with something called, in all possible befuddlement, "Business First."

On some intra-European flights, the physical partitions vary according to demand. On Air France, economy becomes business by virtue of blocking out the middle seat of a three-abreast block. Voilà, you've got "Euroconcept." Still others have taken to dividing economy into two sections, one with extra legroom. "Economy Plus" is the idea, though technically it's still, well, coach.

Which airline has the best barf bags? What are they officially called anyway? I noticed that on Garuda, for example, they have very small, dainty little bags -- as if Asians puke less. Do they take into account things like trajectory, backsplash, etc.?

I think Asians probably do puke less. (I'll bet the bags on Aeroflot are huge.) They're "officially" called motion sickness bags, and a lot of testing goes into their design, though it's tough getting those crash dummies to throw up. When I was a kid I had a pretty big barf bag collection. The best ones were from Braniff, because they came in different colors and had really thick plastic linings.

I use barf bags all the time when I fly. Not for throwing up, but for trash. A typical coach class airline meal comes with approximately 3 ounces of food and 19 ounces of plastic, paper, and miscellaneous garbage. To keep the refuse from tumbling all over the place, I recommend crushing it into a barf bag.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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