We’ve been cruising through Russian airspace for several hours. Our altitude is 11,100 meters standard or 36,400 feet, and we’re going through the Stans. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, with a couple more Stans to go.
The airplane tonight is a 747-400M. With a takeoff weight around 900,000 pounds, this gleaming behemoth was christened “The City of Calgary.” It’s been in service for five years since it came off the Boeing assembly line in Renton, Washington.
This whale has the latest state of the art bells and whistles to keep us entertained. The glass cockpit is beautiful to behold at night. KLM spares no expense in getting all the best equipment, a pleasant change from some of the relics I’ve flown with three airlines in the States.
I’m sitting in the captain’s seat and officially titled as the second officer. The real captain is asleep in a bunk room behind me. Captain Karl and another first officer are wearing their official blue sweat-suit pajamas with big white letters saying “KLM Crew” across the back. Those two have been zonked-out for about three hours.
In the right seat is First Officer Marten. We do our well-rehearsed procedural dance steps as we fly on through the darkness. We share the same profession, but our cultures, history, and backgrounds are very different.
In about 30 minutes we will pass over Afghanistan, where a civil war is raging. We were briefed to fly as high as possible while crossing that area. I’m supposed to radio the Afghans about 15 minutes ahead of time to let them know that we would be entering their airspace.
It’s an eerie sight crossing over Kabul on a clear night. A huge city with around 3.5 million people and the whole place is dark. If we dim the lighting and peer straight down, we can see some car lights and little streaks of light zipping across and disappearing. Occasionally there’s a flash at the end of those streaks. These are rocket propelled grenades being fired.
We’ve been in the seats for 3.5 hours and feeling the effects of flying on the back side of the clock. Both of us are yawning and ready for a break. Not to worry though. The guys in the back will be getting their scheduled wakeup call from us in about 10 minutes. Then it’s our turn to put on our blue jammies.
The Russian air traffic control system in 1994 is on the verge of collapse. English is the universal language in aviation but not everyone down below can speak “good” English. Russian controllers are using “throat mics,” which have been around since WWII. Not only are the transmissions garbled, the English-speaking pilots passing above are talking to an interpreter standing next to the controller below. That controller will radio directly to an Aeroflot flight in Russian, but the English communications are relayed through the interpreter.
The Russian radar displays are outdated. The large flat screens have small pieces of clear plastic called shrimp boats placed on the glass. Not all Russian centers remain this antiquated, but in the southern provinces they are.
We’re sitting on the flight deck and yawning on occasion. We do our flight plan entries and company communications. We make sure the many fuel tanks transfer the gas properly and the engines don’t run dry. I do some quick math and compare it to the flight plan. We still have enough gas to make it to Bangkok. Yawn… If I get really bored, there is a little knob on the nosewheel steering tiller to my left that I can spin. I slap it with my finger, and it twirls around like a fidget spinner.
I give the fidget spinner another twirl as Marten reminds me to ding the pilots sleeping in the back. I shift to my right and search the center console to find the ding button thingy. Where did it go?
I’m suddenly startled by a loud voice: “TRAFFIC – TRAFFIC.” What the heck?
The Nav Display is showing an airplane directly ahead of us at close range. The altitude display is showing zero.
Both of us lurch forward to look and see two dim lights approaching. One is red and one is green, and they are rapidly splitting apart. Those are the front navigation lights on the wingtips of another plane, and we are about to hit.
In seconds, the loud voice is back on the speaker shouting, “DESCEND – DESCEND,” and we are now in a full-blown Resolution Advisory. The closure rate of the two airplanes coming at each other is over 1000 miles per hour.
After what seems like an eternity of disbelief and indecision, my hands finally start moving for the controls. I’m starting to see some shadow outline of the airplane between the navigation lights. It’s really close.
Both of us grab the controls at the same time and we simultaneously push the buttons on our control yokes to disconnect the autopilot. A click-click sound can be heard, and I push. Now we’re both pushing.
With my brain in overload, I still have time to wonder if this is the end. I’m wincing and waiting for the impact. What will it feel like? Will things suddenly go black and be over? Will there be a loud crunch, followed by deafening noise and a freezing rush of air? Will we have some control, or will the tail fin be torn off and we slowly flat spin into the barren desert seven miles below?
The combined horsepower of the two of us pushing is too much and we are going down at zero g. I see my KLM dark blue tie floating up in my face.
Marten says the magic words, but he seems to be talking in slow-motion: “M-Y C-O-N-T-R-O-L-S!” I sluggishly back off the pressure and remove my hands from the yoke.
The screaming “Descend” voice is gone but I hardly have time to notice. We are hurtling downward, and our speed is increasing very fast. We are approaching supersonic on sections of our wings and in a few moments the flight controls may be ripped off or rendered useless. Marten mashes the Auto Throttle button off as he pulls back the throttles on all four engines. We’re up in the coffin corner of the airplane’s speed envelope and we need to get control back quickly. Marten, ever so gently and with years of ingrained skill, tenderly nudges the nose back up to level flight. Things are better but we’re still in trouble.
I feel my hand reaching for the microphone and keying the button. A strangely calm voice says, “Center, KLM 877 is descending to comply with a resolution advisory.” It’s my own voice but it’s way calmer sounding than the screaming in my head.
We are up in the thin atmosphere and the throttles are now at idle. In level flight with no thrust, the aircraft’s speed rapidly drops. In less than 10 seconds we will be in a stall. Marten is steps ahead already and is pushing the thrust levers forward, just enough to stop the rapid decay of the airspeed. He fine tunes the throttles and puts the speed right in the middle of where it should be. Nice job!
There is no response from the Russian controller, so I push the button again. “Aircraft passing position NIDIR on Alpha 845 at 11,100 meters, say your call sign.” That airplane should be on our frequency but there’s no response again.
My right face cheek muscle is twitching uncontrollably for some reason, but I try to ignore it and press on. There are volumes of training procedures and regulations flowing through my mind. What should I be doing right now?
This whole event took place in probably a minute. The autopilot is now re-engaged, and we have a second to breathe.
“Holy Sheet… Holy Sheet!” Martin just kept repeating “Holy Sheet” in his Dutch accent. I pressed on with communicating. “KLM 877 is returning to 11,100 meters standard.” Finally, a distant voice comes through my headset and says, “KLM 877 what are you saying? I don’t understand you.”
I continue to attempt to get my point across to the Russian interpreter that we just missed another airplane and we needed to have the radar tapes marked and file a near-miss incident report. Not sure the Russians can even do this, but this is what we’d ask for in the States.
I notice the two guys in blue pajamas are standing behind us, along with the lead purser from the cabin. The captain is about six foot four with a commanding, deep voice. He calmly asks, “Wat is er gebeurdwhat?” (What happened?) Marten resorts to his native language and unloads in rapid fire, with his hands gesturing everywhere.
The first priority was checking on the passengers. We were lucky that almost everyone was asleep and there were no food carts out. There were a few screams heard by the flight attendants and lots of drinks spilled but no injuries.
After several minutes of discussion, the crowd leaves. The captain goes back and changes into his uniform and returns with the other copilot. “Okay then. It’s time for you two to have a break and we will take over.” My wobbly appendages struggle to life, as I try to get out of the seat without doing a faceplant across the center console. I guess it will help if I first unbuckle the seatbelt. The captain reclaims his throne and Marten now vacates his seat.
We go into our bunk room suite. Marten is still muttering “Holy Sheet” as he fumbles with the sweatpants. I comment that the captain took that surprisingly well. Marten tells me that in 1989, the same guy was the pilot in command of the KLM flight that inadvertently flew into a volcano ash cloud in Alaska and lost all four engines. He was also sleeping in the bunk when that happened.
About a week later, I’m back home in Holland. A bright yellow Mercedes pulls into my gravel driveway. It’s Marten and he has news about our near miss.
Martin tells me that the other airplane that night was a Russian built Antonov An-124 Ruslan, one of the largest military cargo airplanes ever built and bigger than our 747.
About 20 minutes before our encounter, Russian ATC cleared the opposite direction Antonov to climb to an altitude above our cruising altitude. The lumbering giant takes longer than expected to get up to its approved height, but the controllers and Antonov crew don’t happen to notice this. It was pure bad luck that they crossed our altitude as we crossed paths.
The controller cleared the Antonov crew in Russian and we did not pick up the exchange. We do our best to listen to radio calls that impact our flight, but we didn’t understand the foreign language.
The older “steam gauge” Antonov was not equipped with a TCAS system like our new “glass cockpit” 747. Thankfully, the Antonov did have an altitude encoding transponder, which our TCAS system was able to read and give us a warning.
Because the TCAS warning was only a one-sided warning, the normal computed 40 second TA and 20 second RA timing was compressed. It’s still a guess on our part, but our best recollection is that it was only about ten seconds from the first “Traffic-Traffic” call to the “Descend-Descend” alert.
The Antonov crew had no idea that we were even there. I’d guess the guy in the left seat was also spinning his tiller wheel without a clue, and never realized how he almost died.
There’s no accurate way to tell afterwards, since neither of us were glued to the TCAS display as we passed. It is our estimation that we missed by only a few feet.
Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of TCAS.