The Andes Incident - G-ASIX
The Captain's Account
I am really pleased to be able to share this with you, the first hand account of the Andes Incident in G-ASIX by Captain David Phillips, the pilot in command of VC10 ASIX. A fascinating read and an important record of that flight and what happened that day.
FLIGHT OVER THE ANDES
Captain David Phillips
It was not easy, playing Scrabble, on the flight from Freetown to Buenos Aries. Although the letters had little lugs on them to prevent them sliding out of position, they were not really designed for the turbulence experienced in a Tropical thunderstorm, and we had been encountering such storms for most of the nine hour flight. We were, of course, flying directly along the Inter-Tropical Front all the way across the South Atlantic and, although we had slowly climbed when the aircraft gradually became lighter as we burnt off fuel, there was no hope of topping the enormous anvil topped clouds that seemed to go up to God.
We had departed from Freetown long before dawn in our Vickers VC10 aircraft, and the majority of the journey had been flown at night with flashing lightning, which never seemed to switch off, all around us. My First Officer, Tony Cutting and I had spent much of the time with our eyes glued to the weather radar, turning and weaving our way around the greatest areas of thunderstorm activity, and between times, in the brief intervals of relatively calm flying conditions, we had relieved the tension with games of Scrabble which we shared with our Flight Engineer, Jock McCann.
As we neared the Brazilian coast the clouds began to thin, and by the time we had reached the entrance to the River Plait, passing South of Montevideo, the skies were completely clear and, commencing our descent we could see the sprawling city of Buenos Aries ahead of us on the South bank of the river.
It had been a strenuous flight and we were all tired, but we still had the prospect of a further two hours flying to our final destination of Santiago in Chile, the other side of the Andes range of mountains. Tony and I left the aircraft, while Jock arranged the refueling, to stretch our legs and to have a word with our Agents and to pick up the latest weather forecast for the flight. "Do you think you will ever get your twenty thousand hours?" Tony asked me, for no particular reason, we certainly hadn't been discussing flying hours or experience. "I already have over twenty thousand" I replied, and thinking that it sounded as if I was boasting I added "Not that it means very much, I have just spent a long time in the air enjoying myself and being fed food and coffee by beautiful women, who could ask for anything more?" Then, thinking that I was not doing myself full justice, I added "If it means anything atall, it just means that, by the law of averages, everything that can happen to me in the air has already happened. I have been lost on occasions; I have run short of fuel, had my crash landings, experienced engine failures, engine fires, and even cabin fires, what more can possibly happen to me"
Never, Never again will I tempt fate by making such a sweeping statement. God must have been listening to every word I said, and was muttering under His breath, "David Phillips, if you think everything that can happen to you in the air has already happened you definitely have another think coming!" If only I had heard Him, I would never have taken off on that last leg across the Argentine and Andes to Santiago.
Having refueled the aircraft, and loaded on some passengers, including the ex-President of Chile, President Frei and his family, we were airborne once more on the last leg of our journey, heading Westward towards Santiago. It was now an almost cloudless day, the sun was shining, and as Tony climbed the aircraft to our cruising altitude of thirty three thousand feet, we all relaxed on the flightdeck, and started looking forward to a pleasant evening in Santiago.
Heading West over the Pampas we passed over Rufino and altered course slightly to head for Mercedes on the Southern edges of the Sierra de Comechingones. The land below us was flat, and punctuated by large haciendas, (ranches), the very centre of the Argentinian cattle industry.
Passing over Mercedes the ground ahead was slowly rising and, in the far distance we could see the faint outline of the Andes range of mountains. We were now heading for Mendoza, the Argentine's second largest city which lies on the Eastern edge of the Andes themselves. The Andes at this point rise to twenty three thousand feet, and our flight path after Mendoza would take us about twenty five miles South of the highest point in that area, the mountain Aconcagua.
Having, in the past, encountered severe turbulence over the Andes, even in clear weather, I switched on the seat belt sign as we approached Mendoza, and the senior cabin staff member came up to report that all the passengers were safely strapped in. The visibility was excellent, but, just above the height at which we flying there was a whisp of cloud, and ahead and just to the South of Aconcagua there was an unusual cloud formation consisting of a little hook of cirrus cloud hanging below the rest. Never having seen a cloud formation quite like it before, I suggested to Tony that we should alter course slightly to the South to avoid flying directly below it.
After Mendoza there was only about ten minutes flying time to the top of our descent into Santiago, the Andes being very narrow at this point, but from experience I was well aware that they could be the most difficult ten minutes of the entire flight.
Suddenly, and without any warning whatsoever, our hitherto smooth flight became a nightmare, and we were grabbed by an unseen hand and treated like a rat shaken by a terrier. We dropped like a stone, only to be lifted up again, forced into our seats, the wings tilted until we were, from time to time, flying vertically on our sides. At this stage it was impossible to read the flight instruments, our eyeballs vibrating at different frequencies from the instruments themselves. During an occasional lull in the turbulence I was able to see that our altitude was now twenty eight thousand feet, only to be followed by a later lull that showed that we had been thrown up to thirty five thousand. Tony suggested that we ought to turn around and get out of it, but there is one golden rule under turbulent conditions, and that is that to turn around is the most dangerous thing that one could do, trying to fly straight and level was impossible and if we deliberately applied bank we would almost certainly find ourselves upside down!
By this time everything that was not firmly attached to the aircraft was floating around the flight deck and chaos reigned supreme. On two occasions the high speed warning horn sounded, indicating that we were approaching the speed of sound and this was at a time that I had the airbrakes extended and the throttles closed! At another time the stall-warning system operated showing that we were approaching a stalled condition, and at the time I had applied full power with the nose of the aircraft pointing down towards the mountains. The elevators appeared to have no effect and I even pulled the airbrakes which normally gave a slight pitch-up effect, and, fortunately, the aircraft slowly responded.
During the initial stages of the turbulence I was quite enjoying myself, man's eternal battle with nature, pitting my skills against the elements and all that sort of thing, with something of the elation that must have been experienced by the captain of a Clipper ship rounding the Horn. but when I heard a great cracking sound I was convinced that the tail had come off, (we were always a little sensitive about the high 'T' tail on the VC10), and after that the adrenalin really started to flow, and to say I was frightened would be an understatement!
Perhaps it was just as well that my radio headset had flown off in the extreme turbulence, (as it did so, knocking off some relatively unimportant switches in the overhead roof panel), thus preventing the rest of the flight crew from listening to the profanities that must have been coming from my mouth, but at the same time it necessitated me shouting my demands for more or less power to Tony, the First Officer and Jock, the Flight Engineer, as the circumstances dictated.
Fortunately in life, it is seldom that one experiences the certain knowledge that one is going to die, that there is no possible hope of survival, but that is exactly the state I was in at that moment. It was no longer a question of asking myself if the aircraft was falling to bits around me, I was certain that the tail had parted from the rest of the tail assembly, and that, very soon, we would be falling into a very untidy mess in the desolate areas of the High Andes. We are often told that, at such times, one's whole life flashes before one, but I cannot say that I experienced anything like that, I was full of abject fear and it was all I could do to speak and to continue issuing instructions to the rest of the crew. But it is surprising how one's training and background stand one in good stead at such moments, and without being conscious of it, I continued to fly the aircraft and to shout orders although I knew it was pointless and survival was impossible.
As the entire episode was taking place in clear air, it was possible, from time to time, to have a vague idea of the horizon ahead,(when my eyeballs had a chance to settle down for an instant), and to know roughly the attitude of the wings in relation to straight and level flight, but it did me little good because the controls were seldom responding to the demands I gave them. On one particular and memorable occasion the aircraft had banked itself into a slightly inverted position, and it seemed forever before the wings slowly responded to my demands on the control column, and resumed a more or less normal attitude again.
The lack of response by the aircraft to control wheel demands was, it was subsequently decided, because the controls themselves were operated by a system of electro-hydraulic motors which, during the extreme conditions of turbulence, were being starved of hydraulic fuel and thus rendered, for a short period of time, useless. But we were not to know this, and as far as I was concerned, the aircraft was in a state of rapid disintegration!
Just at the moment that I had decided that no man-made bit of machinery could stand such treatment, the whole ghastly experience stopped as suddenly as it had begun. My eyeballs settled back into performing their normal functions, I could see the horizon again and read the flight instruments, and I could once again feel the aircraft responding to my control demands. The bodily flow of adrenalin does not, however, respond so quickly to new circumstances, and it was some minutes before I was able to speak coherently to the crew and to resume my normal duties. I was not alone in my feelings as was evidenced by the crew when we discussed the entire incident when we were safely back on the ground.
An impression of a Caledonian//BUA VC10 flying high over mountains