The Andes Incident - G-ASIX
The Captain's Account
My thanks go to Captain David Phillips for sharing his account with us
FLIGHT OVER THE ANDES
Captain David Phillips
The turbulence had stopped because we were, by this time, over the western edges of the Andes, and Santiago was there before us about twenty miles away. We quickly descended and made a standard approach to the airfield. I was not very confident that the regular approach condition would be able to be made, infact I felt certain that the aircraft must have suffered some structural damage, and it was problematical whether or not the flaps and landing wheels would extend on command. But in the event I went through the normal landing drills and was happy and surprised to find that all the systems worked satisfactorily, and we landed.
After switching off the engines and performing my shutdown drills I hurried back to the passenger cabin to apologize to the passengers and to reassure them that all was well, only to be confronted by a scene of complete chaos and bedlam! The cabin looked as if a bomb had detonated, the loose baggage was everywhere, the toilet doors had all sprung off their hinges, and, I later learned, everything in the nature of breakable goods, bottles, glasses, cups and saucers and so on, was broken in their containers.
Because the passengers had all been firmly strapped in prior to the onset of the turbulence, there were no casualties as far as they were concerned. However, my senior hostess, who had been checking their safety belts according to the standing instructions, had been thrown from the rear of the aircraft to the front, hitting the roof-rack in transit and suffering a severe cut to her cheeks, as well as severe bruising when she finally descended onto the arm of the front seat, breaking it in the process. An ambulance quickly collected her and took her to the Santiago hospital for medical treatment.
Suddenly it was all over and relief began to set in. We had successfully survived what had certainly been my most horrendous experience in the air and there had been moments when I was utterly convinced that we had no hope whatsoever of living to fly another day. On the flight-deck everyone of us was suffering from delayed shock, almost unable to speak and finding it very difficult to move our limbs and vacate our seats. Reality slowly returned to us and we, almost hysterically, started talking, making inane statements, and congratulating ourselves on being alive.
When commonsense had returned I reported the incident to the Control and asked them to send a warning to any other aircraft that might be endeavoring to fly the same route. Unfortunately, although he received the warning, the captain of a Douglas DC8 following us decided that he would ignore the message and he experienced a similar, if slightly miner, situation as ourselves and ended up putting twelve passengers into hospital and damaging the aircraft so much that I believe it was months before it could fly again.
Because of the extreme turbulence we had encountered it was necessary for the company ground engineers to give the aircraft a comprehensive check to determine whether or not we had suffered any structural damage. Such a check was carried out that night in a snow storm and, without taking various panels off the structure, no such damage was evident. Another crew was waiting to fly the aircraft, with passengers, back to England and, following the engineers' report had no reason to be worried about the state of serviceability.
The flight as far as Freetown was without incident. At Freetown another crew took over and, as they flew north towards the UK they started to sense an unusual vibration which slowly increased, and by the time they were descending into London they assessed the vibration as severe. On landing it was clearly seen externally that a portion of the leading edge of the stabilising fin had opened up revealing the main internal structure. It was also evident that the leading edge spar of the fin was broken and that two of the four main bolts holding the tailplane had shattered or cracked. Further inspection revealed that the wings were bent upwards about four feet at their tips indicating that the torsion box, where the wings join the fuselage, was distorted.
Meanwhile, I was safe in my hotel room in Santiago, and the first thing I knew concerning the situation was when I received a telephone call from my fleet captain telling me that the aircraft was very badly damaged and was, in all probability, a "write off", meaning that it probably would never fly again. Together with my First Officer and the injured senior hostess I was requested to return immediately to London to give our reports on the incident. We flew back as passengers by Lufthansa and there has never been a more nervous passenger on any of their flights before or since! Actually, of course, it was a completely uneventful journey, but my nerves had not begun to recover yet from our ordeal and it took me quite a long time to accept that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and that it was never likely to come my way again. Infact I made myself go to my local flying club and forced myself into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth and took it up for a short flight. As that didn't seem too bad I took off again and flew out into the open country and threw myself into a few aerobatics in order to get my confidence back again, with resounding success! Never again did I suffer from any fear of flying!
As for the poor old VC10, G-ASIX, it was months before it was fit to fly the routes again, having had a new torsion box fitted, (which meant removing the wings completely), and a new fin stern post and associated metal skinning. It finally emerged as the strongest VC10 in the business, and I flew it many times subsequently without any qualms whatsoever! Alas, it finally ended it's flying days, as most VC10's have done, with the advent of the new wide bodied super-aircraft, and has been put out to grass, literally, and can be seen by train passengers passing alongside the old Brooklands racetrack in Surrey.
Every passenger aircraft is equipped with a 'black box' which records many of the parameters of controls and instruments during flight, including attitude of the aircraft, speed, altitude, engine power settings and so on, and our VC10 was equipped in such a fashion. The tape recording of our flight over the Andes was duly sent away for analysis but, unfortunately, it was discovered that, due to the excessive strains imposed upon it, the electrical supply to it had failed ninety seconds after encountering the first turbulence. It is true to say that the main turbulence was encountered during the latter stages of the incident, but there was no record of this part of the flight. However, even during the first ninety seconds, the aircraft had been subjected to forces way beyond its design limitations, and it was a miracle that the airframe and wings had remained attached on that occasion. It says a lot for the safety margins built into the VC10 by the designers and constructors, Vickers Aircraft.
The entire episode was a salutary lesson to me and was, in truth, a turning point in my relationship with my God. Above all it proved to me that He listens, is forgiving, and, with out doubt, has a sense of humor!