“Bizarre death at Piarco! Visitor minced to bits by jet engine.”
Late at night in 1990 I was Captain of a Boeing 747 preparing for a flight from Piarco in Trinidad to Antigua.
Extract from my book — “Dancing the skies and falling with style.”
Available on Amazon and www.calvinshields.com/book
At 10pm we ran through the pre-flight checks for our return to Antigua. Faint flashes of lightning illuminated a line of thunderstorms in the distance and silhouetted the hills surrounding the airport. The warm, humid trade wind blew across the brightly lit apron as the last passengers boarded the aircraft and the doors were finally closed.
The overhead air louvre blew hot air onto my face, sweat ran down my back and my damp collar stuck to my neck. The ait-conditioning fans whirred, struggling in vain to control the heat from the instrument panel.
“Before start checklist.” I called
The engineer motored his seat forward and leant between the front seats and read the checklist in a slow monotone. Craig was tanned and wiry with a mop of dark brown hair. He wore an almost perpetual mischievous grin.
The First officer turned systems on and flicked switches in response to the checklist. Ian was reserved with curly short black hair. He was a Phantom F4 pilot and had recently joined BA from the RAF.
One by one we started our agricultural Prat and Whitney JT9D jet engines and taxied towards the departure runway.
“Before take-off checklist.” I called.
A rusty perimeter fence was visible in the taxy lights as we slowly taxied past.
“Speedbird 257 Piarco, hold your position!” The tower called urgently, “there’s someone below your aircraft.”
“Speedbird 257 Roger, hold position” Ian replied.
I slowed to a halt and applied the parking brake. I looked at Ian, he shrugged.
The whir of the air conditioning fans circulated some welcome cool air in our cramped cockpit.
We waited for further information.
I turned to the engineer.
“Craig, would you mind going outside and having a look?”
“Don’t leave me behind,” he answered as he left the flight deck and descended to first-class. He lifted the carpet at the rear of the cabin and pulled open the trap door to the electronics bay. He opened the small hatch in the floor of the bay and slid out a retractable ladder.
Craig returned to the flight deck.
“I’ve been down to the tarmac and had a good look around, I can’t see anything.”
Clearly agitated, the tower called.
“Speedbird 257 security have arrested the man, continue taxying, you are cleared to line up and wait runway one-zero.”
“257, continue taxying. Cleared to line up and wait one-zero.” Repeated Ian.
I opened the throttles and steered the lumbering 280 tonne aircraft onto the runway.
An hour earlier, in a run-down room in an insignificant hotel near the airport a fight broke out. It started as a lover’s tiff but rapidly deteriorated into something much more serious. Two naked men, high on drugs, shouted and punched each other viciously, smashing the furniture as they rolled about the room. One, a US Marine, picked up a heavy brass lamp and smashed it on the skull of his smaller partner. His skull caved in and he slumped lifeless to the floor. The marine shook his partner, and realising the enormity of what he had done, ran naked into the corridor in a panic. He grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall, put the nozzle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The extinguishant shot into his mouth and he fell backwards onto the floor coughing and spluttering. He stumbled out of the hotel, crawled through a hole in the airport fence and ran towards a large aeroplane taxying towards the runway.
He ran under the slowly moving behemoth in a daze as it came to a halt. A pickup truck appeared, and three large black security guards jumped out, they bundled him inside and drove off. The big man sat in the back and shivered as the two guards laughed and taunted him. Still high on adrenaline, he attacked the guards, knocked one unconscious and broke the neck of the other. The driver stopped the truck, ran off into the dark and the grim-faced marine took his place.
The tower called us once again
“Speedbird 257, Hold your position. He’s escaped and hijacked a truck. Standby.”
“257, Roger, standby.”
Baffled, I applied the brakes and looked out of the windscreen for the truck. The runway carpet lights surrounded us, and the runway edge lights stretched into the distance. Two or three vehicles with yellow flashing beacons moved frantically about in the distance on the right but there was nothing close by.
It was so crazy and slapstick, it was like an episode from Keystone Cops. I told the passengers there was nothing to be alarmed about.
How wrong I was.
The controller answered our calls with “Standby!” and I sensed he was struggling to cope.
We were blocking the only runway and two aircraft circled overhead waiting to land. The PanAm flight suggested that someone should ‘shoot the guy.’
A yellow flashing light appeared off to the right and sped up the blue taxiway lights parallel to our runway. It stopped and turned to face across the runway half-way down.
“Speedbird 257, the truck’s behind you. You are cleared for immediate take-off!” The controller said urgently.
I looked at Ian and we both shook our heads.
“257, Take off now!”
“257, Negative, negative” I shouted back.
The truck moved onto the runway and accelerated towards us. A figure hunched over the steering wheel of the yellow truck materialised in the landing lights. It shot past the right of the nose and hit us hard. The aircraft shook.
I’m convinced that he was waiting to crash into us during our take-off roll.
It would have been catastrophic.
The engine fire bell rang loudly, and red lights flashed.
“Fire engine 3 checklist!” I called.
We shut the engine down with well-practiced actions, and the engine spluttered to a halt, the fire extinguished.
“Craig, have a look.” I pointed towards the flight deck door.
Craig unclipped his seat belt and strode from the flight deck.
“257, we’ve been hit by the truck!” Exclaimed Ian on the radio, “the runway is blocked. Standby.”
There was no reply.
The two waiting flights diverted.
Craig came back to the flight deck from the upper deck.
“Captain, the engine’s a mess, there’s something smouldering on top of the wing, but it’s OK. I think the cab must have gone straight through.”
The marine had hit engine the engine head on. The bottom of the engine cowl is five feet from the ground, and it had smashed the windshield and ingested the cab. He ducked at the last moment and scraped under the length of the engine. Bleeding heavily, he drove away in his now convertible truck. A few hundred meters later the Toyota ground to a halt with a pierced radiator.
BA had only two staff in Trinidad, they were both passenger handling agents with little technical knowledge. I called the office on company frequency.
“Arjun, can you come out to the aircraft and have a look at the engine?”
Five minutes later, tubby, turbaned Arjun Singh walked towards us in the landing lights.
My headset crackled as he plugged in.
“Captain, Arjun here.”
There was a brief pause.
“Captain! I have to go. He’s running at me!”
“Run. Quick!” I yelled.
Arjun ran away with arms and legs flailing in the bright landing lights.
We heard a strange noise, it was a subtle change of engine pitch. I looked at the gauges, nothing looked out of order.
Arjun turned around, ran back to the aircraft and plugged in.
“Captain, you’re not going to believe this, but he’s just jumped into engine 2!”
“What! Arjun, are you sure?”
“I’m afraid so.”
I took my headset off, put it on the coaming, buried my head in my hands and called for the engine shut down checklist.
The chief steward came onto the flight deck and I explained what had happened. He explained that the stewardess sitting by door 2 left had seen him jump into the engine and had collapsed with shock.
I reassured the passengers, we taxied back to the apron on two engines and disembarked them through the front right-hand door. The stewardess was taken to hospital.
I contacted Speedbird London on HF radio and asked to be connected to the Chief Pilot.
A sleepy voice answered, and he soon woke up when I explained what had happened. He couldn’t believe it, neither could I.
We discussed a plan of action. A team of engineers and experts would be sent from Heathrow to New York on Concorde, and then by chartered jet to Trinidad. They should arrive in less than 24 hours. They asked me to assess the damage, secure the aeroplane and await further instructions. Down time of our aircraft was extremely expensive, and BA wanted the aircraft repaired as soon as possible and returned to service.
We secured the aircraft and I walked down the steps to the apron to inspect the engines. The damage to the engine he had hit with the truck looked serious, the cowling was badly dented, the blades were bent and there were some wrinkles in the pylon.
The intake of the other engine was covered in blood, it was red, very red. I suppose blood is that colour when oxygenated by an engine rotating at thousands of revolutions per minute. Chunks of meat, entrails and teeth were jammed into every crevice, and a line of what looked like pale brown ribs were stuck on the inside of the cowling.
I jumped. Two eyes, in half a face stared lifelessly at me from behind an inlet guide vane.
‘What could have driven him to do this?’ I wondered, feeling decidedly sick.
Apart from a few bent blades, the engine looked in remarkably good condition.
The crew nicknamed the aeroplane ‘The Blender.’