Then, just as we surfed on top of the cloud: BANG! The biggest bang I have ever felt in my life reverberated through my body. The plane shook and dived. What the fvck was that?! Overwhelming natural forces held us in their grip. We were flotsam juddering in the wind. I couldn’t focus on the front control panel as it shook and shuddered. Approach charts flew everywhere, books lifted off the back shelves. The captain’s bag jumped up and emptied its contents behind us and then half a litre of hot coffee showered over my shirt. The cockpit was chaos.
“What the hell is going on,” I shouted. We were now hurtling towards a mean looking dark cloud at over 300 knots. I thought anxiously about what shocks it held for us. Would we survive another blow? The over-speed warning clacked in my ears, the under-speed warning vibrated deeply through the cockpit. The red-tape warning was visible. We were in ‘Coffin-Corner’ where the under-and over-speeds coincide, making the plane un-flyable. I realised, finally, and seemingly an age later, that the blaring in my ears was the automated weather report. I switched it off to focus on helping the Captain fly the plane. He was now in full control – as calm as a captain should be. He put on the seat belt sign as I heard the “ding-dong” bell of the cabin intercom and then the screams in the cabin. We hurtled into the cloud:
“Turbulence, speed 250 knots.” The captain calmly announced to me as he slowed the plane by pulling out the speed brake and reducing the rate of descent — a text-book manoeuvre in severe turbulence.
“Tom. Talk to the cabin, I’ll control the plane,” he clipped quickly in his Dutch accent.
It was then that I finally got some idea of the chaos behind the locked door. I pressed the intercom button to hear a clearly shocked Rachel, but she very professionally announced, “No 2 and No 4 cabin crew are severely injured. We have blood in the back and 2-3 passengers are hurt.”
“Ok. How many ambulances do you need?” I rattled back quickly.
The captain interrupted my conversation and quickly told me. “Tom, fly her in, I‘ll deal with the cabin.”
I felt a warm glow of pride as he trusted me with this awesome responsibility. This is why I have been training for 3 years. This is what I am getting paid for; to keep steady and unruffled under the most stressful situations.
The captain got a grasp on the cabin turmoil and requested three ambulances using a PAN emergency call to the Palma (one level down from an SOS). We needed urgent assistance. Thankfully, the extreme turbulence had now passed. I handed over to the captain for the final five miles and a gusty 25 knot cross-wind landing, 10 knots above my allowed limits. We had immediate taxi clearance to Stand 94, the closest available, where an ambulance awaited us with its lights flashing. We finally stopped, relieved and gradually calmed down as the engines quietened. The Captain stood up, straightened his tie and opened the door. I kept the seat belt sign on. He grabbed the microphone and standing at the entrance to the cockpit managed to reassuringly announce:
“Ladies and gentlemen please remain seated and keep calm while the paramedics come on board to treat the injured passengers and crew.” I peered past him at the frightened faces.
Three passengers and two crew members were hurt. Lucy (No2) had a cut on her leg from hitting the ceiling and Maddie (No 4) had a broken shoulder from the trolley landing on him. All were gently guided off by the paramedics. One went to the hospital and the others were examined and judged to be OK. Passengers with minor bumps and bruises nursed their injuries in silence. It was a quiet and thoughtful group of passengers that disembarked that day; glad it was over and relieved to have landed safely after a horrific experience.
Now the questions started. What had happened? How badly were the crew injured? What was the damage to the plane and could we fly back? I wandered along the aisle looking at the strewn papers, drinks and food. There appeared to be no serious internal damage until I came to the back toilet. What a mess. It had been ripped off its base and had spilled its contents everywhere. What G forces would have the power to do that? Imagine if someone had been sitting on it. A clearly shocked passenger later explained how the trollies, which were making their rounds in the aisles, were lifted to the ceiling and then dashed to the floor. One of them hurtled down the alley way ripping off arm rests before crashing into the back of the cabin. Two people tried to restrain the other trolley and had badly injured arms. Thankfully, and remarkably, no-one was killed.