Somewhere over North Africa: T minus 300

Posted: August 22, 2011 in SciFi

 

Flight BA 765 was cruising at 13 000 metres. It was 23.00 GMT. Most of the passengers were dozing fitfully while some were watching the in-flight movies on their small monitors. Along the aisle Bennie Smith the boilermaker, was snoring loudly.

On the flight deck, the instruments were glowing orange and green like high-tech Christmas decorations. The crew-members were relaxed. The flight was somewhere over the Sahara desert in North Africa. An altitude of 13 000 metres was being easily maintained by the big aircraft. The drone of the powerful jet engines had a soporific effect on all the crew in the cockpit.

Suddenly alarms started buzzing urgently in the cockpit. Lights flashed in intermittent yellow and continuous red.

“What the hell!” the pilot exclaimed, “what do we have here? The gyros have gone crazy. Oscar what do you make of it?”

“I don’t know!” Oscar exclaimed in alarm. “The navigation instruments are all out. I cannot get a GPS or magnetic reading. Satellites are not tracking. Something’s very wrong here; none of the fail-safe backups are helping either. I’ll radio Nairobi.”

The pilot and co-pilot checked and re-checked the systems and fail-safe mechanisms trying to identify the cause of the sudden flurry of signals from the consoles.

Meanwhile, Oscar, the Flight Engineer, tried to contact Nairobi Air Traffic Control. “Nairobi, this is BA 765. We have a problem and need a navigational bearing. Nairobi, this is BA 765, do you copy?”

Silence.

“Nairobi please respond.”

Nothing.

Nairobi, a city of two and a half million people was in the process of being erased from the face of the earth as it slid into the chasm created by the splitting away of the Horn of Africa along the eastern portion of the Great African Rift Valley.

Oscar was not aware of this and continued to send out his message to a world which was not listening, a world which suddenly did not possess the technology to receive the signals. The giant aircraft had become the technological equivalent of the dinosaur.

The storm force winds generated by the sudden slippage of the earth’s crust carried a fine red dust in thick clouds to enormous altitudes. The dust formed a belt around the globe that would create long-term climactic changes and trigger new evolutionary processes of adaptation of the surviving species.

The dust was so thick and so high that it pushed up into the stratosphere and blotted out all light from the sun. The Airbus’s engines started to lose power, sending the aircraft into a shallow dive. Some passengers noticed the gradual loss in altitude but the majority seemed unaware of what was happening.

As the descent continued, the dust, mixed with the moisture of the clouds, became a red sludge. The finely tuned engines and rotors struggled to cope with the fine grinding paste which wound its way into the delicate mechanisms of the technological marvels that the engines were.

Magnetic fluctuations caused by the rotation of Earth and its wobbling around its axis, made nonsense of the highly sophisticated navigational instruments and computer programmes of the Airbus. They were never designed to cope with the scenario which was playing out 13 kilometres beneath them. Winds and jet streams in the stratosphere peaked at an incredible 250 knots with the airspeed indicators of the Airbus unable to register these unheard of velocities. The ’plane was thrown around the skies like a toy and buffeted up and down with its massive wings stretching to their full deflective capacities. Inside the passengers were being thrown about like rag dolls.

The descent had now become a full-scale emergency.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Flight BA 765. We are losing power in all engines, our controls are virtually inoperable and we cannot determine our bearings. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”

The message sped out into a world busy with its own problems.

Only 45 minutes had elapsed since the first signs that something was amiss. It seemed like an eternity to the pilot and his crew.

The scenes in the airliner were surreal. Emergency lights came on and people threw up into the bags provided for them by Esme and her crew. Some just puked in the aisle. Many were screaming. All were terrified.

June Hailey felt the change in the stricken plane’s motion and direction and sensed that something was happening. A sick sensation raised the bile to her throat as fear gripped her; fear for her husband and fear for her daughters who were now fully awake and crying.

Was it happening? So soon? They haven’t had time to reach the relative safety of the Southern African sub-continent yet she thought to herself.

The Lockhats were all in a state of panic. Ahmedi was praying aloud while his wife and children were screaming. In the tumult, nobody took any notice.

Bennie Smith was sleeping in a drunken stupor.

Karl Hofmeyer was clutching the arm rests of his seat with white knuckles.

John Duguid grabbed the backrest of the seat in front of him and clung for dear life while Donald James prayed aloud.

In the cockpit, the crew was struggling to keep the stricken craft in the air. Visibility was zero and their position seemed to be hopeless. What had been an uneventful flight thus far had become one of the last flights the planet would see for thousands of years.

The sheer size of the Airbus 380 as well as its altitude, worked to its advantage. Around the globe, lesser aircraft and all those below 10 000 metres were swatted from the skies like insects. Flight BA 765 was one of very few which would survive the Apocalypse.

As the plane broke through the unnatural red cloud cover in its forced descent, an astonishing sight greeted their eyes.

A strange glow permeated the atmosphere and lit up the scene below them. It was almost midnight, yet the sky was alight with a red glow which seemed to originate from several spots beneath the horizon. The glow was being reflected by the clouds and red dust.

As far as the eye could see, where land should have been according to Oscar’s reckoning they could only see raging waters. Water which was not supposed to be there at all! This was supposed to be the Sahara desert for God’s sake! Giant waves were rolling forward in military-like lines, crashing against any obstacle, sweeping all before them.

Above them, a solid blanket of dust swirled and mixed with the clouds. The winds buffeted the craft and threw it around like a twig.

Nothing could have prepared the crew and passengers for what they were facing. Nothing had prepared any living thing on the planet for what was lying ahead.

By this time, none of the passengers were sleeping any longer. Even Bennie woke up and looked around him uncomprehendingly. Those who could, looked out of the windows but could not grasp what they saw. A new shriller wail arose from Mrs. Lockhat as she beseeched Al-Llah to care for her family.

Flight stewardess Peterson and her crew were running up and down the aisles trying to pacify the passengers and to prepare them for the emergency landing, which they now knew, was imminent. They ensured that everyone was strapped in and sufficiently briefed on the crash-landing procedures. Fear gripped her as she thought involuntarily about the new responsibility inside her womb.

On the upper deck, Karl Hofmeyer watched silently at the scene outside. He was relieved that something unexpected and unplanned was occurring. Anything was better than going home he thought. He would regret these thoughts in time to come.

About five nautical miles ahead of the aircraft, the pilot saw a large and very high plateau. It seemed to be their only hope for a dry crash-landing. There were no recognisable landmarks. They were totally lost and forced to land in an unknown world; a world so terrifyingly different that they were dumbstruck; Fred involuntarily compared it to a Steven Spielberg movie scenario.

The crews’ reflexes and years of experience kicked in sub-consciously. It would save some of  the passengers.

“This is your captain speaking. Prepare for an emergency landing,” came the terse instruction.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” The co-pilot was transmitting to a deaf world while the Flight Engineer was desperately trying to establish where they were and what the digital instruments were telling him. The perspiration beaded on his forehead and trickled down into his eyes. “5000 metres, 4600, 4400,” he chanted unnecessarily. At least the altimeter was functioning. The plateau loomed up ahead of them.

“Brace for impact,” the captain called in a hoarse voice over the intercom.

The passengers hunched forward, clutching their knees as instructed by the cabin crew. Many were sobbing, many were praying aloud. Others were quiet. Mothers held their children as best they could, while the elderly clutched each others’ hands in a desperate, futile attempt to ward off injury or worse.

The cabin crew was strapped into their customary seats which faced the passengers.

As the aircraft approached the plateau, the mountainside looked like the Wall of Doom with the Waters of Damnation lashing below them. It was reminiscent of paintings of Hell by Renaissance masters.

Looking through his window in horror, Father Ridgeway crossing himself, said aloud: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” (Abandon all hope ye who enter here) from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy.’

The spray from the giant waves was whipped up by the wind against the sheer cliffs, creating a veil, which virtually obliterated the rocks as the spray drove up the mountain-side to reach way above the aircraft. Like a giant hand, this upward draft helped to lift the massive aircraft over the edge of the cliffs.

“Brace, Brace, Brace,” the pilot shouted. In the cabin everyone had braced themselves a long time ago, or so it felt to Esme and her crew.

The pilot leaned back on the controls to coax the last few metres of lift from the wings before the plane bounced over the edge of the mountain to come crashing back with a tearing jar on to the hard rock-strewn earth of the mountain top. The aircraft bucked wildly and totally out of control amid sparks, howling rotors of the massive engines and jet fuel spurting from the ruptured tanks in the outer wings which were ripped off the fuselage to explode as the body of the doomed aircraft slid on and away from the flames.

It slid for what seemed forever like a grotesque metal worm, bucking, screeching and tearing its torturous path along the relatively flat mountain top. Along its path, it left a trail of debris, human remains, luggage, and metal parts torn from the wings. The giant jet engines were howling like mortally wounded prehistoric monsters. Inside the mutilated fuselage, the shrieks of the pitiful human cargo could not be heard above the cacophony of the tearing wind, raging waters and the deadly closing dance of one of man’s greatest flying machines.

Many of the passengers were ripped from their seats. Some slipped under the puny restraining straps as the plane hit the mountain, to be smashed against the seat backs in front of them causing a chain reaction throughout the plane. Objects flew around them in the air. The overloaded overhead shelves sagged and snapped off, spilling tons of wrapped gifts, attaché cases, laptop computers and luggage onto the passengers below.

Donald James watched in horror as a laptop computer flew past his head to strike the passenger sitting directly in front of him in the nape of the neck, snapping the vertebrae cleanly with an audible crunch.

As June Hailey fiercely clutched the hands of her daughters on either side of her, she saw an old couple fly from their seats to be flung like two broken dolls against the bulkhead five metres from her.

In the first class cabin in the front of the aircraft on the lower deck and which was situated just ahead of the restaurant, bar and small duty free area, the destruction was total. The impact of the fuselage into the mountain tore a massive hole into the floor under the passengers, spilling them together with their luxury seats and fold-down beds into the night to be crushed and mangled between the fuselage and rocks of the plateau.

Catering units and toilets were torn from their mountings, spilling their contents onto the floors of the cabins where it mixed with the blood, body parts and entrails of the passengers. Many passengers were crushed between the bulkheads and the sheer weight and momentum of flying luggage, human bodies and seats ripped from the floors. The carnage inside the stricken craft was total. The floors were slick with blood; body parts were lying around while oxygen masks and electric wires, which dangled uselessly from the roof, were silhouetted by the red emergency lighting, casting weird shadows against the walls in a macabre devils’ cadence.

As the craft came to its final resting place, it was dead silent in the cabins for almost three minutes.

Outside the winds ripped at the now still fuselage and tore through the holes created by the crash-landing. Shocked passengers, who were able to move, dazed but amazed to be alive, struggled to free themselves from the wreckage and their seatbelts. Throughout the cabins, survivors started moaning, some were calling out to loved ones ripped away from them, and others were calling for help, or crying, sobbing, while some were screaming hysterically.

Many were beyond calling or crying.

The Lockhat family had somehow all survived. Ahmedi gathered his family around him and they silently waited for instructions from the crew. His wife was crying softly, but he was fingering his prayer beads in thanksgiving.

Donald James was horrified by the smell which was a mixture of torn guts, jet fuel, burning bodies and toilet spillage. He vomited. It was never like this in the movies. The horror, the sheer volume of stress and noise was almost impossible for his senses to process. Things seemed to be happening in slow motion like those stupid scenes in the movies when directors wanted to increase the impact of particular moments.

June Hailey and her daughters had been flung around in their seats but had managed to remain unscathed as the carnage around them unfolded. As they raised their heads when the aircraft came to a shuddering halt, Rachel saw the severed head of a child, lying in the aisle with eyes staring sightlessly at her. She screamed and screamed in horror.

Suzette van der Merwe had been hit by some object and was barely conscious. Next to her, her husband had been not been so fortunate; his head had been crushed, probably by the same object which had clearly hit him directly and with the full force of the aircraft’s momentum when it hit the mountain top. As Suzette recovered, she felt an excruciating pain in her leg and when she put her hand out to her husband she could only feel a pulpy mess where his head had been a few short minutes ago. Her screams went unheard in the tumult in the cabins.

The pilot and co-pilot’s bodies had been pierced by glass shards and were crumpled forward on the controls of the doomed aircraft. A jagged outcrop of rock had sliced through the cockpit on impact like a hot knife through butter while the air conditioning plant situated above the flight deck collapsed, crashing through the two decks and crushing the avionics and computers below. Only Oscar Riley, the Flight Engineer survived. He was stunned and bleeding profusely from a gash on his head. He struggled to his feet and after checking whether his colleagues were alive, staggered out of the cockpit toward the main cabins of what was left of the pride of British Airways.

The first class cabin was a gaping hole with barely enough room on the side to get to the next cabin. The first-class passengers who had not fallen through the hole were all dead.   As Oscar reached the opposite end of the cabin, he stumbled over something and looking down, was horrified to see that it was the decapitated body of the Bursar of the flight. Her head was nowhere to be seen.

Moving aft, the Flight Engineer noticed that Peterson and other crew members had already managed to open the emergency exits and pop out the inflatable gangways. Peterson seemed to be unhurt. Some dazed passengers somehow struggled into their lifejackets and were already lining up to leave the aircraft with their pitiful personal belongings.

“Please leave all personal belongings on the plane,” Peterson was saying. “Please sir, leave your camera behind. You cannot take it with you. Just leave the aircraft with your shoes in your hands and take blankets and warm clothes with you.” A grey-haired man reluctantly put down what was obviously an expensive camera on the seat beside him.

Rachel hid her new little Camcorder under her dress clutching her mother’s hand as they stumbled towards the escape hatch. She was still crying.

“No madam you cannot take your vanity case with you! Will the adults please ensure that the children are assisted first? We must disembark quickly so that we can assist the injured passengers.”

Seeing Oscar behind her, Peterson flashed him a silent query regarding the crew. He shook his head.

“Oscar, please see how many of the First Aid Kits and emergency blankets you can gather and bring with you,” she said aloud.

She instructed the dazed man where to find the stowed equipment. “Also oxygen tanks, blankets, anything you think we may need,” she continued. After that she slid down the escape gangway to assist the passengers to descend into the unknown outside.

Oscar was only too thankful that someone had taken control and complied willingly with her instructions, throwing the equipment down the chute and assisting the passengers to disembark safely.

The wind was howling and dust was pouring into the cabin. Everybody’s faces were streaked with the red dust, which seemed to be everywhere.

The noise of the waters crashing against the cliff-sides of the mountain rumbled like a thousand trains rushing through a tunnel.  The very ground trembled and shook below them.

The evacuation operation went surprisingly smoothly. Injured passengers were removed as gently as was possible by cabin crew members now under Esme orders. Only the dead remained behind in BA 765. The New World did not need more bodies.

Of the original 748 passengers and crew, there were 125 survivors.

After leaving the aircraft, they gathered in an area which was strewn with large boulders about 500 metres from the Airbus. The boulders offered some protection against the ripping winds and dust. Here the remainder of the crew ensured that the injured were tended to and made comfortable. Many of the more able passengers assisted them. Blankets were handed out and they huddled together for comfort as much as for warmth, as they settled down to await the new dawn. Sobbing and soft crying could be heard throughout the pitiful remains of what a couple of hours earlier had been an excited plane-load of travellers.

The flames which were burning fiercely in the torn wings a distance away cast an eerie light upward and was reflected by the red swirling clouds above them. It painted them in ochre like so many savages about to commence their traditional dances. It seemed like a portent for the future.

It was only 05h25 of  May 5, 2010. In little more than 10 hours the world had changed forever for the survivors.

Flight BA 765 had come to rest in an area which was part of the Ethiopian Highlands, at co-ordinates 10°43’N and 37°57’E. The only clue the Flight Engineer had was that just before impact, the altitude was some 10 500 foot above sea level. The map reference had made no sense to him at all. Before the earth shifted, the co-ordinates would have placed the flight over northern Chad.

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