Friday, January 07, 2005

Jump Seat

Landing in Guatemala is always a bit hair-raising. Aurora International airport is fairly centrally located in the middle of Guatemala city, right next to the high rise commercial district in fact. This city of over 2 million inhabitants is squeezed into a deep valley in the Sierra Madre. You can see from this picture that the airport's designers even factored in a substantial and active volcano (Pacaya) directly on the flight path of descending aircraft.

The runway is strictly a bit too short for wide-bodied jets to take off and land safely. KLM didn't seem to mind though and flew in 747s daily from Amsterdam until about 4 years ago when one of its pilots, apparently new to this route, took one look at the final approach from his cockpit window and decided to go somewhere else. His colleagues obviously supported him and the Dutch airline has never returned.

Regional carrier TACA prides itself on the most modern fleet of aircraft in the commercial skies. Any reassurances this might provide have to be tempered by the knowledge that their pilots are temperamentally indistinguishable from the local bus drivers, whose safety record speaks for itself. It's a bit like the RAF crowing about how many factory-fresh Spitfires they had on their airfields by the end of 1941.

V's brother Oscar used to work for Mexicana, a position which afforded him the dubious privelege of flying in the jump seat in the cockpit of his employers' aircraft. He says that from take-off through to landing alarms were going off on the dashboard every few minutes. In the moments of relative calm between these 'situations' he could reflect on the fact that if the cabin depressurised the occupant of the jump seat would be the only passenger left without an oxygen mask. (Only the crew get 'air' anyway.)

Once the pilot and co-pilot of a DC-10 decided to play a cruel joke on him. As the plane touched down they made out that the brakes had failed. "ayyy, esta vez nos chingó la madre!" screamed the pilot. (In fairness to the Spanish national soccer coach the blasphemo-obscenities of this language defy literal translation. "This time we're really fucked!" will suffice here.)

The Guatemalans have given due consideration to even this eventuality. On the picture before you may also have noticed a landscape design feature implemented to dramatically slow down any aircraft that happen to misjudge their landings at Aurora International - a sheer drop at the end of the short runway. The ditch below is packed with ramshackle dwellings. These homes are "illegal" according to the authorities, which in effect means that residents are themselves responsible for the deaths and injury that occur each time a large commercial aircraft lands on top of them.

After another crash involving a Cuban cargo jet (on which Oscar observed a cracked windscreen before its fateful take-off), all Mexicana employees at the airport were treated to mandatory psychological counselling. Bizarrely this involved listening to the cockpit recording from another Mexicana flight, which came down earlier that year with the loss of all hands. In the minutes before disaster struck the crew, delightfully blasé about the fact that their every word was being recorded for posterity, engaged in a colourful banter about their tequila benders. This conversation alone might have made the black box recording something of a collector's item, but in the end it was cut rudely short by the sudden unexpected arrival of another volcano. "Chinga su..."

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