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Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:00 am

Plummeting towards earth in a plane makes Muriel think

May 9th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout, News

As Muriel Ross recounts her experience of plummeting over 30,000 feet in a plane, out the window in the distance an Air New Zealand drifts towards Wellington Airport.

Muriel Ross holding the letter she wrote home in 1982 after experiencing flight BA009.

Does flying bother her?

“When your time is up, there is nothing you can do about it,” Muriel shrugs.

“You have more chance of getting hit by a car.”

On June 4, 1982, Muriel (88) was involved in an airline incident that made world headlines where the passengers and crew narrowly cheated death.

Muriel was working as a nurse when she had been to visit her daughter, Dorothy
Ross, who was working in London.

“It was a fantastic trip. I visited Buckingham Palace and had a lot of photos to share back home.”

She had visited Buckingham Palace the same night that Prince William was born.

Muriel was travelling alone when she boarded the British Airways flight BA009 which was homebound for New Zealand, with stops in India, Malaysia, Perth and Sydney before reaching Auckland.

On board were 250 passengers.

“We picked up a large group of Australians in Bombay and they were so noisy,” Muriel remembers.

At Kuala Lumpur the flight refuelled and changed crew with Eric Moody as captain.

Meanwhile Mt Gulunggung in West Java, Indonesia, had burst into life spewing tonnes of volcanic ash into the air just hours before take off.

The eruption was of no concern to Captain Moody because it was well away from the flight path of BA009.

The flight was about 90 minutes into the Malaysia to Perth leg when things started going wrong.

“We had just flown over Indonesia, and it was night time. Looking out the window you could see that surrounding the engines it was glowing,” says Muriel.

Unbeknown to the flight crew, the plane had flown straight into a cloud of volcanic ash that had drifted 150 kms south-west into the flight path.

Muriel’s daughter, Dorothy Ross, sits across the lounge room showing us memorabilia from Muriel’s experience. Enthusiasm is set on Dorothy’s face as she explains the details behind flight BA009.

“They didn’t know it at the time, but a dry ash doesn’t show up on the plane’s radar whereas a wet ash does. The pilots were oblivious of the danger that lay ahead,” Dorothy says.

One by one all four engines failed leaving the 450 ton plane powerless and suspended 36,000 feet in the air.

“You could tell that the engines had failed because although we were going through turbulence there was a silence from the engine noise that you become used to,” Muriel says.

By this time the oxygen masks had dropped from the ceiling and the flight attendants were helping the passengers to put them on.

Muriel holding ‘All four engines have failed’, a book written by Betty Tootell, the daughter of a passenger on flight BA009.

On the flight deck a desperate mayday call had gone out alerting the nearest airport of the planes situation.

Captain Moody took desperate action and sent the plane into a nosedive, dropping the plane over 6000 feet in less than a minute in an attempt to extinguish the flames and to get fresh oxygen aboard through the air vents.

Still without power, the plane continued to fall from the sky.

“The captain addressed the passengers that we had lost power to all four engines and we were turning around and heading back towards the Jakarta airport,” Muriel recalls.

“Although you could sense the danger, his voice and the professionalism of the flight crew were very reassuring.”

On board there was a sense of calmness.

“Not like on the movies, where everyone screams and panics.”

Passengers who were sitting alone reassured other passengers.

“There was one lady that had seen the Pope on her European tour and told everybody that the plane would be saved because the Pope would take care of them. The other passengers just smiled and laughed.”

The passengers’ thoughts had turned to crash landing in the sea and were told that due to safety reasons they couldn’t do their life jackets until they had left the aircraft.

“I remember looking across to a man who was travelling with his two young sons (8 and 10).

“He had some leg trouble and I thought there was no way he would be able to get them both off the plane and into a life raft by himself,” says Muriel.

His predicament bothered Muriel more than her own.

“So I decided that when the plane crash landed I would grab his boys and take them onto the life raft with me and be reasonable.

“Then I thought, ‘should I put my passport down my top’, then thought, ‘no it would be soaking wet what’s the use?’”

The thought of losing her treasured photographs of Buckingham palace also bothered her.

“I was annoyed that I wouldn’t get to show anyone my Buckingham palace photos.

“If we were going to be sitting on the ocean floor, I’ve got some things in my suitcase that I bought for somebody, and they’ll never get them. It’s funny the things that go through your mind in times like these.”

Meanwhile the flight crew, knowing that they only had minutes before the plane would be crash landing into the seas below, had managed to restart three of the four engines.

Investigations carried out later on had shown that the jet engines had sucked in hot volcanic ash, damaging them.

It was considered a miracle that the flight crew had been able to restore life to three of the engines.

Crippled and badly damaged the British Airways flight BA009 headed to Jakarta airport for an emergency landing.

Top: Sahid Jaya Hotel where the passengers stayed in Jakarta. Bottom: Captain Eric Moody and Betty Tootell.

It was a long 30 minutes for the passengers.

“A lot of passengers were giving their expert opinions of what had just happened and why it had happened – they became immediate experts.”

The plane had been given clearance for an emergency landing.

“We came in very fast. When the plane engines went into reverse thrust to help with the braking, one of the ladies who just minutes before was giving her expert opinion as to why the engines had failed let out a loud scream. ‘So much for her expert opinion’, I thought.”

“As we were coming down the runway you could see the fire engines and emergency crews racing towards the plane,” says Muriel.

When the plane stopped and the passengers disembarked it was only then they could see what they had endured.

“When we left Heathrow our plane was white and shining. Landing at Jakarta the white was gone and the plane was a dirty black from the volcanic ash and you could see the plane windscreen was pitted, it was amazing that the pilots could see out of it to land.”

While news of the near airline disaster spread around the world, the passengers were taken to a hotel and were shown the sights of Jakarta the next day.

“I found travelling in the local taxis at high speeds through the narrow streets of Jakarta scarier than the flight.”

Within 24 hours, the passengers gathered at the Jakarta airport to resume their flight to Auckland and were met by the crew who had saved the lives of everyone on board.

“We were so grateful for them, we were taking photos and getting the autographs of the pilots and crew, which I still have now,” says Muriel.

In just over 24 hours later Muriel landed safely at Auckland airport and was surprised to be met by her brother.

“I asked him what he was doing here, and he replied, ‘you’re famous! You’ve made world headlines.’

“It was then that I realised the significance of what I had been through.”

Has her outlook in life been different since she got off the plane?

“Not really. Life carries on and when God decides that your time is up there is nothing you can do about it.”

Since that date, Muriel has continued to fly both around New Zealand as well as several overseas flights.

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