Reading about Air-Asia flight 8501 plunging into Java sea on 28th December, leading to death of all 162 passengers on board and that too in quick succession of few other unfortunate south east Asia airline accidents over 2014, I could not, hold back resurfacing of dark memories, about my own experiences in one such turbulent flight in summers of 2008. That I am myself writing and sharing the story with all of you now in Jan’15, means I survived that ordeal. I was lucky perhaps, but that ill experience suffered along with my family on that otherwise less than an hour flight between Lucknow and Delhi was for sure, too scary. It had shaken me from inside and also showed to me in no uncertain terms, the fear of death.
The story goes back to summers of 2008, 17th May to be precise, when I decided to visit the famed temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath, situated in the hills of Uttarakhand. The twin temples situated at a distance of 204 km from each other are part of popular Char Dham Yatra, a sacred pilgrimage duty for Hindus, worldwide. The temples, respectively are abode of Lord Vishnu as Badrinarayan and of Lord Shiva manifested as one the 12 Jyotirlingas of India. That they are situated in the high hills of Himalayas, makes them even more sacred and sought after pilgrim destination for Hindus globally. While Badrinath temple is situated at 3133 meter above sea level, Kedarnath temple is further up at 3583 meter above sea level. The access to both the temples is by serpentine hilly roads, going all the way up from Rishikesh, a small town located on the foothills of Himalaya.
As I was living in Lucknow at that time, I booked 4 tickets for my family in the popular, Howrah-Dehradun Exp, also called as Doon express. The tickets were wait listed, hence I applied for the railway quota. I waited till the charting was done. Unfortunately, for me, the huge summer rush in this popular train, meant I got no confirmed seats in the train. I was disappointed as the further bookings from Rishikesh onward were likely to be disturbed and whole program could be grounded, if I could not reach Dehradun by 18th morning. However, I decided to try my luck once again and bought the wait-listed train tickets in the same train. I duly packed my luggage and waited for the final chart to be printed on 17th May. The charting was done in the late after noon and to my utter disappointment, my name was again not in the final passenger list. I was frustrated and cursed not only Railways but myself for not planning well in advance for the trip. I was in a situation that if I did not reach Dehradun before next afternoon, my whole plan had to be aborted.
Suddenly an idea came to my mind that I could fly by evening flight to Delhi and after staying overnight in Delhi, could start very early on the 18th morning, the journey to Dehradun by road. This was a hectic and tiresome plan, but at least could save my onward journey plan. I called my travel agent and booked 4 tickets on the last flight to Delhi from Lucknow on Kingfisher airlines. Their red Oh-La-La-La planes with gorgeous air hostess were never a bad experience then. The flight was scheduled to leave for Delhi at 7:45 in the evening. The weather in Lucknow was fine. On that day there was also an IPL match between Delhi Daredevils and King Eleven Punjab in Delhi. I was bit hesitant to leave the match behind, but reached the Lucknow airport in time and boarded the flight.
The flight took off for Delhi at the right time. It normally takes one hour to reach Delhi. We were expecting to land at Delhi around 9 pm and I was thinking of my road journeys ahead for next days, right up to Indo-China border near village Mana at Badrinath. The flight, after reaching the Delhi sky, did not land as it normally does and continued to encircle the Delhi sky for almost 30 minutes. We were getting worried as we had to start very early for Dehradun and delays meant, we were going to have lesser time to rest for night. The other passengers on the plane too got worried gradually. Soon, we were told that there was a sort of hailstorm in Delhi, just then and they would wait for some more time before landing. By now, we were airborne for more than 100 minutes and thought, what if, plane did not have enough fuel? We kept on waiting. The weather at Delhi did not improve much and finally we heard the announcement that the flight is going back to Lucknow as it was unable to land in Delhi! The flight captain assured us of our safety and started back for Lucknow.
I was really disappointed by the turn of events as my whole plan to Badrinath-Kedarnath had got in quandry. First, the rail journey did not materialize for two consecutive days and now even plane can’t reach Delhi. Oh God! I felt disgusted as I was on the verge of an aborted air journey too. My whole program was at stake. I had also started feeling that either our program was jinxed or Lord Shiva did not want us to see him in Himalayas. Never before in my traveling career, I had been denied the pleasure to travel by train on two successive days. Something was amiss perhaps.
We reached back to Lucknow around 10:30 pm and landed normally. We heaved a sigh of relief finally, as after two hours of being air borne, we were back to earth at least. We were anxious to know the further possibilities of flight actually going to Delhi. The queries were responded by air-hostess with a smile and with a promise that if weather improved in Delhi, they would get us to Delhi. The passengers had started feeling jittery and few of them even decided to abort their plan to go back to Delhi. I wanted to still save my plan and reach Delhi. The symptoms though were not very encouraging and even our other family members who came to know that we were back to Lucknow after almost two hours, advised us to give it another try, sometime later.
The plane continued to be on run way at Lucknow for almost one more hour. We were served with water and muffins to cover up the anxiety. The flight captain announced again around 11:15 pm that the weather at Delhi was better and that we were flying back to Delhi. I thanked God and prayed to get me back to Delhi somehow. We took off once again from Delhi.
The flight reached the Delhi sky in next 50 minutes and the captain announced, the landing soon. It was around 12 midnight and we could see a clear sky over Delhi from our windows and were happy. But we were not aware about the strong winds at the ground level and the winds usually gather more momentum near large and open places like airport. We were on with seat belts and head straightened seats for landing. The plane was soon just above the run way and we could see that clearly through our seat screens, which at that time were provided by kingfisher airlines. They used to have feed from cameras installed at some vital locations of the outside of the plane.
Now, just as the flight was about to touch the runaway, it swinged sharply to the right side of run way and there was a sudden fall in height. We could see it and feel it, both. Nobody was prepared for this. Few persons even screamed. The pilot sensing the situation just reopened full throttle all engines and got the nose of the plane, upside. This was a sharp rise and we could feel the pressure and sinking feeling at the same time. Few persons in the plane could not bear this sudden drop and then sharp ascent. Many passengers reached out for sickness/vomiting bags kept in the pockets of seats in front of us. A young boy travelling alone and sitting besides me, too could not control and used the vomiting bag. I had never seen so many persons in a flight using the sickness bags, simultaneously. I was tensed too and my body had stiffened a bit. Interestingly, my kids aged 9 and 6 then were oblivious of this panic and had dozed off at the start of the second journey, back to Delhi. My wife and I looked in each other eyes and we could feel the fear of death somewhat in our eyes. That we were together was a consolation, but we were certainly not ready to meet a tragic end. She clasped my left hand strongly and I could not say anything. In the circumstances, I could not even assure her that every thing was fine. We were preparing ourselves for the worst actually.
The pilot somehow miraculously managed to maneuver the flight up to sky once again. The panic buttons, though were pressed in every body’s mind and most passengers were really in a state of shock. The young boy sitting next to me needed more vomit bags now, and I offered him one in front of my seat too. He filled that too. I was feeling the nausea too, but not to the extent of vomiting. Inside me, I was praying. The pilot announced after sometime that the flight was safe and that due to sudden gush of winds he had to ascend the heights. We were still not comforatable and were thinking that, I certainly had missed the signals of God, when I could not get confirm rail seats, twice in two days. Something was wrong for sure and the wrath of the God seemed inevitable. I was cursing myself for the rigidity and inflexibility to stick to the plan at any cost.
The flight continued to hover above Delhi and the passengers now started to panic about the remaining fuel in the tank of the plane. The queries were made to air hostess and the issue reached to flight captain. He announced on the address system that the plane had enough fuel for one more hour at least. We were still not assuaged of our worries. The stress on the face of otherwise smiling air-hostesses could be read too.
Meanwhile down at the airport,the panic button had been pressed after mid air aborted landing. The distress message was sent to Police and Civil administration and the Delhi ATC placed our flight on may day priority. The weather had started to improve, but no one was sure that how it would behave at the time of Landing. Our flight was now given the most secluded run way on the airport, to preempt the collateral damage in case of an accident. The medical and fire brigade teams were put on standby.
We were nervous. After some time the pilot announced the approach to landing once again. I looked once again into eyes of my wife. She had few tears in her eyes and said nothing. I looked towards my children who were still busy in their sleep. I could not utter a word and just closed my eyes in prayer. The approach to runaway now again was visible to screens on our seats. We could also notice from our window panes that many red and blue beacon light vehicles were close to our landing place. I took a deep breath. More passengers had by now used the vomiting bags and there was a complete silence inside the plane. The final approach to run away was made and all of us straightened our neck and kept our hands on the top of seat in front. We were preparing ourselves for the worst.
I could hear the sound of lowering landing gears and tires. The plane touched the run way soon and the feeling immediately after the touchdown was of utmost scare. However, the speed of the plane started to reduce with a big sound of screech. Perhaps the things were coming to normalcy. Was it? We could not believe that we were actually going to survive this landing. After few minutes we could feel that the plane was almost about to stop and then suddenly I heard a bid sound of clapping hands. It was actually real. I was on ground again. I too joined as every body else and clapped for the pilot and the crew. Inside me, it was also a thanksgiving to the God. We had landed at Delhi around 00:45 am, almost five hours after our first take of from Lucknow. The flight to Delhi surely could never be expected to last that long. Later we also came to know that the IPL match in Delhi on that fateful day of 17 May 2008 was also aborted due to rain and bad weather. It was a bad weather day really.
I looked up in the sky and thanked God for letting me land on the ground safely. I went on to Dehradun and from there proceeded on to my tour to Badrinath-Kedarnath temples. It was a thrilling experience in the end. But when news like that of missing Air Asia Plane comes up, my memories to the event get refreshed. The memories in this case, as one would understand are not that welcome. I felt the fear of death and came to realize that life is too precious. We need to love and value it, more. May the Air Asia passengers rest in peace.