Air Line Pilot, September/October 2002, p.32

By S/O Scott McDorman (DHL)

Last September, Capt. Steve Norris, First Officer Blaine Comfort, and I were returning from a Mexico City weekend layover when disaster almost struck—with a vengeance.

Bad news here—not only were we clearly not going to stop, we were going to T-bone this B-777 just ahead of the leading edge of its right wing at around 100 knots.

Sometimes, reviewing a traumatic experience after the adrenaline has worn off and seeing how the individual threads of the event fit together to form the tapestry that was almost your undoing is interesting. This is especially true when you realize that when these isolated factors originally occurred, you had no idea they would ever be anything more than part of the blur of extraneous events of everyday life that we all constantly filter out and seldom consciously process. These are the kinds of innocuous events that would normally evaporate from your consciousness moments after occurring were it not for having them permanently stamped into your memory by seeing them all come together in one crystal-clear instant—of seeing the method of your death right in front of you and thinking you’ll find no way out.

Through the benefit of this hindsight, I have acquired a real appreciation for how close we and several hundred other people came to an untimely end. I also have come to truly appreciate the incredible airmanship of Capt. Norris and how F/O Comfort’s and my own actions meshed with Capt. Norris’s in such a way that we all lived to tell our story. I have also come to a few general insights that may be worth sharing.

Everything was quite normal as our duty period began. We all arrived in the hotel lobby on time, and our ride to the airport was on time and uneventful. We arrived at the airplane on time and according to plan.

The only down side was that rain had been falling all day and intermittent showers were passing over the airport, so the weather was less than ideal but certainly not bad enough to cause any concern. Our preparations for departure proceeded normally without any undue or unforeseen hassles.

The first sign that anything would be different was the ATIS information that standing water was on the runway. The runways in Mexico City are not grooved, so the rainfall all day had caused a situation that would rather significantly affect our takeoff performance. However, our takeoff calculations showed that we had an ample margin of takeoff performance. So even though it struck me as unusual to have to take such a hit in our performance numbers, no "red flags" went up within the crew other than to discuss it and obviously use a max thrust takeoff.

We pushed back on time as the rain started again and continued at a steady but fairly light rate, reducing the visibility to about 6 sm. A rather long line of airplanes on Taxiway B was heading for the departure runways (5L and 5R).

As we taxied our DC-8 past the passenger terminal and were still on the ground control frequency, we heard an Air France B-777 flight crew request clearance for pushback, but we were shortly thereafter switched to the tower frequency and heard no more communications between the ground controller and the Air France crew.

We plodded along in the slow progression toward our turn for takeoff on Runway 5L, totally unaware of the profound factors taking place behind us on the passenger ramp and Taxiway B, factors that would affect our destinies.

We commented during our slow taxi that with the sheen on the ramps and taxiways caused by the rain and standing water, the lighting and visibility were less than ideal but, in retrospect, it was simply an observation rather than a statement of specific concern or a prompt for any of us to take special caution or do anything differently in our approach to our duties.

We were finally cleared into position to hold on Runway 5L as a Lufthansa B-747 was cleared for takeoff on 5R, requiring us to hold for a couple of minutes for separation. As we performed the before-takeoff checklist and turned onto the runway, I remember thinking what a zoo Mexico City International Airport could be.

The less-than-ideal lighting we had mentioned during our marathon taxi was an understatement. The kaleidoscopic visual inputs created by the huge yellow low-pressure sodium lights on the passenger terminal, the bright white mercury vapor lights on the freight ramp, the sea of nav lights and beacons on all the airplanes, and the jungle of spinning and flashing yellow lights from the constantly moving, constantly present army of ground vehicles that intermingle with all the aircraft—these all combined to form a surrealistic picture that made any meaningful visual distinction virtually impossible.

All these lights were reflecting off the standing water in a way that made it impossible to have any real mental picture of what was actually happening with regard to movement of aircraft and ground vehicles to our left. This situation combined with the truism that an aircraft at night, especially in less-than-desirable visibility, is nothing more than a black hole of nothingness between those tiny, dim nav lights.

In retrospect, we had no way to judge how all these ground movements on the ramp and taxiway adjacent to our runway could possibly affect us, because nothing stood out. It was just one big jumble of lights reflecting in many directions off a bunch of water puddles.

The good news was that we were where we were supposed to be, and we were only 3 hours away from going home and unwinding from a long work rotation.

Just as we received our clearance for takeoff, I thought I saw an air-plane that seemed rather close to our runway and pointed perpendicular to it as though preparing to cross. As quickly as this thought entered my mind, I discounted it as a visual distortion of the Mexico City Airport Light Show and Visual Extravaganza. Besides, we were cleared for takeoff, so nobody would be trying to cross our runway.

F/O Comfort was the flying pilot and, because we had recently experienced high EGTs on takeoff from Mexico City, I was paying very close attention to the engine temps as he powered up and began our takeoff roll.

As soon as I saw the EGT gauges acting normally, I moved my scan back outside, down the runway.

This time I thought that the aircraft I had noticed just as we got our clearance was closer to our runway than before, but again, I discounted it as a visual illusion caused by the light show and the knowledge that we were cleared.

Once more, I looked back to the EGT gauges as we accelerated through 80 knots.

Our V1 was 113 knots, and we were accelerating quickly now, so Capt. Norris’s eyes were on the air-speed indicator as he prepared to call V1. With the standing water, a high-speed abort would be particularly perilous, so making the stop-go decision precisely at V1, and not a knot faster, was critical. F/O Com-fort was focused on staying on the centerline, and what was about to come into his field of view was nothing more than a black hole with a little, dimly lit, green nav light on the right wingtip of a B-777.

Somewhere around 100 knots, with all well on the engine gauges, my focus went back outside. This time what I saw was no illusion. An Air France B-777 had taxied onto our runway perpendicular to our direction of travel and was now covering the entire runway. The Triple Seven had not yet begun its pivot-turn in our direction.

Thanks to my favorite self-produced recreational drug—adrenaline—the time it took me to mentally process the fact that we were in BIG TROUBLE seemed to be only nanoseconds and resulted in my screaming "airplane" and pointing down the runway.

This was no dignified sharing of information. I did not possess the presence of mind to pull out what I hope will someday be my well-cultivated, ice-water-in-my-veins, nothing-flusters-me captain’s voice, and gently but authoritatively declare that an errant airplane had somehow entered our path.

F/O Comfort remained composed and meshed his actions with Capt. Norris’s, creating a synergistic environment that, when held up to the reality that we barely missed the B-777, implies that if F/O Comfort’s actions had varied in almost any way, the outcome would have been disastrous.

No, unfortunately, this was instantaneous, gut-wrenching, adrenaline-induced fear. The good news is that it instantly got Capt. Norris’s attention.

My colleague’s adrenaline was apparently at work on him as well. The time from my yelling "airplane" to Capt. Norris’s having the thrust levers in full reverse and maximum brakes applied also seemed to be only nanoseconds. In hindsight, how quickly he went from eyes on the airspeed indicator, to processing my scream, to looking outside, to visually acquiring and actually coming to terms with what he saw, and reacting is truly amazing.

The bad news was that nothing happened. We were hydroplaning so badly that the airplane was hardly decelerating. We were skimming down the runway with the thrust reversers and brakes having almost no effect.

It took a second or two for my eyes and brain to work together to determine if we were going to stop in time or die in a huge fireball.

Bad news here—not only were we clearly not going to stop, we were going to T-bone this B-777 just ahead of the leading edge of its right wing at around 100 knots.

As I was sitting in the odd-man-out seat with nothing to do at this point but be scared crazy, I realized that we were loaded to go to CVG and they were loaded to go to France—this was going to be one huge fire-ball. Just as I concurrently realized that there was no way we were going to stop in time, our landing lights illuminated the entire side of the B-777. I could see lots of faces staring out their windows with that unmistakable look of disbelieving terror.

While I was becoming aware that we were about to be barbecued, Capt. Norris called out, "Leaving the runway."

In hindsight, this too was perhaps one of those pivotal events/decisions that could have easily made the difference. At any rate, off we went into the dark and mud as a 250,000-pound ATV. I remember thinking at that instant something to the effect of "Man! that was close!" and instantly realizing, "What now?"

I did still possess the presence of mind to think that, as incredible an engineer as Mr. Douglas was, he had probably not worked out the effects of having his airplane go scooting through the mud at somewhere around 90 knots.

Now I was thinking we might actually live through this, but surely this is going to be real ugly, and worse, it is probably going to hurt—A LOT!

Then the finale of the miracle—we stopped without so much as a scratch. The end was something of a flurry. Mud, grass, and water were cascading past the cockpit with the engines still in max reverse, and the airplane sank in the mud up to the nacelles, but we were O.K., and the airplane seemed relatively intact. We shut down the engines and began evacuating the airplane, and thus began the comedy of errors.

First, the emergency lights didn’t work. We didn’t have enough light to find our own backsides with both hands, and this made it hard for the captain and first officer to find their escape tapes. As they opened their sliding windows for egress, I got their tapes out for them. Then I understood for the first time that I was going to have to wait for them to get out before I could get out.

At this point, we were not sure the airplane was not on fire, and the prospect of having to wait for any-thing was not particularly appealing to me; so I headed for the main entryway. My good fortune continued as the main door opened freely.

I reached for and found the escape tape, and the whole thing came out in my hand—unattached to the aircraft.

I remember thinking I was glad I didn’t just grab the thing and jump in a state of panic, and I remember having a definite emotional response regarding the idiot —the nice person, I mean—who failed to properly attach my lifeline to the airplane.

Fortunately, as Capt. Norris and F/O Comfort were climbing out their respective windows, they saw that the airplane was not on fire.

Capt. Norris called out for everyone to remain in the airplane until help arrived rather than risk injury by trying to get out with the escape tapes.

While we were determining if our airplane was on fire and what we should do to minimize risk to our-selves or further damage to the air-craft, the firefighting and rescue wizards of Mexico City had surrounded the B-777 and followed it back to the gate, apparently to verify that, in fact, not a scratch could be found on the shiny new airplane or any of its passengers or crew.

Meanwhile, in the mud, rain, and darkness, we sat for 10 minutes, waiting to be rescued. Finally, the cavalry arrived in their shiny fire suits, and we were provided a ladder to egress and stood in the rain for about 15 minutes until the commandante of the local aviation authority arrived and our journey into the regulatory and procedural abyss began.

The treatment we received from the local version of the FAA was outstanding. Everyone we dealt with there was helpful and polite and gave no indication that we were suspected of any wrongdoing. Also, the support we immediately received by phone from ALPA Inter-national, as well as from Capt. Wilshire of the DHL Master Executive Council’s Central Air Safety Committee, was nothing short of outstanding.

The problems began with drug testing. Our company policy re-quires that after an event such as this, the crew must be tested for drugs. Furthermore, in the United States, the FAA would require a drug test. In Mexico, however, the FAA does not have jurisdiction, and the local authority there does not require drug testing.

We assured the commandante that our company would require that we be tested. We confirmed this with a call to the night manager, who conferred with someone else and determined that yes, in fact, a drug test was required.

Amazingly, though, nobody at DHL had ever made any arrangements in Mexico for drug testing to be done in such a situation, so no-body had any clue as to how this was going to be handled. Add to this state of confusion the language barrier, and the fact that it was now about 2 a.m., and you would have thought we were asking these people to produce a time travel machine. The situation was actually becoming fairly amusing, but with the wisdom that comes only through longevity, Capt. Norris announced that he really needed a rest room but that as soon as he relieved himself someone would solve the drug-testing SNAFU and he would no longer be able to get the job done—so he would hold it.

Sure enough, the problem was solved without a great deal more delay, and it was decided that we would be taken to a local hospital. Capt. Norris was happy because
the situation was really starting to get critical for him in the bladder department. So we all packed into a DHL van and headed to the main DHL office because the station manager, who was spearheading this operation, needed to stop to get his car. Approximately 30 minutes later, we were on the road again to the hospital.

Unfortunately, the hospital was about another 25 minutes away. Capt. Norris was in absolute bladder arrest as we wheeled up
to the emergency room entrance, but he was maintaining composure with the willpower that comes from the knowledge that relief is only a few steps away. We raced through the doors only to find that the hospital staff had no idea why we were there. Fortunately, our group leader was able to effectively communicate why we were there and the critical nature of our captain’s condition.

We were all given cups and sent into the bathroom together with no monitor. The specimen cups were sealed with medical tape, placed in a box, and put in the trunk of the DHL station manager’s VW bug for shipment out that evening with the next DHL flight. Therefore, having any semblance of proper chain of custody broken the minute we filled the cups, our drug tests were use-less, except for the fact that our captain was once again smiling.

We went back to the hotel. I managed to fall asleep for about an hour.

A little while later, Capt. John Crouch, DHL’s DC-8 chief pilot, along with our MEC’s Capt. Wilshire and DHL Safety Director Norbert Ostrozny, who had chartered a Lear from CVG, arrived to survey the situation and debrief us.

We were still very keyed up from the whole experience, and I was, quite frankly, a little nervous about having to talk to the chief pilot. I had never been involved in anything like this and am mentally predisposed to the idea that having to "go talk to the chief pilot" has a negative connotation.

To my great relief, Capt. Crouch was extremely positive, supportive, and understanding of what we had been through and having Capt. Wilshire and Ostrozny there also really helped to make the whole situation much more comfortable and relaxed. After the previous night, anything that helped reduce the stress and tension was a very welcome relief.

The story wrapped up with the company going above and beyond. Crew Scheduling arranged to fly us home later that day, which would be expected. But what was really a nice touch was they arranged to get us all the way to our homes rather than just back to CVG. They were not required to do so, but it really helped, and we really appreciated it.

After the investigation was complete, a few significant facts were known:

1. We had not done anything wrong. We had been cleared to take off, and the French crew was at fault for the incursion.

2. By running off the runway, we had avoided what would have been a catastrophic collision.

3. We missed hitting the B-777 by approximately 100 feet while traveling between 90 and 100 knots, which is pretty damn close.

4. By sheer luck, we managed to miss several concrete structures in the field as we went sliding approximately 1,000 feet through the mud. Collision with any of these obstructions would have surely caused much more substantial, if not catastrophic, damage to the airplane, and perhaps led to a far worse outcome for us—we just got lucky.

5. DHL sent us a letter from CEO Joe O’Gorman and plaques attesting to our performance, which we appreciated very much.

Back to my original observation about looking back on the components of this event and viewing them through the lens of hindsight and the advantage of now being able to see the whole picture, I have arrived at a few thoughts that I think are worth sharing:

1. If water had not been standing on the runway, the effects of the lights around the airport environment probably would have been significantly different, perhaps allowing me to see and react to the B-777 much earlier.

2. If these conditions had not existed, the French crew might never have made the error of taxiing onto our runway, believing it was their assigned taxiway.

3. A Mexican controller was speaking English to a French crew, which certainly did not help the situation.

4. If I had seen the B-777 just 1 or 2 seconds later, we certainly would have hit it.

5. Had Capt. Norris’s reaction time been any slower, we certainly would have hit the B-777.

6. If Capt. Norris had not called "leaving the runway," F/O Comfort might have unconsciously fought him on the rudder pedals, preventing or delaying Capt. Norris’s avoidance maneuver and causing
a collision.

7. F/O Comfort remained composed and meshed his actions with Capt. Norris’s, creating a synergistic environment that, when held up to the reality that we barely missed the B-777, implies that if F/O Comfort’s actions had varied in almost any way, the outcome would have been disastrous.

8. Capt. Norris’s presence of mind to drive the airplane off the runway into the darkness at almost 100 knots was an unbelievably decisive and gutsy move, and it was the only action that could have saved our lives. Any hesitation on his part would have been fatal.

Did Capt. Norris’s decisiveness and lightning reaction time, good crew coordination, and good luck prevent several hundred deaths that night? I’m not sure, but I think it is worth noting that I am not a very church-going type. I had not been in a church but a few times in many years, and most of those were for weddings or funerals. I did, however, very uncharacteristically, attend Mass with F/O Comfort the day before.

So when I look back at how the variation in any one of so many components would have almost certainly resulted in a catastrophe,
it definitely makes me think.

We all did some things right that night, and a lot of people are probably alive because of it. Mostly, a display of incredible airmanship by Capt. Norris carried the day.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if it was an unusually "inspired" performance, because several hundred bodies on a runway in Mexico City that night just was not part of the Big Plan and, maybe, He was a little pleased that I actually took the time to pay a visit the day before.

Whatever the reason, I am very thankful to be able to tell you the story.

This article is adapted with permission from DHL Council 17’s newsletter, The Night Leader, March 2002.