The Poobah Files: The Flight of Old 22From 1977-1981, we were in the US Air Force. During those four years we went to every continent on Earth except Antarctica and Australia - 24 countries to be exact. We traveled constantly and went to some wonderful places - Midway Island and Uruguay for example - and some not-so-great places - Saudi Arabia and Israel amongst them.
We attended many a humanitarian disaster and hauled strange cargoes like dead people, live goats, Susan B. Anthony dollars, and President Carter's limo (which had its own Secret Service agent, BTW). Spending all that time aloft you might expect we'd have a tale or two. And you'd be right. Here is one of them.
We had arrived in Catania, Sicily after a long day, laden with bags of mail for Navy ships in the Mediterranean, some spare airplane parts, and movies for the fleet. After an eight hour rest at a dumpy, local hotel and a quick meal of hard bread and sausage, we loaded up about 20 civilian dependents and headed for our next stop in Naples.
Just after nightfall, we took off and climbed out over the dark Mediterranean. The night was clear and filled with thousands of stars. At first, we could see a faint demarcation between the stars above and the darkness of the sea, but as we neared land, the lights from the ground joined the stars in the sky until we seemed to be floating motionless in space. It's very difficult on such nights to have any sense of movement. Other aircraft could be 10 miles away or 50 miles away. Their tiny flashing lights all look the same at a distance.
"IMPENDING MID-AIR!" he screamed into the head set.
As he screamed, the pilot woke up in a panic. The cup of coffee sitting in the holder next to him began to float freely, unencumbered in the zero gravity the step dive created.
I threw my book away and felt my body begin to lift out of my seat. I grabbed the arm rests and looked up at the windshield. I could see the white bulk of an airplane entirely filling my view. The white aircraft had green and red stripes running its length and there were people in the windows, completely unaware of us bearing down on them. As the aircraft screamed over our heads, I saw the name "Alitalia" on its side.
Over the roar of our own airplane I could hear the passengers in back screaming. Meanwhile, the co-pilot yanked mightily on the yoke and we bottomed out of our power dive. The gravity returned with a vengeance and I could feel it pulling at my body and the skin on my face. I was crushed back into my seat and was momentarily pinned there.
I heard the pilot yell at the co-pilot. "GODDAMNIT! WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" I looked over and saw a dark stain spreading across the pilot's lap. The terrifying wake up had caused him to piss his pants.
The co-pilot began to yammer his explanation of what happened to the pilot. The navigator and loadmaster in back with the passengers were also talking wildly. I could still hear the dependents screaming and yelling as the crew in back tried to regain control.
"EVERYBODY SHUT THE FUCK UP," screamed the pilot. As silence returned, he composed himself and got the full story from the co-pilot. Once in control of his own voice, he clicked the radio button.
"Brindisi, this is old two two."
"Go ahead old 22," the controller said in heavily accented English. He sounded nothing like a person who had just allowed two aircraft to nearly merge into a single, badly mangled one.
"Brindisi, we have just passed within 500 feet of an Alitalia Boeing seven two seven. I'd like to report the incident," the pilot said quietly. We waited and there was no answer.
"Brindisi, old two two. Did you copy?" the pilot said a little louder. Still, there was no answer from Brindisi.
"Brindisi, old two two. GODDAMN IT, ANSWER ME! You almost killed us you sonofabitch!...BRINDISI...DO YOU HEAR ME OR NOT YOU ASSHOLE!"
Finally the radio crackled to life. "Who tell Brindisi how to control traffic?" the controller asked calmly.
"YOU MOTHERFUCKING, DUMB ASS! I WANT TO REPORT THIS INCIDENT NOW! PRONTO! PRONTO," the pilot screamed.
"Please do not use such language sir," the controller answered calmly. "I am sorry, but I have not a record of this incident so you cannot report it."
"WHAT," the pilot screamed back. "WHAT IN THE HELL DO YOU MEAN I CAN'T REPORT IT," the pilot continued. Only the soft rush of static shushed in our headsets.
"Brindisi?" "Brindisi?" "Brindisi, do you copy?"
Silence and not another word from the controller. Not even when we passed reporting points and not even when we left his assigned airspace for the airspace of another controller.
The rest of the trip, minus some time spent trying to calm the terrified passengers and clean the pilots flight suit, was uneventful. After we landed in Naples, the pilot stormed off to base operations to report the incident. We refueled, exchanged some passengers and took off for our base in England. There, the awful day was over and we all headed home to rest.
Several days later we were told that the incident had moved swiftly up the American chain of command, over to NATO, and finally to the US State Department. They had filed a formal complaint requesting an apology and that the Italian controller be disciplined.
The Italians replied several months later to say they had investigated the incident and could find no error in the controller's action. He was not disciplined.
And as far as I know, he may still be haunting the sky around Brindisi today.
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Sunday, February 19, 2006