We continue our series showcasing the cream of the Portsmouth literary scene with ‘Delta 2418’, a riveting aviation adventure story by Chris Campbell.
Delta 2418 was a normal transatlantic flight from Boston, Logan to London, Heathrow. It was an early evening flight and the Boeing 767 was full to capacity with a mixture of business people and holiday makers heading to the UK, some to stay for a while and others using it as a stage point to another destination. The aircraft left the runway at Logan on time at 5.15 pm. Once the plane had reached its normal altitude the evening meal was served to the passengers. The flight path took the aircraft north over Canada and Newfoundland, skirting the southern coast of Greenland and then over Scotland and England to London. The flight was just over seven hours so once dinner had been cleared away many of the passengers reclined their seats and settled back to either read, watch a movie or sleep for the next few hours.
The aircraft was flying at just under 40,000 feet in a clear sky. The weather reports showed a storm brewing off Newfoundland but so far all was calm and clear. The captain had decided that if they actually met the storm he would try and go above or, if necessary, below it to avoid a long detour which could add up to two hours to the flight time. They were scheduled to touch down at Heathrow at 5.25 AM local time and he wanted to be on time on this run. The crew was due for three day’s rest in London before returning stateside.
About 150 miles off the Newfoundland coast the storm became visible through the cockpit windows as a long dark line stretching across the horizon was broken now and then by bright flashes of lightning. Their current course would take them along the southern extremities of the storm and the captain ordered a slight change of course to put them further out. All the passengers felt was a slight shudder as the plane turned onto its new course setting. Most of the window blinds in the passenger cabins were down so most people did not see the storm clouds. The plane was maintaining its altitude and the radar showed that they would now miss the storm by over seventy miles. No cause for alarm or concern there, this was just routine. Ten minutes into the new course the flight instruments began behaving oddly with the needles swinging back and forth across the dials. Once again, no major concern as this sometimes happened during electrical storms even though they were quite a way from the storm. The aircraft was on auto pilot and the crew knew that if there were any major problems, then the system would notify them. The flight deck instruments continued their wild dance across the dials and they began to feel a small amount of air turbulence. The captain reached over and flipped a switch which illuminated the “Fasten Seat Belt” signs in the passenger cabins. The first officer also made a short announcement over the PA system to the same effect. Back in the cabins the stewardesses went round waking anyone who was asleep and asking them to fasten their seat belts.
The turbulence was getting worse which was unusual this far out from the storm. Suddenly a red light on the dashboard flashed on and a mechanical voice announced, ‘Auto pilot disengaging’. The flight crew looked at each other with puzzled looks as this was very unusual. The auto pilot normally coped well with any given airborne scenario. The captain flipped a toggle switch and there was a loud click as the aircraft went back on to manual control. The altimeter seemed to be winding down although there was no sense of descent. The nose was still level and no flaps were lowered. The crew put this down to another side effect of the storm.
Back in the main passenger cabin a family was travelling with the airline for their first trip to Europe. The young son, probably about ten years of age, occupied a window seat and unlike most of the other cabin windows, the blind was raised enabling the child to look out into the inky blackness of the night sky. Suddenly he grabbed his father’s arm and pointed out of the window. His father looked where his son was pointing and saw a bright white light off the aircraft’s port side. Nothing could be seen beyond the beam of light as it was intensive enough to render useless any night vision they may have had. The father saw that the light was moving quickly, faster than their aircraft, and told his son it was probably a military jet from the Royal Canadian Air Force. The light disappeared as quickly as it had become visible.
In the cockpit everyone jumped as a blinding light shone directly into the cockpit from the port side and slightly below their flight path. The captain instinctively applied hard starboard rudder and sent the plane into a sliding right bank. The light flashed past just above where the plane now was. The captain was furious and challenged the mystery aircraft on the radio. There was no response and the light appeared again this time in front of them and seemingly on a direct collision course. The first officer reported that all communication systems were down and that they were isolated from any ground control. The light swept up over the plane at the last minute, plunging the cockpit into darkness. The instrument panel lights had gone out, even the back-up system was not working. The captain worked the controls but the aircraft did not respond. The throttles were still in the same position as they had been, set for economical cruising. Like the remainder of the controls, they failed to respond when moved.
The instrument panel lights came back on and the flight crew looked in amazement at the altimeter and air speed indicator. The altimeter was now showing ninety thousand feet and still climbing, whilst the air speed indicator was registering over fifteen hundred miles an hour, nearly three times the plane’s normal operating speed. The gyro compass was spinning madly so they had no idea in which direction they were travelling despite being unable to feel any motion. The flight crew had well over eight thousand flying hours between them and none had ever experienced phenomena like this. There was a ping from the altimeter as it went off the scale at two hundred and forty thousand feet, and the needle dropped back broken to the bottom of the dial. Seconds later this was followed by another ping as the air speed indicator also went off the scale and broke after reaching two thousand miles per hour.
Back in the passenger cabin the father and his son were staring out the window trying to find out what was causing the light, unaware of the drama unfolding on the flight deck. The crew waited helplessly in the cockpit unable to do anything but sit it out, whatever it was. The first officer got up from the right hand pilot’s seat and went back to unlock the door leading into the remainder of the aircraft. It had been standard aviation practice for several years now to have the cockpit door locked from the inside to prevent attempted hijackings. The first officer stepped out into the forward galley area. The cabin lights were still on, the seat belt signage was still illuminated and everything appeared normal. The stewardesses were talking to passengers and offering and topping up drinks. The air marshal was in his seat reading. No one seemed aware of anything out of the ordinary taking place.
The first officer moved back along the plane planning on speaking to the stewardesses to see if they were aware of any abnormalities. Halfway along the aisle he was stopped by the father of the young boy who asked what the lights had been. Was it a fighter? he asked. The first officer answered truthfully that he didn’t know what the lights were but hastened to tell the father and his son that everything was fine and there was no need to worry. He explained the sudden evasive action the captain had taken as severe air turbulence. After having a brief chat with the cabin crew he returned to the cockpit. He looked out of the windows and was surprised to see that the sky was rapidly lightening. It should still have been dark. Moments later the sun broke through the thin clouds. The crew looked at the captain. The sun was in the wrong position; it should have been almost in front of them in the east but was instead way off to the port side of the aircraft, which put them flying virtually south.
The captain shrugged his shoulders, total confusion on his face. He looked out of the side window of the cockpit to try and judge the altitude by the visibility of the ground or sea. Instead he saw only the curvature of the earth which meant that they were extremely high, practically on the very edge of space. Suddenly there was a clanging noise from outside the aircraft as if something had hit the fuselage and bounced off, and then there was total blackness.
The first officer opened his eyes and looked around the cockpit. There was silence. The captain was just opening his eyes and looked round, a bewildered expression upon his face. Sunlight was shining through the windows and it was uncomfortably warm in the close confines of the cockpit. The captain got out of his seat and a look of amazement came across his face when he looked through the cockpit windows and realised belatedly that the aircraft was on the ground. He nudged the first officer and pointed out of the windows. The first officer’s expression matched the captain’s, who unlocked the cockpit door and went aft into the passenger cabin.
Everyone was awake, but confused by what had happened. The captain explained to his passengers that the aircraft was on the ground, but that he didn’t know how it had got there or where they were. Looking through the windows it appeared that the aircraft was in a natural clearing surrounded by dense vegetation and trees. There was no way on earth that the aircraft could have landed there under its own power. It was almost as if it had just been dropped there. The first officer appeared in the cabin to tell the captain that the communication systems appeared to be working again. The aircraft had power to all its subsidiary systems however the engines remained silent and unresponsive. The throttle levers were still set for economical cruising. The captain decided to get everyone off the aircraft and asked the stewardesses to deploy the emergency evacuation slides. They duly opened the front and rear doors and activated the slides. Instructions were given to the passengers and within ten minutes everyone was on the ground. The captain and first officer were still aboard trying to raise someone on the radio, but all they were getting on the current frequencies was static.
After over an hour of trying, a faint voice came through the speakers. The person was speaking a language that neither of the flight crew could understand, but they thought it was Spanish. They kept trying to communicate using English, French and the little German the first officer knew. Eventually another voice came over the air speaking in broken French. The two flight officers spent half an hour talking to the person on the other end of the radio link, then they lowered the emergency ladder from the cockpit floor and climbed down to join everybody else on the ground. Everyone was looking round in amazement and talking quietly amongst themselves.
After enquiring of the stewardesses to make sure everyone was alright and accounted for, the captain called everybody into a group under the starboard wing to give them a little shade from the blazing sun. He explained what he and the first officer had learned on the radio. They were on an islet in the Southern Pacific ocean called Moto Noi, part of the Easter Islands group, and a Chilean dependency. Their flight had been reported as missing when it disappeared from the radar screens off the Newfoundland coast on the edge of a violent storm. He said that he and the first officer had no idea how they came to be where they were and then dropped the bombshell that they had been missing for twenty five days. There were gasps of astonishment from passengers and crew alike.
The captain then said that the Chilean air force was sending a rescue team to take them off the islet and fly them the relatively short distance to the main airport on Easter Island, and from there on a charter flight for the five and a half hour flight to the Chilean capital of Santiago. They would then transfer planes yet again for the nearly five and a half thousand mile flight back to Boston. Once there the Federal Aviation Authority would be speaking to everybody. He also told them that a FAA investigative unit was flying in from Dallas, Texas to examine the aircraft but that they should all be away from the islet before they arrived.
Some four hours later the quiet of the remote islet was shattered by the sound of aircraft engines. Minutes later a Chilean air force Chinook helicopter swept in over the trees and touched down on the far side of the clearing. This was followed by three more identical aircraft. The passengers and crew were assisted into three of the massive helicopters and then they lifted off and headed east towards Easter Island. The fourth helicopter had flown in a detachment of army personnel whose task it was to guard the aircraft. There wasn’t a great population on the islet. Most of them were tourists and they probably would never normally come this far off the beaten track but the sound and subsequent arrival of the helicopters made people curious enough to venture into the forest to investigate.
A day and a half later the charter flight from Santiago touched down at Logan airport in Boston. They were met by a contingent of FAA investigators and media from all over the world. Many of the families of those involved had also come to Logan to welcome their loved ones home, whom they had given up for dead three weeks ago.
The FAA investigators found nothing wrong with the aircraft that was still on Moto Noi islet other than the fact that the engines were seized up, almost as if the metal surfaces had been welded together. The plane still had plenty of fuel in its wing tanks, and the investigators pointed out that if the plane had flown there under its own power and somehow managed to land in the clearing then the tanks would have been almost dry. It transpired that at the time of the storm and Delta 2418’s disappearance, there had been a rash of UFO sightings stretching all the way from New Mexico to Greenland. The US and Canadian air forces had both scrambled fighter jets from several locations to investigate but all the pilots had reported seeing bright lights in the sky that even their fast attack jets had been unable to catch.
The FAA interviewed everybody from the flight but nothing definite came out of it. Those passengers who had been awake at the time of the storm remembered a violent turn and then hearing something hit the aircraft, and then blackness. The next thing they remembered was opening their eyes on Moto Noi. The passengers who had been sleeping remembered nothing after the evening in-flight meal.
The aircraft was eventually dismantled and flown back to the US in pieces to the Boeing assembly plant in Seattle. It was put back together, but never flew again, being kept for ongoing investigations.