“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice. ”
We collided with an airliner at 37,000 feet... and somehow I'm alive
As I write this on what happens to be my 60th birthday, I am unceasingly aware that my astonishing luck to be alive today coincided with the horrible fate of 154 people who plunged to their deaths on September 29. That was when the seven passengers and crew aboard a new Embraer Legacy 600, me among them, inexplicably survived a midair collision with a Boeing 737-800 at 37,000 feet above the Amazon rainforest.
I have tried not to be flippant about any aspect of this story. But I do think how very fortunate I am not to have been the subject of a 400-word obituary with the headline, "Travel Columnist Joe Sharkey, 59." A lot of people—myself included, until recently—would have a small problem with the idea of turning 60.
Now I cherish it.
For seven years, I have written the weekly "On the Road" business-travel column for The New York Times. But I was on assignment for Business Jet Traveler when I arrived at Embraer headquarters in São José dos Campos, Brazil, on the morning of September 27. My schedule called for two days of intensive touring of the company's facilities, along with interviews with its top executives, including Luis Carlos Affonso, the executive vice president of the Executive Jets division.
I was especially interested in Embraer's strong new push into the business-jet market. Buoyed by the success of its super-mid-size Legacy 600 jets, the company is planning several new models for various business jet niches, including a very light jet, the Phenom 100, and a slightly larger light jet, the Phenom 300. Embraer struck me as a classy outfit, with a sprawling, tidy manufacturing and executive headquarters that employs 13,000 and looks more like a Hollywood studio lot than an airplane factory.
It so happened that a Long Island, N.Y. jet-charter company, ExcelAire, was taking delivery of its first $24.7 million Legacy 600 at Embraer on Friday, September 29. David Rimmer, the executive vice president of ExcelAire, had invited me to ride back home on the delivery flight to experience the Legacy on a long haul.
The ExcelAire Legacy was outfitted with 13 seats, but only four passengers were booked to leave São José aboard the airplane.
"Sure," I said.
So that made me passenger number five.
Around 2:15 p.m. on Friday, after a lovely delivery ceremony attended by top Embraer executives, we boarded the airplane, which had been buffed to a car-wash shine. As we took off into a beautiful Brazilian early-spring sky, the Embraer people were lined up by the runway waving goodbye.
On board were pilot Joe Lepore; copilot Jan Paladino; David Rimmer, ExcelAire's vice president of charter services; Ralph Michielli, ExcelAire's vice president and director of maintenance; Henry Yandle, an Embraer sales director; Daniel Bachmann, an Embraer marketing executive; and me.
No one, it is generally believed, can survive a collision with an airliner at 37,000 feet. Yet, somehow, the seven of us did just that. And to this day, no one has been able to explain fully how we managed to walk away after a harrowing emergency landing on a damaged jet in the Amazon jungle, while 154 people aboard a two-week-old Boeing 737-800 that had collided with us plunged to their deaths.
"Do you believe in miracles?" a television reporter asked me in the media tumult that followed my return home several days later.
"No," I said. "I believe in luck. If what happened to me was a miracle, then what do you call what happened to those 154 people who died?"
The flight was uneventful until the impact. One of the things you can do with a business jet, of course, is make a quick stop without a lot of hassle. Rather than flying directly home to the U.S., we were bound northwest for Manaus, the Amazon port city, where the plan was to spend the night, get up before dawn, board a riverboat, watch the sun rise over the Amazon and then get back on the airplane for the final long leg home.
Daniel Bachmann, who had grown up near Manaus in the teeming Amazon, the son of American medical missionaries, was the inspiration for this short leisure stop. On board the Legacy, once we leveled off, I had spread out a map of Brazil on the big fold-out table at my seat. All of the other passengers gathered around as Daniel traced his finger over the contours of the vast Amazon rainforest. He regaled us with tales of boa constrictors that could swallow a mule, of swimming in rivers with piranha the size of pizzas.
In a while, we drifted back to our seats. We were about an hour into the flight. David Rimmer, I think it was, offered some fruit plates. No alcohol was offered or consumed. All of the other passengers had digital cameras and were taking pictures, inside the cabin and out the windows, where the Amazon rainforest was now spread below us, the dense canopy of trees starting to darken with the sun low in the sky to the west.
Someone suggested I go up to see the cockpit. I stood in the aisle by the open flight deck door, looking at the forest from behind the pilots. Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino were focused ahead. Both had earphones on. Joe sensed my presence and gave me a thumbs up.
"Flying beautifully," he called back to me.
I returned to my seat at the window on the left wing, pulled down the shade and started to do some work. I can't say for sure now how many minutes after that the accident happened, but enough time had passed for me to have taken out a laptop, booted it up and begun transcribing notes.
Heading northwest, flying steadily and without the slightest sign of trouble at 37,000 feet, we had crossed a time zone. It was an hour earlier than in São José. (Later we set the local time of impact at 3:59, thanks to the time-date stamps on digital photos taken just before and after the collision.)
Suddenly, I was startled by a loud metallic BANG. There was a sharp concussive jolt.
And then nothing. The airplane flew on steadily.
"We've been hit," Henry Yandle said from the aisle up front. That night, Henry would recall that he shouted this. My recollection is that he stated it emphatically, but calmly.
As a reporter who has covered every sort of story, I know that body language tells a lot when you are trying to evaluate a tense situation. I looked at the flight deck. Joe and Jan looked like well-trained infantrymen, working in tandem. I saw no sign of panic, but it was clear that this was a crisis.
Then I lifted my window shade and my heart dropped. About four and a half feet of the winglet had been shorn off. Only a jagged stump remained.
Ralph Michielli was at the next window, intently surveying the damage. He snapped some pictures. I did not like the expression on his face.
"How bad is it?" I asked him.
He looked me in the eye and there was no reassurance in his gaze. "I don't know," he said.
Time passed quickly, but there was no panic. Ralph—the maintenance and safety expert—was fixed at the window, studying that wing. He shook his head ruefully.
I don't remember how all of this was communicated, but 15 minutes after impact we all were strapped into our seats, with gear stowed, braced for an impact. The seats all had shoulder harnesses that hooked onto the seatbelts.
"You should hook up that harness," Ralph said. I fumbled with it but finally got it fastened.
The airplane continued to fly on steadily, but we were losing altitude and speed. The darkening jungle canopy went on forever.
The shorn winglet was not the biggest problem. A foot-long piece inboard of the winglet stub and aft of the leading edge was now coming off. Rivets had popped. Some fuel was leaking closer inboard.
I don't recall exactly how we all knew now that we were going down, one way or the other, in the middle of the Amazon, in a damaged airplane with a limited time left to fly—but we knew it. In the cockpit, Jan pored over charts, looking for an airport. There was none on the charts. That night, Joe would say he had strongly considered putting down in any clearing that looked as if it might give us a chance to survive the landing. No clearing appeared.
Joe—a furloughed American Airlines pilot—and Jan would also say that they had totally lost contact with air traffic control, either from Brasilia or from Manaus. The unbroken stretch of jungle northwest of Brasilia is notorious. Later, many pilots would email me to say there was only one way they flew through this airspace: warily.
On board the airplane, the atmosphere was serene. Everyone seemed lost in his own thoughts. Later, we would find that our thoughts were identically focused: on spouses, children, parents, other loved ones, friends.
I took out a notebook and scrawled a seven-line note to my wife. It said that I loved her, that our years together had been golden and that because of our love I was able to accept my death. I tore the page from the binder, folded it, put it in my wallet and crammed my wallet into my front pants pocket, figuring it would be less likely to pop out on impact and that the leather might protect the note from burning.
Four Welcome Words
I thought of my wife and my children and my parents and loved ones and friends. I wondered how badly I would be hurt in the crash. I have been thrown from a horse on occasion, and that hurts pretty badly. I figured this would be a lot worse.
In a while, my thoughts were interrupted by the four most welcome words I have ever heard.
"I see an airport!" Joe shouted from the cockpit.
Dead ahead was a huge gash in the otherwise unbroken jungle. This would turn out to be a once-secret but now obscure military air base called Campo de Provas Brigadeiro Velloso, near Cachimbo in the state of Para.
The wing was deteriorating, so we weren't home yet. To lessen wing stress, Joe and Jan made a big spiral—the kind pilots make going into the airport at Baghdad to avoid small-arms fire and rockets. Later they would say they'd had no idea what was actually on the runway—junk or debris or trucks or whatever. Only after we were committed to the approach, they would say, did air-traffic control in the tower wake up and acknowledge us.
We came down hard and hot, with a lot of the automatic controls gone. I watched Joe and Jan physically wrestle that airplane down and to a screeching, skidding stop. People say that a modern airplane really doesn't need a pilot. You've heard the tale about the need to have a monkey and a dog in the cockpit with a single pilot? It's the monkey's job to fly the airplane, the pilot's job to keep him company and the dog's job to bite the pilot if he touches any of the controls.
Let me tell you, it took two courageous, skilled pilots to bring that damaged airplane safely down. When we came to a stop, there was abrupt silence. And then we cheered.
"Nice flying," I told the pilots as we stumbled out of the aircraft. Actually, I inserted a certain intensifying word between "nice" and "flying."
We were surrounded by military personnel, but there was no sign of hostility. Our passports were checked. Like the military guys, we stood dumbfounded. How had we made it down safely? We stared at the busted wing and a damaged tail.
We did not know what had hit us, literally and figuratively.
We were treated well and assigned to bunks in clean barracks. They fed us and gave us beer. Shaken and stunned, we speculated endlessly about what had occurred. Had a military jet clipped us, and the pilot perhaps ejected? The best bet we figured on was that an aircraft of some type had exploded or broken up at a far higher altitude miles from us and we had flown into the gyre of its debris field.
We never speculated that we had collided with an airliner. All we knew was that we were alive, with a damaged airplane that somehow had stayed aloft. The airplane could be fixed or scrapped. We were alive and unhurt.
Dan, the only one in the group who spoke Portuguese, had left the table while we were having dinner about three hours after we landed. In about 10 minutes he came back, ashen faced. Speaking so quietly that I had to leave my seat and crouch beside him, he said that a 737 with 155 on board (the number would later be revised to 154) had gone down in the jungle right where we had felt the impact.
I saw Joe and Jan holding back the tears. We stood for a moment of silence that I think lasted about three minutes.
I told the guys—as it was my ethical duty to do—that from this point on I was a reporter for The New York Times working on a breaking news story.
Not once did they shun me or keep me from their discussions. Not then, nor during the two days of detainment and questioning that followed.
Anguish, grief and bewilderment enveloped us all as we left the mess hall and headed for our barracks. It was very dark. Two days of intense military and police questioning lay ahead of us, along with weeks of uncertainty as Brazilian investigators conducted a secret inquiry in an intensely political environment.
We were virtually incommunicado. The military commanders told us that the air base had only one phone line, which struck me as highly improbable. Several of the guys managed to call home and from there the word spread.
I had been pegged as a journalist, and it seems to me that there was a special effort at the military base and, a day later, at police headquarters hundreds of miles to the south in Cuiabá in the state of Mato Grosso, to keep me from the phone. Finding a computer in a barracks, I did manage to get a frantically mistyped email out to my wife and to some editors at The New York Times.
It is important to remember that we did not know for three hours that we had collided with a 737. Without access to outside information, we had no idea of the horror of that jungle crash site, or of the awful ordeal that lay ahead for the Legacy pilots.
We did have a sense of the surreal world we had just entered. In the Southern Hemisphere, as any school child knows, some of the physical world is different. Hurricanes spin clockwise there rather than counterclockwise as they do in the Northern Hemisphere, for example. Even the heavens are different.
We came out of the mess hall and headed through the inky darkness for our barracks and bunks. We still could barely believe we were alive. But Ralph stopped and gazed up at the sky. "Look," he said. "Here's how weird this all is. Even the moon is upside down."