En route from Miami to Medellin, Colombia, the cockpit satellite phone rang on board Kalitta Air's 747-200. Dispatch was calling with a request. A competitor's 747 freighter was experiencing mechanical problems in Bogotá. The competitor would be unable to transport a large load of flowers back to the United States. Would the crew divert into Bogotá to rescue the cargo?
Considering the fact that the original schedule was a 36-hour layover in Medellin, the change of plans was not unwelcome. Not that Medellin was necessarily undesirable, but the new itinerary would have the crew home two days earlier. And Capt. Bryant Beebe was fast approaching the FAA rule of 120 flight hours in 30 days.
Both Beebe and the dispatcher agreed that the extra fuel burn would not be an issue. The crew began the process of redirecting the airplane to its new destination.
Hours later, the redirection would forever change the lives of everybody on board the 747. On July 7, 2008, the professionalism of the crew and the raw pilot skills of the captain would be tested to the extreme. They would experience an event that no one believed possible. The event made Chesley Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles' landing on the Hudson River six months later look like it was a scheduled arrival.
With Beebe at the controls, the 747 soon touched down at El Dorado International in Bogotá. Beebe was well aware of the terrain challenges and the surrounding topography. The terrain was never an issue under normal circumstances. An engine failure, however, created the need for a different escape route rather than the standard departure. An engine failure was problematic even for a four-engine 747. These circumstances were the basis for one of Beebe's first important decisions of the event.
The trip had been double-crewed when it left Miami because of the original long flight time schedule. Two flight engineers, a copilot, one mechanic and two loadmasters were on board. Completing the roster of eight was a second captain. The second captain was junior in seniority to Beebe and had less experience. Although the second captain had indicated his desire to fly, Beebe would allow him only the opportunity to participate in and out of Bogotá from the right seat as a copilot. The command decision was received with the characteristic professional pout, but the reasoning was well-understood.
Many of the pilots who have the proud humility to call themselves "freight dogs," or "air cargus caninus," have colorful backgrounds. Beebe is no exception. His goal as a kid was to become an airline pilot and have enough money to buy his own airplane. He learned to fly in Maryland. He soloed after 10 hours of flight time. He obtained his commercial and instrument ratings while still attending high school.
While working as a flight attendant for Pan Am in 1978, Beebe flew canceled checks in a Cherokee Six, a Mooney 210 and a Baron. He was soon hired as a flight engineer on a DC-8 for a company that operated as a freight carrier and a scheduled casino airline. He spent four years as a first officer on a 727 for two different companies — one passenger airline and one freight airline. The now-defunct Midway Airlines employed Beebe for less than a year as a 737 copilot. He spent four years as a copilot on a 707. And then, in 1993, he was hired by Kalitta Air. He became a captain one year later. Beebe has been with Kalitta for 17 years and is seniority No. 12 on its list of approximately 230 pilots.
As ground personnel in Bogotá began preparations to load cargo, takeoff data was calculated and printed via the onboard computer and laptop programs.
Although a walk-around of the exterior had already been performed, Beebe's custom was to perform his own inspection. Part of his reasoning was that he used the opportunity to ensure a pushback and engine start could be accomplished without the risk of rolling a tire in the dirt or blowing equipment at unsuspecting ground personnel. In contrast to scheduled passenger flying, the world of night freight requires more in the way of self-preservation tactics.
After returning to the cockpit, Beebe completed a takeoff briefing that included a contingency to dump fuel immediately if an engine failed. At approximately 0335 local time, the 747 was pushed back. The takeoff roll began on Runway 31 Right shortly thereafter. Because of the heavy weight of 690,000 pounds and the surrounding terrain, maximum power was utilized.
As the airplane rotated, Beebe sensed a heavier than normal pressure required on the yoke. In a brief moment, he would know the reason. As the airspeed indicated V2+10, the No. 4 engine failed. Without hesitation, all three crew members shouted, "Dump!"