Jumpseat: Close Encounters

An A380 near miss and other such alien experiences.

Jumpseat A380

Jumpseat A380

I am fortunate that the majority of my trips can be categorized as mundane, a characteristic that all airline pilots aspire to for the sake of our passengers. The law of averages indicated I was due a trip that fell out of that category. And on this particular flight, it almost seemed as if the events that occurred were a sign that aliens had actually landed.

As background, circumstances of our reserve system and the new FAR 117 rules had allowed me the opportunity to work 10 days in a row. The trip to London that I was about to embark on was the seventh and would end my flying marathon upon our return three days later.

Atypical of crew manning, our relief copilot had been called on reserve from another crew base and was ­assigned a deadhead (a leg flown as a passenger and not an active crew member) to cover the trip. The beginning of the month had heralded a new reserve system, and it didn't seem to be working as planned. Our New York domicile had run out of 777 copilots.

That being said, I had the good fortune of flying with experience. My second-in-command was a former F-16 combat veteran, and my relief copilot was a 10-plus-year veteran of the 777 with a GA background that included a stint as an Alaskan bush pilot. He owned a Super Cub and a clipped wing Cub, operating both airplanes from a 900-foot grass runway on his cattle ranch. In addition to cattle ranching, he moonlighted on his off days as a horse boarder, landlord and heavy machinery leasing operator. Underachiever was not in his vocabulary.

Our clearance had us traveling via the typical perimeter taxiway for a takeoff on JFK's Runway 4L. We had been given instructions to hold short of an intersecting taxiway for sequencing with other departing traffic. It was the standard routing to cross Runway 13R en route to 4L. Upon reaching our taxi clearance limit, we remained stopped for a few minutes as airplanes passed in front of our nose. Once instructions were given to continue, I focused my attention on a sharp-angle turn.

Without warning, my peace and serenity were interrupted by both of my copilots separately shouting, "Stop!" Recovering from my stroke, I directed my attention toward an A380 that appeared to have emerged from the darkness as it traveled toward us, moving in the opposite direction on a taxiway parallel to the one we occupied. It took only a split second to make a visual sighting of the A380's winglet as it began to fill the windscreen on my side. I abruptly moved my feet to the top of the rudder pedals, sending 3,000 psi of hydraulic pressure to 12 brakes. It would be an understatement to say that our airplane stopped.

Unfortunately, the A380 continued its travel. My copilot once again shouted, "Stop!" but this time he keyed his mic. Although the transmission was made on ground frequency, somehow the message was received even though the A380 had remained on tower frequency. Realizing the danger, the behemoth airplane grinded to its own abrupt halt.

A short period of silence elapsed until all involved collectively wiped the sweat from their brows. The Airbus refused to move and requested a tow. Two Port Authority vehicles arrived on scene to survey the situation. I released the lock on my sliding window and rotated the crank to open it, hoping to get a visual picture on wingtip clearance. I leaned out. The darkness and my sight angle made a judgment call almost impossible. I closed my sliding window. A few more minutes passed.

The tower controller indicated that at least a half-hour would be required for a tow to occur. Because of en route fuel requirements, the delay would become an issue not only for us but also for other airplanes trapped as a result of the traffic jam. One foreign air carrier verbalized his concern.

An official in one of the Port Authority vehicles indicated wingtip clearance was available, volunteering to maintain a careful watch. The A380 agreed to begin a slow, supervised taxi. I reopened my window, expecting to take photos of the impending damage. (I was told that as I leaned out the widow, my copilots had contemplated a strategic push but decided against the idea. The paperwork would have been tedious, notwithstanding the departure delay.)

As the giant Airbus taxied past our wingtip, aluminum and composite material remained attached to their respective airframe structures. But from my perspective, it appeared as though clearance was all of 2 feet.

Upon brief reflection, neither our 777-300 nor the A380 had operated contrary to our appropriate clearances. A small notation on the airport diagram stated some taxiway restrictions existed for just such airplane types but gave no indication on where these areas were located. Apparently it is a secret, available only to the controllers. Although wingtip clearance may very well have existed once both airplanes were parallel to each other, a turn would have swung the left wing through a wide arc if I had continued and may have put us in jeopardy of impact regardless.

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of this situation was that no one was hurt. One of our frequent fliers felt compelled enough to write me a thank-you note regarding the evasive decision, but credit is really due my copilots. As of this writing, I have not received feedback regarding this event.

Next on the list of close encounters was a malfunction of our transponder. Immediately after departure the device developed its own personality, deciding it would randomly vary the last two digits of the display up or down one number. Although the airplane is equipped with two transponders, the display head operates both. We succeeded in driving almost every controller insane as we progressed on our route across the Northeast United States, Canada, the North Atlantic and the United Kingdom.

A conference call via satcom with our dispatch and maintenance ended with no solution other than for us to reach the conclusion that not touching the transponder would be in everybody's best interest. Although we were told every sector all the way to Heathrow knew our plight, it seemed each controller attempted to correct the situation by requesting us to change the code. It was the first time I can remember dictating our own squawk code to ATC rather than the other way around.

Continuing farther along our route, turbulence that wasn't supposed to exist appeared in the form of moderate chop almost all the way across the North Atlantic. I wasn't making friends with our flight attendants as they attempted to complete their cabin service. Inquiries to other airplanes along the tracks in the same area and same altitudes revealed a curious observation. We were the only flight experiencing a higher level of uncomfortable ride. Imagine that. …

Upon completion of a pleasant approach on a summer morning in London, where the visibility was uncharacteristically unlimited, we faced another problem as the airplane turned onto the yellow lead-in line for the gate. A piece of ground equipment had been parked in an area that appeared just outside of the safety perimeter, but considering our last episode, I wasn't taking chances. Besides, it was the left wing again.

This oversight was atypical for Heathrow. As we would discover later, the ground equipment had suffered a mechanical breakdown and was unmovable. Our premature stop prompted the arrival of three very official BAA (British Airport Authority) guidemen. The guidemen mistakenly assumed our stop was because the electronic guidance system had malfunctioned. I offered a few nonstandard hand gestures toward the offending problem. The message was received. We continued our parking with the assistance of watchful eyes.

Adding to the list, only as a small annoyance, the lift (elevator) that led down to our crew transportation bus from inside the terminal had failed. Admirably, not one of the 12 flight attendants whined as they schlepped their bags down two flights of stairs.

Finally, just for poetic license, one of the flight attendants, whose brother had traveled on board our flight, forgot to request that our bus driver travel to the passenger pickup area. Had another flight attendant not been on high alert, we would have arrived at the layover hotel minus one brother. It would have been par for the course.

Later that day, after taking my nap, I had a stunning realization. The last two characters of our airplane's nose number contained my initials. (Add haunting music of Twilight Zone theme in background.)

We did have a close encounter of the airplane kind, but maybe it really was … naaww, forget it. Mundane will be back in my future.

Get exclusive online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.