hydraulic failure

From:         "Joe Dellinger" <joe@montebello.soest.hawaii.edu>
Date:         20 Mar 93 21:21:13 PST
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	January 5, 1992, I was flying back to Honolulu from LAX (after missing
seeing an annular solar eclipse at sunset because of clouds) on Delta
flight 123 (don't know what kind of jet it was!).

	We took off only a little late and settled in for the long flight
to Hawaii... I fell asleep. An hour and a half or so into the flight I woke
up because of some minor turbulence. A little later I noticed there was
a sort of white plume coming out of the end of the wing (I was in seat 43A
and had a perfect view of the left wing).

	While I was puzzling as to what it might be, the pilot came on the
PA and said "we've had a minor hydraulic failure and are turning back towards
LA. The stuff you see coming out of the wings is fuel which we're dumping
because we don't need it anymore. Don't worry, we have plenty of backup
systems and we're returning to LA purely as a precaution."

	Nobody seemed very upset. The stewardesses went around telling
people how safe air travel was, etc. (I thought to myself well _normally_,
yes, it's very safe, but this is obviously no longer a normal flight!)
What really started me wondering, though, was that on the way back to LAX
we seemed to be almost entirely flying _through_ clouds and then _storms_.
We were getting thrown around rather violently and the stewardesses had
to strap themselves in. It was the most severe turbulence I've ever
experienced! Some people on the plane started becoming motion-sick and
began throwing up. The rain outside became so thick that I could not see any
hint of the wings which were just beyond my window... outside was just a pure
featureless white beyond a windowpane with rain coursing down it.

	Coming in for a landing we were really thrown around a _lot_. I
was wondering what the heck was going on... it seemed too much of a
coincidence that the same flight that had a hydraulic failure also had
terrible weather. We couldn't see the runway until we were rather close
to the ground, when we abruptly dropped below the thick fog. Anyway, we
made an OK landing and came to a stop on the runway; everyone clapped.
And we sat there as all sorts of emergency vehicles appeared and circled
around the edges of the runway. We didn't need them though...

	What we needed was a tow. The pilot came on and explained that owing
to the hydraulic failure we had completely lost the ability to turn the
nosewheel, so we were stuck sitting on the runway until they brought out
a car to tow us into the terminal... (that took about 15 minutes). We then
were told to applaud the co-pilot, who it turned out had had to manually go
down into the bowels of the plane to lower the landing gear by hand crank.
(We later heard from him that he was reading the manual step by step while
doing it. Best way to do it, I suppose.)

	Then we got off the plane and waited for them to fix it. There was
a sort of holding area for us; unfortunately, it was on the other side
of security from restrooms and food, there was no place to store your carry-on
luggage, and the single exit/entrance hallway to the holding room was plugged
by the crowd of people trying to get up to the counter set in an alcove in
the hallway where they could attempt to reschedule their flight.

	Every now and then a representative would appear and tell us there
was no news, but we _might_ suddenly leave in 30 minutes so don't go anywhere.
Then one to two hours later they would reappear, apologize for being late,
and tell us the same thing. As lunch time came along they gave us coupons
to use at the Burger King and Pizza Hut (on the other side of security).
When dinner time came along they gave us another set of coupons for the same
places. Meanwhile we could drink the Delta drinks they had available for us
in the holding room (with a smiling Delta lion emblazoned on each can).
I must have gone back and forth through security 7 times, each time with
my two carry-ons and needing to be hand-wanded because of the metal in my
hiking boots. (I was glad to note that they did indeed search me just as
thoroughly the last time as the first.)

	Eventually people found out that the most interesting thing to
do was to go watch the plane being repaired. We watched while repairmen would
go up into the tail of the plane, then come out with their hands and uniforms
covered with reddish-brown fluid... there were also drips of the same fluid
coming out from all around the open access door and puddling on the ground
underneath the plane. (Looked like someone had taken a hydraulic-fluid shower
in there and not shut the curtains.)

	After about 8 hours of this, as promised we WERE abruptly told
"it's fixed, get on the plane NOW or you're left behind". We were supposed
to have arrived in Honolulu at noon... we made it there about 1AM.
Everyone clapped when we landed.

	They didn't lose my luggage, at least!

	Now... a year after the event I'm sort of curious. Just how BAD
a mechanical failure was that? It seems to me that not being able to turn
the nose wheel at all and having to lower the landing gear by hand-crank
is sort of NOT A GOOD SIGN... And why did we fly straight through such
awful weather to get back to LA? Why didn't they go above it, or around it,
or something? If they indeed had "plenty of backup hydraulic systems" as
advertised, what was the big deal? How often do such "minor hydraulic
failures" occur? Are they fairly common? This one didn't make either the
LA or Honolulu papers. Is that typical? Now and then since I've experimentally
asked flight attendants if they've ever had a similar experience and they've
always said "no, of course not" and launched into _their_ worst experiences,
which usually involve being stuck in line on the ground for several hours
while having to put up with drunk unruly passengers.