I write this on October 15, my 60th birthday. I have tried not to be flippant about any aspect of this story. 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 people aboard a new Embraer Legacy 600, me among them, inexplicably survived a midair collision with a 737-800 at 37,000 feet above the Amazon rainforest.
But I do think how fortunate I am today not to have been the subject of a 400-word newspaper obituary two weeks earlier 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, as a freelancer, I have written the weekly “On the Road” business-travel column for The New York Times. But I was on assignment from AIN’s sister magazine, Business Jet Traveler, when I arrived at Embraer headquarters in São Jose dos Campos, Brazil, on the morning of September 27 for two days of intensive touring of its manufacturing facilities, along with interviews with the company’s 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 popular super-midsize Legacy 600, 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.
It so happened that ExcelAire, a Long Island, N.Y., jet-charter company, was taking delivery of its first $24.7 million Legacy 600 at Embraer on September 29. David Rimmer, the executive vice president of ExcelAire, had invited me to ride home on the delivery flight to experience the Legacy on a long-haul flight.
The ExcelAire Legacy was outfitted with 13 seats, but only four passengers were booked to leave São Jose aboard the airplane. That made me passenger number five.
We were to leave around 2 p.m. Friday, after a lovely delivery ceremony attended by top Embraer executives. We boarded the airplane, which had been buffed to a car-wash shine, around 2:15 p.m., and 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 Joe Lepore, pilot; Jan Paladino, copilot; Rimmer; Ralph Michielli, ExcelAire’s vice president and director of maintenance; Henry Yandle, an Embraer sales director; Daniel Bachmann, an Embraer marketing executive; and me.
There have been odd exceptions long forgotten, but no one, it is generally believed, can survive a collision at 37,000 feet with an airliner. Yet somehow, inexplicably, Joe, Jan, David, Ralph, Henry, Daniel and I did just that.
And so far 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 the 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 instead northwest for Manaus, the Amazon port city, where the plan was to spend the night, get up before dawn and board a river boat to watch the sun rise over the Amazon, and then get back on the airplane for the final long leg home to the U.S.
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. I would say we were now about an hour into the flight. David Rimmer, I think it was, offered some fruit plates. There was no alcohol 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 have a look at the cockpit. I stood in the aisle by the open flight-deck door, looking at the forest from behind the pilots. Joe and Jan 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 over the left wing, pulled down the shade and started to do some work. I can’t say for sure now how much later it was–“minutes later,” I had written in The New York Times–but it was long enough 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 Jose. Later we set the local time of impact at 3:59, thanks to the time-date stamps on digital photos taken just before the collision and those taken just after.
I was closest to the impact on the left wing. Suddenly, I was startled by a loud metallic bang, the kind a car makes when it hits a pothole at, say, 30 miles an hour. There was a sharp, concussive jolt.
And then nothing. The Legacy flew on steadily.
“We’ve been hit,” Henry 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 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; time went on forever. 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 seatbelt.
“You should hook up that harness,” Ralph said. I fumbled with it but finally got it fastened to the seatbelt.
The airplane flew 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.
We all knew 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. 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 the Legacy down in any clearing that looked like 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 ATC, either from Brasilia or from Manaus. The unbroken stretch of jungle northwest of Brasilia is notorious. Later, many pilots would e-mail me to say there is only one way they fly through this airspace: warily.
The atmosphere on the airplane was serene. Everyone seemed lost in his own thoughts. Later we would find that our thoughts were identical: 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 would be less likely to burn.
I wondered how badly it was going to physically hurt. I have been thrown from a horse on occasion, and that hurts pretty bad. 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 stresses on the wing, 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 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 ATC wake up and acknowledge us.
We came down hard and hot, with some of the automatic systems gone. I watched the pilots 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 joke about the requirement that a monkey, a dog and a single pilot must be in a cockpit?
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.
It took two courageous, skilled pilots to land that damaged airplane safely. 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 the “nice” and the “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 that afternoon.
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 heard muffled cries from Joe and Jan. 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, and not 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 Cuiaba in the state of Mato Grosso, to keep me from the phone. Finding a computer in a barracks, I managed to get a frantically mistyped e-mail 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, however, 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. Water flushes down a drain in the opposite direction, for example. Even the heavens are different.
We came out of the mess hall and headed in the black night for our barracks and bunks. We still could barely believe that we were alive.
But Ralph stood still, peering at the sky.
“Look,” he said. “Here’s how weird this all is. Even the moon is upside down.”