Excuse me, I think the aircraft is on fire

So its August 1980, the four of us lads are off on our holidays to Corfu, a Greek island four hours flying time away on a Thomsons Holidays Mk1 Boeing 737, the ones that were very noisy and very vibrate-y.

Flying to your holiday destination was still a bit of a novelty in those far distant days and most people could only face the ordeal with plenty of booze inside them, so at 7am one August morning the four of use were to be found in the departure lounge at Manchester Airport downing copious quantities of beer and gin, “Can’t get on yet, I’m not drunk enough” was the common chant.

The early Boeing 737’s didn’t help the confidence in the flying process much either, they sat at the end of the runway with engines at full throttle shivering like a shite-ing dog, take-off in one of those was always dramatic and noisy, landing much less so, apart from our flight into Corfu – the one that caught fire.

We’d been flying along merrily for three and a half hours and the four of us were well blathered by then. These were the days when the two pilots would stroll around the cabin while the plane flew itself, they’d stroll around chatting to everyone and glibly telling them “Oh the autopilot is flying the plane, I need a drink” and all the while the trolley-dolly’s pushed heavy beer laden carts up and down the single aisle selling expensive booze to grateful, slightly scared passengers.

It was getting on for three hours forty five minutes and our pilot was the wrong side of the booze trolley when someone pointed out of the window and asked him if that was Corfu down there, 30,000 feet below, “Oh fuck” is what he said and dashed down the aisle scattering drinks trolleys and people queueing for the toilet to get back to flying the aircraft, something that he hadn’t bothered with for the last three hours.

You know how when you’re on a big roller coaster and it goes down the really steep downhill bits, the bits on the roller coaster that are designed to make you soil your pants in fear and excitement ?

Well thats what happened next, there was a very quick announcement from the cabin, something like “Cabin crew prepare for landing, NOW” and suddenly the aircraft dropped the next 20,000 feet in what seemed like 20 seconds, then levelled out and a more relieved and slightly calmer captains voice advised everyone to extinguish all cigarettes (yes, this was the 1980s), fasten seatbelts, and could the trolley dollys please collect the drinks cart from the cockpit from where it had come to rest during the descent.

For those who are not aware of the island of Corfu, it is basically a mountain range that sticks up out of the Mediterranean, it sticks up out of the sea quite steeply and the only flat bits are around the coast – so thats where the airport is and because there wasn’t enough flat bits for a full runway they tipped lots of rocks into the sea and built at least half it sticking out into the water. At the other end of the runway is a large mountain so the preferred approach by pilots is from over the sea, nice and flat you see, lots of extra space underneath you for error margins, not so much room for error if you approach from over the mountain.

So we were descending much more gently now from over the sea, peace and calm restored once more, as was the drinks cart and all of the drinks that had fallen off it during the mad descent, when suddenly some daft old bag who was sat a few rows in front of us stood up and screamed “Me seats on fire”, and indeed it was.

I will say this for the trolley dollys on that flight, they knew their emergency drill, four of them ran down the aisle from both ends of the plane as fast as their six inch high stilettos and tight skirts would allow, each armed with a fire extinguisher, and pushing the daft old bag out of the way they all let rip with clouds and clouds of Co2 in an attempt to put out the fire which had been started by said daft old bag trying to stub her cigarette out in the seat arm ashtray but missing the ashtray completely and dropping the still lit ciggie in between two seats – and then ignoring the fact in the hope that it would somehow extinguish itself rather than the more obvious opposite effect.

Clouds of Co2 gas erupted all over the row of seats, the daft old bag and her husband disappeared inside a fog of Carbon Dioxide but of course the rest of the passengers on the plane thought that the white gas was real smoke rather than the fire-putting-out stuff, especially when it got sucked up into the ventilation system and pumped back out further down the aisle, “Oh” they all shouted, “The planes on fire down here as well” and still we all stayed sitting in our seat with seatbelts politely fastened, well, we were British you see, its not done to be seen panicking, even if you’re staring a fiery, plunging-into-the-sea death in the next ten seconds.

Not surprisingly the thought of his aircraft now being on fire somewhat put the pilot off his landing approach and by the time the trolley dollys had everything under control and were pistol-whipping the daft old bag with the empty fire extinguishers, he had aborted the landing and we were now climbing again up and over the mountain at the other end of the runway and back out to sea again.

A very steep 360 degree turn followed and we began another approach, this time from over the top of the mountain and thenceforth over Corfu town.

I’ll never forget the look on those people’s faces as they stood staring open mouthed in the streets of Corfu town, every one of them pointing upwards in horror as a Britannia Air Boeing 737 clipped the chimney tops of the shops, indeed so low were we that I could lip read what they were saying on the ground, “Fuck me” they all cried, “Look, theres a seat on fire on that plane”.

The aircraft cleared the town by inches and dropped, I mean dropped, brick-like dropping, onto the runway so hard that it bounced straight back up into the air before hitting the runway for a second time, several overhead lockers flew open and everyone was showered with bags full of illicit cigarettes, duty free booze, hundreds of bottles of Ambre-Solaire and of course Toblarone.

Two of the trolley dollys were still standing in the aisle on guard with empty fire extinguishers and the daft old bag was still sitting on her husbands knee, both of them now covered in white powder, they all took a tumble down the aisle and we finally came to a halt amid shouts, screams and an aircraft that shivered like a shite-ing dog when at full reverse thrust – we thought it was bloody hilarious and sat still strapped into our seats aching with laughter, we were all well pissed by this time of course.

And still our arrival into Corfu was not yet finished, the aircraft was parked well away from the new terminal building, probably because they thought it might still be on fire, and so a couple of buses were sent out to pick the passengers up, most of them up from up off the floor.

Now Charlie Smith had just started his illustrious Police career and frankly we were sick and tired of going anywhere in Leeds and having people walk up to him to say “Hello Charlie”, sometimes it seemed like everyone in Leeds knew who he was and we had warned him that it had better not happen while we were on holiday, “Don’t worry lads” he had said, “I don’t know anyone in Corfu”

But he did know one of the trolley dollys, she worked part time in his local pub and instead of getting on the buses with everyone else we had to stand at the back of the plane and let him chat her up for ten minutes – when we finally dragged him off the plane our transport was long gone.

“Where do we go ?” we shouted back up the steps to the trolley dolly, “In that building over there” she pointed, well actually we’d worked that bit our for ourselves, what we really meant was how do we get from here to there now that the buses have gone, “You’ll have to walk” she said.

Have you seen the bit on “Planes Trains and Automobiles” where Steve Martin has to walk across a runway to get back to the terminal building after his hire car has gone missing, well that was the four of us, walking across an aircraft parking lot dragging our bags after us while large aircraft moved across our path, three times we had to stop and wait while a large Boeing wanted to cross in front of us, it was like walking across a motorway, but with bigger things in your way.

Hopefully things will go a little more smoothly this year for the current matrimonial partner would certainly blame me for all of the above and not speak to me again for the rest of the holiday – which may be considered a result in some quarters.


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