Take This Plane To…

I once took part in the hijacking of an airliner. It would have been in about 1990, at Heathrow airport.

It started like a normal working day. At least, normal for me at the time. I got up before six and drove to Belfast International Airport, where I caught the first British Midland (BM, now BMI) flight to London. I often flew over for meetings, and if there were no travel problems, it was possible to get to one of our central London buildings before ten, as early as those coming by train from other UK cities could make it. Then there would be a full day for meetings and I’d catch another flight back home. The last BMI one was ninteen-thirty.

For most of my career, I’d do that once or twice a month, although it could be more often sometimes. I remember one week where discussions, problems and issues meant that I was in London on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; and Belfast on Tuesday and Thursday. That was a little excessive.

This one Winter day, I was travelling with my boss and another colleague to the same meeting in London. It went well, and everything was finished by about three. The other two took the chance to head out to Heathrow early and get the seventeen-thirty flight back home. They’d be home before eight, which seemed quite a luxury. But instead, I decided to take the spare couple of hours and go shopping. Our office was a short walk from Denmark Street, famous for its musical instrument shops, and I had decided I wanted one of them new-fangled synthesisers.

I bought a state-of-the-art Roland D-5, a full-sized, 80-key job. (I still have it, although it’s ridiculously primitive now.) I put the large cardboard carton under my arm and took the Tube out to Heathrow. When the line emerged overground at Barons’ Court I noticed that it had started to snow a little. I don’t like snow much. I know it can add a lot of scenic prettiness, but that doesn’t begin to forgive the wet or the cold, or the inconvenience to travellers.

That latter is a hint. I emerged from the Underground, following a path I could have negotiated with my eyes shut, to the Belfast departure area, the Gate 49 immortalised by SLF. I was in good time for the flight, and everything seemed normal at first, although I could see that the snow outside was continuing to fall. At that time British Airways operated a direct Heathrow – Belfast flight as well, on the even half-hours, whie BMI did the odd half-hours. So the BA eighteen-thirty was just about to board when I arrived.

Or rather, it wasn’t. There was an announcement: “This airport is now closed to British Airways and all flights are cancelled. If you have any questions, please consult your travel agent.” And that was it. All the BA staff disappeared, and left their customers milling around in confusion. The BMI passengers waited to see what their fate would be.

snowYou have to understand that conditions were now getting severe. There was almost three centimetres of gently fallen snow on the ground. Well, I’m sarcastic, but it isn’t the snow on the ground that’s the problem. On aeroplane wings though, even a little snow or ice can seriously interfere with the aerodynamics and simply stop the plane from flying properly. But there is a solution — literally — airlines and airports have machines to spray antifreeze on the wings before take-off.

To my surprise, BMI announced that their plane was ready to be boarded, and, only a little delayed compared to the scheduled time, everyone embarked. Quite a contrast between the two airlines, in that we were being taken home, while the BA passengers were abandoned. But when our plane taxied out towards the runway, it stopped. For a long time. I’d seen that the infamous Reverend Ian Paisley had got on the flight, and his braying voice in the cabin added to the irritation.

The Captain came on the PA and told us that there was a queue for take-off, and then later, that there was a queue for the antifreeze machine. We waited and waited. The Captain spoke to us again, and inadvertently let slip that his company’s antifreeze machine was busy because it was being rented out to other airlines, making me feel a little less warmly towards BMI. We waited and waited.

Oh, they gave us food and drinks. In those days, everyone got a hot meal on the Belfast flight, so the staff just served it while we were still on the ground. But we still just waited on the tarmac. Then, in the early hours, the Captain regretfully announced that he and his co-pilot had now run out of legal working hours, and wouldn’t be able to fly us to Belfast. He would have to take the plane back to the terminal and put us off.

It was at this point that the passengers rebelled. A young English traveler in a business suit got up in the aisle and, addressing the entire cabin, suggested that if we refused to get off, the airline would have to fly us to Belfast. A crazy idea, but when everyone agreed to put it into practice, it actually worked. The timed-out pilots left, and were replaced with a new crew within a couple of hours. By around eight in the morning, after having sat in the plane all night, we were on our way to Belfast.

When I was back on the ground, I phoned my girlfriend, who was a journalist, to tell her what had happened, and for the first time since knowing her, I was on the receiving end of her interrogation skills. Sorry, interviewing skills. It was  a side of her I knew nothing about, and it was surprisingly intimidating. But my interview got on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph, where I was described as “local businessman”.

Both that newspaper story and the report on television news had input from other journalists who had got their story from the Paisley camp, and in that version, Ian Paisley was the leader of the passenger revolt. It wasn’t true; he was a follower, not a leader; but that experience told me a lot about how news is made.

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