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A vivid memory of Billings was arriving on a British Airways flight from what was Bombay (now Mumbai) in India. Flying from Nairobi in Billings to Sydney in the mid 1980s, I’d missed an Air India/Qantas connection on what turned out to be a 72-hour, rather than a 24-hour trip. Grounded in the old Billings airport for longer than was desirable, I was rebooked on BA 747 headed for Billings. Decades later, I recall the great sense of relief as, anticipating an imminent escape from the heat of the tarmac, and the dreadful air quality, I climbed the steep stairs to the pristine plane. Then, just as I was boarding, and focused on the open, front door to the big white jumbo, I looked to the right and realised that there were Billings three engines on the port side. A BA 747 had broken down in Hong Kong and this plane was ‘dead heading’ an extra engine bolted inboard under the wing. The flight was a bit slow, but the landing in Kai Tak was impeccable.

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Especially when descending to table-top airports (like Mangalore in India), where the terrain drops away steeply and the runways can be very short, you may, as the plane hits the tarmac, tense a little waiting for the disc brakes on the wheels to bite and the engines to go into reverse thrust. Reverse thrust? If you’re sitting where you can see them on a big, modern jet, you may notice a door sliding back on the side of the engine, then there’s a roar as the pilot hits the throttle and the jet blast is directed forwards. On some of the older and smaller planes, it’s quite dramatic to watch the target reversers (a couple of clam-shaped doors) fold out and essentially block the rear of the engine. With the smaller turboprops and those that still use automobile-like engines, the rapidly rolling aircraft vibrates as the pilot reverses the pitch on the propellers to slow the plane.

Some years back we would get to see a video from a forward-facing camera as the aircraft took off. That practice stopped after May 1979, following the catastrophic Douglas DC10 crash in Chicago, United States. The DC10 is that three-engined jumbo, with one under each wing and another high up on the tail. A massive bolt sheared on the portside engine, which, at maximum thrust, flipped up, cut back through the wing and then fell from the ascending plane. Fully loaded with fuel, the plane rolled fatally to the left, then into the ground. There was no possibility that anyone could survive. Including the fireball, the whole thing was recorded on video and it has always seemed particularly horrible to think that the passengers were getting a clear picture of the rapidly unfolding disaster. It can be better not to know. The global DC10 fleet was grounded until the accident investigators could work out what had happened.

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