Smoke, screams, prayers

The heads of Janis and Brooks can be seen in this frame capture from a video of the smoke-filled cabin

“We thought we were going to die.”

Brooks McCutchen and his wife Janis Steele feared the worst when the flight was underway, but they had high praise for the pilots of Saturday’s Air Vanuatu flight from Tanna to Port Vila, which ended with their ATR72 aircraft at rest in the grass amid the ruins of two Islander planes.

The couple are both conservation scientists working in Vanuatu.

Daily Post has seen a video showing a cabin filled with smoke, and people yelling and praying loudly. A voice, presumably belonging to the cabin steward, can be heard repeatedly yelling, ‘Head down! Stay down!’

In the early stages of the crisis, the couple’s concerns were not with landing, but with the heavy smoke that billowed into the cabin from underfoot. “We were genuinely worried about asphyxiation,” said Brooks. “We thought we’d have to make a water landing, and that we’d be unconscious before we even ditched.”

From the moment they boarded the plane, they had concerns, said Mr McCutchen. He told his wife on boarding that he detected the unmistakable odour of an electrical fault.

He described the smell, which he associated with burning electrical insulation, as faint at first, but he said it was present from the moment he entered the plane.

Later, when “blue-black” smoke began to pour from the floorboards, he recognised the smell as identical to what he had smelled on entering the cabin.

“All I could think was ‘Oh no. Why didn’t I say something?’”

The couple were seated on the left side of the aircraft in row 8, directly over the leading edge of the wing. Their sons were seated opposite them overlooking the right wing.

About 20 minutes into the flight, Janis says she heard a loud popping noise, and thick smoke began to billow from directly below her sons’ feet. Before long, she said, it was so thick they could no longer see the front row of the plane. “We were breathing through our clothing, and people were crying out for oxygen.”

The ATR72 plane does not have the drop-down oxygen masks commonly seen in jet airliners. The plane is designed to operate at altitudes below 25,000 feet, meaning that even if the cabin loses pressure, people will still be able to breathe until the plane can descend to a safer altitude.

An aviation expert familiar with the ATR72s flown by Air Vanuatu told the Daily Post on Saturday that oxygen feeds are available on the plane, but a mask has to be attached manually.

The cabin was filled with noise as people cried out in fear, called for oxygen and prayed loudly, Janis told the Daily Post.

Both Janis and Brooks told the Daily Post that a voice they took to be the captain’s came over the intercom, but they found it nearly impossible to decipher what he was saying. They both agreed that they heard a phrase to the effect that the captain was still in control of the plane.

Asked why the intercom messages were so hard to hear, the couple cited the noise inside the cabin, and Brooks added that he had the impression that the person speaking was shouting into the microphone.

The couple were convinced that the plane would not remain airborne for long. Brooks recounted how he expected the pilot to attempt to ditch the plane in the ocean. That was not to be. Smoke first appeared near the mid-point of the roughly 45-minute flight from Tanna.

The plane continued to operate on both engines for some minutes, said Brooks, but about 10 minutes out from the Bauerfield airport, he noticed that the propellor on the right side was no longer turning.

Shortly after that, he said, the smoke began to decrease in intensity. “We got some small relief when they shut the engine off and continued onwards with the port [left-side] engine only.”

The smoke never completely cleared.

“The engine itself was not on fire,” said Brooks. He said the smoke was emerging from directly beneath the seats. “I never smelt burning diesel,” he said. “It was the smell you get from burning insulation.”

A yacht captain, he affirmed that he would never set out to sea if he smelt something like that aboard his vessel. “Any unusual smells or sounds, you always inspect them before you set out.” He expressed regret that he hadn’t brought that smell—admittedly faint at first—to the attention of the cabin crew.

The couple’s recollection of the landing was patchy. Janis told the Daily Post that the plane approached the airfield from the southeast, banking sharply to the left as it descended. “I’d never experienced a final approach like that,” she said, “but I never thought the plane was out of control.”

“Brace! Brace! Brace!” the cabin crew yelled at the moment of touchdown.

Both Janis and Brooks had lavish praise for the pilot in his handling of the aircraft. Janis kept her head down during the landing, but Brooks said that the plane landed squarely on the tarmac, and travelled a considerable distance, losing speed all the time, before it veered to the left.

The couple recounted how there was terrible crashing and banging as the plane ploughed into a pair of parked Islander aircraft, and then came to a halt.

Immediately the cabin crew opened the emergency exits and began assisting the passengers to exit. “It was about a metre and a half off the ground, and we had to jump down,” said Janis.

Asked how they felt about the experience overall, the couple paused, clearly at a loss for words. “We thought we were going to die,” said Brooks.

“Will we fly with Air Vanuatu again? My answer is yes, we are continuing to fly with them. We felt the pilot did a brave and excellent landing.

“Our concern is to understand two things: how the smoke and ventilation was being handled during the fire and the matter of the evident smell of a light electric burn in the cabin before take-off in Tanna. As survivors, it is most important to our well-being and recovery that the story of what happened be complete and clear.”

The management of Air Vanuatu had praise for the flight crew as well. CEO Derek Nice issued a statement saying, “Along with the local authorities and services, Airports Vanuatu Ltd managed the situation very professionally. On behalf of the management and staff at Air Vanuatu, I would like to thank AVL and Vanuatu’s emergency services that attended yesterday.

“We are also very grateful to our fantastic crew of two pilots and two flight attendants whose actions ensured no injuries to passengers. We are offering our crew support and comfort after what would have been a very difficult situation to manage.”

The airline declined to release the names of the pilots and crew.

In response to a question from the Daily Post, an airline spokesperson said, “The aircraft and its contents have been secured by Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu in accordance with international standards.

“We understand the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder will be removed for analysis. We are cooperating fully with the CAAV and the accident investigation team.”

The Daily Post will follow up separately with the CAAV in the coming days and weeks.

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