Captain Van Rijn could barely tolerate rookie First Officer Aalbert De Groot. In his disdain he barely muttered De Groot if he ever had to take his name. Aalbert a large man befitting his surname patiently tolerated the put downs clutching a figurine of Mother Mary given to him by his maternal grandmother, Oma Ans, a rebellious descendant of
General Winkelman who was “subservient only to God”. Her advice to De Groot when he was very little was, “When the last human is spent, the first God is born.” This was confusing to Aalbert but left a deep mark on his evolving theology. When he graduated from flight school and earned a PPL, or a Private Pilot’s License there was a big party and all manners of amusement were thrown up by the larger than life De Groots. Oma Ans stayed away since she did not get along well with the trader De Groots owing to her fiery lineage. After the party was over and the limousines left Aalbert got a call from Oma. “I can meet you at the bus stop”. There she gave Aalbert a home baked cake and the Mary figurine.
Aalbert soon earned his Commercial Pilot’s License or CPL and began his vocation with Transavia a budget carrier out of Schipol airport with intentions to log in enough hours to apply for the pilot’s job in trans continental flights with KLM. He mostly sat in the cockpit with Van Rijn a foul tempered dinosaur addicted to pain killers and alcohol.
Flight 462 was a boring route ferrying middle class passengers between LPA to AMS. Las Palmas airport in Gran Canaria was a popular destination for European tourists looking for a quick getaway. December 24, 1997 was no different.
The flight from Amsterdam to Las Palmas was full of teenage revelers looking for some warm waters and strobe lights during the winter break. The return flight to Amsterdam was filled with more responsible professionals returning back home to be with their families for Christmas after having soaked in the Canary Sun and Sand. De Groot liked his three day schedule. It was a pleasant twelve hour shift. Six hours after shift began he was out of the airport in Las Palmas, a two hour break in and around the tourist spots there, then a four and half hour flight back to Schipol.
Raises were few and far in between at Transavia and margins very thin. The carrier thrived by offering low cost fares online, coupled with a no frills ride and the option to buy juices and sandwiches on their flights. Van Rijn had a bad headache from his cocktails at the officer’s lounge at LPA and was waiting for De Groot to return from his trip to the mall in Kasbah at Playa Del Ingles, where he went to buy some special gifts for his family. De Groot was on the shuttle on Route 66 to Las Palmas, returning for the trip back home. The palm fronds swayed merrily in the mild winter breeze as the shuttle purred its way silently at great speed towards the airport. Revelers getting off the bus headed towards the boarding area while De Groot took a side entrance to the officer’s lounge.
PH TKC, Flight 462 was boarded and cleared the final announcements over the PA system. Van Rijn and De Groot boarded the cockpit with a pleasant smile from hostesses Jaap and Arabella at the door. Arabella a pageant winner from Rotterdam and ski champion had a crush on the beefy and handsome De Groot.She even watched him
secretly at the rink bulldozing his way among opponents playing ice hockey. De Groot was a sleeping giant in the cockpit bowing to Van Rijn out of necessity. In the rink he could have wringed his neck like a rag doll. Arabella knew De Groot’s ferocity on ice and his nickname “The Beast”. If Aalbert had not become a pilot he could have surely become a professional hockey player taking on the best from Russia and Canada.
All systems go …Van Rijn radioed in to the control tower and began to taxi for take off. The runway at LPA was a long straight stretch,coupled with its yearlong mild temperatures made it ideal as an alternative landing site for NASA shuttles. Van Rijn played around with the controls as De Groot looked out of the window.Some day he
would pilot a KLM Boeing to New York as Captain.
Soon the plane cruised along on autopilot at a comfortable altitude with the humm of engines soon overpowered by the humm among passengers.Four and a half hours flight time was not long enough to put fliers to sleep, while not short enough to keep them alert. De Groot read his hockey magazine and a book by Grandmaster Karpov on chess moves. Arabella visited the cabin twice on one pretext or another secretly smuggling in two ham sandwiches for Aalbert while winking at Van Rijn and offering him coffee. A gruff Van Rijn was coarse in refusal “I am OK sweetie pie, ask sugar boy if he needs something.”Sugar boy smiled as he clenched his teeth and bit his tongue. Sometimes he wondered what would Oma Ans say.
Suddenly the “Fuel Disagree” sign popped up on the LCD display on the Fuel Quantity Indicator. Van Rijn had failed to calculate fuel properly for the four and half hour flight ! Aalbert looked at Arabella and smiled. “Oh it is nothing, thanks for the sandwich Arii. Now go take care of the passengers. That handsome man in the First Class must be missing you.” Arabella left, with a little smile but some concern too. Aalbert was hiding something. One reason Aalbert was not a good chess player was because he was not a good poker player and his next move always showed on his face. He could not hide things well. That “Fuel Disagree” sign meant something!
Arabella the senior hostess went back to her cabin crew and whispered to a hastily assembled bunch “There could be something wrong, it is the fuel. Stay calm, take care of the passengers well before landing and be ready for the exits. Have them belted and comfortable and get ready to pray!” Soon the cabin crew swung into action. A blanket
here, an apple juice there. Magazines hastily passed around, carts trundling down the aisles urgently. Exits being checked and manuals being re read. Long forgotten cabinets were opened and levers checked. The winds were gusty as Flight 462 approached Schipol. The Boeing bounced up and down as it rocked sideways too while making approach.
Van Rijn engaged the landing gear and grinned at the “Three Green” green lights indicating the nose gear and the two landing gears had locked for landing. The landing lights outside the plane were blinking when all of a sudden the “Fuel Config” light popped up on the screen. The beast in De Groot was getting restless. Descent was about to begin and there was less than a hundred kilos of fuel in the tank. He clutched the Mary figurine and recalled Oma Ans words, “When humans fail ..”
Air traffic controller Hans saw Flight 462 approach and screamed at what he saw. The wheels in the nose gear was stuck at a forty five degree angle making it risky to land. Hans radioed Van Rijn … “ cancel descent … nose gear stuck in middle …. Gain altitude!” The plane was dropping at four hundred feet a minute amid gusty winds, and
the nose wheel was stuck. There was a malfunction, the amber or red light had not turned on in the cockpit
indicating a stuck landing gear. Great!
There was no spare fuel to remain circling, Thanks to a drunk Van Rijn. Humans had failed! The beast in De Groot started taking over. He looked at Van Rijn, the first time in weeks … then he switched off the cockpit recorder and muttered … “Old bastard… over to my side … I wont take this lying down if I can help it !!!” A startled Van Rijn looked at Aalbert and chuckled. The Beast stood up picked up Van Rijn by his collar and slammed him into the First Officer’s seat with a thump ! He then turned the flight recorder back on after a lapse of few seconds … Aalbert radioed control tower back “Control, this is First Officer De Groot … low on fuel … going for hard landing …Captain Van Rijn is unwell …”
Flight 462 maintained descent as emergency responders swung into action. Fire Engines and Ambulances raced out of stations towards the runway. De Groot made a brief announcement over the PA system “This is First Officer De Groot speaking … passengers and cabin crew prepare for an emergency landing.” The passengers looked confused. Schipol was approaching on schedule, the plane had begun descent over the grassy fields and highways. Other than gusty winds, what was the emergency?
Arabella had done her job well. The passengers were belted and the cabin crew prepared. Everybody settled down and waited in hushed silence. Van Rijn fumed in the cockpit as De Groot took over. At least the main gears had locked properly. Aalbert grabbed the Mary Figurine and placed it under his cap feeling it on his scalp. He then engaged the levers controlling descent as best as he could amid the choppy winds. The runway eleven feet below sea level rose up as he crossed the canal flowing to the North Sea under him. There were lights blinking on the runway with a clear path in the middle. The bird rocked as a fierce gust swept across. De Groot had a simple plan. Nose comes down last!
The right wheels touched down first at an angle and sent off sparks. Then the left wheel came down with the nose still up. The plane shot through a kilometer of tarmac on its wings with the nose held up like a proud Winkelman. Then the nose came down with a thud and dragged along for another kilometer leaving behind a trail of burnt rubber and fiery sparks. Aalbert the beast stayed calm as he looked straight, there was no fire yet and all wheels were down. The runway was spent and the fence was appearing. He slammed the brakes as the nose wheel broke.The carriage fell on the tarmac and shot over the fence onto the grassy fields adjoining the runway. The wet mud cooled the hot body and the Boeing sloshed rapidly to a slow stop on a muddy field with its nose lying limp on the grass below. Passengers shot out of side exits greeted by Firemen. The plane emptied in a commotion and hurry as De Groot and Van Rijn sat silently in the cockpit.
Van Rijn looked at the beast and muttered “You have some explaining to do, sugar boy”. Aalbert looked back at Van Rijn and smiled, “You too Sugar Daddy, the tank had more Scotch in it than fuel.” Someone cleared her throat in the back. It was Arabella. She heard it. Van Rijn smiled at De Groot, “I will sign your recommendation to become a Captain.” Arabella looked at Aalbert and smiled, “Now that you are a Captain wont you invite me to your hockey game, you Beast!” De Groot melted like cheese. He was not a good poker player. He looked sheepishly at Arabella and muttered “Of course Arii, we take on DYF at Die Uithof this Sunday … I will have a seat for you in the box.” Van Rijn looked up and muttered, “How about me?” Arabella looked at Van Rijn and warned, “Stay out of this, Sugar Daddy!”
Aalbert booked two seats for the game that night. Arabella and Oma Ans. They got along well.