Seagulls and a Stowaway

by Bill Callanan

We were taking off from JFK Airport around dawn, on a relatively new 747. The captain was Temple Robinson, and I was the flight engineer. We started down the runway and saw a few birds along the way, which was normal for that takeoff runway. It was starting to get light and we began to see more birds and they were larger than usual. As we picked up speed, we saw there were a huge number of large seagulls. They rose up and we heard a loud noise – we had collided with a bunch of those large birds and they knocked out at least one of the engines. Captain Robinson managed to carefully slow the plane down, and he was just barely able to stop, but it was so far at the end of the runway that we were sitting in the water when we came to a stop. Luckily it wasn’t too deep! We lost at least one engine and the tires were flat from the brakes overheating.

The captain asked me to go back and look out the windows in the passenger area – he wanted me to check whether the other engine on that side was damaged too. I walked into the passenger area – all of the seats were covered over because we weren’t supposed to have passengers on that flight. But then a young man appeared from under the covers. He was wearing a Chesterfield raincoat and had a New York Times under his arm. He asked me, “Are we in Paris?” I said, “Didn’t you notice what just happened here? We’re lucky to be alive! Who told you we were going to Paris?” He said the mechanics over at the TWA area told him that we were going to Europe. It turned out that his friends had dared him to stow away on a flight to Paris! I went to the captain and said, “I hate to tell you this, but we have a stowaway!” He said, “OK, is he armed or dangerous?” I smiled and said I didn’t think so. The airport police came on board to arrest the young man and take him away. Over the next several months I asked at the office what had happened to the stowaway. I was kind of worried about the poor guy. It turned out that he was lucky that the plane never took off – he would have been charged with stowing away but since we didn’t take off, he got off on a lesser charge.

We were all lucky that we hadn’t taken off; if we had, the plane probably would have caught fire and crashed. Instead, Captain Robinson performed perfectly under stressful conditions. We climbed out of the plane quickly – it had to be towed back to the hangar. Needless to say, the flight was canceled and we were told to go home. Before we left, I’ll never forget how the chief mechanic said to us, “If I were you fellas, I’d stop at the church of your choice on your way home and give thanks!”

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