It couldn’t really be called a “plane crash” though we did need to be rescued on the high seas, so borrowing from a phrase made famous by Janet Jackson with her clothing accident one Super Bowl Sunday, I shall henceforth refer to this incident as my first and only (thanks be to God) Aviation Malfunction.
It was the summer of ’73 and my first visit to the Bahamas; Bimini, specifically. If any of you have ever been to the Bahamas and not stayed in a 4 star resort then you may understand a little of the scene I am going to set for you. Arriving in the Bahamas in itself was a huge eye-opener; and then flying into Bimini was …well, the stuff legends are made of, I am convinced! At the time I had already been living in Bermuda for more than ten years. Up to that point I found island living here rather a culture shock. But after my brief sojourn in the Bahamas, I realized that Bermuda is MUCH more sophisticated and a part of the present century. Not so Bimini. My husband had to go there for a week for work. His company had a small branch office there and he was required to do his stint. It was rather exciting for us both.
I should have known that this would be a momentous experience for us when the small plane we boarded from Miami which seated 14 people, landed on a small island to fuel up and take on other passengers. The problem was, there were only 14 seats…they were already full so the co-pilot gave up his seat for one of the passengers and an old worn orange crate was brought out for the other. I kid you not!!!!! We watched this open-mouthed and were too stunned to do or say anything. Well, we thought, it would be a 15 or 20 minute flight into Nassau. All was well, so far…..We did land safely and were only too happy to disembark to wait for our next flight over to Bimini. Typical laid back ‘island time’ , this next flight was a few hours late. I believe it was because the pilot was chatting up one of the car rental girls but I couldn’t be sure. Still we held onto our tempers and finally our flight was announced.
I didn’t realize till we walked outside to board, that it was a seaplane…… YUP! Chalk Airlines. I felt a moment of panic but again was assured by my husband that they had a terrific flying record. (he had somehow neglected to tell me that we would take off and land on the water but….) Ray and I boarded first and so sat immediately behind the pilot and whew co-pilot.
The plane slowly filled up and everyone had an actual seat with seat belts and all. I must say that the take off was wonderful…..not unlike a terrific amusement park ride (did I mention that I am terrified of roller coasters and such?) But once we lifted into the air I decided I quite liked this. It was lovely. We listened to the conversation of the two pilots and by the time we landed safely in Bimini Harbor, both Ray and I felt we could have taken over the controls. Ahem… Well the next thing that is supposed to happen is, the wheels come out so that the plane may taxi onto a ramp and on dry land. Before anyone else on the plane realized there was a problem, Ray and I (as co-co-pilots) knew it. Listening to their concerned voices and watching them both trying to pull some clutch thingie or something, we were already in full prayer mode. Still the rest of the passengers were totally cool. By now the plane was going round and round in circles while they struggled with the hydraulics. They kept revving up the engine and still….nothing. So I could not help it, I called out to them, “Let us out here. There are lots of boats around. Someone will take us to shore!” But they ignored me and kept on trying. The wheels were stuck, they whispered. I was in a state of panic just about now and then all of a sudden, a huge Bahamian Momma called out in a screech, “The engine on fire! The engine on fire!” and sure enough, flames were licking up the side of the plane.
There was screaming and crying and shouting and everyone was clamoring to get outta there fast! The co-pilot came running and Ray passed him a fire extinguisher. They got the door open and a boat came up beside us to do the heroic rescue. Ray and the co-pilot were dousing the flames and people were falling over themselves to get off the plane and into the boat. Since we were at the front of the plane, we were the last ones…. It was announced by the captain of the little 19 ft boat that there was only room for one more. I looked down at the screaming mass of people on the boat and declared I would not go without my husband! But they insisted and I was forced onto the boat. Tears were streaming down my face as I watched Ray standing at the door of the plane with the co-pilot and smoke billowing out of the side of the craft (they had got the flames out at least) But I was sure I was about to see a huge explosion and watch my beloved go down with the plane. The drama I was experiencing; however, was soon replaced with a sinking feeling. Yes, the boat which was WAY overloaded was beginning to sink! Children were crying; people were praying and many cried out that they could not swim. I realized when the water was up to my waist while sitting there that the driver was going too fast. I kept yelling for people to “BE QUIET” and “SLOW DOWN!!WE ARE SINKING” Finally he heard me and we crawled the rest of the way. By now perhaps 30 to 50 people were standing on the shore watching the horrific scene. The boat pulled up to the ramp and before I could step onto safe dry land, a burly giant of a man, grabbed me and threw me over his shoulder (firefighter style)! I was mortified because I was FINE but ……He finally put me down and as I set about to gather my dignity, I turned and watched Ray and the two pilots get off a huge luxury boat which picked them up from the plane. Everything was fine. The plane did not explode. And we began our week of adventure in a land unlike any other.
We chose to skip Chalk Airlines on the return voyage and made it home with nothing but memories of that once upon a time kind of trip!