ABX 2442 you have FOD on the runway! Say intentions
Most professional aviators will hear something similar to this at least once if not several times over the course of their careers. So, I was not surprised when I heard those words in a Spanish accent. They came from the tower operator when as we departed Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic several years ago.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is something like a blown tire or possibly a piece of the gear door mechanism, etc. it was the First Officer’s leg do I asked him if he noticed anything unusual in the way that our Boeing 767 was flying. He assured me that everything appeared to be OK.
Once assured that everything was under control, I asked the tower operator if he knew what the nature of the FOD (foreign object debris) is. In his thickest Spanish accent, he said that it is a dead body, contact Santo Domingo control on 122.xx good day.
I looked at the First Officer (FO) and the load-master to verify that they heard the same words that I did. Yes, they understood “dead body.” I contacted Departure and made them aware of our situation. They cleared us to FL350 and offered us any support that we would need. At that point, the FO agreed to monitor the primary radio while continuing to fly the aircraft. I had to start investigating our situation. It was unclear what our actions would be, but somehow I knew that the 2:20 flight time to MIA would pass quickly.
The first thing we did was contact tower one more time to ask how they knew it was a body. We were informed that one of the Rangers located in an observation shack had personally verified the body. Again, he asked if we were continuing on to MIA or returning to the Airport. Now, if we had left an airfield in the US, that would have been an easy answer. We would simply have returned. There are other things to consider in international operations.
- The aircraft would certainly have been quarantined without any release date given.
- The crew would have been detained indefinitely. As an aside the FO had operated an aircraft into Venezuela less than two weeks earlier that was impounded due to a flight control error. The crew had to sneak out of the country. The aircraft was released after a $100,000 fine.
- We now figured that we had a stowaway. This was during the Haitian crises and many people were trying to leave. I regret that we did not think of this at the time, but there might have been more than one person. They could have been at risk.
- Was there any known terrorist activity in the area? We managed to contact homeland security and were told that there were no known threats.
- I then called company operations and got in touch with the VP of flight operations for advice. Not surprisingly he wanted us to continue but would of course abide by our decision.
So now we had some crew decisions to make. Up until this point we thought that we had a single stowaway just trying to get out of the country, but what if he weren’t? Could there be more in the airplane? Could there be a bomb? If so, would it go off at a preset time or pressure altitude.
This is where the crew hit its first disagreement. We could have diverted to the Bahamas saving about 80 miles and 15 minutes or so. If we did that, we would have again been grounded and not had anywhere near the resources available at our home base of MIA. To me it was a no brainer. Head to MIA. The load-master agreed. However, the FO strongly preferred getting on the ground as quickly as possible. I fully understood his position, but decided to continue on.
We went at clacker speed to get there post haste. I had also secured a separate radio frequency and priority handling into Miami. It was a pretty day but we did have some low clouds on approach with bases around 400′.
John made an uneventful approach and a beautiful landing. However, things were not normal. I have flown in and out of Miami International for years at all times of day and night. It is always busy. We were arriving at rush hour around 5 pm. When we broke out there was not a sign of movement anywhere on the airport.
We landed and were told by tower to follow the truck on our right. They were leading us not to our gate, but to a bomb area in the middle of the airport. As we passed a taxiway or runway, ground would open it to traffic. By the time we parked, MIA was a whirlwind of activity again.
We were about 100′ from parking and relived to be home. However, the surprises were still coming. A gentleman in everyday closing was marshaling us forward to park. We were facing two concrete walls placed at a 90-degree angle to each other forming a V that we taxied towards. There was an assortment of holes in those walls of various sizes. As we were signaled to stop a whole slew of men and women in uniform appeared at the walls with every form of gun or rifle that you can imagine pointed directly at us.
When the man on the ground plugged in his microphone, his first words to us were to put our hands in the air where we could be seen. They pulled a ramp up to the crew door and men and women with those weapons started filing up the ramp.
After we let them in, they searched the aircraft. Once clear we were told to exit the aircraft and wait behind the walls. At that point we were debriefed by every 3 letter symbol you can imagine. Starting with the FAA, going through the FBI and CIA. we ended up with the Miami police department. This took a couple of hours. By the time we were done, another two hours had passed.
As it turns out the stowaway was a young man estimated to be about 18 with no money or identification. Evidently, he had jumped onto the left main gear door as we waited in position to take off. A red nylon piece to a backpack or similar item is all that remained of this young man’s life. He had tied himself to a metal tube in the wheel well. He had braced himself for the trip to somewhere. Unfortunately, when the gear handle was raised the door opened dropping him to the runway from a height of roughly a hundred feet at 200 miles an hour. Death must have been instant.
I have tried to be as honest as possible here. I am certain that I made many mistakes. I always do. There were continual options: return to Santa Domingo or continue, is there a bomb or not; more stowaways or not; Miami or the Bahamas; the list goes on.
Of course, when the day was done scheduling told us that we would be returning to Santa Domingo after 8 hours of crew rest. I told them that we would be glad to go but that the customer should expect a delay in their freight as I was sure there would be questions.
That did not phase them. However, when the Miami homicide department called that same VP of flights ops, they revealed that we were wanted by authorities in Santa Domingo for questioning. In fact, they were investigating for months after that.
I welcome any comments, questions or critiques.
Written by Jimmie Dean,
Retired ABX Air (formally Airborne Express) Boeing 767 Captain, US Air Force flying C-141, Arrow Air DC-8, Graduate of the US Air Force Academy. Currently holds an ATP, and is a Certified Flight Instructor. Typed in the B-767, B-757, DC-8, and Citation II. Has over 20000 hours flying international in heavy jets