A MAN from Henley has told of his terror when his aeroplane was forced into an emergency landing.
Bill Mundy said he feared for his life when the Singapore Airlines flight suddenly lost cabin air pressure while at 37,000ft.
The 77-year-old artist, who was with a female companion, said: “We were absolutely convinced we would be killed and could only hope it would be quick. Luckily, my hair is already white or it might have changed colour there and then.”
The Airbus A380 was six hours into a flight from Heathrow to Singapore when the pilot called “this is an emergency” over the PA system and the plane began a descent. Oxygen masks were released from the overhead compartments for the 476 passengers to put on.
Mr Mundy, said: “We’d been flying for about six hours and were over Afghanistan in the dark when suddenly an announcement I’d been dreading in all the years I’ve been flying came over the loudspeaker in a very loud and urgent voice.
“Oxygen masks were deployed immediately, except for ours, which was very scary. My young friend managed to free them and we then struggled to put them on. When it was apparently safe to take the masks off not that many people did. Apparently this was the first time in 35 years that Singapore Airlines has needed to deploy oxygen masks.”
The incident happened on Monday last week as Mr Mundy and his friend were on the first leg of their journey to Bali for a holiday.
He and fellow passengers believed the problem was caused by a faulty door, although this was later denied by the airline.
Mr Mundy said: “Some of the passengers seated near the door said the noise in that part of the cabin was so deafening that they couldn’t even hear the announcements. One of the aircrew said that the reason for the rapid decompression was that a door had not been closed properly at Heathrow.
“Consequently, as we climbed towards the mountains above Afghanistan, the problem manifested itself. Had the door blown off — as it could have done at that pressure — we wouldn’t be here now.”
The plane turned 180 degrees and took nearly half an hour to descend to 10,000ft.
Mr Mundy said it appeared the captain wanted to land in Kazakhstan, two hours away, in order to avoid mountains.
He said the pilot asked if anyone on board spoke Russian but nobody came forward so the plane headed for Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Mr Mundy said: “We then spent three hours in pitch darkness not knowing where we were and still frightened.
“Wandering around in the pitch blackness at such a low altitude meant that the pilot had to keep a constant lookout for the many hills bordering the Caspian Sea.
“At least we are alive but we were pretty badly shaken. We both honestly thought we would crash and I can’t tell what thoughts went through our minds.”
The plane landed at Baku airport at 3.30am and the passengers were then stranded for about 18 hours.
Mr Mundy said they were only offered a drink after almost two hours and then they were told that a replacement plane was being sent from Singapore but would take 14 hours to arrive.
He said: “We were confined to that awful lounge for nearly 18 hours. And did the hours drag — nothing to do except to periodically go to the toilets.
“As this country is not a Singapore Airlines destination, they have no ground staff there. We were surrounded by suspicious- looking black-coated men, most of them looking like Joseph Stalin!
“Colour relief was supplied by small squads of very smart, green-clad military attired men and women bedecked in badges and high-peaked caps who periodically marched through the lounge.
“No one could tell us anything about what was to happen — the large cabin crew knew as much as we did — so we waited and waited.
“Finally, a few bits and pieces were unloaded from the aircraft such as water and a few blankets and pillows.”
Mr Mundy said that anyone seen by airport staff taking photographs was told to delete them.
Despite this, he managed to take some shots of the uncomfortable metal chairs and some of the passengers who slept on the floor as the arrival time of their rescue plane was repeatedly delayed.
Representatives from Singapore Airlines eventually arrived from Istanbul and Moscow and told the passengers that the company had paid $60,000 to give them all visas so they could leave the airport for a few hours.
Mr Mundy said: “I wish they’d never taken the trouble as now we were facing communist-style organisation.
“First the enormous queue to get a stamp in our passports from immigration, then another even longer queue to be issued with visas — individual visas all filled in laboriously by hand by just three men.
“We were among the lucky ones as we were near the front of the queues and the whole process only took about an hour-and-a-half. Some were in three-hour queues.”
The passengers were assigned hotels to freshen up and have a meal but even this proved to be a worrying experience.
Mr Mundy said: “Baku is quite a big city with many very large, nice-looking buildings — what we could see of them in the dark — but after passing some streets we recognised as having gone past twice we realised that our driver was lost. He eventually found a knowledgeable vehicle to follow.”
It then took Mr Mundy and his friend an hour to be checked in to their hotel as their passports had to be photographed before they were allowed keys to their rooms.
He said: “At least we had a chance to have a shower but as we had no spare clothes we had to get back into the same clothes we’d been wearing for the past 24 hours or so.
“The meal was awful too. Azerbaijan may have won the European Song Contest but, believe me, I wouldn’t recommend it as a holiday destination.”
The pair went back to the airport departure lounge for another four-hour wait and more queuing before they boarded their replacement plane.
Mr Mundy said: “My young friend at first didn’t believe we were on a replacement aircraft and kept looking for clues but we were and nine hours later landed in highly efficient Singapore.
“A special section had been set up by Singapore Airlines to deal with the very many passengers who had missed their onward connections. That included us. We were taken to the Bali section, offered refreshments and assigned individual staff who looked after us.
“They had already rebooked us on a flight leaving that afternoon and personally took us to the correct terminal for our onward journey. We were also given a letter saying the cost of the London to Singapore leg would be refunded in full.
“I noticed that when we started our journey from England my friend had set her watch to Singapore time. I told her that in all my 50 years of travelling I never change the time on my watch till actually touching down at the destination — it’s bad luck otherwise.”
Mr Mundy first went to Bali in the Sixties when he was living in Bangkok and running an international advertising agency.
Last year, he underwent surgery to remove a tumour from his lung, which had spread following successful treatment for bowel cancer in 2012.
He said: “I’ve been thinking back over the last few days and realised that having survived two serious car crashes in Singapore, been brought back from the brink after catching the superbug C.Difficile in Budapest, recovered from three major cancer operations and now this, I reckon I’ve used up seven of my nine lives!”
Passengers complained and praised the airline on social media.
In response to the complaints, Singapore Airlines issued a statement on Facebook, saying: “We sincerely apologise to affected customers for the inconvenience caused by the diversion and the lengthy delay encountered at the airport in Baku.”
An airline spokesman said that although a noise from one of the main deck doors had been reported on an earlier flight to London it had been inspected and the aircraft was cleared to continue flying.
The airline also offered the passengers and 27 crew members psychiatric counselling to help them deal with the incident.
Mr Mundy said: “We won’t be taking up the offer, unlike many of the others, as we reckon the ordeal is now behind us.”