18 March 2008

355 Days Ago

A jet aircraft with 270 passengers on board was within 35 seconds of crashing into a blazing Russian satellite as it was falling back to earth yesterday.

Pilots of the A340-300 Airbus suddenly saw fiery debris streaking through the midnight darkness, directly ahead of their aircraft, which was travelling at about 800km/h (500mph). The falling metal, about five miles ahead, broke the speed of sound, causing a sonic boom that drowned out the jet’s four engines.

The incident happened over the Pacific Ocean, about four hours southwest of Auckland, about ten minutes after LAN Airlines’ flight LA801 entered the far western reaches of New Zealand’s oceanic flight information region.

Two Australian aviation buffs listening in to flight communications heard the obviously shaken captain of the South American aircraft make contact with New Zealand air traffic controllers to inform them of what had happened.

The New Zealand controllers quickly realised that the LAN flight had nearly collided with a disintegrating Russian communications satellite, which had not been due to reenter the Earth’s orbit for another 12 hours. A spokesman for Airways New Zealand, the government body that provides navigation services across the oceanic airspace, said yesterday that a notice of the impending reentry of the Russian satellite had been issued on March 16 to all airlines operating in the region.

It said the satellite would reenter Earth’s atmosphere at about noon on Wednesday but it came down 12 hours earlier.

The Airways New Zealand spokesman said that in the past notifications from Russia and other nations of the impending reentry of satellites into the southern reaches of the western Pacific had been accurate and reliable. The region is favoured as a dumping ground for space junk because it is almost devoid of human settlement.

The LAN flight landed safely in Auckland just after 4am local time yesterday.

Count your blessings.

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