An Adventure Novel of Survival, Romance, and Mystery in the Australian Outback
By Robert W. Campbell
December 24, 1971
Though it might seem preposterous that anyone could be ejected from an airliner and survive a nearly two-mile fall to the ground—such an event has actually taken place. This fictional novel, Flyabout, was inspired by that amazing event.
The incredible, but true, survival story began just before noon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1971 when seventeen-year-old Juliane Koepcke boarded LANSA Airlines Flight 508. The flight originated in Lima, Peru and was bound for Pucallpa, Peru, (a remote jungle town 500 miles to northeast). Juliane, who was traveling with her mother, was one the 92 passengers and crew aboard the ill-fated airliner.
Approximately a half-hour into the flight, the aircraft encountered a violent thunderstorm. The airliner reportedly was struck by lightning which caused a catastrophic explosive decompression and an immediate ‘in-flight breakup’ of the airliner. Chunks of fuselage and banks of seats containing passengers were ripped from the airliner and sent hurtling towards the dense jungle cover over two-miles below. The teenager careened downward in free fall through the thunderstorm’s vicious updrafts. Juliane, now a librarian living in Germany, vividly recalls the tumbling and spiraling descent and clearly remembers being aware of the wind blasting into her face. She still recalls, watching in horror, as the jungle floor raced up to meet her. Meteorologists theorize that those violent updrafts, drastically slowed her descent to the surface where she landed–only slightly injured–in the fork of a tree, still strapped into her seat. Experts further theorized that the bank of three seats she remained strapped into, along with the jungle canopy, further cushioned her astounding fall.
Unable to find her mother or any other survivors, she undertook a grueling hike through the deadly jungle in search of civilization. While rescue crews searched in vain for the missing aircraft, Juliane was forced to endure cruel hardships as she faced the jungle’s deadly environment. Ten days later, she emerged from the jungle—alone, and battered, but alive. The accident received worldwide attention from the press and remains today as one of the all-time greatest survival stories.
Rescuers would later recover over a dozen bodies of individuals who had also survived the initial two-mile high fall (as evidenced by some rudimentary shelters they had built). But all had died while waiting for a rescue that came too late. All 91 bodies were ultimately recovered. Juliane’s incredible ordeal is documented in her autobiography titled When I Fell from the Sky (2011).
Though Flyabout was inspired by Juliane Koepcke’s survival story, the setting of this fictional novel has been moved to the Australian Outback. While Juliane was stranded in a rainforest to face both the beauty and terrors of a waterlogged earth infested with deadly creatures, those marooned in the Outback face a different set of terrors and beauty. They face two million square miles of moonscape surface that is made up of dry, cracked red earth where water can be as rare as its inhabitants.
Whoa, what an old looking plane, thought Derek Hunter, as he boarded the aircraft. It looked to be a big old DC-10 that had long since seen better days. Still, it was an imposing sight as it stood on the tarmac with its doors wide open. As he entered the cabin, he was greeted by a stunning flight attendant. Derek noted her nametag read Michelle. He spotted an empty row of seats near the rear emergency exit door, and selected window seat 26A. It was just above the main baggage door. Gazing out the window, he enjoyed a panoramic view of the area surrounding the aircraft. He watched in fascination as an armada of people and equipment darted about preparing airplanes for departure. Smiling, he recalled his childhood and how much he loved being around airports and airplanes. He recalled vividly how his parents had given him a flying lesson on his 18th birthday. He actually got to do a landing–with the instructor’s help. The instructor encouraged him to get his license and consider a career in aviation. The instructor said he had a ‘natural talent’ for flying. Although he promised himself that one day he’d get a flying license, he never did find the time or money to do it. Instead, he found pleasure in reading about airplanes whenever he could. Happy thoughts.
Derek felt a slight ‘thump.’ Shifting his gaze down to the left, he saw the baggage crew busily loading luggage into the cargo hold directly beneath his seat. Tired now, he reclined the seat and tried to relax.
Across the aisle he overheard a newly-wed couple chortling about how wonderful their wedding reception had come off and what a great honeymoon they were going to have in Alice Springs. The giddy young couple cooed and kissed then repeated to each other “till death do us part.” Mercifully, they would never know that the wedding vow they’d just reaffirmed would come to pass very soon.
At 7:00 p.m. Derek checked his watch and recounted how lucky he’d been to catch the flight. It was supposed to have departed at 6:00 p.m. but when he called to confirm his reservation he’d been told that the flight would be delayed an hour, and that was good news for him. A scheduling mix-up at the Computer Science Conference he’d just attended had put him behind schedule. But the flight delay allowed him to make his flight. For once in his life a flight delay actually worked to his advantage.
He’d come from Boston, halfway around the world, to make a scholarly presentation in Sydney. And now that the ‘business end’ of his trip was over he was looking forward to a short vacation. The trip to Alice Springs, then on to Ayers Rock and the Outback, would be a welcome diversion and a pleasurable end to his first visit to Australia. He was really looking forward to a guided jeep tour into the Outback that he planned to take. That, he thought, would really help him get back on his feet after his recent break-up with his longtime girlfriend.
He reminisced how they’d been together for several years while he struggled to balance his heavy workload at the university and the grueling years of study to complete his Doctorate Degree. Their relationship couldn’t hold up under the strain. She’d felt neglected and, in his heart, he couldn’t blame her. It was a classic case of relationships versus careers and something had to give. Sadly, he unconsciously let the relationship suffer and he’d paid the price. He was tired now and tried to put the sad situation out of his thoughts. He let the matter go.
Derek stretched his arms over his head and let out a long sigh. He reviewed how his day had begun. ‘Doctor Hunter,’ the moderator announced as he introduced him to the assembly. The lofty title, Doctor, sounded like music to his ears. He’d received his doctorate degree only three months earlier. And now here he was presenting his first scholarly paper, in Australiaof all places. Although the presentation ‘Artificial Intelligence and Its Impact on the Workforce’ was a success, the ‘follow-up’ discussion period had to be rescheduled. And that caused delays, frustration, and anxiety. But now, luxuriating in the reclined seat, he felt all those issues melt away.
A loud ‘thump’ from the baggage compartment below his seat shook Derek out of his reverie. He straightened up in his seat, then quickly scanned the cabin. He was surprised when he didn’t see many passengers. It was a very large airplane and even though he couldn’t see all the way down to the front, it was clearly apparent that the plane was far from being full. Derek checked his watch and noted that the flight was still delayed. He wondered if the delay was caused by mechanical problems. “Ah, I’m just being ridiculous,” he mumbled to himself. Dismissing the idea, he shrugged his broad shoulders and settled back into his seat.
Still, even though he tried not to, Derek was beginning to have second thoughts about having used the Internet to get the cheapest fare possible. For a moment he feared that he may have chosen an air carrier that uses old aircraft and cheap maintenance for the sake of profit. With a shudder, he shook off his depressing line of thought.
A moment later Derek was jolted out of his thoughts by a more welcome ‘thud.’ This time the sound came from the cabin door as it swung shut. Twisting around in his seat he caught the sight of a pretty young flight attendant moving the door locking lever down into position. That must be Michelle getting the cabin ready for departure, he thought. He’d remembered seeing her name embossed on the gold-winged badge that was pinned to her blouse. He was surprised that he noticed the badge at all because Michelle was so strikingly beautiful that one could hardly notice anything else. Had it not been for her airline uniform one might have thought that she was a cover girl flying off to a photo shoot. Her long beautiful blond hair and gorgeous blue eyes certainly made her look the part.
He remembered her warm, friendly greeting as he entered the cabin. Although he could never explain it, her infectious smile and warm sincere ‘welcome aboard’ made him feel like he had just been kissed by an angel. He reflected that the golden wings of her badge would have been more appropriate had they been affixed to her back because she truly did look like an angel.
Hearing an engine start up outside, Derek looked out in time to see a motorized luggage conveyor moving away from the aircraft. Ah, he thought, that means all the luggage is aboard and we’ll be departing any minute. He was even more convinced that departure was imminent when he heard a muffled ‘whining’ sound. The baggage handler had just pressed a switch activating the cargo door’s control motor causing the big baggage door to slowly move down into the closed position.
But trouble was brewing. Below Derek’s window, the ramp baggage handler stood waiting for the motor to stop—that would mean that the cycle was completed and the door was ready to be locked. He cocked his head and listened, but he didn’t hear the click that normally accompanied the mechanism moving into its secure position. Though he should have waited, he went ahead and pushed on the lock handle above the door. That movement was supposed to complete the locking procedure. That done, an indicator light should have lit up in the cockpit of the plane signaling that the baggage door was locked and secure. But something was wrong—the door lock handle wouldn’t move into place.
In the cockpit, the ‘door locked’ indicator on the flight deck remained as dark as the mood of the flight crew. They were already behind schedule and eager to do the engine startups but couldn’t do so until the cargo door was secure—and that meant more delays. Like other flight crews who flew for ‘cut-rate-fare’ airlines they were under constant pressure to maximize their productivity by maintaining rapid flight turnarounds and on-time service.
The baggage man grumbled at the problematic latch. He re-checked his work and noticed that the lock handle wasn’t flush with the fuselage and its small ‘vent door’ hadn’t shut properly. He knew that the vent door operated simultaneously with a set locking pins in the cargo door to prevent cabin pressure buildup if the big cargo door wasn’t properly locked. He was furious about the delay and having to deal with the aircraft that many of his colleagues thought was a ‘Russian built piece of crap.’ The man scowled at the latch, gave out a loud curse, then slammed his barrel-sized fist against the side of the cargo door. With that, the little vent door slowly moved into place. An instant later the “door closed and locked” indicator light winked on in the cockpit. Derek, oblivious to the cargo door drama, drifted off into pleasant thoughts of his long-awaited vacation.
Derek was startled out of his daydream by the sudden impact of a man pounding into the seat beside him. The scruffy young man appeared to have just dropped right out of the sky. He landed in the seat with a tremendous ‘whump’ that shook the whole bank of seats.
“Hey man, what’s going on out there?” he asked, as he rudely thrust himself across Derek to gape out the window. He glared at the baggage crew outside. “No way! What’s holding things up. We should have been out of here by now—we’re never going to take off!” Moaning in displeasure, he flopped back into his seat. The man’s agitation, Derek hoped, was only due to the flight delay.
Looking more closely at him, Derek couldn’t help but note how closely his appearance resembled that of the legendary Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. He had the same look about him with his disheveled clothing, unkempt beard, and strange disposition. Of all the places on the plane he could sit, he picks here—lucky me, thought Derek.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Derek finally responded. Hoping to lessen the man’s agitation Derek said, “they must have had a little trouble with the loading but I just heard the cargo door close so we should be on our way any minute now.” The man seemed calmed by Derek’s remark. But he soon renewed the conversation.
“Well they better not mess up my camping equipment,” he grumbled.
“So, are you’re going camping in the Outback?” Derek asked.
“Yeah, I sure am—and hey, what’s ya’ name.”
Oh God, thought Derek. I should have kept my mouth shut—this is why you don’t talk to people on the subway. Hoping to keep his apprehension from showing, he simply said, “Derek.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m Shawn and I’m from a lot of different places. I sort of move around a lot, ya know.” Derek didn’t respond—he just nodded his head while thinking, I’ll bet you move around a lot–probably trying to keep one step ahead of the people in the white coats. He found himself wishing the man would move along to a different seat, or better yet, a different airplane.
The uncomfortable silence that followed was broken when the man started talking again. “Yeah, I’m gonna go camping in the Outback, man. I got a pile of stuff packed in my luggage. I’m gonna camp my way all the way across the Outback in six months. Everyone says I’m crazy. But, hey, that’s me!” He laughed, in an unsettling way. Crazy, how nicely put, thought Derek.
“And I got a lot stuff with me too,” he rambled. “I can live off my supplies and after that I can live off the land. I used to be in the U.S. Army Rangers. We’re some kinda crazy kick-ass tough dudes, I’ll tell ya man.”
“Got a psycho discharge no doubt.” thought Derek. He dared not ask for details because even as the man boasted about being in the Rangers, his expression changed in a very disquieting way. Then as abruptly as Shawn had arrived, without a further word, he leaped up and headed to another seat at the rear of the plane.
The mood in the cockpit changed quickly when Flight Engineer, Jean, called out, “That’s it on the cargo door. They’ve finally got it. We’re good to go.”
I’m glad of that,” chortled Captain Ed Johnson. “And I’ve got some great news. I just made a final weather check and winds aloft are really in our favor. I figure with the tail wind we’ll shave 20 minutes off the flight. We won’t make up the full hour and a half we lost with that compressor replacement and baggage door problem but we may wind up being only a little over an hour late if our luck holds.”
“Sir, if you call this luck we’re in a world of hurt, I’ll tell ya,” chuckled his First Officer, Dan Billings, who was serving as copilot on this trip.
Turning to his right, Captain Johnson called over to his female second officer, Flight Engineer Jean Sears. “Okay Jean, let’s begin the engine startups. Number 1 then number 3.”
“Yes Captain,” she promptly responded.
A minute later the cabin was filled with the welcome sound of the jet’s engines spooling up. Even though the plane was less than full, the passengers gave a remarkably loud round of applause to indicate their approval after such a long hot wait for departure. Derek happily joined in the minor celebration. He felt the tension in his body melt away as a bright yellow tow-tractor pulled into place and hooked up the aircraft. He was on his way and feeling great.
In the cockpit, Captain Johnson was alert to follow the line crewman’s directions. The line chief walked backwards and gestured to the flight crew with his batons. He signaled the crew to make a right turn out of the holding area. The captain complied and maneuvered the plane towards his assigned departure position. He glanced over at his First Officer and called out. “Okay Dan, there’s the signal—We’ve got permission to taxi. Let’s roll out onto the taxiway for departure on Runway 06 Left.”
Once the big jet started rolling, Captain Johnson began the startup sequence for the number two engine. “Okay Jean,” he called out. “Start number 2.” The delayed startup of the big engine, perched high up on the tail, was a standard cost cutting measure that was intended to save fuel and engine wear. Jean, a highly competent perky, and bright-eyed mother of two quickly configured the appropriate pneumatic and pack controls that allowed the number 2 engine to start. “Duct pressure at positive 30 PSI,” she called out, indicating that the engine start procedure could now begin. A moment later she announced, “panel items complete.” Now the last of the big three jet engines spooled up. “Final items to go,” she called out just as the crew completed the last item on the long and complex checklist. Two minutes later the big jet slowly lumbered down the taxiway.
In the cabin, Derek was delighted to see Michelle move into position to begin her emergency evacuation presentation. “She’s in the wrong profession,” he thought, as he watched her move gracefully down the aisle. As he stared into her beautiful face and sparkling blue eyes he fantasized that she’d be more at home on the runway of some exotic Paris fashion gallery. He fell into a daydream and imagined her cruising along in a Rolls Royce convertible with her golden silk hair flowing out behind her as she maneuvered the big Rolls through picturesque streets along the Mediterranean coast.
Derek suddenly noticed that Michelle had a quizzical look on her face. With a start, he realized that he must have been staring directly into her eyes for several minutes. Greatly embarrassed, he blushed deeply. While Michelle continued her safety presentation Derek snatched up a magazine. He opened it wide in front of his red face hoping to shield it from her view, not realizing that he was holding it upside down.
“And if there is anything that you need during the flight please don’t hesitate to ask,” Michelle added, as she concluded the emergency evacuation demonstration. Suddenly a man’s voice rang out from the back of the aircraft. “Yeah you can do somethin’ for me babe!”
Michelle wasn’t sure who made the remark. Choosing to ignore it, she walked towards the rear of the plane to begin her duties. As she moved down the aisle, the scruffy young man who’d made the remark leaned forward as she passed. He mockingly held his arms out wide while making a ridiculous attempt at putting a lecherous look on his face. “You can give me some luv’n,” he blurted out.
Though startled by the outburst, Michelle thought that the scruffy little man hadn’t really meant any harm. While his preposterous mock lecherous look made her want to laugh out loud, she followed her training and ignored him—she wouldn’t be baited. Without breaking stride, she continued on, thinking that it really didn’t matter anyway because she was planning to leave her job at the end of the month. Yet somehow that thought just didn’t seem to please her the way she thought it should.
As Michelle passed by seat 26A, she couldn’t help but glimpse over at the young man who had blushed with embarrassment a moment ago. How odd, she thought, as she came abreast of his seat. She noticed that he was holding the magazine upside down. She stopped and looked down just in time to catch Derek sneaking a peek at her over the top of the magazine. Much to his delight she shot him a stunning smile. He eagerly returned it.
Michelle leaned over gracefully, and whispered, “Pardon me Dr. Hunter. I couldn’t help but notice that you’re holding your magazine upside down.”
Embarrassed, yet pleased that she’d addressed him, Derek blushed again and with an impish grin said, “That’s because I’m in the land down under.”
“That’s cute,” replied Michelle with a genuine smile on her face. She straightened up. “Well if you think you’re in the land down under then you must be an American.”
“You’re right,” smiled Derek. “And I really apologize for staring at you like that earlier. I didn’t even realize that I was doing it—it’s very embarrassing and I’m really sorry.”
Michelle took an instant liking to this man who was so easily embarrassed and with his clean shave, big brown eyes, dark brown hair, and impeccable business suit, he appeared to be quite a gentleman as well. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “I certainly wasn’t. And I can assure you it was a more pleasant diversion than the incident I just had with a scruffy little character a moment ago.”
“That just has to have been be Shawn,” said Derek. “I had the misfortune of meeting him earlier—he’s not playing with a full deck that’s for sure.”
“Not playing with a full deck?” she repeated quizzically.
“Not all there, screwy, a little crazy,” Derek explained. “Sorry, I guess that’s an American expression.”
“Well it certainly seems to fit in this case,” she chuckled. “No argument there.”
To Derek’s disappointment Michelle’s attention was drawn away by the sound of clanking jewelry. An elderly lady vigorously waved her heavily jewelry laden arm in the air and called out for service. As she was about to respond to the call, a male flight attendant, Jerry, took the call instead.
A moment later, Michelle’s ears perked up as she heard the electronic ‘bong’ of another service call. “Sorry, duty calls,” said Michelle. Turning back to Derek she added, “Enjoy your flight Doctor Hunter. We’ll be in the air in just a minute.”
“Thanks. I will,” replied Derek. An instant later he started to add, “But how did you know my name…….” His voice trailing off in mid-sentence. Michelle had already flitted away with the grace of a butterfly.
Robert W. Campbell
Although the author of Flyabout, Dr. Robert Campbell, has enjoyed his career as a Computer Science professor, he’s also enjoyed a lifelong interest in all areas related to aviation.
In order to write with accuracy and precision about the flying sequences in the novel, he became a student pilot and learned to fly a single-engine Piper Warrior and a twin-engine Piper Seneca.
A colleague of his, a fully certified DC-10 Captain, served as a consultant for the airline accident sequences.
Dr. Campbell, a USAF veteran, and his wife Alice, left Boston for the sun and fun of Florida where he still enjoys taking flying lessons and writing novels.