When Betty Ferguson moved recently to Ryman Healthcare’s Murray Halberg Retirement Village, word soon got around that she had an amazing story to tell – and she had even written a book about it!
Betty was a passenger on the stricken British Airways flight 009 on June 24, 1982 which suffered complete failure of all four engines after flying through a volcanic dust cloud.
“It was almost total silence except for the whoosh,” recalls Betty, 95, who was travelling back to New Zealand with her mother Phyl after a holiday in their native city of London.
- Olympian Eliza McCartney and Mayor Phil Goff open Ryman's newest village
- Saudi Arabian adventure leads to love, Lynfield and retirement living
The Boeing 747, named the City of Edinburgh, ran into trouble during the Kuala Lumpur - Perth leg of the journey when it flew over Mount Galunggung volcano, southeast of Jakarta.
Later investigations revealed that the volcano had erupted earlier that day creating an ash cloud. However, the cloud was undetectable on the radar because it was made up of very dry material, unlike weather systems which are detected by their water particles.
The first sign of trouble was pinpricks of light appearing on the windscreen and a thin layer of cloud surrounding the plane.
Then thick, sulphurous smoke started to fill the cabin and the temperature within the aircraft began to get hotter and hotter.
A rumbling grating noise filled the air followed by total silence as the huge jet plane began effectively gliding through the night sky, freefalling for nearly 13 minutes.
Betty could see flames coming out of all four engines and, like the other passengers, was sure they were heading for certain death.
Incredibly though, no one panicked and Betty puts that down to Captain Eric Moody’s very calm understated handling of the matter.
“He said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.’
“And everybody behaved admirably. They were very calm. It must be that British stiff upper lip!”
When the cabin crew manager asked Betty and her mother ‘Are you ladies alright?’ they replied: “We’re fine thank you!’ But we were anything but fine!” she laughs.
There was a problem with some of the oxygen masks not working so the captain lowered the plane to a height where oxygen would naturally fill the cabin and incredibly three out of the four engines roared back to life.
Betty Ferguson, then known as Betty Tootell, during the 1980s
The tiny particles of rock had sandblasted the aircraft and choked its engines and dropping down to the clear, denser air had blown the engines free of volcanic material. However, the flight crew still faced a visibility problem.
The windscreen had been damaged so much the crew were forced to land the plane manually.
And it was a perfect landing thanks to their incredible skills, and having avoided such a near miss with death the 263 passengers hugged each other and applauded the crew.
In the years that followed the crew joined the passengers in forming the Galunggung Gliding Club, meeting up at numerous reunions held in New Zealand, London and Australia.
One of the reunions was at the launch of Betty’s book ‘All Four Engines Have Failed’, published in 1985 which recounts the passengers’ responses to their neardeath experiences.
Having worked previously as a consultancy services officer for British Airways in the UK and in advertising at the NZ Herald, writing a book was a challenge Betty worked hard to achieve.
“It moved me very much because I realised how close we had come to death and killing all of us.
“I had never written a book before and I saw this as being an ideal topic,” she says.
The cover of Betty's book, published in 1985
The story of the ‘Jakarta Incident’ has been the subject of numerous documentaries and newspaper articles and while Betty says she rarely thinks about it these days except when asked, she agrees it shaped the future path of her life.
A friendship with fellow passenger James Ferguson eventually blossomed into love for Betty with the pair marrying in 1993 and spending nearly three decades together living on Auckland’s North Shore.
She made the move to a serviced apartment at Lynfield to be closer to her step-daughter Claire and when the pair came to look around the village they found another amazing connection - Village Manager Grant Costello is Claire’s second cousin!
“We took that as a very good sign!”