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May
16 2010

Personal experience on board Flight CX838

[Written at 2.23 P.M. (16th May) Singapore time, 11:23 P.M. (15th May) Vancouver time.]

As luck would have had it, I was on board the Vancouver-bound flight from Hong Kong (Cathay Pacific CX 838) that was apparently under a bomb threat – which led to the unusual ‘sky display’ of a passenger jetliner being escorted by two military planes (more links: CNN Blogs, BBC, The Straits Times, TodayOnline) visible from the around the vicinity of Vancouver’s airport.

Group photo
Before boarding CX 838 at Hong Kong International Airport.

Despite being on the flight, I was largely unaware of what was going on. I was stuck in the middle row of seats – which left me with little knowledge of what was going on outside. The only thing I could really remember seeing was the sight of several snow-capped mountains and thinking “oooooh, mountains!” while the plane was making its descent. Several passengers (particularly those near the windows) however, seemed to be captivated by something outside as well … and I initially thought they were admiring the mountains too. o.O

Turned out that they were looking at the military jets. (Which I didn’t know about until later.)

The following pictures of one of the military jets escorting our aircraft was taken by a fellow passenger, Angella Griffith, who happened to be seated near the wing.

Military jets escorting CX 838

Military jets escorting CX 838
Original pictures by Angella Griffith. Colour edited by me.

[Edited: 11.00 A.M. (16th May) Vancouver Time] Another fellow passenger Winston Yuen seated on the opposite side just sent me this picture of the other military jet trailing us from the starboard side.

Military jets escorting CX 838
Original picture by Winston Yuen. Colour edited by me.

Many thanks to Angella and Winston for contributing the above photographs and allowing me to use them on my blog!

Initially, things seemed completely normal.
The plane stopped at the terminal as per normal to let us passengers disembark (no, we were not taken to an isolated part of the airport unlike what media reports suggested). We also went through immigration as per normal and headed to our assigned baggage carousel (number 23). Passengers were milling around waiting for their bags to come around – with several already collecting theirs’ and leaving the area – until things suddenly took a turn half an hour later.

No information given to us.
It seemed as though no new bags were showing up on the carousel, which left several of us quite frustrated. The scene became even more confusing when big, burly armed guards suddenly showed on the scene, ordering all of us to back away from the carousel and shouting at anyone who tried to pick up their bags. They then positioned themselves all around the carousel (about five to six of them altogether), and basically stood there. No explanation, nothing.

A few minutes later, the baggage carousel completely grinded to a halt.

Meanwhile, all the passengers were simply looking around, bewildered – with several annoyed that their bags weren’t showing up/not allowed to pick their bags.

And when anyone tried to approach the guards, they were either given a very rude answer – I overheard “If it comes out, it comes out. Otherwise, just wait!” (which isn’t very helpful) – or given a look as if the guards are doing them a favour by being there.

Announcements over the PA system were vague and non-explanatory as well. As a result, various theories were being devised among the passengers, such as a possible ‘technical glitch’, ‘the carousel stopped working’, ‘the people at the baggage department are inefficient’ and of course, the possible ‘security threat’. (Although most people were swayed towards the first reason.)

One hour later – the guards were still there, the carousel still non-moving, and the PA system still repeating the same vague, non-specific messages.

Cut off from the outside world.
In addition to all that, mobile lines from the airport to within Canada seemed to be completely cut. We couldn’t reach my aunt who was waiting for us at the arrival hall to let her know we were held up. Neither could we call anyone else within Canada to let them know of our situation.

Tempers were beginning to rise – but minutes later, the carousels suddenly started again. The guards then informed us that baggages already on the carousel can be collected whereas those that haven’t showed up are subjected to additional security screening which can take up to two hours.

Still no bags.
My relatives and I have a total of eight check-in baggages in total, none which have showed up despite having waited for close to three hours by then. Needless to say, we were extremely miffed as we were forced to stay in the airport longer with no explanation, whatsoever (and at that point, most people felt that what was going on was more of a technical glitch than anything else).

So, we parked ourselves on benches around the area and waited. (Quite a few passengers – quite possibly Vancouver residents – opt to leave earlier and have their baggages delivered to their homes. However, us tourists have no other choice but to wait because we need our stuff!)

We learned about things the hard way – from someone else (and the media).
It was almost approaching five when a fellow passenger approached me and informed me that a friend of her’s has just contacted her after seeing the latest news and apparently, our plane was involved in an alleged security/bomb threat.

In response, my jaw fell.

You mean, uninvolved people from the rest of the world knew about it and yet us – the people directly affected – were completely kept in the dark?!

Okay, but that wasn’t really my concern. The words ‘security’ and ‘bomb threat’ sent a chilling shiver down my spine.

In response, I switched on my laptop and googled for related news. Sure enough, several media reports from the likes of CNN , BBC, The Straits Times and Vancouver Sun were staring back at me in the face. Eventually, we passed the information down to the rest of the stranded passenger group – who crowded around and stared at my screen.

Even then, the security and airport staff at Vancouver Airport kept completely mum about the situation. They continued remaining flippant even when we prodded them for details hinting that we already knew what was going on. (Quite understandable, really – methinks they don’t want to raise an alarm. But on the other hand, I still feel they could have handled the situation better because being forced to wait around when you don’t know why can be very frustrating.)

I only started filming the following video after knowing about the security/bomb threat situation.


Scene at the baggage collection area after we (the stranded passengers)
found out about the situation for real.

As the video suggests, some parts of the preliminary media reports about our flight were untrue. We weren’t forced to land in Vancouver. We were going to land in Vancouver right from the beginning. (It was our flight destination!) Rather, we were escorted by the military jets during our descent instead of landing independently.

Group photo
Me, with some of the other stranded fellow passengers.
We just HAD to take a photo together after knowing we just survived a bomb threat.

Leaving the Airport
All the affected passengers (and yours’ truly) were also subjected to additional screening procedures before we were allowed to leave the restricted zone. All baggages had to be re-x-ray’ed and scanned by sniffer dogs (despite how we were held back long enough for supposedly additional safety checks). Additionally, the fact that there were eight other armed guards in the screening room who were staring at us as if we were potential criminals didn’t help the situation one bit.

Methinks my poor grandma was confused. And my mum, aunt and myself didn’t want to tell her about the situation in too much detail because she alarms easily.

Eventually, I stepped out into the bright sunshine and was interviewed by a local (Vancouver) news station on the way out. By then, I was too flustered to string a coherent sentence together so I hope they don’t air my response.

It’s been more than ten hours since the incident and the verdict is out – no bomb has been found on the plane – which is a relief, really. All of us were indeed happy to have emerged alive and kicking. And even then, the prospect of having flown in a plane (with a potential bomb) is extremely unnerving.

The flight itself was pretty uneventful. I’ve had a pretty restful sleep during the thirteen hour long journey … and was only rudely awakened once or twice by the air stewardess rolling the food trolley into my head (my head tends to droop beyond the seat when I’m in a deep sleep so, my fault – I guess). Plus, the plane landing was one of the smoothest I’ve ever encountered so the whole twist of events was rather puzzling.

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13 Comments

  • 16 May 2010
    4:45 PM

    Teddy

    Wow, that was really some experience! Actually my heart skipped a beat when I saw photos of the flighter jets escorting the plane – and since you’re off the plane now I guess it’s okay to say it – that they will actually shoot the plane down if the president says so.

    Pretty scary, but I’m glad that everything turned out to be fine. It’s probably some jerk who had to much free time to burn he decided to create a bomb hoax or something. Perhaps it’s some misinformation from the military. Nobody will know for sure.

    I can’t imagine being stranded at the airport for 5 hours and more. It’s crazy! Thank goodness you had your laptop as carryon though. I couldn’t imagine being disconnected from the world. The guards were indeed extremely rude and unapologetic at the least, and the airline staff didn’t do much help either. I would have expected better service over in Canada, but I guess in times of terrorism there’s no place for manners :P

    I’m glad that you’re safe and sound. Since your Vancouver trip started off with a bomb scare, your vacation could only get better from now on :D teehee!

    • 16 May 2010
      10:01 PM

      brendalogy

      Haha yeah, I heard about the ‘them being able to shoot the plane down if necessary’ bit. One guy (a fellow passenger) shared that piece of information with the rest of us stranded passengers and there was a shocked silence for quite a while. Now, we’re really lucky that there was no actual bomb threat eventually because we could have been blown up there if otherwise (by either the actual bomb itself, or by the military jets)!

      But either way, I’m safe and sound at my aunt’s house now. (;

    • 17 May 2010
      8:02 AM

      wutdhec

      Airplane shot down by order of what president? Canada has a prime minister, the jets were Canadian, and the flight was headed to Canada….????????

      The rude security people reflect poorly on Canada, and will make people less compliant in the future. Especially if the public finds out the regular news media is blowing things out of proportion or flat out lying. Thanks for the accurate report Brenda!

      • 17 May 2010
        12:25 PM

        brendalogy

        With regard to whether the ‘president’ is concerned – I am hearing mixed stories. :/

        One fellow passenger at the airport said that the USA president can lay claim to the security/terrorist threat and dispense orders. Another friend (who heard about the situation) said the Canadian ‘president’ (or prime minister? Not sure here. I’m quoting him directly) can order a shootdown of the plane after a thorough risk assessment.

        Anyway, you’re most welcome, Wutdhec! (:

        • 17 May 2010
          12:45 PM

          wutdhec

          Your detailed and first person report is very welcome against the backdrop of official disinformation! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

          The reports say it was the Canadian air force that was deployed, so only the Canadian powers could have deployed them, and caused them to act (unless this is wrong and the US air force is occupying and operating within Canada as an invited or hostile force). The US president might have requested action, but cannot dictate the direct actions of the Canadian air force. It is up to the prime minister. Obviously Canada has diplomatic relations to consider, but also domestic priorities as well.

  • 17 May 2010
    6:20 AM

    Fighter Jets escort Cathay Pacific Plane under a bomb threat to Vancouver - Page 2 - FlyerTalk Forums

    […] Here is an interesting account by someone who was on this flight. I love the cute Singaporean accent. A couple of interesting points: 1. She states the aircraft stopped at the terminal as per normal and all passengers disembarked, went through immigration, and proceeded to baggage reclaim. This seems to contradict media reports stating the aircraft was immediately taken to an isolated part of the airport and passengers kept on board. 2. She claims several passengers had already retrieved their bags from the carousel and left the area before security personnel stopped others from picking up their bags. Everyone else then had to wait hours while bags were screened. So what about the first passengers who got their bags? Were they actually on the same flight? If so, I see a problem. […]

  • 17 May 2010
    7:02 AM

    yyzvoyageur

    FYI, your blog has been linked to at the following URL (see post 21 on page 2). Yours is a very interesting account of the CX838 incident (non-incident?). Check it out. If you’re really into travelling, you may enjoy FlyerTalk anyhow.

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/travel-safety-security/1085670-fighter-jets-escort-cathay-pacific-plane-under-bomb-threat-vancouver.html

  • 17 May 2010
    12:27 PM

    abraxis

    Excellent writeup on your CX flight. Levelheaded and well written! Someone posted your blog on FlyerTalk so that may account for a surge of hits since earlier today.

    http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/cathay-pacific-asia-miles/1085653-cx838-hkg-yvr-flight-receives-military-escort.html

    • 17 May 2010
      12:43 PM

      brendalogy

      Thanks, Abraxis! (:

  • 17 May 2010
    4:47 PM

    Tweets that mention Personal experience on board Flight CX838 « Brenda Says -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eric Phu. Eric Phu said: A detailed account of the recent #CX838 incident by someone onboard (pretty much exactly my experience too) http://bit.ly/8Y8mSJ […]

  • 17 May 2010
    8:54 PM

    Maria Celina

    My goodness, Brenda. What an insane experience. However, I really like the fact that you befriended that people that were with you on that flight. I guess in times like these, you really learn to reach out.

    Nonetheless, I am very glad that you and the other passengers aboard that flight are all right!

  • 18 May 2010
    5:03 PM

    Veronica

    Wow! I believe that even tops my worst/craziest experience flying. I was going to California from Alabama to meet my biological family for the first time and it was nuts.

    My first leg was to DC and the plane ended up having problems so we had to wait like 2 hours for them to find a replacement plane. Then we went to Vegas.

    Then that plane decided to die on us as well and then we had to wait AGAIN for another plane to be found. So we departed the plane, and got in line to find out what was going on.

    They were sending us to another gate going to the same airport, but then that was full, and they were telling us that next flight wouldn’t leave until tomorrow.

    And no they weren’t going to put us up for the night, or give us food vouchers or refunds… we were expected to just sit there and take it.

    Finally about 3 hours they ended up locating a plane, and making a flight just for us. So wow.. needless to say I haven’t flown since then.

    • 19 May 2010
      9:52 PM

      brendalogy

      Terrorism just about tops any other flight experience unfortunately. Flight changes and delays and stuff are fairly common (but inconvenient nonetheless) but the former generally makes the news as they happen so rarely. (Plus, terrorism is a pretty big issue.)

      It’s an experience I’d rather not have, though. :( But ah, well. Just unlucky, I guess!

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