FlyerTalk Members Report on Experience of Emergency Airplane Diversion to Ascension Island — With Photographs

A Boeing 777-200 aircraft operating as Delta Air Lines flight 201 from Johannesburg to Atlanta diverted to Ascension Island last week due to a problem with one of its engines, reportedly prompting fuel to be dumped before landing.

Another Boeing 777-200 aircraft operating as Delta Air Lines flight 9978 arrived at Ascension Island to safely take the passengers and flight crew to Atlanta. The total delay was approximately 20 hours and 30 minutes.

Here is a first-hand account of the incident as reported by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre, who was a passenger on the aircraft in question:

Passengers walk across the tarmac after deplaning from Delta Air Lines flight 201 after landing on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre.

“I guess I’ll be the first actual passenger to check in, this flight was definitely an adventure for sure. I apologize in advance for the length.

“We were approximately five hours out from Johannesburg (I had just finished my movie and was laying my seat back to try to sleep) when the pilot came on the intercom with an announcement that they had an engine indication light on and we were diverting to Ascension Island and would be there in about an hour. As you can imagine there was not going to be any sleep after that.

A Boeing 777-200 aircraft operated by Delta Air Lines prepares to land on Ascension Island to rescue passengers and crew and continue on to Atlanta. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre.

“We landed at almost exactly an hour later, about 3,000 miles from Johannesburg. The landing was actually fairly smooth but the airfield did have a few emergency vehicles ready just in case (I think there were only six or so vehicles, they don’t have many) and no they were not lightning the runway with their headlights. After landing we were told to stay in our seats for the time being and maybe 15-20 minutes later we were told that we were going to be getting off the plane and to start getting together our personal belongings. Probably 5 minutes after that we started to get off the plane at about 1:30am local time (8:30pm EST).

Sign welcomes visitors to Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre.

“When we deplaned we went to the British ‘terminal’. There was probably only about 40 seats inside for people to sit on but the evening was very nice so most people sat on large picnic benches outside or leaned against the walls and fence. They luckily had a tiny little play area in terminal already there where the little kids could play. They brought in a few of the cold sandwiches meant for the midflight snack to the base but there were not enough for everyone. We were also short on the refreshment said, the Brits brewed up some coffee and tea and there was a water fountain but that is all we had (I was smart and grabbed a few extra water bottles before we landed). We had some weak cell phone reception at the base so most of us were able to text or call people back in the States if we needed to.

Scenery while on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre.

“About two hours after we had landed they finally powered down the plane and we noticed the pilots and flight crew get into some vehicles and drive away. This was really my only criticism on how everything was handled. I realize they were still figuring things out at the time but it would have been nice for them to send one of the pilots or maybe the crew leader to the terminal and just say “This is what we know and this is what we don’t know and we’ll tell you more when we have more information”. It would not have taken very much and it would have made a lot of people happier, there was definitely some grumbling that no one was keeping us in the loop. Most of the information we go were just rumors of someone sat next to someone who knew someone working at Delta and they were told this and that. Eventually about an hour after that one the Brits got on the intercom to start organizing transportation to the bases for accomodations and mentioned that Delta was working on bringing a new plane there but he had not heard of a timeframe yet.

A view of the Atlantic Ocean while on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre.

“The transport of everyone to the British and American bases were a little disorganized, you could definitely tell they were making it up as they went which was completely understandable. They were breaking people out into groups of four (started with elderly and children, then moved into couples and travel partners before going to single travelers). Those who went to the British base were in four to a room and had a communal bathroom. Not the greatest of accommodations but it was better than sleeping in the terminal. I was lucky and got sent to the US base where we all got our own rooms with bathrooms, I got into my room around 5:30am local.

From left to right: the replacement Boeing 777-200; the disabled Boeing 777-200; and the British aircraft. Photograph by FlyerTalk member ksgalbre.

“When I got up I went to the mess hall for lunch which was free for all the passengers. At the mess hall we had our first “official” communication from Delta which was just a note saying they were expecting the replacement plane to arrive between 5:00-6:00 pm and that a dinner would be available after 3:30pm. We were not restricted in our movements in any way on the US base, I spent a lot of time walking around and I talked to a couple people who had made it down to Georgetown which was apparently a couple miles from the base. The base shop definitely had a good day, I saw dozens of people walking around with Ascension Island shirts on.

“Everyone on the British side started coming over to the US base at around 5:00pm and buses started coming at about 6:00 to start bringing everyone back to the airfield, everyone made it over there by around 7:00. There was a British plane there that had arrived in the morning (and yes apparently they did clip their wing with our broken plane) so we all had to huddle in the firestation for a little bit as that plane was taxing and took off. At about 8:00pm we were told we could board the plane and so you just had a mass of 250 people just walking across the tarmac to board the plane. Everyone was boarded and settled down withing 20-25 minutes, everyone was ready to get home. Once airborne we were let known that because the replacement plane had left in the middle of the night they were not able to load it with any catered food so we just had snacks available (at some point they also ran out of water but beyond that they seemed to have the usual beverage service).

“We arrived in Atlanta at about 2:30am EST and they opened immigration just for us. Once we got through customs and baggage claim (the pilots moved all of the luggage from the broken plane to the new one) there was a host of Delta reps waiting to get everything setup. I’m a Platinum member so they had a room setup for us where they gave us our boarding passes for connecting flights, hotel key (I declined as I had a 7:40 flight and it didn’t make sense to go to a hotel just for a couple hours), and for the sky priority members they had food bags with a sandwich and snacks available (they had some food available for everyone else as well). After that they let everyone who was staying in the airport into the Sky Lounge in the F Terminal.

“It was definitely an interesting experience. It some ways it was kind of nice to stop and have a nice shower and a sleep in a bed. The people at both the British and American bases were all every nice and accommodating and aside from lack of communication after we landed at Ascension I thought Delta stepped up nicely.

“When we got to Atlanta we received a Visa gift card to cover any incidentals and a voucher good for a roundtrip flight to Africa, the Middle East, or India to use within the next year (whatever class your seat was in is what your voucher was good for).”

FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski was also a passenger on the flight and reports the following information first-hand:

“Over the years I must admit that I have gotten much more from FT than I have given and feel obligated to add to ksgalbre’s excellent post. I travel very infrequently now due to a job change, but have been a top tier member for at least one year in all of the major US airline programs within the past 10 years and was a pax on DL 201 on 1/9 from JNB. I was returning from my honeymoon and traveling with my wife in BE on SkyMiles tickets.

“Please note that some of what I’m reporting occurred is based on rumor and speculation that was circulated among the pax. As you will see, very little confirmed information was provided so I think ‘what we knew’ at various points in time is relevant to the situation overall.

“Finally, while one could fault Delta for their lack of involvement and communication with us while at AIS (which I will discuss), I believe that their compensation was incredibly fair and more than made up for what ended up being only a 20-hour or so delay.

Sign welcomes vistors to Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“After landing, one of the 3-stripe pilots came into the BE cabin and told the front portion of the cabin that we had actually lost all of the oil in the right engine and that it had been shut down just prior to the announcement to the pax. Several passengers then said that they thought this was the case based on the aircraft performance after the announcement and during the landing.

Passengers from Delta Air Lines flight 201 on Ascension Island as they await their rescue before continuing on to Atlanta. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“Interestingly, BE pax were discouraged by the FAs from bringing our pillows and blankets with us. Numerous coach passengers brought theirs with them and there were a variety of actual and potential situations in which these would have been useful.

“Based on the activity we saw and heard, there was both AT&T and T-Mobile service but not Verizon service (which I have and was unable to use). We borrowed and AT&T phone from another pax to send a couple of “we’ll be indefinitely delayed check with Delta” messages.

“I completely agree with this assessment of how the situation was handled. Imagine being held in a secure area and seeing all of the flight and cabin crew taken away in buses with no communication. I know this is a unique and rare event, but someone from the crew should have communicated something to the pax before leaving for the evening.

“This process seemed organized at first, but ultimately went somewhat awry. It actually appeared to be quite organized to me. They had sheets of paper with each housing unit and wrote down pax names directly from their passport onto a control sheet as to who was assigned to each room. Other than that, we were let onto the base without any formal or informal immigration process. We were told by the RAF guys that they had never had a commercial diversion before so some of the confusion was understandable. How they choose this particular order of dealing with passengers is unclear. My wife and I joined the couples line and were assigned a room of our own on “Travellers Hill” which is typically used for RAF flight diversions and housing various contracters. We got to our room at about 4:30 AM, went to the bathroom (we were given towels, but soap and shampoo were not available), and immediately to bed. Rooms were certainly spartan and most had no fan (I understand that accommodations on the US base had some semblance of AC). Our room had four single beds. Over the next 1.5 hours or so, several people attempted to enter our room, saying that they had been assigned to it. Eventually a RAF Police Officer came to the room, determined that we were a couple and should not have been assigned any other pax, and apparently found accommodations for these single, male travelers.

Accommodations while on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“Again, it would have been nice if someone from the crew could have served as a ‘customer liaison.’ I am aware of the issues with rest time, but in hindsight it might have been better to drop a crew member in order to help accomplish this task (more on this later). I felt bad that many of the most loyal FF and highest fare customers were single and accommodated last. Had a Delta crew member been present, they might have asked that the RAF accommodate all BE travelers first, which would not necesarilly have been an inappropraite request (flame this if you want, didn’t matter to me in this situation, but if I had been on a paid BE ticket for business, it would have).

Closet space for accommodations while on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“We slept very little and were actually up for breakfast in the general mess (served from 0800 to 0930). After this we found the recreation area on the British base which had a small store where internet access could be purchased, a bar, and a snack bar (both of which closed, somewhat inexplicably, at about Noon for the rest of the day). I was checking the Delta website which indicated a potential departure time of 7:00 PM. At this point we had not heard anything from Delta so I tweeted @DeltaAssist asking that someone come and talk to us. The response was typical, simply restating what was on delta.com.

The “hotel” — or, more accurately, the sleeping quarters for passengers — while on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“When we went to lunch (1200 to 1300), there was a sign posted, indicating that we should be prepared to leave at 3:45 PM. Apparently there was an RAF representative who spoke to those who were at lunch at a particular point in time confirming this. The British base was quite spread out with some people in their rooms, some people in the mess, and some people in the recreation area so communicating with everyone was quite difficult. At this point things got quite a bit crazy after this as the Chief Pilot arrived on the British base and began talking to some people. I heard he was around so went to find him, dressed in civilian clothing. He confirmed the earlier rumor that our original ship had been hit by another plane (A330 leased to Portugese company that operates the bi-weekly transport function between the UK, Ascencion and the Falklands for the RAF). Apparently, its wing or winglet got caught under our wing. They could not unload their pax as that would have casued their wing to rise higher into ours and they, instead, took on a full load of fuel in order to weigh the plane down enough so that it could move away from our plane. How did this happen in a wide open field? Unclear, but the DL pilot placed the blame on overworked and overtired RAF contractors who had not slept due to our emergency arrival.

Another view of the buildings which housed the sleeping quarters for passengers while on Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“While speaking to another pax and me, the pilot let us know that the rescure plane was identical in configuration to the original plane but that it was extraordinarily unlikely that our luggage would come with us on the rescue plane as there were not enough employees to do so. Shortly thereafter, the pilot was informed by the RAF representative, while he was speaking with another group of passengers, that we would not be leaving that evening as the RAF and its contracters were way too tired to work another flight and that their priority was to get the RAF transport plane out. Somewhat unfortunately, the pilot chose to report this information to us on a “real-time” basis which resulted in a number of emotional breakdowns among the pax. At this point, several busloads of people had already been brought down to the American base as part of a relocation effort to assemble all of the pax there. About an hour later, a rumor circulated that we WOULD be leaving that evening which was ultimately confirmed as being due to the efforts of the Major on the US base corralling enough contractors to pull this off (the US base only has 1 major, 1 sergeant, and someone else but several hundred contractors in support of our efforts there which include running the fire station at the airport and various communication facilities).

“The organization in preparation for our departure was quite messy once we arrived at the US base, recognizing, again, that this was a truly unprecedented situation. There was basically an “optional” check of hand luggage by a security representative. I say “optional” because there was no system to determine whether you actually went through the process or not and we were not held in a secure area afterwards. Probably OK under the circumstances, but also somewhat risky. Eventually, all passengers had to present themselves and their passports to a base representative for manifest purposes. Boarding was very quick given the identical plane.

“As noted, the plane was catered with an extended variety of packaged snacks that had been loaded in ATL, including what alleged to be muffins from Kroger (they still had the 10 for $10 stickers on them) that ATL staff had run out to get for the plane prior to its departure for ASI. Apparently, DL’s caterer was closed but they wanted to get as much onto the plane as they could. Water was definitely in short supply as noted.

Passengers walk across the tarmac to board awaiting aircraft and leave Ascension Island. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“Delta had dozens of employees on the ground in ATL to assist and everyone was incredibly warm and genuine. Although we were the 2nd and 3rd pax through customs, we had a hard time getting our onward boarding passes (I had checked delta.com and already knew we were confirmed) and confirmation letters as we were originally directed to the general line rather than the “private” room for Gold and higher FFs (which I am not and which was actually for all BE pax also). The women who had stayed overnight in the Terminal F SkyClub were also incredibly warm and literally begged us to tell them about our experience.

From left to right: the replacement Boeing 777-200; the disabled Boeing 777-200; and the British aircraft. Photograph by FlyerTalk member chicagoflyski.

“Overall, great work by the entire Delta organization in getting us landed, having us taken care of on the ground in ASI, getting us back to ATL so quickly, and taking such good care of us there. My only suggestion is that someone be specifically assigned from the crew to think about passenger related issues and serve as a liaison with them. Even in Atlanta, I saw local passengers leave without getting their Delta compensation letter which I hope Delta will send on to them. From their perspective, they were “home” and didn’t need any further assistance, snacks, or a shower.”

FlyerTalk member african7 gives a second-hand account of this incident as reported by his girlfriend:

“My girlfriend was on the flight from JNB to ATL Delta 201. The plane was delayed an hour due to it being heavy and apparently to hot so they had to wait for it to cool down. It was a full flight with no empty seats.

“She sent me an sms at 3:45am my time on the 10th Jan. Saying they had to make an emergency landing at Ascension Island due to the plane losing oil and having engine problems. She said there was a streak of white coming out of one engine. Once i spoke to her a few hours later she told me about the whole ordeal. Apparently when they started descending everyone was asleep and she got up due to being anxious about descending in the middle of the ocean. They told her theyre having issues with an engine and will be performing a emergency landing. They also asked her not to say anything. She sat back down. Only about 15-20 minutes later did they make an announcement about the landing with no clear details on why or where.

“The landing was very rough with emergency crews everywhere. I don’t know how long they stayed on the plane. They disembarked and had to wait around. No delta personnel assisted them only the military attended to them. When i spoke to her they were just sitting around still waiting for information. They were kept somewhere on the airport with bunk beds and very limited facilities. They weren’t allowed to leave the airport at all. Even though some of passengers complained and at least wanted to go down to the beach. Later on in the day around 2pm the Captain came finally came out and gave them the first information about what happened and it also was the first contact with the passengers from Delta. Apparently one engine had failed and they were leaking oil and losing oil pressure. Shortly after that she smsed me again saying a plane that had landed had clipped their wing while landing. The army had told the passengers their plane was the biggest that has ever landed there.

“They were waiting for a plane to fly in from Atlanta. She wasn’t sure if the crew would be changing or kept the same. The Atlanta plane was delayed and she called me at 9:55pm on the 10th Jan (my time) saying they were finally boarding the plane and should be leaving shortly.

“She has confirmed they have arrived safely in ATL this morning.

“I hope this has helped if I find out anything more i’ll keep you posted.

“I just want to say on her behalf that Delta was very unprofessional in the dealings with their passengers even though i understand that it is an emergency and they were under stressful conditions but there was no communication or updates on what was going on.”

FlyerTalk members tracked the incident as it happened while imparting information about Ascension Island, as well as two other unrelated flights operated by Delta Air Lines that were also diverted. A new engine was reportedly flown in on a Boeing 747 aircraft to repair the disabled Boeing 777-200 aircraft. There are also reports that the wing of the disabled Boeing 777-200 aircraft was clipped.

Thankfully, it appears that no one died or was injured as a result of the incident — which could have ended in quite a different and tragic manner had it not been for the alert and well-trained flight crew.

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Comments (Showing 2 of 2)

  • corruptcanadian at 5:19pm January 16, 2013

    Great post but I think chicagoflyski’s comment about how BE passengers should have been accommodated first is pious and snotty. This caste way of thinking reminds me of when the Titanic sunk and all the first class passengers took most of the rescue boats with only a passengers in it.

  • Shosy at 11:11am February 15, 2013

    I hope on the Atlas flight they used the spare cargo capacity to fill up on Omaha Steaks, Florida Oranges, and Idaho Potatoes to thank the RAF, USAF and their contractors on site for a wonderful job, far above what they were called to do, but done because they are people like the rest of us. Truly AMAZING how they dealt with it. They could have left everyone at the airfield the whole time and been called great under the circumstances. As a side note, that base was crawling with B-52s, KC-135s, C-5As and C117s during the cold war…just like America’s, Britain’s, France’s etc defense budget pays for some things which may not make sense, it also pays for the ability to accommodate this unexpected landing…

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