Many readers have picked up a glaring omission from my QF32 story. It’s the story that should have been told by my wonderful wife Coral.
Dad describes Coral as “formidable”, and I can understand that. To me she is the most beautiful girl on the planet. She is not just the “wind beneath my wings”, but also my fuel, nosewheel steering and fly-by-wire protections.
I have always said that behind every good pilot is a great wife, but Marta Kranz’s (Gene Kranz’s wife) expresses it better:
“Behind every great man is a woman, and behind her is a plumber, electrician, maytag repairman and one or more sick kids. And the car needs to go into the shop!”
I had put Coral’s side of the QF32 story into the draft, but the editors pulled the text to keep the reader “in the moment” and to trim the book’s already large size.
Wherever I go and whoever I speak to friends ask the same question – “Coral how did you find out about QF32?” Did you think the A380 had crashed and Richard had died?
I arrived home. As I inserted the key into the front door I could hear the phone ringing. We have an answering machine that kicks in after 4 rings so I turned the key quickly and lunged for the phone in our bedroom. It was Alan Rowlandson from Qantas calling.
I don’t remember our conversation exactly but it went something like this:
Alan: “Hello Coral, this is Alan Rowlandson from Qantas.”
Coral: “Oh, hi Alan. You must be Rowley. Rich talks about you all the time. He thinks you’re great …..”
Alan: “Yes, yes Coral. That’s me. I need to tell you that Richard has landed safely in Singapore.”
This immediately sent shivers down my spine as it’s not standard procedure for Qantas to call me every time Richard lands safely, ever!!
Alan: “There was a mid-air explosion on Richard’s flight but you need to know he’s OK and he’s safe. Don’t believe anything you hear otherwise.”
Coral: “Yes, I understand what you’re telling me. I know you have many other people to notify so I’ll get off the phone. I’m OK and I understand.” I steeled myself. “Be brave…. Be strong….”
I immediately ran for the TV. I searched channels until I found Sky News.
“CRASH!” An A380 had crashed. I sat on the couch and burst into tears. “Don’t be silly” I said to myself. “Rowley said Rich is OK. Rich is OK. They wouldn’t tell me he’s OK if it wasn’t true. Be strong!”
The flood of emotion was overwhelming. I knew I had to tell Alex and Sophia before they heard the news. They were both at university. I couldn’t call them as I was a blubbering mess, so I picked up my phone and sent them a text, along with my best friend Julie Ford.
The text said: “QF32 has just returned to Singapore safely after a mid-air explosion. Dad was the captain. He’s safe. Mum xo”.
Alex immediately called me. “What’s going on mum??” I tried to find the words but I couldn’t talk. I was crying. Alex sensed my state: “Do you want me to come home, are you OK, is Dad OK?” I managed to pull myself together to tell him that dad was just fine (even though I hadn’t spoken to him) and that I too was fine. Just in shock, a little bit. I didn’t want to be a drama queen so I told Alex to stay at university and that I’d be fine.
Richard adores his father. I had to let his parents Peter and Mariea know. “Pull yourself together, stop crying, be strong” I told myself.
I called Peter and Mariea. They took the news well but I’m sure they were feeling as equally stunned as I was. After the phone call I collapsed back onto the couch & just watched the enactments on TV over & over. I couldn’t stop the tears popping out of my eyes.
Knowing Rich had his hands full I didn’t want to take up precious time so I just quickly texted him: “Holy Cow, that was close……”
I knew he would have been extremely busy and distracted. The last thing he needed was an emotionally needy wife. I didn’t need attention. Knowing he was safe was all I needed to know. There would be time for me later. I knew Rich would contact me when he could. When he was ready. When there was time. When he had done everything he had to do for the passengers and crew. When it was quiet. When he needed me.
I am lost for words every time I read Coral’s story. “When he needed me” repeats in my mind.
The engine exploded at 10:01 am Singapore time and I did not talk to Coral until midnight, 14 hours later! It was not that I did not want to talk to Coral earlier, it’s just that I have always been customer centric. I instinctively prioritised the crews’ and passengers’ well-being first. It was not a conscious decision to do this, more a subconscious decision to remain strong, in charge and to do the right thing. I had responsibilities and almost unlimited authority to get the best result for everyone. The passengers and crew came first and then when they retired to their hotels rooms for rest, my thoughts turned inwards. I stood myself down, went to my room and phoned Coral – a phone call that would last over two hours.
I am proud of what our crews managed to achieve for the safety of 440 passengers. I was proud that we debriefed the cabin crew for six hours after arriving at the airport.
I am proud of Coral – rightly called “The wind beneath my wings”.
I am ashamed that I did not call Coral until midnight.