Surviving a Plane Crash
Matt Lumsdaine, Sydney
Matt was 25 when he purchased a one-way ticket from Sydney and set out to travel the world. After visiting Macchu Picchu, his plane back to Lima took off. But one engine failed in the thin atmosphere. . . .
Like many young Australians, I travelled with a backpack, a surfboard and a very rough plan. Unlike most of my peers, however, my luggage contained both The Portable Plato and The Bhagavad Gita. I had been particularly blessed to have grown up with a Great Aunt who was passionate about philosophy. Her library had been a source of fascination for me from a very early age, full of beautiful old books that I was convinced contained the answers to all my questions. Although I didn’t really understand what I was reading, my love for her somehow sustained my efforts and I continued to read these obscure (to me at the time) books despite an underlying sense of frustration at my inability to understand the knowledge I was sure they contained.
After many adventures I arrived in London where I was granted a working visa, so I secured a temporary clerical job and commuted to work every day on the Underground. Life was pretty good for a while, but the real turning point came when I saw a billboard inside one of the stations advertising a 12-week course in Practical Philosophy. My heart soared! Here was an opportunity to join with others in an exploration of the philosophy that I was finding so inaccessible. Part 1 at Queens Gate in early 1988 was a revelation for me and I was hooked, determined to continue with the School as far as I could.
However, the universe had other plans. I had arranged with four close friends to travel to Peru for a surfing holiday before returning to London. We all met in Lima and decided to start with a trip to the Andes Mountains where we walked the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu and then on to Lake Titicaca. It was a wonderful trip, but my friends were slightly amused by my regular practice of The Exercise, no matter where we found ourselves. I didn’t mind. To me the Exercise was a revelation. I had never felt so centred and self-confident, and nothing would have kept me from the practice.
Except perhaps what happened next.
We boarded our flight back to Lima early on the morning of October 25th 1988. It was a twin jet-engined aircraft with 75 passengers on board and there wasn’t an empty seat on the flight. Even though no seats were allocated, we were lucky to all sit together in Row 4. After what seemed like an interminable time accelerating down the runway the plane eventually lifted into the air and for a few seconds everything felt normal.
Suddenly the comforting roar of the engines fell by 50% and our climb levelled out. At sea level these planes can take off with just one engine, but not at Juliaca, one of the highest commercial airports in the world, where the atmosphere is too thin. The pilot didn’t have enough power to return to the airport. There was no announcement, but we all knew that the plane was going to crash.
Strangely, I felt quite calm, and I knew without a doubt that I would survive. I centred my attention, as I had been practising with The Exercise, and every detail of the experience that followed is burned indelibly in my memory, even 29 years later. It sounds clichéd, but it was as though time stood still, and I attribute that to being completely present and somehow having the full use of my attention.
The pilot attempted to land on a sandy floodplain about 10 miles from the runway. The tail touched the ground first and broke off as the plane bounced back into the air. On the second impact, the plane broke in two, severing at the point where the leading edge of the wings meets the fuselage. On the Fokker F29, that’s at row 5. We were fortunate to be in row 4. Very few of those seated behind us survived.
When the bullet-shaped section of the fuselage that we were in (pictured at top) finally came to a stop I undid my seat belt and fell to the “ceiling” below me. Forget the emergency exits or the strip of lighting to follow ‘in the unlikely event of an emergency’. I pushed aside a few pieces of twisted metal and stumbled out into the glaring daylight.
Within minutes all four of my mates emerged, followed by the rest of the passengers seated in front of us. The elation of surviving masked the pain in my back and, as I could move all my fingers and toes, I assumed I was fine. One friend was on the ground suffering from serious back pain and another had deep gashes on the top of his head and was losing a lot of blood. The need was clear, and all my attention was occupied with the need to support my friends.
This was just the start of “the adventure”. One doesn’t want to be in a plane crash, but to have one in a remote part of a desperately poor third-world country complicates things I’m sure. The medical facilities were basic, and it was 24 long hours before we made it back to Lima and a well-equipped hospital. The doctor who reviewed my X-ray had enough English to look me in the eye and say: “Back broken. Lie down.” (Fractured vertebrae as it turned out.) It wasn’t the diagnosis I was expecting after walking around, carrying bags, and even riding in the back of a ute [utility vehicle] over bumpy dirt roads. I can only attribute my safe passage through that period to the sense of service I felt towards my friends. It’s a lesson that I hope never leaves me.
Many aspects of that accident, tragic on many levels, had a transformative impact on my life. However, there is one experience that changed my perspective forever. Soon after being diagnosed at the ripe old age of 27 with a “broken back” , I was lying in my hospital bed in Lima, feeling sorry for myself and missing my family and friends on the other side of the world. I looked out of the window at the gloomy sky and was suddenly overcome with an overwhelming sense of connection with everyone I knew, and even every person I had ever met. In truth, with everyone in the world. It could only be described as love without any limit. It was tangible evidence of complete unity.
I didn’t return to London as planned. It was clear that I had a longish period of recuperation in front of me and I wanted to be with my family, so I returned to Sydney. Life was extraordinarily rich for a couple of years. The sense of gratitude I felt was quite tangible and I treated every day as a gift. In terms of the levels of awareness we learn about in Part 1, I’m sure this was a sustained state of being fully awake, along with periods of higher consciousness that I still remember clearly.
However, I wasn’t always in the best of company and the feeling did fade over time. The minutiae of daily existence started to assume greater importance and life became more habitual. I’d been vaguely aware that there was a School of Philosophy in Sydney, and I can still remember the day I saw the ad for a 12-week course in Practical Philosophy in the Sydney Morning Herald one morning in 1991 (Before Google!). It was the same feeling of joy that I’d experienced on seeing the billboard in the London tube station three years before.
Needless to say, perhaps, I re-joined the School and am forever grateful for the good company it offers ever since.
Postscript. It’s perhaps ironic that I’m finishing this article from an exit row on my flight from Brisbane back to Sydney. I’ve lost count of the number of flights I’ve taken since the accident and I have no fear of flying whatsoever. However, I must confess to a childish desire. Whenever a flight attendant asks if I’m prepared to help in the event of an accident, I’m tempted to say that I’m more experienced in this area than they are. In fact, I’m the perfect person for the job!