A South African Airways pilot gives an insiders account of the Heathrow drug bust
Related to this previous post: SAA crew in cocaine bust at Heathrow (again)
When the customs official at the Queens Building asked us to come inside and bring all our luggage, there was no real surprise. Given what had happened only a few weeks ago, one can only expect to be searched in London now. We had to line up all our bags down the centre of the room, and stand next to what we were claiming to belong to us. Then one of Her Majesty's officials walked in with another small blue bag that had been left in the luggage hold of the bus. He asked who it belonged to and no one came forward. That's when my heart fell out the bottom of my trousers, as I new straight away, here was trouble. I could not believe it!
He placed the unclaimed bag at the end of the line, and a sniffer dog started working down the line of bags from the opposite end, and when it reached the bag he "reacted positively" as I heard them say later. This bag was then removed and placed on a table where it was opened, and the contents removed. Shortly after this, we were informed that we were all under arrest for suspicion of smuggling a controlled substance. We had landed at Heathrow at 06:15(z) and were placed under arrest by 07:20(z)!! They read us our rights and informed us that we were not to use our mobile phones at all.
We, the Pilots, were outraged and furious, as one could only imagine. There are no words that I can write here to describe the rage that started building in us. A lengthy process of individual luggage searches and body searches was then carried out. What added to our indescribable anger was the fact that it was quite obvious that the customs officials were not much interested in the Pilots at all. Our luggage searches were very brief and un-thorough, as were our body "pat-downs" ( most cabin crew had EVERY piece of their luggage rifled through, and were stripped to their underwear during the body search!)
After repeated appeals by the Captain for the culprit to come forward, we were bussed to a "holding facility" (read jail) which was about ten minutes to the northwest of Heathrow. We arrived here at about 11:30(z), and this was when the full gravity of the situation hit home. As we entered through huge security gates, a warden came to the drivers window: "How many prisoners do you have?" he asked.
We went up to the third floor of this building where we were "booked in". Some paper work had to be completed. Luggage, phones and computers sealed into evidence bags and confiscated. We had to remove our wings, belts, ties etc. anything that we could use to try and harm ourselves! We were then ushered to separate, individual cells where the door was locked behind us with a clang, and that was it. The cell was about 4 x 3 metres with a concrete floor, a concrete slab on one side with a small mattress on top, sheet, blanket and pillow. There was a small corner basin and a flushing bowl resembling a toilet. ( I believe that the cabin crews' cells did not even have the luxury of the basin and loo ) Shortly after being locked in the cell, the small slot just below the window of the solid iron door slid open with a clunk and a tray of food was slid through the opening. (Much later, after we were released, the three of us realised that we were all having similar stomach problems)
We tried to sleep, as we were all quite exhausted by this stage, but couldn't. They kept us awake by constantly disturbing us for arbitrary things. I could see Heathrow out my window, and passed the time by watching the departures off 27R. Interestingly, the cell was completely sound proof to the outside environment, as one could not hear the aircraft at all, but there was constant noise inside the cell from slamming doors etc and eventually I think most gave up even trying to sleep.
We then started, one by one, to see the solicitors that SAA had arranged for us. He explained what the procedure would be going forward, and told us that they were hoping to arrange bail for us by that evening.
We then each had to be interrogated, with the solicitor present and tape recorder running. We answered what questions we could. After that was finished it was back to our individual "suites" to stare at the ceiling or out the window or try and sleep or whatever one could think of doing. (The thought did cross my mind that Her Majesty's prison bunks were more comfortable than those on our A340's!! )
Eventually, at about 23:30(z) the solicitor came to tell us the good news that they were going to bail us, and we met up at the "check-in desk" once more. The procedure now was to go to a local police station where Mr Plod had to fill out more paper work and carry out the bailing procedure. Our things were returned to us and we decided amongst ourselves that we would get redressed in our full uniform (however smelly!!) and proceed to the police station with what little pride we could muster. They put us (cockpit crew) into two cars, escorted by customs officials, and took us to the Uxbridge police station where we were finger printed, mug shots taken and also a DNA sample was extracted.
SAA had arranged for a mini-cab to collect us at Mr Plods place, and we finally arrived at the Hotel at 02:00(z) We had been awake for approximately 32 hours. Jill Beck, one of the SAA managers in London was in the mini-cab to meet us at the police station, even at that hour, and she was really fantastic to us throughout the rest of our stay in London. The support from SAAPA, Johnny Woods, Les Wahl and various SAA managers, both in London and at home was great. Our families were kept in the loop as to what was happening.
As I described earlier, the incredible anger and frustration during this whole ordeal was overbearing and exhausting. Various messages from colleagues, family and friends via voice mail and sms were well received. We have all been struggling to sleep, probably from the stress, but are very pleased to be home with our families where hopefully we will be able to unwind. There are six of us now, who have had to endure this outrageous predicament.
This letter by an SAA pilot was first published on the South African Airways Pilot Association website.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009