By Joerg Blank, dpa
Berlin (dpa) – Angela Merkel has been sitting together with Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz for a few minutes in the conference room of her government plane, the “Konrad Adenauer,” when a flight attendant firmly interrupts to ask Merkel to step outside.
“It is important,” she emphatically tells the German chancellor, who then leaves the briefing with journalists to Scholz, who is also her finance minister.
Quickly, the situation becomes clear: the Airbus A340-300 jet that was one hour into a trans-Atlantic flight to Buenos Aires has a problem – and with it, so does everyone on board.
Merkel was told that due to a technical glitch, the plane which at that point was flying over the Netherlands would have to return and land in Cologne, the home of the German air force’s Special Flight Mission that flies the chancellor’s plane.
Merkel notes that there must be a standby plane. It is very possible that at this point she did not yet fathom what the disruption would mean for her work schedule of bilateral meetings planned with US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Instead, she was digesting the news from the plane’s pilot. More about that later.
In the cabin, at this point there is no uneasiness among the passengers. The captain has asked them to fasten their seatbelts as the plane is passing through a bit of turbulence. Nothing unusual, and the plane does bump around with a bit more force.
But then half an hour later, shortly before the unscheduled landing in Cologne, the captain calmly reports that some of the plane’s electronic systems have malfunctioned and that the flight across the Atlantic could not be continued.
There would be a safe landing, he said, seeking to assure people. He only partially succeeds in this, with some people turning quiet. Others make nervous jokes.
It was only after a rather rough landing in Cologne that it became clear to many just how serious the situation might have been.
A fire engine from the airport fire service, its blue lights flashing, drove up to the government plane, just in case.
The Airbus’s brakes needed to be examined because of the stress they had been under on landing. The plane was still very heavy, having been fully fuelled for a trans-Atlantic flight, the commander explained.
After consultations with protocol and security staff members, Merkel later decides not to board a standby plane. The decision was explained above all because it was virtually impossible, at such short notice to drum up a new crew. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert noted that, for example, the requisite rest period for crew members had to be observed.
Merkel, Scholz and their delegation then travelled in a small convoy to Bonn, some 30 kilometres away, to spend the night in a hotel there.
A decision is made for Merkel and Scholz to fly in a smaller plane belonging to the standby fleet to Madrid, and from there to take a commercial flight to Buenos Aires.
This offers the chance at least for Merkel and her delegation to be there on time for the Friday evening events in Buenos Aires. The chancellor above all did not want to miss the banquet for the state and government leaders.
Late in the night, as Merkel, her husband Joachim Sauer and Scholz are sitting in a virtually empty restaurant, they received some disturbing news about the government plane’s technical problems.
There had recently been several glitches involving government planes, but this one was much more serious.
The news magazine Spiegel reported that the complete system for the plane’s ground communications had failed.
A complete breakdown of the communications, which have back-up systems, is classified as a dangerous emergency. It was only thanks to a satellite phone on board that the crew was able to make contact with flight controllers and prepare the landing in Cologne.
According to information learned by dpa, many elements of the electronic system needed to operate the flight had failed.
At moments there had been doubts about whether a controlled landing would even be possible.
A flight to a closer airport such as London or Amsterdam was not possible due to the technical disruption.
Late at night – it’s around 1 am (0000 GMT) – the usually calm and sober Merkel shows some emotion about what had happened. “It was a serious glitch,” she said, and then made sure to praise the plane’s crew and above all, the pilots.
It was “a very, very excellent crew,” Merkel said, and the person in command was “the most experienced captain in the special flight mission.”
She sounded more than just a bit relieved.