My Worst Experience in an Airplane

(Which, I hope, is the worst I will ever have)

Way, way back in, oh, must be around 1990 me and the Other Half (before he was the Other Half, in fact) had flew to meet my folks in Detroit. But enough about the trip. We had plans to fly back to Chicago on an airline that I have been advised should remain nameless here, and that I will call Nameless Airlines. No big deal, right?

So there we are at Detroit Metro (which is really halfway to Ann Arbor and not in Detroit at all). We get on the plane. The nice Nameless Airlines employees close the door.

rattleTHUMP

This sound effect is followed by the nice airline employees clustering around the door, which is now open again, muttering amongst themselves. One of them goes forward, presumably to speak with the pilot(s). A short time later one of them ladder things is wheeled out next to the offeding door, which is closed again, and some guys in overalls start going WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! on it with what sounds like large, blunt objects.

At this point it occurs to the nice, Nameless Airlines employees that maybe the passengers (who, after all, are paying for this "entertainment") might like to know what's going on. So it is annouced that the emergency ramp had just spontaneously self-deployed then fallen completely off the airplane, and because it had just done this there was now some problem with getting the door closed and secured but don't worry, we'll be underway soon.

The thumps on the door cease, the ladder thing is wheeled away, and as the plane starts to taxi the nice airline employees start their song-and-dance about what to do if all hell breaks loose. Including "don't use that door in the event of an emergency, it won't work". Believe me, we were paying attention. Actually, I had the urge to get up and say "Excuse me - could I have a different plane?" but this being my younger and more timid days I didn't. I wish I had.

So, anyhow, the FAA wouldn't let them fly something unsafe, right? (Before you flame me remember this was before I was even a student pilot, OK?) I mean, these folks are professionals and they want to live too, so it must be OK, right?

So there we are rolling down the runway with the famillar wheel-rumble underneath and just as that rumble disappears and we start going up -

(thud)JERK

!YAW RIGHT!

Guy across the aisle: "Hey! There's smoke coming outta da wing!"

This is followed immediately by a mad stampede by airline attendants to quiet down the passenger announcing problem

Other Half says: "We just lost an engine."

Me, I say: "What?

Other Half: "We just lost an engine. I can only hear two." (We had started the flight with three)

Me: "Could you say that a little louder please? I don't think everyone knows about it yet. We could try for complete panic."

Foolish me. I thought that, what with bits falling off the plane, engines quitting, smoke trailling off the wing, and so on we'd turn back to Detroit Metro. I mean, even then I knew a multi-engine plane could fly minus one engine, but given how many things had gone wrong already why push your luck?

HAH!

Nooooooooooooooo, the pilot comes on the intercom and announces that despite our little difficulties [nervous laugh] we are still going to Chicago. Yes, we protested. Did it do any good? Of course not! Apparently there was some hope that the plane could still make the next leg of its schedule to Phoenix. With bits falling off the plane!

It was... um... an interesting 40 minutes.

Let's see what else was unusual about that flight. Well, for one thing we did not fly over Lake Michigan like most such flights. We followed I-94 all the way from Detroit to Midway Airport. OK, I figured that one out - there have been a few instances of jets in trouble landing on I-94 near DTW - it's straight, there aren't a lot of obstacles once you get past the billboards near the actual airport, and most people will yield to landing jets entering the freeway.

The seat belt light never went off. Also we did not get our stinking little peanuts and pop. Which was OK, as most folks didn't seem to have much appetite. Alcohol, however, was served. By the very nervous and nice Nameless Airlines employees. When someone could convince them to unbuckle and get out of their seats long enough to scoot down to the galley and back. Usually by being loud, panicked, and urging the other passengers to revolt.

The pilot did talk to us, which I suppose was nice, except that he seemed to be going through a second puberty the way his voice kept creeping up in pitch and there was that unsettling nervous quaver and slight stuttering he kept doing. "Oh, hell, we're screwed, even the pilot is scared shitless" was basically my thought. So maybe it would have been better to pass on that.

People were allowed to go to the bathroom, but not to stand in the aisles waiting in line. Actually, the bathrooms got quite a bit of use during that flight. Gee, I wonder why.

People really do pull out their rosaries and start praying. And not just nuns and priestly types. Most Bibles I ever saw outside of a church.

You cannot grip the armrests for 40 minutes with white knuckles, After about 15 your hands go numb and you let go. Actually, even with pieces falling off an airplane, stuff on fire, and an engine not working I found it impossible to remain terrified for more than, say, 10 minutes at a time. After that I went through a brief mental numbness while my adrenal glands were recharging or something.

40 minutes is a long time to be afraid AND unable to do anything about what is happening around you. You get this dialogue going in your head:

do something

what?

just do something

what?

DO SOMETHING!

WHAT?

WE'RE GONNA DIE - DO SOMETHING!

WHAT? WHAT CAN I DO?

and it gets worse from there. In fact, this may have something to do with the fact that the next time I got into any airplane I was in the cockpit. I mean, if you're near the controls and the shit hits the fan you just might be able to do something, right?

We also flew really low. I was looking out the window and thinking that, and mentioned it to the Other Half.

He said "Well, you know things look different from up in the air."

I said "We just went over a sign saying "Welcome to Gary"

He said "Yeah, right" (he didn't know me real well then)

I said "Really - look."

He said "Oh shit!"

I said "Look - you can read street signs: Grant...Burr...Cline..."

(No, I am not kidding. We really were that low.)

Alright, I may have been in suspense for 40 minutes but I won't keep you that long. Here's how the landing went:

Flew over northwestern Indiana, still following I-94. Flew north above the Dan Ryan Expressway and turned northeast over the end of the Englewood El line (I know this because, being so low, I had a great view of all this) heading for Midway. I could see the people on the ground look up, point upwards, and cover their ears watching us go by low just over the houses. Came in just over the fence around Midway. I was also sitting right next to the leading edge of the wing, so I know that when those wheels touched pavement the tail end of the plane was not over the hard stuff, it was over grass. We touched down right on the edge of the pavement.

As we are going down the runway, thinking "Great, we're on the ground. In one piece. We're safe." our Nervous Pilot starts talking again, saying as how we will not be allowed to taxi up to the terminal but will be "deplaning" out on the apron.

And that's when the sirens on the fire engines started up.

Ah, yes, a very exciting flight followed by an equally exciting taxi while pursued by a half-dozen emergency vehicles carreening down the runway after us, wailling and blinking and whoop-whooping. The Nameless Airlines employees were yelling at the passengers to REMAIN SEATED and KEEP YOUR BELTS BUCKLED and WE'RE GOING TO DEPLANE IN AN ORDERLY MANNER. Yie! Yie! Yie! I have no intention of ever jumping out of a perfectly good airplane but this airplane was not good!!!! I was ready to disembark immediately! Actually, I'd been ready to disembark pretty much from the first moment we left the ground.

Anyhoo, the plane comes to a halt. Pretty much everybody stands up all at once. We are READY TO DEPLANE (just try to stop us!). One of them step things is rolled up to the plane and we tromp-tromp-tromp down it at double-quick tempo and start heading for the buildings without anyone having to ask us to do this. On the way, we pass another one of them ladder things next to the dead engine. There's a guy on top of it. He's got the engine cover open and he's reaching inside and pulling out bloody slime and feathers. Seagull feathers, near as I could tell, but I was in kind of a hurry to leave and didn't really want to conduct my own inspection.

Scary, huh? Well, the scariest part of the whole thing was the line of pilots and steward/esses lined up with their little luggage carts next to this DC-10. Why? Because, you see, as soon as the nice man in the overalls gets through removing the former seagull from the engine this plane is going to Phoenix, falling-off bits and all....

Well, that's my Worst Experience in an Airplane. I hope you enjoyed this story more than I did.

Oh, and the next plane I took a ride in? It was an MXII Quicksilver Sport. No, I'm not afraid of heights. No, I'm not afraid of falling. I'm afraid of airlines that don't have the sense God gave a pigeon not to fly when there is something wrong with the bird!

© Copyright 1996

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