One of my favorite blogs, Vonnegut’s Asshole by Eric Spitznagel, really had a great post about the thoughts one has when traveling on a plane and truly believes there is something wrong and a crash is imminent. Now I’ll be honest with you I have been on a few flights that made my knuckles white but that was before I decided to make a career in aviation. Regardless, there is nothing more terrifying than being in a tube at 30,000 feet with a bunch of strangers plummeting to the earth in flames. I think it is a control issue with me because that is a scenario where you are totally helpless.
There was a particular flight I was on in the late 90’s when I was traveling home on leave. Leaving out of Laguardia during a severe thunderstorm there was an air of uncertainty among the passengers as we waited on the taxi way. I remember feeling anxious while thumbing through the Delta Skymall magazine. Trying to make small talk with the woman to the right I asked, “You know it’s funny how they sell a remote control R2-D2, diamond rings, and dog beds out of the same magazine.” The older woman looked at me with a half of a smirk and then turned back to read her Vogue magazine. She didn’t want to be in coach and that was for sure. Much less talk to someone in coach.
So I sat there, flipping through the Skymall pages, wishing I could have electric shin warmers and an 18th century espresso machine and feeling a little rejected from Mrs. Botox. I definitely didn’t feel like reading this for the next 2 hours so I tucked it back in the seat pouch, folded my arms and closed my eyes. Then the pilot came on the intercom.
“Good evening folks from the flight deck. Apparently the tower feels it is safe for us to take off so we are currently number 2 for take off. We’ll talk to you when we are airborne and out of this weather. Flight attendants please finish your cross checks and prepare the cabin for departure.”
I opened my eyes and looked across the aisle to see the seasoned business man folding his N.Y. Times, tighten his lap belt and strain to see out both the left and right windows. We caught eyes and there was a nervous exchange of expressions as he raised his eyebrows and frowned as if to say, “never heard that one before”. I looked to my right and the older woman was still buried in her magazine so I looked passed her out the window. The sight was a little unnerving as the red flashing taxi light on the wing illuminated the torrential downpour while the skyline became visible every three seconds with the help of severe lightning. Time for happy thoughts.
I heard the roar of the aircraft taking off in front of us as the pilot increased the engine power and turned on the runway. I looked back to the business man and noticed his overhead light was still on but the Times was tucked in the seat pouch and he was stoned face and had a death grip on his armrest. My eyes followed the the armrests down the aisle and everyone had a similar grip as well. I turned my head towards the back of the plane and the flight attendants were gabbing away in their little bucket seats so my comfort was restored a little. They do this everyday so why am I freaking out?
Well the engines started up and we were on our way. Ever since I was little I hummed the theme song to The Last Starfighter during the take off role so this was no different. But right before we lifted off there was a huge lurch interrupting the climax of my song and causing a shriek among the passengers. The pilot pulled hard and put the plane in such an attitude I know there were warning bells in the cockpit. But we weren’t out of the woods. The next few minutes really caused me to evaluate my 20 years on earth as I was certain the only thing that would be found of me would be an eyelash and teeth.
The lurch coming off the runway was so violent it caused the emergency aisle lights to turn on and about half the yellow plastic Dixi cups with bags on them to drop from the overhead. The snotty lady that was so into her Vogue magazine was now latched onto my arm and squeezing my hand. She kept repeating ‘Oh gwod! Oh gwod!”. Giving the situation I too had a chat with Gwod. I asked him to have a sense of humor when I meet him.
The aircraft leveled out from what I could tell as the pilot tried to correct the harsh take off. The turbulence was just incredible and people began to really panic. I heard some guy a few rows in front exclaim, “why are the engines slowing down?” and a woman who was sitting away from her husband profess her love for him. As we all sat there preparing for the worst I could only think of one thing. You know what that was?
If I die I hope they don’t just pack all my stuff up at Ft. Drum and send it back to my parents. I had a collection of Penthouse magazines in my footlocker and would die twice if my Mom found that. I had to survive. Or at least I had to haunt Ft. Drum and figure out away to make sure they didn’t mail that home.
Soon the ride smoothed and people slowly began to realize they just might survive this. The grip was still strong on my arm from the queen of Queens and she asked if I think we will ok. I said we would be fine and she sheepishly slid from around my arm and placed her hands on her knees. The gentleman to my left was visibly shaken but soon he pulled out the N.Y. Times and laid it on his lap. I think he had no intention to read it but just to acknowledge the worst was over. I too released my fists and breathed a long sigh of relief but no one summed up the feeling better than the passenger in the back shouting to his buddy in the front, “Hey Frank! Did you just shit yourself or what?”
It’s funny but that was nearly a decade ago and those 10 minutes are so clear I feel like it happened yesterday. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast but I can still feel the bony fingers on my arm from that lady. Now that I am in the commercial aviation field I am sure that wasn’t a near death experience and I believe the pilots were having the time of their lives but to the 130 passengers on that flight, it was. I still think of baggage claim. Everyone was so nice. Funny how almost dying can bring that out in a bunch of New Yorkers.