Nightmare at Thirty Feet
Over the past few days, I’ve been asked by more than a few people what all the “glad you’re still alive” comments on my Facebook profile are about. It’s been a few days now, so I suppose I can write about it without throwing my Macbook across the room and crawling into fetal position on the floor, so here goes.
Our flight home from SXSW is split into two segments - Austin to Denver, and Denver to Los Angeles. With the exception of PJ Harvey being on our flight, the first leg is a total non-event. I read magazines and listen to some songs for a gig that I’m doing the following night. Denver to LAX, however…
Although I’m an airplane geek, I’ve never really been that good at actually flying in the damn things. My career as a musician necessitates it to degree, however, and I’ve done a lot of flying over the past few years. I’ve basically gotten used to it, and have even learned to enjoy certain aspects of it. That said, I have never liked flying out of Denver. I’ve done it many times, and it’s always a drag. Climb-out is akin to being on a roller coaster, with every aircraft having to ascend quickly and at a high angle of attack in order to to clear the Rockies, while simultaneously being knocked around by the turbulence caused by wind coming off the mountain peaks. You’re on the ground one minute, and the next, you’re near 50 degrees to vertical while being buffeted by high wind. As expected, this is exactly how Denver to Los Angeles begins.
The flight never really settles down after that. Bouncy all the way to Los Angeles. Made worse by about 20 teenage girls who are on their way home from a volleyball tournament. They’re scattered throughout the passenger cabin, and they never stop screaming at each other up and down the aisles, over the seats, and over the heads of other people, regardless of the numerous complaints that I hear. I have my in-ear monitors, but even their remarkable ambient noise reduction does precious little to lower the volume of really loud kids all over the place. Rad. To make matters worse, I’m in my least favorite seat on a commercial flight - the center seat. It’s a full flight, and I’m between two people who aren’t exactly cordial. And BOY do they both want the arm rests! Paula, the musician I have been traveling with, is seated about 10 rows ahead of me, ahead of the wing. I’m on the wing, near the trailing edge just behind the engines, where it’s quite loud (it’s generally quieter in front of the engines).
Whatever. I’ll be home in 3 hours. Suck it up, man.
At some point in the flight, I manage to fall asleep. When heavy turbulence wakes me up, I look out the window and realize that we’re on approach to LAX. We’re at about 5,000 feet at this point, and I can make out various freeways and landmarks. I turn off my iPod and take my in-ears out just in time to pop my eardrums (ouch). Everything feels uneasy; I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever experienced turbulence this rough on final approach. I can see trees being bent by the wind, and something inside tells me that this is going to be fun. I cinch up my seat belt and keep my eyes on the outside world. I have an excellent view of the right wingtip from my seat. More on that later.
“Flight attendants, prepare for landing.”
As we continue final approach, the aircraft takes on the form of one of those mechanical bulls you find in a Texas bar. Really bad. We’re getting tossed around in every direction, bouncing up and down, and rolling violently left and right. The aircraft is also yawing heavily (the nose is moving from side to side), causing the disorientating sensation of “skidding” sideways through the air. Heretofore-yelling volleyball players begin to fall silent, one by one. I smile and think to myself, “So this is what it takes to shut you up?” My smile quickly fades as I look around and see concern on the faces of those around me. I’m hearing loud voices from behind me, as well as the shaking of wall and ceiling panels. I figure that if I’m feeling the turbulence this strongly on the wing - the most stable area of an aircraft - the people in the rear of the plane (where you feel turbulence the most) must be going through hell right now.
We’re now in the last few feet. At this point, everything happens very quickly. The main landing gear touches down, and then the plane bounces back up into the air. I’m still looking out the window, and I fix my eyes upon the right wing just in time to see it dip quickly and violently toward the ground as the plane rolls to the right. The wing comes within 10 feet of striking the ground, and then the plane rocks violently in the other direction. The plane then begins to yaw to the left, and I realize that we are now moving sideways through the air, perpendicular to the runway. I then hear the engines roar up to full power again, and within seconds, we’re climbing.
Although it seems to take forever as it’s happening, everything I’ve just described - from the main gear touching down to our re-ascent - has taken no more than 5 to 8 seconds.
Sheer pandemonium has ensued all around me by this point. People are screaming, crying, turning on their cell phones and trying to make calls. Praying. The lady to my left, who has until now been making damn sure I get none of that arm rest, grabs my knee, looks at me with wild eyes and disheveled hair, and asks, “Do you believe in God?” She asks me this question at least 4 more times over the next minute, and then dissolves into uncontrollable sobbing.
The head flight attendant comes on over the intercom and says, “Uh, ladies and uh, gentlemen, we’ve, uh, obviously had a problem. As soon as the uh, pilots let us know what’s going on, we’ll uh, let you know. Sit tight.”
Sit tight? Are you serious? Just where the hell am I going, lady? We’re in a freaking tube!
At this point, I grab my phone (which I never turn off on any flight, ever), and text my wife. For some reason, I also summon the presence of mind (or lack of good sense) and update my Facebook status. Why not, right?
“Nick just experienced his first aborted landing. Some scary shit going on right now.”
We spend about 20 minutes circling the airport, and then the pilots take us in for another landing attempt. People begin to really panic now. I hear a woman behind me saying “Please, God,” over and over. Her pleas get louder and louder as we get closer to the ground. Again, we’re being bounced around like a yo-yo on a string.
This time, the pilots set us down. Hard. The main gear hits the runway with a bang - so hard that I immediately wonder if any of the tires have exploded (thankfully, no). The nose gear soon follows, and the air brakes and thrust reversers deploy. The plane is fighting heavy crosswinds every inch of the way, swerving left and right on the runway. When it finally gets under control, everyone begins applauding, whistling, and thanking their god of choice.
Now, if you’ve never noticed the way air brakes operate on a wing, or thrust reversers on a jet engine, it would probably be pretty easy to mistake these operations for malfunctions. Which is exactly what the lady to my left does. She breaks out of her sobs long enough to exclaim, “My God, what’s wrong with the wing? It’s falling apart! Holy shit!” Awesome. Lady’s having a nervous breakdown right before my eyes, and she’s gonna scare the crap out of everyone again.
As calmly as I can, I tell her that all the flaps extending out of the wing are air brakes and are designed to slow us down quickly, and that thrust reversers do just that - take jet engine thrust and blast it in the opposite direction. She says “oh,” and goes back to her uncontrollable crying. She has cried nonstop from the initial moments of our aborted landing, and will continue to do so until well after the doors have been opened and people have begun to leave the aircraft.
The plane comes to a stop while still on the runway, and the pilot finally comes on the line.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we hope everyone is all right back there. We had high wind on the deck, and had to abort the first landing attempt. We have to be towed in to the terminal, however, because of loose gravel on the runway, so sit tight and we’ll get you off this plane as soon as we can.” Again with the sitting tight.
Lady to my left: “I want off this plane! Now! NOW!” A girl in the seat across the aisle from her takes her hand and says, “We’re okay. Take it easy.” For some reason, I consider what an interesting sociological observation the past 30 minutes have been. Total strangers clutching on to each other. Comforting each other. Praying with each other. As far as they were concerned at the time … possibly dying with each other.
By the way - I’m no Rock of Gibraltar. I don’t blame the lady to my left for her emotional state. I have spent the past 30 minutes getting my life squared away with God. Thinking about my family. Generally being quite scared.
My phone starts to buzz with text messages, because people are reading my Facebook status updates. “Are you OK?” The cynical part of me asks, “What - they can’t call?”
After staggering off the plane, I meet up with Paula in the terminal. As I’m relating some of my experience to her, she stares at me with a blank expression. She then says something to the effect of, “I hardly felt ANY of that where I was.” I then decide that I’m going to sit ahead of the wing from now on. I’m amazed that the experience was so different only 10 rows ahead of me.
After a shuttle ride to my car and many cigarettes on the way home, I walk through the front door and collapse into my wife’s arms. Best feeling in the world. She later tells me that a Fed Ex cargo plane has crashed in China on the same day, under some of the same circumstances (high winds on the runway), and that both pilots - the only people on board - are killed as the plane rolls over, smashes into the ground and bursts into flames.
I don’t sleep well for the next two days.
A few days later, a friend tells me that the Boeing 757 - our aircraft - is the “sports car” of the airline industry, with engines that have much more power than is necessary for an aircraft of that size and weight. A fully-loaded 757 can do a 45-degree high-speed climb with ease. Trust me - that’s impressive. Essentially, the plane handled the problem without breaking a sweat. The passengers, however … not so much.
And yes, lady, I believe in God.