I arrived at JFK airport, excited to return to Florida for a spot of R&R before embarking on graduate school. Thoughts of going to the beach, floating around the family pool, sun-kissed skin and casual dinners with family and friends were enticing.
I spotted a skycap thinking great! I can beat the rush and get checked in. He took my bags and I was sure to tip him generously to ensure my bags were not re-routed to Germany. He checked me in asking for ID and proceeding with the usual security questions:
“Did you pack your own bags?” Yes.
“Did anyone give you anything to carry? Oh just a bomb. We both laughed. Laughed. Innocent days before September 11th and a couple of years before my run in with British airport security. I giggled to myself thinking I had an anecdote to share when I landed.
I made my way to the gate and watched the plane glide up to the jetway. Boarding was uneventful and the captain pushed back on time. The plane meandered this way and that allowing me to catch glimpses of New York City in my window until it reached the runway. What is it about take off that is so exhilarating? The roar of the engines, the intense power of the moment, feeling my body being pinned against the seat, the plane bumping and swaying, nose up then ahhhhhh as the plane rushes into the sky.
We were on a bigger plane than usual for this New York to Ft Lauderdale route and the seats were laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration. I was seated in the middle with one person next to me and a couple to the right in the cozy 2 seater section. The flight was probably about half full. Having made this trip dozens of times I knew the plan-fly out over the ocean, turn right, straight line down the coast then right hand turn and into Ft Lauderdale airport. It’s a 2 hour 20 minute flight, tops.
Being the New York City girl I was and having been baptized by the New York City Transit System, I gathered my things during our final decent with the idea of being as close to the front door as possible when the seatbelt sign went off. The captain made that famous right hand turn and we flew into Ft Lauderdale alright however this time he didn’t take it in for a landing. I watched as we flew over neighborhoods and streets I knew very well. Hmm I thought, must be a holding pattern. It was 1995 and unlikely as Ft Lauderdale airport was still small and I’d never encountered a holding pattern here before. My curiosity was piqued and I was paying attention. The couple to the right who I had all but ignored during the flight was beginning to annoy me. They were drunk, laughing loud and I needed to focus.
I continued to watch our progress and noticed that we had left the comfort of Ft Lauderdale and were now flying over the Everglades. Highly unusual-never done! No word from the flight deck and the flight attendants seemed to be going about their business. I continued to watch South Florida slip out of view as we flew into the Gulf of Mexico. Now I was alarmed and the first thought that occurred to me was that the plane had been hijacked. Conversations and murmurings stopped and I noticed that we were encountering a lot of turbulence all of a sudden. What the hell is going on! Why aren’t they talking to us? Say something!!! Forty-five minutes passed as we floated around the Gulf. People glanced at each other but said nothing. The loud-speaker came on and a voice stated simply, “Uh, folks? We have a problem.” A wave of fear ran through me and I hung on this strangers-with God knows what kind of qualifications-every word. He continued, “we have no landing gear, we can’t land the plane.” I instinctively grabbed the arm rests and raised my feet off the floor as if this was going to help me. I felt as if I’d been cut free from the world, floating in a heavy metal tube. “Now, we have 3 options.” Oh my God are we going to vote? “We can make a soft landing-fly out to sea and dump all the fuel and make a water landing.” Sharks, certain death. “We can dump all the fuel, coast back in to the airport and make a hard landing.” What are the chances we will reach the airport after we’re out of gas? “Or, we can keep doing what we are doing now which is to force turbulence to try to jog the landing gear out, get them unstuck. We will get back to you in a few minutes.” My mind was racing, my own mortality smacking me in the face repeatedly. From the right side of the plane came, “what did he say?” A red drunk face staring obliviously at me. WE HAVE NO LANDING GEAR AND WE’RE GOING TO DIE, was my immediate response. Red face just shrugged and went back to his girl and conversation, obviously not believing me.
This is it! That’s it! It’s over! I should pray. I can’t think of the words. I sat paralyzed. The woman next to me looked over and we both had tears rolling down our cheeks. We held hands. Please God please, please God please. I couldn’t make the prayer come. That’s all I could think to say. The mind is a funny thing and voices in my head were battling it out. We could survive a water landing couldn’t we? How could we survive that? Too many variables. Please God please, please God please. How long have we been up here? We’re going to run out of fuel, oh my God we’re going to die. No, there has to be a way, even if we have to crash land? Please God please, Please God please!!!!
As if this scenario wasn’t bad enough. The loud-speaker came on again. This time it was a flight attendant. “Folks?” she implored, voice cracking. “Folks, we have every confidence in our Captain” voice trembling and tearful. Another shockwave through my body. Oh no! this is really it. She knows we are going to die. Please God please. Oh my God!!!! I heard an almighty bang and huge rush of air. “Folks! That was the landing gear!” The plane erupted in cheers. “Uh, folks, this is the Captain, that noise you heard was the landing gear, we will be making an emergency landing. Please stay in your seats.”
The thought crossed my mind, how do we know the landing gear is working properly? Is it all down? Is it stuck halfway? Will it collapse when we hit the runway? This last thought remained. We were back in Ft Lauderdale in no time and the flight attendants prepared us for a crash landing. As we flew into the airport I realized the captain must have thought the same thing as I could see lights flashing everywhere; fire trucks and ambulances as far as the eye could see. Oh my God, they are waiting for us to crash, I thought. We flew over the runway and wheels touched down, nothing happened. We landed! We landed!! Thank you, thank you thank you thank you God! The passengers erupted again. The woman and I hugged.
I rushed off the plane, right past baggage claim and ran outside hoping to see my father who had been waiting for me. I saw him smile and wave then his hand and smile dropped. At that moment I began hyperventilating. I think I stopped breathing when I saw the fire trucks on the runway from my perch in the sky. I could hardly breathe and grabbed at the cars as I passed them trying to make my way to my father. He ran toward me, grabbed me and squeezed hard-which although comforting-didn’t help my breathing situation. He cried “my baby, my baby” and I continued to gasp for air almost collapsing. It’s funny when I look back as I wonder what he had seen. I must have been white as a ghost. He cried as he held me not even knowing what had happened yet. I suppose it was written all over my face. I still get choked up when I think of his reaction.
Although the outcome was good, it took me a few days to recuperate and my trip was ruined by the thought of having to get back on a plane to go home. Until this time I’d never encountered a problem flying. Since then I’ve had other hiccups but am still here to talk about them. Routine plane sounds were seared into my brain on that trip and I’ll never forget them: The dinging of the bells telling the flight attendants to be seated and when it’s ok to get up and start serving, the sound of the flaps moving and when we are climbing in altitude. Then there are lovely sounds especially that beautiful bang and rush of air when the landing gear comes down just before landing and when the plane’s speed goes from 150 to 30. I especially love the sounds of the seatbelt sign being turned off, the clinking of unbuckling seatbelts and the door being opened to let me out!