Terror (and Chex Mix) in the Skies
Facing an emergency landing with grace. Kind of.
Last week I hopped a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to New York, a trek I’ve made a million times. I savor those five hours of escape, where I can watch junky reality TV (Tori and Dean marathon, anyone?) order platters of food from a touch screen (Virgin is such an enabler) and impress my seatmates with an assumed identity (just call me a Norwegian countess with a book deal).
This particular flight was especially great for two reasons:
1) Just before boarding, the gate agent offered to switch me to an exit row with extra leg room. Since I’m 5’4″, my legs got upgraded to their own zip code.
2) The flight was unreasonably smooth and quiet; nary a bump or baby shriek on radar.
As we flew over the fly-over states, I got lost in my Tori-Spelling-chicken-curry-wrap reverie. All was grand with the world. Until.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has informed us we’re going to need to go ahead and make an unscheduled emergency landing.”
This terrifyingly perky announcement was followed quickly by: “He’s assured us we’re perfectly safe!”
I’ve seen enough disaster-themed Datelines to know that anytime someone tells you you’re perfectly safe, you’re perfectly screwed. It’s officially time to buckle up and start sacrificing goats.
We quickly dropped to a lower altitude, reversed course and approached Las Vegas airport.
I did what any Norwegian countess would do in this situation: I flipped open my laptop and instant messaged my family with a dramatic farewell. I told them how much I loved them and how it would all be okay. But that if it wasn’t, they should plan a Michael Jackson-worthy funeral for me.
A few minutes later the captain explained that we had a small hole in our cockpit windshield. A hole. Like the thing people get SUCKED OUT OF. OHMYGOD, I was living a movie-of-the-week nightmare! OHMYGOD, who would play me?
Our captain, who was all calm professional, insisted the hole was quite small. (Don’t all holes start small and then become giant human-sucking craters??) He said we had too much fuel to land safely in Vegas, so air traffic control decided we should fly back to Los Angeles – at a very low altitude – with our flaps up to burn off fuel.
I was gripped by panic, but tried not to show it. Scandinavian royalty have to keep up appearances. Plus, I was in the emergency exit row, which made me a Safety Leader.
I quickly memorized the emergency instruction placard and reminded my seatmates that if necessary, we should throw the emergency door out of the plane, not on the floor where people would trip on it. Same with old ladies and small children.
Surprisingly, everyone remained eerily quiet. I’ve heard more screaming onboard when the galley runs out of peanuts. And to Virgin’s credit, the captain updated us every 15 minutes. Even if you’re piloting hundreds of people to certain death, it’s really the polite thing to do.
As we neared Los Angeles, he announced we’d be circling for one or two hours to burn more fuel. “But we should have you on the ground in no time.”
Nice choice of words, Cap’n.
Finally, after hours of clammy hands, silent prayers and goat sacrificing, we landed without incident at LAX.
And that’s when I began crying. Even Norwegian countesses have to let it out once in awhile. I can’t tell you the relief I felt to be alive and safe. It was matched only by my desire to NEVER GET ON A PLANE AND/OR OBJECT WITH WHEELS AGAIN.
But the airline had other plans. They asked that we remain seated while their maintenance chief inspected our little windshield boo-boo.
The flight attendants promised us a $50 flight credit for our troubles. “Please,” I said aloud, “Scandinavian royalty can’t be bought.” Then they promised free snacks and booze. I piped down.
Roughly 90 minutes later, the pilot graced us with this announcement:
“Good news! The maintenance team has decided that our hole is just within limits to fly safely.”
Just within limits?? Was he kidding? Who wants to fly aboard a hunk of junk that’s just within limits? That’s like asking you if you want to bungee jump with a cord that probably won’t break when you leap. Or fly with a pilot who’s not quite blind.
I suppose I could’ve put up a fight and insisted on leaving the plane. But then I thought about that complimentary Chex Mix and decided to brave it out. Five hours after our initial departure, we were again cleared for takeoff. In the exact same plane that had not been repaired whatsoever and still had a gaping hole in the windshield. Just saying.
Fortunately, our déjà vu flight to NYC was all smooth sailing, Pinot Grigio and Tori Spelling. If it weren’t for the big ol’ hole in our cockpit window, I’d say we were flying high.