A Flying Story (unfortunately)

Flying stories are pretty much like fishing stories.  You never hear them until you are at the lake or river or casting with another fisherman.  It is then that it seems that everyone has one.  Once the first story is told it is usually followed by a barrage of stories, each topping the other in some small or significant way.  Nonetheless, it is often fun.

Like most of my fellow telecommunications professionals, flying is just part of our lives, though I wish the same went for fishing.  

The hub system of airline travel has yielded a paradigm that, for the most part, transports thousands and thousands of us safely, if not occasionally on time, to our global economic points of contact.   Driven by meetings, trade show events, consortiums, presentations, standards bodies and the rest of the plethora of reasons to be ‘on the road’, we must pack the carryon, grab the laptop and take to the blue skies often.  I wonder what it is like to take to the fish-filled blue waters instead.

I wanted to capture the essence of the pure rush of adrenaline that, for the last hour and a half, has been gushing through my arteries and veins.  Adrenaline that causes multiple incohesive thoughts to dash in and around the brain.   Adrenaline that causes you to shift uncontrollably in your seat and your fingers to shake, much like the immediate moments after a fender bender, or incredible roller coaster ride.  I would not call it an adrenaline rush, but rather a slow, continual ascent to the point of near panic.  It is not hard to see why some people do crazy things in this physical state.  Now, an hour and a half later, there has begun the normalization of feelings, and of perception.  Odd that the most vivid memory of the events that just occurred to this writer, and about 100 other passengers on Flight 488 to Toronto from Dallas, is that of the adrenaline effect.   Yet of all those airline and fish stories I have heard, I recall none that spoke of this feeling.  I do remember even some lurid details of the flights others have described, the events of which are astounding, incredible, unbelievable, and in some cases outrageous.  However, I do not remember anyone describing their feelings, their lack of cohesiveness, of control, and how adrenaline taken in heavy doses for extended, and continual amounts of time causes fear, insecurity, and discomfort beyond words.

There is a certain numbness that overcomes those of us who travel moderate to heavy amounts.  Today, in less than 20 seconds, I have been cured of that problem.  We are back at 33,000 feet, on our way, for the second time, to Toronto.  The captain just announced “This is the PA I didn’t get to make on the first attempt to go to Toronto…” Clearly he had his day in the hot seat.  In fact, as I disembarked the first attempt at flight 488, I almost hugged the man, and as I held his hand firmly in mine, thanking him for getting us home alive, he said “Boy, what a first day as a Captain.  I have been flying these planes for 9 years as a co-pilot and never had anything like that happen to us.”  I witnessed three hairs turn gray on his head as he uttered the words.  Along with everyone else, we were in the process of processing the overdose of adrenaline and coming to terms with the fact that flying is not a normal, every day event.   That at 33,000 feet, your life hangs by the thread of engineering and design, a couple of pilots in the cockpit, and most of all a good measure of luck.

I asked what on earth had happened.  “We lost #2 engine and oil pressure” he said matter of factly, rehearsing for a probable dictation he would have to deliver for the airline report to the FAA in the next several minutes.   And that is another thing that adrenaline messes with: Time.  I can’t say I can accurately recall anything with regards to a definitive timeline from the last hour and a half.  I know the order things happened in, but as far as how long it was from one thing to another – forget it.  Loosing a #2 engine is an instantaneous thing, kind of like a laser failing on an OC-3 card.  There is little you can do to prevent it, and it happens with little warning.  The plane swerved left and right and then banked seemingly uncontrollably to the left shaking and shuddering in such a way that I never want to feel again, and I am likely to dream about many times.  Back now safely in Dallas, I asked several of the other frequent flyers, “Have you felt anything like that before?”  Every one of them said the same thing “I have never felt anything like it.”  Unlike the laser, when #2 engine decides to be relegated to the mechanic’s hands, 33,000 feet is a long way up and 20 minutes from DFW airport seems like 3 hours.  We limped all the way back to DFW with engine #1 screaming and the plane wallowing up and down, left and right.

There are a couple of details that to the reader may appear bone chilling, but as I continue to come off my adrenaline overdose, they seem expected, almost normal.  First: Orange books.  Within moments of the event, the flight attendants scurried up and down the aisles carrying orange binders, and in somewhat frantic voices choreographing the page to be on, the section to turn to and the procedures to follow.  Passengers got moved about the cabin.  Strong males placed in strategic door and exit opening locations with full instructions on what to do.   The flight attendant told my co-passenger one row behind me “If I am unconscious, please throw my body down the slide and out of the aircraft.”  He responded “Of course.”  All this while the plane made two 360 degree circles over a very large lake, as though the pilot was sizing up the opportunity to ditch us in the water, and the engineering brain busies itself calculating that 33,000 divided by 5,500 and the terminal velocity to distance to ground contact calculations are being run, re-run, and re-run.  Simultaneously this engineer mutters “Come on darlin [to the plane], just get us on the ground, that is all we need from you right now.”  Like the plane was actually listening to my pleading. 

I recall in 9th grade, Mr. Wilson, from my High School gym class, told us while trying to accomplish 100 pushups with the rest of my class how in World War II he was on a boat, and everyone was brave and a hero.  That was until the first submarine fired a torpedo at the boat.  He said that at that point strong men fell to their knees praying for salvation or crying for their mothers, their wives, and their families.  [I just ordered a Dewar’s – it was offered free of charge on this second flight.  I am not a drinking man, but the plane hit a good bump and the adrenaline has burst upward again for everyone on the new flight 488 to Toronto.]   I haven’t had a memory of that time or that event for, well, the best part of 20 years or more.  But I remembered it today.  Everyone got just a little religion on Flight 488 to Toronto today.  Perhaps even a little Dewar’s [there are several passengers back with the flight attendants giggling and laughing about saying their Hail Mary’s.  Thank goodness for the free drinks].

As a telecommunications professional, I must inform you of the almost absurd actions I personally took.  My thoughts were out of control.  I thought of my wife and daughter and unborn child back home.  If I typed a love message on the PC, would it be found?   Perhaps if I scribble something in my Day timer, like a farewell, it would be found and delivered to my family.  I wanted so badly at that moment to talk to them.  My cell phone was out of the question.  The AT&T phone in the seat back in front of me came into focus.   It took me two credit cards and no less than five dialing attempts to actually place a call.  My fingers were non-cooperative.  My mind could not find numbers to dial.  At this moment I can’t think of my wife’s cell phone number.  I dialed the house.  The ring is answered by the answering machine: my daughter singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” which brings an instant tear to my left eye.  What?! Voice Mail!  I hated voice mail more than anything I have hated at that moment.  I left a message that I have asked my wife to save since I want to remember what I said.  Something like “We are in an emergency, I am on the plane, they don’t know if we can land, I love you both so much…pause…I WILL call you when we land, wherever that is.”  Click.  What a silly thing to say.  What is the right thing you should say?  For future reference, the AT&T Air-phones work even if engine #2 is scrap metal.

For those of you who have read through this airline story, you probably have some of your own.  After all my years of flying with what I thought were ‘events of importance’, I have had my threshold setting adjusted today along with everyone around me.  Most of them are sleeping now as their drop in adrenaline has left them ready for naps.  The details of what happened are seemingly overshadowed by the impact this event had on me physically and mentally.  The new flight attendants on this flight are cool, calm, relaxed, in other words numb.  In time I will return to that state.  In time I expect my adrenaline will be processed and removed from my system.  The details will be forgotten.  The fear, the intensity, the urgency, and fragility of the event will be cast into errored memory forever.  With time I will indulge the details, boast the facts, and perhaps somewhere, fishing on a quiet lake, will put this event into my list of tall stories.  

Thankfully, I have that opportunity.


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