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Emergency Landing

Airline passengers reflect on impending near-disaster.

After it was over, we both agreed that the funny thing was, our life didn't flash before our eyes.

Shel recounted the litany of frustrations that had calmly gone through his head: a book manuscript complete but unmailedãthe publisher would be enraged; the pain of going through the hassle of replacing the camera and laptop computer, if we should be so lucky enough to live. I was trying to come up with one last significant thought before my impending death. But all I could do was try to calm our four-year-old daughter, Alana, while thinking 'what a stupid way to die.'

We wouldn't get to meet our brand new niece, who was waiting for us at the airport. We wouldn't get to have the second child I had been carrying for almost four months. And worst of all, we were separated by an aisle. We couldn't hold each other, and had to mouth the words "I love you," as the pilot continued giving the emergency instructions over the loudspeaker.

Why hadn't we noticed the plane delay earlier? Strangely enough, the airline had scheduled three flights from Chicago to Denver within three minutes of each other. When we heard the plane had experienced mechanical problems on the way in, we tried to get on one of the other planes, but were turned back just as we neared the head of the line.

We had reluctantly we made our way back to the gate of our original plane. About an hour later, a flight attendant announced that the mechanics had solved the problem by putting in a new gear box. She said the words "Gear box" as if she didn't know what it was or how it worked. Had that been an omen?

Even so, it had been a smooth flight until the last minute. Shel and I took half-hour shifts alternately reading our own books and reading Dr. Seuss and The Sesame Street Treasury to our daughter. We were preparing for our final descent and the captain lowered the wheels. But then he got on the microphone: "Ladies and gentlemen, when I engaged the landing gear, I did not get the indicator light. We are going to stay in the air and circle the airport until we can get rescue vehicles on the runway. Then we will make an emergency landing."

From his tone, he could have been saying, 'lunch is served,' or 'we'll be flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet. As it was, only half the people on the plane heard him. A loud chorus of "What? What's that?" filled the plane as people turned to tell their neighbors what the pilot had said.

"Why don't you just call up the tower?" someone shouted, "Say, 'hey man, do you see any wheels?'"

One of the flight attendants took over the address system. "Once we are on the ground, if we tell you to evacuate the aircraft, you are to release your seatbelts, leave all your possessions, and proceed immediately to the nearest emergency exit. Right now please take out your safety cards and review the brace position."

Safety cards? Alana had been playing with them and dropped them somewhere. I scurried around under seat before I found them. "When the captain says, 'Brace," tuck your head down on your lap, or against the seat in front of you. Now, I want everyone to practice this position and the flight attendants will come around and check it for you. We have seven more minutes."

This time, no one read their newspaper when the flight attendants reviewed the safety pamphlet with us. They told us about the exit chutes, and how to use them. They conferred individually with the passengers sitting by the emergency exits on what to do. They went down the aisles, demonstrating the proper technique to brace ourselves. Our emergency exit was a few seats up. One of us would have to carry Alana, who was holding Koala Bear, her special friend since birth. Two years ago, Koala had been detained in New Mexico for a month; after we had given up hope, she was suddenly mailed back in a large envelope. If we made it out alive, Koala would too.

We couldn't get Alana to keep her head on her knees. "This is because the landing will be a little bit bumpy," we tried to explain. How do you tell a four-year-old she may crash land and die in seven minutes? How ironic that just an hour ago, in a daydreaming reverie while Shel was on the Dr. Seuss shift, I thought about the general anesthesia I had used to have my wisdom teeth pulled. Death was like that, I thought, just that sense of nothingness, being absent... Then the captain spoke again. "Ladies and gentlemen, we will land in three minutes."

The tension in the air was a living creatureãit had weight, thickness, a certain sound. Nobody panicked, though. Alana complained loudly that her belly hurt. Everyone else was quietly gathering ID from their bags into their pockets, or practicing the brace position, or saying a silent prayer.

"Two minutes," announced the captain.

We watched the plane sinking lower and lower to the ground. It all seemed so unbelievable. The ground was moving in at just the right rate. Nothing felt amiss or awry, no strange noises. All the passengers were deceptively calm. Even the single mother of four across the aisle, quite pregnant with #5, was putting on shoes, combing four small heads of hair. We could see highways, then cars, then the small lines that divided them, then the menacing numbers and strange markings of the runway. The plane was flying low and slow, its aerlons extended as far as they couldãalmost vertical from the wing. A row of ambulances, lights flashing, was visible as we hovered over the runway; time seemed to stop.

"Brace," the captain intoned, as if it were a military command. The flight attendants joined in. "Brace - Brace - they repeated the word like a mantra. Soon the whole plane was chanting, "Brace - Brace - Brace-" I kept my hand on Alana's back, wishing that at least for her I could soften the blow. "Keep your heads down," the flight attendants shouted from their stations around the cabin.

* * *

The whisper-quiet landing--the gentlest either of us has experienced in over twenty years of flying--was almost drowned out by applause and cheers as we realized we were on the ground, alive. The flight attendants were still yelling to keep our heads down, but it was obvious that the landing gear had worked.

"Release - Release - Release" the pilot finally announced as we taxied to the gate. We could hear the hint of a giggle under his evenly trained monotone. The plane coasted to a stop at the end of the runway. "We're going to wait here while the ground crew checks the wheels and adds support pins," the captain announced. Nobody seemed to mind the extra 20-minute delay. The euphoria of survival and the slow cooling of our collective adrenaline rush was enough.

Finally, 250 pale but living passengers gathered our bags and stumbled through the jetway into the airport lounge. On our way off the plane, we asked a flight attendant how often this happened. "I've had four in seven years," she said, "but we never needed to use the chutes!"

At the baggage claim, we saw the last people to switch to the other plane waiting for their luggage, which had been on our aircraft. They'd been just ahead of us on line.

"How was the flight?" they asked.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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