Monday, May 12, 2008
7:30pm Central Time, Chicago's O'Hare Airport: The place is packed with frustrated travelers. Flights to the east coast are delayed and canceled due to "air traffic control," which means, "weather" (but they're not allowed to say 'weather,' for some reason). Gusty wind and heavy rain are forecast for our arrival in Baltimore. Anticipating turbulence, I skip dinner (this becomes important later).
Steve McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this?
[Hands him the weather briefing]
Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl...
We're sitting on the runway, and a customer service agent comes on the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, we're ready to go, except we're waiting for the first officer and the captain to arrive." I quip to my rowmates, "I hope they're not in the bar."
[as the plane prepares to take off]
Hanging Lady: Nervous?
Ted Striker: Yes.
Hanging Lady: First time?
Ted Striker: No, I've been nervous lots of times.
Flight is fine out of Chicago. For the second time today, I watch an episode of Chuck without sound. Anticipating turbulence, I order a seltzer water.
With the spontaneity only afforded to those who sit on the aisle, I decide to use the restroom. The moment I lock the door, the plane starts to shimmy (the two events aren't connected, as far as I can tell). A sign over the sink lights up--a sign depicting a stick figure getting her ass back to her seat. I obey. (Commercial air travel is a good place to exercise respect for authority.)
Steve McCroskey: This fog is getting thicker.
Johnny: And Leon is getting laaaaarrrrrger.
The turbulence is fierce, the worst I've ever experienced. I bury myself in a book and successfully ignore it.
Suddenly, we lose altitude. A lot of altitude. A moment later, the pilot guns the engine and we're ascending again, fast and hard. Assuming he's avoiding a cloud or something, I look out the window--
--and see the airport buildings fading below us. We just almost landed but didn't. It was a touch-and-go, but without the touch.
Dr. Rumack: Elaine, you're a member of this crew. Can you face some unpleasant facts?
Elaine Dickinson: No.
A voice comes out of the speakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your first officer. As you can tell, we're not on the ground yet. [burst of nervous laughter from the crowd] We caught a little bit of wind shear on approach, so our captain decided to take us around again."
It turns out, a sudden wind shear dumped us a few feet from the ground, but it happened to be a part of the ground that had no runway. Only the pilot's lightning-fast reflexes saved us from a Very Bad Touch. He was definitely NOT in the bar before we left Chicago.
Quick aviation lesson: This diagram depicts a commercial aircraft avoiding wind shear by increasing speed and altitude. However, if you look closely you'll notice that the avoidance occurs far up in the air. When wind shear hits close to the ground, as it did to us, the diagram depicts a red X next to the runway. SPLAT.
Jack Kirkpatrick: Shanna, they bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash.
So we're circling the airport again, making another approach. The storm is worsening. The plane is pitching and rolling, fighting the wind. Passengers are puking (thankfully not the guy next to me, who somehow SLEPT through the whole thing).
I bury myself in the book again, but I know there's a small chance that on our next approach the wind shear will drop us into the ground--this time with no feet to spare. I don't pray, but I do consider a few consequences of my demise:
1. My book would become a posthumous bestseller.
2. But the sequel would never be published.
3. My mom would never know I sent her Mother's Day flowers, since stupid FTD didn't deliver them.
[reading newspaper headlines]
Rex Kramer: Passengers certain to die!
Steve McCroskey: Airline negligent.
Johnny: There's a sale at Penney's!
We approach again, battling the wind and rain, fighting to stay straight. The plane is bobbing and weaving like Muhammad Ali. The ground gets closer, and closer. I think of how I love the city of Baltimore, but I don't want to become a permanent part of it.
We're over the runway, still rolling and pitching, and then...we're wheels down! All of them! Permanently!
We break into spontaneous applause. We hoot and cheer when the captain says, "Welcome to Baltimore" (even though he left off the 'hon'). The guy behind me announces that as part of a new bargain with God, he'll never fly again. Some continue to puke. My hands are shaking so hard, I have trouble calling my husband to tell him I'm alive. He's currently on I-95 in the pouring rain, on his own survival mission, so I leave my story until pickup.
We all thank the pilot on our way out.
Tonight I plan to watch Airplane while eating a box of Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese. I will also check to see if Amtrak goes to Tulsa.
Captain Oveur: Joey, have you ever been to a Turkish prison?