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I noticed just the faintest hint of a tear in the eyes of my normally stoic sister. That's when it fully hit me. This is really happening. We are about to die.
We were on a plane from New York, heading towards Florida, for something of a “we survived grad school” celebration. The first hour of the flight had been fairly uneventful. Just the usual aggravations of traveling in cramped quarters with unbearable masses. My sister and I never needed to say a word aloud. We understood each other’s silent glances and exasperated eye rolls. I wish that obnoxious cackler would fall asleep. If that lady would sit down, I could see the screen. I can’t believe that guy needs to use the bathroom uh-gain. That flight attendant’s tone is a little too patronizing.
Adding to the expected aggravations, as we approached Atlanta, where we were due to change planes, we heard, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Air Traffic Control has just advised us that we will have to circle before landing, pushing our arrival time back by 30 minutes. We will do our best to get you to your connections on time.”
More silent eye rolls and exasperated sighs. Agh! Thirty minutes. Now we’ll have to run to our connecting gate. No time for Starbucks, let alone the restroom. This always happens. Air travel is so annoying.
We didn't pause to wonder why air traffic control had ordered us to circle.
At the end of that first 30 minute delay, flight attendants recommenced their pre-landing protocol. Irritated sighs went up from annoyed passengers. Yes, we get it. We haven’t forgotten what to do since you told us half an hour ago. We’ve stowed our tray tables, put our seat backs upright, and raised our window shades. Enough. Let’s just land and run to our connections already.
Then, just as we could see the tarmac out our window and expected to feel the jolt of touch down, we were ascending again. Complete silence from the previously exasperated passengers spoke volumes. This can’t be good.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain again. We are experiencing technical difficulty with our landing gear. We circled the tower at a low altitude so that Air Traffic Control could get visual confirmation that our landing gear had deployed. However, they confirmed that our gear has not deployed. We are moving from emergency precautions to evacuation procedures.”
Newly somber-faced flight attendants calmly explained to an instantly riveted audience that the runway would be sprayed with foam to minimize impact and reduce the risk of fire. Fire engines and emergency vehicles would line the runway, prepared to respond.
For all the weight of those words, the vibe on the plane somehow felt eerily serene.
Then suddenly, a frantic flight attendant broke the silence, screaming, “I hope you all know how to use your seat belts, because there’s no time to tell you now!”
No time to tell us how to unfasten our seat belts? That can only mean one thing. We are going to crash. Right. Now.
I glanced at my sister, and saw the faintest hint of a tear in her eyes. The awareness of everything around me fell away, and the world froze for a split second. Only my thoughts made the tiniest sound. We are about to crash. We are going to die. Nothing I thought would matter in this moment truly does. Except maybe one thing: sitting beside my normally stoic sister, who managed to utter, “Well, if we’re going down, I guess I’m glad we’re together."
* * * * * * * * *
EPILOGUE: We'll never know what panicked one flight attendant enough to scream that she didn't have time to explain our seat belts. But whatever it was, it did not come to fruition. We landed safely.
5 things you learn -quickly!- when your plane is going down
1. Proper footwear for air travel does NOT include flip flops.
Cutting 12 seconds off our time at the security gate by wearing plastic beach shoes makes us feel like travel pros. But come time to run through fire suppression foam and burning shards of airplane metal, sneakers will feel a whole lot better. Save the beach shoes for the beach.
2. There is a reason we’re asked to keep our window shades up during take-off and landing.
Ninety more seconds of sleep always sounds better than being awoken by a flight attendant requesting the window shade opened. But in the event of an emergency evacuation, visual information on outside conditions could help chose an exit route quickly. Open shades save lives.
3. Flight attendants do more than just smile (or not smile).
Sure, most of the time they're just handing out drinks and pressuring us to squeeze our possessions into ever-shrinking spaces. But when the wheels come off (sometimes literally), flight attendants can be the difference between a safe evacuation and, well, something a whole lot less desirable. Let's appreciate them.
4. Forgiveness comes easily.
We often assume that we'll spend our last moments in life regretting the wrongs we’ve committed or received. But when truly faced with sudden and immediate death, there’s just no time for anything else to matter. Might as well forgive now.
5. No one cares that your plane didn’t crash.
You might imagine cheers would erupt when you walk into an airport from a plane that was supposed to crash. But in truth, the Big Business of air travel probably didn’t alert anyone to the fact that death lurking on the next runway. No one knew you were going to die, so no one cares that you didn’t. Celebrate anyway.
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