It’s a proven statistic! How many times has a news reporter used that phrase when a plane goes down somewhere around the world? That news reporter has never flown with me. My mother tells me frequently that I shouldn’t be afraid to fly because if God wanted me, he surely would have taken me home by now. I think she’s right. If you want to guarantee your arrival, fly with me. I surely must have divine insurance. Pull up a cozy chair, make a cup of hot chocolate and listen while I make fools of those news reporters and their statistics. I don’t think Qantas will be asking me to be their representative anytime soon.
In 1956 my father, a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was assigned to Japan. After spending three years in Japan, we were scheduled to return to America. We were flying to San Diego with a stop in Hawaii. It was a big plane with four prop motors (description limited by my 9 year-old memory). The plane was full of military personnel returning to the states. It was a beautiful, sunshiny day and we were having lunch while flying over the Pacific. My Dad, Mom, two brothers and sister were all on this flight. I’m the eldest of four. Soon after lunch, I noticed flames spewing from engine #4, which was on the right side of the plane where I sat in the window seat. I pointed and said, “Look, Daddy.” Everyone must have heard because pandemonium broke out. The flight attendants told everyone to remain in their seats with their seat belts buckled. It took a few minutes to get everyone seated and buckled. Then we heard from the pilot.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lost engine #4. A fire broke out so we shut the engine down. We can successfully fly on to Hawaii with only three engines so please do not panic. We should arrive in Hawaii on time without further incidents.”
My sister, brother and I were sitting next to each other in a row (we were holding hands) and across the aisle was my dad, mom and my littlest brother. My mom assured us that everything was all right and not to worry. So I relaxed.
Now I wouldn’t kid you, but I noticed something leaking from engine #3. I’m did not want to say a word. Look what happened the last time I opened my mouth.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have another challenge. It seems that engine #3 has a hydraulic fluid leak due to the fire in engine #4. We will be taking the plane down to 10,000 feet as a precautionary measure.”
My dad told us there was nothing to worry about, we are a U.S. Air Force family and the U.S. Air Force knows how to fly planes. Thirty minutes later, we heard from the pilot again.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, it appears that we were losing fuel in addition to losing hydraulic fluid and we may not have enough fuel to get to Hawaii. We have to consider ditching in the ocean. The flight attendants will now assist passengers in preparation for a water landing.”
I vividly remember my mother with rosary in hand, she didn’t pray out loud, but her lips moved. The flight attendants got on the PA system and told us to take off our shoes and jewelry and to put everything loose under our seats. She reminded us that the seat cushions were flotation devices and, when she gave the word, we should put our heads down and wrap our arms under our knees as tightly as possible until the plane lands.
A Private sitting behind me was assigned to make sure I got off the plane. He was my hero. So as soon as the plane came to a rest, the heroes were to secure the child assigned to them and exit the aircraft.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are only 10,000 feet above sea level, I think we might have a chance of making land. I’m going to try for it. Be prepared in case.”
We cheered. We waited. Then we heard the mechanical sound of the landing gear trying to go down. It stopped and then it started again several times. It stopped.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are going to make Hawaii, but the bad news is we do not have landing gear. The fire burned through the hydraulic system and we can’t lower the landing gear. We will be sliding onto the runway on our belly. When I give the signal prepare for a crash landing.”
Dad told us to stay in our seats, stay buckled and do everything the flight attendant told us to do. He used his military voice. It was like a command. My Mom was hugging my little brother and praying. Daddy barked at the service men assigned to get us kids off the plane, “after it comes to a stop, you better make damn sure that every single one of my children gets off this plane alive or you answer to me!” And then we waited. We cried and waited. It was quiet except for the flight attendants giving last minutes instructions. Then, the pilot screamed into the PA, “Brace, Brace, Brace!”
I remember wrapping my arms around my knees as the plane hit the ground. The plane bounced and made lots of noise as it slid down the runway. The right side of the plane tipped down to the ground, the wing touched down and the plane spun around 180 degrees. They had put foam all over the runway so the plane wouldn’t spark so much when it came in. It seemed to slide and screech forever. The plane came to a stop. We were in one piece! The Private behind me reached over the seat and grabbed my seat belt, released it and plucked me from my seat. He tucked me under his arm like a football and this was the last play in the Rose Bowl game. He must have been the first one off the plane because the next thing I knew, I was talking to a medic who wanted to know if I was all right. The medic put me in an ambulance and off to the hospital we went.
I didn’t see any members of my family until the next morning. The plane landed in Hawaii at midnight and my parents spent the entire night looking for their children. All four of us were sent to different hospitals. We all survived with only superficial injuries. Thanks to my Dad’s faith in the U.S. Military, my Mother’s prayers, a Private who followed his orders to the “T” and the U.S. Air Force pilot who was trained by the very best. God bless you wherever you are.
I managed to avoid air travel again until after my marriage. At the time, my husband and I lived in Richmond, Virginia. My husband was transferred to Columbus, Ohio which meant his company would pay for the move and and also for us to fly back and forth to buy/sell houses. It was 1976 and surely aircraft safety had improved a hundred fold since my fateful 1959 flight to Hawaii. My husband went to Columbus, Ohio and I was stuck flying back and forth house hunting/selling. We had a two year-old daughter at the time and she flew with me. I was on my last flight to Richmond to finalize some last minute details when it happened. We were coming in for our landing and the wheels touched down just for a few seconds and then the jet engines on the plane revved up again sharply and my head snapped back against the headrest as the plane surged forward at a sharp incline and banked to the right. My daughter started crying and everyone on the plane was gasping with surprise and wondering what was going on. I knew from experience not to release my daughter from her seatbelt and hold her to me, despite how badly I wanted to do so. I put my arm around her and kept telling her everything was going to be all right and started praying. Eventually, the plane leveled off again.
“Sorry about that Ladies and Gentlemen, but the pilot noticed a plane coming toward us on the runway and thought it best to get out of the way.”
Everyone on the plane actually laughed. I didn’t think it was funny. When we came in for our second landing, the pilot shared, “We are the only ones on the landing strip, nothing to worry about.” Apparently pilots lie. I not only had to worry about planes being defective, but the air traffic controllers aren’t as trustworthy as I had hoped either.
Things progressed in my life and fifteen years later, I was employed by a major landscaping company in their Training Department. I flew to Cleveland to conduct a one day training session. I showed up at the airport at 6 a.m. on a miserable day. It was not raining; it was raining cats and dogs as the old saying goes. The sky was a dark gray, but I attributed that to dawn. I checked in for my flight and waited for my flight to come in. I heard thunder. I was getting nervous.
My plane came in, everyone deplaned and then we boarded. The thunder sounded closer and then a lightning bolt lit up the sky. By then, I was seated in the plane and I asked the attendant if I could get off. With my record, I did not want to fly in a lightning storm. She said their was nothing to worry about. The captain would not risk taking off if there was anything to worry about.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that flight attendants are trained to say that. They are never going to say, “Holy Crap, we better get the heck off this plane.”
If your instincts tell you to get off a plane, GET OFF THE PLANE. Get off before the cabin door closes because after that, the captain is in command. Your number one priority is saving your own life. Don’t forget that. I never will again. We took off at 7:30 a.m. from Columbus in miserable conditions. It was the rainiest, grayest, ugliest, coldest, meanest looking day ever. Everything in my body was telling me that getting on this plane was a grave mistake. If it had been a personal trip, I knew I would have headed home rather than stayed on board. I was worried, but everyone around me was perfectly fine.
There was a lot of social interaction and people were turning on their laptops and iPads. All appeared normal after takeoff, but the plane was experiencing heavy turbulence. The seatbelt light never went off. Lightning increased by the second. They announced they wouldn’t be serving refreshments. It was incessant, one bolt of lightning after the next. We were advised to stay seated for the remainder of the flight. The turbulence got worse, we were hitting one air pocket after another. I began to brace myself by grasping the arm rest with one hand and pushing against the cabin wall with the other. The passenger in the seat next to me asked me if something was wrong and I said yes. This was only supposed to be a 30 minute flight. To me, it seemed like forever.
I didn’t know a tornado warning had been issued in Columbus and the airport closed right after we took off. I remember the plane rattling, like it was falling apart. The noise on board was deafening. The cacophony consisted of thunder and lightning from outside and loud conversation, crying and jet engines inside.
And then it happened, a lightning bolt hit our plane—a direct hit. You couldn’t see anything for a few seconds. It flashed so bright it was like looking directly into the sun while only 100 yards away. The jet engines died and we were falling out of the sky. We were falling out of the sky like a rock, in total silence, straight down. I didn’t have time to pray. I remember thinking I will never see my husband and daughter again. Terrified doesn’t even come close to what I felt at the time. We fall for a total of 5 or 6 seconds and then the jet engines start up again. The pilot restarted the engines.
This is part of the job duties for every pilot every time they climb into a cockpit, but this is an epiphany for me. I’m never going to take another day for granted. Life is a gift given with the assumption of a long happy future, but in reality, the gift is transient and may disappear in an instant—any given instant without asking permission first.
I’ve never forgotten that Monday morning on the landing strip in Cleveland. At the risk of sounding cliche, I literally felt like kissing the solid ground of the terminal when I stepped off the plane. Because of that flight and the ones before it, I know my existence has purpose. It’s not just to pass the days away. Each sunrise is a gift to be enjoyed and shared. Each sunset is a cause for thanks and celebration. I’m here because I make a difference. There is no way of knowing how many lives I may have influenced in years past or how many I may have the privilege of contributing to in the future, but for now, I’m here in case someone needs a flight companion.