Saturday, October 12, 2013

Your Flight Has Been Canceled.

I have wanted to start a blog for a very long time, but I have hesitated because I can’t seem to get past the idea that no one will really want to read what I have to say, so why bother; and I don’t have a specific subject in mind, although I have narrowed it down to a few; and I do know some things, but I don’t think of myself as an expert; and the list goes on. This week, though, I decided I’m going to write, and people can read it or not.

I’m starting this now because after my terrifying experience with American Airlines earlier this week, I have a lot to say. Some of this is to respond to the many questions I’ve received. Some of this is to try to describe what a potential brush with death feels like. Some of this is to share the good, the bad and the ugly. And mostly, it’s too long to post on Facebook, so today I start my blog.

As many people saw on my Facebook status, I was on an American Eagle jet last Sunday going from Peoria, Illinois to Dallas, Texas. About 15 minutes into what seemed to be a very normal flight, there was a loud pop, and smoke poured into the cabin. It kept coming from whatever its source was somewhere behind me (I was in 5A). At first we thought a window had broken because of the continuous rushing of air, but the smoke quickly became the focus of concern.

Photos by Sheryl I.
In answer to one of the most-asked questions, the oxygen masks did not drop. I have since been told we were not high enough in the air for that to happen. (The flight attendant had just said we could turn on electronic devices.) I have also been told the masks drop when the cabin loses pressure, which was not the case. I have been told the pilots can cause the masks to drop, but with the risk of fire, having more oxygen could be more of a hazard. And I read online that in the case of smoke, the masks don’t really help because they provide a limited amount of supplemental air, and we’d still be breathing the cabin air anyway.

Disclaimer: I have no knowledge of aviation other than the fact that planes usually get me where I want to go, and Delta has the best cookies. I don’t want to imply I have any knowledge. I am only repeating various things I have heard from others if they seem to make sense to me.

After the pop followed by smoke, and the alarms that started beeping, some people started screaming for the masks. Other people just screamed. There was crying, yelling and a lot of fear. I don’t think I screamed, and I know I didn’t cry, but I can’t find the words to describe how truly terrified I was. I have been asked what my first thought was. Here it is. Wait for it. “Well, f**k. I’m going to die.”

At some point, because I was expecting to nosedive, I realized the pilots were still in control of the plane, and I remember thinking that perhaps we could survive this. I’m not sure if the pilots or the flight attendant told us this, but somewhere I remember hearing we were turning back to Peoria. I thought we were too far out, and there was no way we could get that far safely, but I remember feeling a slight bit of hope that they seemed to think they had options.

The smoke was really burning my throat and eyes. The flight attendant told us to cover our mouths with clothing and stay as low as possible. I pulled my t-shirt up over my face and put my head down, and that seemed to help. I remember telling myself to stay calm and take shallow breaths. I’m not sure where that bit of wisdom came from. Maybe the flight attendant said it. I don’t know.

Did I pray? I did. Some people think because I don’t go to temple and I don’t say much about  my religious beliefs that I don’t have a relationship with God. That is not true, but generally I don’t think other people need to hear about it. I’m breaking that rule today. I prayed to not die because my mama needs me and I didn’t want to leave my girls and my sweet, sweet grandson, and I hoped they all knew how much I loved them. Then I prayed for the pilots. I prayed for them to have all the strength and wisdom they needed to land the plane safely. I prayed for them a lot.

The flight attendant kept repeating to us to stay in our seats, keep our seatbelts fastened tightly, cover our mouths, keep our heads down, stay calm, stay in our seats, keep our seatbelts fastened, etc. We were told when we were five minutes out and then two minutes out. I looked out and could see we were approaching our landing. I thought we were going too fast (as many of us did, I learned later), but they placed the plane down beautifully. Then as the plane came to a stop, and we were all feeling the relief, the seemingly-calm flight attendant suddenly jumped up and began yelling for us to get out the emergency exits. I was a bit surprised, as were others, but I read online later that people who survive emergency or crash landings have the best chances of survival if they get out of the plane within 90 seconds. I also learned there is a thing called Normalcy Bias, which causes people to think they survived the landing so they can stop worrying. I really must have been affected by that, because my brain told me we were safe. In hindsight, um, there was smoke in the cabin!

In answer to the next frequently-asked question, I don’t know how cool it was to use the slides, because here’s another thing I learned. Smaller jets don’t have emergency slides! Even one of the gate agents told us later she didn’t know that. So, back to the exits, I get to the door thinking I would continue on walking or climbing down steps (because they would magically appear on the tarmac?), and I looked out and saw nothing but air. Yes, we had to jump about six feet down to concrete. There were two wonderful men who had jumped out pretty early, and they were helping people get out. I remember grabbing their hands and jumping, but (remember the big ankle sprain the night before our family ski trip?) my ankle did not land well, and it quickly turned when it hit the ground. More on that later, but again, big picture ….. I was alive.

Again, I thought the danger was over. Then a calm voice told us to get away from the plane. Another good idea! As we were landing, the fire trucks were rolling out, so the voices of reason from the firefighters sort of took over from there. They were probably the calm voices telling us to move away from the plane. We were just so happy and shocked to be alive.

Then I realized I didn’t have my phone, and I just really needed to reach my babies. A lovely young woman gave me her phone, and I could only text Lindsay because I couldn’t remember Leah’s number (apparently there’s not a “Leah Cell” on every phone). I remember writing something like “Tell everyone. Emergency landing. I’m ok. It’s mom. (I thought that was probably important.) I love you.” The young woman told me she’d let me know if I got a text back. Then a few minutes later she told me she thought there was a text for me. I looked at it, and the first two words were, “Holy shit!” and I said, “Yep. That’s my girl!” :)

I waited my turn to hug the flight attendant, and when I got up to him, I saw he was crying. He did such a good job keeping us all safe and calm, and then getting us off the plane, and it was at that moment it dawned on me that something like this must be horrendous for a flight crew. The pilots were pretty quiet, mostly talking to the fire department, one of them videotaping everything, but I did shake the captain’s hand, and he seemed almost embarrassed by all the gratitude. I will never forget the actions of those three individuals. I hope they will be able to recover from this as well.

It was cold and windy on the tarmac even for the woman my children call “Hot Flash.” Again, minor problem considering we were alive, but when the little parking shuttle bus finally pulled up to start taking us to the terminal, people started looking around for elderly or disabled people or others who should go first. I didn’t have a jacket, so they pushed me onto the bus. It was very sweet. Everyone was so kind to everyone else.

There were other good things that happened that night. Everyone helped everyone. We took turns just like the normal row-by-row getting off a flight. No one pushed anyone out of their way, and we all made sure the others were ok.

Later, in the hotel bar as three other women and I rehashed the whole episode, we reflected on how fortunate it was that there were no pregnant women or young children on the flight. I couldn’t even let myself think about a terrified child going through that. There were no disabled people, and there was only one elderly gentleman who seemed to be ok. A friend said something to me later about her parents not being able to jump out of a plane. I thought of my mother as well. There would have been no way she could have done that. I’m sure the other passengers and/or firefighters would have handled that, but it would have been terribly scary for them, and we were all relieved everyone could get off the plane fairly easily.

I held up throughout the whole ordeal pretty well. Then I finally got my phone back, and when I powered it up, my beautiful little grandson’s face was smiling at me, and I remembered how just a few minutes earlier, I thought I would never get to see him again. I may have shed a few tears at that moment as I kissed his beautiful face on my phone.

Oh, I was asked how hard it was to get back on a plane the next day. I was amazed that it wasn’t difficult. I felt that the statistics had to be in our favor, and I even wondered as the flight got closer if it would affect me, but it didn’t bother me at all. That did surprise me a bit.

There is more to say, but I will end this post on another good note. I genuinely liked the above-mentioned three women. You kind of bond easily when you’ve been through a situation like this, but I would like them anyway, and I hope we stay in touch. We had a great laugh on the way to the hotel, when I think we went through a red light or a very questionable yellow light, and someone said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we lived through an emergency plane landing and got killed in a car accident?” Some people may not think that’s funny, but we sure did. Guess you had to be there.

Did I mention how grateful I am to be alive?


  1. Wow, Andee, I have tears in my eyes. What a wonderful recounting of a terrifying experience.

  2. I will probably never fly again without thinking about your ordeal. Here's hoping your next blog post will not be quite so dramatic!

  3. Omigosh Andee! Wow! I am glad you are OK. I am also happy you are blogging! I look forward to more - I read your more recent blog also -- AA is really a mess it sounds like. Customer service apparently doesn't exist.