Have you ever wondered what you would do if your plane had serious trouble and you thought you might not survive? Well, wonder no more, because I’m going to tell you.
It was snowing heavily on a mid-winter morning in Vienna as I boarded a British Airways jet to travel back to Los Angeles following the end of a tour with my band. I was flying solo while the rest of the band was remained in Europe for a few days rest. It was snowing heavily but my immediate thoughts were on my aching shoulders, as they slowly dislocated due to the weight of all the glass souvenirs I bought for the family. Lots of glass filled my backpack- candles, trinkets, a long-stem glass rose- lots of fragile gifts!
I settled back into a seat at the back of the plane. It was quite warm, but I left my jacket on. I don’t like flying, so I was apprehensive as usual and the snow didn’t help. It was coming down so heavily that I could barely see the end of the wings.
Once we started taxiing, the pilot came on in a reassuring British accent and stated that if we smelled smoke, it was because he was going to rev the engines before takeoff to blow out the snow and deicing fluid.
We paused for a few minutes and then began a rather slow roll. The roll got longer and longer, until the man next to me looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked if we were taking off. Apparently he thought I knew more about airplanes than he did, and this was probably true. I know a lot about airplanes and all the things that can go wrong. I told him it appeared we were, and we both expressed concern that the pilot never did blow out the engines.
After rolling through the snowy whiteness for what seemed to be an eternity, we began to lift off, but not in that “sinking feeling in your stomach” way that happens whenever a jet first takes off. If you’ve been on a jet, you know the feeling. There was no feeling of rapid lift, and my heart began to beat a little faster. I was pretty sure we barely made it off the runway, but I couldn’t see through the snow to tell. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a normal takeoff.
Much to my relief, we didn’t smack into anything. We seemed to be climbing, and after a couple of minutes they lowered the video screens and it appeared the flight attendants were beginning to move about. And then I heard it. A quacking sound. The goose-like sound of an auxiliary power unit, underneath the floor of the cabin. Now this is where I know too much about planes. I recognized this sound from whenever I’m on an Airbus jet and they are starting the engines. This is NOT a sound you want to hear in mid-flight, though both engines sounded normal. This quacking sound went on for about a minute, when I noticed the flight attendant sitting behind me rush up the aisle to the cockpit. This is also not normal, so NOW I’m beginning to worry. And then, I hear it- the sound of the right engine shutting down. It was basically just a “whoop, whoop whooooop....silence” kind of thing. I could hear that the left engine was still working but I knew we had a major problem. I know the plane can still fly on one engine, but what if there’s a problem that causes the other engine to shut down. This is not turning out to be a good morning.
All of this would be troubling enough without what happened next. The flight attendant that had rushed to the front of the cabin was now rushing back, with absolute fear on her face, shouting at everyone to put everything away. This was NOT the way to calm the passengers. As she passed us, she looked at my seatmate and yelled at him to put away the coat that he had in his lap, as we might have to egress. Egress? Egress!? Where the HELL were we egressing to? Were we about to smack the side of a snow covered mountain? Keep in mind that we can’t see ANYTHING outside because we’re flying through a snowstorm. And then, a moment of calm, as I realized that, yes, I might just go down in this plane.
The pilot then interrupted, though his voice was not so reassuring this time. He sounded perfectly calm as he explained that we’d experienced the failure of an engine but, not to worry, we were turning around and returning to Vienna where they were busy plowing the longest runway for us to land on. He also explained that there would be emergency vehicles lining the runway and chasing the plane but that was standard procedure. I guess it is if they expect us to smack the runway.
And now my thoughts turned weird. I began to think about all the glass souvenirs I’d bought, and how they would probably be smashed to bits even if I survived. After all, a modern jet need reverse thrust as part of it’s braking, so I imagined we’d just careen down the runway, bouncing along or skidding off the side. I know the flight computer is supposed to compensate for the single engine, but I’ve seen computers crash themselves, a lot.
Now obviously we survived the landing or I wouldn’t be sharing this with you. The landing was bumpy, and we did skid a bit, and there were a lot of fire engines chasing the plane, but all my souvenirs survived. After we came to a stop everyone applauded, and the pilot came into the cabin to say a few words and tell us we’d have to be rebooked on an evening flight at the earliest. He then walked down the aisle to answer any questions. The man sitting in front of me was agitated, and asked the captain, and I kid you not, if this meant he’d miss his connecting flight in London. The pilot was way more polite than I would have been and told the man that yes, he would miss his flight. I guess the man couldn't do math as the pilot had already stated the earliest flight would be that evening. As the pilot passed by me, I stated that I could care less about my connection- I was just glad he got us back in one piece. In a classic understatement, he turned to me and said “I was right pleased that that outcome me-self, mate!”
And so was I.