Sand in the Gears

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Houston, we have a problem

February 11th, 2011 Posted in Snapshots of Life

You know you’ve been flying too much when you sleep through the better part of an in-flight emergency. It wasn’t the exclamations of my fellow passengers that stirred me from my takeoff doze, so much as the sense that what had been a lifting sensation was now most definitely a sinking sensation.

And most of us prefer our jets to lift, to lift, for the love of God to lift, until such time as we approach our destination, at which point they are supposed to gently drift, like a leaf in the hands of angels, to the runway.

But we were sinking, and turning, and there were neighborhoods and trees where I had expected to see moonlit clouds, and so now the situation had my attention. I connected the other sensations: the acrid smell at takeoff, the crack of landing gear reopening, the distinct no-atheists-in-foxholes posture of people all around me. There must be some trouble, I reasoned.

This is the sort of top-notch deductive reasoning I acquired in too many years of post-graduate education, you see.

The pilot announced that we were making an emergency landing at Dulles, having just hurtled ourselves into the airspace above Reagan National. The words of comedian Ron White came unbidden to my mind: Hit something hard; I don’t want to limp away from this wreck.

I thought briefly of sharing this with my seatmate, but decided it might be inappropriate, given the circumstances. He didn’t look like a Blue Collar Comedy Tour sort of guy. Or maybe he just had a lot to live for. Or both.

As we approached the runway, we could see fire trucks converging from different directions. How many fire truck stations they have at Dulles International Airport, I do not know. I do know, however, that had we been approaching the runway looking like a big flaming roman candle fireball with wings and a tail, they likely would have drowned us before the smoke had a chance to do us in.

Then I realized what a blessing we’d all received. I looked around and saw people facebooking, tweeting, calling the people they love. I tweeted it myself. As we rolled to a stop between the phalanxes of fire trucks and ambulances, people held their phones to every available window to record the drama. They took pictures of the firemen who came on board. They took pictures of each other. My facebook friends got a blurry shot of a firetruck ensconced in its red lights. Our captain came out to speak with us and everyone clapped for him.

We all got to live out a little drama, in other words, and imagine for a moment that we were in more danger than we were really in, and then to quickly realize we were safe. For a brief while, an entire planeload of people — coming out of Washington, D.C., no less — was filled with smiles and laughter. It made me think we could all use a little danger from time to time.

But not when I’m napping.