Houston, we have a problem

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.


  1. Spud

    It’s a troubling trend this century – people are more concerned with recording the moment rather than just “being in” the moment. As parents of more than one child, we tend to tail off on recording special moments by snapshots/videos as more children come down the line. I suppose part of it is the “been there, done that” attitude, but it’s also wanting to enjoy the moment rather than worrying about framing a shot or not breathing heavy into the camcorder while the video is running and missing something.

    The other troubling aspect from your post is the desperation people exhibit when faced with a crisis. They call home and give potential last words. I would rather my loved ones focus on the task at hand than texting some brief message that I should already know about them. Let them communicate after the crisis, as I do not want to have that feeling of helplessness during their peril.

    What did Tony tweet? Potential crash landing in Dulles, stay tuned? Would you want your last tweet on Earth to be something profound? I don’t tweet or text, so it’s a mystery to me.
    [Praise God He gave you more days to post!]

  2. Ed Chinn

    Excellent (and very funny) essay. A smell, a noise, a declining angle… all it takes to reveal life’s big issues. We live closer to the edge than we often think.

  3. RandomThoughts

    You captured the fear, irony and humor of an averted disaster perfectly. And your point is well taken:

    “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.”

    Indeed. It makes us more aware of our humanity, and more aware of the people around us whom–but for the averted danger–we might otherwise ignore completely.

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