The night started as any other plane flight.
I was running behind. Throwing things into suitcases praying all essentials made it along for the trip. I ordered Uber eats, as a special ‘last meal’ for my distracted son and exhausted sister before heading to LAX.
At LAX, the line for cars picking up people at Arrivals was more of a parking lot than a moving line….‘note to self’…as I gratefully moved along in the departure lane.
Last minute hug to my friend for dropping me off, then off to gate 50B.
It was a full flight from LAX to Philadelphia, a packed red eye which heightens the unwanted opportunity of a sleep depriving noisemaker. The crying breath of new life or an anxious middle of the night ‘I’m so excited to be on a plane I want to chat and meet everyone’ to even an obnoxious snorer or too. A mini wish for a peaceful flight.
After take off, an hour into the journey everything was relatively quiet except a few whispers. The white fluffy service companion slept along with his owners and other than the odd pee break passenger,
it was an unremarkable flight.
But something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something didn’t feel right. Or sound right.
Every red eye I’ve ever taken, and until this point red eyes were my favorite flight so I’ve taken countless, an hour into a red eye I’m deep asleep. I’ve always timed my red eye flights to be super exhausted when I arrived at the airport, to help me slip into unconsciousness so I can experience the immediacy of the eyes closed/eyes open and you’re there phenomenon. Love that Star Trek blink transportation.
But I was awake. Listening to the passengers, listening to the sounds. Feeling the sway of the plane through the air.
Then quietly, flight attendants are mumbling back and forth through the aisles.
Then the pilots voice.
“So….well, I regret to inform you that we’re going to have to make a diversion.”
What was that aisle flicker?
“It looks like the plane is having…the plane is having a fuel capacity issue. [Ya, that’s it.] It looks like the plane might not have enough fuel to make it all the way to Philadelphia.”
Okay. I’ve flown hundreds of times. They always check the plane for fucking fuel. We ain’t flying across the entire country without a full tank of gas.
Is it secretly a medical emergency?
“I apologize for the inconvenience, I know most of you are scheduled for connecting flights in Philadphia, but I don’t feel comfortable flying this plane anymore.”
I don’t feel comfortable flying this plane anymore.
Was that a warning or a confession?
By now, most people had awaken from their light slumber,
(except the fucker on my left who was sleeping through everything)
and an eerie silence saturated the cabin.
The few middle of the night talkers were silent.
What the fuck?
So I immediately picked up my phone, switching off airplane mode and praying my middle of the night buddy was awake because I wanted some human connection.
Were we going down?
Bump. Sway. Cabin lights weird flickering again.
Descending down into the clouds threw a storm, up and down,
what the fuck is wrong with the plane that would be so bad the pilot is going to take us down through a storm to an airport in the middle of god knows nowhere?
Bump. Sway. Swish. Flicker.
I’ve never been so glad to hit the ground.
The eerie silence continued. The slumberer next to me dazed awake “philly?”
“We’re at Alburque International Airport. The regular maintenance crew isn’t available, so we’re going to have to call a contractor to come and look at the plane. For your convenience, we’re going to have everyone exit the plane where you’ll be more comfortable inside the gate.”
A collective nod rippled across the room.
As people deplaned,
I sat in my seat, waiting for most of the people to leave.
‘Not enough fuel to make it to philly?’ that’s got to be the worse excuse ever to make an emergency landing.
It felt more like the go to bullshit reason to land a plane in an emergency.
So I sat back, waiting for most people to leave,
And as I approached the door,
I noticed the cockpit was open. Instead of the pilots standing waving at everyone,
they were quietly hiding back in the room.
So I popped my head into the cockpit (is that legal?)
“Thanks for landing the plane safely.”
And I meant it.
The younger pilot on my left instantly jumped, excitedly, like he had just won a mini lottery,
“Oh, don’t thank me!! All the thanks for landing the plane safely goes to this gentleman!!” And he dramatically extended his arms like an award ceremony.
I look over at the hero pilot, a good looking man in his 40s, flush with blended adrenaline, confidence and sweat,
He nodded kindly at me,
We locked eyes. Instantly I knew not only had the problem been serious, it had been even worse than I thought when I was busy freaking out making my ‘I promise I’ll turn a new leaf’ declarations midflight,
and now locking eyes with that pilot I knew for sure it was even worse.
He was glowing and I know that glow. It’s the glow ER doctors have when they’ve just left a patient’s room where they worked some god like miracle that involved all of their training and skill and chutzpah in a saturated “every second counts” miracle. The kind of event they train for, but only the best of the best, only the really gifted for medicine pull off successfully.
And it feels good.
This pilot had that glow. And now that he knew that I knew it was that serious, and he knew (and appreciated) that I was grateful for the magic he just pulled out of a hat for all of us.
So I said it again, looking him squarely in the eyes,
“Thank you for landing the plane safely.”
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry I couldn’t land you into a more exciting city.”
His joke about the city reinforced like a firewall the seriousness of whatever had just happened.
I smiled in a ‘holy fucking shit’ appreciative chuckle, “no worries about the city. Thanks for bringing us down safely.”
And I bowed slightly, with all of the respect in the world for people who work miracles,
and walked alive in one piece through the tunnel to the deserted terminal opened solely for our rescue.
Once in the airport, which was empty except for us cuz it was closed —
Feeling the closed airport was like a cherry on the emergency sunday, we had to get down so quickly we’re at an empty airport —
Once safely inside, with the shock wearing off (much faster for the ignorant, who had no idea of the brush we just had with a real disaster), but soon the mumbling started…the bitching about missing connection flights…the worried questions about belongings that never would have even thought twice about in the afterlife…
And one guy started bitching louder than others, his voice rising above,
an entitled asshole consumed with his own inconvenience,
“I have NO IDEA why the pilot landed us in New Mexico. He should have taken us to DALLAS where there are MORE FLIGHTS. This doesn’t make any sense. I can’t believe this…”
Now, I’ve been around the block enough to speculate pilots are probably a little like ER doctors, in that they accept most people don’t appreciate the magic they do, especially the magic they do behind the scenes that most people don’t see. Like ER doctors, pilots don’t expect people to appreciate them. They didn’t go into their business for accolades or personal attention, otherwise they would have become actors. They got into their profession for the love of their profession, and for the best for them maybe even moments like this.
So I can only take so much shit about them, especially since I knew for sure that something incredible had just happened, an incredible I can’t fully appreciate because I don’t have the knowledge but I’m as sure as hell grateful I lived through it—
Even though they don’t need me sticking up for them, I had to yell out, loudly, so the 50+ passengers in the near vicinity of where I was sitting could hear me,
“Look—clearly the pilot landed the plane in Albuquerque because there was a serious problem with the plane, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The pilot made a judgement call for our safety, and clearly as we are all standing here it was the right call.”
In their sleep deprived haze, a few people turned to me, ‘who is this little know it all beech?’ or ‘ya ya ya, whatever’ or ‘hmmm…she might be right’.
As this arrogant snot debated a response,
Announcement: “maintenance has arrived to check over the plane. If the plane is approved to continue on with the flight, we’ll reboard after the inspection.”
I knew that wasn’t happening.
I knew for sure from my conversation with the pilots that this plane wasn’t going anywhere but the airplane operating room.
However, however people became a little optimistic. Smart. Dosing the crowd up with hope got most people to settle down and shut up.
Of the 150 people on the flight, I was one of about ten people to get in line with the one gate attendant. While the others rested with their optimism of a continued flight in the near future, a couple of us knew our future with this plane was over and it was going to be time to figure out a plan B.
An hour later confirmed “we’re sorry to announce, after maintenance inspected the plane, we’re going to have to bring in a rescue flight to take you to philadelphia.”
Rescue flight?? They seriously have to use that terminology??
I’m going home. I need hug Noah. I need to hug my bratty little sister. I need to hug Grampa Joe. I need to hug my doctor Dr. Sherman. I need to hug the people who make life worth living, the people who literally make my life possible, the people who live and work tireless to help me stay on the planet.
Do I thank them enough?
I don’t want to do anything until I hug them.
Eventually I’ll be ready to get back on a plane again. I know the statistics and the odds of that this night happening again are small. I’ve been flying for years since I was a baby and had never lived through something like this.
Touchdown Los Angeles.
I just made it. I’m here, I’m back.
There’s no place like home ❤️.