It’s something I’ve done hundreds of times. Sitting in my preferred window seat, I watch as the aircraft makes a ninety degree turn, lining up with its back to the lights that will guide its return. There is a slight pause.
The dull throb from the engines turns to a roar as their full power is unleashed, launching the plane down a runway whose end it has no intention of reaching.
A cabin full of passengers is strapped into its seats. Some are reading; some are beginning to regret the conversation they have initiated with a row companion; some are wondering if social media will survive for the next few hours without the benefit of their insightful posts. Others stare unblinkingly ahead, as if believing that only their intense concentration will guarantee the aircraft’s safe ascent. The pulse rate of even the most seasoned flyer quickens.
Somewhere, always nearby but unseen, an infant cries. I’m certain that I didn’t see any young children board and start to wonder if airlines actually pipe that sound through the aircraft’s public address system in order to distract you as the plane hurtles forward.
As the speed increases, the overhead bin doors rattle against their locks. The sound of the front wheels powering over the central runway lights blurs into a single, continuous noise. We’re travelling at around 150 miles per hour. Behind the closed door at the front, someone has just yelled, “rotate!”
Suddenly, the aircraft feels lighter, almost weightless. Its front wheels lift off of the ground and the laws of aerodynamics take over. It lifts serenely into the air, masking the power that got it there, accelerating imperceptibly as it climbs at a rate of over 2,000 feet per minute.
The whole process has become so familiar that I scarcely give it a thought; definitely not a second one. That blasé attitude disappeared on 28th September 2015.
Following four relaxing days in a small Jamaican resort, where sitting up to sip a rum-based cocktail was the principal interruption to our mostly horizontal state, my wife, Sarah, and I were heading back home.
Only two months earlier, our previous international trip had lurched from one farcical occurrence to another. A simple transatlantic journey from Charlotte to London had taken almost forty hours to complete. Punctuated by four planes, missing ground crew, an unruly passenger, zip ties, an unexpected city, FBI agents, a murderous senior citizen and media coverage, we had pushed the boundaries of the absurd. Monty Python would have rejected the sketch as too silly. Read the full story here
So, with our last excursion having made the news, we arrived at Montego Bay airport for our return flight brimming with naïve optimism; confident that our quota of travel misfortune must have been satisfied – for a year or two, at least.
Our confidence didn’t last long.
A late start to the boarding process, a short taxi towards the runway, and a short taxi back to the gate to fix a problem with the aircraft’s auxiliary power, combined for a ninety minute delay to our departure. Although frustration grew among our fellow passengers, Sarah and I relaxed as we accepted its inevitability. We were still going to leave on the same day. For us, that qualifies as on time.
Finally, we were ready to go. American Airlines flight 827 lined up at the end of the runway, the engines roared and an aircraft full of 140 passengers and crew was propelled forward.
As we rattled down the runway, with every second we were unknowingly accelerating towards an event that would soon relegate a ninety minute delay to the most trivial, most inconsequential of annoyances.
With take-off speed achieved, at the moment the front wheels lost contact with the ground – likely on the “r” of “rotate!” yelled in the cockpit – there was a jolt on the left-hand side of the aircraft. This was immediately followed by what felt like a deceleration, a stutter step, after which the plane seemed to crawl into the air.
Sarah and I looked at each other. Simultaneously, she said and I thought, “What was that?”
The plane continued its ascent, but it was clear this had not been a routine take-off; something serious had just happened. This was confirmed seconds later as a distinct smell, reminiscent of bad barbeque, wafted around the cabin. A few seconds more and the captain addressed the passengers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. From the flight deck. Uh … we hit a flock of birds on take-off. We will be returning to Montego Bay.”
Sarah turned to me. “I don’t like this”, she said.
As we banked to the left and away from our intended route home, I focused on the reassuring sound of power still coming from our one remaining, working engine. As I grasped her hand I encouraged Sarah to hear it, too. I didn’t feel any more perturbed about the situation than if I were driving without a spare tire.
Around us, various requests for divine intervention were being lodged. Not being on speaking terms with a higher power, I was left to trust in the skills of the pilots and the laws of aerodynamics that, together, got us off of the ground and were keeping us in the air. Of course, if a supreme being was willing to influence proceedings, perhaps there might also be consequential benefits for the faithless.
After a couple of circuits of the Caribbean Sea adjacent to Montego Bay – the first of which included the brief, disconcerting sight of the airport once again disappearing from view – a text-book landing put us safely back on the ground. The fire truck standing ready, lights flashing, at the end of the runway would not be needed today.
For the second time in just eight weeks our journey had ended at its starting point. On the first occasion, the process took 19 hours. On the second it took just 20 minutes. It was annoying, no doubt, but at least we were becoming more efficient. And we had made the news once again.
And we were alive.
Later that evening, safely ensconced in an unexpected hotel room, I started to reflect on the events of the day. What if the birds had flown down both sides of the aircraft? What if the pilots had reacted differently at what is the most vulnerable point of any flight? It wasn’t so much that I thought about how things could have ended differently. It was that I thought things could have ended.
As we arrived back home, almost a full day later than expected, I wondered if one of life’s pivotal moments was also one day behind me. Will yesterday’s event promote a new appreciation of life’s fragility and cause a fresh perspective to emerge? If it does, will it persist?
I would like to think so. I would like to think the memory of this event will allow me to appreciate life’s routine while avoiding the complacency that lies just beyond a nearby fine line. I would like to think life will, finally and perpetually, become work’s distraction – rather than the other way around.
I also recalled a colleague’s recent remark that, in our final days, none of us will wonder what would have happened if we had spent more time at work.
Most significantly, I was reminded that a life needs a story to tell – and we may not have as much time to tell it as we think.
Your experiences don’t need to make the news every time, but make sure you have a story to tell.
12th October 2015
I apologize to those who read my first attempt to post this article and, just before reaching this note, realized that they had read it all before. Unfortunately, I experienced some random formatting and publishing problems with the initial version that didn’t show up in the preview. The only viable solution was to start again. Sorry. New, original material will follow shortly.