Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the odds are now in my favor

This is the story about our crazy flight from Ethiopia back to South Africa. We left our hotel early to make sure we caught our 8:30 am flight. Everything so far seemed to add up just to a normal travel day. We boarded the plane and took our seats in the 2nd to last row. Jason let me have the window and we settled in for the 5 1/2 hour flight back home. Despite my recently developed anxiousness while flying, I felt fine, probably because Jason was with me. So I immersed myself in a crossword puzzle and ignored the take off jitters.

After about a half hour in the air, the pilot came on and said we had to return to Addis Ababa because of a mechanical failure. I've been in planes where we've had to turn around before and so I expected that we would be safely on the ground within half an hour. But after an hour of flying and finishing our crossword, Jason and I began to wonder why we hadn't
actually landed yet. Other people were also curious especially since it was obvious we were circling around the city.

So we started to descend and it seemed as though we were finally going to land but instead we circled around past the airport. What I really don’t like when flying is when the pilot turns and the wings are no longer level - it just gives me the creeps
because it doesn't seem normal. After what we thought was the attempt to land, the pilot turned the plane but it wasn't exactly a gradual turn so the tipping really started to freak me out. At one point, the flight attendants looked out the windows and pointed at something. At first I thought maybe they were pointing at the airport but after a few minutes it was obvious that they were trying to see something on the plane itself. They didn't say anything to use but it was clear from their eyes and body language that they were nervous about something.

We made another couple runs close to the airport and then it looked like we might actually make an attempt to land. Again, it was a false hope but this time we flew so close to the tower that everything looked like its actual size. That really freaked me out; if everything was ok, we definitely would have landed by this point. During all these fly bys, I had grabbed Jason's hand and started deep breathing. I thought I was squeezing the life out of his hand but it turns out we were both anxiously clinging to each other.

It's funny what pops into your head in situations like this. I had a morbid thought, "if this is my time, I'm happy with my life…" except that I had a lot of buts and started praying for the things yet to come. I remember thinking it can't be our time because Jason and I still haven't had our babies - that's the one thing that kept repeating in my head. That and the song by The Turtles 'Happy Together'. So I continued my deep breathing and humming to myself, taking comfort in the fact that at least Jason was with me and I was holding his hand.

Finally the pilot came over the loudspeaker
and told us to prepare for landing, betraying no fear of any kind in his voice. This time was going to be the real thing but every single person on that plane was tense in anticipation of what could happen. The pilot did an amazing job and brought the plane down as if it were on eggshells - a much smoother landing than our flights to Addis the week before! The passengers broke out into applause but all I could do was send a little prayer of thanks up and look out the window to let a few tears escape.

As we slowed down I saw every kind of emergency vehicle possible lining the runway - ambulances, fire trucks, police, non descript official looking ones - all of it. Finally we came to a stop and watched as the fire trucks drove up close and started
unraveling the fire hose and getting ready with fire extinguishers. We saw smoke wafting up from underneath the plane and could smell burning rubber. They hosed down something underneath the plane but at the same time, I got a thumbs up and a big grin from one of the firemen.

After watching the people outside moving around for 45 minutes, the doors to the plane were finally opened and we started filing off onto the tarmac. I only started to feel relieved once I was safely on the ground and no longer in the plane. We looked back at the plane and you could see one of the back right tires was completely shredded.

When we got back to the terminal the place was dead - no one was in the shops and there was no one at any other gates; evidently
they had evacuated the building. Most likely because if passengers had seen all the emergency vehicles going out to the runway, it probably would have caused quite a stir. We were flying Ethiopian Airways and they led us straight to the Cloud 9 lounge where we could have all the free food and booze we wanted while we waited for our bags to be transferred to the new plane. The first thing Jason did was bum a cigarette and despite not being a smoker, I asked for one as well. The buzz was exactly what I needed to calm my nerves after the ordeal. I couldn't really eat but after an accidental shot of cognac (at first I poured what I thought was champagne but only discovered that it was champagne cognac after taking a rather large sip) and a couple glasses of wine, I had to fill my belly with some of the fried goodies and fruit.

We filed back to the gate with our new friends from the lounge and foun
d an EA representative, who was more than willing to give us the scoop on what actually happened. Evidently we hit something on take off - many people, including Jason, heard an unusual noise but didn't think much about it. Whatever it was, it flew up into the fuselage area and we ended up with a fuel leak and a hydraulic fluid leak. The pilot circled for so long dropping fuel because if you try to land and there is any kind of spark with a full tank, you can only imagine what could happen. We flew so close to the airport so the tower could take a look at the underside of the plane to try and see the damage and if it was possible to land! At the time we wanted more information but I'm glad that we weren't given any - sure our imaginations run wild but the truth could only raise the fears of all the passengers and then what do you do with a plane full of passengers that are freaking out when you're in mid air trying to concentrate on landing the plane as safely as possible. Needless to say, my hat goes off to the pilot. He did an amazing job of gingerly landing the plane and getting us all to safety.

I'm not the type of person that says I'll never fly again. It's not realistic mostly because I live half way around the world from my family! But maybe the next time I fly I won't feel the jitters because statistically, the odds should be in my favor - at least for a few more flights.

Jason snapped this picture during our successful flight back to South Africa. It just seemed to capture our relief quite nicely. Be on the look out for a post from Jason's blog - Flat Stanley had to tell his side of the story too!

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