MyStoryYourStory: Just a “little” problem in flight

By Paula Damon

My foremost anxiety over air travel is, of course, the plane crashing due to some sort of mechanical failure or ice on the wings, both of which I’ve experienced.

Quite a few years ago, my husband and I were on a prop jet from Minneapolis to Sioux City, which had reached a cruising altitude of 15,000 feet, when we heard a very loud knocking on heavy metal.

Paula Damon

Paula Damon

At first, we thought the flight attendant was closing the overhead compartments – one right after another, but that wasn’t it, since we spotted her buckled down near the cockpit door.

Then, my husband sounded off with wide-eyed amazement, not a bit of fear detected in his voice, “Look at all that ice on the wings.”

Immediately panic stricken, I leaned forward and with complete dread looked out the window, hoping he was wrong, but he wasn’t.

“Don’t be so excited” I reprimanded. “Planes don’t fly very well with ice on the wings, don’t you know!”

Gasping for breath, I reached inside my purse for a pair of Rome-blessed rosaries Mom had given me many years prior, and then began to pray the “Hail Mary” like I wasn’t a fallen away Catholic.

With the “Fasten Your Seat Belt” bell blaring synchronously with the flashing “Fasten Your Seat Belt” light, all I could think about was our two middle-school aged boys, who were back home, staying with friends, and our college-aged daughter. What if we didn’t make it?

While other passengers began to stir over the situation, our sole flight attendant announced calmly, “Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts. And by the way,” she added nonchalantly, “you may notice a little ice on the wings of our aircraft. Our captain tells us that shouldn’t prevent us from arriving on time at our destination.”

Just a “little” ice? As far as I was concerned, there’s no such thing as a “little” ice on the wings.

Throughout that long nail-biting one-hour flight, ice chunks continued to let loose from the wings and smash against the plane’s exterior.

After we finally landed safely and de-boarded in Sioux City, I swore we would never travel on the same flight without our children, nor would I fly on small planes – ever again.

That was nearly 20 years ago and I have kept my oath.

Another worry of mine is in-flight mechanical failure, like the time I was once on a 747 when all of the lights went out. It was one giant electrical malfunction at 35,000 feet on an aircraft that runs on jet fuel and e-lec-tri-city.

While the co-pilot moved about the plane inspecting electrical boxes, the captain’s voice came over the loud speakers.

“This is your captain speaking, we’re experiencing a little electrical issue and we’re going to ….”

His casual, educational monologue was cleverly designed to keep our minds off the “little” problem at hand.

It went something like this…

“Some trivia for you folks – a fully loaded 747, like this one, uses 33,000 pounds during takeoff and while climbing to cruising altitude.

“During the first half of the flight, our aircraft consumed about 28,000 pounds of fuel per hour. The aircraft lightens as it burns fuel and at the end of the trip, the fuel consumption drops to about 21,000 pounds per hour.”

All the while, I’m thinking, yeah, what about that “little” electrical problem your co-pilot can’t seem to resolve? But I didn’t want to make a scene. So I tried to keep listening to the captain while I kept one eye on the co-pilot.

The captain continued, “Descending and landing consumes the least amount of fuel, around 6,000 pounds.

“A reserve of 25,000 to 40,000 pounds is loaded to allow changing airports should it become necessary.

“So, to lighten our load, we’ll be dumping some fuel along the way and will land safely in San Diego in about one hour and 30 minutes. Relax and enjoy the remainder of our flight.”

By the time we landed, the lights never did come back on and that 747 was immediately grounded for repair.

To this day, I still marvel at the crew’s composure and remain forever grateful for the captain’s where-with-all to distract us with his jet fuel trivia.

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