These days we read frequent stories of occasional danger and frequent discomfort in the air. The recent unusual story of the Brit who asked the hijacker of an EgyptAir flight for a posed photo reminded me of an in-flight experience that was terrifying at the time and had some unexpected results.
So please fasten your seat-belts, make sure your seat-back is in the upright position and your table is stowed: I promise you a bumpy ride!
When I was fifteen I used to have to fly from the UK to Kingston, Jamaica twice a year to visit my parents who worked there. I was in boarding school and although that wasn't my favorite thing about this arrangement, the jet-setting and Jamaica made up for it. The boarding school bit wasn't a perk as far as I was concerned but international air travel back in the 1970s was glamorous and exciting and Jamaica was amazing!
Although I had traveled by air an awful lot since the age of four due to my father being posted to both New Zealand and now Jamaica, around about the the age of fourteen I developed a temporary fear of flying. I would worry weeks before a plane journey and was literally terrified on take off and throughout the whole flight. In retrospect I now put that down to teenage angst and I love flying. I am constantly in awe of flight.
As a young teen I actually had a love-hate relationship with it. My father had been an RAF fighter pilot for fifteen years prior to embarking on his second career and I had been enthralled with his aerobatics stories and photographs and in my childhood he would teach me about the science of flying - how planes flew and I loved his stories.
I loved the international jet-setting and the supposed glamour: (for an Irish teen, people-watching in the Heathrow departure lounge was brilliant!) but take-off, and flying in general, for a period in my mid-teens frightened me.
One January way back in 1976 when I was fifteen I was spending the Christmas vacation in Kingston, Jamaica but it was time to fly back to boarding school in Northern Ireland. I was also responsible for accompanying my younger sister on the flights.
It was to be an overnight flight with British Airways from Kingston to London with stops en route in Nassau and Bermuda - the final destination of our international flight being Heathrow in London.
I remember arriving at Kingston airport and seeing the large British Airways 707 jet parked on the side of the runway in an otherwise empty Kingston Airport which was quite a sleepy airport - just one runway jutted out into the Caribbean sea with palm trees lining the far edge swaying in the wind.
I do recall a troubling sense that all was not well and this persisted as we checked in and took a seat in the airport cafe.
We boarded for the long flight ahead, greeted by the delightful smiles of the crew and my younger sister and I settled down, fastening our seat-belts as the charming, attractive cabin crew checked boarding cards and helped passengers to their seats.
My younger sister, on the other hand was completely unimpressed with flying and she found the whole thing an inconvenience whilst I, her big brother, tried to act cool but on this flight there I was sensing something more than my familiar travel jitters ...
The jet ambled to the end of the runway and the four engines of the 707 - extremely noisy back in the day - thundered to life and pressed us back into our seats as the airliner rattled and roared and sped down the runway, finally lifting gently into the fading red-blue sun-setting sky.
Before long the chime of the no-smoking/fasten seat belt signs being turned off was heard and passengers would light cigarettes - plumes of smoke rising above their seats, swirling in the reading lights and air nozzles in the panel above their seats. I joined them.
As the aircraft approached cruising altitude the cabin crew served cold drinks and snacks, smiling and chatting as we jetted towards nightfall en route to Bermuda
The sense of foreboding did not leave me. It got worse. I felt like I was having a premonition. I got up from my seat at one point and went to the lavatory next to the galley in the back of the plane and splashed cold water on my face, admonishing myself face to face with myself in the mirror, telling myself not to be silly.
As the aircraft continued into the night the weather became more turbulent and the sky crackled and flashed and up with lightning far below - sometimes jagged, spindly fingers of electricity shot between clouds and mountainous cumulonimbus formations would briefly sputter and glow from within.
Our descent into Bermuda was bumpy but uneventful and we disembarked and spent an hour in the transit lounge as the plane was refueled and we were once again called to board the plane for the final six hour flight to London.
The weather in Bermuda was windy and storms were all about: we took off and the plane was knocked about by turbulence, buffeting up and down and side to side and as always I waited for the seat-belt signs to be switched off by the captain - usually this happened within seconds and was reassuring. The signs remained lit for what seemed like a very long time.
I fixed my gaze on them. No change. Not even after an hour and I was sure we weren't at cruising altitude as I could still see lights and we were still at low altitude in unstable air - lightning flickered outside and turbulence caused the plane to dip and rise and I waited. And waited. The seat-belt and smoking signs remained illuminated. I knew all was not well ...
After what felt like a very long time the clipped, professional English voice of the captain came over the PA system.In a tone that was undoubtedly an attempt to reassure, but with audible concern he told us that the plane's front wheel had not retracted immediately after take off as it was supposed to and they were unsure of its stability.
There was an indication of hydraulics failure and they were jettisoning fuel over the ocean "so as not to rain gasoline on the residents of Bermuda" he quipped, as I recall.
When we had dumped the required amount of fuel we would be returning for an emergency landing in Bermuda within two hours. The aircraft had a substantial amount of fuel for the transatlantic flight from Bermuda to London so the procedure would take quite a while.
I knew it!
Why had I sensed this? Perhaps my vivid teenage imagination had been working overtime but my jitters turned to genuine fear and I was not in any way reassured when a twenty year old student sitting next to me in the aisle seat gripped his armrests and nervously muttered something about the Bermuda Triangle!
My sister who was always bored and unimpressed with air travel had fallen asleep immediately after take-off and she snoozed in the window seat next to me.
My first thoughts were not to wake her up. If we were going down - best she know nothing about it. I was in a mild state of panic and had been unconvinced by the Captain's attempt at briefing us so I caught the attention of an air steward (as they were referred to then) and out of desperation motioned toward my young sister and fixed him with a gaze of abject terror, asking him how serious this really was:
"Oh, we only worry if the wings fall off" he joked. I gulped. He was just trying to be funny but wings falling off was something I didn't want to contemplate. I did admire his calm professionalism though and that of all the cabin crew.
One of the most noticeable changes in the cabin was how the atmosphere changed just after the Captain made his announcement about the failed undercarriage and the hydraulics problem. Everyone became absolutely still and completely silent, including the cabin crew all of whom were strapped in from this point on and, I suppose, awaiting the outcome just like the passengers.
The silence on board was eerie.
The waiting - as the aircraft was emptied of excess fuel in preparation for what may be a very dangerous emergency landing with unstable undercarriage was torturous and interminable. As fuel sprayed from the plane's wings, lightning streaked and flashed outside and I was terrified. The ominous silence of the passengers in the cabin suggested many were feeling the same. The hydraulics situation was uncertain, the nose-wheel was only partially retracted. What would happen on touch down?
An air steward approached my row of seats and leaned across me as if to wake my sister so she could fasten her safety belt - I hadn't noticed she had surreptitiously undone it before going to sleep after take-off.
I stopped him. I wanted to be in charge of telling her what was going on.
"OK. But you must wake her up for this and make sure she is securely buckled in". His face was serious.
Eventually the pilot informed us that we were commencing our descent in to Bermuda International Airport and that we should heed all directions from the cabin crew.
When my sister awoke she was confused. It was still dark and with sleepy eyes and a slightly bewildered look she asked me if we were landing in London. I asked her to fasten her seat-belt and quietly told her we were landing in Bermuda again because of something silly but she seemed unconcerned.
We descended through the bumpy weather and as we flew over the runway threshold - where you see the runway lights flash past below - there were dozens of emergency vehicles with lights flashing and they had started their run-up on either side of us so by the time our plane touched down they had caught up with us - and were speeding alongside us on both sides of the plane.
The tension on board was palpable.
We gripped our armrests and waited. You could tell everyone was holding their breath with anticipation and fear until the center undercarriage settled safely on the runway and then as the nose-wheel gently touched down and we knew we were safe. The whole plane erupted in spontaneous applause and the huge jet quickly came to a halt. The applause and cheering was fantastic. It was magic.
We were on a runway very far from the terminal building. The terminal building looked as though it was miles away. We learned later we had landed there for safety reasons in case of an accident.
Emergency exits were casually opened - even the ones over the wings but we were were not evacuated down the slides.
We were offloaded slowly by bus - just one busload at a time and we were asked not to run or do anything that could inadvertently cause a spark around the fumes so we stayed on the plane for a long time. We were seated at the very back and they started unloading from the first class section and front-to-back thereafter so I think we were still on the plane for an hour and a half at least.
The stewardess who was in the galley just behind my seat was very sweet and kind as I got up from my seat to stretch my legs. I gave her a 'phew' look telegraphing my relief.
"Brandy"? she asked.
"Oh. Yes Please!" I answered enthusiastically. What a treat. Medicinal, too.
I was only fifteen but I was very tall. She may have thought I was a bit older but I don't think so! I remember she looked a little worn out and ashen, too.This stuck with me for some reason. The kindly, professional demeanor of the cabin crew is something I'll never forget and I even applied to become a flight attendant when I left boarding school at eighteen but I was too tall, much to my disappointment!
All passengers and crew were eventually herded into a transit lounge and the expectation among the passengers was that the plane would be fixed and we would continue our journey.
I managed to have a chat with the co-pilot during the wait and I don't know why he confided in me but having told him that my father had been a fighter pilot in the RAF I think I may have struck a rapport with him.
In any event he eventually told me that there had been much more wrong with the plane than anyone knew while in the air and he had just heard from the mechanics that the Boeing 707 was being taken out of service and we were staying in Bermuda while the airline flew in another aircraft to fly us to London.
It was Bermuda! Such hardship!
It was winter and very blustery but very beautiful on the island and fear transformed to excitement as the younger passengers gathered together and made friends with each other and excited chatter ensued.
What earlier had felt like an imminent potential disaster became an adventure.
New friends were made and I had an enthralling tale to recount when I got back to boarding school!
The trip home on a virtually empty brand new 747 jumbo was a treat, too! British Airways flew it in from New York especially for us.
A few weeks later I received a personally signed letter from a senior British Airways executive apologizing profusely for the incident and saying "this must have been a harrowing experience for you". For a fifteen year old in boarding school in a small town in Ireland it was quite a big deal and I had a great time showing the letter to my friends and telling them my story. Again. And again! To this day I have often wondered how the airline knew the address of my boarding school!
An interesting footnote is that although I had had a fear of flying up to this point, this thing that started out as a frightening ordeal that became an adventure completely cured me of my flying phobia and thereafter I found that I began to look forward to flights and truly adore air travel. I was sorry not to have been able to become an air steward - would have been a blast for an eighteen year old high-school graduate to jet about the world for a year or two!
What has been your most interesting or harrowing in-flight experience?