Happy Landings

Ron Karpinski 2007


Two months passed quickly.  As November came to a close, so, too, did my annual Fall furlough at our vacation home in Florida.  Now, the time had come to return to Switzerland where my dear wife, Irmi, waited with loving, open arms.

The return flight to Switzerland was a pretty straightforward affair.  From Tampa, Florida, a commuter jet would transport me to Atlanta, Georgia.  After only forty minutes on the ground, I would then board a direct flight to Zurich.  Total time in the air: ten hours and fifteen minutes.   

I have traveled by air since 1966, completing this particular route twice each year since 1995.  My cumulative miles in the air must total close to a million, qualifying me as enough of a seasoned flyer to distinguish between an "ordinary flight" . . . and a "hair-raising adventure."

*          *          *          *          *

Ralph, my Florida friend and neighbor, kindly drove me to Tampa International Airport.  In keeping with regulations for travel outside the country, we arrived the requisite two-and-one-half hours prior to departure.  Usually, check-in lines are long; but on this Tuesday, at barely twelve noon, the cordon-enclosed lanes leading to the Delta ticket counter stood empty.

As I waited at the head of the line for coach class, an attractive female ticket agent behind an empty business class counter beckoned me forth.  She was exceedingly cordial, and we chatted amicably while she verified my reservation information on her computer terminal.

"Hmm," she said, "you're here quite early for a two-thirty departure.  We still have seats available on the one-thirty flight to Atlanta.  I could switch you to that one, and then you would have more time in Atlanta to make your four-forty connecting flight to Zurich."

"Huh?" I said.  Lost in the depths of those gorgeous green eyes of hers, I had not really been paying attention.  "Uh, sure," I said, "sounds great."

*          *          *          *          *

Walking away from the counter, the magnitude of what had just happened suddenly became clear.  Those flight reservations had been finalized more than three months prior.  Why alter them now, at the last minute?  Why challenge the wheels of Destiny?

When "flying the friendly skies," man is allotted exactly one mistake per lifetime.  If disaster should strike at thirty-nine thousand feet, there are no second chances and no second-guessing.  Hopefully, this hasty decision would not turn out to be one of those "defining moments" in life.

I looked down at my boarding pass and noted the new seat assignment.  Then I swallowed hard and headed in the direction of the departure gate.

*          *          *          *          *

The take-off, the breaking free of gravity, is one of two critical moments in every manned flight; the other being the touch-down, of course.  After our landing gear had been retracted, and the plane rose above the clouds, I released my grip on the arm rest and glanced about the cabin.

So far, this flight had started off routinely.  The plane soon reached cruising altitude, and the flight attendants began moving down the isles serving beverages . . . and those chintzy little bags of peanuts.  Everyone settled in for the one-hour, fifteen minute flight to Atlanta.

Then it happened.  Half an hour into the flight, a screeching grinding noise, obviously metal against metal, emanated from somewhere along the left side of the fuselage.  After only a minute or two, the vibrations ceased.  An eerie silence ensued.

Within seconds, the soothing voice of the head flight attendant purred over the intercom.  FAA rules, she informed us, required our pilot to, at this time, declare an in-flight emergency.  This was a completely routine precaution, she assured us, and we were not to worry.  Our plane now had priority for landing at the busy Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta.

Not a single passenger complained.  We were all too busy worrying.

The moment turned surreal.  On the surface, everything appeared normal.  There was no panic, no screaming.  People sat in their assigned seats, engaged in quiet conversation, video displays continued to run, and flight attendants bustled up and down the aisles.

Something within the aircraft had gone terribly wrong, however, and it might plummet from the sky at any moment; yet most on board seemed to be ignoring the threat.  Perhaps they realized their own impotence under the circumstances; or maybe they had simply placed their fate in the hands of the men up in the cockpit . . . and whatever God in which they believed.  Quite likely, though, they were all simply pretending that this couldn't possibly be happening to them.

Now, the pilot's rich baritone boomed over the loudspeakers.  "Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "we are experiencing a minor mechanical problem.  You no doubt heard some loud noises on the left side of the aircraft, and we have now lost all hydraulic power on that side."

He continued to explained that, even though the hydraulics had failed, this particular airplane was equipped with two separate backup systems.  Our approaching landing would be completely normal, he assured us -- except for the fire engines rushing up to the side of the plane as it taxis to a halt.  "Don't worry," he said, "just a normal precaution."

Reassuring words, indeed; however, from that point onward, each time the pilot changed course or elevation, the aircraft lurched suddenly, resulting in a chorus of involuntary gasps from the coach section.  As the craft continued to pitch and plunge, yours truly concluded that neither of the backup systems had been engineered quite as well as the now defunct hydraulics.

With the Atlanta skyline viewable off to our left, the plane entered into a wide, jerky circle around the metropolitan area, in preparation for landing.  But, wait, if we had been given emergency priority for landing, why then were we wasting time out here circling the city?

Passengers began to glance at one another.  Then, a few of the more experienced travelers nodded in silent understanding.  Obviously, Hartsfield International Airport did not have enough fire engines on hand for this particular brand of in-flight emergency and had asked surrounding communities to lend theirs; hence the delay.  We stared down at the ground, several hundred feet below, as large red and orange trucks lined up, prepared to foam the runway, if necessary.

(Later, we were told that the delay was caused because the co-pilot had to lower the left landing gear by hand, turning a manual crank.  This is a lengthy and laborious procedure, beneath the dignity of any captain, an aerobic exercise that raises the heartbeat considerably and causes unsightly stains under the armpits of those crisp white uniform shirts.  No wonder every co-pilot in the fleet aspires to be a captain someday.)

Anyway, contrary to the pilot's assurances, this landing did not turn out to be normal.  Yours truly has been traveling by air for decades and does not recall ever landing without benefit of full wing flaps and or reverse thrusters, both of which are integral to slowing a large jet aircraft.

The landing of the moment commenced with a bone-jarring jolt, as the plane hit the runway, followed by two more bounces before the wheels settled to earth.  Then, repeated applications of the wheel brakes, located in the landing gear, sent passengers straining against their seatbelts.

Seconds after the wheels and ground met, the plane veered sharply to the left, but our intrepid captain at the helm quickly muscled the machine back to the center stripe, and the huge craft continued to hurtle down the runway at breakaway speed.  A blur of scenery whizzed past the windows, and the anxiety level within the passenger cabin began to rise slightly.

Then, brakes and tires smoking and squealing, the giant runaway airliner gradually began to slow.  Everyone in the rear of the machine, flight attendants included, let out a collective sigh of relief, as well as a few half-hearted hand-claps, when the plane finally rolled to a stop.

Once the plane had reached a standstill, the pilot's mellifluous voice again filled the cabin.  "Say, did I forget to mention that we also have no hydraulics in the nose landing gear steering mechanism?  Since we can't turn the plane by ourselves, we must wait here until help arrives."

The plane sat, exposed on the tarmac, a good twenty minutes until a squat little beast of a diesel-powered truck arrived and towed it to the gate.  All the while, one-hundred-and-fifty pairs of eyes peered from the portholes, scanning the skies, hoping that no other plane accidentally landed on top of us.

    Miraculously, none did.  Having finally arrived at the gate, imagine my surprise when not a single Delta representative greeted us with apologies for our inconvenience and the usual complimentary round-trip ticket to the destination of our choice, valid for up to twelve months.

    Nothing.  Nada.  Just a "Thank you for flying with Delta, and don't bump your noggin on the bulkhead as you exit the aircraft."  In other words, be grateful for having survived another routine day in the air with a nearly bankrupt airline.

    Or, to look at it another way, there is that old maxim from the early days of flight:  "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one."  With this in mind, leaving that airplane under my own power was reward enough, indeed.  Expecting more than that would seem ungrateful.

    Every near-tragedy contains a good lesson in life, for those perceptive enough to grasp it.  Here is what I learned:  If any airline ticket agent, no matter how beautiful, ever again offers to change my scheduled itinerary, for any reason whatsoever, trust me, I am going to decline.

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