The word "Emergency" brings a shiver through your body, and a quickening of your heart, no matter what the situation, but especially when heard in-flight. Today, it is common for an airline pilot to fly his whole career without shutting down an engine or making an emergency landing. Racing through the sky at nearly the speed of sound at 40,000 feet with nothing between you and the ground but air certainly strikes an unease in the heart of almost any sane person. It may only lurk in the back of the mind of frequent travelers and pilots, but it's there nonetheless. And for many, it's right up front.
I have been in six emergency landings in my life. I define "emergency landing" as a time when fire trucks, ambulances and police cars line the runway, Air Traffic Control has been notified, all airspace is cleared, and the pilot gives a reassuring platitude downplaying any danger - "everything will be fine." Pilots are usually very good at this, but we travelers know better. It's not unlike a Doctor saying, "well, we have some problems here, but don't worry." I like the way the doctor says "we." Emergency landings are so uncommon today that it usually makes the evening news. They were not so unusual in the past, when I was flying frequently.
When I sit near the emergency exit and the flight attendant comes by for the safety briefing, I get a chuckle out of the reactions of my fellow travelers and the flight attendant when I tell them that I have been in six emergency landings in my life. Often the first reaction: "get me off this plane!" But I tell them they have it all wrong, I'm good luck, I'm still here after 1,830 flights.
Flying today is much safer than it was even 10-20 years ago. My last emergency landing was in December, 1991. I won't exaggerate the emergency landings as if I was on the brink of death each time. I think the word "hyperbole" was specifically developed for how the media handles airline "events." Even the simplest precautionary landings are made into harrowing tales of near death experiences. After my last emergency landing in Palm Springs, which I will detail below, I was the first one off the plane and a TV reporter stuck a microphone in front of my face. As the cameras were rolling, he asked me what happened and how it must have been harrowing. When I said "American did a very good job of keeping the calm and getting us on the ground safely," he immediately ignored me and went to the next passenger, I'm sure hoping the guy would say how his life passed before his eyes and he wrote a teary good-bye note to his family. I do have the picture of our plane on the front page of the "Desert Sun," but it was only a nose gear not locked in place-even if it collapsed it would probably just scrape along with a lot of sparks and in the unlikely event of a fire, it would be extinguished immediately by the fire trucks.
The other five emergency landings were a flap "irregularity" on an Eastern DC-8 out of Miami in 1969. I have no idea how much of a problem it was, as the plane was vibrating more than usual, but we turned around and made it back in one piece. Another time we took off from Newark for a trip ironically called "a cruise to nowhere" on an Eastern Airbus headed for a cruise at sea from Miami with no port calls. The landing gear would not go up, so we landed at JFK even after taking off from Newark, probably because the runways are longer at JFK. There was a raging snowstorm and, thinking we were lucky to have taken off at all, got stuck for 8 hours at the airport, instead of going to Florida for a nice cruise. Yes, it surely was a trip to "nowhere."
I have flown on 577 American Airlines flights in my life, and I like to kid AA that on my very first one from JFK to Dallas on a 727 we had to make an emergency landing in Indianapolis. They had just put a nice steak in front of my wine in seat 2A after a nice drink, but had to yank it all away when the pilot said we need to land immediately due to hydraulic problems. I also don't like the word "immediately" when referring to aircraft maneuvers. How serious was it? I'm not sure, but hydraulics are used to steer the plane and control the flaps, rudder, landing gear and stabilizer. I survived, but we had to spend five hours at Indianapolis airport with no food and board a new plane that had not been catered. I missed my connection in Dallas to San Jose, but they did have wine and vodka on the plane so life as we know it continued, and I flew out to my cousins wedding the next day.
The two other emergency landings were engine fires, one on a Pan Am 727 to Boston from JFK - I heard a significant "bang", and sounds like something was coming apart. Something was coming apart-our engine, as it spewed metal all over Connecticut. We proceeded to land without further incident on our two good engines.
The other was on a TWA 747 to JFK (maybe I should stay away from JFK) from Madrid after an 8 hour delay. We took off at 8PM on a flight scheduled for noon. About five minutes into the flight I could hear an engine spooling down. They had a fire waring signal in the cockpit, so we got an extra day to drink Spanish wine at Boutin's, a famous restaurant in Madrid that we had just told our waiter, "we'll be back soon." There was one other flight that day to New York on Iberia, and that plane also had to make an emergency landing! This could only happen on Iberia - I am not kidding, a horse got loose in the cargo compartment and obviously did not like his coach seating arrangement. I can only imagine being on the plane, climbing out and hearing Neigh, Neigh, Neigh! Hi-Yo Silver, Away! Thump, Thump, Thumpity, Thump. The story was in the Wall Street Journal the next day.
On my Palm Springs flight we were approaching the airport from the south when the pilot turned the plane left, away from the airport. Most didn't notice, but I did. We were dumping fuel to be lighter when we landed - the nose gear had come down but they did not get the normal green light indicating it was locked in place. The Santa Anna winds were in full force and the plane was rocked with turbulence-a lot of people got sick, and were very very nervous. In emergency landings, it is common for the flight attendant to pick a passenger who looks able to take over in case she/he is incapacitated. She picked yours truly, a truly great choice. She went over the entire safety briefing with me including use of the slides, and asked if I had any questions. Yes, if the landing gear does not collapse we won't need the slide, right? Right. And if it does collapse, we won't need it then either as we'll be on the ground, right? She mentioned something about me being a wise guy.
They tell you to take the brace position way too early in my opinion, about a minute before touchdown. But I suppose some people just don't listen. I waited until the last minute as I thought maybe I could tell something from the planes shadow about the gear-she yelled at me to get down and "brace, brace, brace" but not much could happen to the landing gear if we were still in the air, right? I got another "wise guy"comment. I did yell out toward the cockpit to be careful, as my golf clubs were in the cargo hold, figuring it would lighten people's mood-did I hear something said about wise guy again? We were told that a pin needed to be put in the gear to keep it in place and we would be towed in. I guess life in Palm Springs is pretty placid as they made it a front page story the next day in the paper and it was on the TV news that evening, but without the wise guy who said that American did a good job getting us down safely. It's just as well because my boss did not know I was in Palm Springs playing golf.
I have been on planes struck by lighting three times, once near DC, once approaching Tokyo where the poor Japan Airlines flight attendant jumped about two feet in the air, and lastly out of Atlanta on Delta in 2013, which was a stronger shake and bang then the others, and I even saw the flash. The pilot came on said lighting hit "something in the area" - really? I think that something was our plane! It shook people up but there is virtually no danger to the flight as the plane is made to have the electricity spread out and dissipate through the skin of the aircraft.
Here are a few more stories that will be detailed in my book "Thrilling Adventures in a Life of Travel."
I flew through a hailstorm on a United 747 climbing out of 20,000 in a thunderstorm. It was so loud I couldn't hear the person next to me as it sounded like a giant was throwing rocks against the fuselage, or a near miss with another plane out of Sacramento that was so close I still shutter thinking about it, seeing the other pilot clearly and missing almost head on by less than 50-100 feet. How about a trip where I had an aborted take-off, an aborted landing, a cancelled flight, and a hotel room without a bed? Or my father, an Eastern Airlines Captain who had his number one engine explode on take off from Atlanta in an uncontained failure (the pieces of engine blew out all over the town of Hapeville) on his way to San Juan with a full load on a hot day, both of which affect performance in the negative. The tower told him he had 100 feet of flames coming out of what was left of the engine. Imagine being a passenger seated in back of the wing, a loud explosion, the plane shaking and vibrating like crazy, and 100 feet of flames spewing out of the engine right in front of you.
Travel is such an adventure!