Fear of Flying

As the aircraft lifted into the afternoon skies, I craned my neck to see Miami below. I had bagsied the window seat ahead of my sister. She sulked as a ten-year-old does. At two years her senior I was entitled to the privilege. Despite securing the seat with a view, all I could see was wing. I silently reproached my father for this oversight. He should have known.

I gazed at the two huge engines and was surprised when one exploded. The fuselage rocked and my dad said shit and looked alarmed. I tugged his sleeve and pointed to the engine; a stream of green and blush smoke trailed behind.

The captain made an announcement, “A little trouble with Number 2 engine…nothing to worry about…this is a 747 it can fly on 3 engines…our journey will continue.” His voice was reassurance itself. If he said he was going to blow the other three engines and glide back to London, it wouldn’t have raised a murmur.

Except, we had stopped climbing and appeared to be circling off the Florida coast. Ten minutes later the captain was back and all traces of reassurance were gone. “Back to Miami…dump fuel…emergency landing.” I guess there was more, but panic took over and everyone shouted at once. For twenty minutes the plane completed endless laps, jettisoning fuel from the wing tips. A lady passed out, then a man. As a twelve-year-old kid, my frame of reference was narrow. I’d spent the holiday negotiating my way around Pac-Man machines and had just been to see ET. The reality for me was something between a game and a movie. Another passenger passed out. Not a great movie.

The captain made a final announcement, which was pretty much “Don’t Panic”. The runway loomed up as we approached the airport. A woman behind me bit the crown from her tooth and screamed in pain. My mum said “we’re going to die” then repeated it over and over as a kind of mantra. Her prediction was wide of the mark. We hit the ground hard and bounced up again. Stomachs were playing catch up. The overhead lockers flew open and luggage rained down. Then the wheels hit again and stayed down. Fire trucks and ambulances roared alongside; a hundred flashing lights of blue and orange. We slowed and everyone whooped and hollered their approval. Apart from the woman with the crownless tooth. She was wishing for a crash and an end to her misery. Our stomachs taxied to meet us.

Disappointingly we didn’t get to use the emergency chutes. PAN-AM herded us onto a later flight; a flight characterised by empty seats. To compensate for the ‘delay’, every passenger received free earphones. I let my sister take the window seat.