You are here

What To Write When You’re On A Plane And You Think You’re About To Die

What To Write When You’re On A Plane And You Think You’re About To Die

The Transom, Ben Domenech, October 24, 2017

So last night I had the most harrowing in-plane experience of my life.

I flew up to Providence for a same-day trip and do a panel with David Corn of Mother Jones and Sabrina Siddiqui from The Guardian. Flight was smooth. Panel went fine. The flight back to DCA was delayed for over three hours. No explanation. And this prompted the discovery that at 9 PM the entire Providence airport shuts down at 8 or 9 PM. And not just bars/restaurants closing, everything closed. They even turn off all the TVs, so I was forced to stream the first half of Monday Night Football on my phone with a bottle of water, like some kind of bum.

The plane ride was rough from about halfway through. Lots of cloud cover, a slick sheen of rain on the wing, and a very bumpy ride. As we came in over the city, about 15 minutes before landing, it suddenly got much worse. Plane was buffeted by turbulence and hit an air pocket over the Potomac. The rough air was so intense, people were bouncing in their seats with the weightlessness of a roller coaster. A man behind me was audibly praying in a language I didn’t know. The woman in front of me asked if she could hold my hand and reached back to grip it tight.

On approach, the angle of the wing was totally off from what I’ve experienced on probably 200 flights into Reagan airport. This was not normal. We were coming from the Northwest, easily the tougher landing into DCA, passing over the city which was laid out glittering in front of us in the night. I was over the wing, and I could see how off it was – it was significantly skewed to the right. The possibility we were going to clip the ground was fresh in my mind. At the last minute right after we passed over the George Washington parkway the plane yanked up and shook as the pilot threw on the gas and pulled up the gear as it ditched the landing and struggled to rise.

The pilot, disturbingly, didn’t come on the air with some kind of calming explanation about the sudden abort. Instead after a minute the stewardess came over the audio saying “sometimes if a plane hasn’t cleared on the ground they have to do that” in a kind of nervous voice. But I was over that wing and that was not what happened, and everyone in the scrum afterward agreed that was not an honest excuse (indeed, if it was, that would be the sort of thing you report to the FAA).

The second landing was still shaky and we bounced, but nowhere near as bad after a much longer approach. The woman in front of me gripped my hand like it was holding her in her seat and afterward laughed about the traumatic experience, saying her hands were shaking too much to call her boyfriend and that she’d tell him when she got home.

I tell you this not to provoke some sympathy, because we landed, I’m fine, everyone’s fine, I came home and poured a stiff drink – but because I realized I’d really like to publish a piece with advice about what to do in a situation like this. In particular, I’d like to think through what to say to others and what message to send to family. In the moment, I was concerned enough about our safety that I wrote up a quick draft email on my phone, without any coverage of course, to my family. It was just tough in that situation to know what to say, when I’m usually someone who doesn’t run into that problem.

So the situation is similar: you’re in a plane that is having problems, or has to make an emergency landing, or you’re in a situation where even if you think you’re going to make it, even if you think the white knuckles will be unjustified, the people around you may not. What do you do?

It turns out someone wrote this piece yesterday already. I encourage you all to read it, and to think about it. http://vlt.tc/320f  Someday it may prove useful.