When I saw the plane make the emergency landing in the Hudson last week, I thought of my good friend and quizzo regular BMT (above, red sweater), who was involved in an extremely hairy crash landing a few years ago. I asked him to relate his harrowing tale to us. Here it is:
When I lived in Boston I used to fly back and forth to the Buffalo area every other week. Like many misguided people, I was attempting to maintain a long-distance relationship which is always pointless and doomed. On one such trip I was flying to Rochester, NY but not until a lightning storm kept me sitting at Logan airport for 5 hours.
I had never been real keen on flying—-I was a jumpy, nervous psychological weakling in flight—-and so it wasn’t so much a relief when I finally boarded the plane. Because I made this 1-hour flight so frequently, I had a routine where I’d whine internally for the first 35 minutes of the flight and then get up and go to the bathroom, somehow knowing that when I zipped-up we’d be making the descent. For some reason this made me feel better.
While completing my routine, the pilot came over the PA and mumbled something I couldn’t really understand. In my mind of course, he was telling us that the wings had fallen off and that we were uncontrollably hurtling towards Earth, though in reality he was probably telling everyone about the Sky Mall or the weather. But when I opened the bathroom door and saw the passengers looking at each other with panic, I knew my fantasies about falling out of the sky were finally coming true.
As I walked back to the seat and scanned every face for confirmation of my morbid fears, he came back on the PA and said it again: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve lost all hydraulic power on the plane. The runway in Rochester is not long enough for us to attempt an emergency landing so we’re going to try and land in Syracuse. We’ll be on the ground in 2 minutes.” Immediately the plane began diving and that rising, siren sound you hear when watching a WWII documentary was getting louder and louder.
As we fell out of the sky, the overhead compartments flew open and just about everything from duffel bags and magazines to soda cans were swirling around the cabin. I pressed my nose to the window, my eyes locked on the lights below as they grew larger and brighter. I remember thinking that all I wanted was for it to be over as soon as possible; I didn’t care what happened, I just wanted it to happen now.
We were real low to the ground and suddenly the plane righted itself and we were gliding horizontally, maybe 2000 feet from the earth. The plane then violently swung up to the left until we were completely sideways, staying in our seats solely because of our belts. Dangling there I saw the man across the aisle from me reading the newspaper. I didn’t know what to make of that but didn’t think about it long because the plane shot back to its normal posture and then flipped up on its side again the same way but in the other direction. On both flips, there was a loud, horrifying bang.
You see, when you’re an aviation hypochondriac every noise, every bump, every change of engine gears makes you wonder what’s next, how it’ll sound when you know for sure it’s not in your head. Rationally, you know it’s just turbulence and that the next noise will likely be the sound of smooth sailing. This time, hanging by a seat belt 15 feet above the window that should be just across the aisle, the feeling that you’re involved in your own death is not only very present but very new. That night on that flight during those wild swings and dizzying altitude drops I knew that this mechanical failure was very real and a resignment set in, followed by a wish for it all just to be over as quickly as possible. The fear and panic of going through the unfolding of events that one knows will lead to a smoldering wreck—-without seeming overdramatic it’s that fear that’s worse than what you know it’s leading to.
Eventually (probably a few seconds later) we were oriented correctly and nose down, we came in on the runway. I could see the sirens of trucks moving in to extinguish me as I burned to a crisp upon crashing. The plane smashed nose first into the runway and the back of the plane bounced as the wheels hit the ground. It skidded along and spun-out round and round into the adjacent field. We came to a stop and sat there, nobody talking, for what seemed like a few minutes. The emergency crews came and got the doors open and we were led to a bus which took us to the terminal.
The American Airlines rep who came out eventually and told us to sit tight for a while until they could get us another plane to take us to Rochester was met with cries like “there’s no f***ing way I’m getting on another plane!” I guess they respected that sentiment because to my pleasant surprise we were in stretch limos to round-out the rest of this weird trip.
There were two interesting fellow passengers in my limo. One was a pilot who was on the plane and explained to us that when the plane flipped-up onto either side, the pilot was attempting to let gravity drop the wheels into place, which they did (hence the banging sound as they locked into place). With no hydraulic power, the pilot couldn’t get the wheels down and this was the emergency technique that kept the back of the plane from slamming into the ground and incinerating us. It also helped to explain why the front wheel never came down and hence the nose of the plane hitting the ground naked.
The other interesting character was the guy who was reading the paper the whole time. As I sat in the limo, feeling relieved and fantasizing about train travel, I said “excuse me, but I couldn’t help notice you reading the paper during that whole thing.” He look at me and smiled and said “Well, I’ve been through this a few times and it really doesn’t bother me anymore.”