Flight to Hell

Not that I've ever been afraid of flying. Not me. I even wanted to become a pilot when I was a teenager (until I started getting too myopic for that). Well, I have flown a lot since then, at least once a year (okay, mostly from Germany to Britain, which is a rather short affair, a flight where never ever happens anything - but wait - ). Right, so this time was going to be like all the fifteen something times before (okay again, it wasn't really, as I was going to Stansted for the first time and not Heathrow or Gatwick, but who cares). Got up in the morning, got to the airport and got checked in as usual (oookay - not really as usual - I got a lot of stuff this time as I was about to stay at Swansea for the next 10 months. Right - while you're reading this, I'm still there, so I must have survived. Sort of.) (Yeah, right - this is not really one of my funniest stories, though it does have short fits of black humour). I boarded the plane, a Fokker 100, if you are into planes (quite new and really nice, anyway), sat down and noted something unusual - yeah, there was a free seat next to me! Hoody hoo! More room to move! Next to that seat was a British woman about my age (no, I'm not gonna tell you. Come and ask me if you dare).

Everything as usual then - the usual 15 minutes delay that all these planes seem to have, and then off we went - er, took. That was (I never knew why) the moment something crossed my mind.

"I have a bad feeling about this."

And lo! So it was. About five minutes after take-off, something started to smell. And I mean bad. Like burning electronics. And the air condition did its best to spread that smelly stuff everywhere - yes, right! Within seconds, there was ugly smelling smoke everywhere, and then I saw right into the face of one of the flight attendants. She was sitting in my line of view next to the cockpit door (I was sitting in row 3, anyway) and her face had suddenly changed. Before she had looked rather bored and like she was about to fall asleep. Now I could see something that I wouldn't have expected before - fear. She was deadly frightened, and at that moment I felt like I had just got a square hit into the stomach. Yes, I think that describes it pretty well. Something like physical pain, actually. I have to divert here, I think, as I have just recalled a conversation with the young lady next to me on the same day about six hours later, when she said exactly this - "I would have been happy had this been the only damn problem on the flight." She was referring to the first actual nuisance on board. In the first row an elderly man was sitting, clearing his throat every minute (and I mean it!) in a most icky manner. Probably didn't notice it himself any longer, but I did. And the lady next to me. And probably a lot of the other people as well. I was looking at her and told her that this was probably going to make me feel sick after 15 minutes. Well. So much for that, because 15 minutes later I was sitting on the grass next to Startbahn West).

Where was I? Yeah, right - I said "digression ahead", I think.

Okay. So I got hit hard. At least I felt like that. The flight attendant went to the captain, came back, looked worried, went into the cockpit again and then -plopp- the oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Suddenly the emergency became frighteningly real. Before, I just thought I was only imagining things in a way. Before taking off, I had read the emergency instructions, as I always (no joke!) do. You never know (rightey-right, my midi-chlorians say) (or was that mitochondriae?)

So, the oxygen masks. Did you ever notice they only work after you have pulled one to yourself and ripped some kind of seal inside them by that? And that there are actually a lot more of them than there are seats in a plane? Probably just to get sure. Right, so I got myself one of the yellow things and continued breathing normally. At least I tried to. But hey, it was nice, clean, cold air amongst all that poisonous-smelling hot smoke (oh, I forgot to mention it - it was incredibly hot in the plane. Maybe the air condition really blew up.)

Then the captain talked to us and told us that a) he didn't know what went wrong and b) we will get back to Frankfurt immediately and as fast as he can manage. Boy, was he right. If there's a speed limit for planes that near to a big city, he certainly exceeded that. The ground was approaching fast, because I could not help but look out of the window, still pressing the oxygen mask to my face. It smelt a little of brand new rubber, and the strap was too long for me. I looked out of the window because (that might sound odd or even exaggerated, but if you ever get into a situation like that, you will most certainly understand me) if I was really going to die, I wanted to see it coming. I hate surprises. And I hate not being in control.

The moment where I can tell you I really got the feeling of being quite close (far too close for my taste) to death and of being in a ridiculously vulnerable position without anything to do (as I said, I hate that - it was like my car accident last year on a wet street, which was absolutely not my fault (the accident as well as the wet street), but I still couldn't help but get myself crashed into that other stupid driver's car - also a moment of utter helplessness) was when the captain said we should assume bracing position. You know, the thing from the emergency instruction manual where you put your head between your knees and stuff - but I didn't take off my glasses as the manual said. I'd be as blind as a bat and certainly even more in danger of getting killed by stumbling around.

The captain was a really good pilot - we did a beautiful emergency landing, and I have never ever seen a plane going down that fast. We also stopped rather fast on the ground, with all police, fire brigade and ambulances escorting us to our stop. Sirens and lights everywhere. We orderly evacuated the plane, the two flight attendants now having everything under control (including their frightened faces), as I noticed. We had to leave our luggage behind while we stumbled across the runway and to a patch of grass next to it. The sun was fiercely burning overhead, and I was wearing black only (typical sort of thing). Oh, and then I noticed where I was - the place where our plane had emergency landed and was still standing not really in line with the runway was Startbahn West. We were probably the first ones that ever used this runway for landing... After a frantic phone call on my mobile phone (I was quite happy to have one in that moment, because I only got it for situations like this) to inform the rest of the world about our ... er ... delay, I decided I knew what to do. Among all these frightened and disturbed people, I slowly (because of my wobbly knees) sat down on the grass, relaxed, closed my eyes and started meditating. Yeah, right. You can stop laughing now. I learnt how to do that a few years ago, and I can assure you that it really worked. I calmed down rather quickly. Finally some buses arrived to take us back to the terminal. I ended up in the same bus as the captain of the plane, and he told us something like that had never happened to him before during the 20 years that he had been flying planes. I couldn't help but shaking his hand and congratulating on his beautiful landing. Fast and efficient.

The rest of the story is a rather lengthy affair, where I got to know almost every other passenger on that ill-fated flight, because we spent about six hours together. It was complete chaos with FAG people and airline people being utterly confused and the flow of information being extremely erratic. There were passengers who vowed never to board a plane again, some desperately needed other flights, and some just yelled at the poor FAG personnel. I got so fed up with all that yelling that I made friends with the FAG people by yelling in turn at a German businessman that he should shut up at once and that's not the fault of the people behind the counter that everything went wrong (greetings to Scott Williamson, if I recall his name correctly, who took the brunt of all that yelling - poor guy). The businessman then in turn started yelling at me. I ignored it. Hadn't we all just defied death? I am a rather explosive person, but this just didn't even get near me.

Well, I had my own problems with my pre-booked coach to Swansea to which I wouldn't make it in time.

At least we got refreshments while waiting for another plane, and even sandwiches. After two hours, we got our hand luggage back - one after the other, security and all that, so it took a while. And, after three hours we finally got a positive message - we would get onto the next regular plane, but they would send a bigger one to accommodate all the regular passengers for that flight as well. And we got food vouchers for lunch - something I was extremely happy about, as lunch time was almost over and I only had one of these stupid sandwiches for breakfast. I considered myself rather lucky. I just hoped they would get the checked-in luggage sorted out correctly in the meantime ... which they actually did. After our "regular" plane had a delay of some further 90 minutes, we could even watch them load our stuff into the replacement plane (a BAe 1-11, a rather old plane, if you really wanna know) and nearly forgot to get my luggage onto their little wagon - but hey! It had a name tag on it for worst-case scenarios. From then on everything really went right. Apart from the fact that during the first ten minutes of the flight I desperately tried everything I know about breathing control. My hands got a little damp and I was rather tense, but otherwise that flight left me unharmed. Luckily. This flight's talking flight attendant actually supplied us (unwittingly) with a few jokes - she said "this is a non-smoking flight" and half the passengers burst out laughing (that's what I call black humour), a passenger said "yeah, like the last one", and I added "but it was the plane smoking, not the passengers". Another sure laugh was the sentence "We wish you a safe flight" and someone said "Yeah, but hopefully not as short as the last one!"

Right. After that one half of the passengers had to explain everything to the other half (and probably frightened them to death with it!). I was sitting amongst a British family who decided to stuff me with Haribo Goldbären to compensate for what I must have endured...

Well, my coach was gone, the one I had rebooked via the phone was also history - but the airline had sent two nice, well-educated ladies with us who recorded our addresses and noted our transport needs. You wouldn't believe it - that finally got me a modern, big, air-conditioned (non-smoking ;-) )and well-equipped for reading taxi complete with a funny Scotsman as a driver who took me from London-Stansted to my future home in Swansea in 2:55 h for free... probably a lot faster and more comfortable than a stupid coach. And yes, he was driving rather fast (and rather well), but I can tell you I took it like a hero. I didn't even flinch at 90 mph.

Addendum: I got the latest issue of Strangers in Paradise yesterday and nearly spilt my Earl Grey (hot) reading it -Beware! Spoiler alert! If you wanna read it on your own, then don't read the following sentences! If you don't know what I'm talking about, see my article in one of the previous editions of the NitWit Papers. Weeell... I was quite happy reading the new instalment until the last pages - when David and Katchoo are on a plane that crash lands right in the last panel. GOSH! Did I feel bad. Spoilt my whole evening, that one. It was the same evening that I nearly got run over by the fire brigade, by the way.

(120999, with added comments on 011099)

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