Things that happened on my holiday:
We went to the beach
We went to the pool
We (I!) dressed up for Halloween
We drove to Key West
We went shopping
We ate frozen custard
And...oh yeah, our last plane on our journey over to America had to make an emergency landing at the first airport we could make it to after an engine loudly died in the twin engine jet. No biggie. Not terrifying at ALL.
I’ve had plenty of stressed out plane trips, missed connections, turbulence, lost luggage, diversions to Brussels to refuel when Heathrow was being Heathrow (has ANYONE ever spent less than a half hour circling this airport waiting to land?), “overnight” stays that entailed three hours at a hotel and then more flying. But until now I had never had an emergency landing. Which is probably super lucky because when you Google “Emergency Landings” there are frighteningly an awful lot of them.
We actually thought that the journey couldn’t get much worse. Both of our rather long layovers had been eaten away, first by radios being out (two hour delay, sat on the plane in Aberdeen, fun times...), and then taking off an hour and a bit late from Heathrow, which meant our three hour layover became two in Charlotte, which these days is not enough to guarantee making a connection -it wasn't in Charlotte anyway, where immigration is slow with a capital S. And so, as we ran for our last flight to Sarasota, just to arrive at the gate as it was boarding, I couldn’t help but feel relief that we were almost there.
Usually on the third flight is when I finally relax and have a nap. I rarely get any sleep on the long flights for some reason or other. This flight didn’t bode well as there was a hyperactive toddler with his Dad sat in front of us. Behind us were a couple of guys, one a young soldier telling his seatmate about going home to see his childhood sweetheart.
The flight attendant up front heard he was a soldier (he wasn’t in uniform) and offered him a seat in first class, which he declined. He said he wasn’t comfortable with that kind of thing. We were sat in the rear of the plane; David and I had actually been moved from our assigned seats in the very last row opposite for comfort as they didn’t recline. Our flight attendant was a chipper and chatty English woman. Drinks were served (we both had apple juice, I always drink apple juice on planes I have no idea why), and I was looking forward to a little doze.
On these smaller jets (I think ours seated around 40) you do feel and hear every little thing, so when there was a loud sort of popping noise coming from seemingly beside/under us, we didn’t immediately react. David thought it was the landing gear. A few seconds later there was another, maybe marginally louder pop. I don’t know how to explain it, but you know when you just know something isn’t good. Yeah, everyone seated in the rear of the plane knew. We looked at each other uncomfortably. The up until that point very cheerful flight attendant came over to the soldier sat behind us and said “Did you see any lightning?”
And that’s when, forgive me, sh*t got real.
There were mutterings about the engine being gone, and the flight attendant went from very upbeat to very quiet. “We’ve descended really fast” she muttered quietly, audibly only to those of us in back. We were pretty aware of this, actually, as when you are aware that something is wrong you do notice that your plane is descending faster than is normal from altitude. The plane felt quieter, of course the passengers were quiet but it did seem suddenly like we were just suspended in mid-air without an awful lot keeping us there. Like one engine instead of two. David said later that he heard the soldier say he saw the lightning strike the engine.
A few minutes later, I don’t know how long, the other flight attendant came on the speaker and announced we were making an unscheduled landing in Jacksonville. We cruised at a low altitude for what felt like an eternity, it must have been around 15-20 minutes. There were no reassurances from the flight crew, no instructions to brace for landing or prepare for anything,
On the surface it was “normal” but our flight attendant was clearly nervous and the mood on board was eerily still. Most everyone stayed calm. A young guy up and across from us who had been a cheeky chappie, wisecracking and outgoing, was rocking back and forth praying. The man across from me was gripping his book tightly and not making eye contact with anyone. The guys behind us had gone quiet, and the little boy in front had settled down and put his seat belt on after the flight attendant managed to be firm yet sweet with him about how important it was, her voice shaking with nerves.
She did the thing you see in movies where they walk up and down the aisle sweeping the luggage racks in such a way that I don’t even know how to describe. David and I were…internally freaking. He says he didn’t pray. I did. I told him I was scared, he said it was going to be o.k. I asked if I should call my Mom, he said no. I felt a tiny prick of fear at the fact we were landing in Jacksonville. I was born in Jacksonville, you see, and hadn’t been back since I was one. So I thought “Well this would be weirdly ironic if I died here too.” I couldn’t help it, the fear was fully in control by that point.
After what felt like an eternity of internal reckoning and hand squeezing and I love you’s and holding back tears, the pilot’s voice came on briefly “Prepare for landing”. We didn’t know what this meant. Were we going to explode, or crash? It felt like if something was going to go wrong there wasn’t a thing we could do about it, at least that’s how it felt since we hadn’t been told to brace. It felt like if something went wrong we were definitely not going to come out of it.
The landing was fast, very fast. But also, miraculously smooth. Even after we had been on the ground for a few seconds there was a sense of shock, of waiting for something else to happen. We looked out the window and saw two fire trucks on the tarmac waiting for us. Immense relief then began to sink in. As we de-planed and the flight crew stood at the front, there was no question that this had been a fright for all of them. Both flight attendants were pale and red eyed and could barely speak. The pilot was young, in his 30’s maybe, and visibly shaken. I said thank you and he shook his head and looked to the heavens, not a smile, but a “F’ing phew!” expression if ever there was one.
When we got into the airport, there was still some talk of getting us back on the plane, bizarrely quickly which was out of the question as far as I was concerned. The flight crew were unable to continue that night, so why the airline would even mention that seemed bizarre when the plane hadn’t even been looked at yet. It was then announced that they would try to get an incoming plane and its crew from D.C. to fly us to Sarasota. The airport was basically closed at that point, it was around 10 o’clock at night, with no food outlets or other shops open. One of the airline employees scrambled some (soft) drinks and a couple of airport staff kindly got everyone snacks as we waited nearly two hours at the gate.
To say the last thing I wanted to do was get on another plane at that point is an understatement. Particularly not another identical small jet, as it turned out to be. But we weren’t really given a choice, and it seemed like the best thing to do was get it over with. This time we sat in our assigned seats. I couldn’t help but think of the movie “Final Destination” with the really weird déjà vu feeling of being in the same aircraft so soon. The mood on board was unquestionably nervous, but the passengers had bonded a bit after our experience and there was more of a feeling of camaraderie. The flight crew were extra nice to us and the pilot made a point of mentioning our ordeal and thanking us for flying etc. The landing was actually pretty bumpy, which we laughed about with the Dad of the toddler: "Hey, at least we're alive, right?!" he said and we agreed.
And so for a couple of days afterwards I was still a bit wired from it. Every time I thought about it my heart would race. I was dreading the trip home, as was David. But I did manage to enjoy our vacation eventually.
I was, however, pretty disappointed by American Airlines treatment of us after this pretty horrific experience. I don’t know why, but I expected maybe an email or a phone call apologizing for our experience. Call me naïve I guess! A couple of days before our return flights, I tried calling their customer service: if a near death experience doesn’t merit a cheeky upgrade then I don’t know what does? Both David and I were genuinely stressing about having to fly home, it did have an effect on our trip, and so I was pretty unimpressed when I was told they had no customer service phone reps anymore (hmm) or ability to otherwise help a dissatisfied customer via telephone. I was told to send an email. Which I did.
It was the last thing I wanted to do on the last day of my holiday, but by that point I was allowing myself to feel a decent amount of anger at how shoddily I felt American Airlines had treated us. I’d been apologized to and given vouchers by other airlines over far less upsetting things than this. And so I wasn’t impressed when we got a form response claiming we “had never been in any danger”, their aircraft were all up to snuff, blah blah blah. Total b.s.in other words. I get it, they can’t admit fault because in a situation like this, people might actually sue for the distress they caused. It’s basically an “F- you” to people they put through this though as far as I’m concerned, which does make me really angry.
There is no question there was engine trouble/it outright died, and we were in an emergency situation. Why else would there be fire trucks there? Why the unscheduled landing, the hasty descent? Why else were the flight crew unable to continue? I know what I experienced, and their denial of it is completely unacceptable practice in my opinion. Needless to say I won’t be flying American Airlines again, ever.
So anyway, sorry! I had to get this out before I could talk about the good things that happened on our holiday. We’ve had it largely bottled up the whole time we were away, of course I told my Mom but David didn’t want to cause his parents worry so there were none of the usual outlets on social media or talking to friends when this kind of thing happens.