Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On a Wing and a Prayer

The last few days have not provided a pleasurable ride for Southwest Airlines, what with two emergency landings as one flight last Friday aborted after part of a fuselage tore away and a second landed prematurely Monday after a burning electric smell permeated the main cabin. Tack on more airborne troubles Monday with United’s Flight 497 that also had smoke problems and a scary emergency landing.

All three incidents, thankfully, ended with no loss of life. But they did evoke memories of similar escapades during my business flying career.

Usually, I fall asleep on a plane even before takeoff. That’s what happened when Gilda and I were returning aboard United Airlines from one of my magazine's conferences in San Francisco 18 years ago. We were sitting near the rear. In my dream I smelled something burning. It didn’t jive with the other action in the dream so I woke up about 20 minutes into the flight. Gilda also detected the odor. We alerted the stewardess who informed the pilot.

While they assured everyone there was no danger, the cabin started filling up with acrid smoke. The pilot decided to turn back to San Francisco, but since he had a full load of fuel for the transcontinental run, he first had to release gasoline over the Pacific.

As we approached the landing, the stewardesses told everyone to assume the crash position, that once we came to a full stop we were to calmly walk to the emergency exits and slide down the evacuation chutes. Bent over with arms crossed shielding our heads, Gilda and I awkwardly held hands, thankful we were together. Nobody panicked. Young and old alike slid down the chutes with only one elderly woman slightly injuring her ankle (I’ll admit now I didn’t fully follow orders—I didn’t remove my shoes). Once safely inside the terminal, though, a gold-chained, muscled guy fainted. So much for macho appearances.

For our adventure, United gave everyone a free round-trip ticket to any domestic destination (more on how we used those tickets in a future blog).

Last Friday’s rupture of part of the fuselage of Southwest Flight 812 was a harrowing experience for the passengers. Our brush with a potentially similar condition was not as terrifying, thanks, no doubt, to Dan’s keen eye.

We were flying American Airlines from Dallas to Tokyo 19 years ago, I to interview executives from Ito-Yokado for our joint-venture Japanese publishing company, Gilda, Dan and Ellie to enjoy the hospitality of our hosts.

About an hour after leaving Dallas, Dan thought he saw part of the skin of the left wing flapping away. He asked the man sitting next to him, a Navy air technician, to take a look. He confirmed Dan’s discovery. He called a stewardess who called the relief pilot who flies along on trans-Pacific flights.

Though he too advised we’d be safe proceeding, he cautioned that the prudent thing to do was turn back to Dallas and transfer to another plane. It meant an eight hour delay, making our total travel time from New York to Tokyo a whopping 28 hours instead of the normal 18.

All in all, an inconvenience but surely not as dramatic or as traumatic as that experienced on Southwest Airlines Flight 812.

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