Loss of Blood Flow

It was a flight from Detroit to Austin with a stop at Houston Intercontinental Airport. My wife had a conference in Austin (where we lived for 6 years) and I was along for the ride. I also had planned a 40th surprise birthday party for her there, since we still had many friends in the area.

She is the daughter / sister of pilots, but since having children has become a very nervous flier. Things were going smoothly until our descent into Houston. We had been circling for about 15 minutes, but eventually started our descent toward the runway. Having flown many times, and thanks to conversations with my father- and brother-in-law, I knew when the wheels would come out, and what that final “ping” on the intercom meant: time to put the tray tables up, seats in their up-back and right position, as we approach the runway.

We were in the row just behind the exit row (which consisted of the aisle and middle seat, no window) and could see the tower as we approached. Suddenly we went back up, and began to circle some more. My wife, for whom too much knowledge of air travel was now proving to be a detriment, began to panic a bit. It didn’t help that the co-pilot came out and began to search the floorboards around the exit row.

My wife’s grip on my hand began to tighten. I tried to ease her fears and reassure her, but the longer the co-pilot searched the floor, the more she squeezed. She tried to get some information out of the co-pilot, but to no avail: he wisely assured her that things were fine, and that she should not worry, everything was under control. We both knew that not to be true.

Shortly after, he returned to the cockpit, and we continued to circle, frantically trying to see the runway out both sides of the plane’s windows. The gentleman next to my wife (she was in the middle seat) tried to slink back in his seat so we could get a better view, but he began to wish he had paid for the upgrade to first class: my wife had started to panic.

Things really took a turn for the worse when the co-pilot returned to our row, asked those passengers in the exit row to stand up (in descent mode mind you, when all passengers were to be in their seats with their safety belts securely fastened across their laps) so as to allow him and the flight attendants to get a closer look at the exit row floor boards. Only this time, he came out of the cockpit with a flight manual which included a complete blueprint of the plane. That really set my wife off.

I now had no blood flowing to my left hand and could feel the bones in my fingers begin to crack. The co-pilot and flight attendants were trying to lift up the carpet in the exit row, apparently to find a floor window which would give a view into the cargo hold. No such luck. The carpet had recently been tacked down to the floor when this particular aircraft underwent some renovations. Unfortunately, no consideration had been made for the floor window in case of an emergency, such as we were presently experiencing.

The co-pilot returned to the cockpit and the flight attendant mentioned that said floor window would allow the crew to see if the landing gear had been properly dispatched into landing position. That was the problem: there was a malfunction with the light that indicated that the landing gear was down. The exit row passengers had returned to their seats and the flight attendants to theirs.

I noticed that we began our approach again. I thought to myself, “Are they going to try and land anyway”? Visions of the movie “Airplane” danced in my head, and I found myself humming the frantic music from those last scenes in the film. We could see the flashing lights of the ambulances and fire trucks as we came close to the runway. I expected to see gobs of foam laid out for our landing, such as I had heard in the stories my father-in-law would tell from emergency landings when he was a pilot in the 1960s and 70s. My wife had now released my mangled hand and was breathing into a paper bag to prevent hyperventilating, trying to calm herself down.

As we got ready to touch down, this time we did not return to airspace and we successfully landed: the wheels had indeed been out; it was a glitch in the computer system that failed to indicate the landing gear was down. A round of applause erupted in the cabin. We had a very quick taxi into our gate: all other flights had been rerouted and cleared of the runway.

As we disembarked, the blood had begun to flow again in my hand and the pain was minor – nothing a couple of beers wouldn’t help on the next leg of our trip, from Houston to Austin, assuming my wife didn’t want me to rent a car for the three-hour drive between the two cities. However, we forewent Hertz and boarded the next plane to Austin (with about 15 minutes to spare). I think it was the best thing she could have done. Forcing her to tackle her fears immediately after that experience helped make her a better plane traveler.

After a phone call to her dad and brother, a good talking-to from her mom to calm her down, and several glasses of wine (compliments of the flight crew on the next leg of our trip), we arrived in Austin and had a great time. The riverboat I rented for her surprise party went off without a hitch. Good thing boats don’t have landing gear.

Categories: Airplanes, Pilots

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