Once in a while we experience an extraordinary event which seems to etch a permanent spot in our memory and become an integral part of who we are. These are the speed bumps along the road of life that add a bit of excitement, and often terror, to our otherwise hum-drum lives. Here are a couple of mine:
Down the chutes
The TWA jumbo jet took off from Los Angeles out over the Pacific before making a sweeping turn for Boston. We were almost at altitude when the passengers on the left side on the plane all crowded around their windows and starting shouting. Our outboard engine was on fire. Ugly gray smoke was bellowing from the engine back over the wing. A first class passenger mentioned the smoke to a stewardess who had just come into the aisle. She bent down to the window for a peek stood up with a look of total panic on her face and started screaming, “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die,” as she ran down the aisle. Soon an announcement on the intercom drowned out this hysterical stewardess. We would be returning to LAX and we were to stay in our seats until we were told otherwise.
We landed at faster than normal speed and screamed down the runway past the terminals and came to an abrupt halt at the very far end of the runway, near the sand dune barriers. The stewardess on the PA system had a line that went something like this: “As soon as we come to complete stop please file in an orderly fashion to the emergency exit nearest you. Do not open the overhead compartments or take any of your possessions with you as you exit the plane.” She gave that little speech over and over and with each retelling she would scream a little louder and deliver it in an even higher pitch just as the honk – honk – honk, abandon ship alarm sounded. Soon she was shrieking her shrill gibberish at full volume ― her shrieking was more irritating than that honk – honk – honk. The noise was effective; it made you want to get off the plane even faster.
The stewardesses had opened all of the emergency exits on the starboard side and began exiting passengers. My buddy and I raced to the rear-most exit only to find the stewardess spread eagle forming an X with her body to bar access to her open door. I peeked out past her and saw that the chute never inflated. It just hung there flapping in the wind some fifty feet over the concrete. I was afraid that the pushing and shoving of the mob would push her out the open doorway but she held on.
We filed in a half-assed orderly fashion to the emergency exit over the wing but no one was using that exit either. I leaned out over the side of the plane to see about a dozen passengers stranded on the wing some twenty feet above the tarmac. The second part of their chute, the dog leg, hadn’t inflated leaving them stranded on the wing of a burning airplane.
Finally I elbowed my way to a forward exit with a working chute. The stewardess asked me to see what I could do with the pile of people at the bottom of the chute as she handed me a young girl. I grabbed this four or five year-old girl who was being crushed in the crowd and down we went together just like we were on a slide in the park. The slide was steep enough so you’d have to run a couple steps on the ground because of your forward momentum. That was not to be, I landed with my heels squarely in the chest of this older lady and we fell into a pile of eight or so people. I let go of the girl and told her to run over to a crowd forming some fifty feet away. And wouldn’t you know, assholes were tossing their brief cases and baggage down the slide ahead of them and the bags were bouncing off the people in the piles on the ground.
I jumped up and started yanking people to their feet and soon had my pile cleared. My associate cleared the pile on the other side and we stood at the end of the slide and helped the descending evacuates to their feet and helped them to step away from the slide. The course slide material sent the ladies’ dresses up over their heads so we saw what all of the women were wearing that day. Some weren’t wearing anything at all but that’s a story for another day.
The fire crews had the fire out and the last folks down the slides were the flight crew including that brave stewardess who blocked her faulty exit with her body. Ambulances were treating those chafed and bleeding from the friction of slides and those who had hit the concrete or banged into other passengers. About half of the passengers required medical care of some kind in what should have been a model evacuation. I just stood and watched the action craving one of the cigarettes I left on board.
Later a fleet of buses came and took us to a large airport hotel where we were ushered into a ballroom hastily configured with open bars and lots of free booze.
But ... but there’s too much wind
We were at jump altitude for me, a student skydiver. My plan was to exit at 7500 feet, freefall a mile in 30 seconds before deploying my main parachute at 2500 feet and then maneuver my canopy to get as close to the drop zone marker as I could. Our drop zone was a plowed field with a small white disk in the center with white panels radiating outward to form a large white X easily seen from the air.
Student skydivers are those with less than 20 jumps in their log books and are prohibited from jumping in winds greater than 10 miles an hour for all of the reasons you’ll read about in a bit. Experienced jumpers can use their own discretion in the wind but generally advised not to jump in winds over 20 miles per hour.
I’m sitting on the floor of our jump plane, a Cessna with all but the pilot’s seat removed along with the passenger-side door. I had my feet on the outside step hanging on to the struts as I leaned out to get a good view of the ground. We had dropped a marker on a previous pass over the drop zone and it was my job to judge the distance past the marker that we should exit. This was heavy stuff so I took my one-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two responsibility seriously. As I was counting the ground crew removed half of the drop-zone X indicating that students are banned from jumping because of wind. I turned to tell my jump buddy and instructor, Dave, but he didn’t seem phased. Dave was somewhat of a celebrity at drop zones with his over 500 jumps and having won the third place medal in the last national championships. When I looked down again I saw that they had removed the second half of the X indicating winds of over 20 miles an hour. I was ready to crawl back into the cabin when Dave gave me a big shove sending me into freefall.
I stabilized myself in the free-fall frog position and looked around. Dave had followed me out and was above me a hundred feet or so. He went into a dive and came down and tapped me on the helmet as he raced past me. I checked my altimeter because you don’t want to pull your rip cord when someone’s above you for obvious reasons. I looked around but couldn’t see Dave anywhere and I was nearing 2500 feet, the mandatory opening altitude. I pulled my ripcord, my chute deployed and I swung down into a parachute landing position. Everything seemed normal or just like it had in all of my previous 12 jumps. What’s up with these high wind warnings?
As I descended to a few hundred feet above ground I began to oscillate and swing in a big arch. It was like I was the ball at the bottom a huge pendulum swinging in this wide pattern. I was afraid that I would swing so far up that my chute would lose its air and collapse leaving me to fall the rest of the way to the ground. Nope, that didn’t happen but I hit the ground on a downward oscillation went to my knees and thought that that was as easy a landing as I’d ever had. Before I could do anything I continued my oscillation past 180 degrees and headed back up to about 20 or 30 feet when my parachute touched ground and deflated. I was head down and feet up and long way from terra firma and my parachute was already on the ground in a heap of silk.
I fell 25 feet or so and landed on my left shoulder and my helmet. The impact had shoved my helmet down over my eyes so that I couldn’t see a thing and knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know if I’d broken my neck or my back or what. I lay there paralyzed and blind when the wind inflated my parachute and started dragging me across the desert through cactus, bushes and rock piles. I couldn’t move. I knew that I had to release one of the risers at my shoulders to collapse my chute but I couldn’t move. I struggled and struggled and finally got it. My chute collapsed and I lay there still in the sand with this big chunk of silk flapping in the wind.
It seemed like hours before Dave and some guy with a jeep came and gathered up my chute and lifted me into the back bench seat of the jeep. I laid there staring at the sky as we bumped our way over open desert to the skydiving shack. What had I broken?
After five beers and a complete inventory of my body parts and finding nothing broken I stood for the first time and found I was about a foot shorter and waddled like a stooped over, little old man.
And the captain...
Our TWA flight had just departed Boston’s Logan airport headed for San Francisco. We were climbing a slow steady climb and were almost at cruising altitude when our plane rolled sharply to the left and began falling from the sky. A stewardess standing in the aisle flew into a passenger’s lap while her drink cart crashed into the seats spewing its contents. We were losing altitude fast. I looked around but couldn’t tell how high we were or how much altitude we had to lose.
I immediately thought that we had lost a control surface probably an aileron. There was total silence as we all hung from our seatbelts on our left sides as the plane continued to fall. We were going to crash.
I was waiting for my life to pass before me when the plane suddenly swung around to a normal level position. There was total silence on the plane. We all listened to the engines hum searching for some clue as to what had just gone on. Without ceremony the cockpit door opened and a pilot and a stewardess dragged out another older unconscious pilot and laid him in the center aisle of first class. The stewardess ran to the forward PA system and screamed into the mike, “Is there a doctor on board? Is there a doctor on board?”
Two guys and one lady in my section jumped up and joined what must have been another doctor from first class. They all dropped to their knees and frantically started doing whatever it is they do in situations like this.
We all leaned into the aisle as the plane continued to climb. Finally the copilot came on the PA system and announced that we would be returning to Boston because of a medical emergency.
We landed in Boston and came to a stop away from the terminal and were met by one of those mobile boarding ramp/elevator thingies. They opened the forward passenger door and an EMT crew came in with a stretcher and soon removed the unconscious pilot.
After 30 minutes or so a voice came on the intercom and announced that we were waiting for a new captain who should be there any minute. Two hours later we taxied and took off a second time for San Francisco.
After we reached altitude and had a couple of drinks a stewardess sat down with me and emotionally told this story. She said between gasps. “We were at a little over 25,000 feet and climbing. The captain was at the controls when he suddenly jerked back and froze in a trance-like pose with his arms extended firmly grasping and turning wheel counterclockwise. The copilot tried with all of his strength to right the plane from his controls but the captain was frozen in that position. The third pilot, the flight engineer, struggled to free the captain’s grip from the wheel while the copilot fought to right the plane. After some time and an almost total loss of altitude they freed the captain from the controls and with the help of a stewardess dragged the captain from his seat. The doctors on board administered CPR and pounded on his chest assuming he had had a heart attack.” She didn’t think the captain was alive when they removed him from the plane.
Then she got to the scary part. “We were lucky that we were high enough for the other two pilots to wrestle the controls away from the captain. If his heart attack would have occurred a few minutes earlier at a lower attitude we would have gone down.”
She was biting her lip to hold back her tears until I pulled her to me. She sobbed as we hugged.