Night Terrors

A Scare in the Air

by Suzannah Gilman

I had never before thought I was going to die. I was in one situation where I hoped I wouldn’t die.  I was a teenager, riding in a car with my two brothers and one of their girlfriends. She was going 80 in her father’s Mustang, we were on the interstate, and she was being foolish and flirty.  She jerked the steering wheel and we went spinning. I hoped all three of my mother’s children wouldn’t die together, but I didn’t actually think it would happen, maybe because when we’re young, we think we are bulletproof.  The car skidded safely to a stop in the grass, digging into the earth.  I didn’t realize how lucky I was.  But I’m older now, and more aware of my mortality.

On a seemingly-normal day last spring, my fiancé and I arrived at the Orlando airport in an excited mood for a non-stop flight to LAX.  The trip would be fun, I loved flying, and he upgraded us to first class the day before. The airport was uncharacteristically desolate. There were people, but not nearly as many as usual. There were fewer planes at the gates, too. We joked that the Rapture had happened and that no one in the airport could be trusted, not even the children, especially not the children, because they were bad enough to have been left behind.

The first class cabin was about half full. Now we knew it wasn’t an ordinary day. That never happens. A smiling flight attendant served me a Bloody Mary.  I played Jeopardy on my iPad. My fiancé was doing the NY Times crossword. The pilot got on the intercom and said we were about to hit some rough air. He said cabin service had to be suspended and the flight attendants needed to sit down.

A couple of minutes later, we were all buckled in and a little turbulence shook us, but not much. Then I smelled an electrical fire. I tapped my fiancé’s arm and asked him, “Do you smell that?” He looked up. He smelled it. He went back to his crossword. Had I gone back to playing Jeopardy, I wouldn’t be writing this. I learned after that passengers in coach did not understand the gravity of what occurred, though the electrical fire was something I assume everyone on the plane smelled.

Our two flight attendants in first class looked back and forth at one another, tentative. Should we unbuckle and get up? was what they seemed to be asking one another. One got up. She put the plane’s phone to her ear and her back to us.  In a minute, the the other got up.   She started pulling covers off of controls on the wall there in the galley. I heard a repetitive ding like the ding that signals when you can take off your seat belt or when you have to put it on, but this was different. It went on and on and upped the energy of the flight attendants.  They were moving around much more, jiggering things in the wall panels.  The attendant on the phone was looking toward the back of the plane to the other  attendants. They all looked uncomfortable.  I read her lips.  “He’s not picking up,” she said. “He’s not answering.”

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How long did this go on? I don’t know. I said to my fiancé, “This is important. Listen to this.” He looked up from his crossword. The flight attendants from the back came up to talk with our flight attendants. Because we were in row 5 and there is a space behind row 6 that separates first class from coach, we could hear some of what they were saying when they rendezvoused there. He’s not answering. Oxygen burning up. Not answering.

Today was different, my mind had said all day, yet I hadn’t gotten it till now. I hadn’t picked up on what was going on. My cat had been extra needy for about 24 hours before I left home. I’d wondered if she was trying to tell me she was sick. She wanted to be near to me more than she ever had before. And I called all three of my sons the day before because I felt I needed to. I see my daughter often so I didn’t call her, but I had to check in with the boys. The message was there for me, if I’d only cared to read it—that’s what I was thinking. And the sparsely-peopled airport. Surely that was a sign, too.

The shock of finding myself in a situation where I had absolutely no control was enough to keep the usually-talkative me stone quiet.

I thought of the Malaysian Airlines jet that crashed several weeks before but still hadn’t been found. I wished that I would die when we hit the water. I have a fear of sinking in dark water—the thought of it puts me in deep terror. I thought of the private jet that golfer Payne Stewart and others died on. Due to a lack of oxygen, everyone on board fell unconscious and the plane flew on autopilot until it ran out of fuel four hours later, fell from the sky, and crashed in a field.  I thought that was what was

going on here, a lack of oxygen in the cockpit that rendered our pilots unconscious.

Thanks to heightened security measures to protect against terrorists, there was no way we could break through the reinforced cockpit door. I wondered how long we’d have to live in that cabin knowing there’s nothing we could do to save ourselves. I felt, for the first time, the full weight of futility.

Nothing I had ever done and nothing I could ever do could change what would happen to me.

I thought of my children, wondered how they would take this news. I thought of the children of the other mothers I’ve known who died too soon, and then the pain of imagining my children going on without me was too much, even though they were grown. I had to tell myself they would be okay. I had been a good mother. I had taught them everything I knew to teach them. I loved them and they knew how much. I had to put them out of my mind because thinking about them was too painful.  I did not cry. I could manage breathing, but not crying.

I prayed.

I tried to buy wifi access and post a message on Facebook using my iPad, but I could not get a wifi signal. I started typing a post anyway. Just the facts.

We are on AA flight 205 from MCO to LAX, in seats 5 E and 5F. We are over the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans. The pilot suspended cabin service and had the flight attendants buckle in due to turbulence, but there is an electrical fire instead. The flight attendants can’t get anyone to answer in the cockpit. We are at 36,000 feet.

Of course I couldn’t send that message, and when our plane crashed, the iPad would be destroyed. More futility. I closed my iPad for good. It was a bad hair day.  Was that another sign that I missed? I put my glass in the seatback pocket in front of me because it would break on impact and cut me. That action seemed logical to me at the time.

At some point, the flight attendants no longer looked so fearful. One came to take the dishes our nuts were in. I’d put mine in the seatback pocket in front of me, too, but I didn’t remember doing it.

“Is everything going to be okay?” my fiancé asked.

“We’re doing the best we can,” she said.

Finally– at last!– the pilot came on the intercom. He apologized about turning off so many electrical systems. “We had an issue, so we’re diverting to Dallas. We’re going to change planes.”

I could feel again. I put my hands to my face to wipe the tears that were only now falling.

I still don’t know why the pilots weren’t answering for so long. I still don’t know which electrical system had caught on fire or how it was put out. I still don’t know what I would have said or done or not said or not done if we took a nosedive toward the ocean, but I suspect I would have reacted the way I did in childbirth: to hold my fears and pain inside because the sound of my own voice would panic me. I would suffer through until it was over.

Days later, when my fiancé and I were again discussing this, he said he first thought of things like his will, and then he realized that nothing like that mattered. What he needed, he said, was to prepare a metaphorical space wherein he could die. “Because we all die alone,” he said to me. “Even though you were right there beside me, we all die alone.” That hurt my feelings. I thought it was cold and I thought there was something in him that made him want to die alone and not want to share that with me. I didn’t say anything. I kept the hurt to myself.

And then, later still, when we were telling a friend about this experience, I realized something. My fiancé and I did not talk while we thought we were going to die. After I said, “You need to listen to this,” neither of us uttered another word. My feelings were no longer hurt when I realized that what he had said was true: we all die alone. He was preparing alone and I was preparing alone. We weren’t holding hands or telling each other how much we loved one other. There was no melodrama, no sentimentality. It was all business, the business of coming to terms with the hand we were dealt.

We would die. Alone. Together.

12 replies »

  1. Nicely conveyed. Visceral and resonant. (When I was on a plane that filled with black smoke and raced to an emergency landing, I was struck by that same lonely silence that settled over passengers. Brrr.)

    • I didn’t know you went through that, Art. So sorry that you did.

      The silence was surprising to me, even though I have a line in a poem about giving birth that reads, “The hand of fear that chiseled me still.” Who knew that the fear of dying is like any other fear in the world, especially the fear while giving birth? We must be much more predictable creatures than I had realized.

  2. I too have a fear of dark, deep water. Glad you landed safely and were able to glean a new, deep understanding about death in your moments of fear and concern above the ocean blue…passing from one world to the next is a threshhold one must cross on their own. Great accounting of your moments in the sky! 🙂

    • Well, there’s one more thing we share, sister. And I take it as a high compliment that you enjoyed reading this. No way to predict what we would actually be confronted with in moments like that.

  3. This is wonderful writing. When I was flying from London to Milan and the British pilot made the announcement that we were returning to London because of an electrical fault, it passed most of the Italian passengers by. They continued laughing and chatting and enjoying the last hours of their holiday. I sat there, convinced we were going to die, and torn between the desire to shout out to everyone to explain, and the feeling that they should be allowed to die happy. I also opted to die alone.

    It was very funny though watching their faces as, still oblivious, they disembarked in London.

    • Thank you for your comment, izzwizz. I think this must be something thousands of people have gone through. It’s so scary. I’m still freaked out by it. I have flown six times in the past three weeks. It has affected me horribly. What I used to love now sends me to the edge of panic attacks. The women on our flight were talkative in the ladies’ room in Dallas: “What’s all this delay about? Why did we have to land? Why are they doing this to us? They’re horrible.” I stood there thinking, “I’m so grateful that I am standing here on the ground rather than lying dead on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.” It’s all about perspective, just as beauty is all a matter of good lighting.

  4. Great story, as real as it was for you both. I say, to each their own.
    After experiencing a death, that was out of my control, I think the next time I enter that realm, I might grab a stranger and say, “Let’s make it great, and go down in flames together!”
    I could not resist that line Suzannah!

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