An hour into our scheduled 40-minute flight across Ecuador, with two pale-looking flight attendants standing in the aisle, an urgent announcement was made in Spanish. The man across the aisle from me immediately covered his face with his hands and moaned. Moments later the announcement was repeated in English, “Due to technical difficulties, the captain will be making an emergency landing. All passengers are to remove their shoes and glasses.”
It was a short flight from Cuenca, Ecuador (8,500 feet elevation) to the capital of Quito (9,500 feet elevation). As it is the rainy season in the Andes, much of the flight involved high clouds and turbulence. However, I started to become alert and concerned when after 40 minutes or so, we flew over an airport at a couple of thousand feet and then the captain revved the engines and gained altitude quickly.
At first I hoped that the runway was busy and so we would circle the airport, or perhaps he needed to approach from a different angle. But none of those obvious tactics were being used. Instead he continued to fly beyond the airport for another ten minutes. I looked around to see how the other passengers were doing. In many, there was a nervous alertness in the eyes and their posture. Then the flight attendant from the back of the plane ran to the front of the plane and stepped behind curtains with the rest of the flight crew near the cockpit. Something was seriously wrong.
And then the announcements. There was a problem with the landing gear. The captain would be making an emergency landing. They asked if there were any police or military personnel onboard.
No. Was this really happening? The whole situation quickly became surreal. Was this the end? Was I to go down in a plane crash in Ecuador with these fellow passengers? It took on the quality of a movie scene. Suddenly the anonymous fellow passengers surrounding me became complex and very human characters.
The flight attendants then went into a bizarre type of show, both to inform and to impress the seriousness of the situation. One attendant would announce in Spanish the location of the emergency exits and the two attendants in the aisles would shout at the top of their lungs in four quick, synchronized bursts and point at the exits. Then the lights on the floor, and again the four quick shouts. And then the same show in English. Finally, they showed us the how to place our heads on our folded hands placed on the seat back in front of us. We practiced that a couple of times. People prayed and looked to each other for comfort and to help make sense out of the situation.
What did they mean by an emergency landing? It was a landing gear problem. Were we setting down in an open field? Were we going to land the plane on its belly on the airstrip?
I had always believed that when I die, my preference would be to know what hit me. To have awareness of the end coming. If you will pardon the California-speak, I felt I wanted to “experience” my death, to be “aware”. As I sat in the plane, I wondered if I had just gotten my wish as visions filled my imagination. Crashing into the Andes. Hitting the ground and the fuselage spinning over and over. How quickly would the crash happen? What would the impact feel like? What would I see and how long would I remain conscious?
We were then told to quickly stow our loose articles in overhead storage. At this point, with passengers scrambling in the aisle, I moved back five rows to where Frank was sitting and took the empty seat next to him. I was not going to go down without Frank next to me.
The airline had assigned us aisle seats five rows apart, but since it was to be a such a short flight, we didn’t try to change. From the start of the commotion I had craned my neck back to see how Frank was handling the news. He looked calm, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. Later he told me he was purposefully staying calm for the sake of order on the flight. He did not want to contribute to waves of panic. The good alter boy he still is, always willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Now sitting next to him, holding his hand, I told him I loved him and hugged him. We say we love each other multiple times a day, but it had to be said now.
How would my kids deal with this? I really didn’t want to die in a plane crash in Ecuador. Would this even hit the news back home? What were the odds of a crash? The stern and pale-looking flight attendants were not really helping.
Finally, we descended through clouds again and approached the runway. All passengers were in position, heads pressed on their folded hands against the seat in front of them. A baby was crying.
The plane come down for the smoothest landing I can remember. It felt as if the pilot was riding on the two back wheels for the longest time. I kept waiting for the front fuselage to hit the runway. But no, the touchdown of the front wheels was imperceptible. Eventually we slowed enough that the passengers erupted into applause and cheers. We were going to be OK.
Our plane taxied to the gate, surrounded by fire trucks with emergency lights blazing. A calm. Another hug. Smiles and tears. A feeling of a profound experience still in my gut.
Once the plane stopped, I returned to my original seat to gather my stuff. I hugged the man across the aisle who cupped his hands over his face when the announcement first came. We talked in Spanish and a little English, happily debriefing on our shared ordeal.
The sharing continued with other passengers at baggage claim. Frank and I continued to hug. We now have new time together.
In the taxi ride to our hotel, we speculated that the odds of a safe landing were probably pretty good. Chances were it was a faulty sensor and not actually faulty landing gear. But even if the chances of a crash landing were 25% or 10%, that is WAY higher than our average daily commute.
The airline did not debrief with the passengers. The pilot did not come out of the cockpit as we disembarked. The previously stern attendants simply wished us a “Buenos noches” as we left the plane. But that was a glimpse into possibilities which will not be forgotten, should not be forgotten. We are all going to die. This episode was a healthy reminder.