Two weekends ago, B and I went to our first wedding since attending our own. As was expected, I had mixed feelings about going, mainly because I love weddings, but I knew it would also trigger some sadness leftover from grieving the yucky parts of Brian’s and my nuptials.
I did feel some sadness, especially when watching the bride and groom do the traditional things that Brian and I didn’t get to do the way we had hoped. But. Overall, we had a blast and took full advantage of the fact that we were at a wedding that wasn’t our own. The best part was that we got to dance like mad fools. It was liberating, as if every spastic movement my body made was shaking off the grief and flinging it aside. We definitely took this opportunity to create another little corrective experience for ourselves. I’m proud of us, and each day this wedding crap gets just a little smaller and more distant.
The wedding we attended was in Southern California, and Brian actually flew us down for the occasion. (For more stories on what it’s like to fly in a tiny aircraft with your pilot partner, try this post and this one.) I hadn’t flown with Brian for quite some time, and it had been a couple of years since I had flown with him for any great distance (this flight was set to take 2-3 hours one way, depending on the wind conditions). Looking back, I think it might have been due to my intermittent depression and the time elapsed since I last flew, but I found myself running through morbid scenarios in my head about what might happen if we crashed. Honestly, I think I was just feeling insecure and vulnerable in general, and then the thought of putting my life into someone else’s hands in a tiny-ass plane with no oh shit handle (see previous posts) compounded the swirling in my head.
The plane ride down to the wedding was great. We had very little turbulence (which makes my anxiety go through the roof in such a small plane) and everything went pretty smoothly, despite strong headwinds that made the trip last a little longer than expected. I felt calm, and the trip reminded me that flying can actually be fun.
The return flight began without problems, but ended very abruptly in what I can only describe as the most terrifying 10 minutes of my entire life. We took off a few minutes after 1pm, and it was about 1:30 when I got out my ipad because I had just had an idea for a blog post, of all things. I was typing away when I heard the usual roar of the engine quickly dim and sputter and then return to normal in the span of about two seconds. My head shot up and looked at Brian. “Did you do that?!” I demanded.
The look on his face made a chill run straight through me.
“No,” he said, “That wasn’t me.”
Brian flew into action, pushing buttons and pulling levers. My heart rate skyrocketed and my muscles went completely rigid with fear.
And then it happened again.
At this point I remember looking down at the ground below us. It was all foothills and mountains. With my untrained eye, I couldn’t see any place where we might be able to make an emergency landing. My fear turned to panic.
I don’t pray in the traditional sense, but now I was doing the closest thing to it. Please, just let us live. Both of us.
I did the only thing I could do at that point: I focused on calming myself down (or at least containing my fear) the best way I could. I turned off my ipad, threw it in the back, shook some tictacs into my mouth, and put on a playlist I especially designed to calm me down when I am stressed out at work. I closed my eyes and focused on breathing. I pretended that I wasn’t in a plane, that my ass was firmly on the ground. I was able to get my muscles to relax for a few seconds.
Brian immediately turned the aircraft steeply to the left, back towards a small airport we had passed a few minutes earlier. Since the airport was on the left side of the aircraft, Brian had seen it but I hadn’t. Plus, he was the one with all the navigational charts and maps.
Brian then got on the radio and told air traffic control that we were experiencing engine issues. He explained the temporary loss of engine power we had experienced and they asked how many souls were on board, how much fuel we had, and if he wanted to declare an emergency.
Souls?! Why does he need to know that? So that when we crash, they can know how many bodies they are searching for?!
Brian said he didn’t want to declare an emergency, but he did want to land as soon as possible. Air traffic told Brian to switch to another frequency so the small airport could talk to us without any other aircraft interfering. They offered to let us land on a runway that would have required Brian to circle the pattern, which would have taken time. Brian saw another runway that we were headed straight towards, and he also requested a straight in approach. The airport gave us the go ahead – whatever we needed to be able to land asap.
Brian pointed up ahead for me. “See that runway? That’s where we’re going to land.”
Once I had a target, a destination in place, I focused on that and time seemed to stand still, but my mind did not.
Would the engine hold out until we got on the ground?
Would we be able to land safely from this altitude, from this speed?
I looked down again, because the straight in approach meant that we were now flying over a densely populated area. Now I was praying for the safety of the people below us. If we didn’t make it, I didn’t want anyone else to be hurt as a result.
I was completely freaking out, still not really sure how much danger we were in, and all I wanted was comfort from Brian, which he couldn’t give me. Both of my hands were clinging to the oh shit handle, because that was all I could do. I couldn’t help, and I wasn’t fully understanding the situation, so my job was to trust Brian, let him do his job, and not get in the way.
There was a lull in Brian’s communication with the tower, and I could tell that the engine still didn’t sound like it was running correctly, so I turned to him and asked, “Are we going to be ok?”
My voice came out sounding like I was 5 years old. I didn’t even recognize it as my own.
Brian looked at me and paused. “Yes. We’re going to be ok.” I knew that Brian wasn’t sure, and I love him for saying the right thing. Nevertheless, I remember a whine escaping my throat that reminded me of a lonely puppy.
It took forever for us to reach the airport. Indeed, Brian was trying to slow the aircraft down and still get us on the ground in as short a time as possible. We were lower now and Brian said that he was going to put the airplane into a “slip,” which meant we ended up flying in sideways to create a bunch of drag and slow the airplane down enough to land.
It was a nail-biting landing for me, but Brian did a fabulous job as far as I was concerned. He taxied so we were just off the runway and then cut the engine so we could get out and wait for the firetrucks that were now screaming towards us.
I immediately felt relief, and I also felt this numbness, this urge to act like nothing had just happened.
We got out of the plane, and we just kind of stood there for several minutes not knowing what to do. It was cold and windy (and I think my body was in shock) so Brian got me out a sweatshirt. But it was quite a while until we actually looked at each other, hugged, and emotionally acknowledged what had just happened. We were also standing around and waiting with mechanics and firefighters who started to show up, and we oddly cracked some jokes and had a few nervous laughs.
To wrap up this long story, we spent another several hours at this airport waiting for the maintenance crew to figure out what was wrong with the engine and we ended up renting a car and having to drive the last 5 hours home, because there was no way in hell I was getting back into that plane, fixed or not.
We arrived home very late, very tired, and very traumatized. I’m not sure that I’ve still fully processed this, hence the blog post. The process of writing it was interesting, because I had trouble putting all the events in the correct order. It interests me how selective and fallible our memories can be.
After talking about this with Brian, he explained exactly what happened and I realized that I had irrationally assumed that if we had lost engine power, we would have just fallen out of the sky – which was the source of the majority of my panic. Brian ended up doing some calculations, and had we lost all power, we still would have been able to glide to that airport and land – which both boggles my mind and makes me feel better.
The end result is that I plan to take some form of a “pinch hitter” course – a crash course in how to land a plane (pun intended). The idea of taking the course scares me, but not as much as not taking it does. At any rate, that experience should also make for another good story.