A moment of fear

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.

Talk to me, Goose

Hokai, so this is me telling the story of Brian’s and my flying day trip to Chico now that I have told all seven of you about what it’s like flying in a tin can with wings and how I deal with the feelings of mortality that result from it (answer: not well).

We drove the short distance to the small airport in our town, went into a small locked office to get the keys to the plane (Brian’s so cool that someone trusts him with a key to this office…dunno how that happened), and then went out to the plane where I gracefully jammed myself into the ever-sweaty co-pilot’s seat and read while Brian preflighted.  Same drill.

Sutter Buttes

Everything was a-ok, so Brian got in, gave me the lovely safety briefing, I popped in a piece of gum, plugged in my ipod (Sara Bareilles to the max), and we were on our way.  The trip there was about 45 minutes to an hour long and was rather uneventful for me.  There was absolutely no turbulence to speak of, even when going over the Sutter Buttes (thankyouthankyou)!  Brian said there was some sort of miscommunication with the air traffic control center where control was supposed to pass him off to Chico’s tower as we went on our merry way, and apparently this didn’t happen, and so when we reached Chico airspace, Brian had to awkwardly announce himself over the radio.  Apparently it was embarrassing because it made Brian look bad, even though it wasn’t his fault.  I tried to draw the undeserved negative attention away from him by cussing out the air traffic controllers over the radio for all to hear.  Too bad it was all in my head.  Silly airplane politics.

 

The landing was smooth into Chico airport.  What wasn’t smooth was that the airport deli was closed and we had been planning to grab some lunch there before heading back home.  This may not sound like a big deal to most folks, but it is to me, and by proxy it is to Brian.  See, when I am well rested, fed, and watered, I look like this:

photo credit to Shady Grove

 

But when I am tired, hungry, and/or thirsty, I very rapidly turn into this:    

 

We have learned this the hard way.  Too many times.  I had an apple, a granola bar, and water with me, so I was very much hoping that that would tide me over.

The other activity for the day in Chico was to visit the airport’s small indoor/outdoor flight museum.  Now, I lost count of just how many damn airplane museums I have been dragged to over the years.  Don’t get me wrong, airplanes are cool, and (to me) the space exhibits that sometimes accompany these museums are even cooler, but I have my limits.  And when I am tired and hungry, those limits drop through the floor pretty quick.

What I find particularly hilarious is that Brian expects me to have a working memory of the different museums and what planes we saw in which museum.  Observe:

Hey Lady, you remember that one big yellow turbo double engine supercool plane we saw at Big Joe’s Fly-By Museum on July 20 at about one in the afternoon about three years ago?

Hell, no.  I don’t even remember ______ .

Well, that plane is here now!  We get to see it again!

Again…for the first time.

——

Back in Chico, we (cautiously) started with the outdoor exhibit and I started on my granola bar.  The outdoor exhibit had about a dozen planes in various states of disrepair.  Here’s what I remember: one was old and Russian, several were homebuilt and extremely small and flimsy looking, one of those homebuilts was yellow.  There was also a toy fighter plane that kids could play in and I wanted very badly to be able to fit into it, but I didn’t even get a chance to try because I was surrounded by potential witnesses.

While walking through the exhibit, Brian asked the docent dude if there was any food nearby.  I think he could sense that my inner trantrum-y six year old was just inches from the surface at this point.  The docent said there was a hamburger joint about a half mile down the road, so Brian and I decided to walk there even though it might make us a bit late getting home.  About a quarter mile down the road, we decide to check our smartphones to make sure we’re indeed going in the right direction.  Alas, gps said that we were still 1.6 miles away from meaty, bready goodness.  At this point I began to lose control as I stomped after Brian heading back towards the airport again.

Brian still wanted to see the bloody indoor part to the museum, so I went to town on my apple and took a moment to sit quietly outside, marinating in my rage, for fear that I might rip Brian’s head off if I didn’t.  Once the apple started to digest, I pasted on a smile and joined Brian inside the museum.  I actually found a wall with signed pictures from lots of awesome astronauts, so I had a little moment of joy looking at Jack Swigert’s and Ken Mattingly’s John Hancocks.  Way cool.

After that, Brian and I made our way back to the winged tin can for our return journey.  I had woken up that morning already feeling like I was coming down with something, and at this point in the day I could feel a migraine coming on from lack of foodage and liquid.  While Brian preflighted, I downed some water with pain pills and chowed down on some emergency cliff bars Brian had on hand.

In times like these, I really rely on music to manipulate my mood, and right then I needed some major calming action, so I turned on some Jack Johnson and tried to sleep.

Midway through the flight I wasn’t feeling too bad, so when Brian asked if I would like to try taking the controls for the first time ever, I said sure.  Man, was that ever weird and terrifying.  I turned the yolk clockwise about an inch or so, and the plane began to slowly turn after a several second delay, which was very unnerving.  After a few minutes as pilot, my mounting anxiety got the better of me and I turned the controls back over.  Then I initiated a conversation about what might happen if Brian were to fall unconscious mid-flight, because now we need to plan for every worst case scenario.  We decided that I would get on the radio and shout that I was in trouble and needed a fighter jet escort, mayday, mayday, breaker, breaker, over!!  And then my anxiety got to dangerous levels just thinking about it, so we changed the subject.

Later on in the flight, I did my awesome job of pointing out another aircraft that was actually pretty close to us by airplane flight standards.  While Brian was trying to maneuver in such a way that would keep us alive, I started reciting lines from Top Gun about how we should take advantage of this opportunity to communicate…you know, the bird?  We should be inverted! I yelled at Brian.  I don’t think he heard me.

The last cool thing about the trip was that Brian heard over the radio that we were passing an area where people were actively sky diving at the time.  I kept watching for either the diving plane or for open parachutes, and just as we were about to land at our home airport, I saw two open parachutes way back behind us.  I was so excited about this that I practically had to clamp down on my mouth to keep from interfering from Brian trying to land the plane.  The second we touched down I dutifully tapped his shoulder and blurted, I saw two jumpers! Back there! But you were landing!  You missed it!

Hungry, Hungry Melissa Crisis averted, as we hauled ass to In N Out as soon as we left the airport.  Success!