The Not So Friendly Skies

Doug’s guest post!

Disclaimer:  Apologies to all the bodeswell fans out there.  Angela alluded to this story a long time ago, and I’m just blogging about it now.  Let me tell you, maintaining a blog is hard work.  After a “rough” day of lazing around on the beach, exploring volcanoes, traveling for hours on the road in Red Beard, cooling off in cold spring water holes, or attending random rodeos on a patron saint’s feast day, it’s tough to sit down at the end of the day and write a blog and upload photos.  Although there’s plenty of wi-fi available throughout Central America, sometimes there’s a brownout, or the laptop is out of juice, or we can’t get a reliable signal, or we’re simply too busy researching where our next adventure is going to take place.  Hats off to Angela and Jason for keeping their blog updated!

So my flight into Managua was a bit harrowing.  As we make our final approach, things are normal, and I’m excited to step foot in Central America for the very first time.  I peek out the window and recognize two freshwater lakes, and a several huge volcanoes from previous research I’ve done from my guidebooks.

The captain makes his normal, final decent announcement of “we’ll be on the ground shortly.  Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival.”  So we put up our tray tables, bring our seats forward, etc.  I’m excited that within minutes, I’ll set foot in Central America for the very first time.

However, about 20 minutes goes by, and I notice we pass over the same volcano I saw earlier.  The captain then makes another announcement and says “you may have noticed we’ve been circling Managua in a holding pattern.  We are experiencing some ‘mechanical issues’, and we are unable to land at this time”.  All of us in the cabin kind of looked at each other with confused looks on our faces.  I hear murmurs half jokingly saying things like “I hope this doesn’t have anything to do with the ‘mechanical issues’ we had before we left Miami”.  (Our flight departed late from Miami due to a “maintenance issue”, but we had received the “all clear”, and they made up the time in the air.)  No one’s worried just yet, but I do see a few signs of the cross being made.  The captain, in his cool, calm and collected voice announces “we’re going to attempt to rectify the issue”, and “we appreciate your patience”.

After another 20 minutes, we continue to circle.  The TV monitor in the cabin shows a map with our flight route, and now the yellow line is shows a lot of figure 8s and circles on the screen.  I’m still not quite worried yet, but granted there also haven’t been any updates yet, and the all announcements so far have (I assume) been intentionally vague.

Then the surreal happens.  The captain makes another, somewhat disturbing announcement (still in his calm voice):  “Ladies and gentlemen, we have been unable to rectify the issue.  As a precaution, I’ve requested fire trucks to be on standby on the runway when we land.  This is strictly a precaution, and I’d rather have them there than not at all, so please don’t be alarmed if you see them when we land.”  Then he says “I’m now implementing procedure number blah, blah, blah”, in which he rattled off some unfamiliar numbered code.  He then concludes his announcement with “at this time, please direct your attention to the flight attendants who will now go over some important safety announcements and procedures”.

Immediately, the entire flight crew goes into a very serious emergency mode.  They pull out binders and begin reading and announcing very detailed instructions.  The instructions are procedures for a quick and orderly evacuation as soon as plane lands.

They begin with a very stern “if you are using iPods, you need to turn them off NOW!”  “At this time, please locate an emergency exit that is closest to you.  There are four exits over the wings”.  Then they make that over the wing gesture pointing to the wings, but in a very prominent and serious way.  There’s an intentional, long pause, allowing time for the passengers to think about their nearest exit.  Then they continue, “There are two exits in the rear.”  Again, they make that very prominent gesture pointing to the back of the plane, and again, intentionally pause to let it sink it.

They continue by saying, “when we land, you need to go to the nearest exit in a quick and orderly fashion.  You will then go down the inflatable slide in twos.  You need to remove any sharp objects in your pocket like keys, so as not to puncture the slide.  Take NOTHING with you except the clothes on your back.  Don’t worry about your passport, your hand carry luggage, your camera, etc.  Just leave it stowed, or place it in the seat pocket in front of you.  After sliding down, you will then need to move as quickly as possible away from the plane.”

Holy shit!  This is serious.  This is definitely no joke.  What kind of mechanical issue are we having that we need to evacuate quickly?  I’m thinking, are the landing gear wheels not working?  Are we going to land with the metal fuselage skidding along the concrete runway?  Maybe it will spark and ignite the jet fuel.  Maybe this is why the captain ordered the fire trucks to be on standby.  Maybe that’s why the flight attendants wanted us to move as far away as possible from the plane after we use the emergency slides.

We then go over how to properly brace for impact.  We practice crossing our arms and leaning against the seat in front of us, and make sure our seat belts are as fastened as tight as possible.

People are definitely getting worried now, including myself.  Families are embracing each other, people are praying, some are even crying.  I’m still relatively calm, because the entire flight crew is calm, and even the captain is calm.  These are worse case scenario procedures, and the flight crew keeps indicating these procedures are being done strictly as a precaution.   If they’re not worried, I shouldn’t be worried.  At least that was my logic.  I also think of Captain Sully Sullenburg who landed his plane in the Hudson River, and find some comfort knowing pilots can make emergency landings with good outcomes.

The crew continues to prepare for the emergency landing, and it’s a little bit of a roller coaster for me.  I overhear one concerned passenger and he asks the flight attendant if we are making a land landing, or a water landing. The flight attendant assures him it’s going to be a land landing, but I’m thinking if there are fire trucks, wouldn’t it be better to land in water instead?

Then, a flight attendant goes up and down the aisles asking “who’s traveling alone?”  I raise my hand, and then the flight attendant asks if I’d mind moving to another seat.  There’s a mother and son who are seated separately, and want to sit next to each other.  I move to another seat, and I’m now in the very last row in the aisle directly across from the rear door.

I’m OK with the seat change, because now, I’ll be one of the first people off the plane.  However, I now overhear instructions given to two volunteer passengers who will be the backup door and slide operators.  I guess there needs to be backup people in case the flight attendant, for some reason, can’t make it to that door.  The flight attendant asks the two volunteers, to repeat the steps she’s just read from her binder.  “Step 1, check for fire and smoke through that little round window.  If there is fire and smoke, don’t open the door, and use another exit.  Step 2, if clear, pull this lever to inflate the slide.  Step 3, pull the backup lever if the first lever doesn’t work.”

On one hand, I’m worried about the smoke and fire thing, but on the other hand, it’s good to know there are backup procedures in place.  I assume if the flight attendant passes out from smoke, there will be two backup people to operate the slide.  If the slide fails to inflate, there is even a backup lever.  The redundancy safety procedures calm me a bit.  It’s just like all the safety redundancy when you SCUBA dive.

So we’ve gone through all the emergency procedures now, and the captain makes a final announcement that we’re ready to land.  He indicates we’ll be landing a little faster than normal, and that’s why he wanted to go over all of these safety procedures.

The next 10 minutes seem to last an eternity, and an eerie silence fills the cabin.  Some people curiously close their shades, but I anxiously try to see through open windows how close we are to the ground from the aisle seat I’m in.  We’re getting closer and closer to the ground.  I can see trees, buildings, and roads.  Then we land with a slight, normal sounding bump, but that’s it.  I’m waiting for the “brace for impact” announcement, but there’s nothing.  All of sudden everyone realizes we have just landed safely, and everyone applauds and cheers loudly.  I’m a bit confused and think the applauding is a bit premature.  I’m thinking we’re not out of the woods yet, and that we’ll still need to evacuate when the plane comes to a stop.  I quickly realize, we have landed fine, and there’s no evacuation necessary.  I finally applaud with everyone else.  A teenager a few rows ahead, captures the moment on his camera.  People are hugging each other, laughing, and giving high fives.  I’m still a bit in disbelief and shock.

Then after so many very serious safety announcements and procedures, the flight crew goes back to their normal landing announcements as if nothing had happened.  They start with a simple “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Managua”.  There’s a long pause, and we all bust out in collective laughter.  The announcement continues, “local time is 12:45, and current temperature is 85 degrees.  Please remain seated until the plane reaches the gate.”  Everything’s literally “by the book”.  I jokingly imagine in their emergency binders, there’s probably a yes or no flow chart saying something like “did plane land normally?  If yes, continue with normal landing announcements.  If no, continue to page 5.”

So the Rehms have had such an extraordinary adventure already.  I guess it was inevitable for me to start my journey with them with a bang (no pun intended).  It’s funny because my parents were so worried about me traveling within a third world country, but maybe they should have been more concerned about me landing safely in the first place.  In all seriousness though, this experience has made me even more confident about flying.  Rest assured, for those of you who hate or fear flying, take comfort in the fact that the airlines have always had a worse case scenario emergency plan of action.  You just don’t know about it, and hopefully you’ll never hear about it, or ever have to go through this experience as I did.  I found out later the “mechanical issue” was a flap problem.  The flaps weren’t operating properly, and therefore couldn’t slow the plane down as much as the captain wanted.  The landing gear was fine.

As I exited the plane, I made a point to thank the flight crew and the captain.  I was very impressed, and appreciated the professional manner in which this tense situation was handled.  I now have an even greater respect for all flight attendants.  They’re really not just waiters and waitresses in the sky.  They are highly trained professionals in managing large groups of people and keeping them safe.

I disembark from the plane, go through immigration, and claim my baggage.  I see Jason, Angela, and Bode behind the glass with all the other people waiting for their parties to arrive.  Needless to say, they are truly a sight for sore eyes.  Completely clueless about what just transpired, I bring them up to speed, and we head out to Red Beard.  It’s insanely hot and humid.  We drive off into the Nicaraguan countryside, make a quick stop at Volcán Masaya to look down the crater of an active volcano, then head to the Monkey Hut, a great hostel at Lago de Apoya, a beautiful and clean freshwater lake surrounded   by rainforest, for some well earned R & R.  To put it mildly, a very memorable day one is now complete.  I’ve still got several more weeks of adventures still to go.  Benvenidos a Nicaragua y Central America!

Note: Doug also gave notice of his resignation as “guest blogger”.

3 thoughts on “The Not So Friendly Skies

  • August 9, 2010 at 8:55 AM

    HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!!!

  • August 11, 2010 at 4:08 AM

    Hi there really enjoyed your article – keep writing, enjoy the trip 🙂

  • August 11, 2010 at 3:45 PM

    Dougie, that trumps my depressurized-cabin experience by a MILLION. O. M. G. !!!!!

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