10×10, or What I Learned From Almost Crashing On A Plane

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One of the ripping great things about living where I do is the density of cultural opportunities within a relatively short drive. We went off last night to see the Barrington Stage Company’s 10×10 Play Festival with some friends.  We went to this event last year and loved it:  take ten new playwrights, ten plays that have never before been performed, each ten minutes long, and staff them with a rotating case of six actors and actresses (total), and put on a two-hour long festival.

Roy says he loves it because when he (inevitably) falls asleep, he only misses one of the plays and still gets the nine others.  I pointed out that last night, he missed five minutes of one play and five minutes of the next, which must have led to a moderately surreal experience of one of the plays (his subjective “one”…everyone else’s subjective “two” – and neither of them surreal at all).

I love it because you get such a delicious sampling of writing, plots, dialogue, and acting – and you get to see the same actor or actress playing multiple (and often very different) roles.  It’s like a Theatrical Buffet.  And I like it that none of them are more than ten minutes long, so if I hate one, I know it will be over soon.

As with the festival last year, this year’s offered a very wide range of technique and approach.  One play was a strange stream-of-consciousness production about producing stream-of-consciousness literature.  Another was a predictable and simple vignette of a lover’s spat and the ensuing makeup – made vastly interesting by the fact that all of the dialogue consisted of third-person conversational subtexts instead of actual conversation.  One was an homage to the devastation and loss that comes with living through a natural disaster.  And so on.  One was an oddly-constructed non-contemporaneous account of two different airplane crashes – or one crash and one narrowly-averted crash – joined not in time but in a common individual.  It was this one that took me most strongly…because I, myself, have been on planes that have nearly crashed three times.

The first time was in my youth, and the avian adventure involved a set of landing gear that would not descend.  At ten, or eleven, I was too young to fully appreciate the meaning of the plane circling for what felt like hours, and the aircraft personnel coming down the aisle to a few rows in front of me and lifting up the carpet and a panel on the floor of the plane to access the hold.

The second time was in Philly, on my way home from a job interview, when our plane encountered an unexpected flock of Canada geese at dusk during takeoff, and had various and sundry holes blown in the fuselage, the wing slats, and cracks in the windshield.  On that event, the plane bumped and thumped hard in the air right after lift-off – mercifully, this was before 9/11, or there would have been pandemonium in the cabin – and then wobbled and circled and circled and circled and circled.  I had a window seat forward of the wing and was in a position to notice that Philly was much, much larger than I ever thought…either that, or we weren’t actually leaving Philly. I used the wing as a visual benchmark for gaining altitude, and that’s when I realized the slat was down and had a hole in it.  I wondered if the pilots knew about this, and wondered how much trouble that was going to cause when it came time to land.  The ride was definitely a bit…rough, but the pilots hadn’t come on to discuss the strange bumping and jerking at takeoff, nor the apparent vastness of the City of Brotherly Love.   I briefly considered bringing it to the attention of the flight attendant that there seemed to be a whacking huge hole in part of the plane’s wing, but on further reflection, I decided that the simple act of communicating this information would be likely to result in a state of unrest to my fellow passengers.  So I kept it to myself.  Eventually, what felt like about 2 hours later, the pilot came on and acknowledged that the aircraft “was having mechanical difficulties” and that we’d be returning to the Philly airport “as soon as possible”.  And then he kept us in the air for another aeon, while I stared backward at the “mechanical difficulty” on the wing.  A corporate jackass seated in the row in front of me decided to verbally abuse the flight attendant over the delays, and sorely tried my resolution to keep my information private.  He was bitching about being late to Dallas, and I wasn’t sure we’d all still be alive in an hour.  I wondered why we didn’t go back to home base more quickly, but when we did get there and saw the fire trucks on the runway, I realized that whether the pilot knew about the hole in the wing or not, he certainly had some reason to anticipate difficulties on landing.  Fortunately, the landing itself was relatively uneventful – but the scene inside the airport once the other passengers saw what had happened to the plane (and the hole in the wing was only one of many obvious problems) my early suspicion that information would result in pandemonium was confirmed.  Several people had hysterics on the spot and had to be escorted away by medical personnel.

The third time was the charm, the one where I really got to see what happens right before a plane crashes.  It was highly informative…and in unexpected ways.  The author of the play last night, however, had clearly also had this experience, or knew someone who had, because he or she got it exactly right.  Even the unexpected bits.

I was on another flight into Boston’s Logan airport, and having mixed feelings both about Boston (the city) and Boston (the airport).  It was the commuting part of my life, which meant that Roy, my fiancee of the time, was awaiting me on the ground.  Or, because the Big Dig was not yet complete, was probably awaiting me in traffic caused by construction detours.  I hoped for something to change my opinion of Boston, since it was becoming clear at this point that I’d be relocating permanently to the area within the near future.

I certainly had my change of opinion, and how.

If you’ve ever flown into Boston, you know that the airport is located on a weird little manmade island of landfill sitting out in the Boston Harbor.  It’s surrounded on most sides by ocean.  It’s common enough to find your plane circling well out over open water, to the point where you can see the top of Cape Cod, before swinging back in to land on this terrifying little island.  That’s what we did that day, in the spring.  You’d think I would have the date I got a Wish You Were Here card from the Grim Reaper burned into my brain, but it’s not.  All I can remember is that it was spring, and Passover was around the corner, and the sun was out.  We swung way out over the ocean, and I looked down as I always do, and noticed that there was a surprisingly huge amount of chop on the harbor – whitecaps and spindrift everywhere I looked.  Boston is where it is because the Harbor is as big and protected as it is, and it’s not common to see a lot of whitewater out there, especially not on a sunny day.

Right about the time I thought “Hmm, that’s odd” the bottom of the world dropped out.  In brief, our flight hit clear-air turbulence caused by an invisible squall line that no one knew about at all until our plane was caught in it.  That’s such a short sentence that does nothing at all to convey what actually happened. What happened is that our flight couldn’t land, and it couldn’t leave, and it very nearly crashed, and it took its sweet time about all of that, and every single soul on that plane – including the pilot – thought in our deepest hearts that we were about to meet our maker(s), and that this experience lasted, subjectively, forever.  In real minutes, possible 30 of them, from the first dizzying jerk and vertiginous drop to the final minute of total silence.

Here is what I learned in that 30 minutes, or that lifetime, or that eternity.

First. Planes are built to withstand an incredible amount of tossing about in the air.  I knew that from more than a few hair-raising takeoffs on turboprops out of DFW with major thunderstorms in the area.  I also knew that from my grad school buddy, who had a pilot’s license, and who had given me the Insider’s Perspective when my plane was shot down by Canada geese.

Despite this, when the plane bangs around violently enough, things go to hell pretty quickly on the inside.  Over the course of eternity, or 30 minutes, several of the overhead compartments blew open and spewed the loose items all over the inside of the plane.  I remember rocketing around in the air psychotically, dipping and diving and climbing and coming this close to hitting the ground, and all of it taking place with handbags, notebooks, and jackets flying around in the air. The smaller items that had been stored under the seatbacks also had time to work themselves out and add to the chaos.  One of the latches for the galley cart also sprang open, so the entire experience was accompanied by a percussive beat of the carts slamming back and forth in the galley.  I had a moment of brief gratitude that the things are built to go back and forth, and not to turn, or we’d have had the blasted things racketing up and down the aisles on top of everything else.

It was a mess.

When the plane drops enough altitude fast enough, you get zero or negative G-forces.   The stuff that poured out of the overhead bins didn’t just fall and stay put.  It fell and went back up again, like we were on the space station. I had a paperback in my lap, and had to take a wrestling grip on it because the g-forces kept yanking the thing straight up out of my hold to hit me in the face.

The clothes, handbags, books, and small items are not the only thing flying around in the cabin.  You get…fluids.   Consider the basic airsickness bag.  It’s narrow.  The opening is about as big as a yawning mouth, by design.  Now consider trying to get one out of the seat back pocket while the plane is not just rocketing unpredictably up and down, but jerking and swooping hard from side to side at the same time, and the g-forces are such that they’re actually pulling things out of your hands.  Now, try to puke into that narrow, narrow bag with all the above going on.  Don’t forget that the air is full of flying items.   No matter how dedicated you are to remaining tidy – more on that in a moment – you’ll understand the challenges presented by the situation.  Even with the best of intentions, there’s going to be a…Miss Rate.  And when there is, that…material…is going to be added to the stuff that is already flying around in the air.

Most fortunately, it was a relatively light flight, and no one in my immediate vicinity…contributed…in this manner.  I could see it happening about 15 rows up, though.  Ugh.

Throughout all of this, I kept reminding myself of the words of my grad school-aviatrix buddy, about how planes are built to take abuse.  And I’d always had this idea – watching too many movies, I’m sure – that if things were very bad the flight attendants would be telling us to assume some position, or whatever.  So it came as a complete surprise to me when I saw what really happens.  I tell you this: when you see the flight attendants crying and praying, you know things are really pretty hairy.  This is not a pleasant experience.  If I were the type to get frightened, which I’m not (and this is how I know it) I probably would have peed in my pants.  And not cared.  Given the fluid issue discussed above, I am fairly certain that someone near me was having that very experience. At the time, though, all I could think was “Oh, so this is what it must have been like on the space shuttle right before it blew up.”

So here we are, on the Thrill Ride of A Lifetime, with all kinds of…stuff…flying around in the air, and most of the other passengers are praying, crying, vomiting, or some combination of the above. But – this was surprising – no one was screaming.  I would have thought for sure that there would have been screaming, but I guess it turns out that you only scream up to some given Threshold of Fear, and past that, there is only crying, praying, and vomiting.  There we are, all of us, realizing – no matter how slow, thick, or committed to a state of denial, it happened to all of us by some point – that we were in all likelihood about to die.  Right then, right there.

I started wishing that the plane would hurry up and get to the business of crashing.  The suspense was just about killing me.  It seemed completely inevitable.  I wondered if we would break apart in the air, and hoped firmly that I would not find myself falling, strapped in my seat, from a height of thousands of feet.  I have no head at all for heights – I can hardly even get up on a stepladder without having vertigo – and I fervently hoped that if this is what was going to happen, I’d just cross right over that Threshold of Fear myself and black out so I wouldn’t have to experience the inevitable terror.  Or that maybe I’d get lucky and get so frightened I’d have a heart attack and wouldn’t have to experience the impact.

I wondered if Roy would feel it when I died, like some people say happens to their mates.  I wished that I didn’t have to sit on my purse to keep it from joining the streaming chaos in the cabin, and that I could get my phone and call him to tell him I loved him.

I wondered if the plane would just arrow right into the earth, and all of the seats would blow loose and pile up and squish us all.  I wondered if there would be a fireball, and hoped that I’d never know.  But mostly, I wished that it would just bloody hurry up and happen because I was getting heartily tired of all of the nasty stuff flying in the air and the panic going on everywhere else.  I might not have crossed my Threshold of Fear, but I certainly crossed my Threshold of Ennui.  And yet, at the same time, I had an inescapable vision of Slim Pickens making re-entry on the nuclear warhead at the end of Doctor Strangelove, and experienced the bizarre urge to stand up out of my seat and shout WOOOOOO-HOOOOOOO!!!!  The only thing that keeps me from acting on this impulse is that when the plane slides hard sideways through the air, my head bangs against the wall.  I’m taking a pretty good thumping on the bean through all of this, but it’s definitely knocking the impulse to behave erratically out of my world.

And the whole time, I’m seeing the Logan runways appearing and receding in a tantalizing dance.  So close, and yet so far.  We were right there, and we just could not land.

Meanwhile, the really unexpected thing is transpiring around me.  As I mentioned, it was a light flight, and I didn’t have anyone next to me. But I found out through watching what was going on around me (while watching for projectiles and missiles flying through the air) what happens when you’re hanging out with a bunch of total strangers and you all arrive at the collective understanding, quickly, that you are all probably going to die very soon, and together.

People become amazing.

Some of them panic.  But some of them take care of the people who are panicking.  Some of them get really calm.  Some get a little bit nuts and want to do things like shriek WOOOOOO-HOOOOOO!!!! But what people mostly do is drop all of the prickly bits they usually carry around on the outside, and they reach out to each other.

Somewhere, in the flying cloud of mayhem of luggage, among all of the crying and praying and screaming and vomiting, in the sideways jerks that slam your head against the wall of the plane, people become vastly more human than they usually pretend to be, and in that moment, one can see what our potential is (and if you live long enough, you can grieve that we don’t do more to be that way ordinarily).

The guy in the aisle seat of my row found the hand of the unfamiliar woman in the opposite aisle seat and held it so tightly he had bruises on his palm afterwards.

The woman behind me panicked in front of her young daughter, who cried.  One of the businessmen behind the panicking woman undid his seat belt (an act of true bravery, under the circumstances) while the guy next to him (another stranger) anchored him by holding onto his belt.  The first guy leaned forward and hit the seat-back release, dropping the back of the panicking woman’s seat – upon which both guys (now belted back in) leaned forward to hold her hands, while a third one spoke soothingly to the child.  None of these people knew each other, none had been speaking to each other, before.  We’d all been in our tired, private commuting worlds.  Before.

Ultimately, it is clear from my presence telling the tale, the pilot managed to hit the ground before getting blown back up, and he managed to keep the wheels under the plane as he did so.

And then, the plane stopped where it landed.  The detritus fell out of the air.  An extended moment of pure silence descended on us as we took in the realization that we were not, in fact, dead.  I don’t think anyone could quite believe it for a while.  And the plane…just…sat.

After another eternity, the pilot came on, in tears, voice shaking, for the first time since he’d told the flight attendants to prepare the cabin for landing.  He told us that in 25 years of flying, including a military flight career, he’d never had an experience even close to this one, and that he could hardly believe we were all still alive.  And then he paused and said “Welcome to Boston.”

And then there was applause.  And some screaming, as people approached and crossed the Threshold of Fear from the other side.  And plenty of crying.  And a fair amount of people saying “UGH.” for reasons that should now be obvious.

Eventually the pilot drove the plane to the gate, and we all got off and got cleaned up, and left.  I found Roy and told him I wanted a drink now. And I and my fellow wonderful, amazing people, took our leaves of each other silently and without fanfare, and no sign at all that we were forever joined by this experience.

I didn’t expect the flying detritus.  I didn’t expect it to feel like it went on forever.  And I didn’t expect the love.

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About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

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