An emergency landing

This past week, I got on an Air Jamaica flight from New York to Grenada. I had barely slept the previous night so right around take off at 7:40am, I fall asleep. I awake to hear the captain telling us to start preparing for landing.

I groggily look at my watch. I can’t possibly have been 5 hours. It was 8:00am. Huh? I flag a flight attendant – what’s going on? Apparently the captain announced that we have to go back to NY because there are flight control problems. Oh, and I should read the card in the seat back since this is an emergency landing and we will all need to be in the “brace position“.

That’s a first. In all my years of flying, this has never happened. I look around at the other passengers. There seems to be lots of nervous energy but everyone is dong something to keep their minds and hands occupied.

Oddly, I am not stressed. At all. In fact, it is the other extreme – I am very calm. I wonder if this is how I am going to die. At some level, I don’t really believe we are going to crash and die. Very detachedly, I think “Ah, well, it is what it is”. The pilot circles the landing strip in huge circles, trying hard to dump as much fuel as possible. I guess the turning is hard because of the control issues he’s having. But this goes on for about 35 minutes. I read the safety instruction card and examine the brace position – very straightforward.

Then the captain asks the flight attendants to take their seats. He orders all of us to go into brace position. This is where things got a touch nervy. The brace position I assumed was with my elbows on my knees, my hands clasping the opposite arm, and my head against the seat in front of me. The thing is that in this position, I couldn’t see very much. Actually, nothing besides my shoes. So, not knowing what was going on was what made it a touch scary. That and the fact that the captain barks over the PA system “Brace position! Brace position! Brace position!” Yes, we get it dude, we are all in brace position already. Snapping at us is just making us nervous! Maybe he had to do this – mandatory protocol to make us aware that this was serious stuff.

The plane made the approach and it was very rocky – lots of swaying with one wing always above the other instead of in stable equilibrium. He hit the ground and jammed on the brakes like there was no tomorrow. Screeching halt, my head firmly imbedded in the seat in front of me. Phew – we had landed. As soon as we came to a stop, 40 or so emergency vehicles surround us. More ambulances and fire engines in the distance leave the scene, happy that the plane didn’t explode. The captain tells us that one of the wheels is on fire/smoking and the fire department is looking into it. We sit there for a while and then finally start pulling into the gate.

There is an Air Jamaica employee sitting near me. I see her quietly take her cash and passport out of her bag and put them in her pockets. Hmm… I wonder if they will make us leave everything on-board. I do the same.

The captain announces that this happens sometimes. Much like a car, aircrafts need service. What?? How dare he even make the analogy?! Well, first, you don’t find out you have to service an aircraft when you are in midair. Second, as an airline, you are PAID to make sure that aircrafts are serviced regularly – BEFORE there are issues. Isn’t that what service days are for?? Honestly, I was not upset that this happened – stuff happens. But the captain trying to make a lame excuse? That made me really mad. When things go wrong, accept responsibility, stand up and be accountable. That’s what differentiates great companies that can lead in times of crisis

We disembark – I see the Air Jamaica employee hug another employee on the ramp. She is shaken. Must have been a first for her too. And apparently this was quite serious. I learn later that even when we landed, we could have blown up since we had so much fuel. Thankfully we didn’t.

Air Jamaica does a terrible job sharing information. No apologies, no information. The standard $8 meal coupon for passengers is handed out an hour and a half after we have disembarked. Terrible – this load of passengers just went through something scary – do you need to check their tickets before handing out a coupon? Hand them out like candy! Break the rules and give everyone four coupons so they can eat a great meal. Make them happy!!!

I think airline employees should learn how to step up in these situations and make the passengers feel better – break the rules, do more than expected and you will have customers for life. Do the basic required minimum and you’ll have people who will try to avoid flying you ever again. Air Jamaica clearly fell into the second bucket for me.

I see the captain a couple of hours after we land as the crew is being changed. I ask him if it has been fixed. He says yes. I ask him are we sure it won’t happen again. He says that we can never be sure, but if it happens again, the new captain will be able to land the plane again. Such words of inspiration!

I spend my time calling family and telling them I am fine. I watch some cricket on my computer and chat with my fellow passengers – many of them Grenadians who live in New York who are going home for a visit.

Finally, at 2:30, the plane was fixed and we took off again – on the same airplane. Everyone was nervous this time around. The plane seems to struggle to get off the ground. But we are off.

I look out the window at a shrinking New York. I wasn’t really nervous through 99% of the experience (except when brace position was being yelled at me), and even though I know how statistically safe air travel is, I think this experience will come to mind each time I take off – at least for the next few months.

  • OMG Shri! Glad you’re all right — thanks for posting. That was a gripping story.

    I’ve been involved with a few of those in my business travel career — one where the plane missed the approach coming in for a landing at SFO (which is a problem because your alternative there is to crash into the bay) and another when we smelled smoke in the cabin and had to return to the airport after takeoff.

    Each time, people in the cabin were pretty calm. It’s not like they portray it on TV and in the movies.

  • Oh dear!! that was a literally hair-raising account. Glad to know you’re all right!

    thanks for writing it up- most of us go through life (And flights) confident that this can never happen to “us”.

  • Thanks god…………. and your boldness………visit me by blog

  • Petra

    Wow what a story! I’m so glad to hear that you’re OK. It’s really not surprising that the airlines don’t do much more than the bare minimum. It’s expected that they are rude most of the time and behave as though you are inconveniencing them. US airlines are the worst. Best one I have flown with was Austrian airlines – great service and great food.

  • libertarian

    Glad to hear everything turned out OK. Quite a harrowing experience.

  • Glad to hear everything ended well and you are ok.

  • Shripriya

    @ Jeffrey – Yeah, I think it is scarier when you think about it afterwards. And yes, the cabin crew was basically lounging around, completely unconcerned – I think that made it much less stressful than it could have been. Now that you have two under your belt, I hope you’ve had your quota! 😉

    @ TGFI – Yes, very true. I was stunned that this happened to me. But in reality, I think the captain and crew know their stuff, so they handled it pretty well.

    @ Raghu Ram Prasad – I couldn’t really do much, so calling me bold would be a huge stretch! Thanks for visiting!

    @ Petra – The quality of customer care post-event was astoundingly pathetic in how minimal it was. I totally agree that US airlines are the worst. I avoid them like the plague when I travel internationally and within the US, I try to stick to JetBlue as much as possible. Have never been on Austrian – will have to try to fix that soon 🙂

    @ Libertarian and Syed – Thanks so much!

  • August

    Very scary Shri, glad to hear you are safe.

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  • Ash

    Wow, scary stuff. Glad to hear you’re alright though!

  • “I am constantly amazed at how unamazed we are at the efficacy, safety, and low cost of airline travel – and especially at the engineering marvel that it represents.”

    http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2007/04/18/the-miracle-of-flight/

    This article followed yours in my feed reader and I *had* to share. I’ve been in an emergency landing once, in Doha. It’s scary, more so when the pilot dumped excess fuel out over the sea.

    Glad it worked out well!

  • Its no way to treat customers. esply when in situations such as these.

    I am glad everyone was safe in the end.

  • Hey — saw this linked at Desipundit. Quite a hair-raising account! I’m an aviation buff and I abslolutely love flying, and I fly a lot and I’ve never experienced anything like this. Air Jamaica really blew this one (sorry, bad choice of words) at least as far as customer service goes: after landing the pilot should have been a lot more forthcoming as to what exactly went wrong. However, he was right about one thing: stuff does happen, though calling it “airplanes need service” is rather misleading. There are strict regulations governing maintenance and so on, though standards vary by country. Airplanes have multiple backup systems and there’s very strict protocol on how to handle in-flight emergencies of this nature. This includes yelling “brace position” and so on. [Check this, for instance.] Fuel dumping is normal: an airplane takes off with more fuel than it will land with, and, ordinarily, is too heavy to land immediately after take off. Hence the fuel dump. Which is also prescribed rather precisely, based on the weight of the plane and so on.

    My point, if any, is that in most cases, there’s layers and layers of protocol that try to cover most unplanned in-flight emergencies. Obviously they don’t always work. But it’s one of the reasons the statistics on air travel are what they are.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to come across as giving a lecture or as patronizing. I’m sure this was a rather terrifying experience. Glad it ended safely. Best wishes.

    PS: FWIW, emergency landings of this nature don’t even make the news, unless they’re spectaculr, like that Jet Blue nose-wheel incident from a little while back.

    PPS: It may come as a surprise to how much data on commercial air travel is available publicly. For instance, at Flight Aware, I was able to find this flight, and deduced the date based on the data. The track log showed the airspeed, altitude and lat/lon for the aircraft from take off till the first landing!

  • sounds like a rude awakening… glad to hear it turned out ok.

    i’ve done a reasonable amount of travel in my day, but so far i’ve only had one *HARD* landing. about 10-15 years ago during a driving rainstorm on the east coast, we came down pretty fast and landed with a very big BUMP. a bit scary, but otherwise no bumps or bruises. kind of amazing no other major issues.

    anyway, hope your trip to jamaica was a happy one after the rough start!

  • Shripriya

    @ August and Ash – Thanks so much!

    @ blr bytes – Thanks for sharing. What a coincidence! Glad your Doha landing ended well too.

    @ bharath – Exactly. And thanks!

    @ Gashwin – What great information – thanks *so* much for sharing! And don’t worry, no offense taken at all. Yes, I know that dumping fuel is the norm and in fact, dumping fuel makes you safer when you land and I thought that maybe the yelling brace position was protocol – but it was freaky none the less.

    And thanks for the links – the flight tracker stuff is very cool! I was a few days too late to find this flight as an unregistered user – I am sure, since you are a flight buff, that you are registered 🙂

    @ Dave – Actually it was to Grenada (with a brief stop in Barbados). And Grenada was quite wonderful, thanks 🙂

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  • Chris G

    “The captain announces that this happens sometimes. Much like a car, aircrafts need service. What?? How dare he even make the analogy?! Well, first, you don’t find out you have to service an aircraft when you are in midair. Second, as an airline, you are PAID to make sure that aircrafts are serviced regularly – BEFORE there are issues. Isn’t that what service days are for?? Honestly, I was not upset that this happened – stuff happens. But the captain trying to make a lame excuse? That made me really mad. When things go wrong, accept responsibility, stand up and be accountable. That’s what differentiates great companies that can lead in times of crisis.”

    As an aviator I am writing this response as a rebuttal to your opinion based comments regarding your Air Jamaica flight. I am in no way affiliated with Air Jamaica nor have I ever flown on any of there flights.

    “The captain announces that this happens sometimes. Much like a car, aircrafts need service. What?? How dare he even make the analogy?!”

    “But the captain trying to make a lame excuse? That made me really mad.”

    The way pilots speak to each other is quite different then the way they speak to the general public. It is often referred to as ’pilot lingo.’ Many people usually have trouble understanding what we are talking about and therefore we must offer analogies in order to get the point across. What the captain did was something every pilot does in order to offer a better understanding to his passengers.

    “Well, first, you don’t find out you have to service an aircraft when you are in midair.”

    Do you find that your power steering needs servicing when your sitting in a parking spot or when you are driving? The obvious answer is when you take the car for a spin. Well the same is for an airplane, some things we can only find out are broken once in-flight. And some things break while we are flying. Believe it or not it is perfectly legal to fly with broken items if certain measures are taken.

    “Second, as an airline, you are PAID to make sure that aircrafts are serviced regularly – BEFORE there are issues.”

    I think my statement immediately above answers part of this question. To the first part of the question, ‘the airline’ as you refer to consists of several groups as you probably know; pilots, cargo agents, maintenance personal, etc. We the pilots are not paid to service aircraft. We are paid to fly the airplane safely and efficiently to the best of our ability. Please, for future reference, do not affiliate the flight crew with maintenance issues, and do not blame maintenance issues, on every group associated with an airline.

    I hope I have offered a better understanding to you as well as to all of your readers. The negativity we deal with on the job is unbelievable; next time, please demonstrate a little bit more sympathy for your captain. After all, he is the one that ensures your flight is a safe one.

  • Shripriya

    Chris – thanks for your detailed response – much appreciated.

    While it is wonderful for you to present an aviator’s perspective, it is also important to see this from the passengers’ perspective. For years, the airline industry has touted how air travel is the safest form of travel – and they are right. It is also the form of travel where passengers are the *least* in control – in a car, you are driving and so somewhat in control (one hopes!) and even in a train, you can actually jump off (even if the passenger would likely die from doing so, the ground seems close by).

    Given that passengers feel completely helpless, I think it behooves the pilot (or whoever happens to be communicating with the passengers) to present the situation in a way that doesn’t scare the passengers more than they already are. My personal opinion was that this particular captain did a poor job of that.

    You make a very fair point that not all problems are identifiable on the ground and that some problems are okay to fly with – point taken.

    And I completely agree with you that there are different departments. Unfortunately for the crew, they are the only ones that passengers see and interact with, so they are the only ones who we can talk to. They are also the face of the airline to the passengers, so I think if he’d said something a little kinder and gentler and less off the cuff and seemingly uncaring (from a passenger perspective), it would have been better.

    Finally, I do agree that pilots have a very difficult job. I have often applauded when captains land planes smoothly or land planes not-so-smoothly in very rough weather. I am very open to giving them credit when due and even this particular captain deserves credit for his piloting skills. He could have likely saved the whole lot of us. I just take issue with his communication skills.