Flight 447: We Cannot Penetrate This Weather

Up in the air, monsoon storm clouds over Mumbai. #skyart or #cloudporn?
Up in the Air: Monsoon Clouds

This is a story about how when you hear penguins at 20,000 feet, there’s a good chance you’re in deep sh*t.

Ladies and gentlemen…the weather situation in Srinagar is very bad…flights are being diverted to Delhi…four flights just before us…we will try and see.

I’d absorbed only fragments of the pilot’s announcement as my head was buried in a book. We’d come from Mumbai and rivers of monsoon to escape to Kashmir in northern India, apparently only to find more storms.

Then we began our descent.

What? Flights are being diverted, but we’re going anyway?

Immediately, we could feel an updraft, the sensation of the plane being gently lifted by an unknown hand from underneath then pounded incessantly with large rubber mallets.

I’ve felt this before. I can handle this, I think.

As I peered out the window, I noticed we were clearly on top of – or perhaps even inside of — a storm. Bits of thick white cotton framed foreboding swirls of gray in the shapes of swans and distended unfurled breakfast rolls; ominous layers and puffs roiled into a twist. (If my deftly constructed metaphor feels tortured, imagine what it was like on that plane!)

Then our plane began to bank. I’m familiar with banking. For example, I notice that flights to London Heathrow usually do it about 16 times before landing.

But why on earth would we make a banking turn at this altitude, just above the clouds?

We descended a bit and struck some light resistance, a jolt. The pilot pulled out and turned again, this time banking at an even steeper angle, as if he were deliberately aiming to spin directly into the grayness. It felt almost like a pitched descent, the sort I’m told is employed by service flights taking contractors into “green zones” in places like Kabul and Baghdad – in order to avoid anti-aircraft fire like rocket-propelled grenades and Stinger missiles.

We were not headed into a green zone. I heard no anti-aircraft fire.

A cloud swallowed us. We vanished into complete blackness. The plane leveled. And that’s pretty much when all hell broke loose. The plane rocked, shook and seemed to vibrate from without and from within. A huge drop, we lost altitude.

The entire plane – full up with Indian families and honeymoon couples on vacation — erupted in screams, then quieted again.

My stomach was in my throat, right next to my heart and a handful of other vital organs. I gripped Audrey’s hand, or she gripped mine. We’d begun to sweat. We looked at one another, grabbed tight.

Usually, I feel good enough about these things that I joke. No jokes this time. I was scared. I’ve been on a lot of flights that rocked and rolled, but something about this said, “This just might be your last.”

If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. And I just hope it happens quickly. These are moments in a flash where I snap and drift into thinking “What will it look like if this plane disintegrates in mid-air?” If an engine falls off, how long will it take for us to drop? What would it feel like if the plane broke in two? If an engine breaks off, would the whole wing go with it? Or would the wing remain attached yet limp? I imagined myself in a Magritte-like surrealist scene where the sky is filled with passengers and a handful of airplane toilets.

I was uncomforted.

Meanwhile the twin girls across the aisle joined in by projectile vomiting and turning their seating area into a Jackson Pollock painting. I give them an A for effort in trying to be tidy though, unknowingly bypassing the barf bags and grasping with their father’s help for the plastic Ziploc bag that held the safety information card. Meanwhile, their mom sat next to us terrified, occasionally glancing at us as if to say, “Are we going to make it?

I don’t know.

It felt as though we’d committed and there was no going back, no going up.

The only way out it seemed was down.

The only question was how.

The pilot attempted another descent, driving the plane deeper into the clouds. The plane dropped again. Clearly, he was forcing it, likely because his position offered him no choice. I could hear him fire the engines; I could feel the air resist around the plane.

Then the engines made a sound so god awful, I was certain they’d fall off. (If you’ve ever taken a fully loaded jet like a 747, the engines make that grinding whirl upon initial ascent, a slightly unsettling noise that one easily comes to terms with after it disappears. The sound we heard: absolutely nothing like this. In a word: wrong.)

There’s no onomatopoeia to do it justice: thwap, thwap, thwap, maybe. Quick in succession like an overzealous spatula beating a mountain of wet cookie dough. But there was no cookie dough and the magnitude of the tremor shook the plane to something apocalyptic.

Had a bird gotten caught in the engine turbine? Really, it felt more like an emperor penguin.

The shuddering sensation was hellish, of the sort that makes you wonder whether something is really happening or whether it’s over and you are only dreaming in the embers of what’s left of your brain function.

The circumstances felt torturous. We were in a tiny little metal tube 10s of 1000s of feet in the sky and Mother Nature would have her way. She always does.

Screams reached blood curdling. Their sound became part of the horror. In a moment of awareness, I was struck by the fact that most screams sounded of terror (understandable) while many others sounded of exhilaration, like the collective cry at the peak of a roller coaster (curious).

Regardless of how thrilling this was, we were all pretty much confused, terrified of dying — dying a death of flying toilets and penguins.

I could not imagine enduring 10 or 15 more minutes of this, nor would I expect any commercial aircraft to emerge from this intact.

Ladies and gentlemen. We can’t penetrate this weather. I’m afraid we must divert to Delhi…” I’m glad the pilot was still alive.

Relief, except for the small matter of the penguins in the engine. Jokes aside, I’d wondered how a plane so battered could remain mechanically sound enough to continue flying.

Eventually, our plane returned to cruising, with a few bumps of the sort that I would previously have ignored. Not anymore. I was a scarred. Or was that scared?

[We landed in Delhi. What ensued was so entirely Indian, it me made thankful for all things big and small. “This is an unintentional welcome to Delhi,” the pilot announced deadpan, fully composed. Since he was uncertain how long we’d have to wait to take off again, he invited people to get up, move around and even enter the cockpit. Next thing we know, the aisles are packed, the cockpit has 10 people in it, the co-pilot is on Facebook on her smart phone while the instrument panel reads, “ NO DEVICES, PLANE REFUELING” and there’s a guy who’s hitting his head on the ceiling where all sorts of buttons are located. I’m sure that at some point he’s going to inadvertently shut down the entire electrical system. I will that the pilots be absolutely thorough in their pre-flight check.]

After the pilot received clearance to return to Srinagar, we set off again. I closed my window shade.

As our wheels approached the Srinagar airport runway, the plane erupted in cheers. I thought to myself, “People, we aren’t on the ground yet!” I winced, thinking that irony delivers a blow just when you think you are safe.

Our wheels touched ground. We made it. There was a breath deep inside of me that had waited four hours to find freedom.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Srinagar.” (And yes, the flight attendant really addressed us just like this multiple times. And you’d have to imagine it said with an inimitable Indian accent where she pronounces it “gu-uls” rather than “girls.”)

And as the plane rolled to a stop, we were greeted by men with assault rifles. They were friendly men, I think. But I didn’t care. We were on terra firma.

And we were in Kashmir.

—–

Epilogue:

Hats off to the pilot. These guys and gals have extremely difficult jobs that require them to prioritize safety while keeping vacation-hungry passengers on track.

After landing in Delhi, the pilot emerged from the cockpit and addressed the passengers (180+) from the aisle. I can’t imagine anyone demanded an explanation, but he gave one, indicating that only one of the recent flights to Srinagar made it because its pilot was more experienced in the mountains and had chosen an approach from the opposite direction.

Regardless, I am supremely grateful for his attempts, but more importantly for his wisdom in knowing when to quit.

“Are you afraid of flying now?” Not any more than usual. I have my share of flights ahead of me. And they carry with them the risk they always have, which is to say less than that of getting into a car.

“Are you afraid of Srinagar?” Nope. Chances are we’ll be back someday soon.

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Comments

  1. Katie Hammel says

    Oh. Dear. God.

    Dan just forwarded this to me with the note, “you would have been hysterical,” and he’s right.

    I’m afraid of flying in the best conditions (the best conditions = a xanax and a minimum of two glasses of wine) and a mess when things go wrong. It’s not the idea of dying, it’s the idea of *knowing* I’m going to die. It’s the four-minutes after the engines quit and the plane is barreling into the pitch-black sea. I know flying is safer than driving, but when a car breaks down it doesn’t fall 30,000 feet.

    So, kudos to you for holding it together, and here’s hoping the rest of your flights are far less eventful.

  2. says

    Now I usually like flying (as long as I can’t feel the plane move) but after reading your post I’m shaking like a leaf. And that’s in my living room. I’ve been on bad flights but nothing like yours. So I won’t think of the little planes I’ll be taking to hop across Borneo in a few weeks. Nope. Not at all.

  3. says

    All credit to your storytelling skills – I actually felt sick reading this. Weakness in the knees, churning in the stomach-pit, the whole works. (Did I mention I’m afraid of flying? I’m afraid of flying.)

    Airline pilots do amazing work.

    But, a tiny voice in the back of my mind always says, they can’t perform miracles.

    Glad you’re both more or less in one piece.

  4. says

    woah. i had a few flights like that and the more i fly the more scared i become. my job requires flying in tiny 6-seater planes in afghanistan, and yes the decent into kabul is steep, but not because of any dangers except the mountains and winds that come from them. kabul sits in a bowl, a ring of mountains around it. the days are long gone of assult being fired at planes :) thank you for sharing you story, when i was working in india i had a few flights like this in monsoon season and now try very hard to avoid the air space over/around it during these seasons!

  5. says

    Wow…!!! What a terrifying experience!! As the wife of an airline pilot I don’t get scared all that often, and I admit that I always feel better when I’m flying with him, but this one would have terrified me.
    What scares me most is when he comes home and says “You can’t believe the mistakes the guy I was flying with made!” I’m glad your guy knew what he was doing.

  6. says

    Oh my god, that must have been terrifying. I recently had my worst flight experience–where I was convinced we were going down, but yours definitely sounds worse. I also usually tell myself if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.

    “Dying a death of flying toilets and penguins” almost has me dying right now, haha!

  7. Sutapa says

    Holy shit indeed! So glad you made it to Srinagar. If I were in your situation I would just have gone home from Delhi.

  8. says

    Wow- I got goosebumps just reading this. So glad you guys arrived safely- I hope Kashmir lives up to the hype and makes going through this worthwhile (I imagine it will).

    Looking forward to reading the posts on this volatile and disputed region.

  9. says

    Oh my gosh you guys!!!! I’m so glad you made it! I had a similar flight once, not anywhere near as bad… but we were attempting to land in Queenstown when the pilot said there were strong winds, 160km, but we’d give it a shot. We started our descent into the Southern Alps, and were hit with a strong wind that through us sideways. The pilot immediately pulled us back up and diverted to Christchurch, 25min away in the air. However we didn’t refuel. We were put on a bus that DROVE us back over the mountains to Queenstown. Eight hours and three bottles of wine later, my brothers pulled my drunk self off the bus, ready to go helicopter skiing :)

  10. says

    Great storytelling … and I am glad you are safe and able to tell the tale! I was worried about you taking buses — maybe I had a premonition but just got the form of transportation wrong.

    I also like that you got the cultural nuances into the story, and the “indian-ness” of the way it was handled.

    It occurs to me that many a story about driving on the roads of India could read a lot like this ….

    Have a wonderful time in Srinagar, thinking of you and sending you and Audrey love and wishes for a safe and less dramatic trip.

  11. says

    What a relief! With bated breath I read your story–even though I knew you would be ok (you did write a post about it and it was post-mortum). Powerful imagery. I’m so happy you both are fine, my friends.

    Huge love to you!
    Keep traveling strong!

  12. says

    Wow! What an ordeal… I am glad that the Pilot was smart enough to take the right call. You have painted a very vivid picture of the scene in plane.
    Safe travels…

  13. Heidi van der Watt says

    YIKES! An absolutely terrifying experience. You had me all white -knuckled gripping the chair while reading this. Glad you’re both safely on the ground (even though in Kashmir!)

  14. Victoria says

    Terrifying and wonderfully told. I see why it says ‘Storyteller’ in your business card. Hope the rest of your trip is more smooth sailing.

  15. says

    omg, I would have been terrified or even petrified to say the least! So glad all ended well and you now have an exciting story to tell!

  16. says

    Woooo, that sounds intense. No idea how I would react in that situation. All scariness aside though, those clouds that you saw must have been beautiful.

  17. says

    I would have died. I’ve become more fearful of flying in recent years, and this type of situation is what I am most afraid of. I feel sick just reading this.

  18. says

    Whoa!!! I’ve been working on my fear of flying since we set off on our round-the-world trip, but I think that post may have set me back about 6 months!

    It’s amazing what these planes can take, and also pretty incredible at how the margins can seem so slim in tricky situations like that!

  19. says

    First of all I’m glad you guys made if safely to Srinagar. Was it an Air India’s flight? I should never let my boss read this. He’s so scared of flying that he always grabs my hand firmly, squeeze to be precise, every time a turbulent happens.

  20. says

    Dan, your words so eloquently describe those moments when everyone on the plane has the exact same feeling. I could literally imagine myself on that flight and was very happy we landed safely!

  21. says

    We had one close call when landing in Schiphol, Amsterdam. There was very thick fog that stopped only some 20-30 meters above the ground. Airplane landed almost outside the runway, maybe 5 meters away from the grass. Unexpectedly the pilot himself announced that the plane had landed with a trembling voice. Nobody else in the cabin had noticed how close call it had been.

  22. says

    Thanks everyone for the kind thoughts and words, and kudos.

    @Katie: Interesting you make the distinction between dying and knowing you are going to die. I think I went through a similar rationalization when I imagined seeing penguins.

    @Arun: I didn’t mention the airline as I didn’t think it germane to the story. Nor did I want the comments to devolve into a discussion about the airline. It was IndiGo.

    @Leyla: Stay cool and hope for pleasant weather.

    @Mikeachim: I know exactly where are you are coming from. I thought about you when I wrote this.

    @the_goat: I know the wind danger you speak of. A flight we took in Tajikistan flies (or not) dependent on that weather coming from the mountains. I now completely understand your avoiding airspace around India during the monsoon. Even our flights out of Mumbai to Tokyo was rocky for a good hour.

    @Kim: Ugh, I don’t think I could manage hearing all the mistakes pilots are making. Like watching sausage being made.

    @Sutapa: Some people did. In fact, our plane was delayed for another 45 minutes because they made their decision at the very last minute before taking off to return to Srinagar. Then there was the whole thing about identifying bags for security purposes. Was a mess.

    @Mark Hughes: Thank you! Love that quote, too.

    @Erik: Kashmir and Ladakh both lived up. More stories coming up.

    @Jenn: Wow, it must have been bad to pull up and take an eight hour bus instead. Knowing that area, I undertand.

    @Lola: Thanks for the tip! Will do.

    @Mariellen: Oh, the buses. Don’t get us started. We took a 2-day bus to Ladakh, a “Super Deluxe” that will be featured in our next post.

    @Soness: Post-mortem…love the word choice!

    @Victoria: Thank you. It’s nice to live up to one’s self-titling every once in a while.

    @Mark: I didn’t mention the airline as I didn’t think it germane to the story. Nor did I want the comments to devolve into a discussion about the airline. It was IndiGo.

    @Gabriel: I honestly was not particularly focused on the beauty of the clouds. However, this one that I took of a similar monsoon storm around Mumbai might come close:
    http://instagram.com/p/adIUrCuWQ4/

    @JoAnna: I did my job, apparently. I really wanted to put people in that plane with us, for better or worse.

    @Chris: See Mark Hughes’ quote above.

    @Bama: It was an IndiGo flight.

    @Paivi and Santeri: I know that landing in Schiphol very well. One moment, you’re in the clouds, the next moment, you are touching down. A victory for IFR (instrument flight rules, when you cannot get visual orientation).

  23. says

    Wow just wow. That must have been quite a nerve-wracking experience! And I agree with you, the pilot made a very wise and astute decision not to risk it and divert to Delhi. Better safe than never like they say.

  24. says

    Whew! I had a flight like that in India many years ago from Kolkata (then Calcutta) up to Siliguri before getting the toy train to Darjeeling. And it was before radar in the airport! I vowed if I lived I would foreswear small planes in India – but I have done it many times since including a fearsome flight from Delhi into Leh in Ladakh, India, landing at 12,000 feet in snow. The pilots there are amazing — or perhaps we are too trusting.

  25. says

    @Tim Horgan: I’ll take the rickshaws and cows on the ground over the fragility of being in a metal tube dodging lightning bolts and furious weather in the air — any day.

    @Peter Shaw: Thanks. It wasn’t our intent to fuel the fire of the flying-haters, but that’s what happens when you tell a story.

    @Christoffer: “Better safe than never.” — that sounds like a quote from a road sign in Ladakh.

    @Yeison: Remind me to step out of the cabin if it comes to that.

    @Varya: I can imagine the flight between Calcutta and Siliguri. That route is dangerous enough on the ground. And as for landing in Ladakh in the snow, I cannot even imagine!

    At some point, if we hope to travel long distances quickly, we must trust.

  26. says

    Holy crap, this was a tense read – I think I’d have cried. And let out an involuntary yelp or two as I have done on 1 or 2 previous flights. I’m glad that your pilot had the common sense to divert the plane and that you eventually got to Srinagar safely.

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