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.
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.