Scared Of Flying? Don’t Read This.
I once believed that rolling out of bed to slide, bleary-eyed, into bumper-to-bumper traffic was a pretty stressful occurrence. I recall that at one point I thought having an argument with my wife on the phone while sitting in an undersized cubicle performing a job I hated was a fairly horrible thing. And I remember a time when receiving an undercooked hamburger from a rude waitress in a noisy chain restaurant was enough to drive me over the edge. But that all changed on January 31, 2000. On that day I, after a lengthy, much-needed vacation, boarded Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to make my way home to Seattle. A few weeks of overindulging in tequila and sunshine had me fairly well spent, so after a smooth, uneventful takeoff, I exchanged pleasantries with the well-known Seattle Times wine columnist sitting beside me, then let the soothing hum of the airplane’s engines help me drift off into a nice, comfortable half-sleep. What I didn’t know was that improper aircraft maintenance – ultimately, inadequate lubrication of components vital to the plane’s integrity – would cause absolute failure of a major flight control system. So one second I’m immersed in a pleasant, semi-erotic daydream of the well-built, girl-next-door secretary new to the office. The next moment I’m jolted awake to the heavy, heart-skipping sensation of the MD-83 plummeting, nose down, toward the ocean. Peanuts and beverages fly off trays. Piercing screams fill the cabin. Some of the oxygen masks drop from above the terror-stricken passengers as they grasp, frantically, at their armrests. I think I hear the captain’s comforting, somehow unshaken voice over the intercom, but the adrenaline in my brain mixes with the blood pumping furiously through my heart, and I can’t seem to focus on much of anything. Heartbeats and shrieks. We fall 8,000 feet in eighty seconds. In the cockpit the pilots pull on the controls with all their might, exerting well over one hundred pound of pressure on the controls. And at once, the plane is stabilized. Tears flowing from passengers sick with fear. Encouraging words from the captain. Slowing pulses. Clearing heads. A steady airplane. Nine minutes of people reacquainting themselves with the thought of life. Then four distinct thumps, followed by an appallingly loud noise. Once again, gravity yanks the plane from the sky; we plummet. I see ghost-white, desperate-eyed people clutching onto their children. Some of them are praying. I taste the sweat pouring down my forehead. I hear more screaming. It’s louder than before, and completely devoid of hope. Baggage tumbles from overhead bins, smacking passengers atop their heads. It knocks some of them unconscious. Mercy? The plane is inverted, and the pilot is trying to fly it upside down. It isn’t working. Nose down, we fall 18,000 feet in 81 seconds before hitting the water at hundreds of miles per hour. Shredded metal, silence, and salt water. My day was worse than yours.
In Memory Of The 88 People Who Died On Alaska Airlines Flight 261.