A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes it’s fun to hear a story behind a photo.
It was the summer of 2007, and a major turning point in my life. In a bewildering start to the year, I had been accepted at the University of Michigan to pursue a Master’s degree in Financial Engineering. Having said goodbye to family and friends, I was en route to a new life. And I had no idea what to expect. Certainly not the events that were about to unfold.
My flight plan for entry into the United States involved a stop in Amsterdam, where I would transfer to a Northwestern Airlines jet for my transatlantic voyage to North America. Settling into my window seat after a particularly invasive background check by the airport staff (I was told to expect these), I looked around the passenger cabin.
The man beside me had already cracked open a can of beer, despite it being only 7am. The couple in the seat behind us were all over each other. Decidedly beyond the ‘get a room’ stage, and making slurping noises. ‘Hmm’, I thought to myself, ‘definitely not Saudi’.
The plane taxied to the runway as I sat red faced (well, as red as a brown man can get!) at the first-time, first-hand exposure to both sex and booze. This was the beginning of the weirdest flight I have ever taken.
As we got to our runway, the plane seemed to seemed to turn off. And it just stood there for 15 minutes. Finally, as the passengers in the cabin started to take notice of the delay (even the happy couple behind me stopped to look out the window), the captain came on the intercom. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologize for the delay, but it seems we have run into a paperwork issue with this flight. To resolve it, we’ll need to taxi back to the gate”.
Delaying a flight and causing a plane to taxi back? Wow, that’s some serious bureaucracy. If anyone actually thought the problem was paperwork related, their beliefs in the respectability of the airline industry was quickly shattered when, after taxiing back, airport staff disassembled the plane’s right engine.
A good 2 hours later (if this was ‘paperwork’ then it must’ve been a whole term paper) we finally taxied back to the runway, with what we assumed was an operational right engine. Already interested in photography, I pulled out my trusty point-n-shoot and started snapping away pictures as the plane took off. As the plane bumped around a little too much as it gained altitude, I realized this would be anything but a normal flight…
Halfway through the flight, as the attendants came to pick up the remnants of the barely palatable in-flight meal (I was given plastic utensils, as my neighbors used nicer metallic ones!), the pilot chirped back onto the intercom. We were halfway across the Atlantic and something was wrong.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lost power from our right engine. The plane can still operate with just one engine, but we are diverting this flight to the closest airport which would be Montreal”.
Utter silence in the cabin.
I’d imagine the couple behind would be holding each other very tight at that point. A Boeing 737 has two engines. Losing thrust to one still means the aircraft can land safely. Lose both and you get out and push.
To someone who had so far never been in a plane longer than 2 hours, the next 4 or so hours of this flight were the most terrifying ever. I remember, quite embarrassingly, closing my eyes and saying (several) silent prayers. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been so scared. I mean, honestly, what are the chances of both engines failing in the same flight?
Well, since I went on to complete my Master’s degree and become a very lovable photographer, you can already guess that this story didn’t end in disaster. The plane limped its way to Montreal, where we landed safely and spent the next 8 hours waiting for another Northwestern jet to fly over from Detroit to come pick us up.
Our only consolation: $10 in food stamps at an airport where people blatantly refused to talk to you in any language but French.
Well, I guess I did have at least another consolation. On getting to my uncle’s place in Ohio (albeit 12 hours late), I discovered this gem of an image. Taken high above the skies of Amsterdam…
Of course the result of all this is that I can no longer fly on a plane without constantly checking on the engines every few minutes… Not that this helps in any way, but it’s also the reason for me never being able to sleep on a plane…
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