Thirty minutes after take off and something didn’t seem quite right. Usually at this point I’d be nibbling on cheap nuts and preparing to watch a marathon of Suits but 30 minutes after we left Heathrow the flight was still in take off mode. By that I mean the engines were roaring and the back-end of the plane was lower than the front, as if we were still trying to reach cruising altitude. The seat belt sign was on, the in-flight entertainment not yet started, and there was no sign of the drinks trolley with the provisions I suddenly really needed.
The pilot’s voice fills the cabin. He has an announcement to make:
“We’re experiencing a technical difficulty with the aircraft.” (No sh*t Sherlock!) “We’re hoping to fix the problem and continue our journey to Singapore. Please remain in your seats while we try to fix the problem. We’ll update you with any changes.”
The cabin was quiet aside from a few tuts and mutters from people who were worried about missing their connections. I was one such person – on my way from London to Brisbane for a 5 day conference. I huffily checked my itinerary to see how long my connection was in Singapore, wondering if I had any hope of making it if we experienced a delay.
About 15 minutes later the pilot had an update for us:
“The problem we are experiencing is with the landing gear. The wheels have not retracted after take-off like they usually do. We can’t fly any higher whilst they are in this position so we ask you to remain in your seats whilst we try to fix the problem. We’ll give you another update when we know more.”
Suddenly my concern was less for my connection and more for my safety. A problem with the landing gear? Weren’t those wheels kind of crucial?!
I looked around the cabin but no one else seemed particularly panicked. It was a night flight, we’d taken off at 9pm, so most of the passengers were dozing. I sat back in my seat, bored and thirsty, and imagined the pilot repeatedly pressing a button which said ‘wheels up’ in the hope it would suddenly fix itself.
I must have dozed off myself because suddenly I’m awoken by the pilot’s next unsettling announcement:
“We have not been able to resolve the situation and unfortunately cannot resume our journey to Singapore this evening. We’ll be heading back to Heathrow shortly but firstly we need to release some fuel as we cannot land with this much on-board. It will take about an hour for us to fly over the North Sea and at that point, if anyone is interested, you will be able to see the fuel released into the ocean from the right hand side of the aircraft.”
What? I turned to the lady next to me with confusion. ‘We’re dropping fuel into the sea? We can watch it?’ I wasn’t sure if I was more surprised, confused (it was dark after all) or excited by this information.
“Guess my trip will have to be cancelled,” she said. She was heading to somewhere remote in Papua New Guinea (I wished I had asked why) and her connection only ran once per week.
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
The third passenger in our row didn’t appear to speak any English and looked at us both quizzically. I wasn’t sure how to mime the announcement so pulled a sad face and apologised to him too.
Just like the pilot said we spent a further hour in the air: burning fuel, dropping the excess in the ocean and then circling Heathrow waiting for a landing slot. At this point we’d been in the air for about 2.5 hours; the cabin crew hadn’t been allowed to leave their seats so no refreshments were served and the in-flight entertainment remained switched off. So I did something I am quite accomplished at doing absolutely anywhere, at anytime required – I went back to sleep again.
But another unsettling announcement woke me from my slumber.
“We will be landing shortly at London Heathrow. Due to the nature of our problem there will be fire trucks and emergency services on hand – do not be alarmed. This is standard procedure. We do urge you, however, to remind yourselves of your nearest exits and be prepared to adopt the brace position if instructed.”
It dawned on me that the faulty landing gear that was preventing us from reaching Singapore might become a problem when we tried to land on it. I counted the rows between where I sat and the emergency exit. I had seen this done on Air Crash Investigation. Apparently it can save your life to know how many rows there are between you and the emergency exit in a dark and smoke-filled cabin. Sombre thought really.
I fretted for a little while longer and thought how sad it was that I might die amongst all these strangers. All alone. On a flight that I wasn’t really supposed to be on. (Long story.) I went to those twisted, dark parts of your mind that you visit when paranoid/panicked and pictured who might come to my funeral. In my head I sent surreptitious texts to my loved ones, letting them know I loved them but was off to the afterlife.
I was in an aisle seat so I leaned into the aisle to see if I could spot the crew in the galley. I wanted to see if they were talking, acting chilled, like this was a regular occurrence. I was a little too far to be sure but they looked pretty sombre to me.
And then all this worrying got really tiring so I fell back to sleep once again.
I awoke for the third time when I could feel us dropping altitude; it felt like we were hurtling, full pelt, towards the runway. My stomach was somewhere in my cheeks and I gripped the armrest of my seat with every fibre of my being. Even the muscles in my neck were shaking. This isn’t normal, I kept thinking, this doesn’t feel like a normal landing. I gripped the armrests a little harder and tried not to make eye contact with the other passengers, I didn’t want to see my feelings of terror reflected on their faces.
We hit the ground with a tremendous thump. I strained my ears to see if I could get a sense of what was happening. There were no screeches, no sparks flying outside the window. It sounded like we were on wheels, felt like we were rolling rather than careening along on the plane’s belly. Through the darkness I could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles as they raced alongside us. But thankfully they weren’t needed. The aircraft eventually came to a stop and didn’t explode in a ball of fire. I didn’t even get to go on the inflatable yellow slides. We used the doors like normal people.
Before everyone left the aircraft we were handed a voucher for accommodation at the Sofitel London Heathrow. Then, despite having not technically gone anywhere, we had to go through passport control at Heathrow and onto collect our luggage. Along with the accommodation voucher were vouchers for 24 hours worth of food at the hotel, which wasn’t what I was expecting. I had hoped we’d be put on the next flight out that morning but I guess when you have a full plane to reassign the chances of that are slim. Although I repeatedly asked the airline nicely if they could get me out to Brisbane asap, in the end I was put on a flight at 9pm the next day. I forgot to check the details but I think I went out on the exact same aircraft. This time without a glitch. Thankfully.
(This account is from a flight I took to Australia in 2011. Ironically it was my first official day working for Flight Centre. Obviously it has not put me off flying in the slightest.)