Flight Misses Minneapolis-Saint Paul by 150 Miles
Military jets stood by as NWA pilots, apparently distracted, didn't respond to controllers for 75 minutes
StarTribune.com October 23, 2009
The twin-engine Airbus shuddered violently, then veered to the left. This was years before September 11, before talk of armed pilots and secured cockpit doors. All around us, passengers exchanged quick, wide-eyed glances. Directly outside our window, a thick column of jet fuel shot out from the wing as the crew prepared for an emergency landing.
“Can you fly this plane?” my wife asked, her nails digging into the back of my hand.
We were on our honeymoon, on our way from Bali to Bangkok. As part of our courtship, I had let Nina know that I held a private pilot’s license. Although I hadn’t flown for years, she imagined that, in an emergency, I could dash to the cockpit, take command of the controls and, like a hero from one of the Airport movies, bring the crippled plane and its cargo of hysterical passengers safely back to earth.
She couldn’t have been more mistaken.
I began my flying career at a family-owned flight school operated out of a barn. My instructor repeatedly had me practice “touch and go” landings and take-offs from a short dirt strip hemmed in by high-tension lines at one end and a thick forest at the other. We then began practicing a variety of potential mishaps, including the unambiguously named death spiral. Even for the strong of stomach, this is a sickening procedure. We began by flying straight up until our small plane stalled. “Did I ever tell you I’m a manic depressive?” my instructor asked just as the plane fell backwards over itself and began drilling its way down to terra firma.
After receiving my license, I accumulated not many hours in the air but enough near misses to last a lifetime. There was the time over Denver when I was told I had “traffic” at the same instant a private jet sped directly beneath me, not more than 100 feet away. And there was the time I flew three friends to see Kilauea, on the island of Hawaii, in full eruption. Circling far above, we felt the plane’s fuselage grow hotter and hotter. When we crossed the lava flow far downwind from the vent itself, currents of rapidly rising hot air hurled the plane 500 feet straight up. An instant later, when the plane stopped ascending, everything—maps, sunglasses, cans of soda, cameras, microphone—hit the ceiling. I expected the wings to snap off.
Volcanoes. Small planes. Bad combination.
Two of my lowest moments occurred in Monterey, Calif. Hoping to make a memorable impression, I flew a date there. I made a big show of chatting with the tower, fiddling with the instruments and scanning the sky for other planes. Finally, I put the plane down with the gentleness of a falling feather.
Just as my date, suitably impressed, said, “Wow, was that smooth,” a voice crackled over the radio. “Do us a favor, will you?” the control tower said. “Next time, try to land on the correct runway.”
When I next flew to Monterey, I did land on the correct runway. My problem came after taking off with a close friend and his parents on board. Departure control had given us a heading of 350 degrees, nearly due north. Yet a few miles from Monterey I was headed out to sea, beneath a gray sky that was getting lower and lower. As a “visual flight rules” pilot, I had not been trained or certified to fly through clouds, so I kept descending until the ocean seemed to be close enough to touch with my sweat-drenched palms.
Surprisingly, I remember beginning to feel better and better as we continued to descend, comforted by the knowledge that at least my friend and his parents would die together. At that moment, a column of sunlight shot through the clouds onto the black ocean. Never had God sent me so clear a sign. I aimed the plane toward the rapidly closing hole and popped us into a clear blue sky. That was when I checked the compass and saw that instead of flying 350 degrees as directed, I had been flying 305 degrees—straight out to sea.
Why I wanted to learn to fly I no longer remember. Maybe it was that I wanted some of the élan and daring do of the bush pilots I had come to know while a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. Maybe I wanted to be a later day Waldo Pepper. Maybe it was just to get dates. Whatever it was, I was never seen with a long scarf fluttering behind me from an open cockpit. And after their first flight with me, all of my dates chose to have their subsequent thrills on the ground.
For pure humiliation, nothing beats the time a non-pilot friend and I rented a plane for a quick joyride around Oahu. Immediately upon taking off from Honolulu International, our tiny, two-seat Cessna began convulsing as if someone were beating on it with a hammer.
“Honolulu departure, I’ve got a very loud banging on board. I’m requesting an emergency landing,” I radioed in.
“Take any runway, any runway,” departure control radioed back. Fully expecting parts to start flying off the fuselage, I began scanning the airport’s rapidly emptying runways as the radio buzzed with instructions for half a dozen jumbo jets to abort imminent landings and otherwise get out of my way. After landing, we taxied to a remote ramp where, in case the fellows in the tower were watching, I began my search for the loose piece of metal that had nearly ripped the plane apart. What I found was the tail end of my friend’s seat belt. It was hanging out the door.
Years later, as our crippled Airbus approached the airport back in Bali, I could see the emergency equipment waiting for us on the ground. “Can you land this plane?” my wife asked again.
“Sure,” I told her. “Let’s just hope I don’t have to.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Stanford magazine.