Thursday, August 26, 2004

Come fly the friendly skies with British Airways

July 26, 1998. BA flight 239. We are going from London to Boston with my then-boyfriend Teemu.

The plane takes off more or less on time and more or less normally, at least for the first few minutes. Then it starts feeling like we are not rising fast enough, nor accelerating fast enough. I decide that I am just being paranoid and imagining things and start staring down at the earth in an evil way in hope that it will get scared and go away. It doesn't. 15 minutes or so go like that, and we are still way too low and way too slow.

Suddenly Teemu says: "Dont't you think that we are way too low and way too slow?" So I am not being paranoid. OK, I am being paranoid but in spite of that the whole world really is against me today. I answer that yes, something is wrong and look around. None of the other passengers looks like they noticed anything, which is not very surprising, considering that we are surrounded by something that looks like a church choir consisting of teenage girls. Such people tend to be in disgustingly good spirit on airplanes, at least until they've had beans for their in-flight lunch. Cabin crew, on the other hand, looks a bit concerned. Or rather they look scared shitless. I'd always imagined they teach them a bit of acting, but apparently they'd practiced with some scenes depicting the last day of Pompei.

After a little while the pilot says in an apologetic tone well-familiar to most women: "Sorry, we can't get our landing gear up. We'll circle around for a while, try to get it up, but if we won't succeed we'll have to land and fix it on the ground". My first thought: "if they can't get it up, it might be they cannot get it properly down either", and I start contempltaing what a landing without functioning landing gear might feel like, what are the chances of surviving it, whether I actually want to survive it, and whether it is likely to cause any kind of injuries that might make me want to kill myself but render me unable to do so without outside help. While I am thinking these cheerful thoughts, the church choir around us has awakened to the situation and is reacting to it like it is some kind of an exciting adventure.

Now we are not only low and slow, but also moving in a wrong direction. Instead of circling around London like the pilot told us, or going northwest towards Ireland like we were supposed to in the first place, we are going southeast, and I can see the North Sea below us and Belgium ahead of us. I might be too paranoid to trust my assessment of height and speed, but I am not crazy enough to imagine Belgium. This makes me think that they really can't get the landing gear down, either, and are trying to land on water. I share this observation with Teemu and start reading the emergency card, mostly just to have something to do since I already know it by heart. Teemu keeps telling me that I should forget it and that we are definitely not going to survive a landing on water, therefore no need for studying emergency exists. I look at him like Han Solo looked at C3P0 every time C3P0 tried to tell him the chances of successful navigation among the meteors.

Suddenly a huge jet of some fluid, presumably fuel, comes out of the wing. I am sitting in a window seat right behind the right wing, so it's only in a few meters from me and I get the best view. I take my eyes off Teemu and give a really evil eye to the jet of fuel. It doesn't disappear. Teemu is carrying on with the "Doom! Doom! Doom!" topic. I tell him that if he does not stop right now he will have more immediate threats to his life and well-being than falling planes. The cabin crew is running around in quiet panic. The church choir is in good spirits.

After a while the pilot belatedly announces that they did not manage to correct the problem, that they are dumping the fuel into the North Sea now and that we will be landing back in Heathrow as soon as we are done with fuel dumping. It goes on for 20 minutes or so, and then we indeed start crawling back towards Heathrow.

At the moment when the landing gear touches the ground I relax quite a bit, especially since it seems to be slowing down in the normal way. The next moment the church choir sees the several dozens of fire trucks and ambulances that were waiting for us and starts panicking. Loudly. We are gloating quietly and wishing them all to shit their pants. Prematurely, as it turns out, since they do not let us off the plane. The plane comes to the gate, they (the pilot, not the choir) tell us that they will fix it in no time at all and just to sit tight. Teemu looks out of the window and loudly remarks that they are offloading our luggage even as they speak.

After an hour and a half they tell us that this thing is definitely not flying anywhere, that they'd get a new plane in a couple of hours, and that meanwhile we can all disembark, go to the terminal, get something to eat and they will pay for it. Quite coincidentally this happens 5 minues after all restaurants in that terminal except MacDonald's close for the night. I don't care for MacDonald's and try to call my parents, but my battery is empty. I ask people in BA information where I can find a continental European plug. They say there isn't any. I look at them. They give me a couple of phone cards so that I'd stop looking at them.

The next plane indeed came in a couple of hours, and the flight was luckily rather uneventful.

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