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A Brave Soul in the Face of Danger? No, a Sick One

March 06, 1992|ROBIN ABCARIAN

For years, I have been fascinated by plane crash stories: about passengers who, through smoke and flame, pulled strangers to safety in a cornfield after a cartwheel landing. About white-knuckled travelers who held on in the Hawaiian skies after the top of their plane's fuselage ripped away.

What were they thinking in those moments? What would any of us think?

Would you mourn or review your life? Wish a mental goodby to your family? Wonder how many people would turn out for your funeral?

Maybe you'd be overcome by the monstrous solemnity of imminent death. Or be wry and brave, shoring up others' courage.

Recently, I heard Gay Talese talk about his own close call. In 1981, he was aboard a small plane when the pilot instructed passengers to prepare for a crash landing. Talese penned a note to his wife and daughters, then reviewed his life.

The plane landed; no one was hurt, but Talese had a minor epiphany: "I decided I wanted to do a personal story so I can leave a record of what I really am, apart from what I do." The result was "Unto the Sons," the just-published saga of his family.

When something similar happened to me over New Year's in the skies above San Juan, Puerto Rico, I did not review my reel. I did not write farewells. I did not feel grateful for a rich and varied life.

I threw up.

We had flown all night from Los Angeles to Miami, then on to San Juan before boarding a commuter turboprop bound for St. Thomas. As we walked outside into the blinding light to board, we inhaled the tropics. It was hot and humid with a wonderful breeze. As we took off, the water beneath us was the intense shade that goes with palm trees and white sand. We could almost taste the pina coladas.

Fifteen minutes off the ground, the flight attendant announced we would return to San Juan. There was a minor mechanical problem. I thought she said the landing gear had not properly retracted. So who needs the landing gear to retract?

Five minutes later, an update: "We are sorry, but we are still having difficulty getting the landing gear to come down."

My palms felt damp.

And then: "We have lost our hydraulic system, but we think we will be able to use a backup system. In the meantime, we will circle for about 20 minutes to burn off fuel."

Burn off fuel? Don't they do that before they crash land?

"It's just a precaution," said my husband. "Don't worry. We'll be fine."

I broke into a sweat.

The captain came on: "Ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry, we are on a backup hydraulic system. We will be trying a number of maneuvers to get the landing gear down."

If all failed, he would resort to something that did not sound fun: He would tip the nose of the plane up and jerk down like a bucking bronco to force the gear down.

Five minutes later--with no gymnastics necessary--the gear cooperated. We sighed with relief.

Until the captain spoke again: "I am sorry, but we still have a problem. There is a possibility that the nose gear will collapse when we land. Please do not be alarmed, but we must prepare for a crash landing."

A girl in front of us began to sob. Two couples across the aisle joked bravely. The young woman kitty-cornered from us looked at the ceiling and moved her lips. Mother of a toddler and an infant, she was traveling alone.

In times of turbulence, I have always gone by how the flight attendants react. If they are unfazed, I relax. Our lone flight attendant was pale; she looked stricken.

I felt sick.

"Even if the landing gear collapses, we'll be OK," my husband said. "The fuel is in the wings and the wings are high on this plane. There won't be a fire."

Comforting as he tried to be, I could not share his optimism.

"Anything could happen. Crashes have no logic. If the nose gear collapses, the pilot could lose control and the plane could tip and the wing could catch on the ground and then the whole plane could break apart. We could definitely die."

"Don't be silly," he said.

The captain appeared.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for staying calm. If the landing gear collapses on impact, God forbid, we will have to use the emergency exits. We don't expect that to happen, but if it does, God forbid, you need to be prepared."

I did the Bush thing. You don't want to crash, God forbid, on a full stomach.

The flight attendant collected high heels and other sharp objects. We removed our glasses. We crossed our hands on the seat in front of us and put our heads down, alone with our thoughts. Mine were pathetically prosaic: This isn't happening. We're dead. Everything will be fine. At least we'll die together. Who'll feed my dog?

We neared the airport. Not a plane in sight; nothing landing, nothing taking off. We circled in. Bright green emergency vehicles lined one side of the runway. That was comforting.

But next to the trucks, I saw them: a dozen men in suits. Administrators . I closed my eyes.

We dropped our heads. We held our breath. We landed. We stopped. We breathed. The suits rushed the plane.

"Let's hear it for our stewardess," someone yelled.

An hour later, we boarded an airbus for St. Thomas.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We were stuck in a campground with chanting, tofu-eating hippies from Upstate New York. We snorkeled next to big-fanged barracuda and got trapped in a torrential 12-hour rainstorm. Our clothes grew mold from the humidity. Invisible sand fleas chewed us raw.

It was the best vacation, God forbid, we ever had.

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