Now that I’m on the ground in Midtown with a big bottle of water, two little bottles of scotch, and a medium sized deli sandwich, I can tell you that it wasn’t scary at all. Really. A nuisance? Unsettling? Sure. But scary? In spite of all the safety crew and firemen around our plane, I felt perfectly safe at all times. An attendant on our replacement flight says she heard that we’d experienced “electrical failure” and the pilot had called for an emergency landing at about 1:15. This means, apparently, “everyone get the hell out of the way, we’re coming in.” Here’s the blurb I scribbled on the flight from O’Hare to JFK.
My ears started to feel the pressure change and I could see the landscape, but it seemed a little too early. The plane was clearly descending, but we were still two hours from JFK.
That’s when the flight attendant came through. “We’re having a little electrical trouble with the PA. The captain thinks it’s important the he communicate with the flight crew, so we’re going to make an unscheduled landing at O’Hare. We’ll get a mechanical crew on it ASAP. It’s NOT an emergency, it’s just unscheduled.”
I’ve been through worse landings. The plane bounced once, maybe twice and then the brakes went on, hard. Really, I’ve been through worse. But when I looked out the window, a bunch of heavy emergency equipment was heading our way. Fast. I didn’t think it was for us at first, but it was.
The flight attendants came through again saying that there’d been some kind of electrical problem. The pilot landed the plane the old fashioned way, in an odd angle on the grass. I could see tarmac and runway under the wing on my right, lots of grass to the left. And loads of blinky lights, firemen in heavy gear…
We sat for 10, maybe 20 minutes. The air conditioning was dead, the plane got really hot, really fast. The flight attendant told us we were waiting for the ramps, they’d be taking us by bus to the terminal. But we couldn’t get off the plane until they turned the engines off and the left one wasn’t shutting down. The fire trucks shuffled around outside, the firemen stood nearby with extinguishers that looked ridiculously small next to the huge plane wing. The pilot walked through the cabin, looking dead serious and a little old, asking if everyone was okay. He stood chatting with a group in the back of the plane, a round of applause went up as he headed back up the aisle to the cockpit.
No one panicked or freaked out. The flight attendants were like angels, perfectly calm and in good humor. The passengers sat and joked, I snapped pictures of the fire crew out the window and as they boarded the plane. Finally the left engined whirled to a halt and a cheer went up in the cabin.
Here’s a note from JdS, who was also on the plane:
By the way, I was in the back of the plane when the pilot came back and talked to us.He told us that he had lost all electrical systems and had to land the plane visually, and that we went off the runway because he couldn’t easily control the plane.Â He said that the crew had noticed an electrical problem in Seattle that was fixed but still persisting in being a problem, and that as we were flying they were troubleshooting the problem by the book, doing one test after another to try to root out the cause of the problem, until suddenly the whole electrical system went down, and so he called in an emergency landing.Â He explained that he’s been flying 757s and teaching others hows to fly 757s for over 25 years, and that they’re incredibly safe and reliable planes and have layers upon layers of backup systems.Â He also explained that the engines are designed to keep running even without any electrical power, which somewhat accounts for why there was such difficulty in shutting off the left engine after we landed.
It seemed like a long time, but it really wasn’t, you’ve sat longer waiting to get off a plane before, I’m quite sure of it. The passengers were perfect and orderly, no one rushed the door. A woman paced a little bouncing a small baby, but the baby was quiet, totally peaceful.
I managed not to fall down the stairs – I was a little jittery – and I stepped on the grass. A woman in full security gear looked at me and smiled. “Welcome to Chicago O’Hare!” she said, and I laughed. The way to the bus was lined with crew, making sure everyone kept moving, making sure we were safe and out of the way. I snapped a lot of pictures and got on the bus, then snapped some more.
The crew unloaded the one passenger who needed a wheelchair, carefully setting him down outside the bus. The lift wasn’t working, his family (wife and baby, I think) got back off the bus and pulled a video camera out of their luggage. It looked dramatic, the guy strapped in the carrier, but he was fine – I’d seen him at the airport in Seattle wheeling around, the cute baby in his lap. In my photos, it looks like something happened in the landing, but I heard him laughing and chatting with the crew.
I swirled around the airport for a few minutes, jittery and sweaty. And I laughed out loud a few times while my brain noodled over dumb jokes and more serious stuff. “Oh no! I forgot to pay the runway use fee!” and “Did I just survive a plane crash?” It wasn’t really a crash, we didn’t hit anything. Two tires blew and we skidded onto some grass. no big deal, right?
I chatted with a baggage handler in the airport. “You were on that flight?” he asked me, and I told him what I knew, which still isn’t much. “The pilot landed the old fashioned way,the crew was great,” I said. “That’s what you want,” he responded.”It’s not when everything is working that the skill comes in. That’s when you need those guys. that’s what they get paid for.” I told him, as I’m telling everyone, how great the crew were. He patted me on the shoulder, very kindly, “I’m glad you’re safe,” he said, before wandering off to do whatever he does at O’Hare.
The crew, the pilot, all the saftey and security folks, they were terrific. And on our new flight, the attendant was amazed. “I saw that happening,” she said, “and I couldn’t believe none of the emergency exits were open. Passengers freak out and then we have to do the full evac. You guys are great.”"Can we all get those little wings?” I said? “You know, they don’t make those anymore,” she said, “we’re lucky we have gas.”
I hate to fly, always have. Hate the uncomfortable seats, the cheapskate stuff the airlines are up to lately, the weird no mans land of airports, the random turbulence, the tiny plastic trays of food, oh, there is so much about it that I hate. But I have nothing but respect for the people who get us from place to place.