“Unscheduled Landing”

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.

Flight 268 SEA 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.  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.  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.  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?

Yeah, 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.

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33 thoughts on ““Unscheduled Landing”

  1. Glad you decided to put up the photo, so it was possible to see everyone alive and well. I got a lump in my throat at your telling. Friends of mine were pilots and it is so true that they are constantly improving their skills. Enjoy your trip knowing you have been blessed.

  2. Glad to hear that everyone’s safe! Think of it this way: Statistically, your flights for the next few years should be uneventful. 🙂

    I’m curious: Did you feel the two tires blow? Sounds like that would have made for a pretty rough landing.

  3. Glad for an happy ending here. I fly quite frequently and I’m always impressed with the airline staff. They’ve always had a hard job and it’s getting more stressful all the time.

    I got choked up just reading about your adventure! I hope it is smooth sailing on the way home. Enjoy the Big Apple!

  4. Holy Shit, Pam. When I heard about that landing yesterday, I thought, “Do I know anyone who was flying east today? Hmmm, I don’t recall.” And YOU were on that flight! Glad you’re safe and sound and that you’ve got a great story to tell (with pics 🙂


  5. Sorry you experienced it, very glad you blogged it. What a heartthumper that must have been (and must continue to be).

    I’m glad you’re safe, too. Even if I don’t work at O’Hare.

  6. For the last several months we have had nothing but problems with AA. One mechanical after another, last one in STL after boarding. Hydraulic actuator leak on starboard wing on a B757. None on field for replacement, flt cancelled. Finally got back to LAX via PHX on USAIR. What a day………….

  7. Seriously, I do not doubt that all of you have had worse landings than ours. Hell, I did a standard trip to DC about a year ago and I was a even shade of pale green by the time we got on the ground. As far as anxiety inducing events, I was not nervous or fearful at all, the crew inspired nothing but confidence. I was a little shaky when I got up to get off the plane and I had a fit of laughter on the bus, but it was short and passed very quickly. It was unbelievable how great they AA flight crew and O’Hare safety crew were.

    Everyone is saying, “Oh MY GOD. I would have been FLIPPING OUT.” But I assure you, you would not have been because you’d have felt like I did, that while things were messed up, you were in the best possible hands for making sure you got on the ground safely.

  8. Glad you’re OK.

    From the couple of incidents mentioned above, and tales from my friends’ business travel, it appears that AA is on track to becoming the Aussie-style airline of the US.

    By that, I am referring to the degree of unscheduled excitement awaiting hapless adventurers-to-be when they board.

    There are two main domestic airlines that fly on the East coast of Australia: Qantas and Virgin Blue. Qantas has been in the news relatively constantly for various issues, often requiring emergency landings, of late. Remember how Alaska airlines was a few years ago? That appears to be Qantas today.

    And my current response to hearing about Qantas is: Even though Virgin Blue seemed to be trying to kill me on my last trip, I think I’ll stick with them, instead of Qantas, because they didn’t succeed.

    I took 8 Virgin segments last December, which involved boarding 9 planes and 3 mishaps. Of these, one involved hitting a bird on takeoff, causing the engine to make not-good loud roaring in the air prior to engine shutdown, and an immediate emergency landing complete with the type of tarmac deboarding firedrill seen above. We cheered our flight crew upon landing, too. Of note: the plane was a 737, which I thought was supposed to be pretty much immune to damage from bird strikes, but this was sure wasn’t.

    (By the way, I’m surprised they let you take pictures. In Australia, staff at multiple airports have told me that cameras on the tarmac are a no-no.)

    Another try at the same segment involved planes being swapped out because of a mechanical issue before we boarded, and we ended up on a plane without a working air conditioning/ventilation system. In the middle of the Aussie winter, when half the plane seemed sick with the flu. Fortunately, it was only a 90 minute flight and miraculously, I didn’t catch it.

    The last involved a pilot landing on “the second runway” in Brisbane, in a new small plane whose features the pilot spent 5 minutes enthusiastically telling us about on takeoff. Virgin usually flies 737’s, but they’d recently acquired a handful of Embraer E-Jets for their shorter routes. At landing, we braked HARD ~10-15 seconds after the usual gradual slowdown one would expect after touchdown, and as we made a nearly right angle turn to the right, I looked out my lefthand window and saw… the grass at the end of the runway, that we were at the very, very end of. The pilot pointed out that the jerking stop was due to the plane’s speed brakes kicking in. He didn’t explain the reason for that. He also noted that “those of you who are familiar with BNE might be noticing things look a little different. That’s because we came in on the other runway.” When I got into the terminal, I mentioned the novelty of landing on the other runway to a gate agent, whose response was, “WHAT other runway?”. She explained to me that Brisbane only has one, and she was sure of that, because they’re presently trying to get funding for a second. I didn’t inquire further. I decided it was kind of like sausage — you don’t necessarily really want to know the details.

    Later, a mate of mine suggested that the likely best case scenario to explain that was that the airport has a general aviation runway used by smaller private planes, and the pilot (who really did seem happy to have a brand new toy) thought about the size of his shiny new plane and thought, “Let’s see what this plane can do… I bet I can pull it off.”

  9. Wow. A good read for this fellow frequent traveler. I don’t enjoy flying either, but mostly because I get scared (no matter what statistics I’ve memorized about having better chances of being killed by a donkey and whatnot). Wondering if this experience makes you feel more safe or less safe in the air…

  10. Helen,

    You and your pilot are correct that Brisbane Airport (BNE / YBBN) has a second runway used normally for general aviation – the gate agent is mistaken. Here is a diagram of the airport:

    Your gate agent probably didn’t know about it because this runway (14/32) is almost never used by jets, as it’s only 1700m long compared to 3560m on the “main” runway (01/19). But the smaller Embraer regional jets may be able to land there under specific conditions and requiring a lot of braking, as you noticed.

    To bring this a bit on topic, this is an example of how flexible modern airplanes really are – they are capable of quite a bit more performance than you typically see in daily operations, and have contingency after contingency all planned for. This is all for safety, as demonstrated in the bird-strike on takeoff that you also mentioned, and in the fact that the 757 in the original posting landed quite safely despite the major electrical problem.

    –Jeremy, student pilot

  11. I had tears in my eyes (they didn’t fall so they don’t count) but I am glad you got down safely. I don’t like flying, I could imagine reacting like you but I think I chose to do the shock thing for you here, safely, at the desk … 🙂
    Bizarre but true.

  12. It’s so good to hear this experience didn’t cause you the mental distress as one woman in Seattle is claiming. Not discounting what she’s feeling, but she has filed a lawsuit against AA because this flight has caused her extreme emotional distress.

    Many assume this is a greedy suit and based on her statements rather than just the facts of what occurred. It appears the crew followed procedure at the time, but these are being amended by Boeing presently, so that this scenario isn’t repeated by any carrier.

    Would you feel passenger Jewel Thomas has a valid suit against AA based on the FAA report presented? All the readers comments following the article point out a lot of interesting viewpoints to consider to determine whether if it is or not.

    I hope you will share this with your readers and perhaps others who were on this flight with you and her will contribute their thoughts on this suit. If it’s a valid suit then perhaps others need to contact the law firm representing this plaintiff:


    I’m just a reader of the local news and in no way related to nor know any of the litigants involved in this suit. Just curious what your thoughts are since a reader posted a link to your blog

    • I can’t respond to the legal implications or the technical ones as to whether or not the crew was right to fly. I just don’t know enough, and honestly, I prefer to trust the flight crew’s judgment, it’s not like I know better than they do. I can tell you that I have ZERO recollection of any kind of drama on the flight, and I was sitting in an exit row, so probably, if there was any kind of need to get off the plane, pronto, I’d have known.

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