I don't like to fly. I don't like that I can't get fresh air. I don't like that I can't use the bathroom without the entire cabin seeing me. I mostly travel alone and have never once sat next to a remotely attractive person. I don't like that my entire life is in the hands of someone whose face I never see and name I don't know. I don't like that I can't ask him how many hours of sleep he got the night before or the last time he drank alcohol. Has he recently had some sort of personal catastrophe that might distract him from flying a 75-ton piece of machinery through the sky? Even though the National Safety Council puts your odds of dying in "Air and Space Transport Incidents" at 1:8,015 (for reference, your odds of dying in a car crash are 1:112), that's little comfort as you're in a several-ton hunk of machinery improbably hanging above the Earth. Your entire life is out of your control and once you go up there is only one way down. The only part of flying I do like is landing safely at my destination.
Last month, my "irrational" fears became reality. I took a United Express flight from Monterey, California on my way to meet up with some friends in Punta Mita, Mexico. I had one stop at LAX before getting to my final destination. That flight turned out to be this one. Here's what was going through my head:
It's a quick, one-hour flight, so I decide to save my emergency Xanax for the LA to Mexico portion of my journey. Soon enough, the captain announces we're starting our descent into LAX. We circle the airport twice, which is slightly unsettling. I look around to see if the flight attendant has some sort of explanation to offer. Nothing. Since we're coming from a small airport, maybe we're waiting for a runway to open up? I return to my book.
The captain makes a long, inaudible announcement. The flight attendant walks to the back half of the plane. Turns out our landing gear hasn't come down. She says it could be a computer error, so we're going to fly very low past the tower at LAX to see if the landing gear is down but just not registering to the system. It is at this point that I feel butterflies in my stomach.
A man behind me jokes to his friend, "Thanks for the relaxing weekend." They both chuckle. I am not chuckling. I start to feel a slow boil of panic. We fly past the tower and go back up in the air. No landing gear. I begin to shake. The flight attendant answers the phone that links to the cockpit. Her face goes white, and I decide it's time to completely freak the fuck out.
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I reach for my emergency Xanax. My mouth is dry, so I chew it. Besides, won't that make it work faster anyway? The flight attendant announces that we're making an emergency landing. She explains that we are going to dump fuel to "reduce our chance of a fire." Reduce. Not prevent. Reduce.
A man shouts, "Can't we land in the water?!" No. She tells us, "If you see smoke in the cabin open the emergency exits and get everyone out." She shows us how to get into the "brace position," with our heads tucked between our legs.
The fire department and emergency responders are on the scene, she claims. And with that, she heads to the front of the plane and straps herself into her seat, closing her eyes. The grimness of our situation consumes me.
I turn my phone on and have one bar of service. I start to compose a text to my fiancé. What do you say in a situation like this? I see the news helicopters from the window, and worry he'll find out before I can reach him. I tell him I'm on the plane and that we might be making an emergency landing. I tell him I love him and that I'll text him when I land. The truth is I don't know if I'll be able to text him when I land.
The cabin is quiet as we make our descent. I'm not a religious person, but I silently pray. I put my head down to brace. As we approach the ground, the only thing I hear is the flight attendant screaming, "BRACE, BRACE, BRACE, BRACE."
We touch the runway. The impact is loud, but not as rough as I had anticipated. Under my breath, I softly chant please stop, please stop, please stop. The plane finally does.
The flight attendant shouts, "Is everyone OK?" No one is on fire. So, yes.
We all cheer and clap, but we're cut short and told to get off immediately. As we exit the plane I see firefighters and emergency vehicles surrounding us. Sitting on its belly, the plane looks like a beached whale. I take my phone out to snap a photo, but I'm shaking so violently that it flies out of my hands.
Trembling and crying, I call my fiancé and my sister. Everyone else around me seems fine. I can't tell if I'm freaking out because I am totally emotionally unstable, or if everyone else appears calm because they had staved off the reality of what could have happened to us.
A firefighter brings my purse and laptop to me, and I run the two terminals to make my connecting flight to Mexico by five minutes. I sleep the entire way.
The question I've been asked the most about my experience is what the airline gave the passengers as compensation. The answer is a bullshit letter of apology from a VP of Customer Relations, who explained that since the reaction to the incident on the ground was "largely positive" the final decision for us was apology only. [Editor's Note: When contacted by VICE, United sent the following statement: "We issued a letter to all customers onboard to apologize and ensure them that safety is always our first priority. Following any travel experience, we work individually with customers on a case-by-case basis taking into account the circumstances of their travel journey to provide further assistance when appropriate."] Technically, an airline is not liable in a crash unless it's proven they did not take all the necessary precautions to prevent the accident, and to be fair, the reaction was "largely positive," but only because we were all happy to be not dead.
After I told them I thought their letter of apology was absolute horseshit, they threw in a $150 flight voucher which, for obvious reasons, I will not be using.
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