This happened a long time ago. And I wrote this a long time ago too but didn’t give it its own post until now.
The Bad Flight. April 2006.
The flight was only about an hour and a half long. A domestic flight from Yogyakarta to Jakarta, Indonesia, with my partner, our daughter, his parents, his brother, his sister and her boyfriend.
The flight was delayed. Brother-in-law S. strides confidently to the airline desk and puts up a fuss until they agree to get all of us onto another airline leaving right away. I’m used to being the one to organize things – check us in, argue for better seats, fill out immigration forms – but this is one of S.’s fortes and with baby Akka strapped to my chest in her carrier, and some very recent digestive turmoil (thanks to some nasty nasi-goreng), I sit myself down with my in-laws and settle into being taken care of.
It did cross my mind then. We changed flights at the last minute. The flight we’re about to get on is not the flight we were supposed to be on.
Because we are last-minute additions, we have the whole last row of the plane, plus a couple of seats one row up. I take the aisle, as I always do, across from K. and next to his parents. His mother, the slowest and the least mobile, is at the window seat, three seats in from the aisle.
It is evening. Landing soon after dark. We descend and I briefly look out to see the lights of Jakarta. It takes a while before I look out again and notice that we’ve gone back up. I mention it to K.: “We didn’t land. We came in for a landing but we didn’t land”.
I don’t think any more of it but S. starts asking questions of the flight attendants. Something wrong with the landing gear, they say. I wish I didn’t know that. I start to feel a creeping sense of dread. I pull the straps on Akka’s carrier tighter.
Ages go by. I’m mostly ok, but playing games with myself – what if the wheels don’t come down? Don’t think about that. That’s nonsense. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing.
We’re circling. Silence from the cockpit. Finally, finally, someone comes on to say we’re preparing for an emergency landing. My whole being sinks. I go blank and cold. I’m actually afraid I’m going to shit my pants. I’d spent much of the day in the hotel bathroom thanks to that bad meal the day before so losing control of my bowels is not a long-shot, even if I hadn’t been bathed in fear.
Deep breaths… we all look to one another with weak smiles, wide eyes: can you believe this? Is this for real? K. holds my hand. Akka is asleep – has been through most of the flight. I keep pulling the baby carrier’s straps tighter and tighter.
Ages go by. The pilot never announces why we’re having an emergency landing. But we know because S. keeps stopping the flight attendant to ask questions. The nose gear isn’t coming down.
I just want to get off. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to participate. I don’t want to participate in an emergency landing. Not for me, thanks. My whole body is tingling and cold. I feel numb. I feel very very tired. I just want to get off.
The flight attendant crouches down next to me, specifically, to show me how to brace for landing with a baby on my lap. I’m to hold her facing me (which she is already, in her carrier), lean over her and protect the top of her head. I don’t see them instructing anyone else on how to brace. I’m not sure they even announced anything about bracing, unless that part wasn’t translated.
I hear someone throwing up. The flight attendants start to come through the cabin and collect everyone’s hand luggage from under the seats. They’re filling up the toilets with all the bags. I’m still worried I’m going to need a toilet and now that option is gone. They pull out megaphones, first-aid kits, red and orange emergency packages of something. S. stops one to ask her if she’s done this before. She says no. I wish I didn’t know that. People stand up from time to time to grab things out of their bags in the overhead bins and put them in their pockets. It’s very quiet. Several people are praying aloud.
K. gets up and puts our passports and wallets into his waist belt. I tighten Akka’s straps. K’s father taps me on the back a little. I know they’re more worried about me and Akka than they are about themselves.
This is what I think will happen:
We’ll brace for landing. I’ll hold Akka tight tight. I’m glad we’re in the back row because the rear wheels are working and they are under us and they will touch first. But then we’ll pitch forward. The plane may roll over or up on its side. I imagine we’ll be thrown up. I imagine what the force will feel like to be held to my seat by my hips while tipping or rolling. I’m glad I have the baby carrier and that this awful, awful airline that I hate has let me keep her in it rather than insisting that I hold her in my arms as I’ve been made to do on other flights.
I remember a flight that over-shot the runway in Toronto and caught on fire. But everyone got out. I’m going to get out. I’m on the aisle, in the last row. I have the baby. I’m getting out first. I have my eye on that door. The small guilt I feel for knowing that I will rush out, that I will not wait for anyone, is offset by the nine-month old baby strapped to my chest. I’m doing it for her, I’m getting her out. I know my father-in-law won’t leave without his wife. And that she can’t move fast. I don’t know what K. will do. I hope he’ll be right behind me but I won’t stop to check. I have the baby. I tighten the straps.
I think briefly of my parents and my sister. But that overwhelms me and I can’t let myself go there. I try to push the thought away. I look at K. and realize that if we all die, he’ll die with his whole family. They all will. Except for S. whose wife and son are waiting at their home in Jakarta. And R. who is like me: on this trip with his partner’s family; his own family a long way away, knowing nothing of what we’re going through; of how long this flight is suddenly taking.
I keep kissing Akka’s head. She’s still asleep. K. reaches over from time to time and touches her hand, her head, her arm. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I brought you on this plane. I’m sorry I thought we could take you all over the world and bring you home again safely. You didn’t choose this trip, this flight, this life, and you’ve had only nine very, very short months. I’m sorry.
We finally come in for a landing. I’m so tired of thinking about it, of wondering what will happen, of planning how to survive it, that I’m almost relieved to get on with it. Let’s do this. We brace….and we don’t land. There’s a surge of engine power and we go back. Back up. Back up. I can hardly stand it. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t keep coping with this. I just need it to be done; however it turns out.
But it’s another circle. Another 20 or 30 minutes to fear, to think, to plan. I’m so tired.
No explanation. I imagine they’re spraying the runway with fire extinguishers. I wonder if they sent us back up so they could round up more ambulances. My legs are heavy. I’ve been in this seat for a lifetime.
It’s time again. We all look at one another; I can’t wait for it to be over. As we lean over to brace, Akka wakes up. She has no idea. She’s fighting me. I’m pushing my body on top of her, trying to hold her head. K. reaches across to try to help. I keep half-sitting up to try to tuck her under me, to fold myself over her. I can’t see how low we are. I don’t know if the jolt will come when I’m properly braced or when I’m adjusting. She pushes and fights and somehow, somehow, we’re simply on the ground. We’ve landed. There was hardly a bump. All the wheels were there. It’s over. People clap, people laugh. We can hardly believe it.
Almost immediately, I’m angry, confused. Did they know the wheel was down? Did they put us through this for nothing? What were all the aborted landings? Why isn’t anyone explaining? I can’t believe how quickly I moved from being afraid for my life, for the life of my child, to being a disgruntled customer.
We walk out, wait for our bags. Everyone keeps looking at each other and smiling, almost giggling. I feel somehow betrayed. All that fear and dread. All those terrible minutes spent trapped, unwilling, required to think of my own death, of the death of my baby, of who will miss me, or if I survive, of who will die, of how they’ll die, of how I’ll explain that to Akka when she’s older. And it culminates in nothing. No crash. No running from the flames, the smoke. No tense, long seconds waiting for someone to get the doors open. No bodies pressed into each other rushing to get out. It’s like I went through all that hell for nothing. I’ve spent the last hours twisting myself into a tightly coiled spring, quivering with airplane-crash-surviving tension. I can’t just unwind; I feel I almost needed the crash to release the pressure.
We have another flight in two days. We’ve planned a trip to Bali. And even if we don’t go on that trip, we’re still in Jakarta. And we’re living in Colombo. We still have to get back there and then on to Toronto next month. I joke about taking the boat home. Half-joke.