Part One: THE ISLAND OF THE HUHUNEEM AND YAHOO
The author describes the beginnings of his first adventure and the near catastrophe that nearly ended it.
When choosing where to start this adventure, I could have chosen to recount stories of my youth. Or I could have chosen to reveal how I got my job at the airline or some of the memorable experiences I did have when not confined to a tin can with wings or the termini from and to whence they fly. These experiences, while meaningful to me, add little pertinent background for what was to come. The best place to begin is the day Flight 1726 departed from Toronto.
The day began not unlike most others in my ordinary life. I’ve always maintained a schedule of when I need to be at the airport, the time we leave, and to where we fly on each flight. I could be in Toronto in the morning, Los Angeles in the afternoon, and on my way to Tokyo that night. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure where I was going, only that I next had to be somewhere at 6:00 am.
My job wasn’t as glamorous as some might think. I woke up in a hotel almost every day and then crisscrossed the planet, barely seeing so much as a spot of it. On this day, though, I woke up in my king-sized memory-foam-topped bed in my apartment close to Toronto Pearson International Airport. Every night I spent in my own bed was the best night. Compared with hotels that clean the sheets daily and maintain strict controls, there was just something about home and sleeping in my own rarely laundered sheets that was more comfortable.
As I looked around the room upon waking, I noted, warmly, the lack of decoration on my walls and the suitcase, always packed and ready the night before, sitting on the floor next to the bedroom door. The air smelled stale as I had been out of my apartment for six days, and the apartment had grown accustomed to my absence. I kept little food in my fridge and rarely had time to cook, so little greeted me that morning, as usual.
But something was unusual that day. Not that it would presage the events to come, but for some reason, I awoke fifteen minutes before my alarm was scheduled to hammer the morning into my ears and remind me that I had places to not be. I mention this only because when sleeping at home after and before a long trip, it was especially rare that I didn’t wake to the despised alarm just slightly out of arm’s reach on the left side of my bed. Waking up before the alarm, however, is somehow equally disappointing. It is, after all, a missed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sleep for an additional fifteen minutes. Instead, I was awake and ready to take on the world with safety presentations, in-flight sales, and complimentary food service. I turned off the alarm, to avoid mindless morning-show banter, and just lay in bed thinking about how great it would be to sleep for fifteen minutes, perhaps twenty minutes, before realizing that, in effect, I had now overslept.
I broached the cabinet, raided some cereal, and emptied the last drops of milk into a bowl just seconds before it was to expire, according to the label. Rushing, I had a quick shower, brushed my teeth, threw on my uniform, and grabbed my luggage as I locked myself out of my house—I had left my keys on the night table in my haste. No time to waste; that was a problem I’d have to deal with another time. It’s one thing to be late for your flight when you’re a paying guest, but airport public announcements rarely ask if the plane’s steward is in the building. The threat of having one’s bags offloaded means something entirely different to a steward.
No, it really wasn’t as dramatic as that unless I was more than an hour late. An hour before the flight, the whole crew met to discuss and plan everything including the route, weather, duration, any possible turbulence, and the safety equipment of the jet. I inspected a few of the safety features before the passengers began to trudge aboard the plane, and everything appeared to be in certifiable working order. I adjusted my uniform, tightened the laces on my shoes, straightened my lanyard, and took out a torpedo level to straighten my tie bar. My crewmates would often give me a hard time about my proper appearance and attire. We were all required to maintain a professional appearance to keep the passengers at ease and knowing everything down to the complimentary beverage service was being handled to the highest standards, so I always felt my appearance reflected my commitment to the clients and my coworkers. I trusted that my guests and comment cards supported that decision.
I took up position midcabin to assist the passengers. As an aside, the first passenger on a plane is almost never one who needs the most assistance, despite the preboarding protocols and announcements. Usually, the first passengers are able-bodied, thirty-five-year-old couples eager to get to their destination faster than anybody else on the plane. It may seem obvious to most people, but the plane arrives at the same time for everyone regardless of when you board. Waiting in the airport lounge is actually more spacious and comfortable than the airplane itself, and the loading routine is designed to get people on the plane in the most efficient manner possible. Those requiring assistance and those with small children need the most time to settle, and while they settle, the more self-sufficient can settle quickly and easily. In fact, the faster a plane can turn around, the more profitable a carrier can be. All airline employees are incentivized to get the plane out of the terminal and off the ground as quickly as can be.
This trip began no differently. Sure enough, a well-dressed couple jumped up at the first announcement for preboarding and made a beeline onto the plane. I have always been of the opinion that during an emergency, these are exactly the kind of people one would want manning the emergency doors rather than sitting elsewhere on the plane. Their hurry would be an asset if they were in a position to be the first off but a liability to everyone around them if they were expected to wait. Anyway, they positioned themselves almost perfectly halfway between the mid and rear cabin exits, stuffed their oversized carry-on luggage into the compartment, and reclined their chairs.
Most of the remainder of the boarding went about usual. As 1726 was a long-haul flight to Sydney directly from Toronto—a brutal twenty-two-hour trip—most passengers carried as much on board as they could manage: books, electronics, headphones, pens, papers, clothes, snacks, pillows, blankets, even toiletries. As anyone who has been on a long flight like this can imagine, this meant the overheads and under-seat storage spaces were filled to bursting. A giant game of Tetris ensued to try to make sure everyone’s things were stored safely and securely.
My colleague, Justin, lays claim to the international high score. On this flight, once again, he proved it by deftly stacking soft- and hard-shelled luggage, leaving a cyclopean Samsonite wall that couldn’t fit a toothpick more.
Once the plane was loaded with fuel, service, crew, passengers, and luggage, we taxied to Runway 5 and got away clean from the metropolis of Toronto. As an early morning flight, the window passengers were sent off by the lights of the CN Tower and the downtown skyline. The long flight went by in a typical manner. There were a few teeth-chattering bouts with minor turbulence, but nothing worthy of reporting. We knew we were heading in the general direction of a large storm, but reports from aircraft in the area and satellite showed it was well within the tolerances for which the aircraft was designed and capable of handling.
I hesitate to admit it, but somewhere after the first meal service of the flight, I put my head down and fell into a deep slumber, the kind from which one awakes pondering whether he is still asleep and dreaming or if he is actually awake. The air was gravy thick, and the passengers tittered as they looked out the windows into the dark clouds surrounding the plane. It had started to shudder and drop as the storm outside the cabin created bubbles of pressure. The plane shook and the passengers became alarmed. Most travellers will tell you turbulence is a likely hazard for most any flight, and the current turbulence didn’t exceed my own comfort.
I marched down the aisles in an effort to soothe the children on board and to exude the necessary confidence that all was well with the state of things. This was a normal event, one well within the normal range of flight experiences. Little did I worry while meandering to the back of the plane. The plane jolted, the screens flickered, and the captain announced that it looked like we were in for some stronger turbulence ahead and to please stay seated and fasten seatbelts.
Then a bright light filled the cabin, and a loud boom alerted everyone that we had been struck by lightning. I looked at the passengers nearby, their spines suddenly bolt straight and eyes open as wide as possible. They were desperate for reassurance that the plane was going to be all right.
The plane suddenly dropped. I lost my footing and lay sprawled in the aisle near the back of the plane. The sight of a fallen attendant is troubling to passengers. One reached down to help me up. Several others were now filling the air with a chorus of piercing screams. As I scrabbled to my feet, I could see that a number of passengers had suffered minor injuries from the drop and several were bleeding, compounding the panic. One woman nearby had fainted, slumping over the arm of the chair, her head sagging in the aisle. The turbulence had caused a number of weaker stomachs to fail, and the atmosphere was thick, warm, humid, and somewhat foul. The public announcement system, like the screens, was now just emitting static. A warm trickle of blood poured from my own forehead, meandering its way to my mouth and chin.
A number of people had gotten out of their seats, whether from discomfort or to help a loved one or neighbour I could not really say. Suddenly the craft crabbed and jolted upwards. All those near me, myself included, who were not restrained were sent flying into the seats on the left. The plane started to list. The pilot was trying to regain altitude, but a right-side engine had failed. The plane continued to bump and thrash. The oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and all calm was lost.
The plane must have been in pretty bad shape; maybe the engine had fully detached in the storm, or maybe the storm had damaged another engine. All souls on board Flight 1726 felt their stomachs rise, literally, towards their throats as we felt the plane descend from the dark sky into a darker, still unknown, space below. Time passed both in the blink of an eye and as a glacier in slow motion. I can’t honestly say whether we fell for a fraction of a second or for full minutes. It seemed without a doubt now that we were going to go down somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean in the middle of the night in a storm. I was sure the pilot was doing everything he could to make that touch as gentle as possible, but I abandoned my efforts to help discombobulated passengers. I tucked myself into the best impromptu bracing position I could manage, stuffed on the floor of the seating area with several people close by.