Flying the frightening skies

So I thought I would catch you up just a tad on my life since I know you are DYING to know what I’ve been up to.  Here’s one interesting recent story I thought I would share.  A little more than a month ago, March 11th to be exact, we were heading back to Atlanta from Colorado having just taken the kids skiing for Spring Break.

As we are heading to the airport, our shuttle driver nonchalantly says, “It’s too bad you are missing a nice day on the slopes, but it’s a great day for flying.  There’s not a cloud in the sky.”  That statement was the equivalent of the girl in the slasher flick in an isolated, dimly lit house, thunderstorm booming outside, her hand slowly rotating the doorknob to the basement steps (where the freakish serial killer awaits her on the other side) while looking over her shoulder to say to her quivering boyfriend, “Stop being such a wuss, it’s fine.  Let’s go look in the basement for some candles.  What could possibly go wrong?”

We get to the airport and onto the plane headed for Atlanta that is packed full of families rounding out their Spring Break trips.  The 737 takes off and starts its climb while everyone settles into interacting with their personal electronic devices so they don’t have to speak to their neighbors.  Lisle, my 8-year-old daughter, is sitting next to me engrossed in Harry Potter.  Steve and our 6-year-old, Molly, are sitting directly behind us chatting while she draws pictures and he does a Sudoku on his iPad.

About 20 minutes into the flight, having just reached a cruising altitude of around 25,000 feet and crossing over the Rockies, the plane experiences a hard, jarring bump – kind of like a car that’s just hit a curb head-on.  Within seconds the turbulence becomes unlike anything I’ve experienced on a plane before.  The right wing makes a sudden dip, as if starting into a barrel roll, and it becomes apparent that the pilots are working hard to get the wings back to something approaching horizontal.  All the while, we are bumping along like a speed boat across the serious chop on the leading edge of a ferocious storm.  And then the plane dropped.  1000 feet.  In the space of a few seconds.  Things were flying through the air and a round of involuntary screams went up from more than a few adult passengers.  That’s when Lisle turned to me and, while holding my hand, looked at me with the biggest, most frightened eyes and said in a panicked voice, “Mommy, I’m scared.”  Then the plane’s nose dipped.  We arced downward, descending quickly and steadily.

For the record, let me just say that I am not a nervous flier.  I admit that I don’t like turbulence any more than the next person, but it doesn’t usually send me mentally screaming inside, trying to find my happy place.  If the turbulence gets rough though, I purposely take slow deep breaths and try to remind myself how well-engineered planes are and that, regardless of the soundness of the plane, I’m just a passenger anyway – along for the ride, hoping for the best.

Both I and the lady sitting on the other side of Lisle say in unison, “It’s ok, honey.” Meanwhile I am willing myself to take slow, deliberate breaths and maintain a cool exterior so I don’t freak out my daughter with my own panic because, at this point I am actually entertaining the thought that my entire family, including my sister and her husband, is on board a plane that is on the last leg it will ever fly.  I calmly say to her, “That was scary honey.  I was kind of scared too”, but my hands have gone cold and my heart is hammering in my chest like it’s being played by a drum major who just chased a 5-hour Energy Drink with a Red Bull.  As those soothing words roll off my tongue, I’m wondering if I just told my child that we are going to be okay when we are really on a plane that’s in the process of crashing.

While in the steady, bumpy descent, the pilot comes on and apologizes to everyone and explains that we’ve just experienced severe turbulence that is associated with Mountain Wave Turbulence (MWT).  [Note: Mountain waves can exist as a smooth undulating airflow or may contain clear air turbulence in the form of breaking waves and ‘rotors’. Mountain waves are defined as ‘severe’ when the associated downdrafts exceed 600 ft/min and/or severe turbulence is observed or forecast. ‘Breaking waves’ and ‘rotors’ associated with mountain waves are among the more hazardous phenomenon that pilots can experience.]

He said that there had been no reports of MWT in that area from pilots who had passed through that airspace earlier in the day, and because the sky was cloudless, there were no visible indicators of it.

The turbulence continued for a while but eventually subsided as we got farther away from the Rockies.  Obviously we made it back to Atlanta in one piece, but that was without a doubt the scariest flying experience I’ve ever had.  Bar none.  And since Steve was on a flight last night back from Miami that took off, quickly banked and returned to the airport, and was met on the tarmac by a fleet of firetrucks, I’d have to say that the odds of our next flight being smooth should be in our favor.  Fingers crossed.

About Chris DeVinney

Me in a nutshell: mom, writer, former lobbyist, wife, volunteer, lover of music and art, massive fan of traveling, and something of a smart ass. A typical INTJ, I quietly observe anyone and anything that comes into my orbit, squirreling away material for future essays. These days I spend my time writing about whatever interests me (both professionally and personally) and trying to strike the balance between taking care of kids/family/house/pets and me. Occasionally I nail it, hang on to it briefly, and then scramble back toward the center when the tipping starts again. I know, it’s a common story.
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2 Responses to Flying the frightening skies

  1. monocurious says:

    Wow, what a great piece Chris. I loved all your metaphors and felt your fear. Keep writing, and don’t ever stop. You should consider submitting this one to Creative Loafing ASAP since there was just an airplane scare, in addition to the amount of passengers flying over Memorial Day Weekend. XO, http://www.monocurious.wordpress.com

  2. Jeannified says:

    Wow! Extremely scary! Did you and the neighboring passenger tell Lisle it would be alright before or AFTER the nose dive?!

    I experienced really scary turbulance like this before, though yours sounds slightly scarier. Mine was flying out of Reno and back to Atlanta YEARS ago. I never forgot it though. It scared the hell out of me AND made me feel like I was gonna throw up…a double-whammy! It was spring time, and I had gone out there to visit Mark Thibodeau and to go skiing. Those mountains can be nasty when you have to fly in and out of their nearby airports! I always “prepare” mentally when I know I will be flying into and out of airports near the mountains…Reno, Jackson Hole, Denver, etc.

    Good thing Roman and I will be flying into Chicago and out of St. Louis on our upcoming trip! I hope you all have a safe flight when you coem out here for your next visit!

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