When you're flying and your plane lands, it's gotta be a bad sign when this is waiting for you:
That's an airport fire engine. Thankfully it was not needed. And I, along with other passengers, was very relieved.
On Friday, we had a mostly uneventful flight from Long Beach, California into Portland, Oregon (where my brother lives). When the plane was over Portland, I was ready to be there. The kids were getting extra-antsy. So it was frustrating when I realized we were circling...and circling...and circling some more. Portland is beautiful from the air, but I was ready to see it up close.
I figured we were waiting for an available runway, until the polite captain's voice came over the speaker. He good-naturedly joked about us getting tired of flying over the city; then he explained what was happening.
"The wings have flaps that are supposed to open to help us slow down," he explained. "When we tried to open those flaps in preparation for landing, a set of them wouldn't open." About this time, my blood pressure must have gone through the roof. The captain continued. "We've been troubleshooting to try to figure out what is wrong, and we haven't been able to get them to work. We're going to have to land without them."
The plane was quiet; for once the captain had the attention of the passengers. He then assured us, "I've been through this a few times before, and it is not a big deal. Everything will be okay. There will be emergency vehicles when we land, just in case the brakes get too hot."
Well, I was glad the captain had assured us everything would be okay (though, as I told the lady sitting across the aisle from me, I wish he'd started with the comforting part of the message.) But I have to admit, I was scared...really scared. I was thinking about how far back in the plane our seats were (almost halfway) and hoping that would be far enough if the plane ran into a building because it couldn't stop. I worried about whether or not we were descending at a faster speed than usual. I prayed and got a measure of peace from that...but I was still really afraid. I think plenty of others were too, though the atmosphere in the plane was calm.
The landing was uneventful. When the captain successfully touched down and brought us to a stop, the passengers burst out in spontaneous applause. I smiled and joined in the applause. As soon as it died down, my throat and eyes surprised me; I realized my body wanted to cry. I avoided that, and settled for an immense feeling of relief; and I could sense that the other passengers were feeling the same thing. The extra-hot brakes didn't start any fires, and after a few minutes we were able to taxi to the gate.
I know this experience could make me more afraid of flying. Instead I'm trying to frame it this way, in my mind: A plane is a complicated piece of machinery. But it's designed and built in such a way that when one thing goes wrong, the plane can usually still function in complete safety. The captain was right; we had nothing to be afraid of. Hopefully if I'm ever in a situation like this again, I'll believe that!
(By the way, here's a great article on airplane wing flaps--I liked the last paragraph especially.)