You know, it is self-evident that flying an aeroplane requires a lot of skill. A hell of a lot. That’s why you, you fresh-faced young things, are here.
Captain Charles Walker was thinking of a speech he had heard some thirty years earlier, on his first day at flight school. Captain James McCirrick, the opening speaker that day, was a man who didn’t believe he had got his point across unless he heavily stressed at least one word per sentence.
Yet, you’ll soon find out, once you’re up in the air, and you forget for a moment about the two hundred thousand pound bird you’re in, it can feel like a piece of cake.
The old blowhard was right, of course. Flying was easy. Take-off was the tricky bit. Landing even tougher. Landing without wheels…
Captain Walker turned to meet the gaze of First Officer Walter Holley. The usual look of mistrust was there (a mere life-threatening emergency wasn’t going to change that), yet unmistakably it was now mixed with fear.
“Well… All right, Walt.” Captain Walker wondered if he looked as frightened as his co-pilot. “What the fuck are we going to do?”
Miranda sliced the lemons while Shania arranged the miniature bottles. Funny, Shania thought, how you had all this training about what to do in an emergency but nothing about what to do before an emergency that you knew was coming.
“Captain says that it might be a few hours before we attempt a landing.” Miranda paused to suck at a small cut on her pinkie. “Have to find a suitable alternative, have them prepare the runway with fire retardant, or something, all while we try and ditch most of our fuel.”
“While we carry on arranging the gin and the packets of nuts? Is he serious?” Shania let a bottle of Hendricks slip from her trembling grasp.
“God, careful Shan.” Marcus from economy had just burst through the curtains. “Lucky they’re made of plastic.”
He stooped to pick it up, cracked the top open and tossed the contents in to his mouth.
“Gnohgnic”. Miranda flicked open a can of tonic and added it to his open mouth. He swilled like a man in front of the bathroom sink before swallowing it one dramatic gulp. “Oh Boy!”
“Cor, you can swallow all that down in one?”
“Years of practice,” replied Marcus, eyebrow fiercely arched.
“Are you two serious? In this situation, this bloody terrifying situation, you can carry on your ridiculous double-act?” Shania scurried to the toilet.
Marcus dismissed her with a flick of the eyes. “Is he going to make an announcement?”
“Think so. Sooner or later someone’ll notice that we’re just circling and they’ll demand the truth. Better that he comes straight out with it, you know. Means they’ll listen to us.”
“They’ll still panic, though.”
“Oh, like fucking crazy.”
“Have one yourself.” He picked up another gin.
A crackle. “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking…”
Marcus started, and strode off back down the cabin.
In Seat 43E, Linda La Salle was confused. All her life, for as long as she had been aware of the concept of flying in an aeroplane, she had been convinced that she would die in a plane crash. And yet here she was, upon hearing an announcement from the captain that the landing gear was jammed and an emergency landing would be attempted, simply sitting in her seat. Passengers all around her were jumping up, looking around, shouting, arguing, and crying. She had assumed that she would have run up and down the aisle screaming, trying to force open the emergency exits. But no. Her fingers were, though, digging quite heavily into the armrest.
“Jeez, that’s a bit rough.” The disheveled looking businessman beside her spoke for the first time. Linda realized that she couldn’t speak or move. “You OK?” he continued.
“Mmmm.” Her mouth wouldn’t open.
This man must be drunk, she thought. His collar was too far open, he was too far slouched in his seat and he was just too goddamn calm about this whole situation. She felt like her body was a pressure cooker just beginning to whistle.
“Listen to me. No point getting’ nervous now, no sirree.”
The dam burst and words finally cascaded out of Linda’s mouth. “I think that this, out of any imaginable situation, allows for some nerves!” Her voice sounded different, like it came from a radio that was slightly off frequency.
“P’raps,” he shrugged and slumped even further. “But there’s nothing we can do…”
“Exactly!” Linda snapped ferociously. “That’s what’s so terrifying! Our lives are completely out of our hands. They’re in the hands of the men in the cockpit. And where were they trained? What kind of men are they? What school did they go to? Harvard? Oxford?”
“I think when it comes to piloting…”
But Linda wasn’t going to stop just yet. “And what’s wrong with the wheels? Who worked on them? Sounds to me like they picked the cheapest immigrants…”
“Hold on there, darling. Let me get you a drink.”
“Yes, I can see that’s your approach, but I don’t drink.”
“Maybe you should start…”
Linda snorted, before rummaging in her bag for a small bottle of hand sanitizer. She rubbed and rubbed in the same way that smokers take a huge drag on their first cigarette of the morning.
Her companion went for a different approach. “Anyways, we’re sitting in the best bit of the plane. At the back, but not the very back. Where most crash survivors sit.”
At the word ‘crash’ she flinched. “I know. Why do you think I’m sat here? I always sit in this row.”
“Me too!” The man beamed, mistakenly believing that he had broken down Linda’s frosty barrier. “Like I always say: ‘You don’t never hear of a plane crashing tail first!”
Her response was a withering glance. “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God! This isn’t happening. This is just a terrible, terrible dream!”
The businessman, not wanting to be left with his own thoughts just yet, went for another approach. “OK, look, this’ll take your mind off it. Answer this: if you could listen to one song, right now, what would it be?”
The subsequent glance was even more withering, if such a glance were possible.
“OK, for me,” he went on, “I’d have to say something by CCR. Looking Out My Back Door or Fortunate Son. One of their more up-tempo numbers.”
This time the glance was one of confusion, with an edge of pity.
“So come on, what about you?”
“I suppose I’d have to say, um, Beethoven’s Fifth…”
People continued to panic around them.
In Seats 5B and 5C, in the sheltered sanctuary of Premium Class, sat two men. 5B was a corpulent man in his seventies with impossibly thick eyebrows, by the name of Austen Billsborough. 5C was a much younger man, in a stylish and ever-so crisp pink shirt, named Paul Burrows.
“What to do?” Billsborough posed the question.
“Yup.” Burrows replied.
It seemed as though the two men were having an understated reaction competition. Truth was, the old man had been pestering Burrows with unwanted conversation since boarding. Now that they actually had something in common, their imminent doom, he was even less inclined to give Billsborough the satisfaction.
“I must say, this is a pickle.”
“A rather nasty mess.”
“Do you know, I’m a bit of a frequent flyer, for decades now, and have never had the slightest whiff of an accident. Until today. Goes to show how safe all this air-travel actually is.
“From what I can recall, and at seventy two that’s not often a lot, ho ho, there have been two emergency landings sans undercarriage in the past decade. I’m a bit of an aviation disasters buff!”
Billsborough paused to let this sink in, and to dab at the corners of his mouth with a silk handkerchief.
“Once, in Mexico City, where the sturdy craft skidded and sparked down a runway coated in flame retardant, but stayed in one piece.
“Once, I believe, in Moscow, where perhaps they scrimped on the retardant, or perhaps the plane was a tad lightweight, and it split in to three…”
Burrows closed his eyes and leaned back.
“Leaving any family behind?” Billsborough continued unabated. “Myself, I divorced many moons ago and my daughters, grown up ladies now, don’t have much time for me. The dogs will miss me, though, I’m sure.
“Anyway, let’s not wallow in the macabre. Tell me, Burrows, what will you be doing if this flight does somehow make it to its destination? Purely pleasure, for me. A week of massage and meditation. Sorted out, body and soul, that was the plan…
“Hostess!” Miranda had just sashayed past carrying a sick bag and Dettol. “I know this is hardly the time, but could you find me a mini Moet when you have a second?”
“This is as good a time as any, Sir,” replied the hostess, looking relieved to have a standard-issue job to do after so much panic.
“And a whiskey and coca-cola… Whiskey and coca-cola? Yes, a whiskey and coca-cola for my good man Burrows here.”
A brief silence ensued, save for distant cries from coach and the soft weeping of a lady behind them. It was broken, surprisingly, by Paul Burrows.
“Mr. Billsborough, if you had the chance to listen to a song, any song, right now, what would it be?”
“Burrows! What an excellent question! What would I choose as potentially the final song ever to pass through my ears? I’d have to say, ha ha, what about, ho ho, Come Fly With Me, ha ha!” He descended in to a giggling fit that lasted sometime.
Finally, as he wiped the tears from his eyes with his handkerchief, Billsborough turned to Burrows. “And you…?”
In Seat 29K, Lauren Martin could hear a heartbeat. Heart. Beat. Her ear was warm. She was lying against someone. Oh shit! It was the cute guy she had been sitting next to. She sat bolt upright. There was a patch of saliva on his red t-shirt. Oh my God — cringeworthy!
He didn’t look upset, or like he found it funny. He looked, what was the word, distant. Before she fell asleep they had chatted. His name was Peter. He was German. They were both seventeen. Both were in their final year of school. Both loved Justin Timberlake and Lana Del Rey. Both were going on holiday with their families, but both had managed to sit far from them by offering to do the online check-in and then pretending that there weren’t enough seats together. Turns out their parents were totally as gullible as each other.
“You OK?” Lauren asked. As she did so, she realized that lots of people around her were out of their seats. And lots were crying.
“Ah, you were asleep.” She had already commented on how good his English was. Her German was tragic, even though she’d studied it for two years in Middle School. “The captain spoke to us a while ago. Um, there’s, like, a problem with the landing gear, the wheels, and we have to wait while they find an airport for us to do an emergency landing.”
“Shit,” said Lauren, after a few seconds. “Fuck.”
“Yeah, it’s totally fucked-up.”
Lauren burst out crying. Peter, after hesitating for a moment, grabbed her hands and held them together. “Hey, hey, look at me. It’ll be alright. Pilots are really clever. They train for, like, years. This is really routine for them. Don’t cry.”
She looked at him, his floppy black hair and his unusually perfect skin, God he was so hot, and she found herself believing him. “Yeah, you’re right. They know what they’re doing. They must practice it, like, every week.”
And, just like that, with a beautiful naiveté that only seventeen year olds can have, in the belief that the world is fair and that adults know what they are doing, they convinced themselves that they weren’t going to die.
Before she realized what she was doing, Lauren had put her hands on Peter’s leg. “Do you have a girlfriend?” Oh my God, what are you doing? But she couldn’t stop. Wait until she told Emily about him!
“Me neither. Well, a boyfriend. I’ve never really had one. Just kissed a few, but they were all complete weirdoes. I’m a virgin.” What! She couldn’t stop. All the things she could never tell her girlfriends at school, all the teenage bravado you had to keep around you every day, came crashing down. “Are you?”
Peter flushed. “Uh, no, well, kind off, yeah.”
“Kind off?” Lauren laughed and squeezed his thigh.
“I’ve like, done stuff with girls but never gone, what’s the English… all the way?”
Lauren took a deep breath. “Come with me to the toilets.”
The boy laughed nervously, like he feared she was taking the piss.
“I’m being serious. It’s so easy.” She leaned closer, whispering in his ear, “I don’t wanna die a virgin.” Then she had a giggling fit.
Peter looked more scared, she thought, than when he told her about the plane. “Are you sure?”
Lauren got out of her seat. “Follow me in one minute.” She had seen this on a TV show, once.
“What about our parents? Your mum came over before but thought she should just let you sleep.”
“I don’t care about my parents.” She tried to sound serious and dominant, but ended up giggling again. She slid open the nearest toilet door. Peter had no choice but to follow her a minute later.
Directly behind Lauren and Peter, in Seats 30J and 30K, sat Joe and Joan Leatherman, husband and wife. Joan watched as the dark-haired boy left his seat shortly after the giggling girl. She sighed.
Joan wasn’t one for panic. She looked, in exasperation, at those around her losing their heads. Wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference, now. They would be better off practicing the brace procedure. The cabin crew hadn’t demonstrated it yet. They were probably running around like headless chickens too. She had checked in the safety information and was now mentally running through it. Joan was a maths teacher.
Joe wanted to panic. He wanted to scream and shout and join in with those around him. But the desire to not give his wife the satisfaction was much greater. So, he sat silently staring out the window. Wishing. For a flight that was charging to its doom, everything looked very normal. The clouds were fluffy and the sky light blue. Did that make him feel worse, or better?
“What’s the date today, Joe?” Joan smiled at him.
“February 3rd, dear.”
“And does that date ring any bells with you?”
Yes – their wedding anniversary. “No, should it?”
Joan returned to staring dead ahead. “Do you remember our wedding day?”
“Sixteen long years ago.”
“They haven’t felt long to me.”
Joan didn’t smile.
“Do you remember how drunk your father got?”
Not as drunk as I’d like to get now. “Yes, yes. He liked a shandy.”
Joan still didn’t smile.
“And the argument your mother and aunt had? About God knows what.”
About the fact that your grandmother called them uncivilized? Everyday. “Oh, vaguely.”
“When we land, do remember to show the taxi driver the map I printed out. Remember last time one took us for a merry ride via Timbuktu.”
They sat in silence for some time. Husband and wife. Sitting upright. Hands clasping the armrests. They looked odd, juxtaposed against the crying, and the praying, and the nervous fidgeting around them. Like two rocks against the tide.
Eventually Joan resumed. “Do you remember the first song we danced to that day?”
“Of course, sweetheart. Everybody Hurts, by REM.”
“Shall we listen to it now? I’ll get my iPod. Our song.”
Joe took a deep breath. “No, I’d rather not.”
Joan paused, half bent towards her bag. “Why ever not? It’s our song!”
“No, it’s your song.”
“But, you love REM.”
“No, you love them. I can’t stand them. Never could.”
For the first time in a very long time, perhaps since she developed the ability to speak, Joan had nothing.
“Excuse me,” Joe raised his hand as Shania hurried past. “A whisky, please.”
The cabin crew was going over the brace procedure.
“Heads forward, hands crossed on the seat in front…”
“Where’s Marcus?” asked Shania. “We need him for this aisle.”
“I called him. He’s coming.”
The plane had just hit a patch of turbulence. Nothing out of the ordinary but it did little to relieve the tension. The ice shivered in the glass tumblers.
“Shania. I need to tell you something.” The words burst from Miranda as if they had been corked up forever.
Her colleague looked amused yet apprehensive. “Yeah?”
“I slept… with Roberto.”
Now she looked simply apprehensive. Any trace of amusement was gone.
“As in, my boyfriend?”
“Yes. Look, it… He had been working the midnight shift…”
“Oh my sweet baby Jesus!” Marcus bounced through the curtains. “Guess what I just saw in Toilet 3! Two kids completely going at it! Her up on the sink, him one leg on the toilet. Getting stuck right in!”
Miranda and Shania stared at him, wondering which conversation to continue with.
“What did you do?” Miranda eventually asked.
“Let them get on with it! Good for them. Was all I could do to stop myself getting in between! Lovely arse he had on him.
“Need another one of these,” he reached for the gin, “after that!”
The atmosphere was such that even Marcus noticed it, eventually.
“What’s wrong, girls? Look, I know this is a pretty fucked up situation, and all. But this is kind of what our jobs have been building up to. This is the cabin crew version of playing Hamlet, or playing in the World Cup, or whatever it is. Get your game faces on!”
Miranda smiled. Shania turned away from them both.
“OK,” Marcus continued. “Someone asked me this question years ago and I guess it’s pretty relevant right now. If you could pick one song to hear before you die, what would it be? I’ll go first. Mine would have to be: Lovin’ You, by Minnie Riperton. You know: La la la la la… Now your turns.”
Miranda went first. “I dunno Marcus. Maybe Let It Be?”
“Mmm.” Marcus wasn’t completely satisfied by that answer. “What about you, Shan?”
Shania turned back round with a look of disgust hovering over her lips. “Fuck You!”
“Ouch. Is that the name of an actual song?”
Just then the cabin phone rang. It was Captain Walker requesting the crash landing and evacuation demo.
Captain Walker thanked Miranda and replaced the handset. They had been cleared for an emergency landing and were beginning the descent.
The past two hours in the cockpit had been frosty. Facing the fact that they both might be dead by dinner time hadn’t yet broken the mutual mistrust between him and his First Officer. So, just before they carried out their final checklist, Captain Walker had resolved to apologise to Walter Holley. Not that he really felt he should, but he was a magnanimous man and it would be better for both of them.
“Walt, I’d like to say something.”
Walter paused with both hands on his headset.
“Hear me out. I know that, for years, you’ve suspected some kind of foul play, on my part or someone else’s, in me getting the promotion to Captain ahead of you. In my heart I truly believe that I did nothing wrong. Perhaps I had the advantage of my friendship with Steven, I truly don’t know. I can understand why you felt so… so unfairly treated. You’re a damn fine pilot, Walt, and there is nobody I would feel more secure with, in this particular situation, than you.”
First Officer Holley sat silently. Then went to speak. Then stopped. Finally, he offered his hand to Captain Walker. It was the first time the either man had ever shaken the other’s hand.
“Charles, I’d have to say, that given the current predicament, and those heartfelt words, really…It doesn’t matter anymore.”
The two colleagues exchanged a frank look of respect and grudging admiration. Captain Walker reached for the thrust control. First Officer Holley picked up the checklist file.
“I’m sure,” said Charles, “if we get this bird down you’ll be a Captain by morning.”
Walter chuckled, grimly. “That’ll be the day.”
The Author: Stewart McKay: A writer, blogger and nail-biter of Scottish extraction, currently living and teaching in Hong Kong. His blog: http://st.mckay.wordpress.com