I play a mental game on airplanes. I try to determine as accurately as possible when I cross the line from “likely to live” to “likely to die”.
As the plan taxis to the runway, I often think, “No problem. Wheels could fall off and we’d be fine.” Then the plane accelerates dramatically, the landscape begins to slide by with increasing rapidity. “Not yet,” I think. “Still wouldn’t die if we skidded off the runway” Or, say, fell into a huge sink-hole nobody noticed.
“NOW!” I exclaim to myself at some arbitrary point just before lift off. “We’re dead!” I have no science for this, it just feels like human life probably was never really meant to achieve speeds like that.
I do the opposite on the way down, too. I usually choose that point when the wheels have touched the ground, the wings have exploded into fins and panels to catch the wind and help the brakes slow us down. Sometime around the point when the entire cabin roars and rattles in wind-shear friction I proclaim as objectively as possible, “Ok. We’ll live.”
You can imagine my instant consternation when our plane lost power for a split-second after lift off from Miami as we headed toward Port Au Prince. Some may not have noticed, but I sure did.
We couldn’t have been more than 300 feet in the air. Cars and buildings were still BIG. I’d just proclaimed us “likely to die”, when suddenly the plane just seemed to sag. The nose dipped slightly, and my heart caught in my throat. But in an instant then the engines roared back to their previous RPM’s, and we kept climbing.
A few minutes later, the captain’s voice announced that yes we did in fact have a problem. The landing gear did not retract into the belly of the plane. Stuck. The good news was that the wheels were stuck OUT, rather than IN. “But”, the captian informed his white-knuckled crowd, “If we can’t get the landing gear into the plane, we can’t go to Haiti.”
So, we needed to turn around and land the plane. Great. No problem. I don’t like this plane anymore anyway. Unfortunately, landing the aircraft presented some uncomfortable dangers. One problem was the huge amount of fuel we had in the tanks. The extra weight made landing dangerous. Unspoken, of course, was the grim prospect of just how big a flaming explosion all that fuel could make.
We also didn’t know if the landing gear actually worked. Maybe it only partially extended from the plane. Maybe it wouldn’t hold the aircraft under the stress of a real landing. Maybe someone shoulda spent 15 bucks on a little internet cam down there so the captain could actually see what the gear looked like.
So, we circled Miami for close to an hour. Burning fuel. Losing weight with an efficiency any American could appreciate.
I spent this time pondering my choice to spend two weeks in Haiti. I wondered if I could really provide any aid to anyone. Was this really just tourism couched in the self-important guise of Western medicine?
How would my kids feel, 10 years after we saponified in a brilliant sun-ball of death on MIA’s runway #4? Would they say, “My Dad died on a medical mission to Haiti. It has been hard growing up without him, but I’m proud of what he was trying to do.” Or, conversely, would they simply never understand why their Dad left them for what turned out to be forever so he could go try to help a bunch of people he didn’t even know.
Around this time, the plane approached the runway, but we didn’t actually land. Just before touching the runway, we took off again. As we passed over, crews on the ground visually inspected the landing gear to determine if it was actually locked in place. Things must have looked good because we then circled around, re-approached the runway and finally land the plane.
Waiting for us were emergency crews, lights flashing, posted at intervals along the runway; each successive crew ready to pick through pieces of wreckage that flung away from the main one. Nice image. “Could you guys at Crew 1 look for my charred arm, please?”
Four news helicopters also hovered along the runway expectantly. I’m not sure that a Bell-Howell chopper can lick its lips in salivating anticipation of afternoon of “news”, but I found the image easy to imagine.
Since I’m typing this, it should be clear to you that we landed without incident. The choppers turned away forlornly, off to cover the boring Miami traffic; hoping for someone else to perish dramatically, preferably with flames involved. We taxied to the quizzically-named “terminal” to board another plane while repair crews swarmed over our ailing one.
As we entered the airport, I felt a new lease on life although still haunted by the grim possibilities of what we “survived”. Just then, I see Lisa, the only other resident doctor on the team. Figuring she might be a little distraught about nearly losing her life, I walk over to check on her. Be strong and manly, I think. Supportive. The rock. Fearless, me. The poor girl.
“Haiti’s not that bad.” She says, looking around curiously. “I saw a bunch of nice tiled roofs and high-rises as we flew in. And-” She points to an airport Starbucks, “They even have coffee and pizza and stuff.”
Lisa then turns at me and beams. “I think this trip’s going to be pretty cool!”
For a beat, I’m utterly speechless as I thickly connect the dots, “You’re serious? What the heck have you been doing this past hour and a half?”
“Oh, I just had my ipod on and then I fell asleep.”
I think, your ELECTRONIC DEVICE? ON?! During TAKEOFF?
I realize that she has no clue what nearly happened to us. No questions. No worries. Chilled out to music and then sleeping like a child. No freaky captian, no fuel, no existential questions about loved ones, sacrifice and mission work.
She thinks we landed in HAITI!
“Good idea, Lisa. Let’s get some freaking coffee. Maybe they sell cigarettes valium too.”