It could be you
The first thing I felt was a shudder. Not like the trembling of an animal, or a human-being shivering from cold. More like a ship grinding against a submerged rock. We had only been airborne for what seemed like seconds and were still tilted at a sharp angle, pointing upwards into nothingness, when the unfeasibly heavy aeroplane seemed to pause in the air, halting its climb completely for a moment. Impossible I know but that is how it felt. It was as if the huge machine had stuck there to catch its breath before hurtling on upwards, straining to break the invisible leash of gravity that connected it to the earth twenty thousand feet below. In that immeasurably small period there was somehow still time for me to hear that every panel and rivet of the packed cabin was creaking and pinging like cooling metal. The sound of the four huge jet engines faded to a whispering rush and a sense of weightlessness fluttered in my chest, like being on a roller-coaster car that had not quite made it to the top of the loop.
I gripped the arm rests on either side of my seat, holding on to the ends like a dentist’s patient anticipating the drill. My palms sweated and my chest thumped. I felt the warmth of the sun bathing my face through the scratchy porthole window and wished with all my heart it was streaming on to my prone body on one of the ribboned beaches far below. I was accustomed to this sensation. My fear of flying was an ever present fact in my life, threatening to keep me earthbound forever should I give in to it. Just the knowledge that I would have to take a flight any time in the near future was always enough to blight my every waking hour with morbid daydreams of computer malfunctions, suicide bombers and rogue pilots. You name it I was scared of it. I know all the statistics. Safer than crossing the road, more people killed choking on peanuts etc. So what? It does not mean it will not happen to me. Why bother to do the lottery otherwise?
I fought to control my panic. Reminding myself that I had once lived under the flight path at Heathrow for seven years and watched, or heard, flight after flight, every ninety seconds or so, come in to land right over my head. Thousands upon thousands of planes; no incidents, no mad pilots or malfunctioning undercarriages. What were the chances? I mean really?
No one else seemed to be bothered. A small blonde child with wide blue eyes and a face smeared with some kind of food, scampered up and down the aisles. Two rows ahead and to the right of me an orange tanned steward served drinks to a grey haired couple. There was a relaxed buzz of conversation, happy travellers streaking to their destinations at 500mph. I turned my head to look at the man across the aisle directly to my left. He was reading the Financial Times and absently drumming the fingers of his right hand on the fold down table before him. He looked about forty or so. Surely he would make it home today? He didn’t look like the kind of man who wouldn’t come home. His family would be expecting him. His house would be warm and filled with the smell of cooking and the noise of boisterous children. I would tack my luck to him. Ride back safely on his coat tails. We’d both get home tonight.
The shudder became a groan.
It was the sound of an injured beast. A behemoth brought down by a Neanderthal spear. But of course it was not alive. Metal and wire comprised its skeleton, plastic and copper its nervous system, a computer chip its brain. It was just a machine with no intelligence, no abilities, no personality and no compassion. Just a machine that would not even try to stay in the air and save me because it did not know I was there; just a cold, soulless machine that was failing. I knew it was happening. In an instant I knew that this was it.
I felt a tap on my arm.
“Are you ok?” a concerned voice said from my right. The enquirer was a small mousy woman with round wire framed glasses and a fringe that fell into her eyes and made her blink erratically. I looked at her with what must have been a kind of mad smile.
“Just a little nervous, I exhaled. You know, flying and all that” I offered, feeling somewhat absurdly that I should ease her obvious concern even as we plunged to our grisly deaths.
She smiled, “First time?”
“Not quite” I confessed, embarrassed. How could I be worried about keeping up appearances when I was about to die?
“I hate the take offs too, she grimaced, but we’re up now so nothing to do but enjoy it” she said this like a school mistress dealing with a nervous first time pupil.
“Hmmm” I smiled weakly.
“Perhaps you would like…?” she stopped mid sentence as the groan became a whine and a curious change in the atmosphere occurred rather like when someone cracks open the window of a speeding car to throw out their spent gum. “Oh!” She looked at me with what seemed like fear, not of the noise but me, as if I was making something bad happen.
“I’m sure it’s nothing” I said comfortingly. But I knew it was. I knew this was it. The whine stopped only to be replaced by a kind of popping sound like cork guns at a fair.
Now people were beginning to notice. A frisson of anxiety ran through the cabin as if a watching crowd had just noticed the parachutist’s tangled lines. I was comforted by this. I felt less alone with my fear now that others had noticed something was wrong. But this sense of relief was short lived as I contemplated how it would make no difference to my certain death. The plane lurched left - and then right - and the whine of the engines rose and fell as they struggled to keep the monster in the air. The sweat dripped from my brow and I felt an overwhelming urge to jump up from my seat and run the length of the aircraft just to be doing something. People were panicking now. Loud bangs punctuated by fizzing sounds reminiscent of damp Catherine Wheels provided the background to a rising tide of screams and shouts. Someone began to yell down a mobile phone shouting orders as if somewhere there were an assistant who could turn off the ride by throwing a lever. And then it all stopped. For a few seconds everything returned to normal. The only thing out of place was the tension in the air and the subsiding moans of fear from my fellow passengers. I felt the great machine ease back to level and the noise of the engines receded to an insistent but entirely commonplace whooshing, like a mighty waterfall in the distance.
But I knew this was not over. I knew the calm always came before the storm. And even if I had not been the morbidly pessimistic man I was I would have known that noises like the ones we had been listening to do not occur on planes that are fine and dandy. After perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds there was an almighty thump from somewhere underneath me and I turned my face towards the window on my right to catch a glimpse of something metallic and smoking whirling away before being snatched by the slipstream of the wing and whipped out of sight so quickly that to all intents and purposes it simply disappeared. I tried to imagine what had happened. Perhaps whatever had fallen off was not meant to be there in the first place and now that it had gone we would be ok. Perhaps its unwanted presence had been the very source of all the terrible noises emitting from the belly of the plane. But that was not the case. After a few seconds a new sound began to make itself known, a sound accompanied by something more terrifying than anything so far; the smell of smoke. The sound, though definitely there, was difficult to hear precisely. It was a strange sighing that seemed to melt into the background and then emerge intermittently and brush against my ears. I was sure it was real, but was it inside me or outside me? It was like listening in the silence and only hearing my own blood pumping. But after a while I knew what it was. It was air rushing out of the cabin, pressurised air leaking out into the cold blue sky.
The smell of smoke grew stronger and even though I could not see any evidence of fire I knew I was not imagining it. The cabin was in pandemonium now and through the cacophony of screaming passengers and cabin crew shouting to try and calm them there came the crackle and hiss of the intercom that heralded an announcement from the flight deck along with the bong.. bong.. of the warning panel above our heads.
“Ladies and Gentlemen this is your first officer speaking, the Captain has switched on the seat belt warning sign and I would like to ask that you please return to your seats immediately, we are experiencing some temporary but nevertheless fairly severe turbulence. These instructions are for your own safety. Please be assured that this is normal procedure when in unfavourable weather conditions and there is no cause for alarm”
Nobody was listening. “WHAT’S THAT SMELL OF BURNING?” a woman shouted hysterically, perhaps thinking the Captain could hear her. I imagined him hunched over the controls, a green glow from the instruments casting a ghostly sheen on his sweat beaded face as he fought to keep 400 tons and 300 people in the air. I glanced across at the man reading the Times and saw that he was sitting stock still with his head back and his eyes closed. He muttered something repeatedly that might have been a prayer and clenched and unclenched his hands as if limbering up for a fight. The aircraft began to lurch again bumping up and down now like a truck on a farm track. How long could it hold together? I had heard somewhere that this particular model of plane could get home on only one of its four engines. I assumed that mathematical equation could not be applied to the wings. I looked out of the window and watched as the great span of silvery metal flexed and shuddered with each rapid and sickening change of altitude.
It might seem strange to hear but even as my worst fears were being realised, even as I sat there helpless to prevent whatever was coming next, a sense of calm came over me. Now that the awful moment was upon me it was not as bad as I had imagined. There was a kind of inevitability about it all. There was nothing to do but accept it, even - well not quite enjoy it but drink it in, really experience it. The unthinkable was happening, I had finally met with disaster and life could now presumably never get any worse, assuming I had any life left of course. I am not a religious man and I did not pray. I understood that the forces working against me and my fellow passengers were not supernatural, anything but. It was mathematics that had got us, the pattern that underlies everything in the physical world. At any given moment somebody somewhere is having a very bad day and it is mere chance whether that somebody is you. My fellow traveller beside me who had tried to reassure me minutes before was now desperately thumbing through the safety leaflets from the seat back pocket before her.
“I know it’s in here, she hissed, there is a special position you have to adopt. It increases your chances of survival by two hundred percent”.
I doubted it, but how funny that statistics, having done for me already, should now offer the only source of comfort on the way down.