John Walker's Electronic House

Turbulent Times: Planes Can Be Scary

by on Jun.28, 2011, under The Rest

I am alive. Which is something I wasn’t sure would be the case earlier today.

Something I’ve always wanted to do is fly in one of those research planes that go through thunderstorms with the deliberate intent of being struck. As I’ve mentioned so very often, I adore thunder, and the idea of being so close to it seems thrilling.

Well, as it turns out it’s just terrifying. Especially when you’re not in a research plane, but a small commercial vessel that’s circling above Brussels for an hour, insanely flying through the storm again and again and again. It’s hard to understand what was happening, especially since the pilot adopted that airline code of not explaining what was going on for enormous stretches of time, while we all stared at each other, not sure how much longer we had to live.

Things kicked as we approached Brussels to land, and the rollercoaster began. About twenty minutes earlier the flight attendant (the, as this was a very small plane) had warned us there was a chance of turbulence, but not said when. The plane lowered, we began our approach (wheels still up), and then dropped, my stomach left at our previous altitude. Now, I love it when that happens in planes, because I’m an idiot. It’s the ultimate ride, that sensation you get from a good coaster but without the tedium of seeing where it ends. I know that it’s just hitting an air pocket, and I know it’s fine, and I enjoy the adrenaline rush. I turned to the guy sat next to me and said, “That was a good one!”

But then it got a bit worse. And I saw the airport pass beneath us, as we continued on.

Eventually the pilot thought to speak. In his garbled, uninterested voice he explained that there was a thunderstorm, so we weren’t going to be able to land until it passed over. It would be a few minutes.

He next spoke to us 45 minutes later. 45 minutes of constant turbulence, terrifying plunges, and utterly mystifying moments when rather than circling the perimeter of the storm, he would suddenly violently steer directly toward it, sending us deep into the purple-black clouds with bolts of lightning cracking either side of us. No, I’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t end well.

Those little plummets are fun, over before you’ve had time to realise why you’re scared. When you’ve got enough time to look around at other people looking around at other people and think, “Oh, this isn’t going to stop, is it?” it’s lasted too long and the fun’s removed. You don’t quite have enough time to spot the fallacy in the thought, but you do have enough time to wonder if this is your last moment alive before that stop you’d forgotten abruptly arrives.

And with no feedback, you’ve simply no idea what’s going on, so your mind is given permission to worry about every imaginable scenario. “He’s not saying anything because he’s crying, hugging his knees in the foetal position on the cockpit floor.” “He’s not saying anything because we don’t have enough fuel to circle any more, and he’s just going to have to land in the storm.” “He’s not saying anything because the airline industry is institutionally contemptuous toward its customers, and it never occurs to them to consider how scared and confused everyone is.”

All you want is, “Hello ladies and gentlemen. Sorry we’re still not on the ground – the storm is still hanging over the airfield, so we’re safest up here for now.” Something that lets you know he’s not disappeared out a window with the only parachute, and assures you that everything is fine and perfectly normal and routine. I don’t care if it isn’t. I don’t care if his instruments are informing him that all the engines are seconds away from exploding. I want to be told everything is fine and perfectly normal and routine. What are we going to do if he’s lying? Puddles of human remains rarely sue.

I’d also like to know his rationale for every so often diverting from his sensible path around the edge of the storm for plunging into the middle of the monstrous cloud we’d all been staring at through the right windows, rattling the plane such that every metal object joins in a choir of clattering madness. Such that when I looked out the window to my left I could see the engine on the wing behind me jiggling around like it wanted to find its own route down. Such that the vast flashes of violet implied that the lightning was striking neither side of us, but directly onto us.

I was pleased that my love of lightning was never overridden. Whenever I saw one of the spectacular jagged bolts ripping through the clouds either side of me my face burst into a smile, occasionally accompanied by admiring gasps. I decided that while I drew a few strange looks from the whiter-faced co-passengers, I was going to maintain this cheery disposition. Early on in our adventure I had taken great solace in seeing the flight attendant nonchalantly filling in some form on a clipboard, a bored look on his face. I didn’t care if he was really writing a note to his loved ones in the hope that it would survive the explosion – his indifference to the events gave me confidence. So I smiled, and let other people see someone smiling.

Of course this eventually dissolved into frustration, as we all started studying the ground in the distance, looking for airport-shaped things, in the hope that this time – this death-dive into the melee – was the one that would take us home, but instead finding that we were apparently just tempting the mighty Thor once more. After something like 45 minutes of not bothering to tell us what was going on, the pilot mumbled something about how we’d be landing in “one five minutes”, which painted confusion on every face I saw, little debates breaking out between those arguing for “15 minutes” and those going for “one lot of five minutes”. I was in the former camp, but his French repeat a couple of minutes later contained “cinq” and not “quinze”, so it seemed the more peculiar choice was right. Fifteen minutes later we landed.

None of this adventure was helped by the knowledge that as soon as I landed my task was to get on a plane. A plane I was now going to miss, unless everything else was equally delayed. So in between considering switching my phone on to call Laura if it got any worse (on the John Scale of danger), wondering if I should leave a note in my iPhone that people could find when picking through the wreckage, and contemplating bursting into the cockpit and demanding answers, I wondered where I would stay in Brussels overnight.

As it turns out things were delayed for my next flight (not that the information boards bothered to display this, just leaving my next flight set for its original time, now in the past, with no further information). The gate was a comic distance away. We had docked at the far end of the A terminal, and my new gate was B92. Signs to Gate B suggested it was a “connection” away, but with no clue as to how far. It turns out they meant “a really long walk away”. I reached the B terminal, pouring with sweat in the humid greenhouse of an airport, double-checked I wanted B92, and looked up to see B1.

Amazingly I reached the gate (located ludicrously in the very bowels of the terminal, down over 890 escalators, past huge long stretches of peculiarly blank corridors – all advertising and commercialism gone by this distant land – all empty, seemingly abandoned years ago; the eventual destination equally empty but for one single lady manning the only open desk) in time. Just in time. And then sat on the plane on the tarmac for a huge length of time with no explanation from anyone, watching other planes taking off directly into the busy storm.

But I lived, which is good.


12 Comments for this entry

  • Colthor

    Sounds exciting! And frustrating, but that’s travelling for you.

    Too late to be a consolation now, but aeroplanes aren’t really bothered by lightning:

  • GHudston

    I went through the same thing on a jet heading into Miami a couple of years ago. I haven’t been on a plane since and intend to avoid it if at all possible.

    I bet that there are still grooves where my nails dug into the arm rests…

  • Jambe

    Unless it’s a positive strike.

    What an adventure, John. Goodness…

  • km

    On the rare occasions when I do fly, and things go poorly, which they usually do on my flights, I think to myself (seriously), John LOVES this part. John would LOVE this sudden plummet. John would LOVE the jostling back and forth as I whimper and try to maintain rational thought. I both laughed and had a panic attack as I read this post–thanks :)

  • Mrs Trellis

    You FLEW to Brussels? I don’t know if you’ve heard but there’s a lovely train that goes under the sea, and can take you all the way to France or Belgium.

    Sounds jolly. I’m sure the pilot didn’t say anything because he was busy, what with flying the plane in a storm and all.

  • John Walker

    Yes, I flew to Brussels, as it was a connecting flight, as was quite apparent in the post.

  • Jonathan

    Why no pictures? I demand pictures of the lightning!

  • Jack Deeth (@JackDeeth)

    You’d have to worry if the wing WASN’T flexing in the turbulence – if the wing can’t flex, it would snap instead…

    Fun fact: most aircraft have opening cockpit windows, normally the ones just next to the main windscreens. This is so that if the windscreen mists up or ices up and the demister/deicer fails, the pilot can open the window and have some kind of forward view. How this works when the plane’s going through a thunderstorm at 120 miles an hour, I don’t know – perhaps they all have emergency goggles. But the window is big enough for the pilot to leave through it if he wants to:

  • Xercies

    Thats definitly one story for the kids…

  • Jack Deeth (@JackDeeth)

    just found this amazing training video by Boeing.

    Highlights at 0m45s and 2m38s.

  • MrsTrellis

    Nope, still does not compute.

  • Matt

    I’m glad you survived, John!