A Rocky Flight
A bad flight can take many forms. It could be due to poor service. An annoying seat neighbour. Perhaps traffic means you missed your connection. An uncomfortable journey because of holiday intoxications or injuries. Maybe something completely innocuous like a dodgy tray-table ruins things for you. But sometimes there aren’t any of the human elements to a bad flight. Sometimes the only reason for your unfortunate trip is the one thing nobody can control: the weather.
Recently on an interstate flight between Sydney and Coolangatta (Gold Coast), I suffered my most hair-raising experience on a plane (and I’m not including that time I walked past an open lavatory door to witness things that I really can’ put into words apart from ‘nauseating’, ‘fleshy’ and ‘sagging’).
This was the day of a torrential rain storm that thundered into the area, soaking parts of the coast with a wetness not seen since I first ventured outside in Hanoi on a 30° day. 10 centimetres fell in one day, which is about four inches, or half the usual rainfall for the month. A major sporting event was cancelled and other flights were diverted or turned around.
Up in the air, above the clouds, we were fairly oblivious to the weather factors ahead. There was a decent amount of turbulence during cruising, which resulted in the usual occasional panicked or vomiting passenger, and an early finish of the food/beverage service (far before they could feed our row – how rude).
But the real fun started when we started our approach.
Our plane for this trip was an Airbus A321, so not a particularly small plane, with the usual 3-3 row distribution. Even with such a typical size, we got a bit battered on that approach. My window buddy was looking very pale and nauseous, and there was a few good drops in altitude that gave everyone a nice feeling in the pit of their stomach or, at least, lead to the tightening of seatbelts.
But the best was still to come.
Even in this windblown, torrentially wet and wild descent, I felt a general calmness. I’ve been on somewhere near 400 flights in my life and I know the crash statistics (especially in Australia and especially on the commercial airlines) are impeccable. But as we glided in to approach and the view changed from distant hills and houses to the familiar airport-necessary buildings there was a sudden change.
We were probably just 20 metres away from touching down on the tarmac when I felt it: a sharp upward turn of the plane, with more engine thrust than I can recall hearing before and suddenly we were off, shooting straight back into the sky.
There was a hush over the cabin with a mixture of relief and confusion. Hooray, we hadn’t crashed! But, we’ve not landed and now what do we do? The captain gave a calm update, once a more reasonable altitude had been found, blaming a sideways squall for leading to us turning around. Maybe it’s just the Australian way to downplay anything serious, but I had a feeling it might have been a bit more serious than he let on.
Our second approach was more routine, bar the weather. The turbulence was still there. The rain was still heavy and there. The anticipation of another aborted landing was still there. My window buddy’s lunch was still there (for now).
But when it came to the moment the pilots got that plane down. Sure, it might have been the hardest landing that day (or week, or month), but it was effective. Cue applause and a general sense that amongst all of the autopilot, radar guided navigation, simple technologies taking over the small human parts of flying (for the better, mind you), there are still moments of skill and moments of professionalism that remind everyone how important those in the cockpit are.
There might have been 400 boring and routine landings in my history where I’m only thinking about the new location I’m visiting or the washing to be done when I get home, but that one is now the most memorable, and the one I’m most impressed with.