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Christmas had been a joyous occasion at my family’s ranch in Eastern Washington. Winter had arrived and with it, the landscape had changed from the resemblance of nut-filled brownies to a cake covered with white frosting. An old year was ending, a door to the past shut.

“Time for my 2 PM flight,” I said. It was an easy drive in a four-wheel-drive pickup. We passed through a blue-white tunnel of snow on the freeway. And then, a turn off to the small airport, past the parking lot full of cars that looked like flash-frozen fish left in the freezer too long, to the icy walkway into the building. Nothing was unusual for winter in Eastern Washington

I had chosen one of the last available seats on the cigar-shaped capsule, an Exit Row. The plane was a commuter, and the seats junior size. My thigh was wedged tight against the beefy young man next to me.

“It looks like we’re it!” I piped to my seat partner as I fastened my seatbelt. “We’re the Emergency Exit Crew, the just-in-case people, “ I finished with a smile and a click of the belt.

Brown eyes peered back at me over his face covering. “Yep. Nothin’ to it.”

The flight attendant approached us. “In the unlikely event of an emergency, you two will open the hatch by pulling forward and lifting up the door at a slight angle. But don’t worry. Nothing will happen.”

We both settled in, the man, smelling of alcohol and presumably having a holiday hangover, dozed, welcoming sleep. An uneasiness settled over me. I had sat in the Exit Row many times; but, I had never read the safety card. This time something was different. I grasped the leaflet out of the pocket in front of me and began reading in earnest. The words printed in red bounced back,

“Stay Safe.” The plane was still on the ground.

The flight attendant was drawn back to me. I was taking my job seriously. Was it something she found unusual? Or was it something else?

“Is there something I can help explain?” she asked. “Yes. Tell me precisely what I am to do in an emergency.”

“First look out the window and make sure no fire, water, or debris is present. Once you open the hatch, one of you jumps out of the plane onto the ground and helps other passengers out. But don’t worry, nothing will happen.”

I looked out the window from seat 2 C toward the front of the plane. “It must be 10 feet to the ground. How could I jump 10 feet?” I thought to myself.

The plane began its roar gathering speed down the runway. There was a bump, it hit a pothole, maybe. And then we were airborne. The dozing body beside me didn’t flinch.

The flight attendant was sitting on her barebones chair at the front of the plane. She was young and wore a wedding ring and a shiny silver charm bracelet she probably got for Christmas. She seemed bored, anxious perhaps to have this flight over to spend holiday time with her family. Her eyes held expressions where her mask held secrets.

The familiar bing-bong sound alerted the attendant that her captain was calling. The fair-haired attendant jerked to attention, grabbing the phone that hung behind her. She never turned but grasped the phone in a backward wave. I wondered if she thought:

“What does he want now?”

Something happened. But what? She slapped her left hand involuntarily against her leg. She took a few seconds to gain composure.

The pilot came on the radio: “We will be turning back to the airport as required by FAA regulations because we hit a flock of birds on takeoff. We’ll have the plane checked out and be on our way in no time. It’s just protocol, nothing to worry about. It’s just protocol,” he repeated, a crack in his voice as he reassured his passengers.

I kept a steady eye on the blonde in the blue uniform. Another call jingled her phone. The news was not good, not when the attendant suddenly sat straight up and rigid, patting her knee gently to reassure herself that she must stay calm.

“Okay, begin your plan in detail,” I said to myself as the plane arched in return to starting position. “Let brown eyes open the hatch, and he can jump down the ten feet to the ground,” I tell myself.

“Keep the passengers as calm as possible. Help them slide out the hatch to the outside. Throw any loose blankets and jackets out the opening. Babies and handicapped people, see if they can go down the stairway on the opposite side of the plane. Otherwise, we have to hold them as they are lowered to the ground. Plan in place.”

The plane lurches, and the descent is too sharp. The engines begin to cough. I see billowing smoke coming from the front of the aircraft. The mumbling of voices has changed to screams. I must stay calm. Cries come from behind me. Across the aisle, I watch as a man performs the genuflect. Another woman has her cell phone tight against her ear. The flight attendant looks straight ahead, still buckled as if in a straight jacket.

Brown eyes next to me are now open wide with fear. We smell the acrid stench of smoke. “The descent is too fast. Something is wrong,” my seatmate notes. “We’re it,” I say in a matter-of-fact voice. “Stay calm, stay put, help others.”

A few feathers float by the window. I think how cold the snow-covered mountains below us are. My mind goes crazy, “Check for fire, smoke, water, broken plane wing, blankets, Christmas candy. We are already fifty miles from the airport. Food, we may need food. Say a prayer.”

I feel the thrust of the plane as it regains altitude and levels off before beginning its final descent. I breathe a sigh of relief. Passengers once screaming are now quiet with bewilderment written upon their faces. I unhook the buckle that once held me in. I stand and look behind me at the blue sky. I slowly turn and look forward at the blonde in the blue uniform, still strapped to her straight-jacket chair. Music is coming from somewhere, the cockpit perhaps.

Once more, I return my gaze to the flight attendant, and then I see it, the wings pinned upon her shoulder. She smiles at me and says I did my job well. Now I understand.

January 05, 2022 08:18

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1 comment

Eve Whittall
17:13 Jan 05, 2022

I was prompted to write this piece after experiencing an actual flight that had to turn back. But I added pieces that make it fiction.


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