"I Thought I Was Going to Die": Engine Failure 35,000 Feet Up

“I Thought I Was Going to Die”: Engine Failure 35,000 Feet Up

“I hope you’ll all be saying a prayer, and I’ll say one too. Let’s hope we land safely.”

The intercom clicked off.

*

On the day of my flight to Japan, I’d never flown alone before. My mum squeezed me tight; my dad beamed proudly. I took a photo in front of the gate, smiling into the camera’s eye and clutching my passport tightly in my hand. I didn’t want to lose it.

An hour into the journey, I was trying not to cry while watching Marley and Me, waiting impatiently for the food trolley that was ambling down the aisle.

It started with a bang – a bang followed by a violent shudder that trembled through the plane and rattled my teeth.

I ripped off my earphones and looked not outside the window, where the left wing was wobbling dangerously, but to the flight attendants, whose expressions told me all I needed to know. Their bodies froze, their eyes widened and they looked at one another with a gaze that said, What do we do?

That’s when I knew my heart, always steady, always strong, was doing its final sprint to the finish line. This was not turbulence.

I clutched onto the stranger’s hand next to me.

“Don’t panic,” she said, heavy with an accent I couldn’t recognise. Failing to relax my grip, she patted my hand reassuringly. The flight attendants were gone; the passengers stayed deathly quiet. We bounced in our seats and the folded tables rattling noisily.

The stranger interlaced her fingers with mine as the intercom crackled to life. The captain’s voice was unsteady and unsure.

“There has been an engine failure.”

A long silence followed.

“We will turn around and go back to Perth.”

More words about listening to the flight crew floated through the vessel and landed on deaf ears.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry!” chastised the stranger as tears streamed freely down my face. Another terrible noise came from outside the plane followed by an aggressive shake. We were soaring 35,000 feet in the air above an endless sea of water; land was an hour away.

The captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker again. I perked up, hoping for any words of comfort.

“I know you’re worried about what might happen. I am worried too.”

 I didn’t breathe, desperate to hear every word.

“I hope you’ll all be saying a prayer, and I’ll say one too. Let’s hope we land safely.”

 The intercom died and so did any hope I had for survival.

Trapped on a rattling vessel that seemed destined to tumble out of the sky, there was nothing I could do to increase my chances of survival but trust in the pilot who had just told us to say a prayer. My chest felt strangely hollow and empty, as though my heart had already stopped beating and I was just an empty shell washed up on the shore.

Words cannot describe the fear.

I imagined us all plummeting into the ocean, my body never found. I imagined my face plastered on every news channel in Australia, saying it was such a tragedy for one to die so young and then be forgotten about when the story ran dry. I imagined my funeral, my mother, my boyfriend. I wondered if dying would hurt, or if I would pass out first. I hoped I would. I didn’t want to die here, with a bunch of strangers as my only companions.

I took out my phone and typed a message to my mum.

“I’m going to die. I love you.”

But there was no reception. Would they find the message in my phone in the wreckage? Or would it be simply damaged beyond repair, like my broken and mangled body?

And then I did something I’ve never done before: I prayed. With passengers around me sobbing and trying to call their families, I wanted to believe that something bigger than me was looking out for me. That maybe, if I prayed hard enough, someone would save me.  I don’t know who I was praying to; I didn’t have a face in mind. I just knew that I wanted to live. I wanted to travel to Japan and see the ancient temples, to swim in the crystal clear waters in Greece. I wanted to write a book, learn a different language and be in love. And I wanted, above all, to see who and what I would become.

Still clutching my hand, the girl next to me asked me for my name.

 “Sophie,” I whispered.

“I’m Pauline” she replied. “I’m flying back home to Malaysia. Where are you going Sophie?”

I knew what she was doing. I was breathing fast, chest heaving with uncontrollable sobs and on the brink of hysteria. I wanted to unleash the scream clawing up my throat, but around me, passengers seemed to be keeping calm. I wanted to shake them.

Pauline asked me mindless and unimportant questions. She told me she liked chocolate by itself, but couldn’t eat it in cakes or ice cream. She told me her favourite dish to cook was nestum chicken, and that one day, she would make it for me.  She told me she lives in a sharehouse and studies mechanical engineering. She asked me to guess her age.

“21?” I asked. She was the same age as me.

The small talk might seem trivial, but it meant the world to me. I almost forgot about the pilot’s condemning words as I concentrated on the colour of Pauline’s eyes, a rich brown – like good whiskey.

Every now and then, when there was a lull in the conversation, I would whisper, “I think we’re going to die,” as if saying it out loud would help it sink in more.

“We’re not!” Pauline laughed. “And could you stop getting tears on my shirt?”

On and on she chattered. She almost had me smiling, but then the pilot’s voice would slice through the plane and the balloon of safety Pauline had built with her warmth would burst.

“Perth is half an hour away. The cabin crew will go through the emergency procedures. Please listen to them.”

With solemn faces, the cabin crew went through the emergency positions. They showed us how to brace for impact, reminded us where our life vests were and how to put on our oxygen masks with more urgency than before. I never used to listen to these things at the start of the flight; they were more like a nuisance than anything else. Now I was hanging on to every word.

“We’re close!” Pauline smiled at me. “I think we should be friends after this. So strange we met like this! Let’s get coffee soon, okay? What do you drink?”

My emotions, like a tidal wave, churned dangerously inside me. Her words were like my lifeline; they kept my head above the water that threatened to consume me.

“I always get a vanilla latte.”

She painted a cosy picture of us two sitting in a café, drinking coffee, laughing at something silly. I wanted that to happen so bad.

“Passengers,” came the voice over the intercom, interrupting my daydream. “Go into the brace position!”

We were landing. We were almost there.

Pauline and I reached for our ankles. For once, she was completely silent. This scared me more than anything else. We could feel the plane descending, but couldn’t see outside the window. The plane shook harder than ever, as if to remind us we weren’t safe just yet. No one spoke; no one moved a muscle. I interlaced my fingers with Pauline’s as I felt my stomach dip.

“There’s a vanilla latte waiting for us!” she whispered, more to herself than me, I think.

The sound of the gravelly runway, strong and hard beneath the wheels, was the most satisfying sound I’ve ever heard. As the plane rumbled to a stop, the sound of cheers and applause was absolutely deafening.  Passengers hugged strangers, crying and whooping. The immense feeling of relief I felt was like lifting a weight off my chest.

“399 souls on board,” said the pilot, clearly crying with relief. “In my 44 years of flying, I’ve never experienced something this bad.” His words drowned with another round of applause. He’d saved our lives.

As the passengers filed off the plane, Pauline right behind me, I thought fondly of that vanilla latte and how amazing it would taste.

Pauline’s friend, in the row in front stared at us both groggily, her eyes puffy with sleep.

“What happened?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Pauline replied incredulously.

She’d slept through the whole thing. And just when I thought I would never smile again, I took one look at her confused face and laughed.

*

Sophie and Pauline finally caught up last week – and yes, they each had a vanilla latte.

Cover by Steve Halama