It was a night flight, and we were somewhere over the Midwest. The pilot wasn’t the talkative type who likes to keep you abreast on everything you pass over with a running narrative, so I was rather disoriented. I probably couldn’t have pointed out our location on a map, that’s for sure, and of course this plane lacked those neat seatback displays where you can follow the tiny graphic of an airplane across a misregistered map of the region, wondering how many hundreds of miles of deviation are involved. Occasional sprawls of lights loomed out of the darkness and receded again, and I was buried keep in a novel about wartime Berlin, waiting to arrive in New York in the mid-morning and plunge into the chaos of midtown Manhattan.
I have a confession, which is probably not very hip: I don’t really like New York City. It’s nothing against the people who live there, truly, it’s just that there is a little bit too much of it, and everything is on such a grandiose scale that I kind of go into sensory overload. People make all kinds of claims about New York being a series of small neighbourhoods and maybe it is, when you live there, but my overwhelming impression of it is as a crowded, smelly place with buildings to the sky where everything is ludicrously oversized and I can never find the place I’m supposed to go even though I’ve been given extremely precise subway directions, and thus end up staggering through the streets in a state of perennial confusion. I like being lost in the woods. I do not like being lost in the city.
I’ve been on a lot of planes of all shapes and sizes in my day, and I tend to be pretty impervious to minor foibles like losing several hundred feet in altitude and shuddering, so I was initially undisturbed when the aircraft started encountering what the pilot laconically informed us was ‘turbulence’ over the intercom. The increasing alarm of the rest of the passengers took a moment to penetrate and I lifted my nose out of the book to complete pandemonium in the cabin as the cabin crew tried to chivvy people into their seats, properly close the overhead compartments, and convince people to put their tray tables up, already. The fasten seat belt light had dinged on and the person in the row with me was clasping the armrest with a death grip.
Thankfully, my rowmate wasn’t the talkative type, and we’d spent most of the flight in peaceful silence after the obligatory ‘ah, going to New York, eh,’ which I guess is a good question to ask before they close the cabin doors just in case the plane is not going to New York, or if that possibly wasn’t your planned destination, so you can take the appropriate measures.
After determining that there didn’t seem to be any useful contributions I could make to the situation, I made to return to my book, when I noticed a flare of light off to my left. It didn’t look like any city I’d ever flown over. To be strictly honest, it looked like a jet of flame had suddenly appeared, and I wondered for a moment if I was witnessing a catastrophic volcanic eruption in an area that probably hadn’t seen an active volcano in quite a while, so I peered out the window to get a closer look.
‘What’s going on,’ the person next to me said.
It wasn’t a very crowded flight, which turned out to be extremely fortunate for the airline, because as far as I knew, I was the only passenger who had noticed that the engine appeared to be on fire.
‘Er, well, the engine appears to be on fire,’ I said.
‘Well, you know. There are flames,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t recommend shouting about it since people already seem pretty convinced that the world is going to end.’
The person stared back at me in mute horror, and I shrugged. I mean, really, what are you going to do when the engine’s on fire? Pop out with a fire extinguisher? Presumably the pilot knew about it, since I’m pretty sure they have alarms for this kind of thing, and plus, the flames were almost out anyhow. Besides, it’s a twinjet.
After a long pause, the person asked me to look out the window and see if the engine was still on fire. I looked.
‘Nope,’ I said cheerfully, right as the pilot returned to the intercom to inform us that we’d be making an ‘unscheduled stop,’ which is, I think, a nice way of saying ‘it came to our attention that the left engine caught fire and doesn’t appear to be working, so we thought we’d better land and have a gander at it.’ The pilot muttered whatever secret garble it is they use for communicating with the cabin crew without causing mass panic in the passengers, and they duly circulated again, reminding everyone to prepare for landing and telling people to consult the guides on the back of their seats to make sure they knew where the emergency exits were.
I don’t know where we landed. It was winter and it was a small regional airport, covered in snow. We were met by an assortment of emergency vehicles and got to disembark on the air stairs, which always makes me feel rather glamorous, like a film starlet of the 1940s. Fortunately for the airline, it was still too dark for anyone to see the carnage on the left side of the plane. I can’t remember what excuse was put forward for the incident; ‘engine trouble,’ probably, but everyone duly shuffled into the airport to wait gloomily for another plane to come and fetch us, and I returned peacefully to my book.