Flying on a wing and a prayer
The crash-landing of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco reminds me of the hard landing I made in Baltimore on May 6, 2009.
I was returning from my Iraq deployment on a chartered World Airways DC-10 when, like the Korean flight, our plane made a drastic bounce on the runway.
Security cameras recorded a large puff of smoke and eyewitnesses would tell FAA investigators that they thought the plane was going to flip.
A second bounce was delivered at an estimated 3.2 Gs and plastic ceiling molding fell on us as oxygen generators swung like pinatas. The backs of several seats snapped backward while passengers along the left windows watched the yellow center line and I watched our wing drift over the grass.
We sailed back into the air as the cockpit voice recorder captured Pilot Craig Gatch asserting: “8535 heavy declaring an emergency go-around.”
When we regained some altitude, my fellow passengers spoke in muffled voices. No one wanted to be the first to cry, but clearly no one wanted to die without protest. Some were praying, or holding hands or just staring at their feet.
I rested my forehead on my seatback to pray even as I wondered if I heard a judgmental voice in it all. My shortcomings felt as though they were being weighed on the scale of a spiritual assayer. Was there a deity somewhere with a one-piece eyeglass assessing my life with a doubtful squint?
Had I been a good husband and dad? Or had I been too absent, both physically and spiritually? Was it OK to feel scared? Or should I gather my wits and start a rousing chorus of “Amazing Grace”?
I kept praying, spending the next few minutes asking God, “What about all these passengers?” A soldier was about to meet his new son for the first time. An airman was trying to make a marriage work again. They all wanted another chance. Would they have it?
In a center aisle seat catty-corner from me, a single young officer was wiping her tears. I stretched across the aisle to offer my hand as a reminder that she wasn’t alone. I wanted to hold it until we landed, but the awkwardly angled reach caused me to break loose and rejoin her hand with the chaplain assistant sitting beside her.
As we reapproached the airport, the flight attendants told us to grab our ankles and lower our heads. Then the pilot added his instruction to “brace for impact!” But instead of impact, we landed smoothly.
Slowly, we looked up and started clapping like we had never expected another tomorrow.
Before we deplaned down portable stairways, five people were removed for medical care, including the first officer with a broken back. Behind us, debris littered an unusable runway.
Few of us could make much sense of the incident. Many would say to me things like, “Chaplain, we expected to die in Iraq, but never in Baltimore.”
Investigators declared the plane a loss saying the main spar (the structural member that supports the wings while the plane is grounded) was broken. This meant that our pilot literally risked loosing our wings during his 10-minute go-around. But I suppose that’s what airmen mean when they describe a harrowing flight as “flying on a wing and a prayer.”
Norris Burkes can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.