I had to catch a flight back home in the morning. I stayed up all night the night before with some old friends of mine at their small cottage house. We sat around the table in the kitchen drinking coffee and playing cards and telling all the old stories from childhood. When the morning came, the rooms of the house led directly to the airport terminal. I passed through a doorway and I was in the waiting area outside the gate. There was a bank of chairs along the wall with a tall lamp beside them. The last chair was open and I flopped down and opened a paperback book that I had with me. But I had no real interest in the book, so I put it aside and reached over and clicked off the lamp and stretched out my legs and waited.
I had almost dozed off by the time they announced the boarding call. I yawned and got up on stiff legs. I was almost too tired to feel nervous about the flight. That was why I had purposely stayed up all night anyway, really. There was a moment, though, when I was seized with a sudden panic that rushed through me like a burst of flame. I broke out in a sweat and I was suddenly wide awake. My legs went rubbery and almost gave out beneath me. The moment passed quickly, though. I had to get home. I had to take the plane and I knew I’d be fine. I showed my ticket at the gate and made my way up the ramp.
I buckled myself into my seat, feeling tired again and ready to sleep through the whole flight. I looked down the aisle and I realized that I could see all the way up to the cockpit from my seat. There was a woman there at the controls with a headset on. She was wearing a light blue uniform shirt with wings on the sleeves. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like being able to see the pilot in all of their human uncertainty. I decided that this must be some second-rate airline to put me on a plane where you could see the pilot. I didn’t like this at all.
But we were already starting away from the gate and moving towards the runway. I checked my seatbelt again and squirmed a little in my seat. When we got over to the runway, I braced myself and held on tight to the armrest. That moment of takeoff, when the plane is picking up speed down the runway, is always the most anxious part of the flight for me. That hard feeling of the ground. That rush of acceleration. But this was surprisingly mild. The wheels felt fairly gentle rushing along the pavement. There was even a second where we slowed down a little, like pumping the brakes. There was a square, man-made pond just beyond the runway and we lifted up and soared out over the blue water.
But the pilot wasn’t happy with the takeoff. Even though we were in the air and clear, she wasn’t satisfied with it. I could see her up there shaking her head. She came over the loudspeaker and told us that we had to turn back. “We got to do that again. We didn’t get enough speed,” she explained. We were in the air, but we wouldn’t be able to gain altitude. She banked hard and circled back over the pond, back towards the runway. Everyone groaned and grunted throughout the cabin.
As the wheels touched back down on the pavement, there was a sharp stutter as they made contact. This sent us into a skid. The plane slid sideways and the wheels gave out beneath it and it began to flip end over end. People were tossed all over the cabin, and I heard a hard crunch as someone’s head slammed against a wall. When we finally came to a stop, people and seats were piled everywhere. I was completely unhurt, though, as were most of the people around me. Mostly there were just sighs of aggravation and exclamations of relief. “Whew! What a landing!”, someone yelled. The plane had broken up into pieces all around us.
It turned out that the all the trouble had been caused by a couple of people who had boarded the plane at the last minute. That was that brief second of braking that I had felt on the runway. The pilot had slowed down to let them on board, and the whole thing had completely thrown her off. These last minute passengers had been arguing from the moment they got on board. They were strangers who had gotten into a fight in the terminal over something and they had made each other late for the plane. They argued as they got on the plane. They yelled through the takeoff. They bickered through the landing. They complained through the crash. They were even griping with each other now in the wreckage. Somewhere across the cabin, someone climbed out from under a chair, dragging a broken leg, and they hollered down, “How about you just shut up already?”