Lift With Your Knees

12th January 2010


Over the years, I’ve developed an aversion to pilots who use the intercom in flight. You’re trying to sleep, and they point out scenery visible on the opposite side of the plane. Or they delay the in-flight movie to impose their own form of entertainment on a captive audience. Until last week, I thought “but seriously folks” was the most distasteful phase a pilot could utter. As it turns out, that honor belongs to the phrase “Emergency Landing.”

For example: “This plane, which is hurtling through space with hundreds of flammable people aboard, is going to have to make an emergency landing, folks.”

Or perhaps: “If any of you have developed a sudden allergic reaction to gravity, please inform your flight attendants, as we are preparing for an emergency landing.”

See what I mean? Distasteful.

The pilot on this particular flight tells us we will be making an emergency landing at a new airport, one with a longer runway. Apparently, there are concerns about the breaks — specifically whether we have any.

The girl in the center seat turns to me with moon-pie eyes. She’s in her early twenties, and it’s the first time we’ve looked at each other since we boarded. I almost reach for her hand, but instead we stare stupidly for a few seconds. “The nearest exit is five rows up,” I say. She nods. I lean forward. “Five rows up,” I say to the girl at the window. “In case you can’t see, and you have to count.” This girl looks at me like I’m an insane person. Fair enough.

I reach into my bag for my ID so emergency personnel will know who I am. I tie my hair back and find my scarf so I can breathe through it if there’s smoke. I text my husband that I’ve always loved him and Hank. I wait for the plane to burst into a fiery ball of flaming fire.

Meanwhile, the flight attendants rush the aisles checking belts. There’s a problem with the landing gear, it didn’t descend electronically, so they had to crank it down manually. I’m trying to gauge how serious this is, and the flight attendants are exchanging significant glances. Glances that say, “I have never done this before. You?” “No. No, I have not.” Apparently, the attendants are sure that we have landing gear, because no one tells us to brace for impact. This is a profound comfort.

I decide that I will drag my seat mates out of the plane if there’s a problem. With the gallon of adrenaline coursing through my system, I’m certain I can heft them both like potato sacks.

I am mentally rehearsing hefting them like potato sacks as we land. The landing is utterly, blessedly uneventful — just like any other. Except for the fire trucks racing to the wings. And the twenty-year-olds over my shoulders.

71 thoughts on “Lift With Your Knees

  1. Kizz

    Maggie Mason, please sit next to me. You thought to tie your hair back and bring your scarf and have ID on you. I’d be, like, clutching my crappy airline paperback and hoping the nice lady next to me would carry me to safety.

  2. S.

    Can I make you my permanent travel companion? Or maybe you could invent a Maggie doll that calmly repeats wisdom as well as practical information in dire circumstances? Named aptly Mighty Girl, of course.

    I would’ve been so appreciative of you informing me of the nearest exit row, I would’ve made sure to become your best friend. But then again I want to be your best friend anyway, even if my life didn’t depend on it.

    This was lovely. Could you write like this more often please?

  3. Jen

    If I’m ever sitting next to you during a flight and we hear “emergency landing” feel free to grab my hand. I’ll be the one hyperventilating.

  4. theambershow

    Oh god. The part about you finding your ID and texting made me cry.

    You should have started this with a warning to those of us who have husbands currently flying home from CES.

  5. Renee

    I just peed my pants.

    It’s never good when the professionals give each other the look of, “What in the F(*& do we do?”

  6. Nicole

    Maggie, I totally share your ‘calm in the face of chaos’ trait! They should parachute us in to disaster with our clipboards and steady voices . . .

  7. Jillian

    Heavens! I’m always tempted when I fly to say to a seatmate, “If we so much as hit rough turbulence, please be kind enough to club me senseless with your laptop bag.”

    PS — I’m new here. ::waves::

  8. Chris

    I’m good in a crisis, but I don’t know if I’m that good. Thanks for sharing; it’ll be on my mind if I ever need it to be.

  9. Betsey

    Have been a reader for years since before you were married. First time I have cried. Well written and a lot of food for thought for next time I fly. I will be counting rows. I always feel like I need a scarf when I fly now I am justified by the reasoning laid out here! Glad you’re safe and sound Mason!!

  10. Nichole

    ID at the ready? Hair tied back? Smoke-filtering scarf? You have got to be the world’s most together lady. I’m so glad you landed safely!

  11. Min

    I am glad you are safe. I used to love to travel, but I am totally over it now.

    On a side note, when we were kids, my father would travel with a Sharpie so he could write on us if something ever happened. Like being seperated, he would write our names on our left palms before we got on a plane.

  12. Bonita

    We’re flying on Sunday. I’m packing a scarf and a sharpie right now!

    And, because I can’t imagine being able to turn on my phone and begin texting my husband and son in that situation, I’m going to do this now:

    Honey, I love you, love you! You make my heart sing. And to my amazing boy, I can’t imagine my life without you. You are so beautiful! A million kisses on your kissiest cheeks!

  13. Lisa

    This VERY SAME THING happened to me a number of years ago, and maybe it was Mighty Girl’s parents who were sitting behind me? I use a wheelchair, and they had seen that I had boarded the plane with assistance. When the pilot announced the problem with the landing gear, a flight attendant came and helped me slide a blanket underneath me so that, if needed, they could easily bundle & carry me off. After she walked away, this very sweet couple behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “we’ve discussed it, and we’ll stay behind and carry you off, don’t worry.” You, and they, are made of some good stuff.

    (our flight landed without incident as well … wonder how often that happens?)

  14. moofie

    Maggie = totally awesome. I’m afraid that both of our spouses are going to have to learn to live with the fact that I’ve got a bit of a crush.

    Now, I know air safety is scary and everything, but everybody remember this: Getting into your bathtub is far, far, far more dangerous than getting on a commercial airplane. Getting in an automobile is tantamount to suicide, relatively speaking.

    Take a look at the statistics. Air travel has always been pretty safe, and it’s been getting substantially safer over the last several years.

    Having said all that, in ANY emergency situation, keeping a level head and thinking clearly is the best way to increase your chances of not only survival, but heroism.

  15. zahava

    It was 1980. The US hockey team was playing Finland for the Olympic Gold medal. I was 14, my brother 11. Why do I remember these things so clearly? It was the very first time we were flying sans parents — and it was also the first (and TG only!) time I’ve had the distasteful experience of hearing the pilot announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, the flight attendants will now help you prepare for an emergency landing.”

    We were flying in an ice storm. Our landing gear had actually frozen over and would not descend. Despite the best efforts of the flight crew to keep our heads down, my brother and I peered out our window to see what to our very frightened eyes appeared to be every fire truck and ambulance from Lake Placid to Monticello. And almost as many ambulances. And a LOT of foam covering the runway.

    It ended up being, quite possibly, the smoothest! landing I have ever experienced. The whole plane erupted in applause moments after the pilot returned to the intercom saying, “Welcome to Albany. And by the way, we just won the gold medal in ice hockey! Have a good night.”

    Those moments… they stay with you forever. A good reminder, I think, to appreciate our lives….

    Glad you’ll have many other moments — safe ones, and happier ones — thanks to that successful landing!

  16. Megan

    I’ve been counting the rows to the exit for the past few years and always felt a little paranoid doing it. But I do it. Every time. Thanks for making me feel less alone in doing that.

    You do sound like the kind of girl to have nearby in an emergency. Not many can stay cool enough to grab an ID, tie back their hair and figure out who they’re going to haul out with them.

    Actually this sounds like fodder for a good – albeit short – crisis packing list you should put together.

    (and sorry but, Hey Bonita – have a safe flight!)

  17. Melinda

    I am so thankful that you landed safely and are still with us. How scary! I have never been on an airplane in my life. If ever I get the chance to fly, I will be sure to count the rows.

  18. JC

    As a wife and mother, I teared up. I was also really proud of this woman that I don’t know. More than anything, I was just hopeful that I’d have it in me to do the same.

    I was in NYC on 9/11, and I can tell you I was not anywhere near as composed as you were on that flight.


  19. Ris

    Wow, I’m kind of in awe at how together you are. I aspire to be like you, maybe one day. Or always be sitting next to you or someone like you on a plane lest we encounter a similar situation. Phew. Glad you’re home safe.

  20. Karen

    I had a similar situation happen to me a few years ago . . . but it felt much more like that scene out of the movie “Airplane” than your experience.

    I like pilots who tell us we’ll be hitting rough air or give us heads up about other weather issues. The pilot on this flight, however, had not really thought through his statement. He came on the intercom and stated, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have run out of gas and must do an emergency landing.” It was like all hell broke loose . . . people jumping up in the aisles, yelling, crying.

    We ended up landing at a military base outside Las Vegas. It was a smooth landing, but we were surrounded by Military Police with guns drawn. The made us all close our window shades and dragged the plane to a hangar about 20 minutes away. It was surreal. We eventually were taken by bus to the Las Vegas airport with all windows drawn. It was a bizarre experience and all of us on the flight could have used a Maggie to keep us calm.

  21. Auntie

    Holy crap! Now you listen to me…you can no longer fly!! Did you hear me?!?! (Just you feel just a little more thankful for being here? It took me a long time to get over that rolling vehicle coming right at us on I-80 in Nevada and missing us by inches!)

  22. Grammar Snob

    I am sitting at my desk at work with tears in my eyes. This is a lovely story and I’m in love with the way you worded it. Mostly, though, it’s because of the happy ending. Thank you for the (perhaps unintentional) tips, I’ll never travel without a hair tie and scarf ever again. Maggie, I’m so glad you’re safe.

  23. Maggeh Post author

    Hi Auntie! I think I felt so calm because I decided I’d get out somehow if there was a problem. It definitely did make me feel grateful that I’ve been doing so much living lately, and grateful for family.

  24. Rebecca

    So glad you’re safe, Maggie. Also concur that the post was beautifully written. Also: I don’t have children yet, but when I do, I’m totally doing what Min’s dad did. What a simple and smart idea.

  25. Kimmy

    Wow. I’ve been reading your site for some time, but that was truly a hilarious and enjoyable read. Way to exercise caution. heeheee.

  26. Laura

    Reading this made my palms sweat. It also left me in awe of your preparedness! Way to figure out and plan for what you could control and do in that situation.

  27. Jan

    I’m another who keeps a cool head in a crisis. Mind you, I reserve the right after the crisis is over to sit a corner in a pool of the adrenaline that’s pouring from me, vibrating and sucking my thumb. But DURING the crisis, I’m usually okay.

    Another tip for flyers to think about, however distasteful: Don’t wear synthetic fabrics. In the event of a fire, they melt to your skin and are difficult to remove.

    Beautifully written account of what was clearly a very harrowing incident!

  28. Sara

    I had the exact same thing happen on a flight in ’03 — the landing gear didn’t go and they had to hand-crank it.

    The worst part was that even though we were landing in pitch-darkness and the lights on the fire trucks and ambulances flanking the runway (waiting for us) were visible from a mile away, the flight attendants decided to CALL IT OUT on the intercom and tell us not to worry.

    I distinctly remember a smooth landing and many red-faced people upon exiting the plane.

  29. Mim

    Wow! I would have been scared whitless! I need you as my partner the next time I fly. I haven’t flown in over 15 years and I swear with each passing year, I get more worried.

  30. Pamela

    I’m so glad you’re safe a. because we are all better for getting to read you and b. because this was the most hilarious post.

  31. GirlsGoneChild

    Beautiful post. Gorgeous.

    Also? I’m a little shocked! I thought you were kidding when you called and said, “Hi. I just almost died.”

    You weren’t really kidding, were you? Sheesh Louishe.

  32. Daddy Scratches

    Wow. I mean, like, wow.
    Glad you landed safely (which kind of goes without saying, but I’m a master of the obvious).

    PS: I am a row-counter even when there isn’t an emergency announced. And I pack a flashlight in my carry-on … you know, so I can guide everyone out of the smoke-blackened fuselage.

    Christ, I hate flying.

  33. Veronica

    I would like to think I would be as put together as you were in that situation but I am not. I can only hope that if I were flying alone, someone like you would be near me. You are awesome. Truly, awesome.

  34. Veronica

    Ok, I just read some more comments, specifically Lisa’s, and now I’m crying at my desk. There are so many amazing people in this world. I have to remember that.

  35. Sassafras Mama

    So glad that it all turned out well. And that you were ready to do the heavy lifting if necessary.

    And I also realize that’s why I like your blogs….you remind me that good folk are out there, doing the heavy lifting when called upon.

    Here’s to being ready to do our part.

  36. Beth (former Grudge Girl - now blessedly grudge free!)

    That was YOUR plane? I heard about it on the news, but it’s weird that there was someone I kind of sort of know (in an internet-y way) on it. I registered the brief little news story, but honestly didn’t think twice about it at the time. Now I feel guilty and relieved all at the same time.

    I’m flying from Indianapolis to Paris on 3/27. Any other items you would recommend in case of emergency, besides scarf and hair-tying apparati? I know you’re supposed to wear natural fibers because they are less flammable. And flat shoes (duh). But I’d appreciate any other helpful hints you can give.

    I’m very glad you’re ok, and able to share your experience with your characteristic flair.

  37. Rachel

    You know, I always fly with a scarf not for smoke-filtering purposes, but to trip, tie up, and/or choke a would-be terrorist. Most of the time, I’m a really non-violent person… really.

  38. Sarah

    I thought I was good just for listening to the safety drill and identifying my nearest exit. Clearly I have some way yet to go.
    Glad you’re safe :)

  39. tracylea

    You are a rock star and not the least bit insane. I always count how far my seat is from the nearest exit. It is important to know and good thing you told your row mates so they didn’t trip you up, not that they easily could over your shoulder, but better safe than sorry.

  40. Isabel @AlphaMom

    i read “I text my husband that I’ve always loved him and Hank. I wait for the plane to burst into a fiery ball of flaming fire.” and then proceeded to cry.

    so happy everything ended well. but scary dude.

  41. Long Story Longer

    I just wanted to add my little voice that I’m sorry this happened, and I cried so hard when I read about your text. I hope you take a really long bath with a really good drink. Really soon.

  42. Fableq

    My Goodness, it wouldn’t have mattered what the outcome of the landing was I would have died just from sheer terror! I’m so glad you’re ok!

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