One of the scariest flights I ever worked also happens to be one of the first flights I ever worked for an airline called Sun Jet International Airlines. I lasted three months before moving on. Sun Jet is no longer in business. I’m going to guess this had a lot to do with gimmicky $69 flights to cities like Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Newark, and Long Beach. While cheap tickets attract a lot of passengers interested in saving a buck, they don’t always cover the cost of maintenance and upkeep of aircraft for smaller airlines. At least that’s what I assumed based on the fact that I quickly became accustomed to the FAA meeting our flight in Long Beach, California every Tuesday afternoon and taking the equipment out of service. And this had nothing to do with all those duct taped armrests or the black plastic garbage bags some passengers had to sit on after they discovered their seat cushions were soaked with urine. Because that’s what happens when you mix cheap tickets, a quick aircraft turn-around on the ground, and seventeen unaccompanied minors on a previous flight! Hey, better a damp seat than no seat. Unfortunately that was the only alternative most of the time, because our flights were always full.
I should have known when I boarded it was going to be a strange flight based on the aircraft lighting alone. Throughout the all-economy class cabin the side wall lights were on the blink and flickering in the dark. This made the airplane feel less like a disco and more like a haunted house. But it wasn’t until we hit severe turbulence half an hour before landing in Dallas that the creepy mood lighting actually became a problem. It started to freak the passengers out. At one point even I began to feel like I was starring in my very own Stephen King horror movie at 30,000 feet.
“Flight attendants take your seats!” boomed the Captains voice over the PA.Strapped into my jump seat, I noticed passengers clutching the armrests while others held hands across the aisle. I didn’t see any praying, but I’m sure there was plenty of that going on because with each dip there were moans and groans and even a few full on screams, making a bad situation sound even worse.
Keep in mind most of our flights were filled with first time fliers with little-to-no interest in racking up frequent flier miles, so a lot of these people had never before experienced turbulence in their lives and here they were experiencing it at its worst for the very first time! While it was my job to keep the cabin calm, there was very little I could do from my jump seat except reassure those sitting nearby that everything was going to be okay. It’s a fact that most injuries occur only when passengers don’t have their seat belts on. But with each bump, the screams got louder and louder until someone yelled out the unthinkable:
“I don’t want to die!”
For a split second all was quiet. That’s when I got scared.
Unpredictable behavior makes me nervous. I tell you this because the flight was a non-smoking one, but from my jump seat I could see a few passengers were lighting up. Great, I thought, because here we were on a flight so bumpy there was no way I could possibly get up and run to the back in order to grab a bottle of halon to fight a fire if I had to. Fire in the cabin, by the way, is about the only thing that scares me in flight.
“You need to put that out!” I yelled from my jump seat, but as soon as the words had left my mouth I regretted saying them as I imagined a cigarette being squashed into the fabric of the seat back in front of them.
Instead of doing as they were told, they continued to puff harder and faster as the airplane jolted side to side and the lights blinked rapidly on and off. This is when others began to join in. Someone seated close to me said something about smoking one last cigarette before the airplane crashed. That’s when I heard a familiar voice scream out again.
“I don’t want to die!”
Of course, no one died that night. But later on I learned there was a Delta flight in front of us that aborted landing. That, however, didn’t deter our Captain from attempting his approach. When he did finally manage to get the airplane on the ground, we landed so hard I thought the aircraft might split in two. There was thunder and lightening all around as we taxied to the gate. Passengers began jumping up out of their seats and rushing toward the aircraft door.
“Sit down!” I cried. “We’re not at the gate yet!”
“Hold the passengers back when I open my door!” a coworker barked at me. But my colleague never did get that door open because half a second later the Captain announced over the PA that the airport was closed due to thunderstorms in the area. Because of this there weren’t any open gates available. Airport traffic had come to a halt. That meant we were going to have to sit on the tarmac until the weather cleared with an airplane full of passengers on the edge of revolt.
“Let us off!” passengers demanded. We would have, if we could have, but there was no where to go! We were stuck. All of us together in a flickering flying tube.
After the flight I spotted the Captain standing outside of the terminal leaning against a brick wall. An older guy, the quiet type, he stood there with his pilot hat in one hand, a cigarette in the other, while waiting for the employee bus. Immediately I noticed his face looked ashen. Quickly he inhaled and exhaled, eyes on the ground, shirt drenched with sweat under the arms. I couldn’t help but think he looked a lot like those crazy passengers smoking on the airplane, the very ones who thought they were going to die. That’s when it hit me. Right then and there I realized just how scary our flight had truly been.