Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Another Learning Experience

Having nearly missed our flight out of D.C., I hoped the rest of our trip home would go smoothly. As it turned out, the self-inflicted portion of the drama was over, but things would continue to be interesting.

The flight from Washington to Chicago was uneventful and got us there in plenty of time to make our connection to San Francisco. This flight, too, seemed routine at first. It took off on time, and was fairly crowded, but the only other person in our row was a tiny teenager in the window seat next to me, so it wasn’t so bad. She was a little chatty, but mostly sat quietly writing out answers to study questions about the French revolution in big round loopy cursive. I didn’t know the answers to any of the questions. It’s been a long time since I was her age.

About 100 miles west of Denver, the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that he had some “bad news.” This struck fear into my heart. If I tell you I’ve got bad news, it’s entirely possible that I will follow this statement with, “You’ll never guess who got voted off American Idol last night.” In my experience, though, pilots aren’t like this. If they say it’s bad, it really is bad.

This guy must be considered excitable by his peers, though, because the news wasn’t that bad. It turned out that he had detected a problem with the oxygen masks, and determined that they weren’t going to work if we lost pressure. There was no reason to think we were going to lose pressure, but this seems to be the kind of problem that requires a plane to land immediately, and so we turned back to Denver.

We landed safely, if a little anxiously. This was my first diversion ever caused by a mechanical problem. As we approached the terminal, the one with the weird white peaks on it, the girl in our row asked me if it were a Cirque du Soleil tent. I’ve always thought the Denver airport’s roof looks like angry icebergs bobbing around the ocean, and I’ve never found the sight the least bit reassuring. I liked her perspective.

The plane sat parked near the terminal for about two hours. We were initially told that mechanics would try to figure out quickly whether they could fix the problem that evening or if they would need to put us on another plane. By this time it was about 8pm locally, and I was starting to worry that we were going to spend the night in Denver.

I wouldn’t have minded that so much, except that I was afraid Pipi and I were going to have to baby-sit the fetal flyer. Surprisingly late into the ordeal, it was revealed that her father was in the first-class cabin, but for a while, it looked like Pipi and I were the only grown-ups she knew on board. Because I was immediately next to her, I got the bulk of the wide-eyed questions.

This was sort of annoying, but touching as well, because I realized she was ascribing magical adult powers to me. She had no idea how long we’d be on the ground, and I didn’t either, but she assumed I did, because I’m a grown-up, and grown-ups just know things that kids can’t guess at. When, for example, some of the maintenance crew went to talk to the pilots, she tugged my sleeve and asked how much longer this meant we’d be waiting. I had the impression she thought this was something I might have learned as part of some kind of adult rite of passage. I think she expected me to say, “Well, during freshman week in college, I learned that no means no, that you should never mix beer and hard liquor, and that when the guy in orange talks to the pilot, you’ll be on the ground another 45 minutes.”

I didn’t say this, of course. I told her the only thing I could, which was that I really had no better idea than she did. In doing so, I realize I gave her a piece of information that she’s too young to know what to do with just yet. Eventually, this and other data points will lead her to the inevitable realization that most grown-ups don’t have any idea what’s going on much of the time; that most of us, in fact, barely recognize ourselves as adults, and spend more time than we ever imagined we would at the mercy of big boys with official-looking caps and vests. This girl was a few years away from starting to suspect this, though. For now, she was just an unlucky kid with an absentee Dad and the most useless grown-ups ever for seat-mates. I think she was starting to worry.

Luckily, there was someone in charge, and they got the oxygen fixed and we were able to continue the trip using the original aircraft. We got to San Francisco about three hours late, an annoying delay that kept us all up way past our regular bedtimes, but which did at least put us all a little further down the path toward being grown-ups.


Anonymous said...


Are you aware that the title and theme of your blog is perilously close to a very popular (and long established) web log (blog) owned by the Washington City Paper?

Nicole said...

No--I'm not familiar with the Washington City Paper. I assure you that any similarity between the Washington City Paper blog and my (long-established but not-a-bit popular) blog is a coincidence.

Don Clausing said...

I don't know what to say about the previous comment or what its significance is, but I did like your post. It's true that those masks are almost never needed, but the reason the pilot landed as soon as possible is that if you do need them, you really need them: your TOC (Time of Useful Consciousness--"useful" meaning like being able to answer a teenagers questions) at normal cruising altitudes can be measured in seconds, a minute or two at most, long enough to put a mask on but not as long as it takes to descend to survivable altitudes after a sudden decompression. So without the supplemental oxygen, you're going to have several minutes of very unuseful time on the way down. Probably survivable, but not something you want to risk.

Nicole said...


It sounds like the pilot did the right thing. It seemed at the time like a good idea to fix the problem, and I'm glad he did.