(BWI ➡️ LAX)
My father virtually lived in airports. He flew multiple times per week. He was a platinum level frequent flyer with every airline and my mother could rattle off his frequent flyer numbers as quickly as she could her own social security number. My father was a heavy traveler. He moved with a lot of very heavy bags. He’d always have a hundred dollar bill to hand the skycap along with his ID. Bag fees would disappear and he’d be off.
Well that was my plan, but I am not airport royalty. lol I was met with ‘you should hold onto that because these bags are too heavy.’ Our skycap changed gears though and said, ‘bring them all up.’ He began to unzip my luggage and move and shift things around, weight shifting. I was mortified. This was the very thing I’d normally flip over when it was done with folks ahead of me in line. I was now that person. Well the weight shifting worked, all the bags now under 50 pounds. I tipped the kind and very helpful man generously and thanked him. We were off to the gate with four smaller but insanely heavy carry-ons. The carry-ons were where we put our heaviest of possessions. Melissa and I never travel heavy but we needed to get our things out West. At the gate, we hear the flight is fully booked and passengers in the B or C group were asked to check their carry-ons at the gate for free. We gladly unloaded and checked two more of our bags. Now that’s six heavy ass bags all checked for free. While the gate agent checked the additional bags, I inquired about an upgrade. She said for $50 she could upgrade our seats. I said great and she said, ‘just one or both of you?’ By asking, she confirmed my curiosity and allowed me to feel comfortable to request just one knowing I could easily hold Melissa’s seat. Yes, again, that would make me “that guy” doing all the things that would typically elicit an eye roll. But at 6’3” I needed all of the legroom I could get. On Monday, January 29th, Southwest flight 1591 departed BWI at 8:20am EST and was due to land at Los Angeles’ LAX airport at 11:25am PST. The flight was as smooth as glass. We clearly had a significant tailwind at our backs because the captain announced we’d be landing 35 minutes early. Every minute counts on a cross-country flight. Everyone started preparing for a busy day once we landed 🛬. All of the typical pre-landing procedures took place: trash collection, stowed tables, seat-backs returned to the upright position, the series of beeps directing the flight crew to instruct us to make sure the under seat bags and items were fully under the seats and out of the aisles. For a lifetime, I’ve been an uber relaxed flyer. I knew all the stats and as a scientist, statistics were all that truly mattered to me.
We smoothly started our decent. We could clearly hear the mechanical sounds of landing gear compartment doors opening, followed by the drag felt once gear was extended and locked into place. We were very close to the ground when suddenly an odd but forceful sound of thrusting engines could be heard and felt. We were suddenly ascending again, swiftly and uneventfully right back up into the sky. We flew high above the Los Angeles coast. Then we banked sharply to the left, flying out over the Pacific Ocean. I have been on planes many times when, for a multitude of reasons, landings were aborted, immediately realigned and then landed. This was different though. No one was saying anything and we flew for awhile further and further out over the Pacific Ocean. As the need for information was becoming palpable, we suddenly heard from our captain. He seemed relatively calm as he said, ‘we are having a problem with our flaps, they did not fully deploy.’ The flaps are important for slowing the plane during landings. He said we would fly a little longer as they tried to get them to release. He asked us to stand by and if he needed anything for us to do, he would let us know. I was fine until that final comment. Like WTH do you need us to do? This is a modern, massive jetliner. I have traveled all over the world. Occasionally I’ve had the displeasure of being aboard planes that had no business flying. A few times, I had to quickly, along with other passengers, move to shift weight in the plane to the front or back or to a particular side. I am all in when it comes to survival and happy to do my part. But a modern day jetliner would never require such antics. We continued to fly peacefully out over the Pacific Ocean. The topography of California’s coastline was picturesque and beautiful. I took intense interest in its beauty, it was so serene. There is something about having no control in a situation and relaxing and allowing for universal will to run its course. I was fully present yet relaxing while grounding myself to this new Boeing 737. I was also intensely focused on trying to hear any slight sound or feel any movement indicating good or bad news before it was announced.
The captain came over the public announcement speaker again. He indicated they did not have success in correcting the problem with the flaps. He said we would reattempt a landing on the longest runway and we would be coming in faster and harder than usual. He alerted us to the presence of the LAX fire department who would be standing by upon our arrival to make sure our plane’s brakes did not overheat and catch fire. This announcement seemed to get everyone’s attention. Truthfully, I had been fully dialed in from the moment we aborted our initial landing. Melissa and I have the ability to communicate nonverbally. By that point, we had been nonverbally chatty. Check list time: seatbelt low and super tight, cell phones zipped in pockets. I studied the emergency exit door located immediately to my right side. The flight crew did another, intense walk through before locking down themselves. The cabin was silent. No one seemed panicked but most seemed alarmed. We flew east, over Los Angeles and banked sharply to realign with LAX’s longest runway. I thought about all of the activity going on below on the ground. I imagined the pilots going through their own checklist and taking into account all scenarios about to play out. That’s what I’d begun to do. I realized we were landing east to west and if we overshot the runway, we could slide into the ocean. Without saying a word, I took Melissa’s hand and led it to the red strap under her seat 💺 connected to her life preserver. I leaned into her ear and noted, we were right on top of the rear wheels. In the event of a fire we would be getting off super quick. Aviation fire suppression techniques almost always use foam. I was having thoughts of the young woman who tragically lost her life in San Fransisco when, while covered in foam on the runway, she was run over by a fire engine. I told Melissa, if we have to evacuate to hold on to me for dear life and do not let go and I would be doing the same. Minutes seemed incredibly long, but our decent was rapid. I could see the runway but it seemed like we were way too far down it. We finally made contact with the ground. Touchdown felt more fast than hard. The plane slightly pulled to the left as if it was about to spin, then instantly leveled back out. We were still moving super fast, but I was relieved we were on the ground. That alone made the odds feel better. I was not braced, no one was, but I did have my right arm firmly on the seat back in front of me. Out the window and recessed back on the right I could see LAX FD. I counted four fire trucks. They seemed perched and ready to race-in. As we passed them, one by one, they started to trail us. On the runway we were now fully stopped. The whole flight, including Melissa and I, burst into ‘thank you for saving us’ applause. The brakes, while I’m certain were hot as hell, did not ignite. We were cleared to proceed to the gate. One fire truck rode alongside us and remained at the gate while we deplaned. Welcome to Los Angeles! Did I mention how beautiful the coastline is here?