Thursday 3 May 2012

Not a great start: In-flight electrical fire and emergency landing

Two extra countries, one in-flight electrical fire, one emergency landing, one lost bag. Not the greatest flight ever, but still not the worst flying experience I've ever had.

We were supposed to be going from San Francisco to Madrid via Newark. Our SFO flight got delayed and we missed our Madrid connection despite heroic efforts on the part of the united air-crew. They asked for volunteers in premium economy to take our seats at the back of the plane just before landing to let us get off quickly, and 6 people kindly obliged to get all the Madrid-connectors up the front. We sprinted through Newark airport with baby and car seat, and with a Spanish guy carrying one of our bags, but still didn't make the flight.

After some dithering about whether to stay in NJ or keep going, we decided to keep flying to Madrid via London. Turns out that was a really bad decision.

About 2 hours into UA114 flight from Newark to Heathrow the in-flight entertainment system abruptly shut off. I had been smelling something strange for about a minute, and when I looked up I saw there was smoke in the cabin. Not thick smoke, but a definite haze. This immediately called to mind a conversation I'd once had with KC about how an in-flight fire is just about the worst thing that can happen on an airplane.

There was a cluster of people around one of the business class pods right up the front of the plane, and half the plane was prairie-dogging out of their seats. There was a series of announcements with no information like "the captain will be making an announcement shortly". A few people started crying and freaking out.

The captain, with the not-so-confidence-inspiring name of 'Snap', comes on the PA and tells us that we will be making an emergency landing in Goose Bay, Canada. Everyone pulls out their united flight maps, and sure enough, there is a Canadian military base in the middle of frickin nowhere. I was picturing a snow covered runway with a shed beside it, and we were getting really worried about how we would keep warm if we had to get off the plane. Turns out it is actually a pretty big airforce base, and the runway was very neatly ploughed, with 6 feet or more of snow stacked up on the side.

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After maybe 30 mins we land, everyone applauds, and we're trailed down the runway by fire engines and parked in a 'safe area', i.e. safe for the airport if the plane decides to catch on fire. Fireies do an outside inspection, and come in with, what I assume, was a thermal camera to look for hot spots that would indicate fire. I can't really see what is going on at the front of the plane, but it seems that whatever caused the smoke isn't burning anymore and disaster is averted.

At this point, and for the next 5 hours that we sat on the plane, people were in a glad-we-didn't-die state. A greek guy whipped out a guitar and started an impromptu concert, and a series of people come to ooh and ahh over how cute E is. She was an absolute trooper through all of this, and barely cried through what ended up being about a 30-hour plane journey.

In a moment of maximum irony the cabin staff had to replay the air safety video before we took off from Goose Bay, which included the United CEO talking about the $1b that United is spending on in-cabin renovations, including fancy new business class sleep of which had just caught fire.

We finally made it to Madrid to find one of our four checked bags missing, which was E's cot, but we did a lot better than the four others on the same set of flights who didn't get any bags. After some attempts to make a bed out of towels and blankets, E ended up sleeping in the bed with us, which has worked out surprisingly well.

I really hope I'm done with airline emergencies now.


Wayward Rambler said...

Wow. I heard about delays but not the subsequent chain of disasters. Should I keep this from Dot? She might freak out and not come with me to Amsterdam!


Lydia said...

What an adventure! So glad that you're okay, though I imagine you're completely exhausted.

H also ends up sleeping with us while we travel, and we just use the travel cot for containing his wiggles.

Garth said...

Dude! You have the worst flying luck. And this time you had your family along!

Hope life is good. Been meaning to write you an email, but life/uni has been hectic. Soon!