That Time Our Plane Caught on Fire and We Had to Make an Emergency Landing

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Last year in Bulgaria, our apartment caught on fire. At the time, I thought, Well, I hope nothing this bad ever happens again on our digital nomad journey. We even bought ourselves a travel-sized smoke detector — because many poorer countries don’t require such things in their apartment buildings.

What are the odds of something like this happening twice, though?

This week, our plane out of New York caught on fire and we had to make an emergency landing in Boston.

Ironically, earlier that day, I had tweeted a quote from The Lord of the Rings, something Bilbo says: “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”

And Michael had tweeted back, “That’s an ominous thing to post right before getting on a plane.”

As we were taking off, I thought, as I do on almost every flight, This is so unnatural, being propelled up into the sky inside this massive metal machine that weighs thousands of pounds.

But then I reminded myself, as I also do on almost every flight, No, I have nothing to worry about; airplanes are still the safest way to travel. I was in way more danger in the taxi on the way to the airport.

Once the flight was underway, and we’d leveled off at cruising altitude, I pulled out my laptop and started doing some work on my latest novel. Michael and I hadn’t been able to get seats together, and we’d ended up on opposite sides of the plane.

I soon smelled smoke. Oh, well, the cabin crew must have burned dinner, I thought, returning to the novel. I had finally figured out a vexing plot issue and was eager to finish the chapter.

But it was funny: the smoke had that weirdly chemical smell of melted plastic.

Then the flight attendants made a curt announcement that everyone needed to stay in their seats, and the restrooms were being locked. Soon, they were quickly moving down the aisles carrying tanks of oxygen.

Shortly thereafter, the captain made an announcement that we would be making an emergency landing in Boston.

How much danger we were in? At this point, most passengers didn’t know anything, just that this was obviously a very serious situation. Smoke in the cabin? An emergency landing?

I thought: Are we going to crash? Am I going to die?

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And part of me wondered: Did Michael and I make a mistake setting out on this “digital nomad” thing? As Bilbo tells Frodo, would I have been better off never setting foot outside my door? Sure, maybe my life would have been less exciting, but at least I’d still be alive.

Most of the passengers were remarkably calm. I turned to the man in the seat next to me, who I had only nodded to before, and we both started telling each other our life stories. Obviously, we were distracting ourselves. Plus, if this really was my last few minutes on Earth, wouldn’t I want to spend it in human contact?

It might be true that airplanes are the safest method of travel, but it’s also a method where whether you live or die is completely out of your control. In that taxi on the way to the airport, I could at least shout to the driver, “Hey! Watch out for the oncoming car!”

And unlike in a taxi, if your plane does crash, it’s a lot farther to the ground.

After thirty long minutes, we finally touched down in Boston. The tarmac was immediately surrounded by at least a dozen fire trucks.

One woman had had a panic attack and had to immediately be taken off the plane. Everyone else was told to stay put. The captain, intense but in control, came back to talk to the passengers personally, to make sure everyone else was okay. He admitted the situation really was as serious as it seemed.

I later learned that a passenger’s external battery pack was recharging and had caught fire, setting an entire first class seat on fire.

Putting out an electrical fire based on lithium batteries at 30,000 feet is apparently no easy task. That’s what the oxygen tanks were for, so the flight attendants can breathe while they’re getting close enough to put out the fire.

The incident made national headlines.

Unfortunately, while the crew acted extremely professionally during the emergency, and the passengers mostly kept our wits, things quickly broke down once inside the airport. The Virgin Atlantic ground crew was completely unprepared and overwhelmed, repeatedly providing the passengers with inaccurate or contradictory information, and keeping us waiting in long lines until well into the early morning. It finally took a police officer to bluntly and loudly say to the hapless agents, “This is not acceptable! Fix this right now, or send these passengers to a hotel!”

And by now, many of the passengers’ tempers were frayed, with angry yelling and open cursing, and even a few scuffles breaking out. The swiftness with which civilization seemed to fall away among us chilled me almost as much as the incident on the plane.

As for me, even now I think, What did it mean? In my more cheekier moments, I remember the apartment fire in Bulgaria, and I think, Oh, God, I hope we don’t have a Final Destination situation going on here!

But the truth is, it is a dangerous business going outside your door. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo is talking about orcs and goblins, sure, but he’s mostly warning that leaving home means being forced to confront uncomfortable realities about the world around us, and also about ourselves.

A dangerous business, indeed.

I’m glad Michael and I didn’t die on that plane. And like everyone else, I have no idea what the future will bring — if I’ll be buried under a rocky avalanche tomorrow (I’m writing this post from our latest digital nomad destination, high in the Swiss Alps).

But the experience changes nothing. If anything, I’m more convinced than ever that setting foot outside my door was the right thing to do. Because the other thing that Tolkien is saying in that quote from The Lord of the Rings is that a life spent cowering behind your door might be safe and easy — but it’s not really much of a life at all.

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