That Time Our Plane Caught on Fire Over the Atlantic
Bilbo Baggins was right: stepping outside your door can sometimes be a dangerous thing.
When you're in a plane thirty thousand feet over an ocean, the one thing you really don't want to smell is smoke.
It was June of 2019, and Michael and I were on our way to Switzerland, our next digital nomad destination.
But thirty minutes into our flight from New York to London, with nothing but the Atlantic Ocean stretching out under us as far as the eye could see, I definitely smelled smoke inside the cabin of our plane.
"Huh," Michael said casually. "The flight attendants must've burned dinner."
I had a slightly different take. I was thinking, Smoke? In the plane? This is it, we're both going to DIE!
Yes, nomading for two years had made me much more used to unexpected things happening, much better at going with the flow. But this did not include things like smoke in the cabin of an airplane thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic.
The smoke kept getting thicker, the smell becoming more obvious, more noxious. Not like burned chicken parmigiana. More like charred electronics and melted plastic.
Like the inside of a plane on fire.
Earlier that day, related to absolutely nothing at all, 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 flight!
Three hours later, with our plane rapidly filling with smoke, I was in no mood for irony.
Before anyone could ask any questions, the flight attendants rushed down the aisle wearing oxygen masks and clutching fire extinguishers. At least we didn't see any actual flames yet. Then again, the flight attendants were running toward the First Class section — obviously very far from our seats.
By now, we could very clearly see the haze in the air.
I glared at Michael. Did he still think the flight attendants had just burned dinner?
A moment later, the captain spoke curtly over the PA system, "Ladies and gentleman, we’re diverting to Boston for an emergency landing. We'll be on the ground in thirty minutes. Please do not get out of your seats."
An emergency landing? Shit was getting real fast.
Really? I thought. For once, I was right to jump to the worst possible conclusion? I wasn't sure whether to be freaked out or proud of myself.
"Everything's going to be fine," Michael said to me. "Whatever's going on, I'm sure they have things completely under control."
"Oh, yeah, I'm not worried, not at all," I said, because I always lie to Michael about how anxious I am in any given situation.
We still couldn't see what was happening up in the First Class section, which was obscured by a curtain.
Around us, the other passengers were oddly subdued, or maybe it was because everyone had been instructed to stay in their seats.
I tried to listen in on the conversations around us, but I couldn't hear a damn thing. Had the roar of the inside of a plane always been this loud? That had to do with the speed of the plane, right? Because we were screeching through the sky in a fragile metal tube at God-knows-how-many miles per hour?
"Seriously," Michael told me. "I'm sure everything's fine."
"What do you think it is?" I asked, because years ago he had worked as a flight attendant.
"I honestly have no idea."
I glared at him again. He'd worked as a flight attendant. How could he not have any idea what was going on?
"Is it the engines?"
"No," he said. "We couldn't smell that in here. It's probably just the wiring or something."
"'Just the wiring? What are they doing about it?"
"Well, you saw the fire extinguishers. They use a special kind, halon extinguishers. They're amazingly effective. Don't worry. It's not like the whole plane is going to catch on fire. Everything is built exactly for like problems like this."
Problems like what? I knew Michael didn't have the answer, but part of what was so scary about this was not knowing how serious it was.
"But," he went on, "you should probably put your shoes on in case we have to evacuate."
Evacuate?! I thought there was nothing to be worried about! My husband seriously needed to get his story straight.
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