Monday, December 2, 2013

Flying over the Alps

Somewhere over the Alps (February 4, 2005)

Almost 6% of the surface of Earth is mountains. This corresponds to 20% of all available land (once you take out the oceans). As much as I like Italian mountains, it is time to move on. Let's take a plane and fly over the Alps. This route I have taken many many times, from west to east when visiting my family in Italy, and from East to West when getting back to the US. Hop on a plane and fly. Piece of cake, right?

Well, maybe not so easy, after all. In fact, in my brief jet-flying career (700,000 miles so far) I have already suffered two emergency landings as I was crossing the Alps.

Somewhere over the Alps
The first time was almost uneventful, thanks for my cluelessness. This was one of those planes with the little screen attached to the seat in front, showing the live map with the plane route. Well, at some point I noticed that the plane was making an unexpected U-turn, as to get back to Paris. People on the plane were kind of agitated but I could not understand what was going on. Then the pilot announced that we were getting back because, "as you may have noticed" there was a strong smell in the main cabin, which he was positive it wasn't gourmet cheese, and we were getting back to investigate. So we landed on a separate runway with the fire trucks ready to intervene... and intervene they did, as the reason of the smell was that one of our engines has gotten on fire mid-flight, and the smoke was already entering the cabin (so much for being pressurized). Of course, due to my anosmia, I didn't notice anything, but it must have been terrifying for the passengers that could see the right wing of the plane with its trail of smoke.

The second time was in fact more directly connected to the mountain crossing (which appropriate given that I am running this series about mountains). The flight was between Torino and Paris. As soon as we got over the Alps we started to feel very strong vibrations at the back of the plane. Horrible noise and shaking, like the worst turbulence I have even gone through. We did an emergency landing at Lion, nearest airport at that point, just on the other side of the mountains. No fire trucks, that time, but as soon as we landed one of these service trucks with the elevator cart approached our plane. We could not get out, but from the window we saw that the service crew was looking very carefully at the tail section of our plane. Nothing... we were stuck on the plane and these people were just looking and looking. As the passengers and the flight crew were getting just a little too nervous, one of the workers outside grabbed the tail of the plane, hanging to it, as to see if he could pull it out! As that happened the pilot, that by then was in the main cabin looking outside as everybody else, became red, said something like "that's it" and declared that he would not have flown that plane ever again. That was it indeed. We disembarked, managed to get to Paris with another plane before nightfall, and then took yet a different plane the next day, to get back to the US. All this happened a few months before a plane of the same model crashed in Queens (New York) because, you guess it, the tail section snapped due to excessive turbulence.

Despite all this, I still like the experience of flying (and I would not mind flying to space, if it was economically feasible). And that's nothing compared with what happened to a friend of mine that crashed twice with a helicopter, the same day, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. But that's a story for another day.

Somewhere over the Alps (February 4, 2005)

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