The recent crash of a USAirways jet stirred up memories for me. A few years ago I was flying from the mainland of Honduras to Guanaja in the Bay Islands, which is located about 30 miles off the northern coast. The twin engine puddle-jumper took off to the east and banked left out over the blue Caribbean, climbing quickly.
From my window seat I was enjoying the view of the distant islands when suddenly, the pilot put the plane into a nose dive and banked so steeply that I was looking straight down at the water. Rather than leveling out and flying north we continued banking and descending rapidly. I realized that something was very wrong but no one else in the small plane seemed alarmed – not even when it became apparent that we were turning completely around. In a matter of seconds we were back over land and the pilot brought the plane out of its bank but continued to dive so steeply that I was sure he would be unable to pull the nose up in time to land safely.
The whole incident could not have lasted more than two minutes but it seemed much longer, as if time was expanding. There was a certain unreality about what was happening – almost a dreamlike quality. My life did not flash in front of me. No one screamed or got upset. I remember thinking that I was going to die. I clearly remember being fascinated – and just a bit terrified – over the idea of my impending death. My stomach clenched and jumped into my throat. I stopped breathing. Although the engines must have been roaring and the cabin must have been rattling, my memory is of silence, as if we were in a vacuum where no sound could penetrate. The only one of my senses that was registering anything was my vision, and it was filled with the image of the ground rushing up to meet the plane. I braced for impact, but at the last moment the pilot brought us out of our nose dive and a split second later the wheels screeched on the runway.
As we rolled to a stop in front of the tiny terminal building the pilot announced what had happened. I speak Spanish fairly well, but between the engine noise and the poor quality of the plane’s PA system his words were unintelligible.
“What did he say?” I asked the young man sitting next to me.
“He said that a Seagull hit the plane and he had to make an emergency landing because of damage to the wing.”
Since we were instructed to stay in our seats while they brought a replacement plane around, we had time to chat. I learned that my seatmate was a Honduran national who worked for Dole – he also turned out to be an ex-military intelligence officer. Finally, the rear door was opened and we began to disembark. Airport guards stood at the foot of the metal stairway directing passengers across the tarmac to another waiting plane but my seatmate had other ideas.
“Come, let’s go see the wing,” he insisted as he grabbed my arm. He led me past all the guards, who ignored us in the delightful “no problema” mentality so prevalent in Latin American countries. We circled to the front of the plane and ducked under the nose to get a good look at the right wing. Sure enough, there was a huge dent in the leading edge of the wing.
“Oh my God! Look at the size of that dent. I can’t believe something as small as a Seagull could cause that much damage. And I can’t believe we didn’t hear it hit.” I exclaimed.
“I heard it – it was a big thump.” he said.
We looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief. And then the two of us calmly walked down the tarmac, climbed aboard another twin engine puddle jumper, and strapped ourselves in for the second time that afternoon.