The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 4, 2014

Terra firma feels very good after prayer on the wing

Many people wouldn’t be happy to be greeted by the fire department when they deplane. I was.

USAirways Express Flight 4793 from Yeager Airport had begun its descent to Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Wednesday when the smoke detector in the bathroom went off. I was in seat 7D.

Moments before, I smelled something burning. I thought perhaps the landing gear had generated additional heat when it deployed.

The flight attendant moved quickly to the back of the plane — one of those puddle jumpers that I refer to as a paper towel holder hurtling through the air. She turned off the alarm and shut the door. She said she wanted to stop smoke from filling the cabin.

What do you do in a moment like that? There’s nothing you can do. It’s not as though you can pull to the side of the road and pop the hood. I said a quick prayer while my stomach did flips.

She called the flight deck on her cabin phone. Passengers were quiet but calm. Most of us kept looking down the aisle toward the back of the plane.

The captain’s voice came on the speaker to say we would get priority landing to get on the ground as quickly as possible. The alarm went off about 4:50 p.m. It was about 4:55 p.m., and our flight was scheduled to land at 5:13 p.m. We had been late taking off, but it was supposed to be a 55-minute hop.

People say when they are really scared that their life flashes in front of them. I’ve been scared plenty and that’s never happened to me. I just wanted the plane to land safely and quickly. I was too scared to watch my life’s movie.

The flight attendant passed along whatever snippets the captain gave her over the cabin phone. She assured us that we would be able to land safely and that it would not be an emergency landing. She also said to not be alarmed if fire trucks met our flight on the tarmac.

Finally, I felt the wheels of the plane contact with solid ground and the seatbelt-tightening rear thrusters bring us to nearly a halt. The plane taxied to its assigned gate.

The captain had turned off the air conditioning, so the temperature in the cabin got stifling. The flight attendant apologized for the discomfort.

I didn’t need an apology. I was too happy that it wasn’t as hot as it could have gotten with a fire.

I looked out the opposite side window and saw the fire trucks trailing our plane. That wasn’t a comforting sight right at that moment. The emotions of fear, relief and get me off this plane were cascading and colliding in my brain and stomach.

But the rational side took over and was grateful that they were there if we needed them and, thank God, we hadn’t needed them to put out a fire. Still, my brain kept rehearsing the what ifs.

The plane stopped at the gate. A few passengers, including me, applauded. The captain’s voice informed us that oil had leaked into the engine.

The man sitting directly across the aisle from me said it was a good thing it happened in the last 10 minutes of the flight instead of the first 10.

I thanked the flight crew and shook the captain’s hand. A firefighter met us at the foot of the stairs. Several people asked if we were OK. I assured them I was and hurried into the terminal to catch my connecting flight — a 4-1/2-hour one.

A pilot once told me that any landing you can walk away from is a good one. He’s right. I’m thankful that my new year continued into Thursday.

But my feet are still sweating.

—Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com.

© 2013 by Nerissa Young

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