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ONE HOUR TO LIVE - Bruce Corson

Art: Phil Williams

Could be one hour to live. What to do?

Shortly after take-off our pilot announced that he believed we'd had a tire blow-out. It was in the nose wheel, where a flat tire can lead to an exhilarating ride down the runway. The memory is still fresh because this happened yesterday, on a flight to Chicago's O'Hare airport.

As they had good emergency services in Chicago, the pilot elected to continue on to O'Hare rather than return home. That would also give us plenty of time to contemplate the landing; one hour, as a matter of fact.

"Nothing to worry about,” continued the Captain in his calm deep resonant Captain’s voice, “others have managed to land planes in this condition in the past. And don't worry about our flight engineer. He'll be rooting around under the floorboards in the main cabin to see if it was one of the main landing gear tires instead. Just sit back and relax." I was trying to imagine how I would do that as our pilot continued.

"Please pay attention to the flight attendants. They will brief you on the emergency exit procedures and brace positions." I was surprised to see the flight attendants handing out free drinks. This had to be really serious to qualify for free drinks. I decided to pass on the free drinks, believe it or not. I decided that I wanted all my wits about me. That adrenaline edge would help in an emergency.

What to do? I was alert to any hint that might portend the future. Except for the briefings and beer, all was routine. Two deadheading pilots, who were manning the exit aisle in front of me, were having a discussion about their next vacations. Snacks were being handed out. Trash was being collected. Cans and paper were put into separate bags; I couldn't imagine that recycling cans would be a major issue if all that scrap aluminum was going to be available after the plane crash.

On the other hand, this would be how they’re trained to behave. You don't want the passengers screaming. So, none of these promising clues were reliable indicators of what was really going to happen. And to think, this just might be the last sixty minutes of our lives!

What to do? There was an Airfone at my seat. Do I call home to my family? Do I tell my wife what's going on? No, that would be cruel if nothing happened, and would cost me about $25 for the stupid phone call. Yet if the worst happens, not having called would turn out to be inexcusable.

I worked on my expense report for a while. I wrote up some notes for the day. I worked on an article I was writing for a Japanese magazine. Then I did call home, but only to say hi. The connection was poor. My daughter's patience was thin at having to repeat herself, my wife was in the middle of some chore and wondering why I was blowing money on this call. Byes and I-love-you’s ended a frustrating call.

In the cabin one guy, just out of the military, was surprisingly upset. He downed four whiskey-and-waters in about twenty minutes and lost his voice to top it off. Another passenger evidently displayed her anxiety by talking non-stop with all the strangers around her; no problem with her voice. The extra pilots kept up their talk about Cancun.

I closed my eyes and said a prayer. Please keep us up, and alive. Please look after my family if we crash. (I was covering all the bases.) I read about the Bobbitts in People magazine. I played solitaire on the computer. I thought.

The pilot’s talking again. "Don't worry about all the flashing lights on the runway.” He’s still a perfect baritone. They're here just for us, but they don't often get a chance to test all their lights and sirens, so they like to use them." This pilot was good, nothing but a nice manner and smooth, calm voice.

I was in brace position as we approached the runway, looking out the corner of my eye for the lights. Waited for the touchdown, down, down, the aft wheels gently kissed the runway, the smoothest I've ever felt. We continued on, and the nose of the plane slowly lowered; this is when it would hit if there was going to be a problem. Reverse thrusters came on strong, we slowed, and kept heading straight.

All of a sudden we were stopped. Hearty, heartfelt applause from everyone.

So, no big deal, no blow out after all. Routine day in the air. Now, a reprieve and a full life to live. What will I do differently?

Not a thing.

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