It was probably almost 20 years ago. But I remember the feeling as if it were yesterday.

I was flying from Providence to Baltimore, a trip I'd taken many times. Our plane hit turbulence -- the most severe I'd ever experienced.

The flight jumped and bumped. At one point it felt like we fell 100 feet or more, and the jet pitched at a sharp angle.

Maybe it wasn't really 100 feet. It was hard to tell. That's just how it felt.

But, people were freaking out. I remember screams. Then, we recovered.

Then, it happened again. A little less of a fall, if I remember. Then, an eerie calm.

Things were normal. It was weird, as if it hadn't happened. Maybe we were a little embarrassed. It doesn't make sense now, but it did in the moment.

When we landed at BWI, a few of my fellow passengers clapped. Others seemed subdued. I think I remember locking eyes with either the pilot or copilot as I got off, but I didn't say anything.

I know I called my girlfriend at the time within minutes afterward. I wrote her a note later in the day about the whole experience. And I felt an immense sense of gratitude that the pilots had known what they heck they were doing.

I've shared here before about my own experience with an unprofessional airline pilot. (Not incompetent, just a little young and unprofessional.)

And, last week that I wrote about an American Airlines pilot who was arrested in England and alleged to have been under the influence of alcohol just minutes before he was supposed to fly a transatlantic flight to Philadelphia.

Those kinds of experiences test your patience, to put it lightly.

But then there are the other kinds of experiences -- where you realize that while flying is statistically quite safe, that's only because of the quality and maintenance of the airplanes, and the professional skill of the pilots.

There are probably thousands of occasions a week when commercial airline pilots prove their value, by expertly guiding their passengers through unusual and challenging circumstances. I'm struck by two this week in the United States that made headlines, especially:

  • A Delta flight to Seattle (actually Compass Airlines operating as Delta Connection) that made an emergency landing in Reno, after "crazy turbulence and injuries" that included "a nose dive, twice" as a passenger revealed on Twitter.
  • And, a Southwest flight, flying into PVD, that was struck by lightning during its descent toward the airport. A spokeswoman for Southwest, Michelle Agnew, said the flight ultimately landed "uneventfully."

That's the key word -- the one you most would like to have attached to your flight: "uneventfully."

Were it not for social media and the age of instant access to information about almost everything, these kinds of events would probably be remembered only by the passengers and crew themselves, much as my flight back in about 1999 was.

But we do live in those times. And so it's all a great reminder. 

When you fly, the physics are all about lift and thrust. But the experience itself is about faith and trust. The vast majority of the times we fly, the pilots and crew prove they've earned it.

Published on: Feb 16, 2019
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