United Airlines Flight 496 – May 10, 1969

I don’t recall who dropped me at the airport, but I had to take a ‘hop’ to Chicago. It was indeed a hop, as the first leg of my journey was only ninety miles and the take-off and landing (at that speed) was practically all-of-a-piece. I changed planes in Chicago.

My orders were to report to Ft. Dix, New Jersey. My flight was to Philadelphia via Detroit. Although there were only a few passengers, I sat on the aisle in my assigned seat.The seat to my left was vacant and I had a clear view of the trailing edge of the plane’s left wing.

Our plane rose up from O’Hare, turned toward Detroit, gained its designated altitude and leveled off. I loosened my seat belt (as per instructions) and settled in.

I glanced out the window and saw orange flames curling off the trailing edge of the wing.

You must understand, although I was only eighteen, I had just recently graduated from Aircraft Maintenance School – and I wasn’t about to cause a PANIC by jumping up and screaming,“The Plane is on fire! We’re all going to die!”

The stewardess was approaching and I casually raised my hand to beckon her. She stopped next to me and smilingly asked “Can I get you something”? I hooked my finger to draw her closer. She sank to one knee. I held my right hand close to my chest and pointed my finger at the window and whispered to her, “Is that normal”? We both looked out the window. By this time the flames were roiling over the top of the wing. I knew by then it wasn’t just a refueling spill. “I’ll go ask the captain” she replied, and walked quickly up the aisle.

The PA came on and the pilot informed us we would be returning to Chicago – not saying why. Apparently we hadn’t reached the ominous sounding Point of No Return.

I closed the shutter so nobody else would see. The stewardess handed out pillows and (as per her instructions) we tightened our safety belts, placed the pillows in our laps, then placed our faces in the pillows and thus assumed The Crash Position. We made an Emergency Landing; deplaning so quickly I almost missed the nod, smile and “goodbye” from the stewardess.

At the time I still had what is referred to as an eighteen-year-old’s “sense of immortality”. It just never dawned on me that “I” was in peril even before I got to Vietnam. I was in a burning airplane over the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

When the danger finally hit me, realized some twenty-five years later, I thought to myself that that stewardess and I were about the two coolest people on Earth. Either that, or we were both in deep denial. I changed planes and arrived at Ft. Dix without further incident.

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About The Twentieth Man

Age 67
This entry was posted in Expository Writing, Personal History, Short Stories, The Twentieth Man, Veterans and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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