“Mayday, mayday,” he said. “Flight VS15 for immediate landing.”

 The passengers looked around at each other, shocked and terrified. The flight attendants, ever the professionals, raced to their jumpseats and stared straight ahead.

I sat there in my extra-leg room seat, mostly terrified but also calmer than I usually am in what-seems-like a crisis. My thoughts went to my husband and how I hoped he would manage to go on without me (but not find love again, let’s not get crazy). As the burning smell intensified, people started crying and breathing heavily. Was our plane about to fall out of the sky or would this just be a story to tell tomorrow?

But, wait a minute. To tell this story properly, all the way from London to London to Bermuda to Orlando (it will make sense eventually), we’ve got to start from the beginning.

A couple Mondays ago, around 11:00am, I was checking my bags in at Virgin Atlantic’s desk at Gatwick Airport. Our flight, VS15, would leave from Gatwick at 1:00pm.

There were no lines at all, so I went straight up to a friendly man at the desk.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Orlando,” I said. “I’m going home!”

We talked for a minute about Disney World or something, and then I asked if I could move from a middle seat to an aisle seat if there were any available. I had booked the flight last-minute the day before, so I got the bottom of the barrel in terms of seat pickings.

“There aren’t any aisles,” he said. “But I do have some windows.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s completely fine, that would be way better than a middle.”

He clicked around on his computer a bit before handing me my boarding pass.

“You’ve got an aisle seat,” he said. “But if someone asks, tell them you paid extra for the extra leg-room. Have a nice flight.”

At this point, I was like, YES! This is going to be an amazing day! Bumped up to extra leg-room (not that my legs are really long enough to need extra room, but every bit helps) and in just 9 hours, I’ll land among the palm trees and bright blue sky I know so well.

Oh, so optimistic. And so, so, so wrong.

Boarding was uneventful, and take-off was smooth. We knew there was a hurricane headed to the UK later that day, so I mostly thought about how it was funny I was flying to Florida to escape a hurricane.

My seatmates weren’t the most fun people I’ve ever met, but I don’t need you to be my best friend on a flight, I just need you to follow the unspoken rules on how not to be obnoxious. In all of the time we spent together, I never did get their names, but they were an older couple from somewhere in the UK who were very worried about their car rental, so if that’s you, hello again.

As soon as the flight takes off, the faint smell of burning wafts in and out of the cabin. It’s so subtle at first that you wonder if anyone else smells it too, and decide it probably isn’t anything and all in your head.

I forgot about it for awhile until about an hour into the flight, when the captain comes over the loudspeaker.

“We’ve had reports of burning smells in the cabin,” he said. “To be safe and get it checked out, we need to land back at Gatwick. We’re going to need to dump fuel first, which you’ll see out the windows, as we’ve got too much fuel on board to land safely. We’ll keep you updated.”

People are generally fine about this. The burning smell is getting a bit stronger, but it all seems handled. We’re going to get to our destination late, but it’s better than going down in flames over the Atlantic, so let’s go get it taken care of and then we’ll be off again.

We flew back on ourselves and dumped fuel south of Brighton before getting closer to Gatwick. I laughed at how someone in the world must be conspiring to keep me in England.

“I’ve got an update for you,” the captain said again, about half an hour after we started turning back. “We’re going to land in 15 minutes, just as soon as we can get out of this holding pattern. It will be a normal landing.”

Okay, no problem. I took a picture of the in-flight tracking to distract myself.

Suddenly, the burning smell came back with a vengeance. The entire cabin just smelled like someone had lit a fire right then and there. Flight attendents started to rush around, looking out the windows and in the bathrooms and luggage holds.

“I need all flight attendents to the cockpit IMMEDIATELY” the captain said over the loudspeaker.

Okay, right, so, hmmm, this doesn’t seem particular good, but we’re going to roll with it. You wonder if he’s telling them that this plane is going down and he just wants them to have advance notice or if he’s telling them it’s going to be a bumpy ride or if he’s like “I’m just doing this to scare the passengers because flights are usually so uneventful, I need some entertainment.”

Regardless, not too long after he called them back, we pick up with the start of the story.

“Mayday, mayday,” he said. “Flight VS15 for immediate landing.”

The passengers looked around at each other, shocked and terrified. The flight attendants, ever the professionals, raced to their jumpseats and stared straight ahead.

I sat there in my extra-leg room seat, mostly terrified but also calmer than I usually am in what-seems-like a crisis. My thoughts went to my husband and how I hoped he would manage to go on without me (but not find love again, let’s not get crazy). As the burning smell intensified, people started crying and breathing heavily. Was our plane about to fall out of the sky or would this just be a story to tell tomorrow?

It turned out later that he was talking to air traffic control and not supposed to be including us in this particular transmission at all. He later apologized, but the damage to my psyche for the rest of eternity had already been done!

At this point, he comes over the loudspeaker again, this time knowing he’s doing it: “We’re going to land in 5 minutes,” he said. “Secure all of your belongings and buckle your seatbelts.”

Now, as he explained later, the reason for the sudden emergency clearance to land was because – as we already knew – the burning smell was getting worse and worse and the crew had about as much as idea as to where it was coming from as us, which is to say – none.

We came in for a landing, which was relatively jarring, but, hey, nothing was on fire so it was a success. The terror of the ordeal was enough for someone a few rows behind me, who was met by paramedics who rushed onto the plane and took them off.

As for me, I had never been so grateful to be in London in the past five years of living here. I may have left an hour and a half before that thinking, “I cannot stand this miserable place,” but I definitely landed thinking, “I will never say a mean word about you again as long as you take me back.”

We had a team of firefighters come on and attempt to find the source of the smell to no avail. It was unclear what was going to happen, and we sat on the plane for a couple of hours before figuring out that we were still set to take off again, on the same plane.

As it turns out, the hurricane that had been making its way towards the UK had taken some wildfire smoke from Portugal and dust from the Sahara with it. This was infilitrating our plane and making it smell like something was burning, when in reality the plane was fine. I would not have been all that happy with this excuse, except for passengers were sending around links to articles saying other planes had returned to the UK within the past hour or so along with us thinking they had problems as well.

Before we were set to take off again, some passengers requested to get off as they wanted no part of this plane. I just wanted to get to Orlando and this plane was going there, so I decided it was worth the risk.

Around 5:15, we geared up on the runway to take off again.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when we got into the sky. We were finally going to Orlando.

We were so innocent back then.

To make sure you don’t miss Part 2 (featuring lots of confusion) or Part 3 (featuring lots of Bermuda), just pop your e-mail address into the box below! 






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