Monday, January 25, 2010

New Zealand Honeymoon: A Scary Start

Scene: It's 2 AM on our double-decker 747 airplane. We're two hours out of Los Angeles, somewhere over a dark Pacific Ocean. Mr. Cowboy Boot and I scored the bulkhead seats (front row with extra leg room) for letting the flight attendants know we were on our honeymoon. Mr. CB is snoozing away next to me while I read and combat heavy eyelids in hopes of beating jet lag. Three crew members, including the flight's safety manager, are sitting facing us.

The phone rings and the safety manager answers it. She's a Kiwi with a sweet smile and a primped outfit. Her face drops as she receives word from the person on the phone. She lowers her voice and turns her face into the wall, speaking softly into the receiver. My stomach drops, my palms sweat and I grab for my new husband. What's happening?

She hangs up the phone and her accent comes over the loudspeaker, falling on the ears of passengers clad in eye masks and itchy blankets.

"It seems there's been a little problem. Our pilots told me we hit what they think is a pelican. Unfortunately, the bird went straight into the nose of the plane," she says statedly. "The bird has damaged our weather radar, prohibiting us from being able to see storms over the ocean. So, the safest thing for us to do is turn around and head back to Los Angeles."

A gloom of disappointment and frustration, much of it from exhaustion (after our wedding, after driving for two days to LA, after trying to stay up just to catch our plane and fight jet lag), washes over us. The anxiety in the air is tangible.

The safety manager comes back on: "Before we can go back, we have to dump our fuel otherwise we'll be too heavy to land."

I picture sailors on their anchored boats holding umbrellas as drops of oil rained down on them. Later, I learn that the jet engine fuel simply dissipates in the air--not that that sat well with me either.

Mr. CB and I discuss how lucky we are that the bird didn't go into the engine, recalling the Sully Sullenberger incident in the Hudson River just a few months prior. I mean, there can only be one Sully, right? What were the chances that we could recreate that heroic landing?

After another two hours of flying in circles, we land right back where we started at the glowing towers of LAX. They release sections of the plane (first class first!) painfully slowly until we finally make it to a bus to take us to a hotel where we wait in line to get a room. It's 4:45 AM before we finally hit the bed. After crying, bickering, and very seriously considering not even going to New Zealand, we finally fall asleep. We'd already wasted 1 of our 10 short vacation days and the travel time was starting to look overbearing.

At noon, the next day, our flight takes off for a second time out of Los Angeles, its travelers marked by their weary, sinking eyes, disheveled hair, and apparent disdain for a second go-round in the security line. This time, we make it to Auckland safe and sound (albeit at midnight, forced into another makeshift hotel until we could finally get on with it the following morning).

What we didn't know at the time was for our betterment. A few days after arriving back from our honeymoon [Don't worry! I'll fill you on that too!], we're eating dinner with my parents in LA. My uncle, an aeronautical engineer who builds planes for a living, had filled my mom in on the real story of what could've gone wrong. Apparently, the nose of the plane doesn't only hold the weather radar, it's also where the plane's speed is measured. My uncle would take a bird in the engine over the nose any day. Had the bird made a bigger dent, moved a little to the left, or something we might have gone too slow and...

Well, you remember the Air France flight that disappeared into the ocean outside of Rio de Janeiro. That could've been us, or so my uncle says.

Was it scary? Yes. Am I glad we still got on the second plane? Absolutely. I can't wait to share our adventures with you. But until then, just give someone you care about an extra kiss or hug today. We were thisclose to ending up at the bottom of the Pacific. But what's life without a little risk, right?

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