Late Monday night, I almost died in a plane crash somewhere over Kansas City.
At least I felt like I was going to die.
As we descended to the Kansas City runway, a storm had kicked up — I’m told this is the first real storm of summer for Kansas City — you could see nasty lightning off in the distance, rain and wind slammed into the plane, and our flight dropped rapidly, careening sideways in the gusts of the storm. I really thought I was going to die.
So did the other 110 people on board my flight.
This is my story of what it’s like to be on a plane when you think you’re going to die.
1. I’m traveling to Kansas City to speak to the Missouri Tiger club there.
My wife and two boys drop me off at the airport around 8:00. After giving both boys kisses — they’re in their pajamas and the hope is they’ll fall asleep on the drive back home — I head to the airport door. Turning for a final wave, I see my wife waving her arm frantically. So I head back to the car.
My four-year old, Fox, is crying.
Turns out he’s just realized I’m going to Kansas, where tornadoes are everywhere. At least according to the weather reports he watches all the time. (Fox is obsessed with natural disaster weather. He loves volcanoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and tornadoes. He also loves alligators. Basically, if it can kill you, he’s in love with it. During Hurricane Isaac he wanted to watch the weather channel before bed, eyes aglow in the constant storm reports. But tornadoes are his absolute favorites. He loves them. And he knows nothing else about Kansas except for it being in the middle of tornado alley. So now he’s convinced that I’m going to get caught in a tornado.)
Stifling tears he says, “Daddy, the tornadoes,” then he starts to cry anew, face breaking into a colossal pre-school sheen of terror.
I convince him that I’ll be fine and that it’s not tornado season. Eventually, he stops crying and I head through the double doors en route to my flight.
At takeoff, I think about my boys, ages four and two. On some level I think every parent thinks about their plane crashing. But then we immediately tamp down that fear because the odds are tremendously in our favor. We’ll all be fine, we think.
2. And for the first 90% of the flight there are no issues whatsoever, it’s perfectly smooth.
I’m reading my New York Times and then I switch over to the latest Us Weekly, the one with Prince Harry on the cover. Yes, I bought this on the newsstand. About the time I finish this — Prince Harry had a made-up Facebook account and the name he chose was Spike Wells! — the pilot comes over the loudspeaker.
“We’re going to try to beat the storm to Kansas City. There may be some turbulence, just letting you guys know in advance.”
This is vaguely alarming, but just vaguely.
After all, I’ve been in storms before and I’ve ridden out turbulence.
I’ll be fine.
3. I always leave my phone on for all flights.
It’s a petty rebellion against a rule that has no basis in fact. Smartphones don’t impact planes. I’m sitting in the back of the plane and my phone comes on as we near Kansas City, so I start to scroll through Twitter to see who won the Virginia Tech — Georgia Tech game that was taking place as we flew.
Starting at the back of my Twitter feed, I’m catching up by reading Tweets.
Just as the game hits overtime on my Twitter feed, we hit major turbulence.
I’m talking about dropping an alarming amount of distance — like a roller coaster plunge, while also twisting to the side.
This is not fun to do in an airplane.
4. Down below I can see the twinkling lights of Kansas City, but it’s almost completely silent on the plane.
All of the lights go off in the cabin, it’s dark now, terrifyingly silent, the enclosed cabin begins to fill like a cylinder of doom.
We’re bouncing around like crazy, the plane’s wings are rolling up and down, the plane is shaking like we’re being hit by dozens of bullets on a run over Europe during World War II.
I start to think, “Am I going to die because Missouri joined the SEC? Is conference expansion going to kill me?”
I text my wife that I love her.
She does not respond.
I start to run through flight survival ideas in my head.
5. This is embarrassing to admit, but it wasn’t until I left college that I realized you couldn’t just step off a plane right before it crashed and survive.
Throughout college, as I flew back and forth from Nashville to Baltimore on Southwest, this was my plan if the plane was about to crash. I’d simply open the back door of the plane — no one told me that this was impossible — and step off at the precise moment before we crashed.
Voila, I would be fine.
I really thought this.
Seriously, I was a complete idiot.
I thought this until at the age of 23 I conveyed my theory to a friend and he looked at me like I’d suggested a strip club in Mecca: “You realize the plane is going like 400 miles an hour, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay, what do you think would happen if you opened a car door and jumped out when the car was going 100?”
The flaw in my plan was becoming apparent.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I responded meekly.
“Now imagine that the car was going 400 miles an hour instead. Would you feel good about your odds of surviving if you just jumped out of the car?”
So now I don’t have a plan on how to survive an airplane crash anymore.
6. But I swear to you I formulated a new plan, and it was this.
I’ll put on a motorcycle helmet.
You notice how sometimes people put their motorcycle helmets in the overhead bin? All things considered wouldn’t you be more likely to survive the airplane crash if you had a motorcycle helmet on?
The answer has to be yes, right?
Then I started to wonder, would it be socially acceptable to put your motorcycle helmet on for the plane flight? In fact, what if you just decided to wear your motorcycle helmet on all plane flights? Could they stop you?
Then I started wondering — as the plane enacted its own peculiar plummeting ballet in the sky — do your survival odds improve enough to do it? Especially because what if the plane doesn’t crash and you’re just the guy who put on his motorcycle helmet and then had to sheepishly take it off after the plane didn’t crash?
Basically, is it worth the social opprobrium to put the helmet on?
This led to an even more difficult question, what if you asked the guy with the motorcycle helmet who you’d seen previously store the motorcycle helmet in the overhead bin if you could wear it since he wasn’t wearing it?
I’m not kidding this is what I was thinking as we bobbed around in the air and my life’s final moments dwindled to nothing.
Some people’s life flashes before their eyes, I was thinking about motorcycle helmets.
7. Suddenly, the pilot yanks up on the throttle and we’re perpendicular, like a rocket ship taking off, or when James Bond pulls back on the plane controls to narrowly avoid the top of a mountain.
The plane is still eerily quiet. I’d expected death on an airplane to be loud.
But this is silent.
Except for one woman a few rows up who is saying, “My dog is on this plane, my dog is on this plane!”
There are 111 of us facing death and she is worried about her dog.
This is why I hate dog people.
Lady, shut up about your dog. I would choke your mini-poodle dog to death right now with my bare hands if it meant the plane would stop shaking. I’d also go Liam Neeson on your dog, break these mini-liquor bottles and tape them to my hands, throw punches at your poodle like Neeson did at the wolves.
I. Hate. Your. Dog.
8. We’re back high up in the air, I unclench the armrests.
I’m thinking over and over again, let’s just go back to Nashville. No need to go to Kansas City at all. We’ll just pretend this flight never happened.
We’re banking in the air now, circling high in the sky.
At this point, I recognize that we’re going to try and go back down to the airport.
9. This seems like a very bad idea.
As we begin our descent anew, I’m gripping my armrests as tightly as I can.
The plane begins to rattle and roll, we’re dropping a ton, my stomach is left hanging up in the air. It’s just like the scene in “Lost” in the moments before the plane crashes on a deserted island.
Death — or life on a mysterious island — looms.
Still, there is no sound.
As I white knuckle my armrests, I’ve caused my seat to recline.
Suddenly the flight attendant is talking to me from three rows back. “Sir, could you please bring your seat to its upright position?”
There’s no one behind me.
And we’re about to die.
Yet the flight attendant wants my seat brought to an upright and locked position.
What is the flight obsession with the seats being upright? Who or what are we protecting by this rule? And why are flight attendants such fascists about enforcing this rule?
I pull up my seat.
10. Suddenly there’s a loud clattering from the back of the plane.
The flight attendant picks up the phone, in the silence of the plane, she’s whispering. But I still hear her say, “I’ve never seen it do this before.”
11. This is not what you want to hear on the plane when you’re bouncing up and down sideways in the air, when you’re plummeting towards your death.
I fly quite a bit and I’ve never felt like this, but any time there’s turbulence I immediately look to the flight attendants. This is like looking at the outfielder on a well hit fly ball in baseball. If the outfielder is already running backwards, you know the ball has a chance to a be homerun, if he’s nonchalant, it’s a routine out.
The reason? He’s been there before, seen lots of fly balls. Most of them are routine.
It’s the same with flight attendants.
Given that we’re hearing nothing at all from the pilot, she’s my guide.
This flight attendant is around 60 years old and has presumably been flying for a long time since most airlines aren’t in the business of hiring 55 year old women to start working on their planes.
I do not want to hear her say, “I’ve never seen it do this before.”
Suddenly I’m even more terrified.
12. I realize that I don’t have enough life insurance.
I tried to take out a multi-million dollar life insurance policy recently, but was rejected because I had too many speeding tickets.
Seriously, too many speeding tickets.
My health is fine, but I speed.
But here’s the deal, I don’t even speed rashly or drive that much — like 100 miles a week, maybe — I just have awful speeding luck. If one person on earth is going to get pulled over for going 81 miles an hour in a 70 mile an hour zone, it will be me.
And I always get pulled over out of state on trips and just pay the tickets instead of going to traffic school.
Is this really a reason not to give me life insurance? (I’ve only been in one traffic accident in my life, I wrecked Nashville’s congressman’s wife’s blue Volvo back in 2002 during his Congressional campaign. I was later fired from the campaign. Really.)
So if you’re reading this right now and you are a life insurance agent who doesn’t suck, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m not even joking.
Immediately after realizing that I don’t have enough life insurance it also occurs to me that the last thing I’ll ever read is an US Weekly story about Prince Harry’s trip to Las Vegas.
What am I doing with my life?
12. Away in the distance is lightning, the plane is swinging back and forth, left and right, dropping up and down.
The fasten your seatbelt sign keeps flashing, I believe it’s broken.
I close my eyes and focus exclusively upon my two boys, ages four and two.
My four year old is never leaving town if I die in an airplane crash. I know him. He won’t ever go anywhere for the rest of his life. He’ll just sit watching weather porn all day long.
Why did the SEC have to expand and add Missouri? If the SEC hadn’t expanded and added Missouri I would still be alive.
Now SEC expansion has killed me.
Why, why, why, why? (Nancy Kerrigan voice).
Once more the pilot yanks on the throttle and we surge back up into the sky.
My seat reclines anew.
This time the flight attendant is silent.
13. For the first time in twenty minutes the pilot returns to the public speaker.
He informs us that we’re going to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Forty-five minutes later, the plane lands in Tulsa.
The entire plan cheers wildly.
This is the first time in aviation history that an entire plane has ever cheered upon landing in Tulsa.
14. My wife and kids are sleeping, but I text them that I’m okay.
I think about texting my mom, but she’s already asleep or she would have texted me a billion times to see if I’m still alive. Now I don’t want to text her and let her know I’m anything other than fine.
I email Paul from the Mizzou Tiger Club, who is picking me up to take me to my hotel, to inform him that I’ll be very late, but am still alive. I tell him he can leave and I’ll take a cab. He responds, “I don’t give up that easily; I’m a Tiger. I’ll see you at 12:40 when you land. That’s the time they announced at the airport.”
He also tells me that the storm near the airport was terrifying, hail and sheets of wind and rain. He pulled under an overpass, which he almost never does.
Fox’s tornado warning was prescient, a fact that I will not tell him because then he will never go to to the midwest again.
As we sit on the tarmac being refuled — great we didn’t have much fuel left either — I check Twitter and Tweet about the flight.
As our wait on the tarmac reaches a half hour, I decide to scroll through SEC message boards and see if anything interesting is happening.
I pull up Volquest.com and log into the message board.
The third message board thread is titled, “Clay Travis almost died tonight.” It’s buried between threads about wide receiver depth and why ESPN hates Tennessee.
The second response is, “He’s a dickhead, anyway.”
15. The pilot comes on the speaker and says, “The storm has abated in Kansas City. We think we’ll probably be able to get you there this time.”
Another woman — not the one with the dog — asks the flight attendant if she and her family can get off the plane and drive to Kansas City.
The flight attendant says they can’t get off because we haven’t pulled up to a gate.
This is actually an intriguing question, we’re effectively imprisoned on the plane and I don’t blame anyone for thinking this flight is cursed.
16. We take off and the flight back to Kansas City is without any difficulty whatsoever.
The plane lands and the flight attendant encourages us to thank our pilot for making sure we made it home safely.
Outside our pilot, a fifty-something veteran in a white shirt and dark pants, stands against the wall nodding as each passenger passes.
Since I’m in the far back of the plane I’m one of the last passengers off.
So I ask him how much danger we were in on the flight. He answers cryptically, “The plane can take a lot more than humans can,” he says.