In 2002 I was traveling post-winter holidays from Maryland to Austin, with a layover in Chicago.
I arrived at O’Hare around 11:20AM, to leave at 3PM. Delay with the crew arriving, then mechanical issues, then finally the flight was overbooked. I should have volunteered my seat and taken the red eye the next day.
Ultimately we’re told they can’t fix the mechanical issue, but they’ll use another plane that’s just arrived (the one, actually, carrying our crew!). Replacement Plane #2 manifests a mechanical issue. About 20 minutes later we’re told they have found us a 3rd plane! It’s a “spare plane out back”, and it’s a “bit old” but we can leave as soon as the crew prepares the cabin. It is now about 10:30PM.
The “spare plane” arrives. “A bit old”?? It had a 4 engine configuration and I swear it was a 707, but I’m not sure as I wasn’t aware any of those were still flying for mainstream airlines in 2002. It stank of mildew and decades of cigarette smoke. There were visible cracks in the interior hull and windows. There were large gaps between the hull and window where you could see wires and insulation. Everything about this plane was worn, threadbare, moth-balled and frighteningly shabby.
The engines whined horribly, even at the gate. By this time the flight is only half-full as other travelers opted for other flights. No one looked happy. Even the crew. The door shuts and true to the crew’s word – we’re pushing back.
The plane shakes. It shakes horribly. The noise from the engines is immense. We use the whole runway to get airborne. You can smell the oil and jet fuel and there’s a strange whistling in the cabin. Climb is slow and the plane shakes violently the whole time. I’m over the wings and can see the wings bobbing and rattling. The flaps screeched like fatigued metal warping.
Only once we level off a bit does the pilot come on and cheerfully tell us the plane really had been sitting in a hangar out back (hence the mildew stench), it had been slated to be removed from service but still had everything it needed to fly and was “airworthy,” and wasn’t it cool that we’d get to be her final passengers! He told us sure, it was noisy and old and smelly but it’d get us there, no problem! He sounded so damn cheerful, like he was getting a total kick out of flying the old hulking monstrosity on its final trip. He also told the crew “open up the bar and get these people some drinks!” so I’m not sure if he was really celebrating or trying to get us drunk so we’d be passed out when the damn thing snapped apart somewhere over Nebraska.
He also added that he’s got clearance to “make up some time” so we’d be “hauling it to Austin.”
The plane never stopped shaking. The whistling in the cabin never stopped and it was deathly cold. The engines sounded like they were at full throttle the whole trip, and the approach felt more like a controlled free fall than an approach. The whole plane made a horrible “crunching” sound on touch-down, zig-zagged violently and then we sailed straight down the runway at an alarming pace before the brakes kicked in so abruptly people slammed into the seats in front of them. It limped up to the gate creaking like a haunted mansion.
Nothing specifically bad happened on the flight, but we were all pale and shaking once we got off.
To the credit of the O’Hare staff and the crew, everyone maintained a good cheer about them. Especially the pilot, who stood at the door grinning like a fool as we disembarked.