Flight Crew’s Silence Puzzles Passenger

December 17, 2011

in Airplane Stories

You can’t fly from Raleigh-Durham to Nashville at an altitude of 1000 feet – there are mountains in the way! This wasn’t the first thought on my list of increasingly worrisome thoughts about five minutes into our flight out of Raleigh-Durham on a recent clear, sunny Sunday. The first “hmm” moment came when I realized the pilot had significantly cut the engines back. But, I’ve flown plenty of times and know that they change engine speeds for a variety of normal operating reasons – so, no worries. Not yet anyway.

As I continued to gaze out at the landscape below I began to realize it wasn’t getting any smaller. In fact, it might even be getting bigger. As in closer. Uh oh. We had clearly leveled off at maybe 700 feet and were no longer ascending or going very fast. This couldn’t be good. Now the worry meter was starting to heat up – why were we still so close to the ground, why weren’t we ascending anymore, were we losing altitude, how slow can this jet go before it stalls?

I turn to my husband – an A-lister who spends 50% of his life on airplanes. In the most well-modulated voice I could muster I casually say, “Hey – we are going pretty slow and we don’t seem to be going up anymore. Do you think something’s wrong?”

Mr. Frequent Flyer barely looks up from his magazine and says, “No, everything basically sounds normal. Maybe there’s traffic overhead.” Sounded reasonable – for about 3-4 minutes – and then, as I stared out the window, I began to realize we had begun to turn back towards the airport.

Me: “Hey, stop reading. I think we’re going back to the airport. Do you think we are going back? Do you think something’s wrong with the plane? Sh*t, we should have updated our wills. What’s wrong? I’m getting scared something is wrong. Are you worried? Blah blah blah.” My poor husband.

He finally stops reading, looks out the window and says, “Good call, I think we are going back.” Good call? This isn’t a contest. This is supposed to be a quick, 90 minute – uneventful – flight.

Me, again: “I’m getting really worried, why aren’t they saying anything to us?”

Cool, calm, collected, if somewhat insensitive husband says, “Everything still ‘sounds’ like it’s working fine.”

Me: “Aren’t you scared?”

Him: “Nope, nothing I can do about it anyway.” OK, the concept that says, “If you are going to crash, don’t worry about it, your fate is already sealed,” somehow isn’t slowing my heartbeat. I stare out the window and worry. I realize the nice lady sitting behind me isn’t worried at all. She had told me she was on the very first airplane flight of her life. For all she knew, this is how it always went. If we survived, she was going to be in for a surprise on her next flight when the plane roared off the runway and headed straight up to 35,000 feet without a slow, lazy aerial tour of the counties surrounding the airport.

A few minutes later I realize we are turning again – this time back towards our original heading. The engines very slowly start to come up to normal levels and we finally start to ascend, but very slowly. Another 5-10 minutes and the flight attendants get up and start the drink service.

So… emergency – or whatever it was – had seemingly been averted. A big question remains in my mind, though. Why did they never say anything to us about what was going on? Is it standard procedure to keep it to themselves – kind of a “need to know” basis – until it was an actual emergency? It was clearly not a normal take-off. It was also clear that the problem had been resolved. But the lack of communication left me uneasy for the remainder of the flight and way too aware of engine speeds, sounds, etc. I’m sure I wasn’t the only unsettled flyer that day and remain puzzled why nothing was ever explained to the passengers. Thoughts?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

GC California December 17, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Did you see the monster on the wing too?


Michael September 8, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Was that a twilight zone reference?


St. Nick December 18, 2011 at 12:44 am

I'm sure that there are a whole bunch of things they don't report, figuring why unnecessarily alarm passengers.


John December 20, 2011 at 5:55 am

Blah blah blah.” My poor husband.

Wow, finally a woman who understands men don't like to be bothered when they are reading!


Jo Jo December 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm

I'm with you John! For whatever reason women have an innate need to verbalize.


Brian December 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm

That was nothing to worry about! sometimes the flight crew are too busy correcting the "problem" to distracted with announcements.


Teenaged Tourist December 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm

If you were so insistent on finding out, why didn’t you ask the pilots after landing?


Sam December 23, 2011 at 9:04 am

That’s actually very very funny. I like the oblivious woman’s calm. I’d probably have reacted with much more hysteria than you:) I’m very curious and would have annoyed those attendance.


Guest January 14, 2012 at 9:55 am

Most airlines has "silent cockpit" below 10.000 feet, meaning only operational talk when flying below 10.000 feet. PA updates not allowed, except as needed for operational reasons.


Kyle April 6, 2012 at 1:14 am

I am on the women's side on this one.

Planes don't just go flying low at that kind of altitude for no minor reason and circle around an airport.

There are laws preventing that kind of flying and they have to speak to ATC (Air Traffic Control) to get special clearance to even fly that low which would effect other planes that may be trying to land and/or take off especially post 9/11.
When 9/11 first happened quite a few pilots actually faked emergencies so they can get special landing clearances.

I like this part the best because it's so true:

"If we survived, she was going to be in for a surprise on her next flight when the plane roared off the runway and headed straight up to 35,000 feet without a slow, lazy aerial tour of the counties surrounding the airport."

If an airplane was going to be called back they would go up to traffic pattern and do their standard pattern (usually left hand since the pilot sits on the left) and fly parell to the runway.

I am surprised the media didn't make a big deal out of this incident due to the paranoia of 9/11 and make assumptions that hijackers tried to take over the airplane or some other crazy nonsense to pump fear into people.

That would've made then happy.


rrr August 25, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Your stupid, this story was "uneventful." Can you tell it again? please?


Bull Herman December 8, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I also side with this lady. Either there was a problem with the airplane that wasn't disclosed, and was resolved w/o further incident, or there were problems obtaining final climb clearance to a victor airway. Why not return to to airport pattern? Staying away would keep the flight from disrupting airport routine. The lady's husband has been turned into another flying "sheep" that blindly accepts everything & smiles.

How I miss government regulated flying that promised good service, behaving public, cheap baggage check-in, decent food, and no preflight screening. Just glad there's no smoking and I'm allergic to peanuts.


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