In May 1989, my son Josh and I were on our way to California to visit his godfather for his twelfth birthday. My son was crazy about all aircraft, knew all the types and specs, had never flown before, and wanted to be a pilot. His godfather was working as a government contractor as a laser engineer, and worked at an Air Force base where we could see the planes on the field up close. His godfather sent his plane ticket; the flight was sure to have many take offs and landings to get the total flying experience. We flew Delta from Jacksonville, Florida to Atlanta, no problem.
We then boarded a Boeing 757 to Salt Lake City and took off. As soon as we got off the runway the plane started flying side ways. We were in the very back row to the right, and I could see people on the ground at a Kmart! Through the window on the other side you could see sky. I could smell a fuel smell. My son began to freak out. He knew something was wrong, and I dismissed it as a turn or something and reassured him. Then I saw two flight attendants walking to the back; one was crying and talking on the phone. I realized we were in trouble then! We never heard an announcement that I remember, but I will never forget that feeling!!
The pilot, a Vietnam veteran, turned us around and went back to the airport and safely landed us. As we stopped, the flight attendants passed out comment cards! I wrote, “GET ME OFF THIS PLANE NOW!” At that point my knees became weak and it hit me that we almost died. Our right engine had caught on fire on takeoff; the computer put the fire out. I called my husband and said I was coming home. Then I talked to my son, and we agreed to continue the trip, or to never fly again. My husband had declined to go on the trip, and my son and I sat in the back row alone with one empty seat beside us.
We boarded another Delta 757, Salt Lake City bound, then on to Fresno. This time we had another passenger occupy the third seat, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair who was obviously unable to speak traveling alone. Our ride was very bumpy. Our fellow passenger sitting next to my son kept fiddling with his seat belt and mistook his pants and belt, I assume, for the seat belt. I looked over as he was removing his pants, then nudged my son to help him! This happened several times during the flight!!! It was funny, and my son got the ultimate flying experience of his life on this trip!!!
When we landed in Salt Lake City, we had the opportunity to meet the pilot and thank him for saving us. The pilot said he was so busy in the cockpit trying to land the plane that he was unable to speak to the passengers. I will never forget this experience, and thank the men and women of Delta for all they did to ensure our safety. Ultimately to God I thank for sparing all our lives that day!!
- Rebecca Johnson