By Carol Cain
Senior Producer and Host
WWJ-TV CBS Detroit’s “Michigan Matters”
It was the calm before the storm as Delta Flight 1921 headed from Detroit to Phoenix on Dec. 30 and seemed to be gliding at 33,000 feet with no sound of an engine.
Being a slightly nervous flier the sudden quiet got my attention as I looked around the cabin to see if anyone else noticed. Most of the 225 passengers were reading, working on laptops, listening to their kids, or dozing.
It was a few minutes before the captain came on and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen: there’s a problem with one of our engines. It isn’t responding. We need to make an emergency landing. We’re diverting to Colorado Springs.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve practiced this maneuver on simulation … We’ll be landing in about 25 minutes. Don’t worry if you see fire trucks and ambulances on the runway. It’s a precaution.”
Unlike the movie “Airplane” where passengers go wild upon hearing of the pending emergency landing, passengers on Flight 1921 looked at each other for assurance and were quiet.
I glanced at the head stewardess, who was facing us now seated in her safety seat as instructed by the pilot. She had a smile the entire time which was reassuring and she chatted with the other stewardesses.
If there was danger, wouldn’t she be quiet too? That 25 minutes seemed more like two hours. I had a lot of time to think. I wondered what I would say to my mom if I could have called. She was doing better thankfully after being hospitalized last year. For some reason I thought of one hospital visit where she had an elderly roommate who looked up one time and told me I had an angel with me which I attributed to the potent drugs given by her doctors.
It was a hard landing, with a shorter than normal braking distance. Before we had time to blink, the stewardess jumped up and shouted: “We have to leave using the emergency chute! Leave your things! Leave your purses! Move!”
I gathered my cell phone and light jacket. I hesitated for a second about grabbing my purse – which I never leave home without — but didn’t as didn’t want to inspire the wrath of a FAA agent if one should be waiting below.
As it turned out, I was in better shape than a few others who left without their shoes, presumably as they didn’t have time to go find them after the tough landing.
I was seated about four rows back from one of four emergency chute exits.
Jumping down that chute – which was about a two or three-story drop –wasn’t as nearly much fun as going down the slide at Balduck Park in Detroit or water slide at Cedar Point that I recalled as a youngster.
Two men in hazmat suits were at the bottom to keep us moving as the endless lineup of passengers continued to drop like cookie dough onto the baking tin.
With the chutes all extended the passengers were out in about 15 minutes. A few suffered minor injuries and taken to hospitals via waiting ambulances.
Like an accident on the side of the freeway, everyone seemed to want to stop and look back at the plane until the stewardess yelled “run” as there was still danger of fire. Apparently the brakes overheated, causing a fire or concern of a bigger one in the landing gear.
We headed as a group, walking across the field and away from the plane. Soon the pilot and rest of the crew also joined us.
“I’m 54 years old and been flying 40 years. I’ve never had passengers leave by an emergency chute,” the captain said via a megaphone to an applauding audience.
Delta slowly brought in buses and took us all back to the terminal.
I stayed until the last bus, riding with the crew and asked if any had ever had an emergency exit via chute experience.
They too were awestruck, texting and phoning family and friends about the experience. They had trained for years on emergency exits yet none ever done this before.
No sooner had we made it to the terminal when I noticed a few snowflakes.
As things go in the mountains it quickly turned into a mini-blizzard — about 10 inches — which kept us stranded until a second plane arrived able to make it from Phoenix to take us back.
Delta got our things out of the stranded plane and brought them over a cart at a time a few hours after we arrived.
The airline provided free food and drink (excluding alcoholic) and gave us a $200 voucher toward price of a ticket.
My cell phone was losing power and I went to the airport store where the man behind the counter told me Delta would pay for a charger if I needed one. Despite the storm, a jet made it in and took us back and we landed 12 hours after leaving the Motor City.
I realized I left my jacket on the second plane and contacted the airline which found it and delivered it the next day. I was impressed with Delta’s response but decided to ask an expert — Bill Kalmar, former director of the Michigan Quality Council, for an assessment.
“Delivering your jacket. And allowing you to buy a charger – that’s unheard of. And the $200 voucher seems fair, I think Delta gets a gold star for service,” he said.
Eerily, I saw a TV news report of a Russian jet with an emergency engine situation not too unlike what we had experienced the next day. The report said passengers panicked and three people died. Yet, upon reflection I’d give the Delta team high marks. I also think I might have been wrong about my Mom’s roommate. We made it to Phoenix not only because of careful preparation of the crew but with an angel on our wing who tagged along for the ride to make sure we made it.
Carol Cain is senior producer and host of Emmy winning Michigan Matters airing 11 a.m. Saturdays on WWJ-TV CBS Detroit. She can be reached at 248-355-7126 or via e-mail.
Carol is also a Detroit Free Press Columnist. Read more here.