What’s Your Superpower?

Everyone has a superpower. Everyone. I like to think mine is being able to stay calm in stressful situations. I wish it could just stop there but once you’ve identified your superpower, it seems like the universe conspires to test it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Lewis. We are experiencing some mechanical problems and need to go through our safety precautions with you.” The conversational buzz in the cabin came to an abrupt halt. Even in the carpeted aisle, you could’ve heard a pin drop.

Captain Lewis went on to explain that the plane’s right side engines had stopped working and they were having difficulty getting them restarted. He reassured everyone that they would continue to try to get it going again but in the meantime we needed to give the flight attendants our attention and cooperation. Stunned silence.

Is this some kind of drill? It was just a short hop from Burlington over to Newark. How much could really go wrong?

Looking to the flight attendant for a clue, I saw her breathing was shallow, rapid; her movements hesitant, jerky. Definitely not a drill. When she started to speak it came out as a squeak, then she steeled herself — deep breath, head up, shoulders back — and years of training kicked in. Everything was put away, strapped down, tucked in. She and the other attendants demonstrated the “brace” position and inspected each passenger to ensure they were fully folded over with their heads between their knees and grasping the reassuring metal bar under their seat. They reminded the passengers of the captain’s request that their phones and devices be turned off and stowed, explained about using the slides at each exit, and stressed the importance of getting away from the plane as quickly and safely as possible. Those seated next to emergency exits were asked if they could be counted on to assist people out the door.

Pennies started to drop. I remembered hearing that in every emergency there are heroes and helpers, you just need to look for them. Wise man, that Mr. Rogers. Curious, I turned in my seat and looked around. About half the people were obviously praying, some audibly, many with tears, clutching whatever talisman brought them a sense of connection. Others were turned inward, controlling their outer reactions, stony-faced. Stoic. Like them, I was trying to control my breathing, trying to think it through.

Don’t panic. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4, breathe out, 2, 3, 4.

Some had ignored the instructions about keeping phones turned off and were hunched in their seats calling what I assumed to be loved ones, furtive and sobbing. Part of me was angry. How dare they endanger everyone else’s lives? If the captain has said for them to be off, he must have had a good reason. Who are they to decide it is okay to have them on? What if by disregarding his instructions, they make the situation worse? What if by making their phone calls, they turn their possible last goodbyes into self-fulfilling prophecy? And, really, if their family and friends don’t already know they are loved, their relationships are already a mess and a panicked phone call from a plane about to crash is not going to fix things!

Breathe. I could understand wanting to talk with loved ones, to feel reassured. How do you even decide who to call? Husband? Daughter? Son? Parents? I wanted to reach out, too, but I felt to break with the captain’s directive was shortsighted and selfish. Besides, how could I hope to stay calm if I got all emotional? There was likely going to be work ahead of us and calm heads would be needed. If not, it wouldn’t matter.

After a quick conversation between the pilot and the attendant, Captain Lewis announced that we were about 15 minutes from Newark. He said we might have a pretty bumpy landing but the airport was aware of our situation and had cleared a runway for us. We would also see a lot of emergency vehicles on the tarmac, just in case.

15 minutes is a long time.

I reminded myself of everything I knew about planes. I knew they could easily fly on one engine, provided the weather wasn’t working against them. It was a clear day with a little breeze. Good. I also knew that essentially all planes are gliders and the pilots are trained on how to land without engine power. Breathe in, 2, 3, 4. It seemed not everyone knew these things. Then again, jet fuel is highly combustible, isn’t it? What if the broken engine is leaking fuel and there’s a spark when we touch down? Eep! Breathe out, 2, 3, 4. Well, nothing I can do about that. Panic is contagious.

The young man seated next to me started to pale. It was Leo’s first plane trip, ever. He was going to see his brother in Arizona. English being his second language, he was having some difficulty understanding the instructions and following what was happening. I explained to him what was going on and shared what I knew about plane safety, physics of flight, and pilot training. I skipped the jet fuel thing. I’m no expert, but I taught aerodynamics and flight to 11 year-olds and my son had done some flight school. In that moment, I was extremely grateful for my life having given me the opportunity to learn through those things. To help Leo stay calm, I employed the time-honoured tradition of ‘Look! Shiny!’ by directing his attention to the Statue of Liberty just outside our window.

Our 15 minutes were up. Emergency vehicles were everywhere. It was time for the brace position.

As landings go, it was a pretty good one. As landings without full power go, it was a work of art. The stop was followed by a collective exhale and an exuberant round of applause. Strangers were hugging and the tears were joyful. We soon learned the overworked brakes had started on fire and were quickly put out. After a small wait we disembarked, using the stairs. At first I was a little disappointed to not have the chance to use the slide but then I gave my head a shake. We were all safe. The captain and crew had done a masterful job and were the recipients of many heartfelt hugs. We were all going to have quite the story to tell and, who knows, maybe some people had built bridges and repaired relationships with their loved ones. Maybe, hopefully, some people discovered their superpower. Apparently mine is breathing.