When my husband Bob surprised me with a near end of pandemic get-away to Honolulu I was beyond thankful. “Yes, I’m in!” I blurted with delight. “Mahalo,” I said, Hawaiian for thank you.
“It will be a condensed mini-vacation, just four nights in Waikiki,” he said, “and we have to take a pre-flight COVID test three days prior, and wear face masks on the plane the whole way. You still in?”
I packed as soon as he told me, trying on a myriad of my dated swimsuits, settling on three that would be acceptable despite my inflated pandemic era body. I couldn’t wait to sip a Mai Tai with the gentle breeze of the trade winds at sunset cooling us while we gazed out at Waikiki surfers.
A week later, we were on the flight two hours in, over the Pacific Ocean, sitting in the treasured first-class section, our face masks on, when the captain made an announcement over the speaker system. The only word I could make out from the few minutes of muffled messaging was the word: “apologize.”
Apologize for what? Turning to my husband, I checked to see if maybe he heard it clearly.
Bob shook his head. “Nope, I didn’t get a word he said either. Good thing we’re in first class, huh?” he kidded, and leaned his head against the window, closing his eyes, and folding his arms on his chest.
“Excuse me,” I said to the flight attendant with the spikey blond haircut, “but what did the captain just announce?”
“Oh, sorry,” he said kneeling by my seat, “we’ve had some problems with the speaker system.” I noticed his nameplate read Rory. “Actually, we’re having some issues with our GPS today. One of the three navigation devices is evidently not working. Because we’re less than halfway to Honolulu, we have to turn back.”
My mouth dropped open under my mask. My husband lowered his eye glasses and stared up at him.
“So, we’re going back to San Jose? Is that what you’re saying?” I asked.
The flight attendant nodded. “We’ll get you on the ground safely, and then the airline will arrange another plane,” he said, then stood up, brushed his uniform and rushed away to the front outside the pilot’s cabin where he engaged in chit-chat with a female flight attendant.
Bob and I looked at each other, both of us shaking our head. Lost for words, I opened my book and tried to calm myself. Two minutes later there was a loud rumbling coming from somewhere, getting louder by the second.
“Excuse me,” I called out to the flight attendant. “What’s that noise?” Tapping my sleeve, he stared into my eyes. He had the longest eyelashes I had ever seen on a man. They fluttered over his steel blue eyes.
“Oh thaaat? Just the landing gear coming down,” he said. His bright blue face mask moved in and out as he spoke.
Didn’t we have almost two hours to go before landing back in San Jose?
“Landing gear?” I said, my voice elevated.
“Yes, our pilot put down the landing gear so we dump excess fuel. Otherwise, we’ll be too heavy for a smooth landing as we’re not going all the way to Honolulu. That’s what we do in this case,” he said. He bent down closer to me. In a hushed tone, he said, “Honestly, the truth - I don’t know. This has never happened to me before and I’ve been doing this job for ten years.” His blue eyes opened wide, his manicured eyebrows arched. “I’m sure we’ll be okay,” he said. He straightened and walked back to talk to his colleague again at the front of the plane.
What I just heard wasn’t quite making sense to me. Hell, I used to be married to a Navy test pilot who had his own single engine airplane but I didn’t remember the part about putting the landing gear down in mid-flight if needed, to use up fuel.
I bit the inside of my cheek. My husband took my hand. The plane jerked once, then twice. My chest tightened. The seat belt light came on. Oh God. Now freaking turbulence. The loud noise continued. The plane seemed to swing right, then left and back again. We were still likely at 34,000 feet and with the landing gear down.
“Maybe the landing gear does create more drag, helps consume fuel,” my husband said, tracing his fingers on my palm. I silently prayed to God.
There was no way I could concentrate on the novel in my hand. I reached forward to pull out the cardboard information card in the leather flap in front of me to read that our airplane was a 737. Crap. More turbulence. Wasn’t it a 737 model that ended in two or three plane crashes and was grounded for months up until a few days ago? Wait, that was a 737 Max. Was our plane a Max?
I placed the card back in the pouch and opened my book determined to get lost in the Hollywood story. I read ten more pages trying to ignore the continued turbulence. Finally, smooth air returned but the rumbling of the landing gear lasted all the way to San Jose. Our landing was rough, wheels screeching and then a hard stop jolting us forward. Thank you, dear God.
The flight attendant stood in the middle of the first-class cabin as we taxied further down the runway to the gate. “No worry, folks,” he said. “There’s another plane waiting for you to get you onto Hawaii.” For the first time in almost three hours, I felt hopeful.
But Rory was dead wrong. No plane was there waiting for us. After twenty minutes at Gate 19, as all of the disembarked passengers lingered around the gate, babies crying, shoulders sagging, people arguing, a woman’s voice made an announcement on the speaker telling us that another plane would arrive in about five hours for passengers on Flight 640 headed to Honolulu.
“Five hours?” my husband shouted. “What?”
I listened almost in disbelief. The voice continued: “Your replacement flight will take off at 6:30 p.m. scheduled to arrive in Waikiki before midnight. Please review your airline email for information regarding compensation due to this disruption to our scheduled service.
“Can you check your email?” I asked Bob.
He clicked on his phone searching for something from the airline. “Looks like they gave us each a $200 credit for our trouble. Oh, and a $12 dining voucher anywhere in the airport. That would be a coke.”
I took my face mask down for a moment, and smiled up at him. “We’ll be fine,” I said, pretending I wasn’t alarmed. Our first evening in Waikiki would equate to a big fat zero. We’d arrive at the hotel maybe by one or two a.m.
“This is no longer my favorite airline,” I said. “How about you?”
We both laughed. “At least they landed us safely even if it’s back where we started,” I added.
Bob slung the carry-on backpack over his shoulder, took my hand in his and squeezed it. We walked through the terminal looking for someplace acceptable for a drink.
Life is good, I told myself. And before morning we’ll be sitting in paradise during a global pandemic.
Linda S. Gunther is the author of six suspense novels: Ten Steps From The Hotel Inglaterra, Endangered Witness, Lost In The Wake, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, Dream Beach and Death Is A Great Disguiser. Her personal essays and short stories have also been featured in a variety of literary publications.