Monday, January 17, 2011

Surviving a plane crash

I recently taught a firefighter safety program at the Utah Winter Fire School in St. George, Utah. To get there I flew Delta Airlines from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City and then SkyWest Airlines from Salt Lake City to St. George. I always scares me to fly on commuter planes. I know too much about airline safety and accidents. I know that many commuter pilots have far less experience on the flight deck than their seasoned counterparts who fly large commercial airplanes. I also know that lack of experience can lead to accidents (not necessarily on Sky West, but on commuter flights in general).

As we flew over the Dixie National Forest and Zion National Park, the landscape didn't change much - Lots of snow covered mountains, wilderness and frozen lakes. Once we crossed over the last plateau before St. George, the sun had just set and the lights of the city were in view. I could even see the airport off the port side (left side) if the plane. From the air, airports that land commercial airlines are not difficult to see. There is a large, rotating green and white beacon and there are strobe likes blinking in sequence to guide the pilot to the center of the runway.

There was no doubt in my mind that what I saw off the left was plane was the airport. Only problem is... we weren't turning left toward the airport, we were flying straight ahead. As I watched us lose altitude, I reasoned with myself that the pilot would, at some point, bank left and we would be on course to land at the airport. But that didn't happen. We kept going straight and we kept losing altitude.

Panic started to set in. Was I the only one that could see we were NOT landing at the AIRPORT? Should I depress my flight attendant call button and request she notify the pilots they we were landing in the wrong place? I held my composure, though I still contemplate if that was the right thing to do.

We were still several thousand feet above the city lights so, technically, there was still time for the pilots to turn the craft and land at the airport. Then... much to my startlement, we made contact with the ground. I about had a bowel movement right there in seat 3A. The pilots seemed to be in control of the plane. That is to say we were not tumbling tail over nose ala the United Airlines Flight 232 that landed in the corn field in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989.

It sure seemed plausible to me that we'd landed in a corn field. How could a small town like St. George, Utah have TWO airports? But, as I looked out the window, we did appear to be at an airport. There was a terminal and a jetway. I got off the plane and sent a text message to my host that I was ready for pick up.

When he arrived at the airport, the first thing he said was "I wasn't sure if I should pick you up at the old airport or the new airport." "New airport?" I inquired. "Yes" he replied. "It opened this morning. It was a big deal here. We even had the governor in town. Did you know we have a new airport?" the host asked. "I sure do and I even know where it's located."

There I stood... in the "old airport"... feeling stupid in my perspiration-soaked shirt... having survived the closest thing to a plane crash I had ever experienced.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP


  1. My daughter was in your class in St. George and related the story to me. I got a laugh out of it then and again as I read it this time. Landing at the "old" airport in St. George could be an exciting experience as well.