Lapointe: This just in! Airplane lands safely at Detroit Metro Airport

Delta crew does the right thing on the red-eye

click to enlarge In Los Angeles, there were too many passengers and not enough chairs in the waiting area. - Joe Lapointe
Joe Lapointe
In Los Angeles, there were too many passengers and not enough chairs in the waiting area.

As my red-eye flight from Los Angeles descended through choppy winds toward Detroit, the landing gear lowered and a young woman suddenly sprang from her seat to bolt up the aisle.

Disruptions like this were scary enough even before 9/11. What might this be?

A flight attendant was sitting next to me, in the exit row, in a jump seat facing backward, right behind a lavatory. Our row was halfway back on the Airbus 321-200. 

“Miss, you have to go back to your seat,” the Delta employee said in an urgent voice. “We’re landing.”

“I’m nauseous,” came the reply as the passenger flung open the lavatory door.

The attendant sat maybe four feet from the lavatory, with a clear path to there.

But what could she do?

She could have tackled the lavatory-crasher. That would have left two unbuckled people on the floor with one of them possibly vomiting as the plane touched ground, perhaps with a thud and a bounce. Not the way you want to end a 2,000-mile, four-hour, overnight flight.

Instead, she grabbed a telephone and called the front of the plane to report the problem. Her message quickly got to the pilots, who executed a “go-around.” Instead of landing, we rapidly regained altitude, circled Detroit Metro Airport and safely landed a few minutes later to greet dawn’s early light.

The maneuver worked so smoothly that I’m not sure how many of my 133 fellow passengers were even aware of it. It is amazing what those commercial airliners can do. Many pilots are military-trained. Their reflexes are good and so is their decision-making.

Still, some other flights can be terrifying. And even when things are going well, air travel can wear you out. When people ask me why I left sports reporting after 35 years, I reply “Airports, airplanes, and airlines.”

For business trips, I experienced probably 1,500-to-2,000 takeoffs and landings in a career that began with flights on Allegheny, TWA, Braniff, Ozark, Republic, Continental, Eastern, Pan Am, North Central, Northwest, Midwest, Midway, and Midwest Express.

When people ask me why I left sports reporting after 35 years, I reply “Airports, airplanes, and airlines.”

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A few flights remain vivid. That time from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia, when the pilot almost put the plane down on the wrong runway. I sat in a window seat on the left side and remember the surprised faces of startled airport workers looking upward as we buzzed them.

That pilot then gunned his engines and there was no doubt about the urgency. The plane jolted upward and you could hear an audible gasp from those in the window seats who saw the earth (and maybe their lives) flash by them.

And that time from Chicago to Louisville in a snowstorm, with the plane rocking first this way, then that way, in the wind. Sitting by a window on the right side, I saw the tip of that wing scrape the pavement and send up a burst of sparks. That’s the moment they shut down the airport.

Oh, yes, and Buffalo-to-Newark, midway through the flight, a sudden drop so powerful it knocked one of the toilets off its bolts. You could hear it bang around inside the lavatory until the plane steadied out again.

And that flight to the West Coast when the guy in first class suffered a heart attack. The crisis began when the voice on the intercom called for any doctors to please come right now to the front of the plane. 

Instead of cruising to California, we raced down to Salt Lake City on an incredibly steep angle. They cleared us to land immediately as the rest of the airport braked to a stop. Upon landing, the ambulance raced toward us across the tarmac.

Until the drama of last week’s landing, my red-eye flight felt routine. Of course, those long night flights no longer provide blankets or pillows, as they once did. But you get free movies now on a private screen with a wide selection. The flight attendants bring beverages and little snacks.

Eschewing sleep, I selected Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a 1989 masterpiece about 24 hours in a rugged Brooklyn neighborhood. I suspect cultural historians of future centuries will watch this film the way we now read novels by Charles Dickens.

The only hassles were routine pre-flight indignities at the departure gate in Los Angeles. For instance: There were too many passengers and not enough chairs in the waiting area. That meant a lot of people had to either stay standing or sit on the floor for at least 30 minutes.

While we waited, a pilot opened the jetway door from the inside, accidentally triggering a shrill alarm that went on for maybe five minutes (it felt like an hour) until a uniformed security person arrived to shut it off.

The two gate agents seemed unbothered by the piercing noise. But they acted startled when the sound ceased and the customers cheered.

Compared to the jittery landing, these were but minor annoyances. Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email that the “go-around” maneuver is not an “aborted” landing because “an aborted landing technically entails an aircraft with landing gear fully on the ground and then taking off again.”

The pilots chose the “go-around” for the safety of the sick passenger unbelted in the lavatory. He said flight crews are “extensively trained … to accelerate and elevate.”

They certainly seemed well-trained in this instance, quick to communicate and think fast up the chain of command. With our increasing reliance on artificial intelligence, computers and robots to make our decisions, it’s good to know there remains a safety net staffed by alert folks with good, common sense.

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About The Author

Joe Lapointe

Joe Lapointe is a Detroit-area freelance writer who is a former reporter for the New York Times and Detroit Free Press. He is working on a sports reporting memoir to be titled either The Fire-Balling Flame-Thrower Threw Bullets to Slam the Door or Local Team Hopes to Win Next Game...
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