Traveling with Suna
The flight from Calcutta was crowded, so my friend Suna took a seat up front, while I pushed on to the rear of the Boeing 737 and found a window seat. My view of India from the air included the wing and engine. I wish I could be comfortable whizzing along in an aluminum tube, bumping into clouds, but that day I was not feeling terribly secure.
We were to land in some little outpost before continuing on to Bhubaneswar. I watched as the ground came up to meet us, and glanced around to see if anyone else was concerned by what seemed a much-too-rapid descent. No one was. I pulled my seatbelt tight and took a deep breath. Then I looked out the window, just in time to see the whole back of the engine fall away.
Dear God, we were going to crash. I wanted to scream, but I couldn't breathe. It didn't matter; there was no time. I felt myself go numb. I covered my eyes and waited for the explosion.
We touched down, bounced once or twice, then rolled to a stop. Passengers busied themselves pulling packages from the crammed overhead bins. They didn't know.
"The engine," I choked out to the flight attendant, "part of it fell off." The calm young woman pressed her palms together, fingers up, in a namaste, smiled and turned away.
I waved to Suna, who pushed her way back to me. She was Indian, she would know what to do.
"We must go to the pilot and tell him what you saw," she said with the equanimity that had drawn me to her in the first place.
The pilot came out of his cockpit along with the co-pilot. Suna spoke to them. Then we followed them onto the tarmac to inspect the engine.
"You see?" the pilot asked. I didn't see; I looked down the runway, but there was no evidence of the missing piece of engine.
"Not to worry," the other assured me, but he didn't say why.
"Are you certain?" I asked.
"I am certain," he murmured, God-like.
Later, Suna said the pilot had told her "English women" regularly reported engines falling off. She didn't know what to make of it, and neither did I. We flew on to Bhubaneswar.
Back in the States, I called Boeing. A kindly man explained that on older versions of the Boeing 737, the back of the engine acts as a thrust reverser, sliding to the rear and opening in a clam shell design during landings. It is part of the braking system, often used when a landing strip is short. When I covered my eyes to wait for eternity, I failed to see the clam shell slide back up again and lock into place.
I can tell you that I was pretty embarrassed. But mainly I felt grateful to my friend Suna, for being willing to stand up with me and risk making a fool of herself. That is one of the reasons why, every chance I get, I go traveling with Suna.
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