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Do Not Panic!

Marcia Ehinger, MD, a native Californian, is a retired pediatrician and genetic specialist. She is the California Writers Club Sacramento Branch newsletter content editor.

During my senior year of college in the 1970s, I applied to a number of medical schools, and was offered an interview at my mother's alma mater, the University of Michigan. My father and I were native southern Californians, and he had graduated from the University of Southern California (USC). The two schools were football powerhouses at the time, and frequently faced off in the Rose Bowl. My family knew all the important players and coaches, the mascots, the marching bands, and the words to fight songs.

However, that was about as much as I knew about Michigan, except that the state was divided into two peninsulas, and people told Upper Peninsula jokes. So, when I set out for the airport on a warm October day, I was wearing a cotton sundress and sandals.

My mother's cousin, Arthur, said that I could stay with him. Arthur was a professor of English (in the Engineering Department). He had a bull terrier named Pepper, and a refrigerator filled with oranges for fresh-squeezed juice every morning. Otherwise, he ate out. When he visited me in college, I also learned that he was an aficionado of the four-martini lunch.

I took an afternoon several-hour nonstop flight, long enough for a movie. Without the movie, it could have been boring, but I also had a book to read and some work to do. I stretched and yawned after the film, trying hard not to whack the person next to me. I checked my watch, which I had set on Michigan time. I had half an hour for a short nap.

The pilot interrupted with an announcement over the intercom. "We just received a weather report. There is a sudden severe storm moving toward Detroit. Could be an early blizzard." He didn't say anything more, and people settled back into their routines.

Ten minutes later, the cabin lights came on as we started to fly through darkening clouds. A few raindrops splattered the windows. I hadn't planned for rain, and I knew nothing about blizzards. It sounded scary — and cold.

There was a loud CRACK, and the plane shuddered. From my window seat, I could see that one of the engines was smoking. The pilot immediately came over the intercom.



"Do not panic!"

With that prompt, nearly half the passengers looked out the left windows and saw flames coming from an engine, and began to scream. Did lightning hit our plane? Were we going to crash?

Outside, we were passing grey clouds and lightning flashes. A few minutes later, I realized that the plane was flying in a circle. As we continued to circle, I also noticed that we had lost quite a bit of altitude. It was easy to see smoking factories and the river below us. The pilot said that we were preparing for landing, but circling to use up fuel. Why are we using up fuel? Airplane fires and explosions flashed through my mind.

I wondered what was going on down below. I felt the reassuring clunk of the landing gear being released, but was dismayed when we approached the airport. There were tanker trucks and emergency vehicles flanking the outer runway. They must be worried about our landing. And then, the pilot didn't touch down. The plane nosed up and circled the airport again. Oh, God. I hope I don't see foam all over the runway the next time we approach.

The plane lined up with the runway again. We landed with a few tiny bumps, and I'm pretty sure I had my foot down on the imaginary brake pedal until we stopped. The flight attendants jumped up and supervised exiting the plane. We grabbed our stuff and moved quickly. At the bottom of the air stairs, my toes touched the ground, and I thought about bending over and kissing the asphalt.

As I turned to walk past the front of the plane to the terminal, one of the uniformed ground crew was standing still with his mouth open, pointing toward me. I heard him say, "An elephant could walk through there with room to spare".

Between the cockpit and the passenger cabin was a space — now a gaping hole, created by a lightning strike that just missed our pilots, the pressurized passenger cabin, and any important navigational equipment. As I stared, my jaw dropped just like his.

Later, outside the terminal with my suitcase, standing in the snow, Cousin Arthur had no trouble finding me — the only person not dressed for cold weather.

~ Marcia Ehinger




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