In this exclusive excerpt, Gareth shares a high-flying chapter from the new memoir.
The Virgin Blue 737 powers easily into the sky above Sydney, half empty, and I pop my headphones on and listen to some tunes. This is an hour long flight, easy going, and though I used to be a nervous flier, flying almost every day has managed to knock it out of me. I’ve got three seats to myself and I’m sitting comfortably in the window seat. I’m on my Australian tour, I’ve had a great week in Sydney, life is good. And I like this airline. Virgin Blue is a Richard Branson upstart, and the crew, all in their 20s, are livelier and friendlier than those of Qantas, Australia’s dominant legacy airline.
“Soon, we’ll be taking off. Our wonderful crew contains the gorgeous Tom at the back…”. We laugh.
The next thirty minutes pass uneventfully, and then in an instant, everything changes. The lead flight attendant takes the PA and within a second of her speaking, I know something’s up. As humans we spend a lot of our lives disseminating information. Analyzing the words used, predicting future outcomes. But on other occasions, it’s pure human instinct, those finely tuned survival systems that have been keeping us alive for millions of years telling us something’s not right. I don’t need to hear more than one word.
“L-ladies and gentlemen…”
The stutter gives it away. 30 minutes ago, she was confident, laughing, joking, bantering. This wasn’t someone who f--king stuttered. Now, before she’s even spoken one word, I know something’s wrong.
“Please listen carefully to what I’m about to say. In a moment, the captain needs to speak with you all, and after that we’ll be showing you procedures for making an emergency landing into Brisbane."
A few gasps. Well it’s happened, I think. A real-life emergency on a plane. An odd sense of calm washes over me. It’s strange how the anxiety of believing there might be a problem, is far worse than actually having one. Horrible condition, anxiety. I’ve spent countless flights, sweaty palmed, grasping the seats as my mind raced through all manner of horrible outcomes… the one side of my brain predicting my imminent death in a fiery wreck, the other frantically pleading the reverse, justifying why things are OK.
Strangely, now we’re faced with a real emergency, my anxiety is nowhere to be seen, and a strange calm washes over me. The captain comes on the PA. He sounds relaxed, which is something. He explains that we might have a technical problem with our landing gear, and whilst he thinks it’s probably nothing, for precaution, we’ll be using full emergency procedures to land in Brisbane in 30 minutes time. Alright, then.
For the next 20 minutes, there’s not a lot to do. Strangely, nobody’s freaking out, nobody’s crying, everyone’s pretty calm. There were no phones that work on planes, so there’s no way to contact the outside the world, it’s just us in a metal tube hurtling through the night sky towards our possible death.
I review my life so far and decide it’s been pretty decent, and if tonight is my time, I’m pretty much OK with it. Then, there’s some work to do. The crew frantically prepare the plane, bolting everything down. Then they stop by my seat.
“Sir, are you OK?”
“Er, yeah. Fine”
“Good. Listen, we need someone who’s clear headed to come and sit with us at the front of the plane in case we crash and we’re incapacitated. The guy who’s there is refusing to sit there. Would you be willing to help?”
Social pressure. On one level, I think the guy at the front might be on to something. If the back of the plane’s the safest place to be in a crash, I’d really rather be there too. However, I agree to help. I’d love to say it was an act of courage for my fellow passengers, but in reality, I just didn’t want to bottle it in front of the young, attractive cabin crew.
I head to the front of the plane. The previous occupant of the front seat pushes past me, head down, on his way to his safe seat at the back, the gutless wimp. I take my seat in Row 1, and the crew, sat opposite me in the jump seats, give me a quick tutorial on how to open the door if I need to.
We’re about five minutes from landing now and an icy calm has taken over the plane. Literally, nobody is talking.
“Have you ever had one of these before?” I ask the female flight attendant opposite me.
“No”, she admits.
“Are you scared?”
“A little. But he’s a great pilot. We’ll be good.”
A few more minutes go by. I suddenly notice my throat is incredibly parched. I really need some f--king water, especially if I’m going to be opening this damn door.
“Mate, any chance of some water?” I ask the male flight attendant.
He jumps up, grabs me a bottle from the gallery and hands it to me.
“You can’t hold it when we’re landing in case it goes flying in the crash, so give it back when you’re done and I can stow it”.
There’s no charge. Free bottled water, nice. On this airline, everything costs money, so I appreciate the freebie.
Then, I remember that I might be dead in five minutes, courtesy of Team Free Water, and I feel a little less warm towards them. Finally, I decide that in a situation like this you take whatever positives you can. Free water. Yay!
The lights of Brisbane airport appear in the distance. We’re close now. The captain comes back on the PA.
“This is the captain, ladies and gentlemen boys and girls. We’re a couple of minutes out. I’ll come back on just before we land to ask you to take the brace position. Thank you, I’ll see you on the ground, and I hope you’re enjoying tonight’s flight with Virgin Blue”.
The humor gets a few laughs. One of the flight attendants shakes her head.
“He didn’t just say that…”
A minute later, it’s time. This time, there’s no joking from the flight deck.
“This is the captain. Brace, Brace. This is the captain. Brace, Brace.”
Now, I’ve flown hundreds of times, and I know exactly what taking the brace position looks like. No problem there. However, what I haven’t realized is that the brace position is also accompanied by a chant… a mantra. The crew, shouting at the top of their lungs, repeat it over and over, as we huddle with our heads between our knees.
“HEADS DOWN, STAY DOWN, BRACE! BRACE! HEADS DOWN STAY DOWN, BRACE! BRACE! HEADS DOWN, STAY DOWN, BRACE! BRACE!”.
Over and over it goes and in a flash, the surreal becomes real. This is happening. Why did nobody tell me there was a f--king chant?
As we get close to the runway, I notice a few emergency vehicles ready for us, just in case. The captain takes an agonizing amount of time before touching the plane down, presumably in case the airport spot something out of the ordinary and tell him to abort the landing. After what seems like forever, he touches a wheel, then the others, and we land without incident. As it becomes apparent that we’re OK, the chant from the crew dies away.
Then, the plane explodes:
… into cheers.
It’s like the safety cap has been released. All the pent-up emotion from the past 30 minutes is uncorked. People are hugging each other, crying, calling loved ones. I just sit quietly, thinking, f--k. F--k.
We leave the plane without incident. I hug both crew members who I was at the front of the plane with. And with that, we’re off to baggage claim, and I’m struck by how quickly we’re back to normality. Don’t we get a debrief? Some explanation? Some more free water?
Nope, that’s it. But I am grateful to be alive. As I walk out and find my driver, I feel utterly numb.
At least it’ll be a good story, I think.