The worst turbulence I ever felt was on a flight to Hawaii in 2013. At the start of a trans-Pacific trip from Chicago, we flew through a cloudbank above the Great Plains and dropped several hundred feet in the span of two or three seconds. The plane bucked like some new kind of horse and threw a flight attendant working the aisle in the tail into the cabin ceiling. After terse commands over the PA, and not inconsiderable excitement, we found ourselves diverted for an emergency landing in Los Angeles. In testament to the sturdiness of modern aircraft, the plane was found to be completely undamaged, and we simply reboarded after two hours and resumed our route to Honolulu. The lesson seemed to be to keep your seatbelt on.
I’d been flying standby that day, and by good luck and seat availability I received a spot in first class. I was a little guilty over it, and for the first hour of the flight we were brought the requisite fancy food, from a chef I’d never heard of, and a wide selection of alcohol. I ate and began to watch Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown, resigned to a quiet flight, when a low rumble ran through the plane, followed by a juddering sound.
The plane began to rise, apparently ascending a few feet, then awkwardly settled. I felt my stomach start to float. We rose again slightly, then suddenly fell, at an angle so sustained and rapid that glasses and dishes slid from wherever they were resting and hit the floor. Several hands from seats in front of me shot to the ceiling holding still-filled glasses, and for my part I ended up throwing water over myself. With the plane leveling out but our arms still above us, I heard a few delayed screams — as if the surprise of the descent had only permitted terror to be felt after the stimulus had passed.
My heartrate spiked, and because I am something of a pansy, I worried briefly about blacking out. Surprisingly, I’d been completely okay with falling out of the sky in an aluminum tube at the start of the fall — but then the screaming began. In what became one of the great reminders in my life of our instinctively social natures, at the signs of panic from fellow passengers I felt my own surge of panic, and instantly I was both afraid for myself and furious at the others for robbing me of my calm in what seemed possibly to be my final moments. I contain multitudes, I guess.
The overhead speakers chimed. An attendant came over the public address system and called for everyone to return to their seats, and to sit in the floor if necessary. I flung up the shade over my window and saw nothing. Gray streamed past the window: we were inside a cloud. I shut it again. By now, I’d collected my fallen things from the floor, moved all my dishes to the vacant seat beside me, and was ready for whatever was coming next.
But that turned out to be it. The captain came on and repeated the command for staff to seat themselves. The flight was smooth again. With the interminable cool of all airline pilots, he was already past worry, and explained that the dining service was ending prematurely. “Pretty much everything on the plane has been destroyed,” he said, more than a little concerningly, before urgently adding “food wise.”
Several minutes later I opened the shade again. The view was clear now: above us, the sky was perfectly blue, and brilliant white cumulus clouds floated thousands of feet below. We began to bank to the left, seemingly at random for a westward flight across the Rocky Mountains, and a new announcement told us we were being diverted to Los Angeles.
Standing at the gate at LAX an hour later, waiting for the plane to be inspected, I spotted our flight’s senior attendant as she was entering the terminal. She was shaken, and her face was taught as she walked off the jet bridge. I waved reflexively and caught up to her, asking if that was the worst turbulence she’d ever experienced. Though she’d been in this line of work for about twenty years, she said yes. For her, that was the worst.
The plane, incidentally, was found to be mechanically sound. We got back on and flew to Honolulu. I never finished Chinatown.