The year was 1985 and I was living in New Brunswick, New Jersey with my bride of 8 years, Cathy, and our one year old son Richard. I was employed as a sales manager for an oil company headquartered in Dallas Texas. As a sales professional I racked up many lonely miles on the road and in the air, but this trip was more than anyone expected.
I recall it was an early Monday morning in April when I kissed my wife goodbye and peeked in on our sleeping son. I may have lingered a little longer had I known that I may not ever see them again, but who thinks of the dangers that may occur during a business trip? I grabbed my travel bag, my attaché and headed out into the bright clear April spring day to drive the 35 miles to the Newark Airport.
I was scheduled to travel to Dallas Fort Worth Airport aboard a Delta flight, and then drive the 25 miles to our offices for three days of sales meetings. I arrived on time at the airport and headed straight to my gate.
These were the days long before the dreaded TVA and security checks. This was a simpler time. A time before terrorism, a time when we were more trusting, a time when we were free from fear. I boarded the flight, settled in to my seat and prepared for a three hour journey.
The flight was uneventful, I arrived on time and our sales meeting was successful. All had gone as planned. I met with my boss at the end of the day and was rewarded with a promotion to Sales Manager. Things could not be going better. I was anxious to get home and share with Cathy the news of my promotion and to spend some father and son time with Rick. Yes, life was good. It is amazing how quickly we could lose it all.
On Friday morning, I awoke around 8, and headed to a breakfast buffet at the Doubletree Hotel. I dined alone and soon as I was finished I headed back upstairs to gather my things and head to the airport and the journey home. I almost didn’t make it.
It was another clear day in Dallas. The sun had been beating down for several days filling the atmosphere with heat and energy. As is often the case the excess energy began to develop into a storm. And this one was going to be a doozy!
My Delta flight was scheduled to depart at 11:00 am local time. The storm was predicted to start at 11:00 am local time as well. It was a race to see if we could get off the ground before the storm could hit.
Now if any of you have ever been to DFW during one of their famous thunder storms, you know what I am talking about. The bright sunny skies can turn dark in an instant, as storm clouds roll in from the west bringing high winds; hail stones the size of golf balls and torrential rains. These sudden storms can last for minutes or hours depending on the amount of energy in the atmosphere.
Well this storm was larger than most. In fact this was a storm system that had been baking for several days. It stretched from Texas along the southwestern corridor and up into Kentucky. The forecast called for very high winds and dangerous lightening. How dangerous I was soon to learn firsthand.
When it came time to board the flight, our stewardess, yes they were called stewardess at the time, not the politically correct “flight attendant;” advised us to quickly take our seats. Our pilot wanted to get into the air before the storm hit so we could avoid what they predicted to be serious delays. We also wanted to get ahead of the storm, so we boarded quickly, settled into our seats and closed the boarding door.
We pushed back at precisely at 11:00 am, and without so much as a slowing of the plane, the pilot hit the runway at full throttle and off we were seconds before the first hail stones began pelting the runway. We all applauded. Little did we know that was only the first time we would applaud our brave pilot that day.
As our plane angled up into the air we all settled in for an uneventful flight. I took out my book, yes a real book with paper and everything. This was a time long before pocket cell phones and laptop computers. The only electronics we hand were maybe a hand held Nintendo, I admit I was terrible at Nintendo games so I avoided them. Some of the passengers actually opened a newspaper; you remember those large wide pages that often smudged black ink onto your fingers as you licked your finger to turn the page. Yes it was a simpler time.
As we rushed up to our cruising altitude, I happened to look out the window. Since it wasn’t a crowded flight I actually had the row to myself. I was able to enjoy my aisle seat and have an unobstructed view of the window and the spectacular display outside.
Gone were the white fluffy clouds of early morning. Instead we were surrounded by thick, dark, swirling clouds. You could hear the heavy rain pelting the window and feel the plane shutter as it tried to gain altitude. Sitting in my seat I could feel through the floor the stress of the plane as it pulled against the winds. Suddenly, with a thunderous bang, followed by a violent vibration of the entire plane we hit a soft air pocket and dropped nearly 1000 feet. Passengers gripped their arm rests a little tighter. Some gave that gasp reserved only for plane flights. You know the one. That sound of “humpf” that comes from 20 passengers at once. I have to admit, I added my voice to the chorus.
We knocked around, banged around and slammed around for a full 20 minutes as we tried to get above the clouds. It was no use; the storm was well above 30,000 feet. We would just have to “white knuckle” it a little longer. Our co-pilot then came on the intercom to tell us to hold tight. did not need to be admonished to do so. He continued by saying they were asking to be rerouted to get out of the storm but this would take a few more minutes, so please stay seated.
I looked out my window once again to see what was happening and was treated to a spectacular lightening display. Now we have all see huge lightning bolts streak across the sky during a storm. When you are in the clouds, however, the display is spectacular.
Instead of a few flashes here and there, in the clouds there are hundreds at once. Jumping from cloud to cloud, flashes of brilliant blues and white light followed by a thunderous roar, as warm air hits cold shaking the plane to its very core. If I wasn’t half scared to death, I would have considered it beautiful.
As promised by our co-pilot, we were rerouted away from the storm and soon we were flying in relatively smooth skies. The storm however was not finished with us just yet.
Storms can be fickle things. Weather forecasters pride themselves on predicting the path and intensity of a storm. Unfortunately, a storm can behave as a “living thing” and thus can be as unpredictable. The storm changed course and was heading right for us.
I looked out my window and once again was treated to a light show of amazing beauty. Since I had my camera with me, a brand new Konica T3 loaded with 420 ASA film, yes film, digital was a decade away. I thought I would try to get some shots of cloud to cloud lightening. Not easy to do.
Since lightening is unpredictable, once you see it, it’s too late to hit the shutter. So I took to just hitting the shutter at random. I had 36 shots on my roll and it was brand new so I was confident I would get “something” and I did, but something much more than I bargained for.
As I was shooting I noticed the winds were picking up. The plane was beginning to buck around again. The rains started to slam against the window and I knew the storm was back and this time it was not going to let us go peacefully.
The co-pilot came on the intercom and warned us that, although we were rerouted around the storm, the storm had grown in size and we would soon be back in the thick of it. There was no place to go and nothing he could do but muddle through. He assured us we would be safe but we needed to be prepared for some severe turbulence. Severe was a word not strong enough.
Once again we prepared ourselves for a rough ride. Gone were the books and newspapers. The Nintendo was packed away and seatbelts were checked and tightened. We thought we were ready, but it turned out we were not.
Once again the plane bucked and banged as we hit the front of the storm. Bang, and we dropped several hundred feet. Up went the nose as we tried to recover only to be slammed again, bang. Now the plane was shuttering and shaking. We could hear the rattle of every loose article onboard. I could swear I could hear my teeth rattle along with the overhead luggage doors.
To try to keep calm amongst the chaos, I returned to my project of getting a fabulous shot of cloud to cloud lightening. Since I had no idea if I would be successful until I developed to film, I decided to use all 36 shots.
Suddenly, and without warning our plane was hit by lightning. There was a thunderous explosion in the front of the plane. The lights flickered and there in the center of the aisle, for a few seconds, was a white glowing ball of energy as the lightening passed through the plane. You could smell the ozone left in its wake.
We were terrified. As if one voice, there came a sound that could only be described as primal fear. Some ladies began to cry out; some could be heard saying “did you see that?”
Just as the lightening ball passed, the power to the lights in the cabin just quit. We were in darkness punctuated only by the bright flashes that came through the window from the storm outside.
At about the same time, the air vents stopped blowing air. It just a few moments the smell of jet fuel pervaded the cabin as the passengers began to call out “what’s happening?”
We were literally left in the dark. The temperature in the cabin soon rose to nearly 100 degrees. You could smell the panic beginning to rise as the passengers squirmed in their seats not knowing what just happened, but more importantly, concerned with what was going to happen next.
Just before the lightening hit, I had shot the last frame on my roll, so I tucked the camera back into my bag for fear of it becoming a projectile in case things got worse. I sat back, gripped the arm rests and tried to calm down and hope for the best. I was more than a little scared.
We all sat there and waited, for what we didn’t know. After what seemed like hours but was actually only a few minutes a new voice came over the intercom. Our pilot spoke in a commanding voice asking us to stay calm. Things would be alright. He said we had indeed been hit by lightning and that there was some damage to the power module. We would not be able to gain control over the lights or the air conditioning, but we were just 30 minutes out from Newark and he would soon put us safely on the ground. He assured us we would be fine.
A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the cabin. Our pilot was in control. In the next minute things changed drastically. The plane was again hit by lightning. But this time the avionics package, the essential flight controls within the nose of the aircraft, was hit. Suddenly we were out of control.
The plane dived, hard. We were tossed about. Panic and chaos set in. Luggage fell from open overhead compartments. Ladies and some men, screamed. We felt the plane lurch hard as the pilot once again tried to regain control of the plane. The cabin filled once again with a new smell. FEAR.
Our pilot once again came on the intercom, gone was the commanding voice, replaced by a voice that was concerned but still in control. “Ladies and gentlemen” he began, “I am afraid to advise you that this second strike has caused serious damage to the control system of our flight. I have declared an emergency and Newark has informed me that the airport is closed to other traffic giving me an open airport to put down. I will do my best to land safely but you should prepare for a rough landing. If you are so inclined to pray, now would be a good time.”
Dead silence for 5 seconds, followed by a cry of panic. “Oh my God, Oh my God” could be heard from terrified voices throughout the cabin. Soon one clear voice could be heard. Quietly at first, but building in intensity as others joined in, “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name.”
The prayer continued as more and more joined in. Soon there was a calm feeling growing throughout the cabin, mingled with panic. Quiet soon replaced the prayer as people turned inward to deal with this situation on a personal level. There we were in the dark, closed in an aluminum tube, our fate in the hands of one man.
As we sat there, deep in our own thoughts we suddenly heard the screech of tires hitting the runway followed by that assuring jolt as the plane safely touched down. An immediate cheer and applause followed as we taxied down the runway. Fear and panic washed away by relief as we safely slowed to a stop at the terminal.
When we finally stopped; no one moved. The doors opened and still no one moved to disembark. The stewardess stood and said we could leave now and still not one person got up to leave.
As was customary at the time, once the flight landed the pilot would open the cockpit door and stand there thanking the passengers for flying Delta. When he opened the door, the pilot was greeted by a huge round of applause. Only then did the passengers begin to gather their things and begin the offloading process. Not one single passenger passed the pilot without saying thanks and shaking his hand. When it was my turn I could swear I saw a tear in his eye, one quickly wiped away. I thanked him and shook his hand and quickly departed for my trip home.
When I did get home that night I told Cathy of my adventure. She was at first frightened, then thankful that I returned safely. I gave her a big hug and kiss and then did the same to Rick, too young to know how close he came to losing his father.
It was several days before I remembered about the film in my camera. I was hoping that I got something good out of my ordeal, so I rushed the film to the developer to see what beautiful shots I had captured.
Three days later I retrieved the film from the store. I quickly opened the envelope containing my 36 prints hoping at least some were spectacular. I soon flashed through 35 blank shots. Not one shot, not a single one got anything of the spectacular light show.
The last shot however, was something that to this day I cannot truly understand. There in the center of the photo was an image. It was the image of a man in a robe, his face obscured in the clouds. He wore a white robe with a dark cincture for a belt. He stood there his hands out to his side, clearly standing there outside our plane. Perhaps our pilot had some help that day.
I still have the photo and reproduce it here for you to unravel its mystery.