What would you do with 30 minutes to live?

By 
  • August 24, 2012
Preparing to land recently at Yellowknife airport in a five-seat jet, I suddenly heard the pilot in front of me utter a four-letter word that begins with the letter “S.”

One of the three wheels on the aircraft refused to lock into position for landing. On the cockpit’s digital control panel we could all see two green dots for the good wheels and a black-and-yellow square for the bad one.

The pilot, talking to air traffic control, flew down to within 150 feet of the ground so emergency workers with binoculars could assess the problem. Over the radio, we heard confirmation the wheel was not down.

The pilot took the aircraft up a couple thousand feet and rocked it around trying to get the wheel to drop. When that failed, he returned to his checklist. All the while, I could hear air traffic control over the radio assembling more and more emergency workers, ordering them into position along the runway.

The magnitude of the situation really sunk in when air traffic control asked if there were any dangerous goods on board. It didn’t take a genius to know that emergency workers were thinking about possible explosions beyond the fuel in the wings if we landed on two wheels and careened down the runway out of control.

“Negative, four passengers on board and no dangerous goods,” replied the pilot. (He was calm on the outside but later admitted to being “highly stressed.”) Regardless, the airport general manager ordered all emergency workers back 100 metres from the runway, just in case.

Simply by writing this, I have taken the drama out of the ending. We survived. After 30 minutes, the last emergency measure worked: the pilot manually pulled a lever that locked the wheel in place. (It was truly the last resort, I was told later.)

It was an eerie feeling listening to the radio chatter, seeing the flashing lights on the ground and watching the pilot feverishly work. I thought about many things over those 30 minutes. My first thought was to keep quiet so as not to distract the pilot. If he needed something from me, he would ask and I would do what I could. I did not experience the proverbial “life flashing before my eyes.” But I did get a brief sensation of being at my own funeral and seeing my wife and two children sitting there.

But I snapped out of that and said to myself: “Jesus, it doesn’t feel like this is the time for me to meet you. But if it is, so be it.” (Maybe I was being presumptuous about me meeting Him. I hope not.)

Then I prayed and said many Hail Marys and Our Fathers in my head. I actually imagined Robert Redford saying Hail Marys in the classic World War II movie A Bridge Too Far as he paddled across a river against a hail of bullets. It sounds silly, but it helped.

Then, I focused on my wife and two children and whether I would see them again. I remembered my mother’s early death to cancer and how she missed my wedding and ever knowing my children. For several minutes, all I could think about was what I was about to miss. Hugs. Graduations. First jobs. Weddings. Growing old with my wife. Grandchildren.

But then I stopped thinking about what I would miss and focused only on how I was going to live, regardless if that wheel came down or not. I started mapping out how I was going to brace myself at impact and get the emergency door open.

Luckily, shortly after this, the wheel did come down and we landed safely.

Over the ensuing hours, safely in bed, I thought more about the things I didn’t think about during those 30 minutes. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t think about money or possessions. I didn’t think about my mistakes in life. I didn’t even think about golf or hockey, what I have always thought of as passions in my life.

But I did think about my wife and children. And I thought about the time I’ve wasted with things that do not matter when it comes to people who do matter.

I also had an odd thought: I’m glad it happened. Easy to say that now, after things worked out, you say. And you’re probably right. But it was an incredibly exhilarating life experience that taught me a lesson about what really matters.

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