The usual depression that hits when I leave my Imphal home after Christmas break lifted momentarily on Sunday at the airport. AI-890, the Air India flight to Delhi via Guwahati, was on time. Well, it was only 15 minutes late, and that’s as good as it gets with Air India. In fact, I was even a little impressed as the Airbus A320 took off with about 170 people aboard — without fuss, fear or favour at 4 pm on Sunday. Little did I know that I was flying to a brush with death, and that a full day after surviving it, I would be in a creaky bus jammed between endless lines of smoke- spewing trucks between Jaipur and Delhi.
Out of Imphal, the flight was smooth, but for a turbulence-related jerk now and then. Almost four hours and some circling around the Capital later, the pilot announced that Delhi was smothered in heavy fog and that we would be diverted to Allahabad or Jaipur. An hour later, we were told to prepare for landing at Jaipur.
Bad luck turned into a nightmare the moment the plane touched down. There was a jaw-breaking jerk as it made contact with the runway. The speed seemed uncontrollably high and the plane swayed and listed violently.
We were not slowing down at all, and the plane was shuddering like it would break into pieces any time. This is not how I want to die, I remember thinking. An oxygen mask or two dropped behind me. Sparks flew from one of the wings.
My seat, 11A, was right next to the emergency exit, and I tried to remember the cabin crew’s instructions on how to open it.
Finally, the plane came to a halt.
Tears flowed as cellphones came alive through the plane. One man was saying: “The wing caught fire. I didn’t reach Delhi but thankfully I didn’t go up either.” Mary, the lady sitting behind me— I later found out she is a Delhi University lecturer said she had first thought that the “ Jaipur runway is not smoothly made" before she realised the horror of her situation.
The pilot’s voice boomed over the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have landed in Jaipur. We didn’t have enough fuel to fly to Allahabad or Lucknow, so even though the visibility was zero in Jaipur, we were forced to make an emergency landing.” What he said next left me aghast: “So, thank goodness we are all still alive.” I must say all 170 passengers are safe because of his skills, but his words made me feel worse.
The passengers needed reassurance, not professional confirmation of a near- death experience.
It kept getting worse. Passengers sat in the aircraft for an hour while the Jaipur ground crew tried to find their way to us through the fog. When we finally disembarked, it was like a movie scene. I saw at least four fire engines, a few ambulances and some police vehicles, all with lights flashing. It was only later that we found out that a tyre had burst when we landed and the wing had been damaged.
The airline gave us the option to take a bus to Delhi in an hour but I realised it would be foolish to be on the road in that fog. I opted to stay in Jaipur. It took three hours for me to get to a hotel room. On Monday morning, we kept checking with the hotel if there was any word from Air India. “ There is no message yet, ma'am,” the receptionist kept repeating.
Finally, at 11 am, we were told the coach had arrived to take us to the airport where those who wanted to take a bus back to Delhi would be given that option. I planned to catch any available flight back if Air India could not arrange one. We got on the coach and, to my surprise, found out it was taking us straight to Delhi! There was no staff from Air India to inform us about the plans, no one we could address our grievances to. We were just put on three non- Volvo, non- luxury, creaky buses for Delhi.
I hadn’t wanted to worry my parents so I’d only told them that our flight had been diverted to Jaipur because of fog. But my phone rang when we'd travelled about three hours and my mom said, “Why didn't you tell us what happened? It's all over the news. The tyre burst, the wing broke, the plane was nearly out of fuel. You nearly crash-landed.” Eight hours after speaking to my mother, I was still on the bus; the 250-km journey to Delhi airport took all of eleven hours. I was dead- tired, but alive, and that’s what matters.