More About Crash Landings

But first, an explanation of why I had to get there in such a hurry, despite the fact that we weren’t scheduled to take off until morning.  I was a young man with an older man’s job, executive at a major New York City advertising agency creating national television commercials for fortune five-hundred corporations, praying desperately to create something monumentally successful, i.e., a novel turned into a blockbuster movie starring Paul Newman, so lucrative that I’d never again be ordered to write the words, “Nationwide is on your side.”  Meanwhile, I was making a living writing the words “Nationwide is on your side,” fifty hours a week, eighty when I was on the road filming commercials, devoting any precious spare hours to pecking away at my escape-hatch first novel.  By now I’d been able to accumulate forty-seven pages.  Set in Las Vegas, Nevada with a slimy cast of gamblers, con artists, killers, my novel was on its way to becoming the lowest, creepiest, most heartless human monstrosity in the history of literature.  The main problem?  Working in a prehistoric time without Google, my research about Las Vegas consisted only of photos I clipped from magazines, xerox copies from library books, studying frame by frame every Rat Pack movie ever made.   I supposed I was doing pretty well making the book sound authentically Las Vegas, tossing around gambling terms like “Yo-Eleven,” however, since I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey and worked in Manhattan, the closest I’d ever been to a real-life gambling mecca was the decrepit Off-Track Betting parlor on 39th Street.  I ached to visit Las Vegas like an art afficionado ached to visit the Louvre.  Then, brainstorm, I thought of a perfect way to get there.  The folks at Nationwide gave me a new assignment.  They wanted me to create a TV commercial that demonstrated their auto insurance policy that covered an owner’s car for collision and liability anywhere a person drove in the United States (a novelty at the time).  What I came up with was a young, newly married couple embarking on their honeymoon car trip from Connecticut to San Francisco, with mishaps on every stretch along the way, colliding with a chicken truck in the Midwest, car wheels stolen at Mount Rushmore, car rolling off a cliff in San Francisco.  Then it dawned on me.  What if their car gets towed away in, cough, Las Vegas, Nevada?  What the heck.  I wrote it into the script.  The worst that could happen was that the client would say no way.  Yet, lo, behold, the client approved the script as written.  Miracle of miracles.  Vegas here I come.  Our pre-production meeting was in Los Angeles, where we shot most of our Nationwide commercials.  We were producing a series of spots I’d written, the most complicated one being the cross-country auto trip.  Location One, there was a neighborhood in L.A. that looked exactly like a Connecticut town.  Location Two, for the scene at Mount Rushmore we were sending a second unit.  Location Three, we would fly to Las Vegas tomorrow to film the tow truck, spend the night and, Location Four, fly the next day to shoot the car rolling off the cliff with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.  As the pre-production meeting was drawing to a close, I looked at the clock, five-fifteen.  I asked an assistant to check to see if there were any evening flights to Las Vegas.  He returned with news that there was one leaving at 7:45. The Account Executive overheard this and had a conniption.  “You can’t go to Vegas tonight.  We have dinner reservations at Chasen’s.”  I dug in deep and told him I was going tonight and would meet him on location tomorrow.  I failed to mention that I had forty-seven pages of my novel in my briefcase and would spend every waking hour in Las Vegas scouting locations, making notes, gathering every miniscule detail to make my book sound and feel authentic.  Reluctantly, the Account Executive agreed to join me.  With just enough time to return to our hotel to pack a few days clothes, our car picked us up and dropped us off at the airport with moments to spare before take-off.  I could barely withhold my excitement as the plane took off for what was supposed to be a seventy-minute flight.  Sixty minutes later all hell broke loose.  Our airplane, a Boeing 737, began its descent into Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport, then, seemingly feet from the runway, swooped up into the air, circled, continued upward until it reached cruising altitude then flew in the opposite direction until the lights of Las Vegas faded from view and we were somewhere out over the desert in the middle of nowhere.  The Account Executive and I looked at each other curiously, both of us with enough flying time to realize that whatever was going on was far from usual.  From the intercom came the voice of the pilot trying his hardest to calmly explain something to the passengers that frankly made little sense, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing some technical difficulties that we feel would be better addressed back at Los Angeles Airport.  Please sit back and enjoy the flight.”  Huh?  While the rest of the passengers buzzed with confusion, the Account Executive and I got out of our seats and headed to the service galley to get more precise information.  It was there, behind closed curtains, that we overheard the flight attendants talking, “Keep this to yourselves.  Here’s why we’re returning to L.A.  There’s not enough hospital space in Las Vegas.”  What!  Before the Account Executive and I could say a word, the curtain opened, and the flight attendants knew that the cat was out of the bag.  Calmly, they asked us not to alarm the other passengers.  “They’ll find out sooner or later, but we have about forty-five minutes before they need to know.”  They then asked the two of us if we had any experience removing emergency exit doors. Our reactions told them no, but that didn’t discourage them one bit, “You both look young and strong, so there’ll be no problem.”  They then ushered us to the exit door over the left wing, asked an elderly couple to change seats, then proceeded to instruct.  “When the plane lands –” I corrected them, “If the plane lands.”  The flight attendants wasted not a breath, “If the plane lands, there could be a fire, so you two will need to act fast.  Pull this handle, the door will open easily.  Next, one of you will stand by the door while the other steps out onto the wing.  The two of you together will guide people off the plane and onto the emergency slide that will deploy automatically.  Got that?  Good.”  They then hurried off to perform other crash-landing duties.  Shortly after, the pilot got back on the intercom, “The technical problem we’re experiencing is not with the engines, it’s with the landing gears.  They would not lower on our landing into Las Vegas.  We will now attempt to lower them manually.  Please do not be upset by what you are about to see.  This is normal procedure.  Thank you.”  From out of the cockpit came one of the flight crew, no nonsense, no chit-chat, he just marched straight up the aisle to near where we were seated, grabbed hold of the edge of the carpet, ripped it away, uncovered what looked like a manhole-sized disc, unscrewed it, climbed into the fuselage, legs sticking straight up, lowered the landing gears by hand, placed pins in them for support, then climbed up, replaced the disc, and hurried back into the cockpit without uttering so much as a comforting lie to anyone.  Next came the flight attendants with plastic garbage bags in hand, collecting shoes and eyeglasses lest they fling into the air during a rough landing.  For the next half hour, the doomed flight glided through the air, passengers growing solemnly silent save for a few sobs, people realizing privately that this could be their last moments alive.  My solemnity was interrupted by the fuming words of the Account Executive, “Goddamn, you.  I told you we shouldn’t have left tonight.  But you wanted to go early.  I hate Las Vegas.  Right now, we could have been eating dinner in goddamned Chasen’s.”  I was somewhat relieved to see from our window the approaching lights of Los Angeles; whatever was about to happen it was time to silence my morbid imagination and get on with it.  Unfortunately, our fate was delayed when the lights of Los Angeles disappeared and we were flying again over blackness.  The mystery was explained by a short announcement, “We are flying over the Pacific Ocean dumping fuel.  Pure technicality.  Thank you.”  A huge U-turn and the lights of Los Angeles were again visible, then came another announcement, “You will now be instructed in the brace position.  Please pay attention.  Upon hearing the command to ‘brace,’ lean over in your seat and grab your ankles.  Hold them tightly.  Don’t let go.  Thank you.”  The airplane was now gliding downward.  One quick glance out the window and there was the airport, a final glance and there was the runway, covered with foam and lined with fire engines and ambulances.  Gasp.  Then came the echoing command from the pilot, “Brace!  Brace!  Brace! Brace!  Brace!”  I grabbed my ankles and shut my eyes for my final thoughts on earth, my children, my – bump, skid – the airplane rolled through the foam, a rumble, a vibration, flickering lights, revving engines, a bit of spin, sliding, full stop, the landing gears held, no fire, roaring cheers, superstar Andy Williams entering coach from first class, singing Moon River, distributing shoes, glasses, airplane doors opening, evacuation slides deployed, passengers off.  An hour later, those who chose, were on a replacement plane bound for Vegas, free champagne, exultation, strangers hugging strangers, a victory celebration rivaling winners of the Super Bowl.   Did I ever write about my emergency crash landing?  Sure did.  However, don’t ask.  I was paid by a television show to write about my experience, harrowing detail after harrowing detail, only to have someone else get credit on the script.  Ah, Hollywood, talk about crash landings.  However, all was not lost with my distressing airplane trip.  A year later, I was invited to a private party held by an A-list producer with a house overlooking the Riviera Country Club so that guests could watch the Los Angeles Open golf tournament.  I was mingling with some people when someone introduced me to none other than Andy Williams.  It crossed my mind to mention the Las Vegas emergency landing but then said to myself, nah, Andy Williams has probably been through this a hundred times before.  A year later I was back at the same golf party, and was once again introduced to Andy Williams.  This time I blurted, “I was on a flight to Las Vegas.  We turned around and made an emergency landing in –” that was all Andy Williams needed to hear.  He grasped me by my arm and yanked me into an adjoining room.  For three hours we swapped stories about how this near-death experience impacted our lives, our career choices, our marriages, our – hey, this isn’t the National Enquirer, I’m not going to spill the beans on a huge celebrity, Andy Freaking Williams, get a life…

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