It is one hour and 33 minutes by JetBlue from Pittsburgh to JFK. I am boarding such a flight with my wife and about 100 other passengers, a crew of five and two pilots and a navigator, and at 9:20 a.m., right on time, we back out of the gate and head out to the end of a runway. This takes the normal 15 minutes. At the end of the runway, the pilot turns around and, as sometimes they do and sometimes not, he revs up the engines while still in neutral. I am all strapped in, of course. On screen, I am watching an interview with Mike Nichols. I am looking forward to New York. But I hear something funny.
Or I think I do. It is an old sound coming from one of the engines, the sort of thing you hear in cars from long ago when you have to rev it up, blow the gunk out of an engine that’s been sitting awhile until a burst of black smoke backfires out the back and the engine runs smoothly. This jet engine is making that sputtering noise. Once. Twice. That’s how it seems to me. Mike Nichols is making a point.
But then I think that kind of sputtering noise is not how modern engines work today. I drive a new Tahoe. When the transmission seemed to hesitate when it shifted gears, I called Buzz Chew and told them about it. Maybe the tranny was loose. Maybe it needed a new set of transmission bands. They told me it’s all done by computer now. The whole car is run by computer. All the old car routine references are wrong now.
Well, after a time testing the aircraft engines, the plane starts down to what we think is another runway. Damn these airports. One line is too long, now we go to another line. Instead, out the window, we see we are approaching the gate.
“Uh oh,” my wife says.
What is happening? A security threat? An important passenger? Finally, a steward gets on the microphone.
“The tower has ordered us back to the gate,” the steward says. “We’ll let you know why as soon as we know.”
Now the pilot gets on the microphone. He actually comes out of the cockpit to talk to us. He’s a thin guy, about 35, nice looking, hair over his forehead.
“We’ve got a problem with the aircraft,” he says. “My first concern is for your safety. I won’t fly an airplane that has something wrong with it. So we have to find out what it is.
Meantime, I want everybody off the plane. Get all your possessions. I’ll see that we give you updates every 20 minutes or so.”
And so we do that. This is going to be a nightmare, somebody says. At the gate, a pretty hostess was completely unhelpful. She didn’t know anything, either. But there was another flight out at 2:30 p.m. There were five seats left. But she counseled waiting.
We also learned about JetBlue policy. If we wanted to get another flight with another airline to make sure we got where we had to go we could do that, but we’d have to pay that other airline.
Also JetBlue would not only NOT refund our money, they would charge us $100 a passenger additional to leave our current flight. Even if the plane is broken? I asked. Yup, even that. And will they refund us the money if the plane doesn’t go? No, but they would give us money if we waited for hours, she said. That’s why I counsel waiting.
There are floor-to-ceiling windows looking out from the gate to the runway and, between us and the runway, right in front of me, is our aircraft, nose in, with the accordion thing still attached to the entry door. I decide to watch to see what develops.
Another passenger, a woman, joins me. My wife has gone to get us coffee.
We talk to one another nervously. Getting off the plane with all the possessions is the big signal, someone had told her. This was going to take FOREVER. After about 10 minutes, though, a blue van with the words JETBLUE on the back pulls up alongside the plane and three mechanics get out. We can see them less than 50 yards away. One carries a black bag that, it seems to me, must contain tools. Another carries a flashlight. They open a hatch just under the cockpit and they peer inside. One of them holds up the flashlight. Another takes a long metal tool that looks like a screwdriver out of the bag. He leans in, looks close to something and turns the screwdriver counterclockwise. Then he hits the end of the screwdriver with the heel of his hand. The two other mechanics watch with interest.
“Am I seeing what I’m seeing?” I asked the woman.
“I guess so.”
One of the other mechanics hoists up the black bag—its zipper is open on top—and sets it down inside the hatch. Then they all stand back and look at whatever it was they did, and then they turn around and walk to the van, get in, and drive off.
“They left the door open,” the woman said.
“That’s really a good sign,” say I. “It means they are coming back. They’ve gone off to get a part. And they think they can fix it right there on the runway. They won’t have to have it towed back to the shop.”
At this point, my wife comes back with coffee.
“I think you’re right,” the woman said. “You don’t just leave the door open when you drive off.”
Twenty minutes later, the woman at the gate makes an important announcement. They’ve got whatever it was fixed. We will commence reboarding in five minutes. Make sure you have your boarding pass handy.
Everybody starts talking to one another. Somebody says they were told it was a computer malfunction. Another person says yeah, right. Another person says they sniffed a burning smell when we were out at the end of the runway. Still another person says I didn’t smell anything.
As we are waiting in the line to board, I look out the window. The hatch under the cockpit is still open.
As we get on the aircraft, I pass the smiling stewardess.
“The hatch on the other side is still open,” I said. “And there’s a black zippered bag in there.”
“Oh, they took that out,” the stewardess says. “There was one of us who decided not to get back on. They took her bag out.”
As I am waiting in the aisle as other passengers are, once again, stowing their bags up above in the bays up there, I see the woman I was standing by the window with.
“Were they taking that black bag out?” I asked. “Or were they putting it in?”
“Putting it in,” she says.
So what happened? I don’t know. Maybe it was a loose distributor cap, or some carbon inside the carburetor or a loose spark plug wire or some other little thing that when you give it a whack with the back of your hand it fixes it.
Twenty minutes later, we are back out at the end of the runway. The pilot revs up the engines again. They sound smooth as
silk. Not only that, but they sound so powerful that after the pilot lets them quiet down, shifts into first and puts his pedal to the metal, I wouldn’t want to be out front watching it
come at me.
Now we are up in the sky, we’re free to use our electronic devices and so, as we head to New York, uh, I am writing this story.