After enjoying a couple of pisco sours during our layover in Santiago de Chile, our plane took off for São Paolo, Brazil. Within an hour or so, we were cresting the towering Andes mountain range. Majestic and forbidding, the snow-capped mountains jagged up through the clouds, barely 1000 feet below our plane. The sun had dipped into the horizon and a gentle blue glow illuminated the landscape.
That’s when we hit turbulence. It began with the feeling of a surfer cresting a wave, and sliding down the other side. The plane gently lifted on the swell, suspending us briefly in a second of semi-weightlessness, before dipping inexorably downwards into the ensuing trough of air. Suddenly, we were being tossed and shaken - flung around in our seats like a rollercoaster. The plane’s fuselage had become a cocktail shaker and we were the ice cubes, only held in place by our seatbelts.
Outside the window, I could see the left wing of the plane shuddering and shaking in the turbulence, then flapping up and down at alarming angles. Surely, it was about to snap off! Or an engine would break away and go careening off into the twilight! My stomach lurched and twisted as the structure of the plane groaned and shrieked.
Then we dropped in altitude. We fell like a stone for a brief second or two, before whumping back onto a level heading on a more-solid mass of air. I don’t know how far we fell… far enough for the contents of seat pockets to go flying through the cabin. Far enough to feel the sickening dread that these clouds could be concealing hidden peaks that we might smash into at hundreds of kilometres per hour. Passengers screamed. Some prayed loudly in Spanish and Portuguese. A bearded, middle-age man in front of me crossed himself repeatedly at rapid pace. A woman vomited into the aisle. Oxygen masks dropped down at the rear of the cabin. Curiously, many of the younger passengers were calmly filming the chaos on their smartphones - perhaps hoping to go viral posthumously?
But I was terrified. My rational brain tried to reassure me with thoughts of the clever engineers who designed, built and safety-tested this aircraft, and the expert pilots guiding us through this hell. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was merely an upstart monkey, who somehow ended up trapped in a metal tube being flung through the air at close to the speed of sound. Why did anyone ever think this was a good idea?
In that moment, I truly thought we were going to die. As the plane continued to buck and swerve like a rodeo bull, I silently said goodbye to my loved ones. “Well, you have to die of something…” I thought to myself, wondering if the news would liken The Ten Tenors fiery finale to that of Buddy Holly. I imagined how cold the outside air would feel if the fuselage ripped open like a tin can. I gripped my armrest and the seat in front, while planting my legs wide to steady myself as much as possible. I shut my eyes, tried to breathe slowly and deeply, and thought “I’m only sad that I didn’t get more time.”
Eventually the winds eased in their violence. We were still occasionally rocked by little aftershocks of turbulence, but they became less frequent. Before long, the plane was sailing along smoothly once again, without so much as a ripple in our trajectory. The movement felt impossibly smooth. At this stage, the seatbelt light was switched off and the whole plane erupted into relieved and exultant applause. We had made it across the Andes.
Trolley service commenced, dispensing drinks and snacks, but few had the stomach to eat After that ordeal. Ahead of us now lay the beautifully solid ground of Brazil.