I am working on a trip report that will include the scariest flight of my life, a Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. An odd coincidence that it was on Malaysia Airlines but a sobering wake-up call that each day may be our last.
My brother and I had a great stay in KL and were looking forward to several days in Cambodia. Competing with low-cost carriers like Air Asia, we snagged a ticket from KUL to PNH on Malaysia Airlines at an ideal afternoon departure time for about $72.
Using my American Airlines Platinum Card, we enjoyed a hearty lunch in the Malaysia Airlines lounge prior to the flight and were allocated prime economy class seats toward the front of the 737-800 cabin.
Departure was on-time and everyone seemed to be in good spirits on the full flight. Though flight time was under two hours, a hot meal was served after takeoff and gracious FAs made multiple drink runs.
Then the weather started looking bad outside.
Lightning and dark clouds—it seems like we were in an endless cloud as we began our gradual descent into Phnom Penh. The plane began to rattle and we experienced heavy and sustained turbulence. This was no light chop, but rather the type of turbulence that will injure you if your seatbelt is not on.
Here, it is important to note that I have flown nearly two million miles, so I do know how to distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary. This was truly bad.
Drinks tipped over and items flew through the cabin.
The captain first began a more rapid descent but soon I noticed we were climbing again and presently climbed above the clouds to the tranquil afternoon sun. We circled for about 30 minutes before the flight crew again initiated descent.
The plane began to violently shake again as the storm billowed about us. This time, the captain continued our descent though we could see nothing around us but clouds. Suddenly, ground appeared and we were quite low, with the rain pouring and the aircraft continuing to shake.
We glided toward the PNH but as we dropped further toward the runway the pilot suddenly aborted the landing and we began rapidly climbing again. Murmurs from passengers turned into louder exclamations of confusion.
A woman stood up from her seat and a crewmember seated in a jump seat a few rows ahead of us loudly yelled for her to sit down. She did.
We climbed above the clouds again and circled some more. By now, we were running 45 minutes late and the aircraft circled for several more minutes, as if the pilots were building up the nerve to attempt another landing.
I figured we would divert, but we began another steep descent and the plane began to shake violently again. Again the ground became visible and the heavy rains pelted the window of the plane. Runway lights became visible and it looked like we would finally land.
Only we did not. Another aborted landing.
Up we climbed and by this time, everyone onboard was looking around at one another. The chatter had turned to silence and the only sound visible was the dull sound of the aircraft engines and the pelting rain outside.
No crew announcements or any word from the flight deck throughout this process. Perhaps this was normal for monsoon season in Cambodia?
By this time, I was thinking about Lucky and how our flights compared. My heart was racing and I clasped the arm of my brother, but I was not afraid. If there is a difference between apprehension and fright, it centers on the severity of the potential outcome. I was still only apprehensive, thinking not about life and death, but instead about landing the plane. This was not a coping mechanism, but rather a peace that if I were to die, I would have no regrets (except perhaps for getting on the flight…).
This time I thought that we would certainly divert but once again we began another landing attempt, dropping fast and encountering the same turbulence as before. This time though, we did land, with a tremendous thud and several bounces down the runway.
Passengers screamed, babies cried, but I knew the moment I felt that thud that we would be okay. As we taxied down the runway, many began to clap. What the heck, I did too.
When a flight is under pressure, the pilots must make the safety of those onboard the number on priority, even if it comes at the expense of announcements. Still, a short announcement saying the weather was bad and we will try landing again in a bit would have had a tremendous soothing effect, especailly after the second aborted landing.
We had safely arrived in Cambodia, greeted by torrential rain unlike any downpour I had seen in my life, having experienced a flight that I will never forget.
* * *
As we reflect upon the almost-certain tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, we must remember that air travel is the safest way of transport, but still not without risk. That flight could have been my flight instead. Or yours.
It is sobering to me that I have booked more than one client on MH370 (not on that day, thankfully, but on that flight) using their points. I place all my client trips on a master calendar such that each day I can track clients as they are flying. Seeing the ominous Flight Aware path for MH370 is a reminder that life often takes unexpected turns.
I am flying over the Atlantic right now (imagine a United Airlines flight with working internet!) and as I look down over the water below, I can envision this 747-400 crashing into the dark Atlantic. After all, I am in a metal canister hurling through the air at 650mph.
* * *
Coincidentally, one of my best clients died yesterday. I do not get to know most of clients on a personal basis, but I helped Dave and wife Sherri book several trips over the last few years and I had a standing invitation to their house for dinner whenever I was in San Francisco.
I booked another trip to Europe for them last November only to receive a note a few weeks ago from Sherri that Dave had been diagnosed with an advanced stage of brain cancer and he was terminal. Just three weeks later, Dave passed away around those he loved.
Sherri sent out a note announcing her husband’s passing and included a biographical attachment detailing all that Dave had done with his life. What brought a smile to my eye was the first line – “A man who loved to travel…”. Dave pursued his passions and has me beat my three countries—he was in 113 and I’ve only been to 110.
I wrote Sherri back and she sent back a note that concluded with the following charge–
I hope you love what you do —
Life is not about pursuing our every whim or desire, but it is devoid without passion. Bereft of love, life becomes mundane and meaningless. Thus, knowing your passion and knowing what you love is key to realizing your potential. My strength comes through my faith, my family, and my great passion to serve others. It is why my rather unorthodox career for a trained lawyer gives me such great happiness—I spend my days helping others realize their dreams and aspirations in a small way by helping them traverse the world without breaking the bank. I love my job.
So the question is do you love what you do?
And if not, think if you had been one of the passengers onboard MH370. As we reflect on untimely demises, I hope that you truly will treat each day as if it was your last and pursue that which you are passionate about.