Cash landing, Northwest Passages, North Pole, 1992

Ever been on a flight that turned scary? We’ve all been through the odd bump, seen drinks spilt and the seatbelt sign light up, but plenty of other things can go wrong at 35,000 feet – the problem is, help isn’t always close at hand.

It’s always bothered me that long haul flights – that have no need to land – can set a path across the vast freezing wilderness of the earth’s poles, either North or South. I don’t know whether I’d feel any more comfortable flying over desert, jungle or ocean, but there’s just something un-nerving about being above the earth’s coldest regions.

So it was that I found myself flying high above the tundra of Canada’s northern territories, even though the flight from London to Vancouver was routine. Like anyone else flying across the Northern Hemisphere I was blissfully unaware of my close proximity to the North Pole, until a point well into the flight when it became apparent that a fellow passenger was in strife – a heart attack – and needed a hospital fast. The rest of us were officially informed by the pilot a few minutes later, and given our remoteness and the lack of facilities nearby, he then went on to explain our need to head for the nearest suitable settlement in order to, he hoped, save the person’s life.

I’d never heard of Iqaluit, or Baffin Island for that matter, but on name alone it sounded like an out-station for eskimos*. As we descended into the darkness, I commented to a fellow passenger that “gee that cloud cover looks thick, doesn’t it?”.

“I believe that’s snow” came the reply. Before I could respond there was a thud as our landing gear hit the ground, and an eerie silence as the wheels seemed to glide across a runway of ice. This was accompanied by a barely discernable shimmy from side to side, the kind of movement you might expect from a run-away bob-sled.

Finally we came to a halt, the lights went out to great dramatic effect, and every passenger spontaneously cheered and applauded in unison. We’d made it. The unfortunate passenger was stretchered off, looking rather worse for wear under an oxygen mask, and within an hour we were back in the air.

Like many, the mercy dash had meant I’d missed a connecting flight, and on landing in Vancouver the airline gave each of us US$50 for our patience and infinite understanding.

My patience and understanding generally costs much more than that, but in all I was just happy we were able to get the stricken passenger to care in time.

*This turned out to be very close to the truth – a (mostly summer) refueling station for long haul flights, and inhabited by the local Inuit people.

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