(Sorta) Safe Landings, or Hell Week in the Theatre

Rain hammers at the windows as outside, a lance of lightning splits the sky. The rickety Cessna’s every seam rattles in the ensuing thunderclap. It’s been through its share of storms, but every storm is different, and this one is a humdinger.

Flashes of lightning sporadically light up the faces of the passengers. There is screaming terror, dumbstruck panic, horrified weeping. Some are praying, rocking as they mumble in their own tiny space. Some look ready to vomit at any moment. One, at least, has already done so.

There’s a BANG and a shudder rocks the plane. It’s impossible to say exactly what, but something has come off. In the spasmodic flashes of lightning, smoke is now visible out the windows. The wind tosses the craft around like a toddler with its favorite toy.

The scene in the cockpit is grim. A pilot mops sweat from his forehead, wrestling the stick for control of the plane — it bucks and thrashes in his hand like an angry python. Dimly he hears the screams of the passengers, but he’s much more concerned with the wind and the lightning and the looming mountain. Not enough altitude. The wheels clip the tops of trees, branches scraping the bottom of the plane like the grasping fingers of restless corpses. Another lurch as the wheel on one side is wrenched away.

But over the top of the hill — there, the landing strip. A faraway, flickering oasis. The engine coughs and stalls. They won’t be making it that far.

The doomed craft careens through the sky, passing low — too low — over farmhouses and fields toward the airfield. It wobbles drunkenly, smoke streaming from one engine like it’s a coal power plant before anybody ever heard of the EPA. It dives, banks hard to one side, dives again, and banks back, like a baby bird learning to fly on broken wings. It clips the top of an abandoned barn, blasting away part of the rotted roof in a shower of splinters.

Then, somehow, when by all rights the thing should be ditching in a cornfield, it levels off. The engines whine and sputter back to life, belching out gobs of black smoke, but giving it a burst of altitude. It just clears the power lines and rumbles toward the  a clumsy touchdown like an eighth grader stepping onto the dance floor for the first time in his life.

Pandemonium as it touches down. The one wheel smokes while the un-wheeled leg gouges a terrific gash in the thin asphalt, gravel and tar scattering. The plane wobbles, fishtails, and finally flips over. One wing decides it’s had enough and sails off into the night. The tail crumples as the plane rolls over and over, flinging luggage and clothing across the tarmac.

Groaning like a tranquilized bear going under, the airplane topples to its side and lies mercifully still. One wing pointed toward the sky, the wheel a useless strip of deflated rubber spinning on its axle.

Then, sounds of life within. Traumatized groans and wails and exclamations of amazement as the passengers kick the door away and tumble out into the darkness. The pilot follows after them, cut and bruised and wild-eyed, but unhurt. They stumble across the runway clutching tightly to one another like starved refugees crossing the border.

And then the plane explodes. A glaring, angry fireball turning night into day.


This, then, is hell week in the theatre.

Image lifted from aviation-safety.net. Clearly from a “how-to” page on landings.

Every little thing is a crisis, every argument or misfire a question, seemingly, of life or death. An actor gets laryngitis. Another twists an ankle. Costumes don’t fit or can’t take the strain. The patches you put on the set to shore up the damage it was taking now have patches themselves. Literally every item of clothing you own is covered in flecks, if not splotches, if not gouts, of paint. The whole production, which you’ve spent months rehearsing, seems in danger of coming apart at any moment. You question every life decision which brought you to this point. Yet somehow the show survives. Somehow it crosses the finish line and everybody’s in one piece.

And, stranger still, some part of you wouldn’t have it any other way.

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