You know that feeling an airplane has just before liftoff, when it is building up to an incredible speed and you feel like you are on a roller coaster that’s about to fly?
Now imagine what would happen if the pilot had to slam on the brakes at that moment right before liftoff because another plane, which had just landed, crossed directly in front of him on an active runway.
That’s what happened to my flight – Delta Flight 873 from Atlanta to Miami – at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Because of what the pilot later told us over the loudspeakers was an “administrative mistake” made by air traffic controllers, we had to hit the brakes to avoid another Delta plane. More than 100 of us passengers were jolted forward and then back – shaken and surprised, but with no apparent injuries that I saw.
It was an aborted takeoff, or as a Delta spokesman would later term it, a “high-speed slowdown.”
A few hours later, I asked the pilots how fast we had been going at the time they had to hit the brakes. They said “120 knots,” which translates into about 140 mph. Jets normally take off at a speed of 150-180 mph, so we were very close to getting airborne.
The close call caused a mild panic among the passengers and required our plane to return to the gate at the Atlanta airport to allow the brakes to “cool off” and for a maintenance check and refueling, the pilot said over the loudspeaker.
The screeching those brakes made will haunt me for awhile. I have flown hundreds of times and have never heard anything quite like that.
I was headed to Miami to cover Game 5 of the Hornets-Heat series on that plane. Normally I would have flown directly from Charlotte to Miami, but taking Delta through Atlanta on a connecting flight was $350 cheaper.
“This was not what anybody wanted,” the captain said in another announcement, advising us that anyone who would like to leave the plane because they were feeling unsure about the plane’s safety was free to do so.
It appeared that nearly everyone stayed on what the captain assured us was still a “perfectly fine” plane. I stayed on, too. I had grown fond by then of “Captain Miller,” as he called himself, and was glad the guy and his co-pilot had hit those brakes.
After a couple of thankful prayers, I still made it to Game 5 in Miami in plenty of time. Delta Flight 873 continued with the same plane and was only a couple of hours late. (I later got an email from Delta Customer Care offering a “personal apology” for this “unsettling” situation).
But no matter whether I had made the tipoff or not, I knew I had already had a really good day. After all, I didn’t get into a plane crash.