The Oxygen Masks Came Down

I’ve flown thousands of flights on over 200 different airlines across six continents. Never in my flying life, has anything happened like what happened today. On my flight from Newark to Fort Lauderdale aboard United Airlines, the cabin depressurized; the oxygen masks came down; and for about 10-12 minutes; I thought I might die.
On the plane after the oxygen masks came down
United 1601 started like any other flight and actually took off on time from Newark Airport; which rarely happens. The 737 took off and headed south. It was an 8:30am flight; which was to connect in Fort Lauderdale for North Eleuthra Island in the Bahamas. I feel asleep almost immediately after takeoff.

About 1:30 into the flight, I was woken up because my ears were popping badly. This never happens to me. I was half asleep and couldn’t understand what was happening. I was in the middle seat in economy plus and I looked at the woman to my right, Abby, and she felt the same thing. I was still confused.

All of a sudden, the oxygen masks came down from the ceiling panel above the seats. It was shocking. It was as if nobody on the plane understood or knew what to do. There was no direction from the captain or crew. There was no announcement about what was happening or why the oxygen masks came down. They just fell and then people started freaking out and put them on.
Screaming lady tending to her kids
I had always said that I would totally freak out if the oxygen masks came down on a plane. To my surprise, I handled the situation extremely calmly and didn’t freak out. Don’t get me wrong, I was freaked out but there was a woman across the aisle that was freaking out and screaming enough for everybody. As awful as her piercing shrieks and her instructions to her two kids were-it distracted me and kept me calm.

After about 10-12 minutes of absolutely no announcements or anything from the captain and crew, the captain came on the speaker. He almost dismissively said something to the extent of, “Well that was interesting. Sorry we lost cabin pressure there and then we had to release the oxygen masks to keep you safe. It’s OK to take them off now”.

This is information perhaps they could have told us right before or right after they released the oxygen masks. People were scared out of their minds. Abby and I kept looking out the window and only saw water. We thought we were landing on water for a bit.
View back from my seat after we were allowed to take masks off
During the fiasco, there was a burning smell in the cabin and through the masks. We thought perhaps there was a fire in the galley or worse, the engine-who knows! There was a rapid decent as well after the oxygen masks came down. I assume this was to reach a safe altitude, perhaps below 10,000 feet. Again, some information would have been nice.

This was the type of thing that could honestly give a person a heart attack. I kept thinking that there might have been an elderly person or something that would literally drop dead from the sheer terror of the situation. Luckily that wasn’t the case.

I was flying down with a group for a press trip to the Bahamas. My friend, Matt Kepnes, was two rows behind me. Another writer, Mike Richard, and my friend and PR rep, Jessica Parker, were in the back of the plane.
Me, Matt and Mike in the airport in Charleston
When the plane finally landed after it was diverted to Charleston, South Carolina-we all got together to go over what just happened. It was really surreal and as I write this right now, it’s almost as if it never happened. It’s very odd.

I am still not sure what to make of it, except I guess now it makes a good story and hopefully a good post. That aside, I hope I never experience that again. It was really scary and at the least I hope that the captain and crew will be more responsible next time and alert us as to what’s going on in that situation where you are completely helpless.

I don’t blame United Airlines because I know it could’ve happened to any plane at anytime. However, I still have no idea what actually happened and why. We were never told anything before, during or after about what happened. That’s not right.

Comments

  1. The only defense for the pilot I can say is he was too busy saving your lives but otherwise (and especially after the fact) you should know what happened. So glad you all are safe and sound. I would have literally died. Turbulence is my worst fear and this was way worse. Love you bra

  2. So scary! I fear I would have been the woman screaming. Glad everything turned out okay!

  3. James Hafele says:

    that’s insane. i was on a shuttle from DC to NY on a prop jet plane, and we had a rapid descent but the pilot told us severe turbulence was possible before it happened. not knowing is the WORST. glad it turned out ok for you

  4. That is seriously scary Lee. I am so glad you guys are all safe. I can’t believe they didn’t tell you what happened or to not panic. I would have still panicked but at least I would have had something to fall back on. I hate United!

  5. Jesus I think I would have had a heart attack right there on the spot!

  6. Great post. It brings back memories from a Northwest flight from Narita to Detroit several years ago! We started dropping fast, the FAs came through asking/demanding we put on our seat belts. The pilot did the same in a calm voice and then Bang, the masks came down! It felt like A MOVIE, surreal! Pilot came on (while still dropping) and said to put our own masks on FIRST before assisting family members, yeah right. Some people were freaking out completely, screaming. What I remember was me feeling…”is this really happening, really happening?”. Slowly, we started dropping, then we stabilized and then FAs started coming around asisting the most freaked out passengers. Pilot came on and apologized in the nicest manner possible. What I found out that the mask may get stuck and you need a pencil/pen tip to push into the little hole to get it to come down! We flew the rest of the way with the masks down! Yep, I learned that too..once they are out they are not going back in during your flight!

    I will feature this tomorrow in my daily Buzz blog, it sure brought me memories!

  7. Ooops, the pilot apologized…by telling us that it indeed was a false alarm! Best false alarm ever:-)

  8. That would have been a little unnerving for sure, make 1,000 times worst with no indication from the captain on what is happening for 10 minutes, which would naturally lead you to believe it’s pretty bad if they’re not even comforting the passengers.

    Not really looking forward to flying to/from Juan Fernandez. Something about flying over the choppy ocean for 3hrs in a tiny 5-seat twin prop with ONE pilot (and then having to land on a sheer cliff) is something I’m not too excited about…

  9. The guy in the picture behind you either thinks it’s funny or he is just so happy to be alive that he is smiling!

    • He’s happy to be alive…this was right after they told us it was OK to take off the masks…had I taken the pics earlier during the scare, it would have looked much different-trust me!

  10. Great post, that must’ve been scary

  11. The worst part of this kind of thing is when you hear nothing from the crew of the plane. I was on a Chicago to LGuardia flight (United, as it happens) when we hit what I assume was wind sheer as we were preparing to land. In my 30+ years of flying, I have never experienced anything like it. First the plane dropped so quickly that I hit my head and people were gasping and screaming. Then we ascended quickly and proceeded to bounce around violently for another 20 minutes while several passengers availed themselves of their sick bags. There was never a single word from the cockpit or crew to inform passengers of what was happening. When we finally landed, all we got was the standard “thank you for flying the friendly skies of United”

  12. I’m not a frequent flier so things like this scare me. I find it infuriating that there was NO announcement whatsoever about what was going on until 10-12 minutes later. I’d at least expect the co-pilot or flight attendants to say something.

    My last SWA flight out of FLL had a lot of turbulence and there were plenty of announcements reassuring people it was normal. I bet some of those people on that flight will never fly United Airlines again just because of the way they handled it.

    • I am sure! I wish it were simply that easy to dump an airline! As a non-frequent flier it is…I dumped American a few years ago and now I yearn for those days back!

  13. fuck dude

  14. After this flight it probably makes your Lakshadweep flight feel like child’s play.

  15. Damn Lee, thats nuts. I have had some scary in flight emergencies during my time in the Navy. but losing Cabin Pressurization is still the worst one that I had (Rear Canopy Shattered). I can tell you from experience that I was so busy trying to assess the situation and keep us safe that the next half an hour went by in a blur. Sounds like your pilots were experiencing the same thing. First thing that every aviator is taught – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate…. and unfortunately for passengers like yourself, in that order.

  16. Scary! Sounds like a flight I had. The pilot told us he had to land at a faster speed than normal because the wings were frozen. Seemed ok when he told us they actually practiced the manuver but still scary to see every fire and rescue truck rushing to the runway.

  17. OK – I am the aforementioned “woman across the isle freaking out.” I will admit I lost it. However, you have to know that I was traveling alone with my two kids, ages 2 and 4, and my 2 year old would not wear his mask, and also I thought were were all doing to die. If you don’t have kids, you can’t imagine the idea that you brought them on a plane that is going to plummet to the earth. Just sayin’.

    • Thanks for commenting Alyson and nice to hear from you post flight! I can’t even imagine how tough it must’ve been with the kids. I wasn’t criticizing you, I was just mentioning that you actually helped keep me calm. I felt awful for you and the kids and that kind of took my mind off freaking out…if that makes sense! Glad we all made it!

  18. Thanks for posting this, Lee! I was on this flight as well, heading to meet up with friends in Fort Lauderdale. Definitely a frightening experience! The hardest part, as you mentioned, was the lack of information provided to us. So glad that we were all safe!

  19. As Roommate mentions, you’ll find this is standard in any loss of pressurization, and it would have gone the same way on any airline. The pilots are too busy to make announcements as they initiate a rapid descent to a safe altitude. It’s not actually a dangerous situation, it just feels that way. Understandable of course that not having info from the cockpit would make the situation more scary, and I wouldn’t like it either, but the pilots just followed procedure.

  20. I feel like we’re all friends now! I was on the plane too… With my six month old. And as luck would have it, United couldn’t get us seats together. When the masks dropped my daughter was three rows back with my husband and my mother (who recently suffered a heart attack) was three rows ahead. I couldn’t see if my daughter or mother were okay. So Alyson, if it’s any consolation, I thought I might be the “lady across the aisle screaming”! I think it’s safe to say we were all a bit shaken! I can’t even believe that they want to give us a $75 voucher for our NEXT flight. There will be no “next flight” for me for a loooong time. I was a nervous flyer to begin with. That’s enough for me. From now on it’s cruises and trains! And $75?! Are you kidding me? United lost my luggage once and gave me $100 and now you make me think I’m dying and offer me $75 to fly on another one of your planes that you don’t maintain!? NO THANK YOU!!

  21. Scary story! If its any consolation, and this may be an overshare, but the worst turbulence I ever experienced was when I was sitting on the airplane toilet. I was pretty sure we were crashing and that’s where the clean-up crew would find my body – trapped in that tiny little cubicle with my pants around my knees. And no, they do NOT provide you with an oxygen mask in the can! :(

  22. Charlie WJ says:

    Hi Lee,
    Just some info about what actually happens when the oxygen masks come down: There was very little chance that anyone would have lost their lives, the masks come down when the systems in the plane sense that it has lost pressure while being at a high enough for there not to be enough oxygen to survive. When this happens the captain quickly descends to an altitude where there is enough oxygen to support life. In the mean time the masks provide oxygen until you are at a safe altitude. The system that produces oxygen involves a chemical reaction that produces some heat which could have been the burning smell you experienced. Hope this clears anything up!

  23. I think I would have freaked out too (not as much as that screaming lady though, I can picture her now)! Enjoy your posts :D

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