Saturday, April 2, 2011

Southwest Flight 812: I prefer my plane without a sunroof, thanks

An explosion. A loud rush of air. A nosedive toward the ground. An oxygen mask? I had not anticipated a change in cabin pressure.

With hypoxic fingers, I fumble the mask. With chagrin, I realize it really does not inflate.

To my right, a mother shrieks in hysteria, her panic rising above the din. Ahead, a young man with curly brown hair and an easy smile walks about, helping to affix oxygen masks. Behind me, a woman's tears stream down her face as the shock sets in.

I realize I have my seat mate's hand in a death grip.

This is Southwest Flight 812.

I remember the details in snapshots now. Hours later, my ears still ring from the rushing of air. My heart still pounds from the adrenaline, from the not knowing, from the dread that I may spend my last moments on earth with 118 strangers.

My husband is a general aviation pilot. From his teaching and my time in light aircraft, I'm about 85% sure that we can land safely. The engines are on. The crew is calm. The movements of the plane are controlled. 

But the other 15% keeps me on edge.

When we descend below 10,000 feet, I switch on my phone. Please God, give me a signal. 

I am able to send several texts to my husband...

4:19 p.m. "Emergency landing 35 min after take off. I love you."

4:22 p.m. "Landing in Yuma shortly."

4:22 p.m. "Everything should be fine but I want you to know how much you mean to me."

4:31 p.m. "Safe landing in Yuma."

How do you convey "I might die in a few minutes and I love you so much my heart aches at the thought of never seeing you again" without freaking someone the hell out? I'll let you know if I figure it out.

I and the 118 of 812 were lucky. We survived one hell of an April Fool's Day joke thanks to the AMAZING Southwest flight crew. And thanks to Twitter, I get to tell the world about it.

More on that later. 



  1. Amazing- that 15% can cause a lot anxiety, you texts brought a tear to my eye

  2. Such a well written account! Also fascinated by the pictures yesterday on Twitter. Great job documenting the ordeal, and capturing some of what it was like to miss your soulmate at that moment.

  3. Bea from NJ (@sweeetbea on Twitter)April 2, 2011 at 8:34 AM

    OMG!! Thx u for sharing your story. So happy it had a happy ending and everyone is safe.

  4. Ditto Taylor's comment.
    Nice writing, Shawna.

  5. I have a fear of flying and we JUST got back from chicago on a southwest flight last Wednesday. I would have been dead of a heart attack , fully Valium-ed as I was, had that happened on my flight. Glad everyone on your flight landed safely.

  6. So glad that this turned out well. You did a great job documenting the event.

  7. I work for a different airline and some of us were reading your account on twitter I'm sure it was scary, but you did a great job keeping your cool and taking pictures. Glad to hear all were okay.

  8. From a member of Southwest Flight 812...well put!

  9. You are my new hero! I can't believe how calm and thoughtful you were. I'm so glad you're safe!

  10. Well written! Terrible event, but at least everyone is safe! I love your writing though!

  11. You rock! Glad you made it down safely.

  12. Hi from Sweden. Here´s a spooky detail..
    Are you aware that there has been several fatal crashes worldwide, all with the same flightnumber: 812

    Air India 812 160 killed
    Panam 812 96 killed
    Philippine airlines 812 robbery at crusing alt, the robber then parachuted and got killed on impact:
    Several other mishaps as well, all with 812 in common.
    Who said that 13 was an unlucky numer.....

  13. All I can say is OMG! Great account!

  14. glad you're ok... see you on GMA next week.

  15. I hope she and others don't get fined for illegal use of a mobile phone in flight ...

  16. Woah, unbelievable. Thank goodness you and the other passengers are safe!

  17. Many kudo's to the flight crew that did the right thing. I'm sure some of us will remember the Aloha airlines flight that had a similar incident which took the life of a cabin attendant.

    For the folks with a fear of flying, a little explanation. As the bloggers husband, I am a GA pilot and hold a PPL.

    The higher one gets in the atmosphere, the thinner the air becomes. This is one of the reason why some mountain climbers (for example, when climbing the mount everest) use oxygen. Commercial aircraft therefor have pressurized cabins, which keep the pressure inside the cabin to a value similer to an altitude between 6000ft and 8000ft. When the density altitude becomes much higher than approx 10000ft, humans become susceptible to hypoxia. Hypoxia is best described as the way to unconsiousness. Eventually, one can lose consiousness if the situation is not resolved.

    When an aircraft becomes unpressurized at an altitude of, let's say, 34000ft, the oxygen masks will fall out of the overhead cabins. This will provide the passenger with a few minutes of oxygen. Only minutes? Yes, enough time for the flight crew to perform an emergency decent to an altitude where passengers can breathe outside air.

    Pilots have obviously a lot more oxygen and there are emergency oxygen tanks in the cabin as well.

    So whoever reads this and becomes more afraid of flying: do not worry. Sudden loss of cabin pressure is something every commercial pilot trains for every 6 months. As long as the pilots are still capable of flying the aircraft, you will land safely.

  18. The use of cell phones are
    forbidden for good reasons.
    From your
    photo it looks like the plane's
    systems might have been under an unusual
    amount of stress.
    So you choose to ignore the rules forbidding
    radio/phone use. And during an emergency!!

    How selfish of you to put everyone's life
    at risk with your text message.

  19. The point about phones during flight is well taken. To be honest, I wasn't exactly thinking about the rules at that point! Not to try and excuse my behavior, but I did have the presence of mind to turn off my phone before the actual landing, when cell phones may potentially be the most disturbing to avionics.

  20. Shawna - Thank you so much for taking a few minutes with us on the radio today. I can't begin to imagine what you've experienced, but your willingness to share your experience with others might make someone just aware enough to do the right thing in an emergency. Again, thank you for making time for us. I hope our paths cross again under different circumstances. Be well.

    Mark Hoffmann and Tom Romano
    The Travel Guys, KFBK Radio

  21. The comment about cellphones is bullshit, they don't interfere with the plane in any way as already tested multiple times. The reason they are/were forbidden is just 'to be sure'. To my knowledge some airliners have already tested with cellphone use and some might actually already permit it on a regular basis. The sky is filled with all kinds of signals, you really think a cellphone could send the plane in a nosedive? Electronic systems in planes are all heavily shielded.

  22. Hi Shawna,

    Greeting from Reuters.

    We used a pic you took aboard the Southwest flight and would like to pay for it. Can you please email

    Appreciate your help and many thanks in advance.

  23. OMG. Unbelievable. You had so much luck!
    Lovely greetings from germany

  24. So wonderful to read that you are ok.....amazing that you had the presence of mind to take pictures and be able to blog about your experience in such a thought provoking manner...thank-you for sharing your thoughts...SM from E.Syracuse,NY

  25. "The comment about cellphones is bullshit, they don't interfere with the plane in any way as already tested multiple times."

    True. Aircraft experience more electromagnetic radiation from the sun at 40,000 ft than thousands of cellphones can emit.

  26. Glad everyone made it. God sure came through for you with that signal ...and a safe landing to boot! :)

  27. Nothing to do with god.

  28. Must have been a very tense and scary way to a safe landing. A hole that large can grow bigger and more deadly in minutes. I am so glad that the plane landed safely.

  29. Shawna - I know exactly how you felt - I was there with you on flight 812 - and I couldn't have expressed my feelings any better. I too called my husband to tell him I loved him when we were still unsure of our fate.

  30. Shawna, what a great story - with a happy ending! I'm sharing it.

  31. You did such a great job covering this story. I have enjoyed your posts to your blog.

  32. Just wanted to let you know that I have in fact been reading all of your posts and I'm so glad you came out of this ok. What a scary experience! I don't know that I'd be able to get back on the horse so soon afterwards like you did. You're one tough chica!

  33. ...interesting that someone brought up the use of the phone...a moment's thought should reveal that IF cell phone use were a REAL threat to safety in any situation, then phones should either be confiscated before taking off or else there should be some means of blocking phone transmission during flight...

  34. Wow a first hand account. I had heard about this and saw pics but wow! I would have been freaking out. You strong to have held your composure. Thank goodness everyone was ok!

  35. I was on this flight, I would like to say when you are not sure if you will live or die you text or call the one person that matters to you. Shame on the person that made the rude comment about cell phone use.
    Reading your documentation of the event stills creates a knot in my chest and brings tears to my eyes.

  36. November 1 commenter... thank you! And me, too. I fly every week now and the experience doesn't ever leave my mind.