This Is What Happened When My Airplane Depressurized And Dropped 20,000 Feet

nomadic matt in an oxygen mask after the plane depressurized
Nomadic Matt in an oxygen mask after the plane depressurized.

I woke up at 4 a.m. to begin a long journey to Eleuthera, Bahamas for a quick 4 day trip. It was going to be a long day on very little sleep. First, Boston to New York, then to Fort Lauderdale before taking my final flight to the Bahamas. I was flying United, my least favorite carrier, but the ticket was free so I had little choice in the matter.

Shortly after I boarded my plane in New York, the safety briefing began to play. “When the seat belt sign illuminates, you must fasten your seat belt. Insert the metal fittings one into the other, and tighten by pulling on the loose end of the strap… there are several emergency exits on this aircraft… in the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth… although the bag does not inflate…” and so on. I’ve heard the safety briefing thousands of times, now I tuned it out and tried to sleep.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

I woke up to the sound of my ear drums popping. “What’s going on?” I said to myself, shifting in my seat, trying to fall back asleep.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

As my ear drums begin to sound like popcorn in a microwave I couldn’t fall back asleep. They were small, frequent pops and in my zombie-like state, I couldn’t really place why this was happening.

I opened my eyes in a haze when it happened.

All of a sudden, the oxygen masks deployed from above. I looked confusingly at the people next to me. And then in the seats around me. There had been no turbulence. Was this a mistake? Half asleep, I didn’t know what to make of it.

All of a sudden, a voice boomed over the PA system; “Put on your masks,” we were told.

Holy crap! This is no mistake.

oxygen masks after the plane depressurized on a united flight
Oxygen masks after the plane depressurized on a United flight.

I reached for my mask. How did that safety briefing go again? “In the event of an emergency, oxygen masks will deploy…” I tried to remember in my sleepy state. After all those safety briefings, you realize you become so numb to them, you tune them out, and when an emergency happens, you think what the heck do you do again?

I put on the mask and fumbled to tighten the strings, taking unnecessarily deep breathes, worried that if I didn’t I’d suffocate. I looked around. The business traveler next me kept reading the paper. The woman sitting diagonally from me and the couple to my right all looked petrified. In front of me, I could hear a woman telling her kids “Mommy loves you, mommy loves you” over and over again.

As the situation unfolded, I thought to myself that we had probably just lost cabin pressure and it was nothing to worry about. We hadn’t taken a dive; we didn’t hit turbulence.

But minutes passed. And then more and more. There were no announcements about what was going on. Of course I want the pilots solving problems, not chatting to me, but the dearth of information made those minutes last forever.

oxygen masks after the plane depressurized
Some of the bags DO inflate!

Then, suddenly, we dropped, and we dropped fast. My heart leapt out of my chest. “Maybe there is something really wrong with the plane!” All those fears I have about heights and flying were suddenly realized.

There is nothing scarier than having your plane drop 20,000 feet in seconds. It is a feeling I never want to experience again in my life.

We soon leveled out, and I later learned that when you lose cabin pressure, you have to drop below 10,000 feet to prevent a loss of consciousness.

Soon, the flight attendants walked casually down the aisle while wearing their masks. If you ask any frequent flier, they will always tell you that if the flight attendants aren’t scared, you don’t need to be either.

Finally, the captain came on the radio and explained that yes, the cabin had lost pressure and no, there was nothing to worry about, but yes, we would be making an emergency landing.

You always wonder how you would react in a situation like this. When those masks fall and your plane descends rapidly, will your life flash before your eyes? Will everyone be screaming? Will it be chaos? Will you know what to do?

Surprisingly, none of that happens. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Everyone stayed calm. We were more in a state of confusion than anything else.

passengers taking pictures after the plane depressurized
This guy wasn’t nervous. He took some selfies too.

After we landed, my friends and I laughed and talked about it as we sat in Charleston’s airport, drinking beer while waiting for a new flight. “Here’s to our first emergency landing!” we cheered.

Yet as I thought about what had happened, I realized just how helpless we are when that plane door closes. Your life is in the hands of two men you will never see nor ever meet. Anything can happen, and you have no control over it. You simply have to trust that they know what they are doing.

Events like this smack you with the realization that no matter how well you plan your life, all the control you think you have is an illusion. Life happens without you and you’re really just along for the ride. It’s moments like this that make you relax and live a little. When you realize you have no control, life gets put in perspective. We are in control of very little.

Go where life takes you and enjoy the adventure. Have fun. Do what you love. Be with who you love. For me, that’s traveling the world. And I never plan to stop doing what I love.

Because one day, you’re 30,000 feet above the Atlantic, the masks come down, and the only thing you can do is say to yourself “If this is it, I regret nothing.” Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Budget travel expert, author of “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day” at Nomadic Matt.

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