It was almost 10 PM and I had just finished my second gin and tonic at the airport bar. I stared intently at the ice in my glass, contemplating whether I should order another or get to my gate. After all, I was to board in 20 minutes.
“I’ll drink it fast,” I said, holding my empty glass towards the bartender. A few minutes later, he placed a full one on my napkin.
It was my pathetic attempt to calm my nerves before I boarded the 10-hour flight from Seattle, my hometown, to South Korea on business. At that time, I was working for a company that made bike parts. With the departure of one of my colleagues, my boss wanted to give me more opportunities and responsibilities, one of them traveling overseas to give presentations on the product.
I was thrilled at extra responsibility, but what I didn’t share with my employer was that I wasn’t so keen on flying. When I was just 10, I remember sitting in my parent’s living room as they watched in solemn silence a news report in which a jet, bound for somewhere in Asia, crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing everyone on board. Albeit 22 years ago, I’ll never forget the images of the floating wreckage, the crying family members. Despite the statistics that said flying was the safest method of transportation, I couldn’t help but worry that I’d be part of that small percentage.
At 32, I needed to get over it. After all, my wife gave me enough grief as it is. She has always been a travel junkie, and she somehow convinced me to go to France with her for our honeymoon. I gripped the armrests with sweaty palms at each bump for the duration of the flight, all through which she, of course, was able to sleep like a baby.
I tossed back my third drink, left cash on the bar, and gathered my belongings. My throat was warm and I was feeling loose. I made my way to the gate just as the announcement came in.
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I please have your attention. KoreanWing Flight 416 scheduled to depart at 10:50 PM has been delayed. We are sorry for this inconvenience.” I sighed as the message began again in Korean, simultaneously pissing off the other passengers waiting to board, who were predominantly Korean. As if 10 hours wasn’t long enough, couldn’t we just get this over with? I thought.
I took a seat in the waiting area towards the window and glanced out at the vast runways. I was just watching guys in bright orange suits run around the sides of our plane, checking doors and bolts, when I heard someone speak up to my right.
“I’m so tired of this bullshit.” I glanced over at a man sitting a few seats over. He carried a small, black duffel bag in his lap. I remember thinking he was dressed nicely for a 10-hour plane ride – slacks, white button down, and tie. He had a kind face, although twisted in annoyance, small wrinkles above his eyes and a tinge of gray in his thick, black hair.
“Come again?” I asked.
“This airline and its delays are too much. It’s all Korean Air for me next time.”
“This happens often, huh,” I said, half-focused on him, half-focused on the impending doom I was sure was to come on my flight.
“Every damn time. I fly to Korea and back all the time and they can never seem to get it together. Name’s Steve. by the way.” He stuck out his hand. Although he was Asian, he had no accent. Spoke perfect English.
“Dan,” I said. “I don’t fly much.”
“I can tell,” he laughed. “You’re watching the plane out there like you’re on death row.”
We laughed, and for a second, I forgot about my fear.
We spent the next few minutes talking about our respective reasons for traveling. He said he worked in Seattle and his family was in Korea. His job required him to be in the US for the majority of the time, but his wife remained in Korea. He basically had two homes.
“So you fly all the time,” I stammered.
“All the time,” he nodded.
“And you’ve never had anything bad happen to you?”
He paused, then smiled, then said “Relax. It’s going to be fine.”
The time came for us to board the plane. Flight attendants, clad in their red uniforms and heels, smiled at us as we got on the plane. At this point, the gin and tonics were hitting me and I wasn’t feeling half bad.
Coincidentally, I had a window seat, and assigned to the seat right next to me was none other than my new friend, Steve.
He guided me through takeoff, reassuring me about every bump, every sound, as I stared down at Seattle, growing smaller and smaller on the ground until it was nothing but a tiny light in the distance. This was it. I was airborne and couldn’t turn back now.
“Thanks, man. I feel better.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said. “I must reassure 157 people a month that flying is very safe.”
We were finally cruising when Steve excused himself to go to the bathroom. It was then that I noticed his ticket stub, fallen from his pocket, lying on his seat. “Steven Suk.”
We both sipped red wine (free on international flights) and chatted. The first four hours went by surprisingly quickly. At some point, 32,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, in a dark and quiet cabin, we both dozed off.
Things didn’t start to get strange right away. I struggled to find a comfortable angle in my hard seat. The company wasn’t willing to spring for business class. As I adjusted myself, I noticed the seat next to me was empty. I shrugged it off at the time, assuming my new friend had gone to the restroom. But as time passed by, he didn’t return. I knew that people occasionally strolled down the aisles to stretch their legs, but I couldn’t help but wonder where he went. Oh well, I remember thinking. Big plane, lots of time. I went back to sleep.
I felt as though I was half dreaming and half aware of the flight attendants pacing up and down the aisles, filling up water here and there. When I was fully conscious again, there was only an hour of the flight remaining. I decided to get up and stretch my legs. Steve was still nowhere in site.
I stumbled out of my seat, back sore from the hard, economy seats and glanced back at the “Lavatory” sign. It was vacant. I made my way in and stared at my skin above the mirror, tired from the travel.
I nearly bumped into a flight attendant on my way out, startling her as I opened the door.
“Excuse me,” I said. “The guy next to me, do you know where he went?”
“No…” she said, confusedly. “Sitting next to you?”
“Yeah, Steve. Sitting next to me over there, earlier.” I extended my finger towards my seat, the row of which still remained empty. Just then, the plane started to shake, and the “seatbelt sign” illuminated, accompanied with a small yet terror-inducing ding.
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know. But you’ll need to go back to your seat. As you can see the pilot has turned on the seatbelt sign.”
Fuck. Turbulence. I marched quickly back to my seat and fastened my seatbelt. Steve was nowhere in site. Surely, with the turbulence knocking us around, he’d come back. Right?
But he didn’t.
I saw that the small black bag he had carried on was now gone. After the air got smoother and the seatbelt sign turned off, I called over a flight attendant. It was not the same woman I spoke to after leaving the bathroom. She approached me with a smile.
And this is where things got really bizarre.
“Some coffee or tea for you, sir?” She said.
“I actually was just wondering if anyone has seen my friend? The gentleman who was sitting next to me?”
“Who was sitting next to you?”
I tried to describe Steve as best I could. What he was wearing, what he was carrying. I described his perfect English, and even the small flecks of gray in his hair.
She smiled. “I didn’t see anyone sitting next to you, sir.”
“Well, he’s been gone for about 4 hours now,” I said. “Did someone change seats? He’s not in the bathroom or anything.”
“That seat is vacant sir. We didn’t have anyone assigned next to you.”
“Impossible, he said he was assigned to me.”
After a little more back and forth with the attendant, I asked for some water. I tried to rationalize with myself. Maybe Steve, realizing how nervous I was in the airport, lied about his seat assignment so I wouldn’t have a panic attack. After all, if he hadn’t guided me through the flight, reassuring me of my safety along the way, I’d have been sick.
I waited at the terminal and watched the passengers on my flight make their way out into the vastness of the Seoul airport. I waited until the crew had exited the plane and the airport employees closed the door. I was completely dumbfounded. Surely I wasn’t drunk enough on the flight to have imagined the whole thing. As I stared confusedly at that terminal door for what seemed like hours, I finally called it a day and pulled my tired body to a cab.
As I lay awake one night in my hotel, trying to focus on the upcoming presentations I’d need to do for work the next day, my mind wandered to Steve. How did this man seemingly vanish from a sealed metallic tube? Steve Suk, I thought to myself. The name that appeared on his ticket stuck out in my mind. I said it out loud.
I flipped open my iPhone and googled his name, and as long as I live I’ll never forget the feeling of pure astonishment that coursed through my veins in that hotel in Seoul. The first result was a headline that read:
“Rudder failure blamed in KoreanWing crash that killed 157.”
It was the same crash that I remembered seeing on the news when I was young. The fatal flight with no survivors. The captain on duty during the flight? Captain Steven Suk.
My mind flashed back to the plane. The mysterious Steve I had talked to had said, “I must comfort 157 people a month” about airplane safety. 157 lives lost. A crazy coincidence? Maybe. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t make me believe in something otherworldly.
For as long as I can remember after that trip, I delved into researching the life of Steven Suk. I learned he had been a pilot for most of his life, following in the footsteps of his father. When he wasn’t flying, he even taught some classes on flight anxiety and how to overcome it. I can’t help but wonder if that night over the Pacific, I was one of his students.
I ended up nailing my presentation for work. So much so that when I returned to the United States, I was given an immediate promotion that included a hefty pay raise. He had made sure I knew that I would be returning to Korea several times, which I did. The last time, I even brought my wife with me. She was in utter shock at how calm and relaxed I was. I’m pretty certain Captain Suk was watching me from somewhere, making sure I was alright.
I Met A Mysterious Stranger On An International Flight, But Then He Disappeared Halfway Through The Trip