Kerrian’s Notebook, p. 31 “Is the plane on fire?”



Something was burning.


We were 30,000 feet above the ground, having left the airport less than thirty minutes before, and I could smell an electrical burn. I couldn’t see any flames near me, but the air was hazy near the ceiling.


My eyes started to water. I called the flight attendant, trying not to jump out of my seatbelt. Her changing expression registered her alarm as she came closer, her eyes darting in every direction. I asked about the smell and the smoke and mentioned that I was a cop. She went to the nearest phone to notify the cockpit. More call buttons lit up.


Four minutes later, the pilot announced that the crew had done some preliminary checking and he had called the control tower for instructions. The decision delivered over the loudspeaker? Return to the airport.


The head flight attendant spent a few minutes going over crash procedures, this time in greater detail than at the beginning of the flight. When the plane lurched during descent, even her eyes widened. I just tightened my white-knuckle grip on the armrests.


The approach seemed quicker than I had ever remembered. As we closed in on the airport, we could see that fire trucks and other safety equipment waited for us on the tarmac, well away from the gate. Two firefighters boarded and searched the rear of the cabin. My seatmate watched the baggage compartment being opened beneath us. Was it a bomb that was doing a slow meltdown? Why weren’t they getting us off the plane?


It took another fifteen minutes for them to figure out that pollen had been caught in the air circulation system and was burning.


Burning pollen? Turns out that the southeast is home to pine forests, which each spring explode pine pollen into the air. Some years there is so much pollen in the airport area that massive yellowish-green clouds of it blow through the sky, thereby spreading the pine forest love to neighboring counties. And sometimes, those clouds are so tall that they interfere with ascending aircraft. The pilot eventually told us that we had been the second plane to turn back that day.*


The plane was rolled to the gate, we disembarked and waited for the pollen to be flushed out. Hours later, we re-boarded, everybody praying that we were taking off between the green clouds this time.  If hitting a cloud of pollen can disable a large aircraft, no wonder Greene had to turn back in the Beechcraft Bonanza during the hurricane in Jamaica in “One Sweet Motion.” I think he was nuts to take off in the first place, but that’s just me.



*Kerrian is a fictional character, but the burning pollen incident happened to Patti in real-life – in the spring of 2010.



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6 thoughts on “Kerrian’s Notebook, p. 31 “Is the plane on fire?””

  1. How truly fascinating to learn about the burning pollen incident. Have encountered several very strange and memorable events while flying but this one is certainly new to me. Mother Nature can really be frightening. I can imagine how scary this would be especially in post 911 days and after shoe bomber and underpants wantabe bomber have been imprinted in our thoughts as our possible flight companions…unfortunately.

    1. Patti Phillips

      That thought did cross our collective minds, since we did not find out the cause until after we sat on the runway for awhile. The pilot and attendants were quite professional and did what they could to keep everyone calm after the haze of smoke started circulating through the cabin.

  2. I was holding my breath as I read this, Patti!

    My husband is a pilot and, when we had our own plane, we had 2 scary situations, one when our engine began to fall apart mid-air. Neil limped us to the nearest airport. We were roiling smoke. The other occurred in poor visual conditions. He was distracted by me (I was throwing up – air sickness is a problem) in the co-pilot seat and the plane’s instruments were not functioning correctly. We went into a spin, nose down just a couple of hundred feet above the runway. They tell us there’s no way we could have survived that. We dropped right off the radar, but Neil cut the engines and the tail of the plane dropped. We leveled off with no damage to the plane or us. I can just imagine how you AND Kerrian felt when you smelled the burning!

    1. Patti Phillips

      Sue, all I can say is, “WOW!!!” I think your close calls were more dramatic than mine. Going into a tailspin or having the engine fall apart would make me swear off flying for a verrrry long time.

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