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.