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Wed February 13, 2013
Plane Crash Survivor Heads For One Of The World's Most Dangerous Airports
This past Christmas I flew to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to visit my family. The last time I had been to Tegucigalpa was in 2002, so I boarded the plane with conflicting emotions -- excitement about seeing my family and fear about the flight.
In 2004, I survived a plane crash. For years I could not board a plane without first taking a handful of Xanax and then disassociating. After years of working with a therapist who specializes in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have arrived at the point where I can fly without the aid of chemicals or mind-body trickery.
The flight was uneventful. I passed the time by listening to my iPod and reading until the captain announced our descent. The plane made a sudden drop in altitude, followed by a hard bank to the left and another drop in altitude. Passengers gasped and cried out.
These were the exact same sensations and sounds I had experienced during the plane crash. All the progress I had made in therapy vanished. I immediately disassociated, so the next thing I remember is the cheers and applause from the passengers as soon as the plane's wheels touched down on the runway. The plane jerked forward as the pilot slammed on the brakes and we decelerated rapidly and abruptly.
Once I had cleared customs, my cousin, Sergio, greeted me by the exit and drove me to my aunt's house, where all my cousins and their spouses and children were gathered to welcome me as I shared in their Saturday afternoon tradition, the family lunch. As I stuffed pork into my mouth, Sergio looked at me with a mischievous look, cracked a grin, and asked, "How was your flight?"
I immediately had the sense I was about to be let in on some secret as I replied, "The landing was terrifying."
"Yeah. We decided not to tell you that Toncontín airport has been ranked as the second most dangerous airport in the world. We figured you might not come if we did."
It turns out the airport is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains, so the pilots have to skim over the tops of the mountains and then corkscrew inside their perimeter in order to descend (click here for a video). This is then followed by a sharp, 45-degree turn to align with a runway that is only 7,000 feet, which means the pilot has to touch down precisely at the edge and immediately slam on the brakes to ensure the plane does not overshoot it.
Suddenly the severe drops in altitude, hard-banking turns, and rapid deceleration upon landing made sense. That night I processed all this new information and made a decision. Next year I am going back to Tegucigalpa, and this time I am going to look out the window as we land, so my body can understand what my mind now knows -- just because the plane makes a significant drop in altitude, banks hard, and passengers scream, it does not mean it is going to crash -- and it does not mean I am at risk of dying.
Xoaquima Díaz is an adjunct professor of English at Miami Dade College, Wolfson. This article is an excerpt from a memoir she is writing about the aftermath of surviving a plane crash. More of her writing can be seen at her website, xoaquimadiaz.com.