THE BLOG
10/29/2011 10:22 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2011

Pan Am Days: A Near Miss At JFK

The nose of the TWA 707 was speeding straight toward the cockpit as our DC 8 taxied to the Pan Am terminal. Terrified, I gripped the navigator's seat.

It was 1966. I was a stewardess for Pan Am and I had been curious to witness a landing at JFK. "Can I sit at your controls?" I had asked the navigator as we began our approach.

"Sure," he said, graciously offering me his place. I was feeling safe and secure beneath his seat belt when I saw the nose of a gigantic jet coming at us.

The Captain and co-pilot were silent. Suddenly the Captain swerved and the TWA plane pulled up and over our us. The other pilot had lifted his jet off just in time. The Pan Am pilots wore blank expressions. Silence. The roar of the jet engines.

I was trembling, but I didn't know what had happened. No words had been exchanged. I did not have time to ask questions and wouldn't have anyway: The cover up was already in progress. The Captain opened the door to the cabin.

All the baggage from the overhead rack was in the aisle. It had been impossible for the passengers to see what had happened in front of the plane. They were laughing.

"Did you make that landing?" a woman asked me. She was smiling.

"Not quite," I said, smiling and mimicking the pilots who walked out of the cockpit with big grins, not speaking to each other.

I never asked the pilots about this incident because I felt it would have been inappropriate. This was none of my business. They had to protect the passengers from panic and also Pan Am's reputation. Then there was the FAA who would have terminated them and me for having been in the cockpit during a landing. Verboten.

This sort of thing happened at JFK more frequently than passengers knew.

Landing at the airport in New Delhi was also dangerous. There were enormous birds that perched on the runway and flew into jet engines during takeoff. We had to land there to refuel on the Tehran-New Delhi-Bangkok leg of a trip through Asia. The most horrific experience during my stewardess days was being in the cockpit during a monsoon over India. I had just taken coffee to the pilots (they were always drinking coffee) and we were experiencing a great deal of turbulence.

Lightning was visible outside our windows and the plane was shaking which brought about a terrible clattering sound from our galleys while baggage was being spewed around the cabin. Concerned for our safety, I asked the Captain, "What happens if lightning strikes the plane?"

He chuckled, then replied: "We go down."

The danger of the skies did not quench my thirst for adventure and I flew on. No regrets.

Sign up for our email.
Find out how much you really know about the state of the nation.