At Cruising Altitude

Poem by Patricia Behrens

Build comfort and put wings on it.

—Douglas Aircraft engineer


McDonnell Douglas built the DC-10,

a comfortable aircraft,

but one with safety problems

almost from the first.

When Turkish Airlines Flight 981

just out of Paris, lost a cargo door

explosive decompression

collapsed the floor, severed

the hydraulics, left

the wide-bodied jet, 346 on board,

helpless as a shot bird.


The impact of the crash shattered

the mossy quiet of Ermenonville Forest,

cut a half-mile swath

through its ferns and pines,

left body parts and plane debris

hanging from branches.


It might have been foreseen:

two years before,

Captain Bryce McCormack

on route to LaGuardia

lost his DC-10’s cargo door

over Windsor, Ontario.

The resulting floor collapse

dropped two crew to the cargo hold

crushed the control wires

to the hydraulics

and the No. 2 engine and left

Captain McCormick unable to steer,

except by alternating the power

of his remaining Pratt & Whitney

turbo thrust engines

as if he were feathering a canoe—

until he reached and skidded off

a Detroit runway in a controlled

crash everyone survived.

While returning to Detroit,

Captain McCormick, a thoughtful man,

came on the intercom to say

American Airlines personnel

would be available on the ground

to assist passengers with

alternative flight arrangements.


I remembered that announcement

on a Boeing 707, comfortable

in business class, seats smelling

like leather, orange juice at hand,

flying to Chicago to help defend

The New York Times in a libel

case about a review of two books

critical of McDonnell Douglas.

I had just began to work, when

the captain came on the intercom

to say we had experienced

a loss of power in our No. 2 engine

and as a precaution

he had shut down the No. 2 engine

and as a further precaution

we would be landing shortly

in Cleveland.


He told us not to worry,

the 707 could fly with two engines

and we still had three.

As the plane descended quietly

toward  Cleveland,

conversation stilled,

I trusted that God was too serious

for the irony a crash would be,

thought it likely we would land safely

between the fire trucks lining the runway

for our arrival.


When an airline captain retires

fire engines swing onto the tarmac

for his last incoming flight.

They send up plumes of water

from their hoses, douse the plane,

while passengers watch water streaming

down their windows, as if to celebrate

what the fire engines never had to do,


as if to celebrate that in all his flights, so close

to the sun, the airplane never has caught fire.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 36, Number 1