… And Breathe Normally

As a frequent airline traveller, Im probably not alone in admitting to less-than-rapt attention to the safety demonstration at the start of each flight I’ve probably seen it repeated enough to be able to recite it by heart (even though Qantas is now at pains to remind us that each aircraft is ‘subtly different‘, so we should sit up and listen this time). Thankfully, I’ve never needed to refer to it or the handy information cards in the seat pocket in front of me (even though some of the illustrations on those things are great fun to make fun of “Hey, that escape slide looks like gangs of fun”). If I know anything useful from those demonstrations, its that youre not supposed to take luggage or high-heels on the flight so be careful if youre going to try that near me, buster. Ill have to use my whistle to attract someones attention.
Id always wondered whether the oxygen masks actually drop as simply and gracefully as they do on the videos. During our flight from New York to London as part of Ainslies and Davids Excellent Adventure, I had my question answered.
The plane was quiet and dark, halfway through the 10 hour flight. We, and many others were soundly asleep. Then, Several Things Happened At Once. The cabin lights blinked on, an alarm sounded, and the oxygen masks descended from the roof. I squinted and blinked at the dangling contraptions for a few seconds as did my fellow passengers and shrugged. Ooo-kay. This is like in that video. A tinny voice was telling that the cabin was depressurising, to put the masks on, and that the plane was descending to a lower altitude to restore cabin pressure. Oooo-kay.
Our masks didn’t look like the ones on the video; they were sort of tangled up; so I hopped up to disentangle the masks and sort them out for Ainslie and the person next to her. Problem: they weren’t working. That became a cause for concern for a few other people, who were trying different ones and yanking the masks harder everyone knows you pull down on the tab to make the oxygen flow. Flow! Damn you! Fit! Then, things seemed to make less and less sense. We weren’t descending, there was no loss of pressure, there was no turbulence. All that had happened was a few masks had dropped, and an alarm. I wouldn’t have registered that the masks were there, if not for the message on the loudspeaker and the glaring lights.
I braced myself for a chorus of people starting to get a little panicked by this development, but it was oddly calm. I think most people were as groggy as I was from being awaken from the Great Grey Slumber of the Jetlagged.
A few seconds later, a slightly-rattled voice came over the speakers Uh as some people may have realised, this alert is a false alarm. We’re sorry, but there seems to be a malfunction on the flight deck there is no emergency – you heard a recorded announcement, which starts automatically when the oxygen masks drop. You may have realised that the masks do not have any oxygen in them. Please dont worry about the masks this is a false alarm.
Muffled groaning ensued.
I think it was only the space of a minute or so between the masks dropping and the final ‘false alert’ message, but its amazing the amount of stuff that flies through your brain in that time. Perhaps least significantly: “Hey theres enough elastic on this thing to fit a pretty big head.” That, and the wonderfully useful advice they always give you to put the mask on – in the midst of crisis and ‘breath normally’. Ooooo-kay.
The trip continued for a further several hours, with the masks unable to be retracted, dangling in our faces like yellow Post-it Notes of Doom. I still don’t know exactly what happened, apart from the something going wrong defense of the flight crew, but I do recall overhearing a medical problem being discussed while I was half-asleep before the incident and quite soon after the masks dropping, a man was led to his seat with a personal breathing apparatus. Im assuming that when someone muttered the phrase “oxygen mask” someone stabbed at the wrong button on the flight deck. Id like to assume it was human error and not technical malfunction.
But, on the bright side, I now have some practical experience with airplane oxygen masks, and without having to go through all the nasty bumping and crashing that normally accompanies that experience.
Still, nothing like an oxygen mask scare to leave you short of breath.

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