At about 25,000 feet, right after the oxygen masks popped out, the plane banked sharply to the left. Then came that familiar, strong, calm, soothing "nuthin'-to-worry -about-folks-we- have-this-little- problem-with- the-plane" drawl to tell us we were turning back.
The drawl belonged to Donald D. Engen, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The plane belonged to the FAA.
The "little problem" turned out to be mainly a hole in a duct in the cabin pressurization system. But we didn't learn that until later, much later. In the meantime, we sat staring at yellow oxygen masks dangling overhead.
"Do you suppose we should put these on?" asked Jon Seymour, a Transportation Department official, as he peered down the aisle to see if Engen and his two crew mates had put on theirs. They hadn't. We didn't.
"Don't worry, everything is safe," came that reassuring drawl.
When he travels, Engen usually flies the FAA's white four-engine Lockheed Jetstar. And he said, in the name of safety, we would turn back.
The trip was to be a pleasant one -- a two-day jaunt across the continent to attend a dedication ceremony for a bigger, better, faster computer installed at the Seattle Air Route Traffic Control Center. On the way back, we were to stop in Memphis so Engen could pass out some controller-of-the-year awards.
The trip, one of Engen's last before he retires from the FAA next month, also offered him a temporary respite from the daily pummeling he has taken about aviation safety. But even on this, it seemed he couldn't win. There he was, somewhere over West Virginia, flying an FAA plane, maintained by FAA mechanics, with a mechanical problem and a reporter on board. Not exactly a great combination, to take the FAA point of view.
While Engen and his crew tried to fix the problem, we in the back feigned light conversation. Engen's wife, Mary, seemed the most relaxed. This was nothing, she said, you should have been there the time when . . . but the rest of her words were lost in the drone of the engines, and by then, it didn't really matter what exactly had happened that other time.
Chit-chat gave way eventually to increasingly bleak humor as the plane descended and we began to hear strange crackling sounds, which turned out to be a malfunctioning "water separator" that dehumidifies the air before it is taken into the plane.
"Maybe it's ice hitting the fuselage," someone said.
"Maybe it's bolts," said someone else.
Ha, ha, we laughed in that weak sort of way that people do when they realize they have no control over what may happen to them next.
We landed. Engen, looking perplexed, emerged from the cockpit and said the computer, the radio and the trim, which has something to do with the auto pilot, weren't working either.
The mechanics rolled out the tool box.
We retired to the lounge to await a verdict and share a few flying stories. Engen's were the best. He was a Navy bomber pilot who sank a Japanese ship in World War II. He told us about that, and also about the time he was flying, as a test pilot, upside down out in California in a red plywood airplane when the engine quit.
"I was just about to experience how plywood reacts to concrete on long exposure and the engine caught again," he said. "I never did that again."
An hour later, the tool box was rolled away, and we took off again, with Seattle five hours away.
Twenty minutes out, the same little problem again, and we went back. The plane went into the shop. We will try to get to Memphis today.
"Of course, this trip is all off the record," joked Steve Hayes, the FAA spokesman.