My strangest experience occurred midflight on a trip across the Atlantic. I was still in college, heading to Europe to study abroad. Because the other program participants were scattered all over the country, each of us had booked our own flights and travelled separately. I didn’t know a soul onboard.
This particular trip was only the second or third flight I’d ever taken in my life, and it was the first time I’d flown at night. Out the window, the lights of New York were fading into the distance, and the vast blackness of the ocean stretched out in the other direction. We hadn’t yet reached our cruising altitude when the captain came over the loudspeaker. He wanted to let us know that we were about to go through a rough patch of weather and might experience some turbulence.
Just as the captain finished his warning, brilliant light flashed on the left side of the plane, followed immediately by a loud crack. The cabin lights dimmed for what could not have been more than a second, but felt like an eternity. I could almost feel the understanding pass over my fellow passengers: we had been struck by lightning.
The really bizarre part was what happened next—nothing. Total stillness.
Absolute quiet. No one cried out. There was no commotion. Preternatural calm filled the cabin. How many people were on that flight? Two hundred? And no one made a sound. It was completely surreal. I’d like to think that it was a kind of communal acceptance of our collective fate, but probably it was just that fear had reached up and grabbed us all by the throat. Either way, we were all connected to some sort of universal, primal emotion in that instant.
The silence was finally broken when the captain came back on over the loudspeaker to confirm, quite casually, that we had, in fact, been struck by lightning. He then talked for a few minutes about how that sort of thing happens all the time, how planes have backup systems for their backup systems, and how we were never in any danger. I’m sure we weren’t. We didn’t plummet into the ocean. After an otherwise unremarkable flight, we arrived safely at our destination. But I’ll never forget that moment, that quiet moment.
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