The 35 minute flight that took 11 hours!

When my partner Sophia, my sister Martine and I headed to Manchester Airport, after attending my Aunt Tilly’s funeral in nearby Saddleworth, we were aware that Storm Isha had already hit Ireland and was making its way towards us. Our flight – Ryanair FR555 – was due to be touching down in Dublin at the peak of the storm. Online aviation wisdom also pronounced that the wind direction was less than ideal for landing at Dublin, so we sat at the gate half expecting to hear that the flight had been cancelled. We were glued to the Dublin Airport website, and already the cancellations were being announced thick and fast. But at more or less the expected time, our gate opened. We queued up to scan our boarding passes and trooped down the steps to form a line, waiting to be let onto the tarmac to board the plane. We waited. For a long time, nothing happened. Then a Ryanair staff member appeared behind us and called us back. The gate had been changed. As we trooped from gate 48 to gate 52, the mournful strains of ‘Que sera, sera’ rose from somewhere in our group, played on a mouth organ. The clap that went up when the tune came to an end set the tone for what was to follow. Impressed by the impromptu performance and its warm reception’s, I posted a quick TikTok . It was to be the first post of many that day.

FR555 was due to take off at 1.25 in the afternoon, but it was shortly after 3pm, instead, when the full flight soared into the Manchester sky, turned and made a beeline for the Irish capital. There was some turbulence as we rose through the clouds and, over the intercom, we were advised to keep our seatbelts fastened, as Storm Isha promised a bumpy ride. The flight had been 34 minutes on the way over so, even with strong headwinds, we didn’t expect it to be much more. I bought a coffee. Neither Sophia nor Martine bothered, not expecting to have time to drink it.

Travelling across the Irish Sea was quite uneventful. I imagine that the pilot had taken us above the worst of the weather. It was as we began to descend towards Dublin, though, that it all changed. Dropping into the clouds was like canoeing down a river and suddenly hitting the rapids. We were tossed left, right, up and down. And it seemed to go on much longer than any other approach to Dublin that I’d witnessed. This, it turns out, is because we weren’t approaching Dublin. We were in a holding pattern, doing circle after circle over the Irish Sea. From time to time we could see the surface of the water far below. It was a turmoil of white capped, angry waves. We also spotted other aircraft, locked in the same carousel as us as we queued for clearance to make a landing attempt. It was more than an hour later that we were told to buckle up, put our seats in the upright position and prepare for landing. The approach was along the flight path I’m most familiar with – Howth Head to the port side and Portmarnock’s Silver Strand to the starboard. As we crossed the coastline, Sophia stared down to see if she could spot her car, parked at my sister’s house in Portmarnock.

“We’re very high,” she noted. I didn’t reply. We were being tossed about like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. I’d forgotten that, as a kid, I used to get car sick. I remembered at that moment – because the feeling was back. I was sweating and nauseous.

The plane had gone suddenly very quiet. The tension was palpable. Dublin Airport lay beneath us with its grounded planes like children’s toys around the terminals. There was a series of particularly violent shudders, and then a roar of engines being revved higher as the pilot aborted the landing attempt. The buildings, planes and runways grew smaller and were gone as the clouds swallowed us up.

The announcement that we were returning to Manchester was greeted with a groan. The announcement, a moment later, that Manchester was full of diverted craft and that we’d have to head for East Midlands instead was met by a bigger groan. But when the intercom announcement, some moments later, revealed that all UK airports were now closed to us and that we’d have to make for Paris, the reception was a lot more positive. I suppose that, like me, people were thinking of baguettes with ripe brie cheese and glasses of Bordeaux. The reality was to be far from that. Paris turned out to entail five hours, sitting on the plane on the tarmac of Beauvais, some miles from the French capital.

Touchdown at that airport was a fairly straightforward affair, and there was a general sense of relief. As I expect is often the case when strangers share in a trauma, social barriers broke down and passengers began chatting with other passengers around them. The consensus seemed to be that Ryanair would have to put us up in an hotel, even if the bad weather wasn’t their fault. When the seatbelt sign went off, I jumped up and opened the overhead lockers to get our bags. But it soon became apparent that we were going nowhere fast. Finally an announcement came. The pilot was in a queue with the pilots of other diverted planes to find out what he was expected to do. The possibility was that we’d be heading back into Storm Isha to have another go at landing in Dublin. It was a sobering thought. One thing seemed certain, we were going to be sitting on that plane for a while yet. I switched on my phone and found that my TikTok from Manchester Airport had been noticed by quite a number of people. I decided to give followers an update. Before long, messages were flooding in from TikTokkers, reporting on the weather back home and, pretty much unanimously, advising us to stay where we were. One woman identified the Manchester mouth organ player as her father-in-law’s brother Joe. Another TikTokker told me that a group of family members were among my fellow passengers and then I got a direct message. A young woman informed me that her boyfriend was on the flight and that his phone battery had died. She was looking for updates. She had given her full name so I mentioned it to those immediately around me. To my astonishment a young man in the row behind me, on the other side of the aisle identified himself as the boyfriend. As I gave him my phone to message his girlfriend, I felt like Nokia – connecting people.

The news finally came that we were going to make a second attempt at getting home. Passengers were told that they could stay in Paris if they wished, but that there were no flights out until the next Wednesday and that those who abandoned ship would be doing so under their own steam with no come back from Ryanair. They were also told that if they were going they’d need to go promptly because we’d be battening down hatches and sitting in a state of readiness so that if we got a departure slot we’d be able to grab it and get airborne. At least three passengers took the option of leaving and, of course, their bags had to be offloaded.

Throughout the five hours on the tarmac of Beauvais Airport, an infant, a few rows behind, was bawling, unable to understand what was going on. I felt so sorry for the parents. The crew – who had been on the go since 4am – were little better informed than the rest of us and probably twice as exhausted, but they soldiered on with great professionalism. They had stopped serving alchohol and hot foods or drinks, but there was bottled water and some chocolate bars for sale – though they disappeared rapidly.

We finally got the word that we’d been cleared for take off. By this stage I had a significant number of people following the saga via my TikToks. I explained that we were heading for Dublin again and, I informed them, if we failed to land we would be diverted to Cologne.

The flight back to Dublin was a sombre affair. We were all tired and apprehensive. We knew we had one shot at getting home or we’d be in Germany in the middle of the night. The pilot announced that the winds, while still strong at Dublin Airport, had shifted to a more favourable direction. The glimmer of hope grew brighter.

I won’t forget that final approach. This time there was no holding pattern. The pilot headed straight in. Again, as we dropped into the clouds we were tossed about, and at the same place as the first attempt abort, the engines surged once more. But this time it was just a readjustment for an air pocket we’d hit. The plane continued its descent. The ground rushed up to meet us and there, twinkling in a line of blue lights, was the runway.

“Go on!” Sophia shouted.

The call was picked up by the rest of the passengers until, in a Fr Ted-like chorus, we were all yelling “Go on!” to the pilot. He did. The plane touched down with a lurch and careened crazily on the runway for a moment before settling into a long, relief-filled taxi to the waiting terminal, to the applause and cheers of us all. As we trudged wearily through Dublin Airport, we saw sleeping, stranded passengers draped on every chair and bench. These were the ones that didn’t get home. I felt fortunate.

I was in bed after 2am and fell into a dreamless, exhausted sleep – only to be snatched out of it shortly after six by a ‘bing’ on my phone. It was a journalist, requesting an interview about the trip to Dublin that ended in Paris. That was the first of many interviews I did that day for television, radio and newspapers. The TikTok updates had caught the popular imagination. I was really moved by the messages of support that I read the following day. Many people had followed the saga on Flight Radar and had stayed up until they knew we were home safe. One woman wrote of how her children followed our progress and begged her to drive them to Dublin Airport in the middle of Storm Isha so they could watch us land.

I’ve always enjoyed TikTok as a platform, but after this experience I feel such support from that social media community. I’m very grateful.

Declan 🙂

#FR555 #StormIsha #TikTok #diverted

Some of the media reports:

BBC News Report

Manchester Evening News

The Telegraph


iNews (second article)

BBC (second article)

LadBible (featured but couldn’t identify me)

Daily Mail

RTE News

RTE Radio