I have a recurrent dream in which I am flying over a large body of turquoise water. The air is balmy, the water is deep, transparent, welcoming. Just as I am about to plunge, I wake up.
I have been flying every since I was a little girl, back when propeller planes where the norm and the word security evoked a mother’s embrace, a glass of warm milk and the certainty that all was well with the world.
All is not well with the world today, yet I continue to fly because as we all know, or should know, flying is the safest mode of transportation per passenger mile. Yes, that is how statisticians calculate our chances of making it or not making it at the end of the run. But we do make it and we do repeat our performance year after year, holiday after holiday, conference after conference or as the whim strikes us.
But flying is not what it used to be. In many ways it is much better, smoother, safer. In other ways, the thrill has become mundane, the aggravations that precede a flight a trifle annoying, not to say distasteful, the rewards taken for granted. But that is not the airplane’s fault, but our own. We have become jaded with flying, with what was Da Vinci’s greatest dream and the stuff of which myth and legend are made. Garuda , half-man and half eagle, carried the wisdom of the Vedas on his wings to inspire generations of Hindus in their search for the truth. Icarus suffered a meltdown when he flew away from Crete and carelessly got too close to the sun. Quetzalcoatl, half-serpent, half-bird, flew away from his Aztec home only to sail back centuries later in the guise of a bearded Spaniard.
My own experiences with flying are more modest, but no less visceral for that. When I was a little girl, my parents had a little cabin in the mountains to which we retreated over the long winter break from school in Mexico City. To get there, we had to take the milk plane, or more accurately, the chicken plane, for I remember the hens cackling in their cages at the back of the small plane. People gave little thought to what we now call security concerns, but Mexico in the late forties was in the throes of a foot-and-mouth epidemic that threatened to decimate the livestock of the country and its economy as well. In order to prevent the spread of disease, passengers had to wipe their feet on a sawdust trough soaked in disinfectant before boarding the plane. I tripped and fell flat on my face. A kindly airhostess, for that is what female flight attendants were called in those days, picked me up, carried me to the plane, took me to the lavatory and wiped my face and dress clean. I don’t remember my body having hurt, but I still remember the injury to my pride.
Flying became an exciting adventure when our whole family went to India in 1949. My Indian-born father had been invited on a long-term agricultural mission and we were to fly after him. First we rode a bus from Mexico City to New York, which took several days and several nights. It is all a blur in my mind. Then we flew from New York to Europe, via Gander, Scotland and Belgium. In Gander we stopped to refuel. It was winter and the trek from the plane to the small terminal was rather longish. I had never seen snow in my life, so I scooped some in my bare hands and was surprised by the way it stuck to my palms making them bleed. After living in Canada for thirty-two years I now know better and wear nothing but mittens in different thermal grades.
At some point in our week-long trip we flew over Istanbul, but for some reason, did not land there. I still remember the sight of a brightly-lit crescent moon coasting dark waters. It looked like a diamond necklace, a fitting sight for passengers riding in a Super Constellation. Many years later in Canada during the eighties I would get to see an old Super Constellation converted into a pesticide-spraying plane for agricultural use. That was a far cry from a plane that had proper beds in first class and lavatories with several stalls and washbasins surrounded by ample counters. But it looks like the beds at least are making a comeback.
In 1965 I had to fly from New Delhi to Mexico City via Italy. This was my first experience with jet planes and with the fear of remaining stranded in the middle of nowhere without the proper documentation or sufficient money in your pocket. After an overnight stay in Rome I headed back to the airport in the airline bus (yes, in those days the airlines would provide transportation from their downtown office to the airport free of charge) where I discovered I had been bumped off due to overbooking. The term didn’t exist then, but the concept was beginning to creep into airline culture. My desperate tears, my obvious lack of money and the fact that the next connecting flight was one week away softened the heart of the airline employee who upgraded me to first class where I was treated to champagne.
In the sixty-odd years that I have been flying as a passenger, I have had many adventures, all of which ended very well. During a flight to India over the Middle East the pilot said: “Oops, we have to move over, the military say we are encroaching on their airspace”. I was not paying attention to the announcement because I was busy snapping a photograph of a plane flying over our right wing as if wishing to give it a friendly nudge. We had just been intercepted!
During my first flight to the Soviet Union in the late seventies the plane took off from Mirabel Airport in Montreal as if it were a fighter jet, straight up. I was later told that any Aeroflot aircraft, while civilian, could be quickly stripped of its seats to become a fighter jet in no time, and that commercial pilots were actually military pilots in mufti. I do not know whether this was true or not, but I found the flight thrilling.
During a recent flight from Montreal to Chicago, our small feeder airline plane suddenly dipped its left wing, dived towards lake Michigan and then quickly recovered its altitude and righted its course again. I heard a few muffled cries from the passengers, one of which might have been my own. But it was nothing. Or rather, it was something, something to be thankful for: our deft pilot had just managed to stop us from getting sucked into the wake of a large jet. Such close calls are the effects of decreased vertical and horizontal separation between planes, which in plain language translates into crowded skies. But not to worry, highly sophisticated equipment and an ever-vigilant satellite navigation system make sure that planes do not collide. Not often, anyway.
On another flight from Chicago to Montreal, bad weather forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights throughout the United States and Canada but I managed to get the last plane out of O’Hare. Climbing out of that heavy snowfall felt like trying to surface through whipped cream but when we cleared the weather system, we were rewarded with the sight of an unbroken circular rainbow made up of several rings. Apparently all rainbows are complete circles but we are seldom high enough in the skies to see the complete picture. Yes, Dorothy, it is indeed possible to fly over the rainbow… .
Such sublime experiences, however, don’t have to be the result of bad weather. I once took a short sightseeing flight along the Himalayan range out of Katmandu airport. As soon as we were seated, the pilot warned us not to get up when we neared the range to have a better look since the passengers seated on the wrong side would get a good view on the return leg. When the snow-capped mountains appeared in all their glory most passengers disregarded the captain’s instructions and almost tilted the small plane to one side. Perhaps because I had behaved myself and remained seated I was rewarded with an invitation to the cockpit to get a better look. Perhaps. I can now understand why so many people have risked their lives and some of them lost it, just to get a glimpse of Mount Everest radiantly facing the sun.
Talking about cockpits, have you ever eaten an ice-cream cone while sitting on the jump seat watching the plane moving along the centerline of the tarmac? I have, courtesy of the airline that had bumped me off, and very rightly so, for having arrived late. But they let me ride in the cockpit so I wouldn’t miss my business appointment the following morning. Unfortunately, by the time we left Malaga and reached Madrid, I had no more ice-cream left.
Flying in a chopper is, pardon the pun, a choppy experience, especially if the craft is hovering over Niagara Falls. There you feel as if the cataracts are sucking your innards out of your body. Stomach-churning is the only description that comes to mind. But hey, who wouldn’t pay this price to see the Falls away from their tacky surroundings! On another helicopter ride I was surprised to see the snow that still lingered on the crest of Whistler Mountains even in summer.
Gliding is what I imagine heaven feels like. The sight of a Quebec pasture with tiny cows while you are sitting in the cockpit of a glider is an almost mystical experience. After you get over the initial shock of disengaging from the motorized plane that tows you up, and the sensation of having your umbilical cord abruptly cut off, you are ready to enjoy absolute silence and stillness. And the landing is as easy and as gentle as that of a timid paper plane landing on the teacher’s desk.
Flying in a balloon is similar to gliding, but with a touch of elegant retro glamour. I did not get to fly over the Loire Valley in France, but did experience the luminosity of the Arizona desert at sunrise. Our pilot miscalculated and made us land on a golf-course which annoyed the golfers but a good-will toast from our stash of mimosas mollified their irritation.
Flying as a passenger is one thing. Piloting your own plane is another. After going to ground school for weeks trying to understand the physics of flying, the mechanics of the cockpit and the vagaries of the weather, I took one glorious thirty-minute flying lesson out of St. Hubert Airport on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River. I taxied on the runway until the instructor ordered “take-off!”. I understood it was now or never, so I did just that. I took a deep breath and took off. Just like that. Once in the air, the plane started bucking like a skittish horse. I tried to hand over the controls to the instructor who ignored my pleas and told me it was quite normal on account of the breeze. He then instructed me to turn around a low hill and to return to the airport where he would land the plane for me. While we were up there he asked me to admire the scenery which I was too terrified to do. The following morning, when I woke up stiff and aching, I understood that the instructor had been merely trying to get me to relax. I have not taken any more flying lessons because you have to drive to get to the airport and I am afraid of driving.
I have been talking about the joys of flying but have not mentioned airports. Airports are a necessary evil. They have become cities onto themselves with their own shops, places of worship, clinics, hotels, streets, plazas, food-courts and even jails. Yes, there are mini jails in some airports where the customs and immigration authorities have the power to detain unruly passengers or stop undesirable people from stepping onto foreign soil. They are then handed over to the proper authorities. But that is a well-guarded secret. Forget I said anything.
Once while waiting for our plane to depart from Amsterdam on our way to New Delhi, I asked a novice flight attendant why our flight was delayed. He explained that a couple of passengers were missing. I asked him whether he had tried the Casino (yes, there is a Casino and even a museum at Schiphol Airport). He answered he hadn’t had a chance. What I had meant to say was that the passengers were most probably delayed there! When the flight attendant saw me fiddling with my eyeglasses because a screw had fallen off its hinges, he volunteered the Captain’s services to fix it. “Does he have the necessary tools?” I asked. “His cockpit is fully equipped” he told me proudly.
So while modern airline crew members might not wipe the muddy face of a weeping child you can be sure they will certainly fix her eyeglasses sixty years down the road. That is a comforting thought.
Yet I would rather dream of flying over a large body of turquoise water than actually have to endure the vicissitudes of post 9/11 travel. Really.
“Hello, did you just say that there is a special on flights to the Caribbean? Get me two tickets please!”