Thursday, December 9, 2010

Panic on Flight 513

The whole pre-board process seemed as if it were meant to prepare us for an unusual, B-movie experience.  First we waited for someone to appear at the single podium check-in counter.  Fifteen minutes before our scheduled departure two, rain-drenched, very young-looking pilots arrived.  The older one, who was at least 17, pulled a crumpled sheet of paper out of his pocket and read off 7 names, giving us a personally autographed boarding pass that he cut from a page using scissors he pulled from another pocket.  He told us to clear security and gather at gate 7.  I wondered, as we were being patted down and our bags searched, whether the very serious-looking, uniformed security personnel had a sense of humour and would crack a smile if I said, "Do you really think I am going to hijack a twin-engined Navajo with a nail file?"  Given past experience, I thought better of it and made my way to gate 7 in the corner of the cattle call boarding area where the same two pilots were waiting.  They took our "boarding passes" and walked us out into the rainy night.

The 8 passenger Navajo Chieftain stood strangely out of place, as if double parked and hoping not to be noticed in the shadowy corner 150 yards away from the Victoria International Airport terminal. Although only 5 p.m., it was dark, raining hard and windy, and worse was expected. The waterproof coat I had grabbed from home that morning passed the drenching test as I tipped my hooded head into the storm for the too long sprint to the plane. Unfortunately, my dress shoes were quickly soaked in the unavoidable puddles that covered the tarmac. Seven of us struggled through the rear hatch door, wet and anxious to settle into the hard seats in the narrow-bodied craft.
Two pilots?  For such a small plane?  After we climbed in, one pilot squeezed by us, while the other tried, several times, to close the hatch we had just come through.  Finally, he succeeded, or so it seemed, as he quit slamming the thin metal door into the frame. "Would it stay shut?" I wondered.  As he made his way up to the "cockpit" (which I could reach into from my second row seat), he gave the damp passengers the "safety briefing".  He explained that there were two exits, one via the hatch door he had just closed, and one by my right elbow.  Despite the fact that we would be over water the whole flight I do not recall him mentioning where the life vests were kept.  I began to ask, but thought better of it.  It would sound ever so wimpy and the three women in front of me were stone silent and clearly fearful.  Given the weather conditions life vests were probably not the highest priority.  The pilot craned his neck around, looking at us in the dark of the "economy class cabin" as he attempted to start up the twin engines one at a time.  He reminded us to ensure our seat belts were securely fastened as we were going to encounter "a little turbulence" on the 20 minute flight.  The motors roared after the third attempt and the pilot gunned the throttle as if to say, "See, they work just fine, even in a storm."

As we pulled onto the runway the storm brewing outside was juxtaposed by the silence inside.  There was a quietness that only fear could fill.  The female passengers who had been chattering incessantly as we went through security, appeared to be holding their breath and could not seem to get a word out.  Strange as it was, I welcomed the "ceasefire".   Even before we picked up speed enough to launch off the runway the wind was lifting the small plane off the ground.  Finally, with a burst of power, and the help of a heavier than expected gust, we were airborne.

Immediately we experienced what the pilot meant by "a little turbulence".  The term "bumpy" was also inadequate, unless you classify riding a mechanical bull at full torque "bumpy".  Anatomically I had always wondered how one's stomach could find its way into one's throat, but it surely did, and took up residence there for longer than I was expecting.  The ride made the Space Mountain at Disneyland seem like a pedal car going over a few speed bumps.  Airplanes, especially the smaller variety, can turn on any axis, and I can now verify that in a gusty wind-driven rainstorm they do.

For some reason, as I stared out the window at lights below that pitched and bobbed as if caught in a raging sea, I thought that this flight was like my life.  For some time I rode serenely along as if on a supersonic wide-bodied jet, high above the shifting air masses, smiling all the while.  But a few years ago I boarded a flight, booked without my choosing, that mimics the mishaps of Wiley Coyote.  Some days I grit my teeth and ask myself, "Can this get any worse?"  And, of course, it can and sometimes does.  But the flight does not end there.

As the plane touched down at the Abbotsford Airport I heard the passengers collectively exhale.  Striding towards the terminal as quickly as I could to hide the 'Parkinson's disease plus adrenaline' amplified tremours, I smiled.  Behind me the women jabbered so loudly I could barely hear the Navajo as it taxied to find its well-deserved resting place.  Another day of adventure.  When life gets "bumpy", hang on!


  1. Here I am at 2:30 am (Kingston time getting a good bellylaugh. I asked if you had read Max Lucado. I have to ask him if he reads you!! Very clever and most insightful.

  2. Bob - try to find a copy of the "Mrs Grace L Ferguson and Stormdoor Airline" sketch by Bob Newhart. You will not be disappointed! Jon

  3. Bob I sure enjoyed this - you may have just finished off any who have a fear of flying but then again you did get home safely. :)

  4. My brother owned an airport and when they opened a new section, they had stunt flyers come out and give a show. Unluckily my husband and I were asked to escort one of them, not knowing that we would end up going upside down and rolling, rolling, rolling. I didn't board a plane again for many years!!