Thursday, June 10, 2010

Plane Crazy Part II

And a fine day to you, Kind Reader.

Some grief comes from traveling with my fellow Newfoundlanders who generally like to avoid air travel at all costs.  When forced to fly they often appraise the aircraft with a level of skepticism exhibited only by "The Amazing Randi" when asked to test drive a flying carpet.  And, in some ways, I think they're justified.

The second to last time I flew into Deer Lake it was pretty intense.  It was a Dash-8 again and we were thrown around a lot coming in for a landing.  There were quite a few audible exclamations and the guy sitting next to me acted as if he were listening to some irresistible jig, the heel of his foot beating out a continuous ode to terror.

My experience on the way back was particularly odd, but this time it had nothing to do with the weather.   The plane was filled with teenagers escorted by teachers, bringing to mind such cozy relationships as Kate Austen and Edward Mars on "LOST". Anyhoo, I just assumed that they were part of some team, class or band. 

I'm window-seat bound towards the front of the plane next to a short-haired kid with his head down.  I stood there in the aisle for a bit waiting for him to acknowledge my presence.  I really need for him to move in order for me to sit down.  I shuffle around obviously.  Nothing.  I tried clearing my throat. Zip.  I grazed him slightly with my coat.  Zilch.      

Eventually I blurt out: "Uh, excuse me, but I think I'm supposed to be sitting by the window."  He mutters "Yeah, okay" but doesn't budge, forcing me to pull a Tyler Durden and either give him the crotch or the ass.  I leerily opted for the former if only because this allowed me an incrementally precious amount of additional clearance.

Not two seconds after being seated he asked me: "So, you're sitting here, are you?" and I thought to myself: 'Hmmm, odd question.  I thought we'd covered that already.'  I managed a  grateful-sounding "Yeah, thanks" and then struggled to shoe-horn my bag under the seat in front of me. The bag ended up on top of what I thought were drum sticks until I realize it's a collapsible cane.  So, he wasn't being a rude prick after all!  He's blind!  Well, color me an asshole! 

I finally get a good look at him.  He resembled a youthful combination of Henry Rollins and "Sling Blade".  His  eyes were clearly atrophied.  Before the plane took off the flight attendant came over to address him personally.  His slightly-to-the-left-of-center responses made me wonder if there wasn't a less obvious issue he was struggling with. The guy across the aisle began chatting with him but soon stopped when the kid starts reaming off "Rain Man"-like stats about aircraft makes and models.  "Mr. Friendly" gets a bit freaked out by this and spent the rest of the flight watching me try and contend with him with growing amusement.    

Mercifully we got airborne without a hitch.  I tried to feign sleep but since he couldn't see my terrible performance, he started lobbing questions at me.  At first his comments were restricted to observations about how "smooth" the flight was, to the point where he seemed to be in a state of nirvana. 

I soon got the impression that he'd been through some rough flights before on aircraft like Dash-8's and was likely relieved by the relative stability of the small jet we're on. I initially agree with him about his dubious appraisals of the Dash-8's but inadvertently piss him off later when he asked my opinion of "power saws".  I told him that I didn't know very much about "power saws", not realizing until later that this was his nickname for Dash-8's based entirely on the noise that they make (please see Part I).

As I'm trying to puzzle out his cryptic references, he's reaming off aircraft model numbers, asking if I've ever flown on any of them.  I tried to explain that I'd been on a lot of different planes but never remember their names, (gosh darn it!)   While all this is happening people seated within earshot are staring at me, waiting for me to give an answer that might cause him to snap and beat me to death with his folding lunch tray. I thank the powers that be for the complete absence of turbulence since I think that would have set him off. 

All the while he seems on the verge of tears of happiness because the flight is so "smooth".  The stewardess came by several times just to make sure he's alright but apparently she had no idea that I even existed. Things took a decidedly more surreal turn when he started talking about a flight he took out west.  He starts name-dropping "celebrities" that were on the same flight, none of whom I recognize. 

Before I can reply he asks me if I have kids.  Before I can answer he tells me that his dog just died.  Before I can offer sympathies he tells me he's going to Halifax for a "co-op".  Before I can get an elaboration he asks me to speculate as to what sound his cat would likely make if it were here on the plane with us.  Before I can give my best "See N' Say" aircraft-trapped cat yowl he begins to panic because the stewardess (who's name and the name of all of her sister he can recall in a flash) doesn't return in a timely manner to pick up his drink glass.

I try another Oscar-worthy stab at sleep-fakery.  It half-works and the awkward Q&A ceased for a bit. 

I almost feel envy for the poor guy when the landing gear came down and there was no indication of solid ground below us due to the heavy fog.  I fact, I didn't even know we we're landing until the runway appeared out of nowhere ten feet below us. He grilled me with questions about the sound the landing gear made and the time it will take for us to nuzzle up to the terminal.  I felt like mashing the call attendant button and telling the stewardess "Hey! You're trained for this, you talk him through it!" 

Even after the entire plane had nearly cleared out he was still sitting there, making no effort whatsoever to get up.  Now, I'm not asking him to get off the plane by himself, just stand up and let me leave.  When I told him I was coming through all he did was shift his legs back incrementally.  I wedged my way past (ass option this time) and fled from the increasingly claustrophobic quarters with relief.

Now I've avoided flying home for Christmas the last two years since weather played major havoc with my last trip back to Halifax three years ago.  At that time I was diverted to St. John's and my luggage went M.I.A. for nine days.  This disaster made up my mind that I'd visit my folks back home in Newfoundland only during the summer months since the weather should be considerably better. "Should be" being the operative words there.   

Taking a flight at 4:30 kinda sucks since you tend to hang around all day feeling anxious.  There was little obvious reason for this on my last flight back from Deer Lake to Halifax since it was a beautiful day, weather wise, in Deer Lake.  We showed up a good hour before our flight was slated to leave and breezed through the nigh-deserted airport's prerequisite steps for departure.  We achieve gate-proximity within a few minutes (not much of a challenge since all five gates at the Deer Lake airport are within twenty meters of one other) and took a seat by the window to watch our plane come in.

As we began to board in earnest, my considerably more significant other noticed that her distinctive aqua-blue suitcase had been taken off the plane and was now back on the baggage cart. As I handed my boarding pass to the gatekeeper I asked him what's the deal was with the bag and he replied:

"Well, the weather in Halifax is really bad with heavy fog and electrical storms.  We may have to take on extra fuel. If we do that, we have to compensate by bumping some bags."

Before I could formulate the appropriate rebuttal he plowed on with a perfectly-groomed customer-service honed spiel:

"If your bag doesn't arrive at your final destination just fill out a missing claim form at the other end.  We have another flight going out to Halifax this evening.  Your bag will be on that flight for sure, and we'll delivered right to your door, free off charge."  

"The last time that happened it took nine days for our suitcases to arrive!" I said, managing to finally managing to wedge in a protest.

"Oh no, that won't happen this time," the gatekeeper assured us while waving us through.  "Now if you'll just step on board we'll be underway shortly."

We walked out to the plane, wistfully looking at our bag sitting forlorn on the cart like Lassie.  For some reason the troubling cause for it being left behind was distant in our thoughts.  But, lo and behold, we got some good news not long after.  We were seated close enough to the (mercifully doored) cockpit to hear the captain tell the ground crew to put the rest of the luggage back on the plane.  We cheered our small victory as the now-empty baggage cart pulled away.   

The flight itself was textbook.  To borrow a descriptor from an old buddy of mine, I'd even call it "smooth". We got lurched around a bit going up but soon the seat belt sign was off, and I was contentedly listening to Black Sabbath and reading "Pillars of the Earth" while being served juice and flax corn chips.

We made great time and soon heard the announcement that we'll be landing in twenty minutes.  We stowed our gear, strapped in and felt the distinctive sensation of descent as the landing gear popped.  Nonplussed by the total lack of visibility below us and the flare of lightning in the distance, the good old Dash-8 began a bumpy plunge deeper into the pea-soup fog bank.    

The cabin suddenly went very dark.  An uncomfortable amount of time passed without seeing tarmac lights and feeling that distinctive, cathartic sensation of touchdown.  The bounce started to get worse and my already-skittish fellow Newfoundlanders began to murmur oaths of surprise and divine requests for deliverance.

Then, all of a sudden, the plane lurched into a power climb like a Japanese Zero that had reconsidered the whole "kamikaze" plan at the last second.  We climbed and climbed for what seems like an eternity and the "powersaws" sounded as if they were straining to get us back up to cruising altitude.  The landing gear was pulled back into the belly of the plane like rubber and steel testicles. 

This was not good.  I'd never experienced anything like this before.  Eventually the captain of the plane came on the P.A. system and explained that the unusually thick fog and strong cross-winds (only in the Maritimes, folks) were preventing us from landing in Halifax at that time.  We were now en route to an alternate airport to land, refuel and wait for further instructions. 

And what was that alternate airport, you ask? Not Moncton or Charlottetown, which would likely have only been about a half-hour away.  That would make sense!    We we're headed to Stephenville.

Now I was privy to some inside knowledge that many of my other passengers weren't aware of.  Namely:
  1. Stephenville, being virtually closed, likely had limited to non-existent air traffic control, runway and terminal staff.
  2. All the excess baggage was put back on board instead of taking on extra fuel.   
On the morose trip back I'm left to ponder the absurdity of all this.  As I explained in Part I of this tale, service to Stephenville has been progressively scaled back over the years with the more distant and less-resourceful Deer Lake airport taking up the slack.  That means that to go home and come back I can no longer directly fly in and out of Stephenville where my parents actually live.  Nooooo, they have to shlep two hours to Deer Lake to pick my ass up and drive me back out there to go home. Yet now Stephenville's airport was suddenly good enough to pull our collective asses out of the fire?

I waited and waited for the captain to switch off the seat belt sign but it didn't happen.  This wasn't good at all.  I'd promised my acorn-sized bladder, which started to pester me for attention as early as mid-flight, that we'd be on the ground soon, sparing us both a trip to the bathroom.  I knew the Dash-8 washrooms made the "Little Ease" cell in the Tower of London look like a tennis court but now I was a-burstin' and knew there was no choice.

The eyes of our strapped-in Diane Wiest lookalike stewardess finally betrayed a promise of emotion as I unhooked my buckle and popped out of my seat.

"Is there any way I can use the washroom?  I really thought we'd be on the ground by now!"

The sleeping pill in a uniform told me me: "Well, the seat belt sign is on so you shouldn't even be up..."

I heave a sigh and began to crawl back to my seat, predicting an eventuality wherein my fellow travelers will soon become very uncomfortable with my presence on the same aircraft they're on.

"Wait!" she says, picking up on my consternation.  "I can't force you to go back to your seat.  I just have to give you a formal warning."

I spun on my heels and rushed past her.

"Thank you!  Thank you! I won't take long," I enthused, blatantly lying through my teeth.

Now folks, I won't go into the gory details here but when the 'ole bladderino reaches a certain capacity it takes a certain amount of, shall we say, patient coaxing to complete the venting process.  This is difficult enough under the best of circumstances let alone whilst being bounced around in a broom closet after being told that standing upright right now is technically illegal.

I eventually squeeze out my ballast and beetle my way back to my seat, thanking the flight attendant liberally as I pass by.  Her facial expression makes me consider the possibility that someone force-fed her a lemon while I was sequestered in the "Chamber of Pee and Fear".        

My harrowing experience is so bad that I'm even leery to except free beer which the stewardess begins to provide for our inconvenience.  Undaunted by my horrifying example, some of my fellow travelers begin the marination process in earnest, perhaps hoping that they won't feel anything when our fuel-deprived plane eventually crashes in a veil of fog. 

I get a chance to see something I haven't seen since my university days: a landing at Stephenville airport.  The conditions are crystal clear and despite some turbulence our pitch is well accomplished.  Mercifully the co-pilot allows us to use cell phones to inform loved ones about delays and then lets us roam free-range out on the tarmac to stretch our legs. Of course, I take this as a rare photo opportunity:

Eventually the uber-cool co-pilot re-appears, pouring over a handful of important-looking documents.  He even allows people without phones to use his own cell to get in touch with family members.  The dude gets major props for being so understanding and keeping us informed about what's going on. 

Eventually we're herded back aboard the plane.  Everybody takes the opportunity to use the washroom before we take off and soon the aroma between the Urine Coffin and the cabin proper is indistinguishable.

We're soon told via an announcement that we're going to try Halifax again.  If that doesn't work we're off to Moncton, than, if neccessary, back to Stephenville (!).

The flight back was pretty tense. I preoccupied myself by losing twenty-six straight games of Solitaire on my iPod. The free beer continued to flow but the unknowns in our immediate future made me gun shy.  Others didn't share my trepidations and by the end of it I'm sure some of my fellow passengers are so pickled even their dental records would have burned up at point of impact.             

The hour-long flight felt like it took a week.  The seat belt sign stayed on for the entire flight and it was considerably more bumpy that second time out. Eventually we heard the announcement that we'd be landing soon but nothing we see gives any indication that this attempt will result in a different result. 

It's was very dark out, the fog seemed preternaturally thick and the winds kicked the crap out of us as we descended. This time, however, the landing gear came down and strip lights appeared from out of nowhere.  I'm surprised there wasn't a round of applause as we touched down ever so gently.  I reckon that this probably had lot to do with the fact that for a lot of my fellow travelers this was only just the first leg of an increasingly long journey.

When the plane door cracked open the half-dozen people seated in front of us jumped up anxiously.  A woman standing right in front of us instinctively surged ahead, forcing the stewardess to ask for patience. 

"She's just afraid yer gonna take off again!" one of the more inebriated passengers shouted, giving incarnation to all of our collective thoughts  

Inside the terminal at the baggage carousel our suitcases made an unexpected but welcome quick appearance.  I'm was grateful that after a brief cab ride we'd soon be home. It's was close to 10 pm by the time we landed.  Our flight had left at 4:30 and we should have been in Halifax only an hour later.

Was I pissed off?  Not really.  Certainly not nearly as upset as many people who were on that plane.  It wasn't Air Canada's fault that the weather was shite.  Frankly, I think they made the right call.

Remember back in April when beloved Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a plane crash?  Well, the flight recorders recently revealed that the pilots decided to land in heavy fog despite multiple warnings from air traffic controllers about poor visibility.

As I said in Part I, I fly not because I like it but because it allows me to see places in this world that are not easily reached as well as spend extra time with loved ones instead of wasting time in travel.  To cope with this I've developed a Zen-like philosophy about air travel: Always be a leaf in a river.  Use this as your mantra next time as you check bags, clear security and make your way to your next gate. 

I promise you, you'll have more piece of mind and it'll make your journey infinitely more tolerable. 




Chad said...

Ahh the Dash-8, "The Quite One" - check out this episode of ze frank ( for more great Dash awesomness!

Hey and just because your weekly game group guy (who works for the airline) dosn't pick up on your air travel plans - don't forget, he can get you a small discount when you fly ;)

David Pretty said...

Great link, Sir. I love it when Europeans name things ironically. Oh, and thanks for the kind offer as well!