Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride

I love eventless flying.  Just simply transferring from point A to point B. And at times further to point C and D and E.  The more I have to fly, the more I want it to be…well, just plain travel, with no trials or tribulations to spice up the journey. You know, when everyone is there on time, including the flight crew, and the plane actually leaves the gate at about the promised time. When the taxi way is not crowded with 15 planes to take off before ours, and no last-minute thunderstorm makes us return to the gate, wait 3 hours and then get cancelled. Go nowhere. I mean, I love it when it all works. Plain and simple. And most often, luckily, that’s just what it is. But those of us, who need to travel places or have to commute to work by plane (that’s a different story), know that sooner or later we’re going to experience some bumps on the road, not necessarily on the way to the airport. Like many of us, I have my list of memorable flights from the most amazing to the scariest. This story is about a few of them. I’ll start from the scariest end of the spectrum to put some perspective on the fact that over 99% of my flights have been there in the middle somewhere, eventless and effective in taking me from here to there, and that we’re talking about the less than 1%. Airplanes My scariest flight was on a calm Friday night when I was going from Washington D.C. to Europe on vacation on a major European airline. We left Dulles almost on time. I sat in coach towards the back of the plane, happy to finally be on my way. We were ascending, already close to our cruising altitude, when suddenly a loud explosion shook the plane. Since I sat in the back of the 747, I immediately saw what was happening. One of the four engines was on fire. It was already dark and the fire lit up the air and the whole left side of the plane. People closest to the window started screaming and crying. Close to panic. I saw the flames and could hear them too, but somehow I just remained completely calm. Don’t ask me why or how, but in my gut I just knew nothing terrible was going to happen. Not my time. I started calming the young couple next to me. Said everything would be fine. After a little while, the fire was extinguished. And shortly after that the captain announced that we now had three engines. And while we technically could fly on those three, he didn’t think it was a good idea. I’m sure most of us agreed, I did. So we would go to JFK after dumping enough fuel to be able to land safely. We circled for quite a while and then went down for an emergency landing.

Airplane engine fire
Airplane engine fire

The welcome committee was definitely there. We could see two rows of emergency vehicles lined up next to the runway, lights flashing. No other traffic coming or going. We were the only ones around in the air. And of course it all went pretty well, considering the other options. Four hours later about half of us boarded another plane, lots of space now, and had a completely eventless flight to London. Little shaken and probably listening to the engine sounds little more attentively, most of us didn’t get much sleep. The connecting flight to my final destination was peacefully eventless and I slept the whole two hours. My bumpiest flight was on a beautiful, breezy summer day from Joburg, South Africa to Lesotho’s capital Maseru on one of the two planes of that small country’s airline. I’m told this flight is almost never completely smooth due to the mountainous geography and wind conditions, but my flight was rough. From start to end. It was like being in a shaker, up and down, from side to side, constantly without a break. Many of us got to get familiar with the little white bag in the seat pocket. And had it continued for another 15 minutes, I would’ve too. I was pale and unsteady on my feet for hours after the jumpy landing. And very happy to be on solid ground.

My luggage tags from the Air Lesotho flight
My luggage tags from the Air Lesotho flight

My most spectacular flight was from Harare to Nairobi on a reputable African airline. It was a brilliant sunny day and the ride was smooth. After about half an hour into the flight the first officer announced that the flight would be about twenty minutes longer. We had to go around a large storm front. Look to your right and you will see it, he said. And we did! I sat at the right window and saw the spectacular sight. The cloud was formed like a cylinder.  I could see its shape from  the side, its “bottom” and its ”top” as we slowly circled its left side. The most spectacular light show I had ever seen was in progress inside the cylinder. Thousands of lightning strikes in many colors were going in all directions simultaneously, blinking and coloring the different parts of the cloud – bright, white, purple, yellow, red, pink and blue. All of us on the right side of the plane were transfixed on the display, with our heads pressed against the window. That was a stunning spectacle high in the sky!

Thunder cloud in the sky
Thunder cloud in the sky

My most surprising flight was in Europe on a small charter airline, which is no longer in operation. It was the week before Christmas and I was in a hurry to get home after a long business trip to four countries. I was driven to the airport in Skopje, Macedonia by a nice driver from our office. He asked where he would drop me off, what airline I was taking. I told him. He was quiet for a moment and I thought he was doing the cross sign before speaking.  No one flies on that airline. Are you sure? I looked at my ticket and said I was, and asked him why was that. He pretended not to hear my question and quietly dropped me off wishing me a safe trip. Walking into the plane I started to feel I would soon find out. I was entering a very old Tupolev, probably retired from Aeroflot several years earlier. All signs were in Russian and I could observe the old age of the plane everywhere. The ceiling and the inside panels were repaired God knows how many times, and the vinyl covered seats were torn and really worn out. I could see some of the screws and nails sticking out. Were they loose? The cockpit door was open but no sight of the pilots. Unmanned aircraft? Oh, there was one male steward in the plane. I didn’t run away…simply because the only way to get home was to catch my flight from Zürich that same afternoon. I sat down and quietly studied the Russian signs.

An old Tupolev aircraft
An old Tupolev aircraft

Around the departure time the pilot appeared. A pilot, not in plural. He was a short older man with long white hair reaching to his shoulders. He wore jeans and a bomber jacket. He swiftly sat down in the captain’s seat and revved up the engines. The cockpit was dimly lit, lights blinking. I could see it all from my second row aisle seat, all the way to Zürich. At take off, I scrutinized the insides. Everything was vibrating, shaking and making noise. But up we came. The guy in the bomber jacket knew what he was doing, had done it many years, that was obvious. The trip progressed absolutely fine and the steward served coffee. Finally we started descending. I looked out and saw huge snow flakes flying hard against the side window, full snow storm. Now what? I had hardly finished that thought when the plane dove steeply…seemed like for several minutes. I held onto my chair. And then the old Tupolev planed again… and we had landed!  Soft and smooth. Walking out at Zürich airport I looked at the monitors and saw that all other traffic had been rerouted elsewhere due to the severe snow storm. I had been on the only flight that had landed! And the only one to land in the next hour or so. The old fighter pilot had done the trick and I’m sure it was not his first time. I caught my flight home, many others didn’t. There are many other memorable flights, such as my air safaris or my trips on the super jumbo, A380, but I have to end my story by telling you about my most luxurious flight. Just because there are pleasant surprises as well.  This was a fairly recent flight from Switzerland to the States on a well-known European airline. I was coming home after three days of 24/7 work in Europe and was happily surprised to have been upgraded to First. I could use some rest. When I entered the first class lounge, the Associate asked me to give her my boarding pass and my immigration documents. Now go sit down and enjoy the food, we’ll get you when it’s time to board, she said. Ok, I did as told and enjoyed the modern, stylish environment and sampled the lighter fare among the great food offerings.

First class cabin on AF Airbus 380
First class cabin on AF Airbus 380

I got a bit concerned when I noticed that the time was 20 minutes before departure, knowing that the formalities on US-bound flights were extensive. Had they forgotten me? So I went to ask. She smiled, not yet time, go back and relax. More strong coffee and then, about 10 minutes before the departure time, she came for me. With her was a younger woman dressed in a yellow airport outfit with V. I. P. printed in black letters across the back of her coat. She took my carry-on, follow me, she said. And we walked a short while, not towards the boarding area, but to an elevator that took us directly down to the tarmac! A black Mercedes was waiting outside the elevator doors. My carry-on was lifted into the trunk, I got my documents and the door was opened for me. The car took off and…stopped at the plane. I was taken through small stairs directly to the jetway next to the airplane door and further to my seat, or rather to my suite. Bon voyage! And so it was! I watched films from my private library on the 24″ TV and enjoyed the exquisite food…and drink, I must admit. When I got tired, a comfortable bed was made for me and my privacy screen was deployed. Sweat dreams…. On one out of 100 flights, it’s good to be pampered, to feel like they appreciate your business. I hope you agree.

In the air
In the air

So we continue to take the shortest route to our destinations despite the occasional trials and tribulations… like an old Finnish saying goes “By flying you would be there already”. Safe travels, sit back and enjoy the ride!

14 thoughts on “Sit Back and Enjoy the Ride”

  1. You have had quite a few adventures tiny. I would love to fly that first class thing just once. 🙂 I have been in a storm one time flying from Wisconsin to Mississippi. Everyone was getting sick and scared but me! I thought it was exciting. But then I love storms and be in one on a smaller plane is rather exciting. haha! I’m glad though that you have always made it home safe and sound.

    1. Thanks Jackie! You would have enjoyed the old Tupolev trip with the white-haired older gentleman in the snow storm…! You and I should go on a round trip when we are old, like 80 or so 🙂

  2. Flying is awesome! I used to take a lot of short flights on small aircraft and have some hair-raising stories…but the fact is I’m still here too. To twist the old saying: any flight you walk away from is a good flight.
    This is a bit of a change for you–I’ve gotten used to shorter posts. But this is great :>)

    1. Thanks Maurice. I started writing longer posts…then they became shorter and shorter…down to 17 syllable haiku’s…now more mixed, or shall I say, multifaceted? And yes, flying is awesome – in suitable instalments…

  3. Awesome flight memories! Although I worked for our national air line called Finnair, I did not have during nearly 40 years such experiences as You told. My memories are such that they are intended to be told face to face.

    1. Thanks! You worked for Finnair, that explains it 🙂 I had one quite memorable flight with them too – coming from Jyvaskyla to Helsinki on a very small plane in a fierce snow storm late one evening and “diving” down on Vantaa airport without any incident…he must have been a former fighter pilot 🙂

  4. There is something big about you tiny. In my short lifespan I’ve flown a bit and had a few interesting flights myself. I will share one here which was the most memorable. The events that surrounded this trip where much scarier then the flight itself since our newborn daughter had been flown to SLC before we ever even boarded our flight which left St. George, Utah in the wee hours of the early morning. The plane we boarded was maybe at 10 sitter with two pilots. Once we boarded it was explained that our pilot was fairly new but the co-pilot let us know that he was himself a seasoned pilot with many years experience. I remember looking around at the other passengers to get their reactions and most of them looked like all they wanted to do was get back to sleep for the several hour flight we had in front of us. But me I had a different thought running through my head. I’m going to keep an eye on this, I guess it was my untrusting nature that kept me awake, as much as I was also concerned about our daughter who now was lying in a hospital without us at her side. Well we did get off the ground safely, thank God. At this point I tried to resolve in my mind that everything was going to be just fine, and indeed it was until we made our first landing in the little town of Cedar City. I don’t think I will ever forget this landing as it is forever imbedded into my memory. Everything looked for the landing and the pilot seemed to know what he was doing. But as soon as the plane touched down the plane immediately pointed itself in a 45 degree angle. Immediately I knew we were all going to die, and if it hadn’t been for co-pilot I don’t think I’d be writing this comment. The whole thing felt like a lifetime and at the same it all happened in a split second. I don’t know what he did but the co-pilot acted so swiftly I couldn’t see exactly what he did but the plane straightened out and my story ends with the understanding that co-pilots really do have a purpose. To finish the story we did get to SLC and our daughter did survive.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing one of your memorable stories! I am very happy it all ended well! Still today, I can’t tell why or how I knew that the blazing engine fire on my scariest flight would not bring us down. Maybe we all have a sixth sense?

      1. Agreed, I was in a Earthquake in Southern Utah some years ago. The event occurred in the early morning hours similar to my plane encounter. There was a sudden jolt and I felt my bed lift off the floor, that sixth sense spoke to me and well I just went back to sleep. Somehow I knew it was over as soon as it started. The funny part was about 20 minutes later my ex-wife called in a panic worried that there might be a bigger one coming. Still half asleep I told her to go back to bed and not worry. She thought I was crazy but after a little coaching she settled down. The Earthquake was reported at around a 4.3 with minimal damage. The odd part of all of it was where the damage took place usually the worst damage is at the epicenter but this quake the most damage took place miles from that.

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