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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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!