I Was On a Flight Once And . . .

The Age of Jet Travel offers many stories about life, stress, and human nature.

Posted Jan 21, 2019

 commons.wikimedia
Source: Public Domain: commons.wikimedia

My time in the sky, floating along in a metal tube (which still baffles me as to how something that heavy can stay aloft and go that fast) has covered nearly 50 years. I have flown north and south and east and west across our country for business, vacations, weddings, funerals, meetings, and surprise birthday parties. I have sat in tiny planes (that I was convinced were not going to make it across the runway, let alone several states), huge planes, and every size in between. My dad, who still flies for business and pleasure a lot more than I ever have or ever will, flew on the Concord once, when it was the fastest way across the Atlantic to Europe.

I was on a flight once and:

Hurricane Gordon interfered with my trip from Orlando back to San Diego. Driving to the airport to turn in my rental car I noticed that it was raining horizontally, a weather phenomenon I have not seen before or since. I’m no meteorologist, but isn’t rain supposed to fall down and not across? I thought, “There’s no way we’re flying out in this. They will certainly postpone or cancel this flight, right?” No. The admirable pilot got on the PA before we took off and said, “I will guarantee to make this flight as safe and as smooth as possible. And he did and we survived the excursion.

The man sitting next to me in First Class was a drinker. He had a drinker’s veiny nose, a drinker’s beet-red face, and the smell of alcohol upon his person even before we took off. This made me assume he had had a few pops in the airport bar before we left New York. Due to snowy weather and lack of de-icing machines, our plane was stuck on the tarmac for about two hours. To keep everybody happy, the flight attendants served cocktails, and my seatmate wanted plenty and he got them. By the time we took off he was fully loaded and snoring away. About an hour into the flight to the west coast, they served us dinner, which he polished off with four glasses of wine and an after-dinner cognac. I think he had chicken for dinner because over the Rockies the flight got turbulent and he barfed it all up and over me and my suit and my computer. He sat in a puddle of puke for the rest of the flight and I sat in the last row in a middle seat in Coach because I couldn’t stand the smell. I wrote a strong letter to the airline, complaining that the Flight Attendants had overserved him too many adult beverages, but I never got a reply.

I watched three sets of men (of course) get into real and actual fistfights in one travel day. Two guys bumped into each other getting off my plane, as they both tried to get through the jetway at the same time. Their bumps led to cursing, and then a mutual punchout at the gate. Fifteen minutes later, two other guys from my same flight bumped into each other as they both reached for their suitcases at Baggage Claim and that started Fight #2. And about 30 minutes after that, I watched another guy from my same flight get into a punchup with the driver of the rental car shuttle, who had his own opinions about not helping his future ex-customer load his luggage into the van.

When I was a kid, my parents would put me in a little suit and tie, or at least some version of my Sunday best. Travel was thought to be special and glamorous and you had better dress for the event. Now sweats and Nike shower shoes, bare feet and yoga pants, seem to be the rule.

I sat next to a young guy on a flight to Seattle who only wore his swim trunks. He had no shirt, no shoes, and dyed-blue hair. It was night time and during the winter. I did not see where he wandered off to after we landed. That flight also featured an aborted takeoff. We raced down the runway and just before it was time to get airborne, the pilot slammed on the brakes, and we skidded to a sideways stop next to the fence. He announced that one of the doors wasn’t closed all the way, something I thought they probably might have checked before we pulled all the way on to the tarmac, but no.

At 13 or 14, I was on a now-defunct airline, flying alone from LA to Baltimore to see my grandparents and the plane was struck by lightning. I will never forget the horrible sound, the violent shaking, and the smell of burnt ozone.

I was on the short flight from San Diego to LAX to catch the lighting-hit-my-plane flight, and I flew on a tiny plane that was so small I could see from my seat directly into the cockpit, which had no door. During the 20-minute flight, some type of red warning light kept flashing on and off on the pilots’ instrument panel. I could see them talking about what to do. One of them read a manual, and after much head-scratching about the meaning of the red light, they solved the issue by putting a piece of black tape over it.

I thought we were going to crash only once, leaving the airport in Lake Tahoe on a windy day. It seemed to me that the pilots had no control of their MD-80 (two seats on one side and three seats on the other). We bucked and fell, rose and plummeted, and the wings flapped from side to side so that it felt like we were actually sitting sideways in our seats. The airport there is bowl-shaped and surrounded by trees. I was convinced we did not have enough engine power to get over the mountains. On that flight, even the Flight Attendants were wide-eyed. After what seemed like 15 harrowing moments, we skimmed over the treeline and made our way to San Jose. I was airsick and queasy for two days.

I flew from San Diego to Sacramento on one day and then Sacramento to Ontario the next. This was during the usual October period in California where the Santa Ana windstorms created 50 miles per hour gusts at both airports. For both flights, the pilots said, “I’m going to ask our Flight Attendants to keep their seats for the duration of our flight.” This is never a good thing to hear and it was less than fun to ride out those two.

Going into Cancun through Tropical Storm Whatever His/Her Name Was caused the usual unpleasant bumpiness. One week later, the return home was the smoothest flight I have ever taken. I literally didn’t realize we had taken off or noticed when we landed and for the whole five-hour flight the plane did not move one inch up or down with even the smallest hint of turbulence.

Going into Canada on a small regional jet, I leaped out of my seat when the pilot said we could see the Northern lights of the Aurora Borealis on the other side of the plane. In my haste to look out the window in the dark cabin, I smacked my head on the bulkhead hard enough to see my own set of stars for the next few days.

A lady in First Class next to me in Minneapolis complained vigorously to the Flight Attendant that, “It was ridiculous that he didn’t have a corkscrew on the plane” to open the wine bottles. This was about a week after 9-1-1, when airlines were still a little touchy about sharp objects in the cabin. Her level of selfishness and lack of empathy for the memory of nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the (airplane-based) terror attacks was stunning.

I sat next to actress Ann Hathaway (who looked at me like I was a serial killer when I said I enjoyed her movies). I sat near Joe Montana, William H. Macy, and even a young Bill Gates (who wore a hoodie the whole flight and flat sprinted off the plane with his security detail when we landed). Every time I’ve flown on a plane with a minor or major celebrity, I always think of the usual joke that if the plane crashes their name will be in 64-point type as a headline and mine will be on page A-24, in 10-point type at the bottom of the passenger fatality list. (Or at least I might come up first on that back page list because my last name starts with A.)

I have been on flights that included marriage proposals, first flights for both young and old passengers, young service members making a return home from combat, and senior citizen veterans making one more trip to their former battlefields, cemeteries to visit old comrades, or reunion flights to connect with their pals.

I've sat in planes back in the day where the Smoking Section was on the left aisle and the "Non-Smoking" section (hah!) was on the right aisle.

I often flew on the awesome and now-gone L-1011 "widebody" planes, which offered two seats, then an aisle, then five seats, then another aisle. If I was lucky enough to be on a cross-country flight and the plane was not crowded, I would fold up the armrests and sleep across the five-seat section, under a comfy blanket, in peace.

Once I flew from San Diego to Houston on the last flight of the night and the first flight out the next morning, just to keep my frequent flier status. I had my toothbrush in one pocket and a pair of clean underwear and socks in another. I borrowed some toothpaste from the hotel that night. On that flight, it was a bit bumpy riding through the typical Texas thunderstorms. After one particularly big fall through the sky, the woman next to me (who told me she didn’t fly very much) grabbed my forearm and squeezed it hard enough with her fingernails to draw blood. I didn’t mind it at the time, as I hoped it helped her cope with the turbulence, but it hurt afterward.

I’ve flown through a sandstorm out of Pendleton, Oregon and a thunderstorm to Molokai, Hawaii, in planes so small they asked you how much you weigh before you got on board and sat you in some kind of load-bearing, weight-management pattern that was supposed to keep the plane level.

I’ve sat next to my dad on several flights that had the worst turbulence ever and he never even had the decency to look up from his book and look concerned. I said, “Didn’t you feel that?” And he said, “Feel what?”

I sat in the last row across the aisle from Hawaii to LA and watched two cops babysit a handcuffed murderer the whole flight. (I asked about him when one of the cops got up to use the bathroom.)

I’ve sat next to people on cross-country flights who just stared at the seatback in front of them the entire time. No book, no magazine, no Kindle, no headphones, no iPhone games, no bathroom trips, no food, not even a sip of water. It’s like they put themselves into a trance from wheels up to wheels down.

I’ve sat next to lots of medical people who were carrying what I’m guessing were human organs in their little Big Red Cross On It ice chests. (If it was their lunch, they never opened it to eat anything.)

I’ve sat next to happy drunks, sullen drunks, mean, angry drunks, and unpredictable drunks. I’ve sat next to nice children, horrible children, crying children, and happy children.

Flying into San Diego where I lived, I sat next to lots of young men who were on their way to US Navy boot camp (when it was still there; now it’s a shopping center) and USMC boot camp, which is still there. They clutched their enlistment papers in the same big brown envelopes and looked pensively out the window as we landed and considered their fate for the next four or so years.

We have had to land twice outside of our destination city due to medical emergencies: heart attack and pregnancy. I’ve never been on a flight where the oxygen masks had to come down out of the ceiling. I’d like that uninterrupted streak to continue.

In my mind, the best flights are the ones that aren’t memorable in a good or bad way. The plane took off on time, landed on time, and was safe, smooth, quiet, and uneventful (my four-word hope mantra there) the whole way.