Monday, January 5, 2009

Flying Blind

Whenever I board an airliner through the jetway, I practice a well-grooved ritual that I believe keeps the plane in the air. I won't spell it all out for fear of compromising its spiritual integrity, suffice to say it involves touching the airliner with my hand, looking at the runway, talking to God, and stepping into the aircraft with faithful choreography.

My first flight in an airliner came in 1959 during our familiar transmigration of body and soul from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. We flew out of LaGuardia on a three-tailed, glamorous Lockheed Constellation, lit up by spotlights on the damp runway with its bright red "TWA" insignia behind a veil of showers. In those days, you had your own compartment and the stewardess handed you a blanket, pillow, and comfortable slippers.

You could see the fiery exhaust streaming from behind the propellers in the dark gloom and tendrils of lightning burst from the pillars of black clouds. I thought the engines had caught fire, and I slept fitfully. In the morning, the painted desert stretched out below in pink and amber light. Over Las Vegas they served eggs and bacon and toast, and after the Constellation dropped hundreds of feet in a sudden air pocket, I threw it all up in the tray.

The details may be apocryphal, but I haven't been comfortable in an airline since. Those falling oxygen masks during my flight to Athens were doozies.

Leaping Off
In an attempt to cure my fear of falling, crashing, & dying, I signed up for a full course of hang-gliding lessons in the 1970s. We drove out to Sand City near Monterey before sunrise and met on the tall dunes in the face of an offshore breeze. These were first-generation Regallo kites with delta shapes, heavy, ungainly, hard to steer, and we strapped ourselves into them, ran headlong down the dune, then lifted the leading edge into the breeze and were swept into the air. It felt as if a powerful hawk had seized your spine and dragged you into the sky. After flying forty or fifty yards, you lowered the edge and crashed into the sand.

I stayed with it much longer than I had intended, although I never gained the expertise or willingness to leap off of a cliff. And when my instructor failed to tie himself into the harness one day and fell a thousand feet from the kite during a steep dive off of the Santa Cruz mountains, I canceled the balance of my lessons.

Acting the Imbecile
In my senior year of college, The Boys took flying lessons. Dennis, Russ and Kevin signed up together. The year before they had all gotten motorcycles. I would visit them on my trips to Los Angeles from northern California during semester breaks to view the toy de jour. I was as excited about going up in a small airplane with them as one might yearn to be covered with hot tar. I hated small planes. They bounced around in the clutches of the wind. They had fixed windows that made the cramped quarters even more catastrophic when airborne. And they fell out of the sky all the time.

But fearing judgment, I crawled into the rear seat of a low-wing Grumman Tiger and Russ powered the plane down the runway as fast as the little propeller could spin. Just beyond the control tower, I expected the nose to rise gently, for Russ to throttle back and climb. Instead, he raced headlong toward the end of the tarmac where I could see the ratty weeds poking up as they grew near. At the last minute, Russ yanked back the yoke, dropped the flaps, and the plane lurched into the air with a wrenching g-force that felt like a fat man jumping on your heart.

Ten minutes later, over the Tehachapi Mountain Range, The Boys broke out the funny cigarettes, filling the cabin with smoke. I could protest, I suppose, but at that moment it felt necessary to join them.

Homeward bound, moments after Russ turned base to land the Tiger, he nearly crept up the tail of a twin-engined plane in the pattern ahead of us. "He's in the wrong place," Russ said as we shouted. I told The Boys my flying days were over, but sadly, I went again and again because I liked the pot. I was still terrified every take-off and landing, and Russ' barrel rolls, hammerheads, and other aerobatics did little to change things. My persistence in this case does not reflect upon me kindly.

New Equipment
Coming in from a delightful trip to the Yucatan, I found myself seated by my customary right-front window when the Mexicana Airlines 727 jerked up in a labored climb moments after it had descended to the runway at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Out the window as we rose, you could see the planes crowding the runway where we had meant to land.

Terrifying. But that experience pales next to the Milan-bound charter I boarded in Toronto in 1985. Shortly after takeoff, the jet slid into a steep turn, dropped into the clouds below, and made an emergency landing. We learned after we had bussed to the relative safely of the terminal that a window had blown out in the cockpit and charts were flying around the cabin.

Hours later we boarded--unknowingly--the same aircraft, which made our landing across the ocean at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport far more exhilarating than the champagne they poured so freely to placate us. The brakes had burned up earlier on landing in Toronto. After it screeched to a stop, we left the plane and waited a few hours for, as the airlines love to say, new equipment.

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