How I Managed My First Airplane Ride in Nearly 30 Years

By the time I clicked on Publish on yesterday’s blog entry, I was completely riding on fumes, and I knew if I kept trying to write, the end result would not resemble English.  It was becoming more and more difficult to string words together to form coherent sentences, and even harder to hit the right keys.

I spilled a lot of cyberink describing the madhouse at the Columbus State bookstore, but when I logged into this site last night, my original intention had been to write about the flight home with Susie on August 19, significant because it was the first time I boarded an airplane since just before Christmas in 1983.  Susie is much more of an air veteran than I am.  She was four the first time she was aboard an airplane, when she and her mother flew to Milwaukee to see her maternal grandfather.  Since Steph moved to Florida, Susie has gone down there two or three times, usually by plane each way.

Vicariously, I’ve experienced the nightmare of flying in post-9/11 America.  Since Susie is a minor, Southwest Airlines allows me to stay with her until she boards, and to be present when she disembarks on her return flight.  Even though I was not the passenger, I still had to go through the X ray and metal detector minus my shoes and my belt.  I was surprised that my watch–a plastic Casio sports watch–was enough to set off the detector.  Since I am apparently not on any no-fly lists, I was allowed to go into the boarding areas.

For her return trip last month, I had bought our tickets beforehand through Southwest’s Website.  Since 9/11, I am not even sure if you can show up at an airline’s counter and pay cash for a seat on a flight leaving an hour or two later.  (Before last month, there were only two years in which I flew: 1982 and 1983.  When I lived in Boston, if, on the spur of the moment, I decided to go to Washington, D.C. for the weekend, I could just go to Logan Airport, find out which airline had the cheapest flight, buy a ticket with cash, and be on the next flight out.  This was in the days of People Express and their cheap, Spartan flights–known not so fondly as Air Bulgaria.)  Before leaving Columbus to go to Florida on the bus, I printed out the confirmation email and kept it in the zippered part of my wallet, guarding it as if it was the only copy of the recipe for Coca-Cola.

Susie was amused that I seemed to white-knuckle the whole way back to Ohio.  Frankly, going through all the pre-flight steps were so worrisome that actually getting on the plane and taxiing down the runway was almost anticlimactic.  It was a two-hour flight, nonstop (although the plane would be continuing after Columbus, eventually landing in Denver), and I handled it well.  I actually thought I would have enjoyed having a window seat, but that was not an option.  The seats were three across, and a girl about Susie’s age had the window, Susie was in the middle, and I was in the aisle.  Susie spent the flight playing Angry Birds on her Nook.  The girl sitting by the window had a three-ring binder open on her lap and a pencil in her hand, and she seemed to be doing schoolwork.  This led me to believe she was a rather experienced flyer.  She didn’t seem to be interested in looking out the window.

Port Columbus International Airport (CMH)

I was in kindergarten in the fall of 1968, when the first manned mission to the moon dominated My Weekly Reader and the television news, even more than Vietnam did.  “Astronaut” headed the list of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” for the boys.  (I think I sealed my fate and reputation when I said “Poet.”)   For the girls, the only realistic career they could choose along those lines was “airline stewardess,” although the Soviet Union had sent a female astronaut into space in 1963.  (I wonder now how the girls’ parents reacted to “airline stewardess” if they had read Coffee, Tea or Me?.)  The boys who knew how competitive it would be to be an astronaut said they wanted to be pilots.  I think I considered being a flight attendant, but I realize now that would have been unrealistic.  I think I am a little too misanthropic to have a customer service career.

My first flight was in the summer of 1982, and I was able to be passenger and pilot.  I was visiting a friend in Philadelphia that summer, and he owned a four-seater Cessna, circa 1958.  He invited me to come along when he needed to visit a printing plant in Baltimore to drop off galleys for a book he was self-publishing,.

The flight was a bumpy one.  The weather was fine, but this was my first flight.  The Cessna was already the veteran of many flights, and any change in wind current or increase in velocity made the whole craft clatter.  I was in the co-pilot’s seat, which meant I could look at all the dials and instruments (although I didn’t know what any of them meant.) It felt like being inside a badminton birdie, and it brought back memories of the last time I had been on an amusement park ride (in 1977–I didn’t get sick, but we were all scared in a “we’ll look back and laugh about this one day” type of way), and I could not stop thinking about the newspaper stories I had read about NASA’s “Vomit Comet” fixed-wing aircraft for testing pilots and astronauts, and wishing they called it something else.

Although he had to keep his eyes on the road sky, my friend saw I was trying to keep my lunch in my stomach.  “You want something to get your mind off your stomach?” he asked, yelling over the sound of the engine.

“Anything,” I said.

Maybe I should have phrased it differently.  He hit a switch on the control panel, and said, “You’re flying the plane now.”

It was quite effective.  Nothing focuses your mind like knowing that any mistake could result in spiraling a half mile or so to your death.  I kept thinking of stories on the evening news about accidents caused by “pilot error.”  My friend talked me through it, and I knew he could switch the plane back to his control if I did anything really wrong–much like the two steering wheels in a driver’s ed car.  He said all I needed to do was aim the nose of the plane at the horizon and I’d be fine.  And I was, although I sat up a little too straight in my seat, rationalizing that this was one time I should not be too relaxed.  In driver’s education, they tell you to “drive defensively”–i.e., assume everyone but you is driving drunk–and I did that while in the air, although I’m not sure what I was defensive against.

I must have done something right, because we made it to Baltimore in one piece.  I have a bad sense of direction, and can only tell directions with the sun as a reference point, so I wasn’t sure we had made it to Charm City until I saw Fort McHenry below us.

Fortunately, the experience did not make me yearn to become a pilot.  I say this because I now wear bifocals and take psychotropic medications, which would disqualify me from flying–either professionally, or for my own enjoyment.

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