Up, up and away

Whilst it’s not really a blog, I have always enjoyed reading Patrick Smith’s weekly “Ask the Pilot” column in Salon magazine. There’s a link on my sidebar if you want to read it too.

I first bought a paperback book which contained the first couple of years’ columns, and I have been an avid reader since.

In this week’s column, he writes that flying is, today, something to be endured, not enjoyed.

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March 9, 2007 | If the feedback from my last two columns has taught us anything, it’s that people really, really don’t like to fly. With that on the table, try to imagine the following:

You wake up early for the 45-minute subway ride to Logan International Airport in Boston. The shuttle bus brings you to Terminal C, where you stand in line to be frisked and X-rayed before reaching an overcrowded departure lounge. Half an hour later your flight pushes back, languishes in a taxiway queue for several minutes, then finally takes off. So far this is nothing exceptional, but here’s the twist: The plane’s scheduled destination is, well, Boston. The jet never climbs to more than 10,000 feet. It makes a lazy circuit above the North Shore coastline, swings eastward toward Cape Cod, then circles west in the direction of Logan. Fifteen minutes later, the landing gear clunks into place, and just like that you’re back where you started. You disembark, with smiles and handshakes all around, head for the shuttle bus, and take the subway home again.

To most of you that doesn’t sound like a terribly fun morning, but what if I told you that once upon a time, not only did thousands of people willingly endure this, but they actually paid for the privilege? It was the late 1970s, and I was one of those people.

The flights were yearly fundraisers, hosted by different carriers on behalf of local charities. In ’78, I remember, it was the Boy Scouts of America. A year later it was the Jimmy Fund, an organization dedicated to pediatric cancer research (and best known for its partnership with the Boston Red Sox baseball team). People paid 10 or 15 bucks for a ticket. Flights left hourly, all day long, with each ride lasting about 25 minutes. For the airlines, maybe, it was an IRS write-off, but the crews worked for free.

At the time I was 13, maybe 14 years old, but this wasn’t just for schoolchildren. My friends and I, along with many of our parents and teachers, spent weeks looking forward to it. On board, the crowd would be a mix of first-time fliers, airplane buffs and regular people looking for an unusual way to spend their Saturday.

I did it three times. The first, in 1978, was on board an Air New England FH-227, a 50-seat turboprop. I still have several photographs, snapped through one of the plane’s giant, 19-inch oval windows, showing snaky brown marshlands and the contours of Revere Beach from 5,000 feet. (My camera was a brown Kodak Instamatic no bigger than a deck of cards. I took so many adolescent airplane pics with the damn little camera that I can vividly recall the feel of its thumb-driven film winder.) Seated just aft of the plane’s high-mounted wing, I remember the sight of the landing gear folding backward into the engine nacelle and the puff of white smoke on touchdown.

Next it was a TWA Boeing 707. That was a Jimmy Fund flight, and my first and only ride in a 707. While aloft, passengers stood in the aisle and were escorted, two at a time, onto the flight deck.

And the last one — I’m thinking 1980 — was with Eastern Airlines on an Airbus A300. Together with four friends, I splurged for two flights that day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, at $10 apiece. That’s what we did with our Christmas money. Eastern was the first U.S. carrier to fly the wide-body A300, which had two seats on either side and four across the center. We pressed to the front of the line in order to snag windows. By the time they closed the doors, every seat on that plane, middle rows and all, was taken. A popular local disc jockey sat in one of the cockpit jump seats, broadcasting live during takeoff and landing.

Much has changed in a quarter-century. For one, all three of those carriers are gone now: TWA into American; Eastern into Frank Lorenzo’s toilet; Air New England, whose planes were once as common around here as pigeons, into some obscure oblivion that even I can’t remember. And the entire premise, of course — shelling out cash for a flight to nowhere, and actually being excited about it — will strike most people as ludicrous.

A form of these flights still exists, albeit not marketed to the average citizen, and for considerably steeper fares. In Europe, agencies arrange trips for airplane junkies, who pay hundreds of dollars to experience a round-robin journey aboard this or that unusual airliner. But what’s missing is the public’s sense of awe, the shared thrill of going for an airplane ride. The first-time flier is today a rare bird, the enthusiastic flier all but extinct.

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Well, I still get excited at the thought of a flight.

As a boy, I spent a year at a time looking forward to the annual family holiday, flying to Spain on BAC one-elevens and occasionally Comets.

The intense excitement returned a few years ago when I had my first transatlantic trip on a 747, and again more recently on a short domestic flight on a Dash-8 turboprop.

I still look up when a plane passes.

Maybe I shouldn’t get so excited… after all I’m 44, but I still watch fire engines go past, too.

I was that little boy. Sometimes I still am.

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(I am off to Barbados on Tuesday morning, on a Thomas Cook 767. More blog entries in a week or so, when I get home, as I shall be banned from the internet while on holiday.)

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    David said,

    I take a trip to Australia every 2 1/2 years and have done so since 1992 to visit family and I still look forward to the flight. It is part of the holiday. It is also a chance to sleep of and on for 24 hours and to let someone else do the driving.


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