Wherever the Road Leads

Fear of Flying

I’ve flown a fair bit over the years, starting at a very young age.

My first flight was on BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corp, now British Airways) from Glasgow when my mother brought me to Canada and I was nine months old. I remember it well. Next flight was when I was eight and we flew to Jamaica for the summer to stay with my uncle.

At age twelve the family flew home to Canada after my mother, my brother and I had spent the summer in Scotland (we sailed across). I turned eighteen on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean having flown into London, then would fly home from Rome. In my early twenties, it was off to see the world as described in “Life as a European”. First married at age twenty-five, we honeymooned in Acapulco. Save an $89-each-way trip from Buffalo to Bradenton (Fla) to see my folks and one to Vancouver for job training on sawmill equipment, that was it for many years.

When my father died in 1992 outside Harlingen Texas, it was the first of numerous trips to the South Texas area and within a couple of years, I was flying, for business, in earnest. For a few years, I was on an airplane a week.

The first time I remember being afraid on an airplane was returning to Canada from Geneva. It was winter and I’ll swear that when we landed in Montreal, the pilot had barely got the nose wheel down when we hit a patch of ice. “Hang on to her, Newt, we’re a’headed for the rhubarb”, but the pilot got it straightened out before we got lost in a snow bank and had to call a wrecker. (Tow truck.)

The first “Road Warrior” job I had, we flew out of London Ontario, leaving on a Tuesday morning and returning home the following Thursday. London is a smaller airport where, for the most part, we flew the de Havilland DASH 8 into Toronto, Pittsburgh or Detroit, and then on to our final destination from there. The DASH 8 was a short-take-off-and-landing Turbo Prop that seated 36 or 50, depending on the model. It was a sturdy little plane that didn’t fly all that high, 20 – 25,000 feet. It could take a beating though.

One early morning flight across Lake Erie from London to Pittsburgh, we went through some rough weather. I mean ROUGH weather, perhaps the worst I have ever flown in. The stewardess started serving coffee using the cart. Then she couldn’t pour the coffee safely. So she put the cart back, poured a few cups and brought them, four at a time, on a tray. Then the turbulence got worse and we were dropping a hundred feet without warning.

She started bringing the coffee one cup at a time in one hand, using the other hand to hold onto each seat for dear life. People pay good money to get buffeted by a Six Flags’ ride like we were getting free at 22,000 feet. She gave up when the pilot came over the intercom and told her to sit down and strap in.

Coming home on the following Thursday, the later flight out of Pittsburgh was the DASH 8, getting in at 9:00pm. If we could make the ‘early’ flight, getting in at 7:00, it was aboard a Beechcraft 1900. This plane was an experience.

The first time I flew in one, the passengers walked out onto the tarmac to board the plane through the front door. We watched our luggage being loaded by a man on his hands and knees, underneath the plane, struggling to lift suitcases into an unseen compartment.

It was tiny inside. It seats about sixteen, one seat on each side with a center aisle. Depending on your seat, you might have to step over a hump in the middle of the aisle that is a wing-strut support. There are no overhead bins, just a closet for everyone’s carry-ons with a mesh curtain like you would see on a military plane.

We got seated in chairs that were only a few steps up from a K-Mart, plastic-strapped  chaise lounge. Hearing the door close, we watched in disbelief as the guy on his hands and knees loading the luggage welcomed us aboard and sat in the pilot’s seat.

Taking off was a trip. Pittsburgh is a major hub serviced by all kinds of equipment. This tiny little Tonka plane would line up with all the 737’s, MD-80’s and Airbus A300’s waiting its turn to take off.

Separating the cockpit from the passengers was nothing more than a shower curtain. Occasionally the pilot would forget to pull it across and everyone in an aisle chaise lounge could see out the front window as this “I-think-I-can” aircraft would bounce, bob and weave its way down the runway, the pilot trying to maintain a straight line with its lawn-mower engines screaming to spin the full-pitch props to get us up off the ground before London.

Coming home one trip, a family with a couple of young kids boarded. One of the children, an eight-year-old boy, turned around from the seat in front of me and said, “Not much of a plane, is it mister?” From the mouths of babes.

Never verified but someone told me later that what they use for cabin air-conditioning is the same as they use in a Chevrolet Corvette. One trip home must have been more humid than all the rest because as best as I could figure, about fifteen minutes before we approached London airport, “smoke” was coming out of the walls.

My fillings have been rattled loose coming across Lake Erie and I have taken off from Thunder Bay in the middle of a winter storm with a thousand pounds of ice attached but that fifteen minutes was the most terrified I have even been aboard an aircraft.

Not knowing it was “just” condensation, I was positive it was a forest fire and I was about to die. Fortunately, we landed safely an eternity later, just seconds before, I’m sure, the plane would have been engulfed in flames.

I had a few years off when I moved to Alabama but ended up on the road again… or, perhaps more aptly, in the air again. TurboProps had been replaced by the Regional Jet.

Delta flew the CanadAir (now Bombardier) CRJ, seating 50 or 70, depending on model with a seating configuration of 2 x 2…

…while American Airlines flew the Embraer 145, a 50-seat Brazilian Regional Jet that I much preferred as it had a 2 x 1 seating configuration where you could get a seat by yourself.

I think I got about 50,000 miles in each before I gave up the glamorous life of airports, rental cars and hotels to settle down in Chicago. I’m not sure which was worse, now.

My days of flying are behind me now, for the most part. The last trip was to Cape Town, South Africa, via Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V, perhaps better-known as KLM. Eight hours to Amsterdam and then twelve hours down to Cape Town. You need either enough gilders to fly first class or to live on strudel beforehand to get some padding on your butt because I don’t care how many movies they show, that’s a long flight.

However, the best airline is quite possibly South Africa’s Kulula Airlines, not because I have an affinity for South Africa but because of their sense of humor. Judge for yourself.

On a Kulula flight, (there is no assigned seating, you just sit where you want) passengers were apparently having a hard time choosing, when a flight attendant announced, “People, people we’re not picking out furniture here, find a seat and get in it !”

“Thank you for flying Kulula. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride.”

As the plane landed and was coming to a stop at Durban Airport, a lone voice came over the loudspeaker: “Whoa, big fella. WHOA!”

“Welcome aboard Kulula 271 to Port Elizabeth. To operate your seat belt, insert the metal tab into the buckle, and pull tight. It works just like every other seat belt; and, if you don’t know how to operate one, you probably shouldn’t be out in public unsupervised.”

“As you exit the plane, make sure to gather all of your belongings. Anything left behind will be distributed evenly among the flight attendants. Please do not leave children or spouses..”

Overheard on a Kulula flight into Cape Town, on a particularly windy and bumpy day: During the final approach, the Captain really had to fight it. After an extremely hard landing, the Flight Attendant said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to The Mother City. Please remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened while the Captain taxis what’s left of our airplane to the gate!”

Another flight attendant’s comment on a less than perfect landing: “We ask you to please remain seated as Captain Kangaroo bounces us to the terminal.”

An airline pilot wrote that on this particular flight he had hammered his ship into the runway really hard. The airline had a policy which required the first officer to stand at the door while the passengers exited, smile, and give them a “Thanks for flying Kulula”.
He said that, in light of his bad landing, he had a hard time looking the passengers in the eye, thinking that someone would have a smart comment. Finally everyone had gotten off except for a little old lady walking with a cane. She said, “Sir, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Why, no Ma’am,” said the pilot. “What is it ?”
The little old lady said, “Did we land, or were we shot down?”


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  1. Alistair Mair  October 3, 2012

    Great stuff. I am amazed at your memory for for rembering all this detail.


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