Sunday, December 16, 2012

Flying is for crazy people

One in 10 Americans is afraid of flying. The remaining nine of 10 are stupid.

Voluntarily sitting in an outsized Pringle's can at 38,000 feet is insane, particularly when someone you've never met is driving. Who does this without melting into a massive pool of quivering Jello? The green kind with shredded carrots.

I have flown 22 times in my life. The first was in 1977, when I caught a plane to San Francisco, transferring to a Japan Airlines 747 for a 13-hour flight to Tokyo. Next day, I flew JAL again to Hong Kong. Two years later, I flew on an ancient Russian jet from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China. I didn't give it a second thought. It was almost fun.

Since then, my phobia has taken control. If I know I'm going to fly, I start my panic about 90 days before departure date. Just writing this, my hands get sweaty.

Yes, I know all the statistics. Screw statistics.

Yes, I've had some bad experiences. In 1993 I took a series of flights from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City, Cedar City and St. George during an afternoon of summer thunderstorms. If physics were a real science, we all would have died at least three times on those flights. My head actually hit the ceiling of the plane on several occasions. I am not making that up.

And, yet, this was not my worst flight ever. That would be the last flight I took, some three years ago.

We had just finished a splendid vacation in Charleston, S.C. and a short cruise to the Bahamas. To return home, we had to take one airline to Atlanta and another to Idaho Falls via Minneapolis. The flight to Atlanta was short and uneventful. The experience at Hartfield getting from one airline's gate to another airline's gate was a nightmare in itself, requiring a road trip of roughly 300 miles. Eventually, we got on our plane, which appeared to be a small craft manufactured in a former Soviet bloc country. Like a Yugo with wings.

The first leg was OK until I looked out my window (big mistake -- I recommend against it) and saw nothing but water beneath us. Either we were taking a circuitous route to Minneapolis that wound inexplicably over Lake Michigan (this turned out to be true), or we had taken a wrong turn and were over the Indian Ocean. We eventually landed, I was grateful to learn, at our intended destination and we changed planes. This new plane also appeared to have been manufactured the same day and place as the one we just escaped from. It may have been the same one with a fill-up.

We took off without incident and I swallowed another handful of Valium. Things were going OK until, according to my calculations, we should have begun our descent into Idaho Falls. Trouble was, we weren't descending, and those mountains below us weren't the Tetons. I alerted Kathleen, who told me to shut up.

It turns out I was right (hah!). Presently, the pilot (who sounded like he was about 12 and completely drunk) told us that the Idaho Falls airport was temporarily closed and we were being diverted to Salt Lake City. This could mean one of two things -- either the gas-powered generator in Idaho Falls that keeps the runway lights on had failed or there was a blizzard. It was, of course, the latter. They routinely run out of gas for the generator and planes land anyway.

Alas, we began our descent into Salt Lake City which, it turns out, was also experiencing a blizzard. As we entered the storm zone, bolts began to loosen around us and we decided to roll up the windows to keep the snowflakes from accumulating in the cabin.

Long story short, we landed reasonably safely in Salt Lake City, or so the pilot said. To this day, I am unconvinced. I announced to Kathleen that we would not be flying on to Idaho Falls. We would be renting a car in Salt Lake (or wherever we really were) and driving home. I had not been prepared, however, for the sly tactics of the airline. Instead of pulling up to a nice, warm Jetway, the plane stopped in the middle of what was either a cow pasture or a western desert. With snow swirling around us, we could see nothing but either sagebrush or cow pies, I'm not sure which. Probably some of each.

"I'm busting outta here," I announced, but Kathleen and a teenage punk restrained me ("Dude, chill," he actually said). Magically, a fuel truck appeared and, unfortunately, topped off our tank. Later, another vehicle appeared and sprayed what appeared to be urine on the wings of our plane, which reduced the snow level to about a foot. It came back later and did the same. Apparently, yellow snow is more conducive to aerodynamics than the plain white stuff.

I was not the only panicked passenger. Behind us, a two-year-old screamed bloody murder. I gave her a high five and said, "I feel your pain, sister."

The pilot's voice came back on the PA. I swear he sounded like he was wearing a leather cap and tiny goggles. Whatever that sounds like. "The Idaho Falls runway is now at our minimum standards for landing," he announced.

"I don't want minimum standards," I told Kathleen. "I want absolutely pristine standards. I want a recently resurfaced runway with no wind, no precipitation and a full complement of emergency vehicles standing by." Kathleen told me to shut up.

We took off. For the entire flight we were buffeted about as if the very hand of God was shaking us like a snow globe. I am absolutely not making this up.

The flight from Salt Lake to Idaho Falls is typically a short 45-minute hop. Something like six hours later, without warning, we felt a sudden thump and realized that we had landed. Outside, it looked like a luge run had been carved onto the runway. I kissed the teenage kid (the young man who had previously told me to chill) who, unfortunately, kissed me back. Hard.

We dug our car out and headed home, when we were nearly killed by someone who slid through a stop light.

Did I mention? On our flight to Atlanta via Minneapolis the week before, the pilot announced that he needed to stop in Rapid City, South Dakota, to get gas.

I'm not making that up.

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