THE JET TAKES off with a mighty push. I feel the raw, irresistible power of its four massive Pratt and Whitney engines. I marvel at the size of the Boeing 747 jetliner I’m riding in. I marvel at the cosmopolitan sense of the passenger-filled plane. No empty seats, I hear. I look around. Some are reading, some are negligently glancing out of their porthole windows and they look utterly bored.
Do they not feel something? Have they all traveled this route so many times before that the experience means…nothing? How could this be? Each and every one on the plane had a life to give, a life to live. Were they not in the least concerned about the tragic things that could happen in flight, or even to a plane still on the ground?
What if we lost a wheel before this large, lumbering aircraft left the runway? True, I hadn’t heard of that happening and I hadn’t seen it since I watched a World War II, B-29 movie years before, but it was possible, wasn’t it? I pictured it. The jet would jerk toward the ground and immediately veer across the runway into the soft ground beside the heavy duty cement runway. The ground would yield and twist the craft sideways. A wing would dip, hit the ground and sheer off; fuel would spill out. The heat of the engines at max power would set it off. We would become a ball of fire, tumbling down the runway. Screams would fill the smoke and fire-choked passenger compartment.
I yank my mind away from such images. No, this wouldn’t happen!
I notice that while the images went through my mind, I had clasped my hands tightly. They’d turned white where I squeezed the blood out of them. I relax again. I pull away from this frightening mind journey and review what I knew of crash statistics. Traveling by air is the safest method of travel worldwide. Crashes do occur, true enough, but the stats tell me that millions of air miles are traveled yearly without incident. Anyone know how big a million is? I do.
I figured it out one time. Try counting it. One paltry million! You’ll be surprised at how long it takes to count to that piddling number. You really will. Maybe the others aboard this plane are comforted by this knowledge. Maybe they are thinking of the billions, not the millions that our government is spending daily. A billion is a thousand million, one million a thousand times over! So how can they get excited about a measly million? How do you comprehend such a number?
Maybe they simply resign themselves to the fates. Que sera, sera, right? I look out the window.
We’re moving. As the plane gathers speed, the cement runway becomes more than just another feature of the huge airport. When the cement growls beneath the tires, when it feels like sandpaper, and when the flat land outside my porthole window suddenly tilts and the jet rises smoothly away from Mother earth, my mind explodes. Not literally, I just feel great. The jet rises to the sky and becomes a bird, no longer connected to the ground. It soars into the blue and I hold my breath. Yo, baby, we’re on our way!
See, no problems! I chide myself for getting all tied up inside. United Airlines flight 331 from Chicago to Anchorage rises steeply. The big jet engines yank at the air and grab the sky. Thank you, Wilbur. Thank you, Orville. You had the far seeing vision that Man could fly like a bird and you made it happen. And, boy, if you could see us now! Small steps, small beginnings, that’s how we did it and that’s what brought humankind to a level of sophistication people a mere hundred years back would marvel at, if they didn’t consider it outright magic!
To fly faster than the birds, hell, to fly faster than the sounds of the birds, that’s not just sophistication, that’s plain damn fast! I feel lucky. I’m one man in the company of many others, and maybe they’re not, but I’m on top of the world.
They just announced a movie, Shreck II. I’m not going to watch TV while riding above the clouds! Good God Gertie, TV doesn’t fascinate me, even on the ground. I’m going to listen in on the flight crew. It’s a little perk on this aircraft. Channel nine. I can listen to the pilot’s patter with the ground, so I tune in. I have a good book in my lap, forgotten for the moment while I listen to what’s interesting to me but must be totally mundane for him. His connection with the ground he takes for granted. It will always be there. But that’s not true, is it? One never knows.
Our flight will take about six hours. That’s not a long time, but forced to sit within the limits of one seat for the duration, it begins to feel confining. Still, I remain upbeat. I'm loving it.
A steward comes through and asks if I want anything. He’s serving drinks. I check my watch. I never drink before eleven, a carryover from my corporate days, before I became an educator. Yes, a glass of wine would be nice. He serves me and I crack open a mini-bottle of Sutter’s Home chardonnay. Mid-shelf, but good enough. My wife gets one, too.
I’m listening in and watching out the window. It’s small, but I can see enough to entice me. Broad, flat lands give way to low hills and then to desert terrain. The land below looks forbidding. I have a momentary feeling of sympathy for those who must live there. Is it their choice or does some thing drive them to pioneer lands no one else would consider? Or are they down on their luck and only this land will accept them? I wonder.
Soon mountains come into view, clouds, too. I mean real mountains, not those piddling little hills we call mountains on the east coast. We must be over some version of the Rockies. These are big and dark, almost black, and they send a little chill up my spine.
Hey, nothing is going to happen. I play the odds and the odds are good.
I tick off nuggets of knowledge. Clouds come with mountains because mountains generate clouds. They cause uplifting of horizontal winds carrying moisture. The air is much colder at higher altitudes. Cold air is heavy and precipitates moisture. Clouds form. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.
The land below begins to disappear. Flying at 35,000 feet makes everything below a microcosm of what I know it to be. Living on the surface does that. You begin to think in referents. It’s comfortable.
First the puffy clouds are replaced with a milkiness that you don’t think of much, except that you want to see the ground and something gets in the way and you can’t see so much so maybe now is the time to read your book.
I sigh and pick up Steven King’s “The Dark Half.” Good book. Usually can’t put it down, but this is unusual. Three more hours, maybe a bit longer and we’ll be in Anchorage. Never been there before and I’m looking forward to it. This trip is the most!
The captain is saying something. I have to listen. Ah, we’ll be passing Whitehorse in forty minutes. Guess that’s good news. Whitehorse is in the Yukon Territory. My little portable map tells me so, but who hasn’t heard of Sergeant Preston and the Royal Mounties? They were always up in the Whitehorse area catching bad guys. I smile. Maybe I’m older than I look. I do wonder for a second how many people in this plane would remember Sergeant Preston.
Suddenly I feel woozy. Just for a second. Odd, but it passes and I don’t think about it for fifteen minutes or so, maybe more. More of “The Dark Half,” it’s really engrossing.
It’s cloudy below and I check my watch. Two hours? Can’t believe it. Where did the time go? We should have passed Whitehorse twenty minutes ago.
Wait! Something on channel nine. “What happened to fucking ground control?” the captain’s asking, “I can’t raise anybody anywhere!”
I can’t hear the co-pilot’s response. Guess it’s a selective line I’m on. Stands to reason. I mean, what if something really bad happened and here he is projecting to the entire passenger section. Good way to start a panic.
Then I hear, “Captain…” and silence, like he’s pointing to something. Guess he was connected all along, but the co-pilot is thinking and the pilot is only reacting. Can’t blame him.
The line goes dead. Us passengers have been shut out. Damn! We’ve really got problems. What do I do? Last thing I want is to upset anybody in the passenger section. But, you know, I’ve got to tell my wife. She’s right next to me. She gets mad at times, but she thinks before she gets upset and shouts out (I hope this time she remembers not to shout).
“Hey, honey?” I ask. She’s reading a Belva Plain novel and is engrossed, like I’ve been.
She looks irritated for a moment, but looks up and says sweetly, “What!”
I tell her there’s something going on with the plane and, she says, “What are you talking about?” Familiar refrain, heard it before. One of the necessary steps before she fully listens.
“The captain just said a dirty word over channel nine and now the line’s dead.”
“What did he say?”
“I don’t want to repeat it, but it wasn’t nice. The gist of it was that we have some trouble, and then I got cut off from channel nine and I don’t know what else is going on. Did you feel anything about twenty minutes ago?”
“What do you mean?” My wife is not easy to convince about anything.
“Did you, like, feel woozy for a second? I did.”
“Now that you mention it, I did. I thought it was something strange, but it passed and I went back to my reading.” She stopped and turned to her seventy-eight year old mom, “Mom, did you feel anything about twenty minutes ago?”
“I had a dizzy spell, but I came right back. Why?”
“Ricardo asked me.”
She ignored her mother and turned to me. “What are you saying, something is going on we don’t know about?”
“That’s fair to say.”
She knows me. She hesitates and then says, “Okay, what do you think it is?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“Then why don’t you let the pilot fly his plane and go back to your reading?”
“Sure, that’s what I’ll do. No, actually, I need to get to the john. Could you let me out?”
I say that because she will think she’s overcome my current fears and all’s right with the world. I know it’s important to her to feel that way, but I’m antsy as hell and I can’t let this drop. I couldn’t count on my wife’s support. It’s okay, we don’t see eye to eye on occasion. Well, lots of them, but I still loves her.
I control my features but inside I suddenly know what happened twenty minutes before and now I’m scared to death!
(To be continued)