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welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

on a big jet plane

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This morning I did something I’ve never done in my entire adult life, and I’m nearly 58. I got into an aeroplane which went into the sky. It took me to Melbourne from Adelaide. From there I caught another plane to Canberra, where I’m writing this in the city’s YHA.

I was anxious about this flight. I have a guilty secret, I’m an addict of Air Crash Investigations, so I’m semi-expert on the many things that can go wrong on an aircraft and I’ve had very little experience of a plane arriving safely at its destination.

I did travel on a plane at 14, from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island and back again – about an hour’s travel all up. Today’s journeys weren’t much longer, but of course it’s the take offs and landings that are the major killers.

I do realise that air travel is the safest mode available. I’m about the only person I know who hasn’t travelled by plane dozens of times without being the worse for it, but that’s not much consolation when you strap yourself into your tight little economy seat and note how flimsy everything looks, how thin the barrier between yourself and the outside air – air which, I soon learn, is 37000 metres above solid ground.

While we were walking through one of those moveable corridors that led directly to the aircraft’s front door I could see the pilot and his apprentice (had he earned his Ps?) chatting in the cockpit (strange word for a space designed to bring thousands of travellers though thousands of kilometres of high sky). I was shocked at how vulnerable they looked sitting there so prominently forward in what I think is called the nose-cone, which looked horribly fragile, like a glass egg that could be cracked by any passing bird. I’d expected something more like the bridge of the starship Enterprise, or that mysterious intergalactic vessel that Carl Sagan peered out of in Cosmos.

I was also a bit shocked at how bus-like the interior was, with its densely packed seating and narrow central aisle. Of course this was no jumbo jet – do they use that term nowadays? – but even so… and then I was shocked again, as we taxied to the runway, that I could feel the bumps on the road, as if we really were in a taxi, with suspension issues. through the window I could see the plane’s right wing bouncing and shuddering. It wasn’t screwed on properly! I was having a little joke with myself, but I wasn’t amused. I glanced around at the other passengers. One was reading a magazine, another was yawning ostentatiously. I had a book in my lap – Will Storr’s The heretics: adventures with the enemies of science – but this time it was just for show. It just wouldn’t do to behave like a gawping schoolboy, though that was exactly what I was doing. And to be fair to my benumbed self, even the sad circumstances of schizophrenics and Morgellons sufferers seemed to pale in comparison to my life and death situation.

We moved off from the airport lights into the pre-dawn dimness. I wasn’t going to see much of this takeoff, I’d have to rely on feeling. Someone over the intercom was saying, in his most reassuring voice, that the weather in Melbourne was pretty dismal, suggesting problems with the landing. Oh my. On the runway, everything suddenly got loud. The rockets had launched, or something, and then we were off the ground, I could tell by the lights falling away beneath me.

Dawn was breaking. Soon I could see clearly the mass of Lake Alexandrina, with Lake Albert attached like a suckling pup. I knew it well from so many maps, and I thought of those great mapmakers Jim Cook and Matt Flinders, how amazed they would’ve been at seeing such grand features, that would’ve taken them weeks to survey, set before them in an instant. But then the plane veered off, tilting at an angle that no bus would ever survive, and again I glanced around at my fellow passengers to check if it was okay to panic. all was blandness, and when the plane finally righted itself I gazed down – and due to the cloud cover I had to look down as near as perpendicular as possible to see much land at all – at a whole array of fascinating but unrecognisable features. I tried to fix them in my memory so I could check them on a map later – I love maps. But would they appear on a map? Were we still flying over South Australia or had we crossed the border? Was I being too obsessional? Of what use would be such knowledge? Well, bearing in mind Bertrand Russell’s nice essay on useless knowledge, I had some thoughts on airlines doing a running commentary on the sights and scenes on the ground, synced to flight-paths, one for each side of the street, so to speak, and played through headphones, which you could take or leave; but the logistics of it, considering variations of flight-path and speed of flight, and the probable lack of interest, considering the bored or otherwise absorbed expressions of my fellow passengers, would be too much for cost-conscious airliners.

Within a few minutes I was shocked – yet again – to hear that we’d soon be arriving in Melbourne. Someone said over the intercom that conditions remained miserable and that, hopefully, everything would be okay. There was more tilting and veering, and I tried to make out the familiar shape of Port Phillip Bay but we were too close to the ground. In any case I soon became concerned with something altogether different, something which was much more of a problem on my return flight to Adelaide (I’m writing the rest of this up at home, three more flights later). My ears began to ache, building up to some intensity until suddenly there was an unblocking, like the burst of a bubble, and only then did I realise that the pain was localised to one ear. After that, all was fine, but on the return trip there was no bubble-burst, and the pain reached an excruciating level, leaving me moaning and whimpering and desperate for relief. The problem was, of course, aerosinusitis, which I’ll deal with in my next post.

The lego blocks of the CBD came and went on the window screen and I could soon see the airstrips of Tullamarine. The landing was slightly bumpy but nothing untoward, and I was looking forward to a pleasant coffee break and possibly breakfast in ‘Melbourne’, before the connecting flight to Canberra.

No way José. A quick check of our tickets (yes we really didn’t check them before this) told us that the other flight was leaving just as we were arriving. How could they do this to us? But if we ran or – don’t panic – walked very fast, we just might… then we noticed it wasn’t a departure but a check-in time, yet even so… And in fact, after some long striding through long stretches of airport we got there just in time for boarding. Thank god I didn’t need a toilet break, and it was just as well we didn’t have an hour to spare considering airport prices – the medium latte I bought at Adelaide airport, which I had to gulp down just before boarding, cost me $5.30, an all-time record.

The Canberra trip was anti-climactic, in spite of the bogey word ‘turbulence’, so much featured on Air Crash Investigations. Not only was I a vastly more experienced traveller, but this time there was nothing to see landwise, nothing but whiter-than-white clouds from horizon to horizon, like a fluffy Antarctica. Only as we descended below the cloud line near Canberra – and this flight was even shorter than the first one – did I get to see something familiar, the forested slopes of the Snowies, where once I did some memorable bush-walking, attacked by march flies and leeches and coming face-to-face, for a fleeting instant, with a black snake.

After a near-perfect landing, nothing more to report, my innocence of flying had slipped away forever. How ironic that Virgin airlines should deprive me of my virginity in this area. From now on I can blend in with all the rest, almost without pretending. There’s something almost sad about it, a tiny loss of identity, or a replacement for some part of me that I’m not quite sure about. But hey, we all know the self is an illusion.

 

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Written by stewart henderson

May 8, 2014 at 8:32 am

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