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Note: They say that if you can’t walk there – fly. Planes are touted as the safest way to travel very long distances. I far prefer them to, say, cars, for many reasons, most particularly that airplanes are steered by experts with many years of intensive training who operate these enormous creatures under strict regulation which keeps thousands of them aloft without mishap. I can’t personally say the same thing for the operators of motor vehicles, especially if one of them happens to be one of my twins.
In the past few years however, as we are all of course aware, some planes do not stay up. Some land serendipitously in the Hudson River without mishap, some bump off runways on icy nights, some fall into the vast deep sea north of Rio and once, not so long ago, four were used as weapons and aimed at buildings. I wrote this piece thirteen summers ago on a BA flight from Glasgow to Boston as the world and most particularly, New York, was grappling with the concept of terrorism and air travel. TWA Flight 800 had very recently fallen into Long Island Sound. “739 apparent eyewitnesses” including my cousin Judy’s husband Joe, who was emptying the trash in his Long Island backyard when he saw a streak of light shoot skywards, “suggest that an external missile strike by a U.S. Navy vessel caused the crash.” The FBI concluded that the plane had a physical flaw. I like airplanes which have four engines attached to them and frequently find myself, seasoned traveller, watching the seat belt demonstration in the front of the cabin, even though I learned how to buckle one fairly confidently when I was four. TWA no longer exists. Neither does Pan Am.
So it goes.
It’s the third week of July, the year 1996, four shy of the millennium and there are rumors that the world will come to a grinding halt as computers fail to breach the Y2K gap. There are those who are already stockpiling food and water against this possibility and there are those who say fugeddaboutit, the world is about to end. Most of us are just trying to raise our awareness enough to remember to put a 2 where the 1 is on our checks. Ob la di, ob la da. A week ago TWA’s Paris-bound Flight 800 mysteriously fell out of the sky over Long Island, killing all 230 aboard. It may have been blown up by terrorists. Or maybe not. What we do know is that, for some yet unknown reason – it stopped working.
We’re sitting in Glasgow Airport reading the Sunday papers before heading home. The airport is filled with golfers and students and families. Our conversation is punctuated at regular intervals by stern airport announcements in a strong Glaswegian burr, “This is a secerrrrity alerrrrt. Please do not leave yerrr baggage un-attended at any time. All unattended luggage will be immediately destrrrrroyed.” As it’s 1996 and the world is just waking to a Big Brother new age of security, this announcement is novel to us, and we half keep our eyes peeled for any suspicious anything. We’d watched as the gate agent who checked us in at British Airways went several polite rounds with an expensively dressed couple whose bulging bags were well over the weight limit. The agent was insistent. Those bags were not getting on that plane. Our plane. Our turn.
Having persevered at some cost, and a bit rattled, the agent asked us the same question twice in a row: “Have you left your bags unattended at any time? Has anyone unknown to you asked you to carry any item in your baggage?” “No,” we answered twice, having personally wrestled our luggage to, into, and out of, our tiny Ford Fiesta. Besides, we thought, how dumb do we look?
We are amused by the piles of unattended luggage left by hungry students, as they queue for tea and breakfast. They are not immediately destroyed. My backpack harbours my goes-everywhere Swiss Army knife which glides through the security x-ray undetected. Tom sets off the alarm with his college lacrosse-legacy steel arm plate and a pocketful of pence and is carefully wanded, patted and excused.
Once on the plane our Flight Service Manager immediately launches into the evacuation drill. Usually blasé about all this, we join most of our fellow passengers in carefully following his directions while examining the plastic-coated diagram in our seat pockets. I check to see if the life preserver is under my seat. I can’t see it, don’t know what it would look like if I could see it, nor do I know if there’s really an oxygen mask tucked up over my head just because the FSM says there is. The airline has forgotten to put headsets or those little bags with eyeshade, booties and toothbrush in our seat pockets. Who’s to say they remembered to pack the safety stuff?
As the FSM goes into detail about all the clever things they have ready in case we land unexpectedly, he does not mention what to do if we should fall unexpectedly, except to kick off our high heels and crouch low in our seats with our hands over our heads. Those of us who grew up with duck and cover know a placebo when we hear one, a soothing but useless remedy for certain death. The FSM is not asked the question which is on all of our minds because of last week’s news: “So… what do we do if the plane explodes?”
We taxi towards takeoff. As the 757’s engines churn, the passengers remain absolutely silent. Even after the uneventful liftoff we remain still; holding hands, fingers, or, as in our adolescent son Xander’s case, a fierce fistful of his father’s shirt. No attendant buzzers ring. The pilot breaks the silence after eleven minutes – the amount of time which elapsed before Flight 800 stopped ascending and abruptly disintegrated over the sea. The flight crew unbuckle their seatbelts and bustle about pressing wine, beer, and vodka and tonics on us even though it is only 10:30 in the morning. We accept.
I think about the Boston college student, on her way home from London, one of those who fell out of the air on Pan Am Flight 103, “Maid of the Seas,” a few years ago over Lockerbie, not too far north of here, killing all onboard and a dozen Lockerbians on the ground. Her mother told local reporters that she “…had a horrible wrenching conviction” long before she reached the airport to pick her up, that her daughter’s plane “…hadn’t made it.” I think about the Celtic cairn of stones that marks where she did land.
We finish our wine and have another. We watch two movies. We eat lunch. We drink tea. We approach JFK, looping over Long Island Sound as we come in. A bumpy landing heralds our arrival, in one piece. All but a dozen passengers gratefully disembark, leaving behind their scattered pillows, blankets and cracker wrappers; detritus from a movie sleepover.
Those of us who are Boston-bound remain on board for an hour while mysterious things are done to the plane. More food? More fuel? Bomb check? A Captain or Someone in Captain’s Clothing walks around the plane peering at things, kicking tires.
We take off again. I think about the Flight 800 high school students eager to try out their French, thrilled at the start of their long-awaited adventure, the Flight 800 parents taking children to see Paris, the Flight 800 Flight Attendants and meticulously trained pilots and the Flight 800 executives checking watches to wait out the ascension ban on laptops. The view is late dusk over Manhattan and then, the blue, blue Atlantic Ocean.
No one talks on our plane as we rocket upwards. No one excitedly points out the circles of small search and rescue boats stretched out off of eastern Long Island. Eleven and a half minutes. We are at 13,000 feet. The water is crystal clear. We silently examine it for shadow and shapes possibly the size of wings, of engine fuselage, of bodies. Our plane rises and rushes on, up the coast past Newport, Cape Cod, into Boston.
When we land, a beagle sniffs our luggage for contraband. A woman near us is told to empty out her suitcase and has an apple and a tangerine confiscated. We locate our car and head for the Turnpike. No planes fall on us as we plunge into the depths of the Callahan Tunnel but Tom has to slam on the brakes to avoid the cabby who swings his taxi suddenly in front of us.
We make it home In One Piece. Que sera, sera.