I fly a lot, and it’s been that way since 1978. There was a time though, right at the beginning of my travel days, when I was scared stiff to board a jet. I remember one
Tuesday afternoon at London Heathrow, getting to the top of the stairs to board a Sabena Air Boeing 737 to Brussels. In these days you had to climb stairs, the jets didn’t connect directly to the terminal, and there was always a long line of passengers waiting on the taxi way or parking bay, to climb up and board, believe it or not, without carry on bags! On this particular day, I got to the top of the stairs, turned round to the flight attendant, (stewardess, as they were called in those days) and quite categorically refused to get on, stating out loud and in front of the many waiting passengers behind and in front of me, that ‘this plane was going to crash!’ Feeling like a total plonker,(google that word if you don’t understand it), I was marched promptly down the steps, and into the arrival hall, out through customs and back onto a bus which took me to my parked car. There was no fuss, no security, no discussion, and no way back! After taking a train, a boat, another train and then a taxi, just to get to Brussels, and then a one off session with a psychiatrist, lasting 45 minutes,(which by the way, was some 5 months after that particular incident), I tried again, on British Caledonian Airways, from London Gatwick to Brussels, and low and behold, 3500 plus, flights later, I am still alive and on the verge of obtaining my PPL, Private Pilote Licence. Me as a pilot? What a joke! “Ladies and Gentlemen, please sit back, relax and enjoy your flight. I once thought my plane was going to crash, but don’t be concerned, I was only 18 then and now that I’m 53, I really don’t give a shit, so hang on while I rev this baby up and we do wheelies down the runway!” I can’t wait for that day!!
So, what’s all this got to do with flying in China? Not a lot really, other than the time I was on a plane from London to HK, (Hong Kong), and three hours into the flight, the man next to me decided to die. Resting his head on my shoulder,(there was an empty seat in between us, so it seemed strange he would do this), I casually looked over and saw this rigid human being with his eyes wide open, staring into fresh air, although on a 747 it’s never that fresh! I put my hand on his neck and…..SHIT FUCK DAMN, my pulse went haywire, my heart nearly burst and my fears for the rest of the passengers and crewe instantly multiplied, believing we had all been poisoned and this guy was the first to go! Turned out he had a heart attack, gone, gone in a flash. The captain and I and one other crewe member placed the body in a body bag, conveniently rustled up from the galley, and we carried him through first class into an elevator, which only fit one person, then spread him unceremoniously on the deck of the cargo floor where he remained for the next 9 hours until we landed. Did you know that if you have a death on board you have to land immediately? They quarantine the place until they investigate all the circumstances behind that death, and that can take three days. In this case, since we were over Moscow and it was 1980, the pilot told me to stay quiet, and when I was asked by the police when we finally landed in HK, “Can you tell me what happened Sir?”, I innocently remarked that the gentleman had sort of passed out, about thirty minutes before we landed. My reward? A seat in first class from Moscow to HK! The food was great, the seats comfortable, but the memories of that mans face were ghastly!
Then there was the time I flew from Xian to Guangzhou, about 1985 or 86 I believe. I had just been to see the famed Terracotta Army and was on my way back to an exhibition. In these days there were no seat choices, only first come first server on a little sticker board, much like one a child would use. If you checked in first, you got 1A, second, 1B etc, you get the picture? So, with me in row 3 or 4, very close to the front, and the whole plane full, we waited, and we waited and just when I believed we had waited long enough, 25 more people boarded the plane! “Where are they going to sit” I asked. They didn’t sit, they STOOD!!! We were hurtling down the runway, with 25 little Chinese people hanging on to seats either side of them while we took off at 200MPH! Whooooosh, and away we went. They clung on for dear life and when we straightened out at cruising altitude, they just squatted in the aisle, quietly, calmly and without fuss, until we began our descent, when the whole process happened again, but this time in reverse! Landing safely, they all marched out of the place and vanished into thin air while the rest of us slowly emptied from the aircraft! They must have been friends and family of the flight crew or just workers who bribed their way on board. That kind of thing was prevalent in these days.
There was one other memorable flight I boarded in HK to go to Beijing. A man in economy had walked on with a case of mini crabs. During the flight the crabs got loose. They were crawling all over the place, hundreds of them. Don’t know if you know this, but most aircraft have the fly by wire system, this means that the controls in the cockpit and beyond, all respond by a wire system that runs through the plane, back to front, and front to back. With the crabs running loose and with their unique ability to dive into small holes and cracks on the plane, the pilot took the only action he could, and dive bombed for the nearest airport in the hope that he could land before the crabs cut all the wires to his rudder controls! We were going from 40,000 feet to zero feet, like a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot. We landed, and it took 24 hours to fumigate the whole plane. Never did see the Great Wall on that trip.
The thing is, can you imagine all of this happening with todays procedures and with all the security we have at every airport? It just wouldn’t. But I often yearn for the good old days, where taking off your shoes meant you wanted to piss off the passenger next to you with your smelly feet, and a pat down came from a blonde who had taken a fancy to you over the Atlantic. Ah yes, flying is fun, as long as you get to your destination with both legs in tact!