Taking Off – Airplane Stories To Make Your Toes Curl

imagesI made my first journey from London to Hong Kong in 1980. In those days I only flew economy, because that’s all I could afford. Business class was a pipe dream and first class, well, first was for celebrities or billionaires only. It took 8 hours to fly to Bahrain or Mumbai, formerly Bombay, and then another 8 hours from whichever stop you’d made, onwards to HK, and when you landed, you knew you’d been cooped up for more than a day, just by the length of time it took to get your legs back in working order. It was brutal, and coming back to the UK took even longer, due to the winds and direction of flight. East to west is always longer, as any seasoned traveler knows. My first time in HK was followed by a sweet diversion to Singapore on the way back, and then another 11 hour flight to Brussels, and after a refueling stop, an hour back to the UK. The 747’s of that era, just could make the journey without stopping. And so, for many years, probably until the mid 1980’s, it was ‘suffer in silence’ in a back row seat, cramped up and surrounded by smelly human beings. Case in point.

One night, (all flights to London left HK around midnight in these days), I was booked back to the UK on BA, leaving from HK after a two-week stint going in and out of factories, none of which were anything other than salubrious. I arrived at my gate, exhausted and ready for bed, but knowing the change of grabbing any sleep was near on impossible, only because I rarely ever sleep on flights, let alone doze off when cramped in a back row with my legs touching my chest. The flight was called and I boarded, and having been ushered to my aisle seat, I was pleasantly surprised to find the plane empty, other than another 40 or so fellow travelers who’d boarded with me. We were supposed to fly HK to Bombay, spend 4 hours there and then fly on to London. “This won’t be so bad” says I, whilst navigating my tired body towards an empty row of four seats in the center of the plane. I was delighted to find there were several empty rows and so I spread my belongings out across all 4 seats as if  to ‘claim’ my territory, and then went for a quick pee. Arriving back, and then spreading out to relax and hopefully lie down and sleep, the cabin director made the following announcement, “We are expecting one or two more passengers so please be patient and keep your original seats until we close the door.” One or two? No problem! There were 250 empty seats! How wrong can one be.

235 turban clad Indian gentleman, all carrying 6 plastic bags each, filled with all sorts of exotic goodies, dressed in traditional garb and all wearing open toed sandals without socks, smelling like they’d all been at some curry feast, proceeded to sit in every available empty seat, put their plastic bags above, beyond and under every available space, take off their already smelly sandals, spread out and stunk up that flight for the next 8 hours. There was no escape, other than to the toilette  which eventually took on its own personality, and one that reminded me of a street gutter in Delhi! It got to be so bad that all the flight crew immigrated into business class and hid, deciding not to serve us anything, unless they had to. Arriving in Bombay, when the doors opened, there was a mass exodus and those of us traveling on to London made a run for it. Having settled down, some three hours later, with my stomach back in tact, we boarded the same plane, which had thankfully now been fumigated, only for the same experience to happen one more time. All 235 of them re-boarded for London! We were distraught, those of us with sensitive noses that is, and we hunkered down for another 8 hours of doom and gloom accompanied by the worst odors I have ever had the pleasure of inhaling, other than this one time, again, from HK to UK some years later, when a guy from Yorkshire sat next to me, in business class, smelling like he’d just come out of a sewer pipe and forgotten to wash. 12 more hours of vile disgusting odors, enough to make you puke more than just once.

Then there was this old lady, sitting quite nonchalantly in front of me on TWA from London to New York. Suddenly, and without warning, placing her coffee cup up towards the air nosel above her seat and continuously pushing the flight attendant call button. DING DING DING DING, but to no avail. It went on and on and on. I decided enough was enough so I rose, tapped her on her shoulder and asked her very nicely, “Can I help you, is something wrong?”  She looked up at me with such an innocent grin and said, “the flight attendant said if I wanted more coffee I should push this button!” She believed that coffee would flow from the air vent and had no idea that she was pushing the flight attendant button.

On a trip to Dublin, again from Heathrow, we were hurtling down the runway, wheels ready to lift off, when BOOM! Actually it was more like a POP, one of the engines gives out, and before we knew it, the air brakes, the hand brake and any other brake they had, came on full speed, shutting both engines down immediately  and stopping us about 100 feet from the end of Heathrow runway 28 right. The doors were thrown open and whoosh, before anyone could say, “mine’s a Guinness”, we were shoved out onto the slides that appear when an in flight emergency happens. Leaving all belongings on the plane, it took 4 hours to get us back into the terminal, claim out baggage and get on another flight to Dublin. Only positive thing being, we were all safe!

Guangzhou, China, April 1983. Time to fly from China back to Hong Kong, a 30 minute flight. Remember, this was before China had come alive to modern technology. There were no roads, no boats, no trains and no other way of getting in and out. The aircraft was an ancient Russian something or other, and when checking in, the first in line got seat 1A, the second 1B etc.. You had NO choice. This was in the days when you received a sticker from a map of the plane and attached it to your flight ticket. We boarded, I was in 3A, (I will never forget), and was hemmed in by 2 disabled French tourists. It was only 30 minutes, so who cares? Right? The plane was full, the doors closed, they pushed up back, and the captain started the engines. One exploded! Kaboom! The cabin filled with smoke, and every westerner got up to run out, except me, hemmed in by the disabled Frenchmen. I was in panic mode, they were crying. Two Iranians behind me were praying to Allah and the Chinese, including the flight crew just sat, arms crossed, patient and calm, as if nothing had happened. I was suffocating and they were all smiling. As I looked back towards the rear of the aircraft, there was no panic and the flight crew, 2 very petite Chinese ladies, began opening all the aircraft doors. No one, other than us westerners, was in any hurry to do anything other than sit. As the smoke cleared, and the passengers settled down from panic mode to just plain acceptance, and with the pilot uttering something in either Mandarin or Cantonese,  out of the corner of my eye, through a very smokey window, I watched with some curiosity and amazement, as a Chinese man peddled towards us, with a step-ladder over one shoulder and a cigarette in hand. After 5 minutes he arrived at the base of our aircraft, making his way towards the rear, where both engines were situated. He put his bike on the ground, erected the ladders, stepped up to the right hand engine, took the casing off that engine, gave it a couple of whacks with a hammer he’d produced from beneath his coat, put the casing back on, took the step-ladder down, got back on his bike, cycled up to the front, gave the pilot a ‘thumbs up’ signal, and we took off!! For the 30 minute duration of that flight, the 2 Iranians were kneeling on the floor with their worry beads, the two Frenchmen were shaking like leaves and I was shitting my pants waiting for the plane to explode in mid-air. Needless to say, it didn’t!

Xian is situated in the north-west of China, and after the discovery of a Terra-cotta army, everyone on the planet wanted to visit there, well, I did, perhaps not everyone. Again, this was in the early 80’s and so, from the south of China where I’d been working, I boarded a flight for Xian, ready and willing to die! In those days, any Chinese aircraft you boarded, you had to be prepared to stick your hand out the window and flap like a bird to assist in its take off and landing. Dangerous times indeed and I recall that the UK government of the time put out a warning for its citizens only to travel on recognized airlines and not to use any internal Chinese companies to fly on. I had no choice and without any real drama, I arrived and enjoyed Xian and all its wonders. Arriving back at the airport for my flight to Guangzhou, things were just a wee bit different. The flight was full, 100% full, and there were people wandering all over the terminal with chickens and crabs and other animals, all in boxes and ready to be taken aboard as hand luggage! I checked in, went to the gate and stood in line, military style, ready to board. I had managed to wangle an aisle seat, no mean feat in those days, and was ready for yet another 3 hour Chinese air extravaganza. We boarded, I sat, they plane was ready, and then, an announcement. No idea what they said, but within 2 minutes another 25 people boarded the plane. There were no seats, and they stood, hands grasping the top of either aisle seat, ready and waiting for take off. “NO FUCKING WAY!” I thought, as the doors closed, we taxied out and began to scream down the runway at Xian international airport! These ‘clowns’ were holding on for dear life and we climbed, quite rapidly, out of harms way and up into smooth air and cruising altitude, whereupon they went into that now, well-known, Chinese squatting position, and remained there for three hours, smoking, laughing and doing anything they could to have a good time while we hurried back to Guangzhou. On out descent  they balanced their bodies the opposite way to the position they’s been in on our climb out of Xian, and as I looked at them all, standing there, in the aisle, I began to believe they’d all done this several times in the past. They turned out to be experts and probably friends of the pilot! That was really the ‘wild-west’ and to be perfectly honest, although things have improved greatly in China over the past 25 years, I often miss the innocence that these people used  to have as they began to accept and then navigate, OUR ‘real’ world.

Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, unless you’re a flight attendant trying to pack everything up ready for landing while being buffeted around in severe turbulence. No love there! The lady I’m talking about was standing up next to me as we made our approach into that particular city when suddenly she was sent three feet up into the air, her head hitting the aircraft ceiling and then her body crashing back down into the seat right in front of me where her collar-bone struck the top of the chair and penetrated her skin! Broken in two places, she was unconscious and needed to be carried off in a stretcher when we eventually landed.

But that was nothing in comparison to the time we were over Moscow heading for HK, when the man sitting next to me, although he was one seat removed, the middle one being empty, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, put his head on my shoulder. Surprised to say the least, my first reaction was to look at him and try to push him gently back to where he’d come from, believing he’d fallen asleep while the movie was playing. Unfortunately my suspicions that he might be dead were proven correctly after his refusal to move, the heaviness that seemed quite unusual to me in his head and the obvious sign, and one I should have recognized immediately, he had no pulse! Shitting my pants, this being the second dead body I’d ever seen, the first close up, I pushed the call button repeatedly for the flight attendant to come. When she arrived, she was as shocked as I was and she called the captain. Did you know that if there is a death on board the pilot is supposed to land straight away, no matter where he is? Conversation between the pilots of this plane became heated and so I inadvertently decided to join in by asking ‘what the fuck their problem was?’ It was related to me that we were over Moscow, and if they radioed in this death, they’d be forced to land, the plane would be quarantined for two days and we’d all be stuck! “Would you mind saying he died 30 minutes outside of HK?” Was he talking to me?? I had to hear this request twice more before I agreed to comply. The pilots told me that police would come on, simply asking when the man died, and me, being the only real witness, would lie through his teeth in order to save us from a fate worse that death, 2 days in Moscow airport! “Ok I’ll do it” I proclaimed, as the dead body was placed inside a body-bag retrieved from the lower deck, dragged into business class and then placed inside the onboard elevator and taken to lie with all the baggage. For my trouble, they upgraded me into first class for the remaining 9 hours and served me like a king, although I wasn’t in the mood to be treated in any way other than with sympathy! None of the other passengers on the plane would hound me in first class and those who were curious as to what had happened were kept at bay by the flight crew. When landed, the police came on board, the questions were asked, I was released and free to go and the poor widow was left to claim her husband’s body. They were both HK residents. I’ve never fallen asleep on any flight since and although no one else ever died on me, I still remember that evening as if it happened yesterday.

With more than 4 million miles flown and having taken more than 4000 flights, I have had many more good and bad experiences on board planes, some which I can honestly say scared the shit out of me and some which left me speechless. All in all, I am happy to still be here and when people say to me ‘did you have a nice flight?’ I always answer them with one line and in the same way I have done for more than 20 years, “I arrived with both legs in tact, so yes, it was good!”

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