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Flying Is For The Birds

I am sitting here, at 32,000 feet, surrounded by tons of metal with the seatbelt light on as we experience some pretty severe turbulence. I can no longer type because we are shaking too much, so I begin to reminisce about my experiences high above the ground.

I have flown a great deal and my busiest year, 2007, had me boarding a total of 108 airliners. To say I am familiar with flying would be an understatement, but that certainly does not mean I like it. Of course, now that I am writing about it, looking down at nothing but water, all of the challenges I have encountered come to the foreground of my mind.

I think one of my best airplane experiences was a number of years ago, flying from Moncton to Toronto on a 737, one of my favourite aircraft. It was the dead of winter and the snow was falling fast while the wind howled. We had just de-iced and were making our way to the active runway. The plane barrelled along, about to lift off when the engines made a strange noise and the take-off was aborted.

A moment later an announcement explained there was an issue with a gauge, which had to be resolved before we could take off. I certainly have no problem with repairing anything before we fly, no matter how long it takes, but many people around me failed to share my views and became agitated.

The plane pulled back to the gate and maintenance did their thing. Unfortunately there is a rule on the books, which states the door has to be open while the plane is parked. A long, icy thirty minutes passed before were ready to roll and I was shivering from the cold when I realized we had to be de-iced again.

The announcement was that we were 7th in line and while we waited, now nearly two hours behind schedule, a screeching siren suddenly wailed throughout the fuselage. Everyone looked around and a flight attendant ran from the back to the front. From my vantage point I could see her banging on the bathroom door, without response. She poked at the lock and the door opened and I howled when I saw an elderly gentleman sitting, his trousers around his ankles, casually puffing on a cigarette as if nothing was amiss.

Another hour went by while I watched the RCMP board the plane and escort the man to the nether regions of Moncton’s Police Station and finally we managed to take off. One final announcement explained that the airport in Toronto was closed due to weather so we had to fly to Ottawa, which we did and where we sat for another two hours before taking off. My two hour flight landed at three in the morning, only seven hours late.

I mentioned I like 737’s mainly because I am familiar with their quirky noises and strange habits, like slowing down over Brampton, because of noise restrictions. This happens just after take-off, depending which runway is used and it gives the impression that the plane is losing power. My favourite ritual, at that time is to look around, find someone with fear in their eyes, and pretend to share their sentiment, secretly giggling to myself.

I remember flying from Edmonton to Toronto, sitting next to a priest, when a loud, ear-piercing bang rocked the plane. The pilot announced that we had lost an engine. People were looking at each other and I stared out the window, somewhat relieved to see that the engines were still attached. He went on to announce that we would be able to fly to Toronto, but regulations insisted we land as soon as possible. Yeah, right, I thought. What if the other engine decides to quit? They were after all manufactured by the same builder. I think I would have been all right if the priest beside me had not turned to me and asked if I wanted him to hear my confession.

I believe it is a numbers game. I remember hearing that one in sixteen thousand flights has mechanical problems. I know the odds of anything bad happening are low and you are much safer in an airplane than you are in an automobile, but all that means nothing when I look down from this great height.

Canada has one of the highest safety standards which is comforting, except the majority of my flights are international. I took a Twin Otter across Costa Rica, which was built in 1964 and the pilot was proud of the fact. I also had the pleasure of spending an hour in a four-seater en route to New Zealand’s Milford Sound, where the turbulence was so bad my head was constantly banged against the ceiling.

One of the better memories has to be on board a Russian Aeroflot DC-8, travelling from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The plane was half full and every conceivable part shook while it endlessly barrelled along the runway. Upon take off the empty aisle seat beside me began to move, shake and fall, directly into the aisle. No one seemed upset and when we landed (safely, thank goodness) people simply stepped over it and continued on their way.