Airborne adventures


Wise men from the mountains would call it a nemesis but I, for my own selfish reasons would prefer call it a misfortune. Airplanes and I have had quite a tussle over the years. I wouldn’t entirely call myself a frequent flyer, but the little that I’ve been on flights, the number of adventures that surrounded those journeys ended up constituting a major fraction. And the one I had this last weekend finally prompted me to pen down all those, for posterity sake. So here they are, in no particular order.

Scene 1 – An engineering malfunction
Philadelphia International Airport: The day was bright and sunny – one of those rarities deep into the Autumn. Nothing indicated that this journey would be as adventurous as it turned out to be. After an uncharacteristically short security check in, I reached my gate. Sharp on time, the announcement came to commence boarding. The captain was in his usual jovial mood as he welcomed everyone on board. But little did he know as he started the engine that the APU (Alternate Power Unit) on the flight was waiting to fail. As quickly as he got into the cockpit, he walked out of there too, to make the announcement that the flight would be delayed by 30 minutes until the mechanics looked into the problem. The APU was reset shortly after and we finally got the clearance to take off. But things did not get any better. As we coasted towards the runway with the air hostess breezing through her rhythmic display of safety measures, the airplane came to a stand still once again. This time it was the parking breaks! And the flight was pronounced “unfit to fly”. We were all requested to leave the airplane, while the mechanics went through their ways. We dragged ourselves back to the gate unsure of what would follow, when the captain once again came out with his gentlemanly smile. He explained the situation as calmly as he could possibly have been, making sure that no one panicked. I stretched myself far enough into the crowd that gathered around him, to pick up bits and pieces of what he said. At the end of it all, he stated that we would fly out on the same flight an hour later! Now, as much as I liked the fact that my flight was being repaired, I gasped at the thought of having to take off on the same flight that had a brake problem a few minutes ago! But I didn’t have much of a choice to work with here either. The next flight was late into the evening and I had to get to my destination as early as possible. So with my heart in my hands I boarded the flight once again. I must admit all these adventures did end up in a smooth sail through the rest of the journey and the brakes worked perfectly as we touched down at O’Hare.

Scene 2 – A white Christmas party
Philadelphia International Airport (again): The forecast had warned me about an impending snow storm. But little did I expect to see a 15 inch blanket of snow as I looked through my window in the morning. All dreams of a warm and humid Indian vacation suddenly started to fade away. I called up the airline, completely expecting the news of a canceled flight. But to my surprise, they still had plans to fly out in the evening. Wasting no time, I decided to catch a cab to get to the airport for my evening flight. A two hour long sliding and turning on the highway, finally got me to the airport. My hopes continued to be high up at the tree tops even as I heard that all domestic flights were canceled. At last after several hours of staring unto infinity through the windows that separated me from the runway and the snow, the lady at the gate announced boarding. Overjoyed at the thought finally making it to the sunny side of the globe, I hopped through the gates smiling at everyone on my way. I sat by the small window, watching the airport staff frantically trying save the runway from the snow that still kept coming down hard. I must have fallen asleep in between. But when I woke up, I found the lady sitting beside me smiling at me as she proudly displayed the sketch she had made of a sleeping me. It was then that I realized that we had been in the airplane for almost 4 hours. The window by my side, by then, had completely turned opaque due to the pile of snow that settled down on it. I waited patiently an hour more for that impending announcement – “The flight to Frankfurt was canceled due to the snow storm”! What followed was nothing frantic but a really long wait in the queue to reschedule my trip. Another 3-4 hours went by and I finally got booked into a flight four days later (on the eve of Christmas). This had drastically cut down my vacation days by a week. As much as I wasn’t pleased at the thought, I did not see any other way out of this predicament. All I had as a choice then, was to gather all my heavy baggage and wade through the 21 inches of snow back to my apartment.
Offbeat: I must add that I did manage to get two more weeks of vacation due to another string of misfortunes while in India. So that did make up for the lost days, although I would have preferred a little less of worry during those days.

Scene 3 – The Texan sojourn
En Route Philadelphia, from the Texan lands: As smooth as this journey had been so far, I decided to finally let a sigh of relief as the captain announced that we were scheduled to land in Philadelphia in 15 minutes. As the seat belt sign made its way out again I decided to close my eyes and let my ears go through the horrific changes in pressure. Suddenly I felt a jolt that made me jump with a start. The torrential rain and thunderstorm that struck the city of Philadelphia had actually prevented the air traffic control to give a go ahead to land. And this meant we had to circle around the city until we got a green light to land. As I sat by the window watching the “carpet of gold” that laid below me, the captain made the most startling of announcements. The airplane was running out of fuel! We had to be rerouted to Baltimore to refuel. Nothing to panic as we were told, it still kept me at the edge of my seat, until we landed in Baltimore. An hour long wait amidst a “chattery” group of fellow passengers we took off again, only this time with a fully loaded fuel tank and clear skies for comfort.

Scene 4 – Slumbered
La Guardia Airport, New York: The weather was surprisingly pleasant for a weekend in December. I was in transit to catch my flight to Syracuse and I managed to get to the gate an hour ahead of schedule. Exhausted as I was from the myriad of questions that were fired at me in an interview that I just attended, I was really looking forward to an event less evening. Hoping that at least once a “Dunkin donuts coffee” would keep me awake, I ordered a tall mug of strong black coffee to keep me company and I found a cozy chair right beside the gate. But as fortune would have it, I found myself slowly drifting away to slumber over a rather uninteresting book that I picked up on my way. I didn’t know how long I had slept, but I was told that my name was announced several times requesting to board the flight. When I finally woke up with a start, I was greeted by a closed gate and an airplane all set to take off. My pleas to get me into the flight fell to deaf ears. However the lady at the gates did take pity on me and put me on the next flight scheduled to fly out two hours later. So much for a late evening nap!

Scene 5 – A dinner date at Pittsburgh
Philadelphia International Airport (yet again): I would have called this experience the most expensive dinner that I’ve ever had, if not for a fully paid trip to Pittsburgh and back, thanks to US Airways. And yet again, it all started at Philadelphia International Airport. The weather had nothing to do this time, for a midsummer evening with a light breeze would have been a flyers delight. As it happened, I was told at the gates that my flight to Syracuse was canceled due to mechanical problems. Impatient as I was to get back to Syracuse, I decided to ask for alternate routes, fully aware that there was another one scheduled to fly out of Philadelphia late into the night. Pittsburg was the transit that I was offered. I grabbed on to the offer when I heard that the flight was ready to board right away. Nothing went wrong until we touched down at Pittsburgh and I found a seat at a McDonald’s in the airport to while away my hour long wait at the transit station. As I toyed through my iPhone, (which, back then, I was still getting used to due its slippery steel back and its onscreen keyboard) I decided to check the status of my flight to Syracuse. “Canceled”, said the big bold red letters that flashed on the screen! Without thinking any further I stuffed the rest of the food into my mouth and ran back to the same gates through which I came out to Pittsburgh. It must have been my concerned face, all red and sweating due to the sheer number of chicken nuggets that I had managed to squeeze through my throat, the lady at the gates took pity on me and put me on the same flight in which I came. Back in Philadelphia, I found myself offered a standby seat on the late night flight, which I had carelessly refused the last time. I waited by the gates counting the number of people, hoping that at least one of them would “miss” their flight. I guess I do deserve a little bit of luck after all this. An hour went by and I finally boarded the flight with a sigh of relief. All the turbulence that followed on the way was minuscule compared to what happened earlier.

There are many more that can perhaps be categorized as common man’s flight experiences. But all these have taught me to be skeptical every time I boarded a flight. Even with the nicest of weather or the best of airlines, nothing can ever be trusted when I board an airplane!

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~ by Niranjan Nandakumar on November 20, 2011.

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