Thursday, 16 December 2010

Peril on Planes 1

What does the name CASA 212 mean? To those that know their aircraft it is a small twin propeller plane but to me personally it is a terrible reminder of a flight from hell.
The designers must have had bad day as it looks like something between a pram and a small boat. The latter description got me to wondering if even those that created it had much faith in its ability to stay out of the water. Then, to cap it all, they described it as an ‘Aviocar’ which led me to thinking that we could always taxi to our destination if necessary.

It was a long time ago but my journey is still etched in my mind. I had recently arrived in Puerto Rico and was due to connect onto a local island hopping flight to Anguilla, My incoming BA flight was on time, my suitcase was waiting for me at the carousel and off I went to the domestic check –in area without a care in the world. How deluded I was.

My first inkling of impending doom was finding myself in a noisy overcrowded non air conditioned shed behind a queue of about 40 people all expecting to get on my flight that had less than 30 seats. They seemed to have all their worldly possessions with them including large musical instruments and a fridge.

A solitary bored gum chewing female agent was languidly checking people in at a rate of one per five minutes which gave me a desk eta of two hours (one hour after scheduled departure) when help arrived in the form of her male supervisor who squeezed her butt, picked out her gum and plugged his face into hers. After giving the appreciative girl what looked like a full tonsillectomy he climbed on top of the desk and shouted “I got 20 bucks for any of yous who ain't getting on this plane”. If I had known I would have taken him up on the offer but other more knowledgeable travellers pounced on the idea of making money and self preservation.

Having completed their overbooking ‘cull’ they herded us, like lambs to the abattoir onto the tarmac to find our plane which they seemed to have misplaced. The way our check-in Lolita said goodbye seemed terribly final, almost as though she knew something we didn’t. The rain was sheeting down as we tramped across the tarmac like a bunch of refugees past lines of new shiny jets searching for our ‘aircraft’.

Then there it was! Our plane/car/boat, sat slightly apart from the others like a forlorn ugly duckling. It was old, oil streaked and there was a very worried looking man standing under one of its wings with a torch pointed at an engine shaking his head. “You gotta be kidding” I distinctly heard him say as he peered through the soggy gloom. At the back end of the plane they were trying to load the fridge and the rest of the bags using the wedge and push method. Some bags aren’t going to make it I thought.

We boarded. It was like trying to get in a coffin with a bunch of outsize people with no manners and two left feet. Sitting down was rather like that ‘Twister’ game where you squash together and put your hands and feet on different coloured circles but finally we all seemed to get there. I had what looked like a 7 foot basketball player with a ghetto blaster sat next to me. I reckoned I could have changed the tracks with my nose if it was switched on. In front of us we could see the open cockpit and the two pilots were having a heated exchange. “Well were going anyway” the captain said to the sodden co-pilot who I last saw under the wing. I saw him pale visibly.

And then we were off! After three tries the port engine started in gouts of flames which were told through a crackling loudspeaker was “quite normal”. By this time I was scrabbling for the safety card in the hopes of improving my survival chances. I gazed at it over the volume switch of the ghetto blaster which was now poking into my cheek. It said there were no life vests and that we were to use our seat cushions instead. I groped downwards and found they were the thickness of a slice of bread and probably just as porous.

I then browsed over the instructions for the brace position but discarded it as I did not think I could get into a foetal position around my neighbours ‘mega bass’. I also remember someone who should know telling me that the sole purpose for the brace position was to protect your teeth so they could identify you after the event, Nasty!

We lurched forwards and started to crab our way towards the end of the runway. Our co-pilot was sulking and had his arms folded while our gallant captain struggled with the controls. Then the engines roared, the rivets rattled, interior fitments fell off, a lady screamed and we were off.

The Casa rumbled down the runway. And rumbled, and rumbled and rumbled showing no sign of getting airborne. In the length it takes for a jumbo to fly our Casa still stuck to the ground like a limpet. The lady’s scream went up a decibel and the end of the runway came into view and at the last second we took off. Well actually not so much took of as lifted our undercarriage and lurched forward like an aged woodpecker. Another second later we had waves under our wingtips and the captain was hauling on the misnamed ‘joy stick’ as though his life depended on it. It probably did.

We never seemed to get as high as the clouds and all their content of rain and occasional lightening crashed down on us. We started being thrown around like peas in a drum and it was then that the hymn singing started up from the passengers in front who had a better view than me. We all joined in like demented gospel singers convinced that we were singing at our own funeral. We were half way through a particularly depressing number made famous by Paul Robeson when Anguilla came into view.

We did not so much land as fly into the runway. We barely had to dip our nose and there we were. The engines stopped and there was total silence. We sat there in the dark with the rain drumming on the aircraft roof and puddles forming on the carpet. Finally from row 3 there came a voice saying “thank you sweet Jesus” and we all stampeded for the exit.

So that was it! We survived! Hallelujah! But there was a sting in the tail. The guitar arrived safely and so miraculously did the fridge but my brand new Samsonite did not
I initially had to stifle an amused chuckle as I saw the contents of someone’s case come out on the belt until I recognised one of my T-shirts. My case had opened like an eggshell disgorging its contents everywhere. I still have two odd socks from that terrible night and often wonder where all my underpants went. I expect there must have been a shortage of them on the island at the time.

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