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March 23rd, 2011 - Tales From The Wing Seat

recent Facebook discussion got me thinking about another one of those 'Travel Trips from Hell' of mine that happened long, long ago, one that I had pushed so far back into my little locker with all the other Travel Trips from Hell, nightmares, embarrassing moments from childhood, that it was deeply hidden under some bad hangovers and tacky memorabilia. 
Long ago and far away, I had been a field service technician for a 24 hour photofinishing laboratory known as Guardian Photo. The things that went on there during the 'normal' all-night shifts, things like people putting smoke bombs down the film chutes into the splicing rooms causing mass-evacuations, workers being served cease-and-desist orders in the middle of their shift, others being handcuffed and dragged away for god-knows-what, or irate boyfriends ramming cars in the parking lot were all taken in stride and could fill a chapter on their own. But let us focus on one trip away from the glitz, drudgery, and all-night party that was 24 hour photofinishing at that time. That time was the early 1990's.
This trip had me getting up early one morning on a weekday, (already a freakish start as I worked 10 PM to 6 AM and was lucky if I was getting to bed at 10 AM after a few dark beers in those days) and hopping a flight to Detroit (Dee-twa) from Minneapolis, where I would then board a small commuter aircraft and fly to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In Fort Wayne, Indiana was the Kodak Printer Maintenance School. This was a fancy name for an industrial bay that accepted printers from local photofinishing labs to be used as demonstration examples for repair instruction by Trained Kodak Factory Technicians. 
Sounding honest and noble on the surface, actually what was happening was that the local photo-finisher would send their crappiest broke-down piece of junk printer to the school and by the time we were done learning with it, they would have a nicely repaired and rebuilt machine, with a full overhaul having been performed on it by a group of students and factory-techs. How nice for them. Well, the premise was that we would see real-life problems that we might actually see in the field. And that was true, provided our own machines back home were crappy broke-down pieces of junk that had a zillion prints on them, which most usually were. So I guess it was a practical school. And I since didn't have to pay for it, so much the better.
The first leg of my flight to Detroit was uneventful. It was a nice day, sometime in the early spring of the year, I was kicking back and napping most of the way. 
Arriving in Detroit however, the weather was beginning to change. Thick fog was rolling in, cold damp breezes had begun to blow, and freezing drizzle peppered the airport windows.
Inside the gate, the boarding notice for Fort Wayne was called, and as I approached the doorway, it was clear that I was about to board the smallest commercial aircraft that I had ever seen. It had two propeller engines, one on each wing, and about twenty seats, judging by the number of windows.
As I walked out on the wet tarmac carrying my flight bag and began climbing the roll-up stairway attached to the plane, (that was about eight steps long total) I was thinking, I have never boarded a plane without a jetway before. Weird. I felt like I should have been wearing a trench coat and fedora, and have this mornings paper tucked under my arm as I tapped out my pipe on the handrail.
A cold mist stung my face as I stepped into the cabin and promptly clanged my head on the roof of the door. "Watch that," said the captain flatly as he shuffled papers in the tiny cockpit. "Yeah, thanks" I thought, as I made my way down the cramped aisle past other people rubbing their heads.
After finding my seat and staring blankly out the window for a few minutes, I notice a maintenance guy vaporizing out of the fog. He climbs a footstool, and opens a small hatch on the left engine. I watch him. From his bag he pulls out a quart of oil, and holding it deftly in his left hand like a grease-monkey in a George Raft movie, he plunges a metal filler-spout through the top of the can with his right hand and crams it down into a hole somewhere unseen beneath the cowling. I'm imagining the 'glug, glug, glug' from the can and thinking, "What's he going to do next, duct tape a crack in the prop...?!" {editors note: this is what happens when you don't tape the prop}
He yanks the can out while removing the spout in one snappy motion, with only a minor amount of oil dripping on his jumpsuit. Then he backs up a few steps, and while chucking the oil can into the back of his truck gives the pilot a thumbs-up. The engine turns over with what seems to be an abnormally long amount of chugging and shuddering, and finally a haze of pale blue smoke bellows from the exhaust, re-enforcing the stain that is already on the wing. Did the other engine start? Yup. We are now ready for take-off. I guess.
If I remember right, the flight was supposed to take about an hour and a half. The plane was manned by just the pilot and co-pilot, with no stewards or stewardesses. 
A video screen slowly emerged from the center aisle ceiling and a deteriorating tape-recorder voice explained where things were, what to insert into where, and that there would be no beverage service. It retracted again with little fanfare.
Soon we were bounding down the runway with both engines gunned up, cutting through the thick clouds of ground fog at what I imagined was top speed. I'm hoping the pilots can see better than I can, because I can't see a damn thing, and it takes me a second to realize we've even left the ground.
Maybe half of our twenty or so seats are filled, with mostly business types and the token parents with their screaming child. From my seat over the right wing (I guess I just naturally gravitate there), I can look straight down the aisle and into the cockpit. 
These were the days before security-sealed cockpits, and I can see the pilot and co-pilot with the yokes in their hands, along with a large green science-fiction-movie-looking radar tracking console shared between them. A bright green line tracks a circle on it with blobs of yellow beneath.
Once we get to "altitude", which I'm guessing is a few feet over the tops of the tallest buildings, the pilot comes on the intercom and explains that, "Hey, we're in for a bumpy ride today folks... looks like we've got a lot of cloud cover all the way to Fort Wayne... but we'll do our best to give you an enjoyable trip... keep your seatbelts fastened AT ALL TIMES, and sit back and enjoy the ride..." he says, just as we hit some turbulence with a sickening free-fall drop that makes his voice go up at the end. 
A short time later, I'm beginning to realize that I am not enjoying the ride. Our little craft is bouncing around the sky, moving forwards and sideways and vectoring into the fourth dimension all at the same time. It's like we're being blown by some unseen wind, and all I can see out of any window is milk. An occasional wisp of contrast goes by, but it's not enough to give my mind something to grasp to create the image of perspective, stability, or direction. It's just milk, milk, milk. I'm beginning to feel a little green around the gills.
My eyes wander around the diffuse light inside of the plane trying find something to focus on, and I begin to notice how grungy it is. My dog-eared copy of Hammacher Schlemmer has an obscene doodle on it's cover and numerous Cheetos are ground into a carpet of indeterminate color at my feet.
Soon I am grasping for some form of tantric meditation that will keep my stomach from rolling independently from the plane. Don't look at the milk. The milk won't help you. Hammacher Schlemmer is not helping. Ground Cheetos are not helping. Eyes closed, not helping. As I realize this and open my eyes, I notice the kid is no longer screaming. Well, that's something, I think. As I look over to his seat, I see why. His parents are showing him how to use the barf bag. Other patrons are using or seemingly thinking about using their barf bags too. The plane is playing a meandering one-note song of dual engine humming, struggling to maintain that one note and not quite doing it. This is soundtrack is accented by an occasional retch.
"Keep it together" I whisper to my stomach inwardly, and as my eyes go from rolling up inside my head to up the aisle towards the cockpit, the moment they reach the radar screen which is the only thing with any real regularity within my vision, it brightens for a moment, then shrinks into a single green dot, finally blipping out to a shade of dead pastel green like an old TV set. The co-pilot stares at it expectantly for a moment, then reaches back and draws the plastic accordioned curtain to the cockpit closed quickly, meeting my eyes for a fraction of a second. I look away and groan inwardly.
More milk goes by the windows. More retching. More roller-coaster dives and swoops. I never liked roller-coasters all that much. Focus. Let the mind go blank. Let the stomach be at peace.
Okay, say I DID want to use a barf bag, I should have it handy right?  I'm not giving in, I tell myself, I'm just preparing for any eventuality that might occur. I go through the seat pocket in front of me: Hammacher Schlemmer... Cheesy laminated evacuation instructions with 80's hairstyles... In-flight magazine, never read... and a barf bag. NO! A FULL barf bag. Ugh.
That's disgusting, I think as I try the next seatback pocket. Another full barf bag! The NEXT seatback pocket. Full barf bag. I collapse back into my seat and withdraw into my own private horror.
Example 'A':  Barf Bag.
Notice the full range of applications listed at the bottom of the bag.
Twilight Zone music begins to play inside my head as images of William Shatner looking out his window at a gremlin go by. But no, now it's just... milk.
Soon my lack of attention is snapped by a voice over the intercom announcing "THAT WE WILL BE LANDING IN FIVE MINUTES." 
Five minutes! I can do this. Focus. Don't look out the window. Don't look at the barf bags. Don't look at the Cheetos. Just, breathe and don't look at ANYTHING.
After the longest five minutes of my life, the ground is finally coming up to meet us. Or rather we are meeting it a little too quickly, and with a hard thump, an overhead compartment opens up, launching someone's briefcase airborne. Luckily it hits an empty seat and takes a nifty bounce before hitting the aisle floor and sliding into the bulkhead. No one says a word.
The microsecond we've stopped our forward momentum, my green passengers and I bolt for the cabin door. No one looks at one another. Goodbye, barf bag nightmare. 
Goodbye plane, I hope they clean you this time. Hello Fort Wayne, Indiana. It's SO good to see you.

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