Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Flights we have enjoyed.

No Good Boyo - a veritable walking encyclopedia of Slavic eccentricity - has recently waxed suitably lyrical about the joys of small post-Soviet airlines. I have only flown on one such carrier - Air Azerbaijan - and they fly internationally so are relatively normal. The only refreshingly Soviet-esque part was the cabin service, which consisted of a scarily made-up ex-KGB torturer who made one pass through the cabin during the five-hour flight, to ask the monosyllabic question
"DRINK?" of each passenger.
"Just a water please", I asked her.
I wondered which gas was on offer for a moment until it dawned on me that she meant "Still or sparking?"

Anyway, my formative mad airline experiences - decades before this relatively tame incident - were at the hands of assorted Indonesian airlines, who have something of a chequered safety record and thus add a frisson of terminal excitement to the otherwise mundane business of air transport. It is said that travelling by plane is a million times safer than crossing the road. Indonesian air travel is a million times safer than crossing an Indonesian road, which still renders it akin to Russian roulette (or indeed Borneo roulette, which involves propositioning long-earlobed ladies from cannibal tribes for oral favours. Apparently.)

Where was I? Oh yes - Indonesian air travel in the golden days of Suharto; before the bombs started going off, when Muslim headscarves were a rarity eliciting pointing and laughing from the assembled peanut gallery and when Garuda Indonesia stewardesses would give you their private phone numbers and agree to meet you for a drink after landing. And Garuda was still an option, as at that point the EU hadn't banned all Indonesian carriers on safety grounds. Personally, when young I was prepared to accept the chance of a fiery death in return for a date with a stewardess. But alas, the past is a foreign country; and a foreign country's past is, er, something which as yet lacks a word.

Who remembers the DC10? There was a time in the mid-80s when the things seemed to be falling out of the sky on a weekly basis. I was therefore less than 100% happy to find that my 1985 flight from Jakarta to Hong Kong was on a DC10. I availed myself of a window seat and, as we taxied out, was moderately alarmed to see a piece fall off the wing. I seemed to be the only one even marginally bothered by this ("It happens all the time, and in any case everything is the Will of Allah..."), and the flight took off as scheduled.

Landing in Hong Kong before the new airport was built was an experience never forgotten. The runway was built out into Kowloon harbour at the foot of a mountain, meaning that approaching aircraft had to turn over the peak and make their approach down the mountain, between the skyscrapers. My memory may be playing tricks, but I could have sworn we could look into people's apartment windows level with the plane. If the plane overshot the runway, it would end up in the harbour. Modern air travel just seems to offer the remote peril without the excitement.

Bali's Ngurah Rai international airport has the runway built across a narrow isthmus, meaning that if you undershoot or overshoot you end up in the limpid azure water.

In the early 90s Emirates started connecting to the the Far East at quite reasonable prices; a fine option if you had no objection to changing in Dubai. On one occasion I had booked to fly Jakarta-Singapore-Dubai-London; but shortly after take-off from Jakarta we collided with a giant armour-plated toxic exploding vulture and mullered the tail. They didn't tell us this until we'd landed in Singapore; but they did break the bad news that we were going to be there until replacement parts were fitted, no matter what.

So for six hours we were confined in the plane on the ground at Changi. The flight was full of devout Muslims from East Java (which is Indonesian for 'Norfolk' or 'Alabama') going on minor pilgrimage. They had obviously never flown before - jostling on boarding to make sure they got a seat and didn't have to ride on top with the baggage, bringing their own lunch pails full of rice, praying in an alarming fashion when we took off or encountered turbulence and so on. They were getting agitated and the cabin crew were having difficulty explaining the problem, having only modern - rather than Koranic - Arabic and no Javanese (there is also the issue that as far as I know the Koran is somewhat light on mentions of aircraft bird strikes and repairs to avionics systems, but I could be wrong).

I was trying to explain the situation to a nice old bearded geezer sitting across the aisle from me, and a stewardess noticed. She bustled over to me. "Can you communicate with these people?" "Um, sort of" I replied. "Well could you come up to the front and announce over the PA system what's going on?"

The problem with studying the social use and ancient literature of a language is that your vocabulary of modern jets tends to be a bit poor. And being asked to move from "explaining things to the bloke next to you" to "making an official airline tannoy announcement" is a challenge at the best of times. As I switched on the microphone, my mind went blank. "Ladies and gentleman" I started in Javanese, followed by a long pause. "We've been run over by a giant evil bird."
There were encouraging murmurs of understanding from the peasantry, presumably accompanied my sotto voce mumblings of "Well they would 'ave that in that Singapore, wouldn't they? That's the sorter thing they 'ave."
"So we must wait while they mend our chariot."

To me surprise and relief, there are broad smiles of understanding, . The pilgrims duly sit down assuaged and the stewardess is touchingly grateful. Not grateful enough to give me her number, but extra-smiley nonetheless. My connection to London was screwed, obviously, but that's a relatively small price to pay for remaining alive, in my book.

But the most endearingly ramshackle flight I ever took was on a Mandala Airways Vickers Viscount from Padang to Jakarta. With propellers. I remembered having a model of one when I was a small kid, and somehow there was a lost world glamour to travelling on a vintage plane. Not long afterwards Mandala scrapped them all in favour of anonymous modern jets. Indonesian pilots have an understandable respect for thunderclouds, of which Java in particular has more than any other place on earth. Lacking the ceiling to go over them or the suicidal tendency to fly through them, the pilots would weave in and out of the cloud-stacks, banking at crazy angles to avoid being shaken to bits by the turbulence.

Padang is a 'walk straight out of waiting room across grass and climb steps' sort of airfield, of a kind I rather like (the only one more basic I've ever encountered was 'Mid Wales Airport' near Welshpool, where air traffic control consists of the canteen manageress popping her head outside to have a look around and then clearing you for landing via a walkie-talkie, but that's another story). Walking out, getting on a prop-plane, going for a roller-coaster ride through stormclouds. That's flying...


No Good Boyo said...

Quality story. I like the "evil bird" bit. I'd find that more resassuring than any other announcement.

Welshpool airport. Tell more. Where the Hell were you flying to? Tabor?

Gyppo Byard said...

Air Gypsies. Fear us... flying over your house without a licence, dropping lucky heather down your chimneys. MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Sorry - don't know what came over me...

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Polish passengers still applaud when the plane touches down. Must be a hangover from the days when LOT stood for "Lands On Trees".

Gyppo Byard said...

Ooh! Airline mnemonics! How about Italy's "Always Late In Take-off, Always Late In Arrival?

Gadjo Dilo said...

Well done on the tannoy thing - you could also have peppered your announcement with phrases like "And, lo, it came to pass..." etc, as they might have enjoyed that too.

Passengers here also applaud when the plane lands on its wheels, though I've yet to hear them so impressed that they move into that frightening clapping-in-rhythm East Europeans do to express extreme appreciation.

Scaryduck said...

I flew from Southampton last year.

We walked out from the departure shed, onto an aircraft with propellers for a flight to Amsterdam. On our return, we had to fly round and round the Isle of Wight, casually dumping fuel, until the wheels decided to work.

The Jules said...

On a flight to the Galapagos a lady had a chicken in a cat-carrier, and I desperately wanted a chicken in a cat-carrier.

Proper hand luggage, is a chicken in a cat-carrier.

Gyppo Byard said...

Scaryduck - I've flown from Southampton m'self, (to the Channel Islands, it was). It's quite a nice size for an airport. I wonder whether your plane had a genuine problem or whether the pilot just felt like dumping stuff on the Isle of Wight.

Jules - In *cat carrier*? There's posh...

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

My Auntie went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes from Southampton, God knows why as she's not a Catholic, but the plane got struck by lightning on the way there. Auntie Lily had a heart attack later as a result of the shock, never really recovered and died a year or so later. Proof if any were needed that Rome is the whore of Babylon.