Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Flying High

Lest anyone get the idea that I dislike air travel, I don’t. But I do need to clarify a few points.

In the early days, I often travelled by air between my home in New York and school in Maine. Afterwards, most of my airplane rides have taken place because of ships, usually either going away to join a ship or returning home from a ship. The science of flight—airmanship, navigation, and the principle of physics that makes it all possible—I find fascinating. The idea of holding a heavier-than-air object aloft by a difference in air pressure on the upper and lower wing surfaces is intriguing, a wonderful example of a highly abstract concept yielding very tangible and practical results. Aeronavigation, similar by nature and in practice to shipboard navigation, is also very interesting, as are the mechanical means by which a solid object is maneuvered through a fluid medium, whether air or water. The laws of physics and mathematics govern it all, hence both ship and airplane operations are rigorously logical disciplines.

What I dislike about air travel is not the travel itself but some of the human factors that have become part of it. I don’t like mob scenes at airports. I don’t appreciate being treated like a criminal by megalomaniacal security personnel. I don’t like the cattle car atmosphere of some airlines. And I don’t enjoy the company of seat mates who talk incessantly about nothing or who can’t keep their elbows out of my ribs. Otherwise, I really do enjoy flying, and I always have. With a window seat in the non-smoking section and fellow passengers who behave themselves, an aerial journey can be very pleasant indeed.

Some of my favorite flights took place with Bar Harbor Airlines in the 1970s. This company, now long gone, operated a fleet of small commuter airplanes between Boston and various points in Maine and Quebec. The mainstay of the fleet was the Beechcraft 99, an unpressurized, low-altitude, dual-propeller aircraft. It carried perhaps fifteen passengers in small single seats on each side of a narrow central aisle. It also had big windows and a cockpit open to the passenger cabin. Visibility was thus excellent. On takeoffs and landings, I could look out the front and share the pilots’ view of the approaches and navigational lights and runways ahead. Bar Harbor also named all its aircraft, which I thought was a nice personal touch. I travelled aboard airplanes with locally exotic names such as State of Maine, City of Bangor, The Portlander, Aroostook Flyer, La Ville de Quebec, and La Ville de Sherbrooke proudly emblazoned on their tails

I rode on these aircraft several times between Bangor and Boston, usually but not always with a stop in Augusta. My most memorable of these journeys took place on Friday, December 16, 1977, aboard The Portlander. This flight ran nonstop from Bangor to Boston in an hour and five minutes. After flying overland from Bangor to the coast, The Portlander then flew over the ocean parallel to and only a short distance from the shoreline. I had a seat on the starboard side, and with a clear sky and excellent visibility enjoyed a truly magnificent view of the coast line from about Wiscasset all the way to Boston. All the harbors, beaches, and rocky outcroppings of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts were visible in detail. As the plane flew past Bath, I could with ease pick out my brother’s old house on Wesley Street in back of the Methodist church. He had lived there a few years previously when stationed at the nearby Brunswick Naval Air Station, and it had been the site of several family gatherings. As I contemplated these memories, The Portlander flew on and finally landed at Boston Logan Airport, a tiny speck of an aircraft amid a sea of sprawling concrete runways and taxiways.

Less scenically interesting but more ambitious were a few long flights over the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve made a total of two and a half transatlantic flights. The two were commercial runs aboard 747s operated by Trans World Airlines, the old TWA, which is now long gone. On the first of these I was returning to New York from London after leaving the Wilkes in Southampton, England, on Friday evening, January 23, 1981. On the second, I was going overnight from New York to Italy to join the Waccamaw. This one left JFK on Tuesday, June 22, 1982, and arrived in Rome early the next morning. On both occasions it felt quite disconcerting to get across an ocean so quickly—too quickly, really—and be suddenly disgorged onto another continent with a different language, culture, monetary system, time zone, etc. But that’s another story.

The half transatlantic flight was really just that; it went halfway across the Atlantic. Enroute to join the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, I travelled aboard a Air Force C-5 cargo airplane with four or five other new crewmen. This flight was operated by the Military Airlift Command from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida to Ascension Island with an intermediate stop in Antigua. The pilots, navigator, and engineer were commissioned Air Force officers. The passenger and cargo attendants were enlisted men.

I arrived at Patrick in mid-morning on Wednesday, September 12, 1979, many hours in advance of the flight’s departure time. No one would tell me when the plane was scheduled to leave, just “Be back here around 3:00 o’clock.” With about six hours to kill, I went to the beach, went to the base library, and went out to lunch, all of which were within walking distance of the air terminal. At 3:00pm I returned to the check-in spot for the flight and met the other fellows who were going to the Vandenberg. We got in line, turned in our paperwork, emptied our pockets, and put our suitcases up on tables where they were opened and inspected thoroughly. When they were repacked, we were led outside and across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft. The flight crew then directed us up the steps and aboard the airplane.

I realized quickly that I was not travelling first class. The passengers’ seats were situated just behind the cockpit. They did not recline. They faced backwards. There were no windows. The only view was of containers of cargo lashed to the deck and the fuselage. I had known that passenger airplanes were often referred to as cattle cars in the sky, but this was a baggage car! I discovered that if I turned around in my seat I could with difficulty see up the small aisle and out the windows in the front of the airplane. At least the pilots have windows, I thought. But even this small luxury did not last. At departure time they closed the cockpit door. The next daylight I saw was in Antigua when they let us off the plane for a break.

From the airstrip in Antigua we passengers were bused to a little village where we got a free dinner. It felt nice to dine al fresco in the tropics after being cooped up in the sky for so long. After a while we were bussed back to the airplane and it took off for the long haul to Ascension Island, midway between West Africa and Brazil. Since it was an overnight flight, I curled up as comfortably as possible and went to sleep. I didn’t have anything else to do anyway. After I woke up, at some point over the Atlantic, my fellow passengers expressed their envy of my youth and ability to sleep so soundly. They had been uncomfortably tossing and turning in their seats while I merrily slumbered on! The crew then distributed box lunches to us. In all fairness to the much maligned airline food, these were actually quite good.

Soon afterwards, the aircraft started its descent for Ascension, and it landed on time at 8:00am, Thursday, September 13. Emerging from the airplane once again, I beheld the looming brown mountains, all extinct volcanoes, of Ascension Island. I also felt very grateful that we’d had a good, competent navigator in the air crew. He had successfully found this tiny speck of an island in the midst of the vast blue reaches of the Atlantic. He knew his business and it showed!

I travelled only this one time with the Military Airlift Command. Closer to home, a company that I flew with regularly was Piedmont Airlines. Styling itself “The up and coming airline,” Piedmont connected the mid-Atlantic states with New York, Boston, and other major cities. It’s long gone now, though. I rode on Piedmont’s fleet of Boeing 737s going to and from the Rigel, the Mercury, and the Waccamaw. A few of these journeys were scenic standouts.

I recall several occasions when I took Piedmont between Norfolk, Virginia, and either LaGuardia or Newark Airports in the New York area. The nonstop flight took just over an hour and passed over the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. From a window seat on the appropriate side of the aircraft, I gazed down upon the rural landscape that turned first to wetlands and then to sandy beaches interrupted by inlets. Then the broad Atlantic stretched eastward. It was always a very lovely sight, bracketed by Cape Charles to the south and Cape Henlopen to the north. It was also a calm and peaceful view, a quiet and sparsely populated area sandwiched by bays and far from the urban commotion of Norfolk, New Jersey, and New York. I followed this route about ten times between 1979 and 1983, and I never grew tired of it.

One evening, I did something different. During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays of 1982-1983, the Waccamaw remained idle at the Naval Supply Center piers in Norfolk. Able to take a few days off, I flew home for a brief family visit. I returned to the ship on New Year’s Day, 1983, on connecting Piedmont flights from Boston to Richmond to Norfolk. The first of these took off from Boston about 8:00pm, travelled southwest over Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Long Island, and then went out over the Atlantic toward New Jersey.  I had a window seat on the starboard side. Through the crystal clear night sky I beheld in magnificent illumination the western half of Long Island, New York City, and northern New Jersey. The ocean and harbor waterways contrasted in black with the incandescence of the city and its suburbs. It was a truly spectacular view, beyond comparison to any other view of New York. Unfortunately, it receded more quickly than I would have liked as the aircraft sped on toward Richmond. The rest of the journey, while comfortable and pleasant, was anticlimactic after this breathtaking sight.

Less dramatic and more routine were the domestic flights I made on Delta Air Lines in the 1970s and 80s. It was often aboard Delta 727s that I travelled between New York and Maine. Later on, I rode with Delta while assigned to the Victoria, the Comet, the Saturn, and the Bartlett. I always liked Delta, probably more for sentimental than sightseeing reasons. My very first airplane ride took place with Delta in January of 1976, from JFK to Bangor with a stop in Boston.1 I recall my astonishment at arriving in Boston in about fifty minutes. Three weeks earlier, I had ridden the all-stops overnight train from Boston to New York. That had taken five hours.

Delta got me off to a good start, and in the end I made more flights on Delta than on any other airline. Many of these took place at night, and on a variety of airplanes including the Lockheed Tri-Star 1011, the largest aircraft in their fleet. I rode this one from Atlanta to New York to Boston in the midnight hours of Saturday, October 31, 1981, the night before Halloween. During the stop at JFK at about 3:00am, it seemed that the pilots had to taxi the plane all over the airport to reach the terminal. During this joyride I saw the British Airways’ Concorde for the first time. A sleek and elegant looking aircraft, she reposed under a battery of floodlights and was indeed an impressive sight. Years later, my children would take a liking to both the British and French Concordes when they would see them fly over their grandparents’ house while preparing to land at JFK.

Finally, I rode the famous Eastern Shuttle a few times between Boston and New York. In its day the shuttle was an aviation icon, but it’s been gone for a long while now. I remember one flight in particular, on a brilliantly clear and sunlit Sunday afternoon, May 25, 1985. I had a window seat on the port side as the plane took off from LaGuardia and headed east over Long Island. This gave me an unlimited view of the North Shore of Long Island, of Long Island Sound, and of coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island. It was truly beautiful. In about twenty minutes the aircraft reached Orient Point. Then it turned slightly northeastward and soon afterwards flew overland toward Boston. As I gazed down upon the Island, the Sound, and southern New England, I thought of how often my family and I had traversed this area by automobile, by train, by ship, and by airplane. In the future, my children would also traverse this area many times while going to and from their grandparents’ house. They would come to especially enjoy crossing Long Island Sound on the ferries between Connecticut and Long Island.

But while this family tradition still lay far in the future, the future had a way of coming very quickly. This Eastern Shuttle flight to Boston passed much too quickly, as did all the journeys of my vagabond youth. So many years have come and gone. So many airlines have come and gone with them. Delta has survived, but Piedmont, Eastern, Trans World, Bar Harbor, and numerous others have vanished. Likewise, many shipping companies have come and gone. Iconic names like American Export, American President, Moore-McCormack, United States Lines, and many others have disappeared. The passage of time has not always been kind to the transportation industry.

Nonetheless, it has been a privilege to travel across the vast globe by both sea and air, to see first-hand “the beauty of the earth”2 on which we live as well as “the beauty of the skies.”3 While professionally I have no future in the transportation business, I can still happily sign on as a passenger from time to time and enjoy the benefits without the responsibilities!

1 This probably took place on Sunday afternoon, January 11, 1976, but I can’t say with certainty because I had not yet learned the virtue of meticulous record-keeping!
2 Folliott S. Pierpont, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
3 Ibid.

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