For someone who is very frightened of flying, I have put in a lot of flight hours in my life. The problem is my location. I come from Tasmania, a tiny island, with Antarctica to the south and another much bigger island to the north – mainland Australia.
Crossing to the mainland by sea can be treacherous, with Bass Strait,separating Tasmania from the mainland, infamous for powerful, wild stormy seas. The other option to go is by plane. That’s still my best option as I now live in remote Western Australia, as close to Singapore as I am to Sydney and Melbourne nearly 4,000 kilometres away. I’ve done the long return road trip to the Aussie Eastern States – good fun the first time, arduous thereafter.
As for the rest of the world, we Aussies are isolated a long way south on the globe. No road or train trips to other countries available! Ships, of course. But unless I factor in a cruising holiday, that’s not a go. So, I find my travel obsessed self continuously back at the airport, vowing ‘this is the last time’ as I buckle up my safety belt, clench my teeth, cross fingers and toes and hope for the best as my plane roars towards take-off.
Once I’m in the sky, I’m philosophical. The plane will come down to earth. Whether it delivers me alive is out of my hands. So relax and enjoy, hope there is delicious airline food, an engrossing movie and a worthwhile destination ahead. I try also to excite myself with the prospect of a fabulous photo out of the window like this one Mount Fuji one I lucked in with, departing Japan!
Flights I don’t want to repeat
There have been bumpy rides. Like the time I was returning to Australia with my mother, a much more nervous flyer than me. So when there was a loud bang heard on the plane as we took off from Singapore, I thought she would have a heart attack. She reached across to clutch my hands so strongly that I thought she’d break them. In an attempt to keep her calm, I denied I heard anything!
Then the pilot came onto the intercom in a relaxed iconic Paul Hogan kind of Aussie drawl. “Well, Ladies and Gentleman, I suppose you heard that bang,” he said. “Told you so,” said Mum, ready to dive under the seat for a life jacket.
“You wouldn’t know what that bang was,” the pilot continued, super relaxed. “But don’t worry, neither do we!”
You really needed to have been there and heard how that pilot delivered that line to understand why it prompted hilarious relieved laughter throughout the cabin, rather than screams of terror!
“Not to worry. We’ll be back on the tarmac in Singapore in a jiffy, check it out and be on our way again,” he concluded.
Qantas, back then, had a knack of giving passengers confidence in their professionalism and safety. It was a very classy airline, even for budget economy passengers like me. On my first international Qantas flight in the ’70’s, I was presented with beautiful printed menus for my meals. It felt like I’d landed in a first class restaurant, better than any on offer in Tasmania at the time!
One menu I kept offers Egg Danicheff with a Louis Dressing for entree, followed by Loin of Lamb Oriental with Chateau Potatoes and Green Beans. For desert there was Peaches Aurore, cheese and biscuits and coffee. Oh, la la. Pretty exotic fare for a teenage girl from Tasmania.
Luckily, I was dressed up for the Qantas economy fine dining occasion. Back then, you had your hair done and bought a new outfit to board an international flight. First class passengers were probably wearing their diamonds. In economy, there were plenty of pearls!
The arrival of track suits put an end to that as passengers became more casually dressed in the ’80’s. I’ve never resorted to a tracksuit for travelling, but these days I do dress for comfort on long flights.
For decades, I was a confirmed Qantas fan. But their focus on business and first class passengers seem to have left economy travellers like me feeling squashed in cattle class, identifying with the underprivileged passengers under the decks aboard the Titanic!
There’s currently a joke doing the rounds on social media where Qantas announces a new cost saving measure – no passengers. ’We did away with luggage years ago, and now no one misses it. So it will be the same with passengers,” it continues. It maybe a joke, but this passenger’s loyalty is fading fast.
On a 5 hour Qantas flight I flew in 2017 between Singapore and Perth, WA, I was packed tightly into a sardine can. Even with my short height – 5 foot 2 in the old language – I had no legroom. Definitely, no elbow room! In a word – awful. My 6 foot 2 husband was worse off!
My specs go missing mid flight
The Qantas economy class seemed even worse when I compared it with the airline I changed to in Singapore to fly onto Japan. JAL – JAPAN AIRLINES – was like Qantas of old. Comfortable and roomy economy seats, excellent food. Oishi! Delicious. And superb service from the cabin crew.
When I say service, I don’t mean ’would you like milk, sugar and a pleasant smile with that’. I mean an all out effort by the JAL cabin staff to find my missing spectacles on a flight back from Japan. Yes, I lost my specs mid flight! I am very myopic, but can see clearly for about 12 inches from my nose. So, often, I’ll take off my glasses to read a book up close. They were there one minutes, and not the next!
So it was all hands to the deck to search the plane – me with the flight attendants, on our hands and knees, crawling around the cabin floor to check under and around seats for the wayward specs. Even the chief flight attendant joined the search on the floor! Staff also laboriously checked every food tray in the galley, in case the glasses had been taken away on my tray. To no avail. They then decided to do it again – all with a smile – and they politely asked if I wanted to check too. I did – it was a revelation into what people decide to eat or not to eat from their food trays. But no glasses. Luckily, I always travel with a spare.
The staff were very apologetic when I left the plane, sans spectacles. It was me who lost my glasses. They had nothing to apologise for. They had gone beyond the call of duty to assist me in finding my missing glasses. They took my contact details in case the specs were found. I had lost hope, but they kept looking.
To my suprise later that night, JAL called me with good news. The glasses had been located behind the trays in a food trolley, difficult to see unless all the trays were removed completely. They promised to deliver the glasses to the Qantas desk at the airport, where I was heading to return to Australia the next morning.
Qantas had them, but I had to undergo the third degree before they’d given them to me. Full name, date of birth, passport, any other form of identification please, home address, flight number of JAL plane, description of the glasses. I mean, honestly, how many other Australians in their ’60’s that morning were asking for prescription specs left on a JAL flight the night before! And how many spectacles had been given to Qantas in Singapore that morning from a JAL plane?
I presumed that the quality JAL was Japan’s number one airline, but I’ve read it is second to ANA, Air Nippon. How much better could ANA be? I was going to find out on a new ANA direct flight between Perth and Tokyo in 2019 – a trip aborted by the Pandemic. Hopefully, I’ll get to fly with them in the coming year.
Sometimes my plan to ease my flight anxiety, by busying myself photographing from my seat window, doesn’t always work well because I can become fixated on causes of concern – like the shot I took below. Does that screw look loose to you?
The worst airline I’ve travelled with was the now long defunct American airline Braniff International. I’d suggest it was a nightmare, but there was such a disconnect with all my other plane experiences, I wondered if someone had slipped something into my drink. Was I on THAT sort of trip? Had I found myself in one of those hilarious plane parody movies? Would Leslie Nielsen (Airplane/Flying High 1980) jump out from behind my seat declaring “You’re on Candid Camera!”
When my husband and I flew with Braniff from Texas to Hawaii around 1979, we were welcomed aboard by flight attendants who would have made check out chicks at a remote roadhouse look like sleek fashion icons. No – disregard that. It’s a disservice to checkout ladies. Very few smiles as we boarded. The flight attendants looked tired and worn. Their uniforms were creased and grubby, some of them abandoned their shoes mid flight, there were holes and ladders in stockings, and one was so far along in her pregnancy, I feared she’d give birth before we touched down in Hawaii.
Indeed, she said so herself when she plonked herself down into the empty seat next to me, asking if I minded as she was exhausted and she felt like the baby was going to arrive at any minute! Help! Doctor in the house!
The take off gave us no confidence at all. You know when the pilot calls for the attendants to ‘check doors’. Well, there was webbing loosely hanging out of a cavity from the emergency door in front of our seats. Didn’t look right to us. Didn’t look right to the pregnant air hostess either.
She saw our fearful looks, and told us it was probably ok – this reassurance delivered as the plane was already starting down the runway. She tried phoning to the flight deck from a phone near the door. It didn’t work. “I’ll try again once we are in the sky,” she said with a shrug.
We pushed back hard into our seats, trying to increase our distance from the emergency door. We had identical thoughts of those movies where airline passengers are sucked out through gapping holes!
Once safety belt signs were off, the hostie (we called them airline hostesses back then) toddled up in stocking feet to the flight deck to report the door problem. Eventually, a bloke from the flight deck came down to check the door, pushed the webbing back into the cavity, and assured us that all would be ok. If you say so.
We had booked the seats next to an emergency door to give my tall husband more leg room. Well, that ended up a not so funny joke! After food service, the attendants jammed the food trolley into the space in front of us – no leg room and blocking the emergency door! Not forgetting the heavily pregnant hostie in the seat next to us, effectively blocking our way to the aisle.
Various mishaps as the flight continued to keep me suspended in disbelief. A comedy of errors. I wrote them all down, thinking it would make a great story. And I can’t find those notes now. But believe me, it was a flight you wouldn’t want to take.
The landing in Hawaii was the worst I’ve encountered – so rough that overhead locker doors burst open and some items stored there fell out. As the plane finally came to an abrupt halt, passengers cheered and applauded. I guess I wasn’t the only one holding my breath! We were most relieved to change to Qantas in Hawaii. Braniff International went out of business a few years later.
Whenever a plane hits a bit of rocky air, I hold my breath and pray – to God, to Buddha, patron saint, my dear departed Dad hopefully in heaven – really to anyone who might be listening!
Several times I’ve worried that I’ve pushed my luck too far. Flying from New Delhi to Kashmir had me pretty concerned in the 70’s. But the road there then was supposed to be – how should I put it – challenging, dangerous? The plane seemed the safer bet.
When we boarded, we were given a packed lunch – simple sandwiches in small, plain cardboard boxes. A bit like a McDonald’s take away box. I’d never been given anything like it on a plane! Qantas, remember, was still serving French cuisine on real plates to economy passengers. So this seemed quite a cost saving shock. As the plane rushed towards the snow covered Himalayan peaks, I sat there, hoping the airline had spent its money on ensuring the plane was safe.
Coming into Hong Kong from Australia around 1983, my plane suddenly dropped like a stone from a high cliff. My husband and I looked across to each other in fear – our two year old son between us. Unspoken words in the sudden silence. Goodbye.
A man on the other side of me reached across with comforting words – “I fly planes. It’s alright. Nothing to worry about. We’ve just been caught in a wind shear,” he said reassuringly.
He was right, but as we levelled, I tensioned up again as I looked out the window to Hong Kong’s runway – the old Kai Tak airport, so technically demanding for pilots that it was regarded as one of the most extreme airports in the world. We went in for a landing once, didn’t make it, and turned around to do it again. A flight I was glad to disembark from.
This should have given me a little life’s experience for New Zealand, where I lived some years later for a while. The approach to Queenstown, on the South Island, takes you up close and personal to the spectacular Southern Alps. The landscape is so mesmerising that you simply don’t entertain the concept of clipping a wing on one of those little hills. You have arrived in Middle Earth – magic!
Just as exciting or scary – depending on your state of mind – is flying in and out of the NZ capital’s airport, built on a tiny strip of land reclaimed between two bodies of water – land that is likely to sink in an earthquake liquefaction. Tough luck if you pick that moment to land there!
Landing and taking off in Wellington – (yes, that is the capital, not Auckland) – is challenging, particularly because of its infamous wild, windy weather. Wellington is regarded as the most windy city in the world. The winds are so strong there that at times I’ve barely been able to stay on my feet. I dared not click my heels or wear red shoes or I might have ended up unexpectedly back in ’OZ’! And no wonder, when winds in Wellington have been recorded at a speed of up to 248 km/h.
New Zealanders give the assurance that when you fly into ‘windy Wellywood’, you will be in the hands of the very best pilots in the world because only the best can handle the conditions!
These extreme flying conditions mean Wellington is a perfect place for plane spotting. In foul weather, my husband and I would entertain ourselves by driving to the airfield barriers and watching from the safety and comfort of our car as planes battled gale force winds to land. Better thrills than Tom Cruise TOP GUN movies! Great big passenger planes – many of them international flights – bouncing side to side like little plastic ducks caught in a whirlpool. Playing some good rock and roll music completes the experience!
Never book a flight in or out of New Zealand without being prepared for a cancellation or lengthy delay because of bad weather. On one occasion, my husband was stuck at Wellington airport, with a weather induced delayed flight. He was in a queue behind a young girl on her mobile phone to her mother. She was heading to a family funeral, and her mother wouldn’t believe her daughter’s flight had been cancelled. “There’s nothing on the news up here in Auckland about delayed Wellington flights,” she insisted, telling her daughter that if she didn’t want to go to the funeral she should have said so, instead of making ridiculous excuses. Finally, the girl handed her phone to my husband. ”Could you please tell my Mum I’m really at the airport, and all flights off.”
Back in Australia, my sons and husband were on another flight with me from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory to Perth one starry night. Starry until dark clouds began to thicken and a full on electrical storm raged around the plane. The thunder and lightning was worthy of a New Year’s Eve sound and light show. My husband assured me the storm was a long way away. Yes, just like how I told Mum I didn’t hear that big bang on the Singapore flight. Big fibs are allowed when you are trying to calm someone’s flight nerves!
Terrorism aboard airplanes brought a new worry into my already heavy bag of air flight fears after September 11, 2001. So, 15 months later, a lone middle eastern man on a flight to Japan, stood out amongst other passengers to me. I watched him like a hawk throughout the flight, much to the amusement of my sons travelling with me. Sons I have always taught to embrace multiculturalism and urged them to never to judge people by race or looks. Surprisingly, the man was on my return flight to Australia some weeks later. “There’s that bloke again,” I said in shock to my sons. “I thought you weren’t a racist,” they replied with grins. ”I’m not, but he looks suspicious,” replied the Mother hen, determined to protect them if a terrorist was on board.
Queued up at the loo (TOILET) mid flight, a young handsome Aussie bloke started chatting to me. Very pleasant young man. Very respectful. Well mannered. Been there, done that. Good travel stories. Very cheerful personality.
Finally, we approached Perth for landing and on went the seat belt sign to strap ourselves in. My eyes were riveted to the middle eastern chap when suddenly the young wholesome Australian, on the opposite side of the plane, stood up and raced to the front of the main cabin. There, he took centre stage, spread eagled against the cabin wall like ‘you know who’ on the cross, madly chanting words I couldn’t understand. Shock, horror. I felt ill. Was a gun going to appear? The attendants tried to get him to move, but it was hopeless. He steadfastly remained where he was, and wasn’t taken away until we landed.
Lesson in discrimination. The middle eastern chap was no doubt highly respectable. Apologies to him. The fair haired mad Aussie was the worry!
The threat of terrorism also once left me without a rubbish bin to dispose of my ice cream wrapper before a flight! In May, 2019 I was flying out of Haneda Airport in Tokyo – and so was Donald Trump! The USA President wasn’t on my plane, of course. But security at the airport for his departure from a visit to Japan was so tight that all rubbish bins had been closed down with plastic coverings.
I had an image of Donald dashing away from his security people to pop his lolly papers in an airport rubbish bin. “These bins are fake! They are covered in plastic. Fake, Fake!”
Bins, it seems, are ideal places to leave explosive devices. All well and good. Except Haneda airport has a nice hotel within the building, and staying there, I saw no security measures in place.
Earlier on that trip to Japan, I came face to face with a horde of police and security guards on a walk in Hakone. I thought, as you would, “Donald’s here! I mean, the man’s visit to Japan had timed in with mine, so why wouldn’t he be visiting Hakone – perhaps to play a little golf? Read about it in my 2021 May blog – Trekking Tōkaidō Edo style!
Unexpected flight pleasures
To conclude, let me tell you about the flights I would never have taken if I could have seen a reasonable alternative. But they turned out to be unexpected pleasures.
Like the Australian Army Iroquois chopper I flew in to report a television story for ABC News. I didn’t enjoyed it. I was seriously scared. I took my camera with me, and the only shot I snapped was the back of the pilot’s head, so out of focus that you can barely figure out what the photo is about! But I endured and completed my assignment. And I got the pleasure of bragging rights for life – I’ve flown in an Iroquois!
Then there was the courage I mustered to board a helicopter in Western Australia’s rugged Kimberley region. I was on a camping trip from Darwin through to Broome and I had already refused to get on a chopper without doors at the Bungle Bungles, one of Australia’s most outstanding outback landscapes. ”You take photos from the air,” I told my husband. “I’ll take them from the ground!” I was not going to get into a chopper without any doors, no matter how breathtakingly beautiful the scenery might be.
Later on the trip, at the very isolated Mitchell Falls, I capitulated and boarded a helicopter flight. I’d trekked a long way across bush country to reach the Falls, and I couldn’t face a return trek to our vehicle in very hot humid weather. The option of a short flight back in a helicopter was there. It was time to be brave and reasonable.
”Does it have doors?” I asked. YES. Well, that’s ok then! I even courageously took the front seat next to the pilot, and then glued my eye to my camera and snapped away! In focus this time. It was a great flight.
The other very memorable trip was a flight home to Tasmania from Melbourne in my early 20’s. I was returning from a backpacking holiday in New Zealand, and didn’t know until I landed back in Melbourne that airline workers were on strike. No flights! And so I was stranded at Tullamarine airport for close to 24 hours. I know that airport like the back of my hand. So there was nothing new, nothing interesting to help pass the time. I had no money for a hotel. I knew no one in Melbourne. So I hung out at the airport, first taking cat naps curled up in one of those plastic passenger seats and then retreating to the hard floor, propped up against a wall for more comfort!
Shortly before midnight, a young bloke approached me. Was I going to Tasy? He’d spotted Tasmanian patches sewn onto my backpack and jacket.
“My mate and I have hired a light aircraft to fly into Devonport, and we’ve got a spare seat. The fare share will be less than your commercial flight fare, which you should be able to be refunded.”
The prospect of another 24 hours at Tullamarine – or even longer – was daunting. I took the offer, and on a cloudless summer night I flew home in a weeny, teeny plane. Took the front seat next to the pilot on that one too!
An endless sky overloaded with twinkling stars. Bass Strait below us, flood lit by a full moon. The sea, so often raging, was this night so still and calm that we could see the plane’s reflection in the water as we headed south to home. Like a scene from a movie. The flight was – in a word – enchanting.
As I move into further into my older years, I still get very nervous at the thought of a plane flight. But I also still have my over-riding passion for travel experiences – new places, people and cultures.
Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I’m once more sitting on a plane, awaiting take-off. Hopefully, airlines still understaffed from the Covid crisis, will have their act together, and hopefully airports, currently crowded with frustrated passengers delayed by cancelled and delayed flights, will be back to order.
Buckle up – here we go, chasing the magic again!
Postscript: Just as I completed this article came the news of a new innovation in flight – bunk bed capsules and economy class can use them! Yes, you heard right. Air New Zealand are planning to introduce them on long flights and use on rotation. Bunks that you pay extra for and can sleep in for four hours. Then a quick sheet change and someone else can use them. Four hours, says Air NZ, is all you need to refresh. I can hear it now – “Will you get out of that bed! Wake up! If you don’t get out of bed, I’ll kick you out! There’s a queue waiting to get in! Sir, Madam – there are no seniors discounts for these beds and Mile High members cannot share a bunk capsule!”