Frequent Flyer

  • Posted: 5/27/12
  • Category: Travel

This is the Memphis airport in the 1950s. There were three gates, #1, #2 and #3, but seeing more than one plane at a time there, much less three, was rare.

My Dad was a surgeon and once or twice a year, he would go to a medical convention somewhere in the south. The location was always selected so that families could go along and enjoy themselves, no doubt with some sort of tax write-off.

I distinctly remember a Hotel in Biloxi Mississippi in this regard. It had enough floors to warrant an elevator and a big outdoor pool in addition to the Gulf of Mexico just across the street. But it was too cold for swimming when we were there so I passed much of the time riding the elevator up and down, talking with the operator when he wasn’t busy rotating the nob for up or down.

Flying in those days was almost always unpleasant. We were over-drugged with Dramamine before each flight but, since this was before pressurization, the planes never climbed higher than 12,000 feet. In the Deep South, that’s where all the turbulence foments.

Most often, airplane flight meant puke. I learned to check the seat pocket in front of me and then that of the adjacent seat for barf bags before fastening my seat belt because I knew I’d probably need at least one. (I distinctly remember using three on one really awful flight.)

The DC-3s we rode most often have those broad wings, noisy piston engines and smells of engine exhaust, hot oil and gasoline that are guaranteed to quench any hint of hunger for a hot meal from the galley. Throw in a hot day – no air conditioning, mind you – and some thermals rising up from empty dirt fields followed by the columns of air sinking down toward cooler water and lakes, and I was soon taking deep breaths and praying for it all to be over soon, please God.

There were exceptions.

I remember flying on something with a nose wheel, a DC-4 perhaps, and as we boarded, my Dad either knew or impressed the pilot with his medical credentials so well that I was offered the jump seat in the cockpit.

Yeah, no kidding!

Over my rather innocent nine or ten years of life to that point, riding in the cockpit was without a doubt the most exciting thing I had ever done, and it would beat a great many future experiences for years to come.

On that flight, I didn’t miss a thing that happened from engine start, through all the radio talk with the tower – “Here, put these on kid so you can hear but don’t push the transmit button, OK?” – take off, climb, cruise, descent – man oh man, seeing that runway coming toward you in the front glass is awesome – and touch down.

The best part happened as we neared our destination. After getting clearance to land, the pilot turned to me and asked, “Hey kid, you wanna put down the landing gear? See, you push this round button here and then shove this lever all the way forward. Go ahead.”

Later, as we walked down the ramp and into the terminal, I told my Mom and Dad that I had put the landing gear down. I clearly remember my Dad’s chuckle and big grin as well as the horrified look on my Mother’s face.

Years later after I finished school and went to work, out of habit I still took Dramamine on the first couple of business trips before discovering that jet travel was a whole different world. Now, after so many, many flights, I barely notice the bumps. While there are the occasional rough ones, for the most part I barely notice.

“This is the pilot speaking. We’ve asked the flight attendants to be seated and put on their seat belts as we’re expecting a few bumps ahead. We should be through it in about twenty minutes.”

Okay, that means 40-60 minutes of bumps, a few idiots potentially bouncing around the cabin who ignore the warning, and when the seat belt sign eventually turns off, I’d better be ready to jump to get to the bathroom before the rush.

There’s an air show here in Phoenix every year at Luke Air Force Base west of town. Luke is where they train the fighter jocks. At the air shows, the Thunderbirds perform and the Confederate Air Force flies their B-17 and puts it on display. And there’s usually a couple of DC-3s as well as lots and lots of other aircraft. It’s quite a spectacle.

And, if you cough up the dough, you can get a half hour ride in some of the older planes such as those DC-3s. But, those childhood memories are strong and, at least so far, I’ve resisted.

But learning to pilot an airplane has never left my “Someday” list.

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