I’ve flown in airplanes dozens of times and never had a fear of flying. That all changed when I had to fly from Jo’Burg to Richards Bay the other month aboard a commuter plane. I figured the flight would be similar to the Spokane to Seattle flight I made dozens of times as an undergrad, and in a way it was, just with Wright Brothers era technology carrying us.
When I arrived at the gate, instead of having the plane pull up to the gate and have the ramp connect the plane and terminal, they have a tram that takes you to the plane waiting on the tarmac. We crammed into the tram car and were driven out to our plane. This is when things began to get weird. Our plane looked like it could have been the same one Ingrid Bergman flew away in at the end of Casablanca. The propellers were going and it was loud as hell. I walked up the stairs onto the plane. As I made my way past the cockpit I peeked in. I swear one of the pilot’s seats had electrical tape over part of it where the fabric had been worn away. Everything about the plane had an old feel to it. And not the “oh that’s so charming and quaint” sort of old feel, but the “holy shit, I think we may die because of this” sort of feel. The guy in front of me was carrying an empty birdcage. I privately speculated it was to hold some sort of data recording parrot they keep in the cockpit instead of a black box. As we prepared to take off, the propellers began to make a wheezing noise. As my fingernails dug into the armrest, I looked down and noticed that the armrest had an ashtray built into it. I think even Southwest has retired most of its aircraft that were built when smoking on an airplane was still allowed, but not this plane. When we reached cruising altitude, I noticed the propellers were again making a funny noise. It sounded (to me) almost like the pilot was putting the plane into neutral and revving the engines (I doubt this is even possible; it’s just what it sounded like to me). I turned to the businessman sitting next to me asked him what he thought about this. It turns out he has made this trip twice a week and has been doing it for about 2 years. I asked him if the propellers always made such a strange sound. He gave me a perplexed look.
“Ya, like that wheezing and revving noise the propellers are making. You don’t hear that?”
“Oh that. Ya, I suppose you get used to it after a while.”
“Well does it make you nervous, flying so routinely on a plane that sounds like it’s about to die?” He paused a moment and privately contemplated what I had just said.
“Well, I’m not really sure, I guess one of these planes goes down every once and a while, you just have to hope you’re not on it. Besides, beats the hell out of driving, right mate?” With that, he turned to the flight attendant and ordered a Black Label. I ordered two. The flight attendant informed me that there was a one drink maximum on flights less than two hours. I’m very displeased by this and begin to mentally compose the complaint letter I’m going to write to SA Airlines (future blog post). On the plus side, the beer only cost R10 (which made sense given the condition of the plane). This is the point in the story where normally the plane would begin to lose altitude suddenly, the oxygen masks would (hopefully) drop from the ceiling, and half the plane would find religion in about 2 seconds. Fortunately, none of that happened. The plane just continued on to our destination and I was serenaded by the sweet sounds of gerbil powered propellers. So yes, the title of this post was a bit deceiving, but I’m guessing it made you read the entire thing with baited anticipation, so objective achieved.