The Worst Flight Ever
Copyright 2020 by Hal Howland
Photo by Giovanni Laudicina.
days after I
assumed the position of program director of the Florida Keys Council
of the Arts in 2000, executive director Monica Haskell sent me to
Palm Beach, on Florida’s east coast, to represent us at a
weekend statewide meeting of county arts councils. She spared me the
daylong drive by booking me on Cape Air, the Cape Cod-based commuter
airline that in those days connected the Keys with other nearby
all my years
flying in big airliners as a government dependent, I’d never
been in a small plane. Cape Air’s little fleet of twin-prop
twelve-seaters was not exactly hot off the assembly line—one of
their planes was hand-painted with colorful portraits of Ernest
Hemingway and “Captain Tony” Tarracino, amid local
flora—and I greeted this assignment with some trepidation.
read The Human Drummer, you know
that my first
airline experience in 1959, aboard a big four-prop TWA Constellation,
was a digestive nightmare. That memory would resurface whenever I’d
hear or perform the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.,”
which includes the line “On the way the paper bag was on my
knee,” and now it felt like a premonition.
first question they asked you at the check-in desk was your weight.
Any form of transportation whose safety depends on 145 pounds here or
there is not for me.
queasiness was the discovery that those puddle jumpers rarely
included a copilot. One of Cape Air’s locally popular captains
was a Massachusetts guitarist who would toss his instrument case onto
the plane just before takeoff, wait till we were skidding down the
runway at top speed before closing his window, and, once airborne,
miss no opportunity to turn around and talk to passengers instead of
watching where he was going. As the son of a man who died of a heart
attack in an airport terminal, I wanted to believe that this jovial
six-stringer was in impeccable health.
the first leg
of the trip, from Key West to Fort Lauderdale, where I would rent an
equally travel-weary car for the long drive to the luxury Palm Beach
hotel where the convention was held, turned out to be right out of a
tour guide’s brochure: the plane flew only several hundred feet
above the beautiful island-dotted sea and felt as if it were hardly
moving; it was like a flying car whose shadow might occasionally
cross a pod of playful porpoises. On that flight as on future
errands, there were never more than a few other passengers on board.
I returned to Key West the next week with a sunny attitude toward my
new subtropical domain.
year, Monica sent office manager Andrea Comstock and me to another
meeting, in Fort Lauderdale itself. The flight up and the official
business went according to plan, but the roller-coaster ride home was
the plane for our return trip, the pilot told us that we would have
to fly around an approaching thunderstorm, but that it wouldn’t
add too many minutes to our flight time. This information triggered
another Beatles reference, the day they had to circumvent a hurricane
on their way to a gig in Jacksonville and ended up spending a few
hours in far distant Key West; see The
twelve-seat airplane to a thunderstorm of any size gives you an idea
of my renewed anxiety, which I tried to hide for the benefit of my
traveling companion. Andrea, a tall, hardy realist with a quick sense
of humor, had lived in the Keys for years and thus had little fear of
planes, trains, automobiles, or any kind of weather.
to sleep the moment we achieved cruising altitude, and I sat there on
the aisle trying to unlock my jaws and all joints from there down.
Things went smoothly for about twenty minutes, but eventually the
pilot had no choice but to fly straight through a wall of dark,
electric, engorged clouds.
the little craft realized all my fears in spectacular fashion: for
the rest of the trip, until we descended from a swirling wet black
hell, this pup tent of a plane bobbed, weaved, leapt, climbed, fell,
fishtailed, and squeaked like a rubber duck in a Jacuzzi. Somehow I
did not throw up, but I spent most of that seemingly interminable
period clutching the seatback in front of me with bloodless knuckles
while Andrea dozed peacefully and our fellow passengers perused their
newspapers like the veteran business travelers that they were.
drive back to the office, Andrea and I joked about the flight, and I
kept up appearances as best I could: I’d entertained the
thought that my good-natured officemate had only pretended to be
sleeping to spare my humiliation.
been in a small plane since leaving the arts council in 2002, but, as
I’ve said, I remain well aware of the Keys’ loud and
questionably maintained aviation industry.
the rear rotor fell off one of those tourist helicopters I mention in
the chapter “True West”: fortunately it happened shortly
after takeoff, and the pilot crash-landed on inflatable pontoons in
the Atlantic a few nautical blocks from my condo. He sustained a
small cut; his passengers, having earned a dynamite anecdote for
family reunions, were unharmed; and a colorful front-page story fell
in the Key West Citizen’s lap.
frequent bandmate Gary Rivenson, a fine bass guitarist who can
sight-read any piece of music put in front of him, flew for American
Airlines for twenty-eight years. During my local trio’s 2016-17
residency at the Little Room Jazz Club, I introduced Gary to the
audience as “a bassist with a sense of responsibility.”
He’d handled every jetliner there is, including the massive
Boeing 747, which I missed, since it was introduced the very year I
had finished flying on the State Department’s dime. Recently
Gary and a few friends bought a single-engine plane that they keep at
Key West International Airport. See Landini Cadence for
a derisive reference to that imposing name.
an open invitation to accompany him to the Dry Tortugas, a beautiful
day trip I’ve taken by boat, or elsewhere in our picturesque
part of the world.
my 2017 trip
to Arizona revealed an unexpected combination of acrophobia and
agoraphobia while driving on steep mountain roads with broad vistas,
thus explaining my mother’s delayed reaction to similar byways
in 1959 Israel: in those days the only road from Tel Aviv to Beirut,
Lebanon, where my sister finished high school, included narrow,
rock-strewn ledges without guardrails, shared by the occasional
bedouin caravan or herd of sheep, positioned high above the broiling,
sprawling Negev Desert, most of which resembled the planet Mars.
is just the process of accumulating, confronting, and conquering
various types of fear. Accordingly, I have not categorically refused
Gary Rivenson’s invitation.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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