The Worst Flight Ever

Hal Howland

© Copyright 2020 by Hal Howland

Photo by Giovanni Laudicina.
               Photo by Giovanni Laudicina.

Ten 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 destinations.

In 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.

If you’ve 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.

Practically the 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.

Adding to my 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.

But 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.

The following 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 another matter.

When we boarded 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 Sculpture Gardener.

Comparing a 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.

Andrea went right 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.

At that point, 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.

On our ten-minute 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.

I haven’t 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.

Just last week 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.

My friend and 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.

Gary has issued 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.

But 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.

Maybe experience is just the process of accumulating, confronting, and conquering various types of fear. Accordingly, I have not categorically refused Gary Rivenson’s invitation.

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