Saturday, April 7, 2007

Flights of distraction

I am an aviation junkie. There. I've said it. "Stricken airliners" litter my dreamscape. "Under the flightpath" is a rental property imperative. The unmistakable smell of an airport sets my nerves and senses alight ... and in the days when I used to have a car, I would often spontaneously drive down to Botany Bay, park my car, and walk along the sandy path to my precious 'plane spotting enclosure' - only metres from runway 16R/34L (Kingsford Smith's main north-south runway). And here, I would spend hours and hours happily high on aviation-fuelled distraction.

There is something utterly compelling about the sight of a Boeing 747 powering up the runway, heavy with fuel, cargo, passengers and crew. It is a majestic and awe-inspiring event. Every time. One jaw-dropping thrill after another. O Fortuna invariably sweeps through my internal stereo system as the gigantic conglomeration of man's mastery of aerodynamics, chemistry, science and design thunders down the runway. The front wheels lift off ... and there is that moment where that peculiar little angle of an aircraft's tail suddenly displays its truth of purpose - gliding, only ever a few thrillingly exact few feet it seems, perfectly parallel to the runway. And then the ultimate show of strength and vision ... the conquest of the point of no return ... as the aircraft leaves the ground, heaving itself with laborious thrust and utter determination into the sky. I always hold my breath. The landing gear folds neatly away into the hold. It's better than sex. I have never been known to wish for it to end. And the experience is always punctuated by a little tinge of sadness and regret when the glittering object of my affection - and undivided attention - is but a speck in the distance. Unlike almost every film I've ever seen, I always want to see it again. I was paying attention but I might have missed something of this utterly hypnotic display. Theatre has rarely been this good ... but unlike Theatre, I have absolutely no idea how this happens. It defies my comprehension, each and every single time.

Plane spotting is a fixation - a hobby that, unlike stamp collecting, gives something back. Absolutely. Even just waiting for an airplane to put in an appearance on the tarmac and taxi past us invokes the rare thrill of anticipation ... and I am rarely alone in my cyclone fenced Utopia. People come with their children, cameras, tripods, and ladders ... and if I am really lucky, radios locked on to the Air Traffic Control Tower frequency are clipped to the fence for the intimate, private pleasure of our merry band of worshippers. It's so much fun I'm surprised there's not a law against it. Or a tax. Or, at the very least, an entry fee.

If plane spotting is my addiction, then actually flying is - surely - a fix as close to heaven as I'm ever going to get ... a silent, illicit thrill that triggers an almost unbearable manifestation of fear, apprehension, delight, and wonder. On my most recent flight to Melbourne, I was sitting behind a father and his two very young daughters, one of whom, like me, had managed to secure the First Prize - A Window Seat. Our push back from the terminal was late. Our wait on the tarmac was interminable. The Pilot informed us, wryly, that it was always like this at Kingsford Smith on a Friday night. His voice immediately went through some kind of internal filter I think we all share in some small, but incredibly significant way: does this sound like the voice of a man who knows what he's doing? Am I prepared to trust this man with my life? Have I done the right thing accepting a window seat at the rear of the aircraft? I did have a choice ... 23C (aisle) or 47A (window) ... I can't get Jane Froman out of my head.

We were running late. Our taxi to take-off is a jolly affair ... and fast ... an added treat! I strain in my seat to glimpse behind us.

"Look Daddy!" the little girl in front of me exclaims. "Look at all the other planes behind us!"

I thought the very words I was thinking had inadvertently escaped. Had I really just shouted? Was my delinquent, internal dialogue unable to help itself? I glanced quickly around to make sure no-one was looking at me ... nervously ... the way I'm sure we all do, almost innately these days, to reassure ourselves that our fellow passengers reveal a complete lack of visible 'hijack' or 'random act of sharpened chop-stick wielding terrorism' potential.

Our 737 turns on her heels and settles at the end of the runway.

"Look Daddy!"

Power. A shift ... my new girlfriend gives me a sexy little shimmy ... and here we go into the sequence that always, for me anyway, more than entirely justifies the cost of a seat on a plane. Every last cent.

"Wow! Daddy! We're going so fast!"

For some reason, it's a longer than anticipated race.

"Get up, get up" I urge, soundlessly.

"When are we going to take-off Daddy?

Shut up little girl.

... and then yes! The magical tilt. I can see what it looks like from inside and I know what we look like from outside. My heart sings.

"Oh Daddy! The buildings are so small ... look at the lights! They are so beautiful! They're beautiful Daddy! Look!"

I'm looking. I'm smiling ... fuck it, beaming. And right there in front of me, the very articulation of my own delight. My odious, adult and silenced joy.

We bank to the right ... and I wonder when it happens, this adult imperative to suppress our innermost squeals of joy and wonder. And when do we learn to accept it? When did silent observance become an acceptable form of expression? Who determined that rule? Certainly not, I would suggest, the people who dreamed that a mass of heaving metal could fly.


metal_petal said...

I was fortunate enough to sit next to a middle-aged man who was on his first flight ever, a few months ago.

The absolute joy he expressed at take off and landing was a wonderful thing to see. He was giggling with the excitement of it.

I felt very lucky to share it, because, like you, I love those moments, but us grown ups have to be so cool.

I love love love the beginning and end of a flight. Shame about the boring bit in the middle.

Geoffrey said...

That would have been so much fun to see ... unlike my memories of our time in the sky together Metal, when the sight of poor Kath so relentlessly concertina'd into the roof of our little buzzer box was truly disturbing.

But wasn't it a fun birthday present?

metal_petal said...

Yes, she was quite green about the gills. But it was fun!!!!

Snidley Whiplash said...

Hmmmmm. The magical tilt doesn’t seem quite so magical when you sleep through your alarm clock and race to the airport with seconds to spare, I can tell ya. Nevertheless, I though of you today, and now I know why.

At an ungodly hour, I followed the Rhine River south to Zurich, across the Alps with a clear view from the Eiger to Mont Blanc, over Milan to Genoa, out over the Mediterranean to Corsica, down her western coast to Ajaccio, then hung a right and dropped into Alghero in Sardinia. I felt more strongly than at other times that, were you in the little room I occupied at the time, you would have especially enjoyed it today, and so I carried you with me in spirit. They say it’s the thought that counts.

By the way, if you're at a party with 1000 guests and only one of them is a pilot, how do you tell which one he is?

Don't worry, he’ll tell you!

Geoffrey said...

Bless you Snidley. Bless you.