Short Story - Flying Scared
Updated: Aug 1
©2020 Ken Hay
January 4th 1987 – the final race of the Americas Cup yacht races held in Fremantle, Western Australia. I had a locum job, working in the local hospital in Carnarvon – about 900 km North of Perth. I had applied for an Occupational Health job and the prospective employers flew me to Perth for an interview on 3 Feb and back on 4th.
My wife and our two little girls accompanied me for the duration of the job but stayed in Carnarvon while I went to Perth. I did the interview and overnighted at our Perth home. My sleep was disturbed by an awful nightmare involving some sort of hairy apparition standing alongside my bed. It woke me in a cold sweat and awful dread. Switching on the bedside lamp revealed – nothing. I tossed and turned the rest of the night unable to dissociate the apparition from the forthcoming plane flight. I worried it was an omen.
Day dawned as a typical, glorious Perth summer day. A gentle sea breeze was blowing when I arrived at the airport and a little more stiffly as I boarded the F28 jet for Carnarvon. While taxying out the pilot explained that the RAAF was playing war games in the sky North of Perth and our flight path would be over Fremantle to Rottnest then turn North. He said we would probably be treated to the spectacle of the massed spectator boats for the Americas Cup race.
True to his word we took in the beautiful views of Perth, the Swan River and the race venue. We saw the racing yachts being towed out into Gauge Roads, hundreds of spectator craft and other yachts plus the Archille Lauro – the ill-fated passenger liner – standing off. We turned North over Rottnest Island and were served lunch.
No passenger finished lunch! The food turned sour in our mouths when the Captain announced that due to, “a technical fault”, the plane would return to Perth immediately. The apparition reappeared. We were told to fasten and tighten our seat belts. The plane banked tightly to the right. The cabin crew wasted no time in gathering the lunch trays then strapped themselves into their seats. The No Smoking and Fasten Seat Belt signs were on. (Passengers could smoke in aircraft back then.) Not a voice was heard until we landed.
The apparition had the good grace to disappear. I desperately need a cigarette. My adrenal glands were churning out adrenalin by the bucket full and at least three excretory bodily functions demanded attention they did not get. I had a cold sweat, my heart rate was flat out. Adrenalin drives the famous fight or flight response of terrified people. I had nothing to fight except fear. Flight, upon which my very existence depended, in turn, depended upon the structural integrity of the plane and the skill of the flight crew. Nothing I could control.
My attempts at rational assessment of the situation, plus recalling the statistical likelihood of dying in a plane crash, should have reassured but didn’t. Neither was my observation that we had not retraced our outward flight but had turned once then settled into direct flight. That must have put us in the arena of the war games. An emergency must have been declared and our flight path cleared.
The engine noise lessened and the plane began to descend while maintaining a horizontal plane. The houses in the suburbs got bigger and bigger then, suddenly, we were over the airport perimeter fence then over the runway. We landed gently – even reverse thrust did not seem unduly noisy. A brisk run down the runway then veer off toward the terminal building and the slow, controlled edge up to the disembarkation point. The engines faded and died. No one moved or spoke. Then the captain announced we could disembark.
I was surprised we had returned to the terminal. A bomb scare or a hijacking would have seen us way out in the field somewhere, not at the terminal, perhaps surrounded by police and SAS.
We were asked to assemble in the terminal and airline staff informed us we would depart again in about two hours. Questions, such as, “What happened? Why are we here?” received non-committal responses such as. “Not sure. We believe the plane had a technical fault.” Someone muttered, “Captain probably forgot his lunch.”
Sure enough, a couple of hours later we were herded on board another F28 with the same flight deck crew but different cabin crew. I asked one why the cabin crew had changed. The rather vague response was, “The original crew reported sick.”
We took off following the previous flight path. This time the yacht race was in full swing giving us a brief but spectacular view. Lunch was served and we were offered a complimentary glass of wine. I accepted. All went well thereafter. I mused over the exciting story I had for the kids and my wife.
Sitting back sipping on a second glass of red I gave thought to what had happened. Through the retrospectoscope it was trivial. Sure, it was frightening but nothing like what other, far less fortunate, souls endured before their planes hit the Towers in New York, or other sky jacks where random passengers were executed. I thanked my lucky stars.
Entering the terminal at Carnarvon my little girls were visibly excited and, as I swung them up in my arms, started jabbering away about a big brown snake and the hospital gardener. I leaned over my excited daughters for a kiss from my wife. She managed to explain, “The hospital gardener saw a large brown snake under our car. He got it out and killed it before we could leave.” I an anticlimax I managed to explain my late arrival as we drove home . Kids weren’t too interested.
But the apparition had a further role. It was indeed an omen. I got the job I had been interviewed for. Through my retrospectoscope it was the worst decision I ever made and I most certainly regretted it. However, in the words of one Sydney J Harris, et al, "Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."