Plane Speaking

“So this is it, I’m going to die.” In my 35 years on this planet, that isn’t a thought which has crossed my mind very often. Thus, while perhaps not something I’d like to do every day, I suppose it was refreshing to find myself contemplating the prospect of my imminent demise. On the whole, I’d rather do so tucked up in bed, than sat just behind a Joe Don Baker lookalike, piloting a neo-microlight aircraft above the Grand Canyon, with a fuel gauge which appeared to have hit zero several chasms ago.

Can’t say my entire life flashed before me, but the bits which had caused me to be in my current predicament, certainly did. We were accompanying friend Andy, who was visiting us as part of his first trip to the States. With limited time, we’d opted to take him to Las Vegas and then fly out to see the Grand Canyon, so booked a day tour there which included a flight there and back as well as a coach once we’d got there.

The first sense of unease was climbing aboard the courtesy bus to North Las Vegas Airport. We were the only non-Japanese speaking participants, and I feared Godzilla was going to swoop down and use the bus as a toothpick. This feeling of alienation increased at the tour terminal with a mainly Japanese staff and announcements given first in Japanese, then (somewhat grudgingly) in English. My neck hairs really began to do the lambada when the few Westerners were syphoned off to our own plane: I wondered if the Japanese annoucement went something like, “Honoured travellers from our homeland, please wait in the lounge, while we dispose of the Yanqui Mothra-flickers – at last, revenge for Hiroshima! Banzai!” Or perhaps it was an elaborate plot conceived by my Japanese psycho-ex girlfriend, now sniggering quietly from behind the smoked glass?

“Who wants to sit beside me?” were virtually the first words out of our pilot’s mouth – Chris’s hand shot up, a decision she was later to regret, and we climbed aboard the ten-seat Piper plane. There’d be no duty-free catalog here, nor stewardesses, and the safety demonstration was perfunctory, though opening the emergency doors seemed to require eight different operations simultaneously, and thus might have been tricky for non-cephalopods. I made a mental note never to fly on any craft without drop-down oxygen masks again, providing I survived this ordeal. But where had I seen the pilot before?

Take-off was smooth enough – it was the moment we left the ground that the interesting bit started. I’m used to planes going up and down, but being in one which falls sideways was a whole new dimension (literally). Air-conditioning was limited to a nozzle, carefully positioned so that the breeze went 0.5 inches in front of your nose, and Andy (more used to the heat of Lancashire than Arizona), was soon pouring cold water over himself. Chris, in the co-pilot’s seat, was unable to move a muscle, for fear of nudging the duplicate controls and sending the plane plummeting. And I was unable to appreciate the wonderful scenery outside (and quite a bit down) because my eyes were fixed on the fuel gauge, which had gone from full to 3/4 empty in about twenty minutes. Willing it to stop, and trying to understand my recognition of our pilot, was better than browsing any in-flight movie.

As the gusts buffeted us around like a cat playing with its prey, and the fuel needle began to wrap itself around ‘E’, I prepared for a crash landing, and looked down to see if there were any flat, unforested areas that even remotely resembled a runway. Hello! This is the Grand Canyon: we don’t do flat and unforested! And then I remembered where I’d seen the pilot. Four years ago, on my first trip to the place, I’d taken a bus tour. I am prepared to swear blind that the man who drove the bus on that occasion, was now the one perched at the controls of our flying coffin. At the risk of repeating myself: “So this is it, I’m going to die.”

Then, just as I was about to bring to the pilot’s attention, the little matter of our imminent fuel shortage, he flicked a switch, and I learned something that will always be engraved on my brain, in letters of stone. Light aircraft have two fuel tanks. The needle swung back to ‘F’, and I immediately revoked all those frantic promises to God that I’d been making, particularly the one about masturbation.

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, we landed safely, if a little more laterally than I’d have liked (re-enacting an old joke about the airport announcement: “the plane now arriving at gates 5, 6, 7 and 8…is coming in sideways”). But after that traumatic journey, the Grand Canyon seemed a little larger, deeper and more life-affirming than ever before. Particularly, for some reason, watching the Japanese tourists cavorting precariously on its edge…