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Terror in the Skies (or why I don't fly "muggle" class...)

Let me start by pointing out that I'm not a particularly good passenger. Be it a car, train, boat or plane, unless I'm at the controls I don't enjoy it, not one bit.

I'm also a snob.

As such, for me flying with a budget airline can be a thoroughly unpleasant experience. However, a trip to America back in 2000 was worse than anything even I could have imagined.

That year there was a relatively large group of us heading to the Florida, the “Sunshine State” and as the majority of the assemblage had never even been abroad before and the budget was tight we ended up flying with a UK budget airline, “Air tours”.

The day started off well enough, especially since the airport we were flying from (Cardiff) was only a few miles from my home. Even though I find the two-hour drive into one of the London airports rather exciting, it’s even better to nearly fall out of bed and land at Cardiff Airport. Unfortunately, despite the good start to the day, things were soon to get grim!

While I was preparing the last little bit of packing before for the trip (essentials like my game boy and treble checking my lucky bottle top), I overhear the news reporter on TV warning of a severe weather front heading toward South Wales, not good. As I have some friends at the airport, I called the tower and checked with them for an update of the Doppler radar, and was informed that the front was due to hit at about 2:00 PM (We were scheduled to fly at midday). Not too bad I thought, but cutting it a little fine, so I called the airline to check for any delays. I was relieved to discover that our plane was already being fuelled at Manchester and preparing to head into Cardiff to pick us up before heading over the Atlantic. Satisfied I completed my packing and waited for the rest of the group to arrive so we could all head to the airport.

At about 9:30 AM, group all set, we set off on the short journey to the airport. All went well, and we arrive at the airport with plenty of time to relax, enjoy the lounge and have a bit of a giggle. Unfortunately, the first serious setback of the day hit us. Upon arriving at check-in, we were informed that the plane we were supposed to have had developed a major problem, but not to worry as they were going to use a replacement instead. On the face of it no big deal, stuff like this does happen from time to time, and they are dealing with it; however, there were two significant concerns:

1. The problem with the plane meant we now had a two-hour delay (Putting our departure window right in the middle of the storm!).

2. The replacement plane was a DC-10!!!

This news did not go down well! If you know a bit about aircraft, you will likely know that the DC-10 is the airborne equivalent Fred Flintstone’s car, except there will probably be more room in Fred’s car. Not a huge fan of flying in passenger planes anyway, I can at least sleep the flight off in 747, the only thing going to sleep on the DC-10 would be my backside and legs (big plane, tiny seat pitch). This flight, I knew, would be hell!

All thoughts of Florida and its theme parks and great food etc. had long fled my mind as the only thing I could now think about was the 9 hours of hell which waited aboard the flying antique. A few of us in the group decided to head up to the observation deck to see how the storm front was looking, and upon arriving there, we could see that it wasn’t looking good. Ominous black clouds filled the heavy sky, and the wind had started to pick up. A crisp packet and the last of the autumn leaves were being tossed and blown about, caught in gusts of air as they swirled and danced around the airport maintenance area.

As we looked out over the airfield, watching the little commuter flights arrive and depart, we noticed our flight pop onto the departures board, when with a collective sigh we noted that it was now two and half hours late.

Time passed incredibly slowly, and even though I was dreading the flight, I very much wanted to get it behind me, the anticipation of the waiting horrors was, I was sure, as bad as the impending flight. As the storm was really starting to find its stride we saw our plane finally arrive from Manchester; my heart sank; she was a model 10, retrofitted for intercontinental use; the widow maker. The model 10’s safety record has more question marks than a quiz game, these things used to fall out of the sky all the time in the seventies (Or just suck you out a nearby door or window). I was mortified and was seriously considering going home and if it were not for the fact that a lot of the tickets were in my name (reservations, car, etc. I probably would have)!

The wind was now howling outside and even managing to shake the thick glass of the lounge windows while monsoon like rain lashed down from the sky. With less than an hour before our flight, we headed for the departure lounge (Which is actually a rather nice place in Cardiff airport).

After about 45 minutes we were asked to board the plane and I shakily headed to the gate (At least we didn’t have a remote stand and could embark over a jet bridge at the apron). We all boarded quickly, though the plane was already half full as this was a two leg journey from Manchester. Seated in the centre aisle and buckled in (firmly) you could feel the giant aircraft getting buffeted around by the gale which was now blowing outside, I was certain they would not get clearance in this storm. Nonetheless, I heard and felt the distinctive clunks through the cabin as the cargo doors were closed and latched, this was a very fast turnaround.

The pilot then welcomed us to the flight and gave us the usual spiel, flight time, destination temperature, etc. I thought to myself “To hell with the *@*!@ Florida sun, can’t you see that moth*r f@”£$!# storm outside?!”, here I was strapped into a flying coffin piloted by a man who was clearly insane, Florida sun my arse!

As the cabin crew got into position to give us the safety “feel good” talk (like a little rubber life vest will save me as we plummet to the ground in a blazing fireball), I feel the tractor lock onto the front strut and the plane begins to back away from the stand. Beads of sweat are forming on my forehead as the tentacles of panic wrap themselves around my thoughts. I try everything to block the fear and notice an attendant giving me a concerned glance (I think she is a little worried by the fact that I am foaming at the mouth and giggling to myself). As the heavy plane moves into the manoeuvring area the cabin crew finish the little presentation on whistles and flashing lights and the concerned one comes over to check how I am. I politely inform her that she is a stupid bint and I’m clearly not ok and that if she asks me any more silly questions I will bite her face off. (Ok I said “I’m little nervous, but fine thanks”, but I was considering a little Hannibal action in my head. The friendly attendant tells me everything will be okay, and she straps herself into her takeoff seat (She’s obviously insane too, can she not see the storm? If the wind gets any stronger we won’t need engines as we will fly like a kite).

Clearance to enter the runway area granted, the plane begins to head to the runway and soon after is granted permission to taxi and take off. Normally a heavy like hours (a fully loaded and fuelled passenger jet) will wait at the end of the runway then throttle up and with the brakes on and release them at nearly full power for maximum acceleration, not today, however. It appears that our insane pilot has finally realised that it’s a little windy and hits the runway at a good deal of knots; I’m surprised the wings don’t hit the ground he cornered so hard. As the aircraft lined up on the airfield the captain does something which surprises me, he opens the throttles wide and guns it! The guy is MAD; I feel like I want to scream, here we are 290 souls, trapped in a 430,000lb death machine piloted by the re-incarnation of the red baron! Engines screaming, the plane lurches down the runway, none of the smooth 747 or A300 take-offs here, this plane is a dog, and everything in the cabin is rattling, there is even water dripping onto one of the cabin crew.

Through the window opposite, I can just make out the familiar landscape of Cardiff airport as we roar by. I am familiar with the airfield as it is home to the flying club of which I am a member and have clocked numerous takeoffs. Through the window I see the familiar shape of the ATC tower go by, so I know we are about half way down the runway, with another 1,200 meters to go. Moments later, still accelerating wildly I see the main stand and apron flash by; this is not good news as that means we have only 600 metres to go. The pilot is rapidly approaching the maximum safe abort distance. A few moments more, and still on the ground I see the flying club building whoosh by, I can’t believe what I see; the building is right at the end of the runway, and we have just 80 metres of ground left! My hands are gripping the arms rest so firmly that my fingers are buried about an inch into the foam (I’m sure my handprints remain there to this day), and my jaw is clenched so tightly that the grinding noise from my teeth must be louder than the engines.

With what can be no more than a few inches to spare the plane careers into the air, and relief crosses the faces of all of us on board (Except for the insane pilot who I’m sure is having a ball and smoking a fat cigar). The relief is short lived however as no sooner are we airborne when we are at the mercy of the elements and begin to feel the full effects of the gale force winds. Just a few feet into the sky and the plane is sent into a wild roll and dips attitude as the port wing catches a massive crosswind gust and gains a huge amount of lift on one side. I’m certain that the starboard wing is going to clip the ground as the aircraft yaws. The pilot and co clearly have their hands full, and they struggle to keep the plane climbing and straight. I can feel the undercarriage being retracted and locking as he tries to get as little drag as possible. In my mind, I’m trying to work out how much flap he has extended as too much at this speed and in these conditions could be disastrous. The plane continues to somehow drag herself into the air as the three GE Turbofans shriek at full throttle making the cabin shake and rattle as we are buffeted around inside. The aircraft again rolls violently, this time to port, the and the pilot’s correcting manoeuvre gets yelps and screams from the passengers, and a poorly closed locker pops open depositing a rucksack into the aisle.

The laboured climb seems to continue for an eternity, I have never experienced such a long ascent at full power, the poor engines must be getting dangerously close to their limit at this level of thrust when suddenly the buffeting seems to ease, and a hint of blue skies is visible through the windows. After nearly ten minutes at full thrust, we have got above the storm and are into open skies. The pilot throttles back and settles into a steady ascent to cruising altitude, and we’re on away. You can almost touch the feeling of relief in the cabin as people start to relax, the nightmare is over.

The crew go about their duties, and everyone is happy and still quite pumped about the very “exciting” take off, when suddenly the captain comes onto the PA. “Sorry about the rough take-off” he apologises, adding “We needed to get over the storm as quickly as possible, however, the ascent used a large amount of fuel, and we don’t have enough to get us to Florida.”, “Don’t panic, though” he quickly added, “I’ve radioed ahead to Bangor, Maine and we will refuel there”.

All I can think of is that Bangor, Maine is where most of the Steven King books are based. Then the captain adds one more thing “There is a nasty storm heading into Bangor so that the landing might be a bit rough”…..