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Mike Arkus

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5 Flights of Fancy I'd Rather Not: On a Wing and a Prayer On the Looney Front

Posted: 04/14/2014 4:49 pm

There are flights, many hours long, that pass in a daze as you slip into and out of somnolence, or get engrossed in a film or book. Then there are those, sometimes short, even an hour or less, when you really wonder what the hell you're doing suspended in mid-air -- mouthing, mumbling, even shouting: 'Get me outta here!'

Here are some flights in recent years where personal entertainment system did not mean the multi-channel screen in the back of the chair in front of you.

On a Wing and a Prayer: Well, it does at least have two wings -- but that's about all you can say for it as it's about to take me from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa. On the other hand, it has many, many a prayer on the part of Yours Truly.

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Hargeisa market

Jubba Airways' millennia-old four-engine Russian-made Ilyushin-18 turboprop is something out of science retro-fiction. It's filthy, the seat belts don't work properly, corroded for eternity into maximum stretch for vast vodka-filled bellies.

There are no safety instructions, no stewards making stupid stylistic gestures to show you where the emergency exits are, no stewardesses showing you how to put on your life vests should we unanticipatedly venture out over water, no life vest at all in fact under the seat, no announcements, even incomprehensible ones, from the flight deck on expected arrival time, altitude etc.

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Money changer in Hargeisa market

In fact, perhaps there's no flight deck, either. There are certainly no splendiferous views out of the windows because the windows are so scratched as to be opaque -- and no friendly air emitting from the ventilator nozzles as we sit on the ground and liquefy in the sauna. Once we do grumble into the air, a frail breath of fresh air does exit from them. Fortunately it's only 45 minutes to Hargeisa.
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Block of currency notes where highest bill is 500 shillings -- or 8 U.S. cents

And don't even think of pulling down the table in the seat back -- I did, and it had repulsive calcified food remains from the 60s. Come to think of it, they could be mine -- the last time I flew an Ilyushin 18 was in Cuba in 1966. Perhaps this is the very same plane, and these the remains of my 1966 repast.

Wow, fancy that!

On landing in Hargeisa, the Russian pilot is out on the tarmac giving a very suspicious glower at the outer right engine, tapping it as though it were a tuning fork to see if it sounds safe to take off again.

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Monument with MiG fighter jet from Somalia shot down in Somaliland's war for independence

On a Wing and a Prayer -- With Classical Music: We've just taken off in our nice new Boeing 737-800 from Majuro in the Marshall Islands for Hawaii, and the starboard engine has just started playing Beethoven's Fifth - Ba-ba-ba-boom, ba-ba-ba-boom, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-boom.

A whole series of such symphonic exuberance follows, accompanied by the plane's almighty shudderings. After a while the 'music' and percussion stop but I can see that we've drawn parallel to the runway instead of heading east, and the stewardesses keep moving up and down to make sure we have our safety belts on.

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Majuro atoll scene

Finally the pilot comes on the intercom to tell us we're returning to Majuro: there's been a problem with the engine's compressors -- a flock of birds may have got sucked in. The engine's now running OK but he feels it's safer to return rather than risk four hours over open ocean. Once on the ground we're ordered off and told to wait for a 'rescue plane.'

Wow, fancy that!

I do eventually reach Hawaii -- more than 12 hours late.

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Rescue plane at Amata Kabua International Airport on Majuro atoll, Marshall Islands

On a Wing and a Prayer on a Bad Hair Day: I'm off to a rip-roaring start on the flight from New York to Tokyo -- and the plane hasn't even left the tarmac yet. I suddenly find this very bouffant hairdo in my lap -- and, attached to it, the very rotund face of its owner, a Japanese lady who is sitting in front of me. Her seat back has malfunctioned, sending her dangerously close to my crown jewels.

The stewardess makes her put it back up again as we're about to take off. No sooner have we reached cruising altitude than there it is again -- this time with my lunch. I've almost got her head on my tray. Sexes reversed, I'm a new Salome with John the Baptist's head on a platter. Talk about a bad hair day.

Wow, fancy that!

But bad hair or not, Mount Fuji looks great

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Mount Fuji from Kawaguchi-ko

On a Wing, and a Prayer for Less Fertility: this flight from New York to Casablanca just has to be the largest, rowdiest nursery in the sky ever. They must be hosting the screaming infants Olympics. There are scores of them all vying for gold in the triathlon -- shrieking, shouting and crying.

The tiny wretch behind me is way ahead in free-style seat-back thumping. His silly git of a father keeps on putting him, despite my remonstrances, on the seat-back table from where he proceeds to use all four limbs to box the back of my seat. Stop it already, will you! You've already won the gold!

Wow, fancy that!

By the time we land my head's thumping like a boxer's in round 36 of an endless bout.

On a Wing and a Prayer -- Quite Literally: Okaaay. It's the usual shambolic cock-up as we board the flight from New York to Los Angeles. The frigging passengers are taking on board shipping-container-size carry-ons which they struggle mightily to cram into the lilliputian overhead bins, managing to produce the most massive gridlock in the aisles.

Meanwhile the gent in the seat in front of me is bellowing business deals into his cell phone. Other than that everything is copacetic. We at last settle down to a more organised form of chaos, and we're off, up and away when the nice lady next to me takes out a Hebrew prayer book. Her lips are working overtime and a faint hum is issuing forth from her mouth, cracked ajar a fraction of an inch.

Is He on High trying to tell me something? She packs the prayer book away and replaces it with the Book of Psalms. She's on Psalm 121 -- A Song of Ascents. Well, she's got that one right -- we're 38,000 feet above the central prairies. On and on she goes: 'I lift up my eyes to the mountains; where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord... He will not let your foot slip...'

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Above the Mojave desert with the holy spirit

Well, Dearie, I've got news for you: we're not actually walking so it's not exactly about a slipping foot that I'm worried, more like a Beethoven Fifth Symphony-playing engine or two.. But then again, who needs jet fuel when you've got the Holy Spirit right next to you. 'The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and for evermore.'

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Still on high with the holy spirit

Indeed, she must have a direct line to Him because we arrive 25 minutes early -- then wait 25 minutes on the runway until the gate becomes free.

Wow, fancy that!

By the same author: Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.

 
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