We had been waiting at the gate for over an hour, having followed advice to get there at least 90 minutes before takeoff; it actually took longer to purchase coffee and a newspaper at the airport Starbucks than it had taken to get through security that morning. At least we could watch the sunrise over the neighboring terminal…. and all the people coming and going. Speculating about the lives of the random group you’ll be stuck with for the next few hours is an interesting way to pass the time. I wondered about the young couple who were taking two very small dogs as carry-on items, whether the little girl in a stroller being entertained by her mother would remain so well-behaved for the duration of the flight, and if the man sleeping with headphones on would hear the call to board.
Finally, just when I was ready to break out the copy of Lemony Snicket’s Horseradish sitting in my backpack, the boarding agent began calling out instructions to board the plane according to lettered seating assignments. Like Titanic in reverse, first class, women, children, and the disabled were called first. Due to the relatively small number of passengers, it didn’t take long before our own coach class was announced over the loudspeaker. We stepped over the the line, hesitating at the sight of the carry-on size checker – would we have to check our bags after all? No, the boarding agent didn’t even glance at our large backpacks (solid black and lime green, respectively) as she stamped our passes.
The reality of our adventure hit as I walked through the elevated tunnel between the gate and the door into the 747: I would soon be experiencing my first flight, traveling in a way faster and more complex than I had ever traveled before, and all I had to do was sit back and buckle in – after securing my luggage in the overhead compartment, that is.
When I saw many passengers stuffing bags considerably larger than mine into the small compartments, I wondered if I could have made use of my backpack’s expanding feature. Oh well, nothing for it at this point. We settled into our seats (I got the treat of being seated next to the window) and explored our limited personal space: royal blue vinyl-covered seats worn from a few decades’ service, small armrests, white plastic fold-down trays, flashing signs ordering the fastening of seat belts and the powering off of electronic devices, and yes, authentic Skymall catalogs in the seat pockets. A little more vintage than I expected, but not terrible at all.
As flight attendants slammed luggage bins closed, the plane was slowly guided out of the hanger onto the runway, following multicolored lines that I could only guess the meaning of. Our flight attendant was competing with the pilot’s announcements as she attempted – three times – to explain emergency exit protocol to passengers seated in the row ahead of us, succeeding once weather conditions for both departure and arrival cities were reported.
Waiting for the runway to be cleared seemed to take an eternity. How could my brother seem so relaxed as he perused the bizarre and overpriced items in the outdated catalog? Ah, but his voice betrayed the slightest hint of nerves as he pointed out the subscription to Cheese of the Month. As we waited, we watched other planes as they bent the rules of gravity. If that giant airbus could make it off the ground, our smaller craft could too, right?
And then we began to move forward. The pilot advised passengers to prepare for liftoff. I waited for a jolt of acceleration, sure that liftoff would be dramatic. Instead, it was really as if we were simply being driven into the air as one would drive a car onto an interstate entrance ramp. A sharp incline was followed by leveling out, then angling toward the sky again in a pattern of gaining altitude.
The weather was pleasant that day, a bit foggy, but we were low enough that larger roads and buildings could be guessed at. Every once in a while the plane would bank to one side or the other, changing the angle of view, and about a third of the way through the flight I got to see the interior of a cloud for a few seconds. Other than that, there was nothing much to write about – very minimal turbulence, no crying children, no crazy passengers or predatory reptiles; we even landed a few minutes ahead of schedule. And the landing was so smooth that I believe I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d had my eyes closed. All in all, a lovely first-flight experience that I won’t soon forget.
When I was little I would look up at the Carolina-blue sky overhead and wonder how far you had to be off the ground to officially be ‘in the sky’. Now I have my answer, and I heartily agree that it is the only way to travel. I think Leonardo put it best when he wrote, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”