Saturday, November 08, 2008

Northwest Flight 71

Finally, I have returned…

Not going into detail about the what or the where of the last two or so months, let’s just say transition has been the overarching theme—with two d’s being primary: death and divorce.

So, there I was… I’m flying home once again on Northwest Flight 71, the first leg of which takes off from Detroit, heads northwest over Alaska and onwards to Nagoya. Last year we got four hours into that first segment only to be informed well west of the Hudson Bay over the central Canadian wilderness that an engine had to be shut down and thus we’d have to do a 180 back to Detroit to change over to a more flyable jumbo jet, presuming that one was available.

With that excruciating experience in mind I naturally began to figure at what point we’d be more than half way to Japan so that a similar semi-catastrophic system malfunction would not mean returning to Detroit. I knew that point-of-no-return would be somewhere west of Anchorage.

Just as I began to relax, my uneasy forebodings gradually assuaged, the head attendant made an announcement straight out of a movie script, “Is there a doctor onboard?” She went on to explain that a very ill passenger required assistance.

‘Damn!’ I screamed inside the confines of my mind. I turned to the guy to my right and frustratingly told him, “We’re going to land in Anchorage. It’s a sure bet; mark my words.”

A surprising (and reassuring) thing was the high number of medical personnel on the aircraft; almost all of them fellow coach passengers. Wow, I always thought doctors had money enough to fly at least business class. I counted more than six different people, all apparently claiming to be doctors, and each in turn spoke to and examined the distressed old woman.

Soon, another announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that we must divert into Anchorage since our sick passenger requires immediate medical care.”

Dropping my head and then turning to the guy next to me I muttered resignedly, “I told you so.” Even so, I had been desperately hoping against hope that I would be wrong.

I sighed, ‘Here we go again…’ I knew I should have felt more concern for a fellow human being’s physical plight; but, being the selfish jerk that I apparently am, all I could think of was, ‘Why did this person get on this plane feeling so poorly in the first place!’

I loved the attendant running service in our section, the very aft part of coach. In his 40s, he looked to be Latino American, and from his George Lopez sounding accent, he was probably from Texas or some other southwestern state. From before the beginning of the flight he made it known that he would not consider taking any guff from self-absorbed passengers. I heard him raise his voice with one such traveler a few rows behind me over the proper stowage of carry-on luggage. ‘Yeah! Give him hell,’ I nodded, mentally approving.

During the in-flight medical crisis this Latino attendant, reminding me of a tough drill sergeant, continually had to harshly remind my fellow voyagers to keep the aisles clear, “Please sit down,” he berated them, “YOU are getting in our WAY!” It was great listening to him assert his prickly authority. There ARE times when folks from this part of the world NEED that kind of personal reinforcement since behavior based on civil cooperation does not always win out over individual wishes. Each time he got in someone’s case I felt huge vicarious satisfaction.

I gulped down my disappointment and frustration at yet another unsatisfactory Northwest flight experience and accepted the idea that this interminable flight was about to become even more so.

At Anchorage the aircraft literally dropped onto the runway with engines immediately squalling alarmingly into reverse. The aircraft fishtailed some three or four times before being tamed back into straight forward motion. It felt like a carrier landing looks like. I have flown into that airport before and don’t remember it as being exceptionally short so that it would require that kind of extreme landing, although giving the flight crew some minimum benefit of the doubt I thought maybe there had been some cross winds messing with them. I didn’t really believe that though, because those kinds of winds can usually be felt on approach and nothing of the sort was apparent.

I remarked to my seat mate: ‘My God that was one of the worst landings in a 747 I’ve ever experienced! I hope they didn’t blow any tires!’

I thought with no little concern, ‘That’s all we need now, to have to change some tires too!’

It seemed to take forever to get the sick person off the plane. It also took a lot of time for the baggage handlers to find and retrieve luggage all while thousands of gallons of jet fuel were replaced given that we’d had to dump an equal amount into the air over the wilds of Alaska to reach a safe landing weight.

Well over an hour later the captain came on again, “Well folks, we are refueled and our ill passenger has been evacuated, but I’m sorry to have to tell you that I’ve just been informed that another passenger is apparently very ill. Emergency medical personnel have been called to come back, after which we will continue our flight. Thank you for your continued patience…”

An audible groan from the 400 plus passengers, including my own explosive curse, filled the passenger compartment. That second sick person caused us to be on the ground almost another additional hour. So much for the original overly optimistic estimate that it would take a mere 45 minutes to divert into Anchorage. TWO passengers on the same plane requiring medical evacuation, what are the chances of that happening!

I’d made a new buddy, Anthony, a guy across the aisle from me. A young looking 44 year old Filipino lawyer, I told him jokingly, “Man, if I got sick on a flight like this there’s no way I’d EVER tell anyone. I’d rather die quietly here in my seat than have to pay what it’s going to cost those evacuees in medical and ambulance billing. Just put a blanket over my corpse and bury me when we land!” He laughed.

Eight hours after takeoff from Anchorage we landed with an even greater jouncing thud at Nagoya. It was so jarring that I felt it painfully in my back and neck as the vertebrae compressed. “Son of a BITCH!”

No more benefit of the doubt. Now I was truly mad. Not only did we practically crash land, the aircraft fish-tailed like crazy at least 6 or 7 times before the crew got it dampened out. It was so violent that we could hear the tires below us screech and skid as we gripped armrests for our own stability. Some of us clenched our teeth while others around me whimpered out their concerns. Hell, I used to fishtail like that purposely on the icy roads of Michigan, but to feel that kind of extreme motion from a monstrous 747 is disquieting to say the least.

“These guys SUCK!” I practically yelled across to my new lawyer friend. If we land in Manila like that then it’s the airplane, if its smooth into Manila then it’s the incompetent schmucks up on that flight deck. We’ll have a whole new crew going into Manila—Thank God!”

Upsetting landings aside, after two hours on the ground at Nagoya it was almost time to reboard the plane. I’ve learned when flying with Filipinos that it’s best to act like them, at least when it comes to boarding. These folks do not cotton to the concept of making orderly lines and typically, 30 minutes before first boarding call, they will begin to mass in a gaggle in front of the gate. Screw it, I do it now too; or at least I do when I have substantial carry-on luggage, which I always do anymore to avoid at flight’s end having to wait in the mass of humanity at the luggage carousel. It isn’t that big a deal, but I like to make sure upon boarding that I have first crack at the overhead bins, just to make sure. I did this successfully at both the Detroit and Nagoya gates, positioning myself as close as possible to the gate entrance and then inching forward into whatever space opportunistically presents itself in the mob. I think of it as a game and try to enjoy it with a gamesmen’s attitude. Doing it like that, it’s not so bad.

Don’t get me wrong. Filipinos who do this are not unruly or rude as they mass up at the boarding gate. In fact, they cheerfully socialize as they gently fight for position. Americans in similar circumstances are not always so sweet-tempered with some tending to surliness; so I can appreciate this about Filipino air travelers. They are what they are, they do what they do.

I had to laugh at the Japanese Northwest agents though as they made their silly demands that everyone should PREASE form two rines. None of us in the general boarding gaggle even looked at them as we continued to stand patiently in our quietly disobliging throng. I made a joke out of their silly attempt to bring Japanese order to a group of mostly Filipinos, turning to my fellow “mob mates” behind me I smilingly made my own mocking announcement, “Okay folks, please form a line directly behind ME! And thank you for YOUR cooperation.” Some even smiled.

Not quite four hours after taking off from Nagoya we made the long gentle approach into Manila. I nudged my lawyer pal as the plane floated and flared down to a soft touch down—the moment of contact almost imperceptible. I told him knowingly: “See, it WAS that first aircrew! Now THAT was a beautiful landing.” In consensual agreement my fellow passengers applauded sarcastically, the old Bronx cheer, all realizing that we finally had some REAL pilots up front. It was the first time I’ve seen passengers applaud just because their pilots were able to land without thrashing everyone in their seats.

At the Manila terminal, four hours after our original estimated arrival time, pulling along my heavy, bursting-at-the-seams, wheeled, carry-on suitcase, I deftly sailed past as many of my deplaned fellow travelers as I could, managing to be just number four in an immigration line despite my extremely rearward seat position. But just my miserable luck, the guy in front of me decided to ask a bunch of stupid questions about extending his tourist visa. I silently implored, ‘COME ON DUDE! MOVE IT ALREADY!’

At last, my turn; I gave the tired looking immigration lady an obligatory pleasantry, “Hello maam, sorry for the late arrival. How are you doing tonight, I mean morning?”

With a vacant smile she nodded pleasantly, electronically scanned my permanent resident card and quickly stamped my passport. Zoom, I was out of there.

Passing through the rows of luggage carrousels I could see a couple hundred people already congregated thickly around the one on the far left. It was not turning thus far and not one bag had yet to be delivered.

‘Heh heh! …Suckers!’ I thought, hurriedly proceeding to an unoccupied customs agent standing at a station below a sign declaring: “Nothing to Declare.”

The short skinny bald customs official began to wave me through having just done so with about ten of the aircrew and attendants from my flight, and then stopped me when he realized that I was not with them. “Do you have anything to declare sir?” he asked. Biting back sarcasm I respectfully said instead, “No sir!”

He took my customs declaration, initialed it and waved me on. Bing bang boom.

Looking much exhausted after such a long and unexpected wait, my driver and gal were waiting for me at the bottom of the ramp outside. Plopping into the rear seat of the sedan with a wince due to my aching back, I tried to nap for the last two hours of my odyssey after having left my starting point in Saginaw, Michigan almost 30 hours before.

Dawn’s light was already visible when the driver pulled up in front of my gate. As I said at the beginning of this piece:

I’m home, …at last! Yawn….

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