Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why YXE?

Late afternoon, Saskatoon airport. We're up on the A departure level; three gates adjacent to each other.  After a peaceful week of visiting Saskatchewan and camping in Banff, we're relaxed. I'm still high from my first scramble up an avalanche shoot to the top of a Lake Louise peak. The departure lounge is brightly lit, sunshine streams through the wall sized windows that overlook the tarmac. I'm watching the tail end of a Blue Bomber/Rough Rider game on the lounge TV, Dan is flipping through his smart phone.

The plane arrives 20 minutes behind schedule. An announcement comes on the PA system.

Sorry for the delay folks, there were some strong headwinds flying in from Toronto. We'll just do a safety check and get you on your way shortly.

I heard the same sort of announcement at the same time last year, on a flight heading back to Toronto, with the same airline. That aircraft lost cabin pressure at 35,000 feet and had to make an emergency landing in Winnipeg.

I shoot a glance at Dan. He munches on trail mix and smiles at me.

I jump and head to the window to watch the airport crew unload baggage from the plane. I watch them insert a big pump into the plane and into the plane's wing. Arms folded, rocking on my heels, I watch. I turn to see passengers walking by me. I see two pilots greet the other two pilots who will take us to Toronto. My stomach squeezes. I see one pilot nodding and another turn and gesture toward the window. My head whips around to the plane. My eyes shoot back at the pilots conferring.

I do not have a good feeling about this. The pit of my gut is a rock. Am I the only one who notices? Do I ask the pilots if I may join their conversation? Or do I relax and remind myself there are some things you can control and some things you can't?

Fifteen minutes later we're on the plane. I've popped a tranquilizer as a pre-emptive strike. Nothing to worry about. There are hundreds of flights across the globe taking off right now. This is routine, this is Saskatoon. You're being a drama queen.

Dan knows I had a bad flight last year. He pats my knee.

We're taking off, the wheels rise and the airplane climbs. Almost immediately I sense something isn't right. The plane shouldn't have to labour this much to get airborne. Then, I smell it. Something odd. Dan is looking out the window. The plane feels stalled. I see a man the row ahead of us look sideways. And he says to no one in particular, do you smell something burning?

Although I have tranquilized myself, my heart pounds furiously and I break into a sweat. Breathe, my yoga teacher would say.

Flight attendant calls sound from multiple rows. I squeeze Dan's hand. From the outside, you'd never know I'm flooding with cortisol. The plane starts levelling off mid-rise. That is not normal.

Underneath  my calm facade I'm in a rage. This is happening again, another airplane malfunction. I think about Dan and how if I was alone, I would be okay with crashing. But I am not okay with him crashing, being hurt, losing his life. This is between me and the airline now, between me and a higher power letting me know who's boss.

After a few minutes the pilot informs us we struck a bird and must return to Saskatoon. Un oiseau seulement.

Geese brought down US Airways Flight 1549 a.k.a Miracle On The Hudson.

Back at the airport, we're told we'll be accommodated on another flight leaving at 7:15pm.  After that flight is cancelled due to mechanical failure, we're informed there will be room for us on the 11:15pm flight.

A week earlier I was on top of a mountain, exhilarated. Now I'm searching the internet for train and bus schedules.

I realize my anger is mixed with grief. My father worked for this airline for 30 years, soldiering on and supporting us six kids doing a job he loved, then tolerated, then suffered. He practically gave his life to this airline, an airline that now seems to be more about marketing and satisfying shareholders. My father died driving his car one day, his heart exploding. At least he wasn't flying.

We board at 11:15pm and have a non-nonsense flight back to Toronto. The roar of the engines are determined. We're slicing through night sky at hundreds of kilometres an hour. I'm in the fetal position on two chairs, numb from two more tranquilizers.

I love flying. I love the seeming impossibility of it. That's why I'm angry and sad and still feel grief. Sooner or later, we're all struck down.