Gear Up: A Month's Worth of Airplanes

Part 2 of Dick's 25,000 mile journey.

The front end of KLM's 747-400 is splendid indeed.

The front end of KLM's 747-400 is splendid indeed.

(April 2011) IT WAS PART 2 OF A MONTH'S worth of airplane (commercial and private) travel, and though I was seated in posh surroundings in the nose of a KLM 747-400 bound from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, the prisoners began to stir. Our departure had been delayed more than four hours. I worried about my wife, Cathy, back in coach. It was already going to be a 10-hour flight. My hosts in Saudi Arabia had paid for a business-class ticket for me (more than $10,000), but we bought a coach seat for Cathy (less than $1,000). Pretty high cotton for a roturier like me, but a long flight for her. Regardless of the seating arrangement, we were going to be very late getting to Europe.

We finally pushed back at 8:54 p.m., almost five hours late. Our flight, some 5,714 statute miles of it, according to the Airshow, would take us across Hudson Bay and bisect Greenland. Not the North Pole exactly, but close enough. Off we went. After a really good meal, the purser came around and personally apologized for the delay. I told her my wife was behind us in coach and that she is not a big fan of turbulence, some of which we were right then experiencing. She looked down at the empty seat next to me and said, “It is OK with me. … ” “That would really be nice,” I said. She left.

A few minutes later, Cathy was sleeping on that elegant fold-out bed right next to me. In the morning she was offered a business-class breakfast and a piece of china that looked like a row house in Amsterdam. I got one too. Cathy went back to her seat for landing.

We landed at 3:50 p.m. in Amsterdam, way too late to take a nap. The next morning, prior to going to the airport, we went to the Anne Frank House. Anne had cut pictures of movie stars, black-and-white ones, out of magazines and pasted them to the walls of her secret-annex hiding place. To have been in Beverly Hills, California, just hours before, looking for movie stars, and to now see the severity of the circumstances in which this young woman wrote some of the most dramatic and compelling prose of the 20th century, was almost more than my small brain could bear.

I boarded a KLM Airbus 330 to Dammam, Saudi Arabia, on time. The time change from Los Angeles to Amsterdam is nine hours. Saudi Arabia is two hours ahead, so the total difference I experienced in two days was 11 hours. There is some solace to this magnitude of biological tomfoolery. I did not get jet lag. I slept some times, was awake others, but never felt as bad as I do when I go from the East Coast of the United States to Europe. Go figure.

On this segment, I was all awake. I watched on the Airshow as Salzburg, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Athens, Damascus, Ankara, Al-Jawf and Riyadh scrolled by. It was either overcast or dark, so this was the only reference to new (for me) territory. Arrival in the dark at Dammam was something else. About 40 minutes out, all the liquor was secured. We landed on schedule, and as I deplaned on the Jetway, there was a man holding a sign with my name on it. Without a word we went out the door of the Jetway and walked down the rickety steps to a waiting Lexus. The airplane loomed above us in the dark. I got in the car. We drove about 300 yards. We got out; I got my luggage and was ushered into an ornate arrival hall — just me. A man welcomed me. I was given some tea. At least I think it was tea. Next I was ushered into a room with some military personnel. My passport was scrutinized, my fingers printed and my teacup collected. Out the door I went to another waiting car for the 45-minute drive to the hotel.

My stay in Saudi Arabia was short. So short, in fact, that the crew that flew me the 2,926 statute miles down from Amsterdam was the same one scheduled to pick me up at 2:55 the next morning, about 29 hours hence, and take me back.

The next night, the ride at midnight from the hotel to the airport was surreal. A sandstorm brought visibility to its knees. What, I wondered, does this sand do to those jet engines? Through security and waiting for the big Airbus to arrive from Doha, we all sat quietly in a huge departure lounge with high ceilings and ornate furnishings. As of 2:45 a.m. no agent was visible. I asked a Saudi man who spoke English what was up.

“Plane delayed because of weather in Amsterdam,” he explained.

The sandstorm was apparently irrelevant. We all watched as a Saudi Air 747 departed in the dark murk.

Finally our steed arrived and we boarded. I was in seat 1A. Next to me was a Saudi gentleman heading to Colorado. He spoke perfect English. We reassured each other about making our connections. We took off around 4 a.m. My seatmate ordered a double scotch. He told me liquor is available in Saudi Arabia, but it is expensive. He ordered two glasses of wine and fell asleep. It was 5 a.m.

Despite the late departure from Dammam, we were only 40 minutes late into Amsterdam, plenty of time to board the Delta A330 to Detroit, scheduled to depart at 10:50 a.m. Our airplane was late arriving, so we were late to go through the screening process at the gate. Once we were all screened, an announcement: This airplane is broken. We’ll try to find a replacement.

I was now concerned about our 5:20 p.m. flight from Detroit to Tampa, Florida. It had already been a long day. We all stewed around, wondering. There was that aura that settles in when a commercial flight’s departure is up in the air. We waited. We wondered. Then another voice with another instruction: Proceed to another gate. We all rushed out. We all got rescreened. Somehow another Airbus 330 had been manufactured. We got on about 2½ hours behind schedule, but the first officer had reassured me that today’s trip of 3,927 miles was flight-planned at 7+30 — quicker than usual and we should be fine on time.

The airplane was packed. I was in 1A and Cathy was in row 330-something. We pushed back and taxied out. I was getting tired. After takeoff, I napped. Suddenly a flight attendant shook me awake. She wanted to apologize. What for? She said that she stopped Cathy from coming forward to recommend a movie for me to watch. The comparison to her treatment on KLM was so obvious. She explained that it was a Delta rule. An airline on which I had never traveled gave her first-class treatment, and the airline on which I have more than 2 million miles wouldn’t let her come forward for a moment. Ouch.

We cleared customs in Detroit by 4:30 in the afternoon and walked to the Tampa flight. It was good to be back in the States. It always is. We had an airplane at the gate. It was a 737-800. We had a crew too. What could possibly go wrong? We boarded. I was in 1A. Joel, a deadheading first officer, sat next to me. Good. I was now wide awake for some reason and some airplane talk would make the trip go quickly.

Except the center-tank fuel pumps wouldn’t turn off. Or at least their light wouldn’t extinguish when they were turned to the off position. I asked Joel if that was somehow related to TWA 800, thought to have been brought down because of an explosion in an almost empty tank. He thought I might be right. The captain came on and explained that we were good to go if there was fuel in the center tank. This was a great idea and a far better solution than tracking down the glitch. With fuel that we wouldn’t use in the center tank, the pumps could remain on. It took a while to get fueled. By then the tug guys had wandered off. We pushed back an hour and 42 minutes late. Tampa never looked so good.

A week later we were back in our Cheyenne on a familiar leg: KTPA to KGED, Georgetown, Delaware. The next day was another typical flight to Lebanon, New Hampshire (KLEB). The weather was typical too. Snow showers were predicted, but the ceiling was 2,000 feet and the visibility was good. Cleared for the GPS 36, we were turned over to the tower. A month prior, we had just made it in (because of low ceilings) on the ILS 18, and now we were heading down the approach to the other end of the same runway. I had traveled 24,901 nm in the interim. In a month. I was glad to be coming in.

Suddenly the tower announced, “There’s a snow shower coming through. The visibility is dropping rapidly. It is about two miles right now.” With all the travels of the past month to Memphis and Cleveland and Chicago and Palm Beach and Tampa and Los Angeles and Amsterdam and Dammam and Detroit and Georgetown, I was going to have to work to get to KLEB. I leveled off at the minimum descent altitude. I saw nothing. Then, out of the gloom, a gray scar in white snow: Runway 36. I clicked off the autopilot, added flaps and made for the ground. It had been a month of airplanes, airplanes, airplanes. Why do I love it so?