Terror At 35,000 Feet



The airlines will be making money again soon.

I make this prediction because I -- the ultimate white-knuckled flyer -- finally got on a plane for the first time since 9/11. And if I'm flying again, it means everybody is flying again.

My son, Zach, and I recently went back to Michigan for my father's 85th birthday. I tried to hold out for his 100th, but the family was having none of it.

Actually, the security and boarding processes in Phoenix were less painful than I anticipated and we were soon aboard a Northwest Airlines Boeing 757 bound for Minneapolis and a connecting flight to Detroit.

It was a bumpy three hours, which gave me a chance to work on my white-knuckle routine. Even though it had been several years since my last flight, holding onto the arm rest so tight the blood leaves your fingers is a lot like riding a bike -- you never forget how.

Once on the ground in Minnesota (whose motto is "Land of Very Strange People Named Johnson Who Speak Like They Just Walked Off the Set of ‘Fargo,' By Golly"), my son and I raced to the other end of the airport to catch our connecting flight, pausing just long enough to visit a rest room where a bunch of young German tourists had stripped to the waist to wash up. (Judging from their paunches, the Master Race isn't what it used to be.)

We arrived at the gate just in time to rush aboard the craft that would carry us across Lake Michigan and into Detroit. It's a good thing there was no time to stop and think because if there had been, I would be writing this from Minneapolis.

I say this because after bolting aboard, I found myself buckled into a DC-9. That's right, I was about to fly on the very plane that Orville and Wilbur Wright launched over Kittyhawk at the dawn of flight.

DC-9s are so old I was sure this was the very last one and that it was going on to the Smithsonian Institute after it dropped us off in Detroit, where it would hang by cables from a ceiling for ever more.

As my son restrained me from bolting for the dimly lit "EXI" (you couldn't read the "T"), a Northwest employee with a crank came out to start the engines, which quite literally roared to life. The stench of jet fuel was overpowering.

When I pointed the odor out to Zach, his response was to smugly and disdainfully recite the "Smells like victory" line from "Apocalypse Now."

And how do they manage to fly a plane with three seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other anyway? As much as flying defies the laws of physics in the first place, doing so in an unbalanced aircraft that was built in another century is, it seems to me, akin to kicking sand in the face of fate.

But it was while we were rumbling down the runway -- somewhere just past the point of no return -- that I made the most disconcerting discovery. My tray table could not be returned to its locked position because it was busted.

"Zach," I blurted to my son, "my tray table is busted."

"You can use my tray table," he said in that exasperated and condescending voice that parents everywhere will recognize.

"That's not the point," I answered. "Tray tables are a critical part of flying. If they don't maintain the tray tables in working condition, what else have they neglected?"

Zach only patted me on the arm reassuringly and touched his index finger to his lips in the universal sign that means "shut the heck up or I will have you gagged and restrained."

With a little help from Jack Daniels, the flight was fairly uneventful, although being able to see both shores of Lake Michigan from a DC-9 was a bit disconcerting -- especially given the ratty condition of the seats, the bottom cushions of which, we were reminded, could be used as flotation devices. Right.

But we shook and rattled our way across the lake and into Detroit, lowering the landing gear one noisy side at a time. And as we touched safely down, a most reassuring thought crossed my mind.

At least we didn't have to worry about a terrorist attack. No self-respecting terrorist would stoop to committing an act of terror aboard or in any way involving a DC-9.

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