Plane and Simple
I like watching planes; it’s somewhere between a hobby and a character flaw. I have absently walked into traffic twice.
I like watching planes because they look nice. Big scraps of metal, with no right or reason to be up there in the sky, just sticking it to the birds. It’s about time someone stuck it to the birds, I reckon. The best is when you see a plane turn and show its big, white (or, in the case of Jetstar, disgusting, orange) belly to the sun. Or maybe when you see one from a moving car or train and your dumb brain tricks you into thinking that it's stationary, hanging inexplicably from invisible strings.
Though I enjoy plane spotting as a spectator sport, I’m really not fond of participating. I guess it’s the same logic as whale watching, right? – enjoying watching whales flop about the Atlantic doesn’t mean that you’d also enjoy being inside of one.
What I have here is an old piece of writing I found scribbled in a shitty exercise book on a journey to Brisbane in the belly of a beast. Only passages of bad writing and one weird paragraph about using the bathroom during turbulence have been removed.
(This is a screenshot taken from a flight radar app of all the planes over America on a random Monday night. How do they not hit each other?)
"Doc Daneeka hated to fly. He felt imprisoned in an airplane. In an airplane there was absolutely no place in the world to go except to another part of the airplane."
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Aeroplanes are the sum of many parts. Steel and nails, pilots and the crew, passengers, wings, engines, tray tables — all of it comes together to create, at least when seenfrom the ground, a single beautiful thing. Physics and human beings are jammed into a big, fake bird, an aeroplane, where they will sit impatiently for hours at a time.
And of course, though not a legal or aeronautical requirement, no no-frills commercial aircraft can leave the ground without a crying baby. It's unclear what powers of flight said baby brings to the table but, much like the pressurised cabin, the correlation is airtight.
I sit immediately in front of this flight’s magical crying baby, which is fine, babies have places to go as well and, to be honest, I can relate to all the screaming. We’re towards the back third of the plane, with two emergency exits equally far away, about eight rows in front and behind me. Bummer. My chances of survival are fairly bleak, should shit hit the fan. I’m going to die and that’s okay.
This kind of honest, if grim, self-talk is important. It keeps me in my seat during turbulence.
We idle while late passengers play Tetris with their big, heavy bags. Why do late comers always have two suitcases for carry-on? I survey the rest of the plane. The air is that weird air that is cool and odourless and somehow also stuffy as hell. White noise overpowers all else as the engine starts to cook and so it’s loud without really sounding like anything. There is a safety demonstration that I am too scared to listen to, but that’s okay because no one else listens either. What good will the brace position do if the wings catch fire, anyway? The Captain tells us there are a few planes in front of ours in the queue to take-off. Airports are one long line.
We bump and rattle our way into the sky.
Be-uhnnn, the seatbelt sign is off. Click-clacking and repositioning rolls through the cabin like a poorly organised Mexican wave.
To my immediate left is a man who thinks he’s better than me. And fair enough, I’m wearing track pants that reek of garlic sauce - never sit down in an Airport cafeteria without giving your chair a once over. He’s in a suit. A good one, too. Brown suede shoes, silky navy pants and jacket, nice floral shirt, slicked back hair, airpods. His latest generation iPad is hanging from the seatback in front of him, playing a downloaded episode of Grand Designs. Television without sound is strangely compelling, but I get the sense that he doesn’t want me to watch it. Maybe because I keep loudly ooohing and ahhing at every wanky, artisanal I-beam placement.
But whatever, this guy isn’t better than me! At most he is the same as me. We’re on the same $59 flight, right?
It’s hard to get a sense of scale as to how far and fast we’re flying, but the presence of the in-flight food service suggests we’re about half way. It stops and starts down the aisle, pushed by the happiest looking bald man I have ever seen. He smiles to his left and right saying, “Can I get you anything today?” but what he’s really asking is, “Are you willing to pay extortionate, blood diamond, limited-edition-comic-book amounts of money for a below average cylinder of sour cream and onion Pringles? We actually only take card now. Ha! You better believe there’s a surcharge, yeah.”
Bit of a mouthful, I guess. And saying all that would get in the way of his smile - it’s really quite a sight to behold. Wide, powerful, straight-toothed, executed to a T. The perfect corporate smile. It’s like something out of a facial expression textbook or orthodontics magazine, but he’s not selling it with his eyes.
“Any drinks, bud?” he beams at me. Our eyes lock. It’s like staring into to the eyes of a coma patient. They’re empty. Resigned. Sick to death of all the idiots in his care, the ones that didn’t listen to the safety briefing and never say please.
“Please do you have any apple juice, please?” I ask, laying it on thick to show that I care.
“We sure do! That’ll be $6.00 mate, paypass okay?”
(I did a “worst-case scenario” doodle in an attempt to put my fear into perspective. It didn’t work.)
There is a young couple annoyingly in love behind and to my right. I know they are in love because they keep saying it, loudly, ostensibly to each other but, really, to us, to me.
Why they need me to know they are in love is a mystery I do not solve. If I was a braver person I would turn around and ask them. If I was a normal person I wouldn't think about it or them at all. If I was a really honest person, both with myself and with my surrounding passengers, I would turn around and tell them to either start loving me as well or stop rubbing it in.
But I am a coward. I decide to look in their direction very occasionally and to write about them in my journal.
The captain’s voice interrupts me. It’s as crackly and smug as always. We’re beginning our descent, he says, and our chairs must be returned to an upright position. The window shades must be lifted and the tray tables, an obvious hazard, must fold back to whence they came. Flight is a tricky business. I don’t think anyone really knows for sure how it all works, so better just fold the tray tables back and hope that does the trick.
Ears pop all around the plane as we return to the earth, and there is a period of bated breath. Out the window you can see how fast we’re moving, how low we are and how inconceivable it is that the wheels will just kiss the tarmac and no one will perish. There’s a banging, screeching, shaking and pulling, then we come to rest.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” crackles the pilot. He sounds typically smug, but maybe a little relieved.
This final chapter of the flight is, for cowards like me, the most heinous of them all. People scramble over one another in pursuit of their carry-on baggage. Impatience corrupts, impatience in a metal tin after a two hour flight corrupts absolutely. Formerly genial people are suddenly desperate to force their way out of the plane, to part the aisle’s sea of equally-deserving-to-leave passengers and phase shift their physical body and wheelie suitcase through a still very closed door.
Though I hadn’t spoken to the guy beside me, I thought we had developed a bit of a rapport watching Kevin McCloud together. But alas, he’s a jerk. In wriggling to the overhead locker he pushes me into the aisle with a meaty, expensive hip. And because we’re disembarking from the front door only, the two of us stand beside one another for seven minutes.
“Here’s a Grand Design for you, why don’t you get fucked,” is what I should have said, I realise, four days later. What I actually said was nothing at all.
I make my way through the terminal past exorbitant food proprietors and sad-looking soon-to-be passengers lining up to board. Every now and then I stop to watch a plane take off or land through a big, thick window. It’s so smooth from this distance, so inexplicably easy and calm. You don’t get a sense at all of what it’s like in the cabin, to rattle along at extreme speeds surrounded by crying babies and young love.