My first ride on an airplane was an experience that I shall not soon forget!
It was early afternoon of April 17, 1979, and several of my friends and relatives who had accompanied me to the Norman Manley Airport were gathered around to say goodbye and wish me a safe trip. As I looked into the faces around me, some happy some sad, I wondered how many of them realized that deep inside I was as scared as a convicted murderer being taken to the electric chair. For several weeks I had been preparing for my departure to the United States, and even though I was looking forward to this trip, I had not dared to think about the actual flight. Now here I was, face to face with my hour of decision!
I shook hands and kissed relatives and friends, some of whom I might never see again, and started my long walk into the unknown. The distance from the waving gallery to the steps of the 747 Boeing Jetliner could not have been more than 50-75 yards, but as I walked toward those steps it was as if I was going on a 10-mile hike. At the top of the steps I turned for one last goodbye wave and then I suddenly found myself inside the largest ‘bus’ I had ever been in.
The stewardess (that’s what they were called then) must have noticed the look of awe and wonderment on my face, or I must have stood frozen in position; whatever happened I am still not sure. All I remember is that she took my boarding pass and said something about welcoming me aboard and hoping that I enjoyed the flight. She practically led me by the hand to my seat!
At my seat I started fumbling with the seatbelt and was on the verge of exasperation when the passenger sitting next to me offered her help. I thanked her and settled back into my seat watching what seemed like an endless stream of passengers boarding. How many people did this damn thing hold! My mind wandered as I sat there by the window. I can’t say how long I had been daydreaming, but I was suddenly brought back to reality by the sound of a female voice on some sort of intercom.
The voice was metallic and monotonous. I could tell that whoever it was, she had repeated those very words again and again possibly for years. She welcomed us all aboard, told us her name and proceeded to explain certain emergency measures. Emergency measures! Who was she kidding? Here I was, trying to figure out what manner of idiocy had brought me aboard this contraption, and she was talking about emergency measures! That did it! I immediately grabbed my “King James “ pocket version and started to read from the psalms. After all, I could not think of anything real bad that I had done, so the scriptures would surely help to calm me down.
As we taxied down the runway I sat rigidly, bible in hand, and asked the powers that be to make sure that we did not roll into the ocean. Buildings, trees, other planes whisked by, and in no time we were airborne. Even though I was scared half to death I was impressed by the totally different perspective I had when I dared to look out the window. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen! I could see miniature buildings and trees way below. The shoreline was visible for miles and I found myself wondering if the people who drew maps did so from airplanes.
After about 20 minutes into our flight I started to relax a little. This was not so bad after all! We did not appear to be moving! I looked out the window and all I could see was clouds and sky. Imagine being on top of the clouds! I could not wait to tell my friends back home about this. I could not imagine why I had been so afraid to fly in the first place. The captain’s voice came over the intercom wishing us a safe flight. We would be cruising at 35,000 feet should be landing at Kennedy Airport in about 3 hours. Somehow the captain’s voice was more reassuring than the previous voice we had heard. Feeling much more secure I settled back into my seat and started to read a novel that I had brought aboard with me.
I had barely got into my book before another stewardess pushing a cart with assorted food and drinks, stopped by my seat and asked me whether I wanted anything to eat. I accepted a sandwich and after eating, went back to reading. From time to time I would look out the window or read the various instructional signs displayed overhead. As I was wondering why the ‘fasten seatbelts’ signs were flashing, our friend with the monotonous voice was on the intercom again. It seemed that we were about to fly into some turbulence, and the captain wanted everybody in their seats with their belts fastened. When one has never flown before it is impossible to imagine what to expect in air turbulence. It is with this frame of mind that I tested my seatbelt for security, and waited.
The first indication that we had flown into bad weather came when there was a sudden lurch of the plane and a thumping sound from beneath the floor. This was follow by a constant violent vibrating of the entire plane. Right then and there I knew without a doubt that we were all dead! Several questions raced through mind all at once. Why did I leave the safety of my home? Why did I not travel by boat? Why did I not pay closer attention to the emergency instructions? Wait a minute! Did anyone in their right mind believe that emergency instructions were going to help at 35,000 feet? Ridiculous! It was time for my bible again! Someone behind me was shouting that a woman had fainted! I saw a stewardess and presumably another crewmember go by to give assistance. I had been praying earnestly when as suddenly as the commotion started, it ceased. It seemed that in one moment the plane was shuddering under immense pressure, and the next it was as though nothing had happened! Apart from the constant humming of the engines, one could almost hear a pin drop. I sat motionless, hardly breathing, until at last I heard the reassuring voice of the captain telling us that we had got through the bad weather no worst for wear, and our fellow passenger (the woman that had fainted) was going to be alright. He would increase our cruising speed, he said, so we would not be behind schedule.
After what seemed about 2 hours without further incident, I became aware of a distinct change in the sound of the aircraft. It was as if the engines were straining against some force. I was also aware for the first time, of an increased pressure on my inner ears. I forced myself to yawn and pretended that I was chewing; I put my fingers into my ears trying to ‘pop’ the air out, all to no avail. This was one more reason; I told myself, that I would never fly again!
There was a flickering of lights and the voice on the intercom informed us that we were approaching Kennedy Airport, and would be landing in a matter of minutes. I looked out the window and was amazed at all the beautiful lights of New York City. What a sight! There must have been millions and millions of lights! There was a bump followed by another and buildings were flashing past my window. We had landed! We taxied for about 10 minutes before coming to a complete stop. I shall never be able to describe the profound feeling of relief I felt knowing that we were again on solid ground.
With all the anxieties and tense moments that I experienced on my first flight, I really believe that we owe a lot to technology and the pioneers of flight who made it possible for me to travel 2,000 miles in a mere 3 ½ hours. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget!