Barely Airborne

“Over there is your airplane, sir.”

The Munich airport employee had checked my one-way ticket to Rome, then gestured to the bright tarmac of that reflected a bright winter day. There, over a ways all alone and looking suspect, squatted a small airplane with twirly propeller things on its wings. It seemed more suitable for a low-grade millionaire on a budget; I expected a jet.


“Yes. As there are only two passengers scheduled for this flight, it has been shifted to this plane.”

“But I have paid business class.” My company had paid business class. This was the week where I was following a very portable electronics conference around Europe and “managing” it; we had visited Paris, London, Stockholm, Munich, and now finally Rome. My job was to arrive in a hotel with a very large room, ask technicians and other sub-manager types if everything was okay as they set things up, and then hang around watching everything go well.

My ticket-taker walked away, leaving me to venture unaided across the tarmac and board. Carrying my bag, I stepped outside, and instinctively glanced left and right in case I had to dodge any zooming incoming or outgoing planes. But nothing stirred anywhere. Things went roar on the other side of the building, but here? No other airplanes but mine, no people, no hustle, no bustle. The air was still. I walked across the tarmac, arriving at the five stairs leading up to the entry. I stopped, looking around for someone to lead me in, be interested—anything at all. Nothing. I stepped up, peeked inside the entryway, eight seats, tightly packed, no one. No one sitting or standing, no one in the cockpit. I turned and looked out and over my new desolate world. Someone appeared from the same entry hole I had. I went back down the stairs, and waited for the man, also attired to do some business, who nodded at me as he came up.

“Strange,” he said, looking back over his shoulder.

We stood there silent in our suits and ties with our suitcases at our feet, waiting.

After a while, a pilot appeared from a door in another building near an empty hanger. “Are you my passengers? Get on board. Please.” He put his hand out for our tickets. He checked mine, the other guy’s, and then said, “Take any seat, as you are the only passengers. And have a nice trip.”

We climbed aboard. I settled on the left side of the airplane, my companion on the right side, and then the pilot climbed up and in and looked us over slowly, approvingly.

“Welcome aboard.” As though we were absolutely new to him. Outside he played being a steward, now he was a pilot. Okay. He stooped down to fit into the cockpit; he sat and clicked things, flipped some switches, and turned dials. Outside the window, some maintenance people suddenly appeared, and looked up under my side of the wing; they pointed, mouthed words, nodded together. The pilot got up and came out, a smile on his face. “I’ll be one moment.”

He left us sitting there, buckled up and ready to ride. I turned to my traveling companion, who was reading his newspaper. Feeling my eyes, he looked up slowly; he raised his eyebrows, acknowledging the continued strangeness.

I heard a motor and looked back out my window. A rather large oblong truck that seemed to contain airplane fuel was backing toward the airplane. I heard another sound, and swung round just in time to see the door of the plane slowly shut and click locked. We were now locked inside alone together.

“This is strange.”

“Very strange,” my companion added. Then he leant over toward my side to see what was happening. We watched them fit a nozzle into the airplane, and then hit a big green button, and another motor out there began churning.

“I think,” my companion said, “what they are doing is illegal.”

“What?” my head snapped around.

“Leaving passengers on board while it is filled with petrol,” he explained. “They’re not supposed to do that.”

Machines hummed outside; a mechanic below checked the seal from pump to plane, squinted, backed off, left, in what I interpreted as a casual hurry. What was he aware of that I was not? Should I get up and check the door, see whether something turned and budged, could open and set me free? I sat still, safety belt still clicked in, as though this would help if there was an explosion, perhaps sending me in this chair high onto the air, turning and turning, the earth coming into view, no, now it was the sky, the sun, no, now the earth, again, oh dear, the earth slightly closer suddenly, there’s the sky becoming wider, and the earth, oh sweet earth, now coming up rapidly to meet me and squish me against its hard face, when the motor outside, pumping much inflammable liquid into containers all around me, became low, lower, dying out, ending, stopped.

I look over to my companion, for further intelligence, a smile, a hint of sympathy that we had made it this far together, without first names yet sharing space, but he was looking out his window. So I looked out my window. The mechanic was staring up at the juncture of pump and airplane; he removed the nozzle, checked again, then shut it and got in the little petrol truck and drove away.

Someone made sounds at the door, and our pilot opened the door, barely nodded, certainly did not apologize nor explain, shut the door behind him and bent his way back into the cockpit where he always belonged. Once more he pressed buttons, placed his headset back on, flipped switches, announced over the single loudspeaker to us, “Welcome to flight XYZ03something, Munich to Rome, non-stop. This is your pilot, Günter the Cowardly. Sorry for the delay. I’m not going to tell you why we decided to lock you in here while we broke the law and walked away so as not to be in harm’s way when this shit-heap possibly blew up. But hey, happy ending. Let’s get this show on the road. During the flight, if you care for something to eat or drink, I can get up and serve you, or I can drive this fucking plane to Rome. Your choice.”

He taxied to the runway, and appeared about ready to put us into line for take-off. But we just sat there. Motor turning, waiting our turn. Then on clicked his voice:

“Hello, this is your pilot again. We are experiencing some mechanical difficulties so we will be returning to base to have this checked before proceeding on our way.” My head slumped forward on my chest. One eye looked toward my traveling companion, but he looked away, unwilling to meet my one eye. Perhaps he thought I wanted to bitch and moan, but all I wanted was his opinion, or a little compassion, and only then bitch and moan.

The airplane turned around and back we went, and once returned in the same exact spot, off went the motor, up the pilot got, he squeezed out the pilot cockpit hole and said over his shoulder as he stepped out, “This shouldn’t be a minute.” Automatically, I glanced over to my companion, but his face looked resolutely into a business magazine.

After a while, the pilot reappeared. “It’s a bolt,” he said. “We do not currently have that bolt’s size and strength in stock at this terminal. We will have to borrow one from our competing airlines. Shouldn’t be long.” He slipped his head back out the door, hesitated, then his head returned. “We regret any convenience this may have on your travel plans.” And he gave an instant-flash smile and went back down the steps outside.

So now this reputable German airline that spanned the world with its reliable services was going hat in hand knocking on competitor’s doors pleading, Our bolt is broken, and we seem fresh out. Would you perhaps maybe have one we could borrow for a flight…? Like a neighbor coming round asking for eggs for a pie in the making. As a competitor, maybe their instinct was to go, Why yes sure! and slip them a used bolt with a hairline crack in it, with just enough strength to get this plane off the ground, and then when high and floating along it would shear and snap and so would our floating, plunging us roaring and screaming to the ground boom, and then the German airlines sales would also plunge into the ground, roaring, less screaming, and their bolt-generous competitors would pick up tons of frightened customers while the on-ground emergency services would give up looking for most of my remains because, well, “The plane when it crashed went boom pretty big time and this particular passenger’s innards and outers pretty much went completely splat and it’s really hard to put together his intestinal bits and brain fragments and call it a corpse to bury. Ach zo….”

I heard a whirring sound coming from somewhere in the “under-carriage” vicinity that connected the wing to the airplane. I tried to look out the window, but the action was occurring outside that view; I imagined a bolt was getting itself snug into this non-airborne vehicle. The buzzing below halted as quickly as it began, and once again after a while the pilot reappeared, and gave a minor sort of thumbs up, and assured, “We’re off.”

He settled in his pilot’s chair, again leaving his door to the cockpit fully ajar, so that by leaning out a bit I could see everything going on up there. He made the same announcement as previously over the intercom which he could have just as well shouted over his shoulder: that we were going to taxi to our spot in line. We did. Said we were going to take off. We did. He did not pour drinks and offer a cheerleading show of how to get to the emergency exits should we need it. We left Munich goodbye, and were on our way safe and sound to Rome late but at last. For a while. Until.

We were riding high, everything humming and sounding as usual and normal, then, distantly, a sound.

It grew. It was like a muted grinding lawn mower on a neighbor’s lawn five houses down. Then the sound was two houses down. Then it landed right on my own lawn. Inside the airplane: a grinding, threatening, nearly ear-hurting sound. Coming, it seemed, from the cockpit. It swelled until the whole airplane seemed to vibrate with the noise.

I thought of the bolt. The imagined hairline fracture. It was shearing and about to let parts of the plane become undone, bits jerking away one from the other until we floated along up here in the clear afternoon sky, without walls or floor, but just seats, our hair fluttering severely about our scalps as we ceased to fly and began our rapid descent and all the exploded body parts that would mean.

I exchanged slow looks with the guy across the aisle; speechless, his eyeballs stared out at me. I leaned out to look up the aisle to the cockpit. The pilot was inspecting the dials on his control panel: all the gages and switches and meters, swinging and beeping and indicating. Nothing red and alarming. He reached his hand out and twirled a couple of dials, manipulated a button or two. Then I witnessed something most unusual in a professional pilot. With the end of his crooked forefinger he began tapping the various round glass casings enclosing each dial, as though knocking gently at someone’s glass door for polite entry. Waiting for a reply, trying again, moving to the next. Maybe thinking a slightly mis-fitting glass bit was causing the now nearly ear-splitting resonance.

I leaned the other way, toward the window, wanting to see, in case of disaster, where there might be cozy emergency landing space or fields or….

Plain, blunt geography. Between Munich and Rome lie bump after high bump of something called the Alps. All that there was down there were endless mountaintops, and if one wanted to ski, fine, or if one wanted to land a plane, dead.

I looked away from the window with my Adam’s Apple playing elevator in my throat as I gulped, and again. I sneaked a look down at my lap, checking whether I’d lost control visceral yet and all would be wet with pee and fear. Moved my buttocks around discreetly, feeling whether I’d dropped a load of nervous manure in my pants. But I was high and dry in these low spots.

I again scoped out what the pilot was up to, and whether he was pulling any miracles out of his bag. He had stopped tapping at the dials as the nauseating screech continued. He seemed to slump, thinking things over. Then he did what I never, ever wanted to see a pilot of a plane I was flying in ever, ever do. He leaned back in his chair, reached far behind him, flipped open some compartment and pulled out a heavy, thick book. Like a telephone book from a decent-sized metropolis. He placed it on his lap and flipped it open to what seemed the index, ran his finger down a page, stopped, then pushed a pile of pages over until he got to the one he sought, again ran his finger down until it stopped at a paragraph or a section, and then he settled into a good read.

I considered releasing my bowels; praying; closing my eyes as I prepared to fall out of the sky, rehearsing dying scenarios in my head. Here I had a pilot who needed a book to tell him what he should do next. He calmly turned the page, continued reading. I stared again out the window: Alps without airstrips. I looked at my hands and said a silent goodbye, front and back. I looked up at heaven, where I already was, sort of, and said not so much goodbye as Hello, here I come.

Then the sound changed pitch. It went, without warning, lower. I leaned out to see what miracle the pilot was performing. Bread into water, shriek in mute. But he still had the book spread across his lap; now he was looking around quizzically, his attention also caught by the change in sound. The sound lessened, then lessened some more, and then, as though it was good and tired of all this nonsense and enough of a really good joke, it went lower yet, quickly, and within fifteen seconds, the noise was gone. All that remained was the steady sound of an airplane flying. Wind and motor. I watched the pilot look around at his console, and sort of half-shrug, and then simply close the book with a flip, lean backward and slot it back into the compartment where he had found it; closed it up, turned forward, got comfortable, and on we flew.

I carefully, slowly, deliberately dug my fingernails into my armrests, leaned my head all the way back against the seat, shut my eyes and held my breath while I held on for dear life until we landed and I heard my pilot announcement calming, “Welcome to Rome and we sincerely hope you enjoyed your flight.”


Vincent Eaton's work has appeared in various online and print reviews. His novel Self- Portrait of Someone Else was published by Viking Penguin and re-issued by hidden people. He is an award-winning playwright and writes, directs, edits short videos, and is a voice actor. Born in California, he lives in Europe.

Categories: Airplanes, Pilots, Death, Airlines, Trips

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