Prepare for an emergency landing!

August 24, 2018 on 5:05 pm by Michael Grey | In From Piping Today Mag, Stories | Comments Off on Prepare for an emergency landing!

NO matter how often I cross the Atlantic, I always pause to marvel at the awesome speediness of aviation. Even without supersonic Concorde engineering, the Atlantic can still be crossed in single-digit hours on a 10-a-penny Airbus or Boeing.

Like near-countless many, my dad and his family, he the youngest of six, came to Canada on a steamship, the Harland & Wolff-built SS Laurentic. The journey from Greenock’s Tail of the Bank to Quebec was eight days. Today, with light headwinds, an aircraft crossing to Canada can fly in just over six hours. There are millions of people alive today over 90 who can remember 1929. Steamship travel that supported the immigration of toddler Willam is still part of living history. With this context, I always think of the Greys when I fly to Scotland. Today we can travel almost anywhere in less time than it takes to queue for Disney World’s Splash Mountain.

Like a day trip in the car or your Austin Allegro’s 5000-kilometre oil change, air travel has seemingly become routine. Over the last 40 years, global air travel has almost increased eightfold: in 1974, airplanes carried 421 million people globally. By 2014, the number had grown by three billion passengers. But what’s ordinary or normal about jamming your backside in a jet-propelled metal tube for hours at a time – and with hundreds of other people, usually strangers? The great film director Orson Welles said: “There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.” I agree. I’ve known both.

The more you travel – or do anything, for that matter – the greater the chance of gleaning an understanding of what’s possible. Just doing something – anything – will give you knowledge. Knowledge gained through experience can give a person wisdom. If you’re lucky. And the more you travel the greater the chance of hearing a plane’s captain’s crackly intercom request, “…is there a doctor on board … ?” (as I did, again, last week on a flight to Frankfurt). Or, cue Orson’s terror: “… prepare yourself for an emergency landing”.

On September 2, 1998, all 229 passengers and crew onboard Swissair flight 111 were killed in a horrific crash eight kilometres from the shoreline of rural Nova Scotia. Flight 111’s search, crash recovery operation and investigation took more than four years to complete. A truly awful tragedy.

On September 4, 1998, I was onboard an overnight fight from Toronto to Glasgow. A bargain fare helped a four-day weekend trip for a little business and a stop at Rouken Glen and the European Pipe Band Championships. Easy-peasy. The now-defunct Royal Airlines was a charter airline – low-cost fares to the UK were at the core of their business model. So on this flight, the plane was especially full of seniors heading home to the Old Country to visit family and friends on the cheap.

A couple of hours or so after take-off – just east of Newfoundland – it became clear something was just not right. The meal had been served and tray tables were all down, covered with empty cups and plates. The food wasn’t great but that wasn’t the cause of the distinct odour in the air. It was the astringent pong of burning plastic. I turned to my pal Malkie B: “Do you smell something?” He nodded yes with what I recall was as an unnerving degree of seriousness. And then came the smoke alarm. With a foggy haze now visible just below the cabin’s ceiling, any hope that the bells were brought on by some old codger puffing away in the lavatory were out the window. The smell of burning plastic is the last thing anyone wants to be exposed to anywhere – never mind on board an aloft aircraft.

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