Flightmare / fliyt-mayr / (noun)
Definition: A flightmare is any situation connected to air travel where the experience touted as seamless proves that what happened to Icarus can happen to any of us. Flightmares can be caused by broken engines, Soviet aircraft, overly religious seatmates bent on Christian conversion, or rats that run freely about the cabin.
Flightmares can also be brought about by computer glitches that swallow your onward flight, cabin crew with hairy arms that wear synthetic saris, seatmates that breastfeed on take off, and much, much more.
You know you are in the midst of a flightmare because there is no escape chute to deliver you from it, your human rights are trampled flatter than a refugees, and when your in-flight meal is served it is so unappetizing you contemplate eating your frequent flyer card.
Vietnam Airlines flight 102
April 14th, 1994
Hanoi ~ Saigon
The DMZ Freeway
Why do flightmares always happen at the end of my trips?
Is it the universe’s way of slapping me back to reality after doing as I pleased for too long after forgetting to be humble and to kowtow to the Travel Gods, burning incense and joss sticks to appease their mercurial, often violent tempers?
The jury is still in deliberation but I am beginning to suspect that the purpose of flightmares is actually a cosmic slap across the face, reminding us that what has been set in motion by the Wright brothers almost 100 years ago, has NOT become the seamless travel experience the airline’s want you to think it is.
Maybe air travel today has morphed into something entirely too easy, too free, too smooth for the human race, something too easy to be cavalier about as we collect triple mileage and sip champagne at altitudes where the outside temperature is –50 degrees.
Maybe we should be cutting up our airline loyalty credit cards and cowering in the corners of airports around the world, chanting and praying and bowing to these elusive Travel Gods that have the ability to turn a two hour flight into a trip downwards into a hell without end.
So, mere mortals have to be sent a wake-up call every once in a while; and after a surreal trip through Cambodia and Vietnam, having limped (literally, 2 dog bites, a vicious stomach bug, thigh burned to a crisp, wheels falling off cars and bullets from AK-47’s) across the finish line in Hanoi, I should have been expecting it.
And that’s where my latest flightmare comes in.
Hanoi to Saigon.
The Vietnam Airlines fleet contains a curious mixture of Russian jets and rented Western planes. All the Boeings are painted white because the American embargo still prevents the carrier from showing it’s flying crane logo on their fuselages. I knew it was a fifty-fifty, potluck experience flying here; I had met enough travelers and expats to know that the flight could be aboard a gleaming new jet, complete with western captain and cabin crew, or, alternatively, it could be a two-hour terror ride aboard some Soviet deathtrap with no toilet paper.
Up to this point, even despite my run ins with Khmer Rouge soldiers, touchy Saigonese sandwich makers, a cup of vicious coffee, and a stomach virus picked up near Hanoi, I thought I was safe from any real disasters, you know, the ones that make the evening news on the BBC, and not as a passage in your journal.
So, off I went to Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport and asked the all important question: Boeing or Tupelov? The girl behind the counter shrugged, and even the supervisor for Flight 102 was not absolutely sure.
When I joined the passengers and walked out on the tarmac we found instead of a gleaming 767, an aging Tupelov 134 was to be our ride to the economic capital of Saigon. Sitting on the runway, emergency exit doors flung open in the tropical heat, wires were sticking out of the rusted wing and liquids were dripping off the crinkled fuselage.
In the wonky lottery that is flying Vietnam Airlines, we had clearly lost this roll of the dice.
Once inside, the plane looked like a pre-war hospital: white curtains pulled across the round, Jules Verne-like windows, the thin seats were covered in itchy polyester material, scratched seatbelts were attached to tattered pieces of nylon and the in-flight reading was nothing more that a brown paper bag.
Luckily, it was going to be a short flight.
After all the passengers had boarded, the cabin crew closed the hatch with a bang. As the temperature inside the plane grew, passengers looked around in terror. Were we in a jet or an oven? Then, pure white smoke began tumbling down from the vents like dry ice off a scientist’s lab table. For years I had heard about this strange phenomenon, this travelers’ urban legend; at last I knew the mythical magic show was true. Soon, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and the windows fogged up like a Turkish bath. As we approached the runway the Tupelov could have been twenty thousand leagues under the sea for all we knew.
As we taxied on I waited for the seatbelt check and safety demonstration.
There wasn’t one: we simply took off into the blue sky. The engines whined and the thin plane shot down the runway like a crumpled arrow, lurching from left to right. Seconds later, the front wheel lifted off and the passengers were flung roughly back in their seats as the nose of the plane tilted up to the sky. Was this musty aircraft dreaming of transforming itself from an ugly duckling Tupelov into a British Aerospace Concorde?
It seemed so.
The man in the seat next to me gripped the armrests so hard the whole frame started shaking.
A few minutes later the smoke cleared in the cabin and the crew came through the aisle to fling boxes of packaged food at passengers. It consisted of a disgusting sandwich filled with grey meat and butter and a banana so rock-hard it might as well have been a green boomerang. (After eating the delicious food found everywhere in Vietnam, one wonders why they couldn’t cater the plane with fresh spring rolls instead of mystery meat)
The next forty minutes of the flight passed normally, except for a minor disturbance when three men began to fiddle with the emergency exit handle two rows ahead of me, curious to see if it could be opened. The crew simply shouted at them to stop.
Suddenly a woman screamed and pointed out the window, and my heart was in my throat.
Was the wing breaking off?
Was the engine on fire?
Were we going die in this Soviet death jet?
When I pulled the cheap curtain aside and looked out the window, expecting the worst, I could not believe what I was seeing: not two wing lengths away was an Aeroflot Ilyushin 96 flying so close I could actually see people waving at us out of their windows. Passengers all over the cabin began scrambling over to the right side of the plane where they pointed and gaped at the spectacle.
Instead of changing altitude, the pilot just kept on flying as though nothing was the matter. For about five minutes the two planes continued alongside each other as if in some bizarre air show display. Passengers continued to wave at us from across the way, and there was literally nothing else we could do, but wave back….
It was like watching two aging Soviet Cadillacs pass on the some freeway in the skies over central Vietnam’s former DMZ. The cabin crew didn’t even blink an eye as foreigners on the plane clicked their tongues at yet another quirky experience in Vietnam.
About a half an hour before landing I went to the bathroom where a curtained window behind the sink revealed a view of clouds and the crumpled wing. I looked into the toilet where a comb had fallen down and had torn a hole in the plastic. There was a loud ominous hissing sound of escaping air.
Were we depressurizing?
I called one of the female cabin crew over and when she saw the comb and heard the noise, she just shrugged. What was more important to her than preventing an explosive decompression, I quickly discovered, was to rope a native speaker into helping her practice the announcements in English. ‘Would I mind doing the announcement when we descended into Hanoi?’ she asked.
I shrugged. What’s another surreal episode on this flight from the twilight zone?
So, ten minutes later, when the nose of the plane pointed down to the ground and we began a tumbling, bumpy ride back to earth, the cabin attendant tapped me on the shoulder and led me to the back of the plane.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ I stammered into the film noir Soviet microphone, ‘we are now approaching Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport. Please return your seatback to their upright positions, fasten your seatbelt, extinguish all cigarettes, and prepare your travel documents for arrival. Thank you for flying Vietnam Airlines.’
So strange was the flight that not one passenger turned to see why a foreigner was reading the announcements. The flight attendant thanked me and then went through the cabin to collect the trash as the cockpit door banged open. One of the pilots made a trip to the ‘galley’ that was a filthy counter at the back of the plane for a quick, last minute cup of coffee.
As we got closer to the ground, the scientist’s smoke appeared in the cabin again, and before long, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.
When the wheels scratched the runway and the rickety jet hugged the earth once more, as the engines slowed us down, as if on cue, every empty seat in the Tupelov 134 plane flew forward in an almost theatrical bow to the weirdness of flying the national carrier of Vietnam.
As flight 102 taxied to the terminal, I chuckled, realizing I had already been out there on the runways, riding the Flying Dragon. Ha ha.
If you see a crinkled Soviet jet cruising a few wing lengths away from your own dilapidated plane, don’t forget to wave...
I am back in Saigon after seeing the north and tonight it’s back to Bangkok.
This place seems crazier and clogged with more cars than three weeks ago when I passed through after Cambodia.
I will NOT be drinking any coffee here.
I will NOT be renting any bicycles here.
I will NOT be ordering any sandwiches anywhere.
I will NOT taking any taxis after the stroke of midnight.
I will NOT be staying in any guesthouses under renovation.
Everywhere in Vietnam, Russians were out, and Americans were in, Chinese bicycles were out, and Japanese motorbikes were in, the French language was out, and English was in, Lenin was out and Colonel Sanders was in. Construction cranes scrape the sky, propaganda posters were being replaced by advertisements for shampoo, the future seems bright.
But there is one tiny problem.
In the words of Jackie (who I never saw again, the Travel Gods thankfully saw to that) ‘THIS PLACE IS MAD!’
I doubt the Tourism Ministry would want me too broadcast my injuries or near
death experiences I have had in his country to loud, but I am going to recap them here anyway. So, as I end my journey through Cambodia and Vietnam, here is my list of war wounds:
Two dog bites, one on the hand, and one on the ankle;
A burned thigh, from that hotel in Nha Trang;
A bruised skull, from that car crash in Hoi An;
A sore head from that cup of coffee in Saigon;
Oh, and add a bashed ear, from Jackie’s inane conversations.
And here is my list of near death experiences:
Running into the Khmer Rouge not once, but twice;
Getting shot at with an AK-47;
The Streets of Saigon near crash in Saigon;
The wheel’s on fire near crash in Hoi An;
The Alienesque stomach bug in Hanoi;
And last but not least, the one aboard Vietnam Airlines Flightmare 102.
Though I have NO plans to got to India, Indochina doesn’t have the word ‘India’ in it for nothing. What, can you imagine, might my list of war wounds from India look like:
Run over by an oxcart and wrapped round it’s axles?
Kidnapped and taken to the hills by a Saddhu?
Gored by a sacred cow?
Knocked unconscious by a piece of the Taj Mahal?
Nearly drowned in the Ganges?
WHO KNOWS. AFTER ‘SAFE’ CAMBODIA, AND MAD VIETNAM, WHO BLOODY KNOWS WHAT MOTHER INDIA WOULD HURL AT ME COURTESY OF THE TRAVEL GODS.
My flight tonight is NOT on Vietnam Airlines,
I’m taking Thai Airways. It was $5 more expensive. You better believe I’m paying
that small anti flightmare tax! You have the permission to shoot me at dawn if I ever become one of those anal retentively skin flint travelers who would choose to fly Air
Gazelle to save $2.
YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO SHOOT ME ON SIGHT.
My flight back to Saigon on Vietnam Airlines flight 102 will always be the only reminder I need to never be like those travelers I keep running into in Southeast Asia.
Looking at the list above, I have to pause and wonder.
WHY do we leave home and put ourselves in situations that could get us killed, maimed or as the top story on the evening news on CNN? Life does burn brighter out here on the road, it is addictive, and I am steadily climbing the Lonely Planet Ladder (And always manage to be the center of attention back home whenever the topic of travel comes up) But is it really worth that 15 minutes of fame on the BBC when your bus crash takes center stage?
PS: this permission to shoot me on sight also applies if I am ever caught carrying a Guvvi bag or wearing an Adidass shirt.
From: Dave (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To: Annette (email@example.com)
Date: Jul 30, 2004 1:27 PM
Subject: In The Grip Of Inshallah
Don't ever try to save $75 on a plane ticket.
I booked a flight with Biman Bangladesh because it was exactly seventy-five dollars cheaper than the Royal Nepal flight to Kathmandu, Nepal to get to India. Unless that flight crashed in the Himalayas and passengers were forced to turn to seatmates as in-flight meals, nothing could have been worse that what I just went through.
You read it right.
I’m going to India.
Four months. Top to bottom. Varanasi, the Taj, Rajastan, the Himalayas, Kerala, Bombay and Delhi for good measure. Camels, trains and yak or two.
Yes, I am mad. MAD, MAD, MAD.
Anyway. After being released from thirty-six hours in the evil clutches of Bangladesh's national carrier, I have realized my terrible mistake.
Arriving at Bangkok's Don Muang airport I found flight 153 to Dhaka delayed by seven hours. We were checked in anyway and were told with a shrug that it would probably be longer. No vouchers for meals were issued, and eight hours later, after watching dozens of flights leave on time we were told it would be still four hours more.
When we finally boarded the Airbus 310 at midnight, onboard were fat cabin crew dressed in vomit green saris standing at attention around the plane with arms folded across their chests, warily watching over the one hundred transit passengers from Tokyo absolutely irate after being kept onboard for almost half a day without air conditioning or food as the mechanical problem was fixed.
When we pushed back from the gate the safety video started, not with a bland blonde woman generically dressed in a branded smile and airline uniform but with blurry scenes from Hajj pilgrims circumnavigating Saudi Arabia’s Ka’baa in Mecca. A scratchy recording of a mournful man wail 'Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar!!' (God is Great) replacing the usual bland 'Thank you for flying X Airlines. When the video was finished, the crew announced, 'Inshallah (God Willing) we shall be taking off shortly.'
As the creaky jet lifted off the runway, the cockpit door flung wide open and as we lurched into the night sky, it banged back and forth like a Kansas barn door in a tornado; I looked directly above my head to see a large, scurrying cockroach crawling on the ceiling before it took flight itself, buzzing around the cabin, furiously smashing its head into the overhead bins, frantically trying to escape. (It’s a flightmare buddy. There is NO chance of escape. Trust me)
When the plane made a sharp left turn a large panel about five rows ahead of me fell from the ceiling and crashed to the floor. Not only did not a single passenger bat an eyelid, during the rest of the flight the cabin crew merely stepped over it and started the in-flight 'service.'
A dirty drinks cart with a dodgy wheel came round and a large hairy arm slapped a yellowed plastic tray in front of me with just a cup of water and a hunk of bread. The woman then swished off in her synthetic sari. When I hesitated, the man next to me grabbed the bread off my tray gratefully and devoured it.
As I was seated next to the emergency exit on the left side of the plane, people came with prayer mats and bowed in the direction of Mecca, indicated by a black arrow on the television screen. The praying passengers were sent back to their seats with a command shouted from the lead flight attendant, a mustached woman in a flamingo pink sari. One old man laid down to take a snooze before a female crew, face made up like a Kabuki actor, kicked him out and sent him back to his seat after a shrill dressing down in Bengali.
Sitting for three hours in smelly, swirly-patterned psychedelic seats was worsened by my seatmate; he removed his shoes and socks and then ripped the end of his toenails off. That was the only in flight entertainment.
The lead attendant picked up the microphone and asked hoarsely, 'Will all transit passengers for the Biman flight to Brussels, please move to the front of the plane. Inshallah we shall be landing at Dhaka, and we need to deplane you first.'
Up stood the fifty transit passengers to Brussels who had been promised in Bangkok that their flight wouldn't leave without them. They collected their carry on bags out of the overhead bins and walked to the nearest exit door where they gathered in bewildered clusters. They began to flap their boarding passes at every stone-faced cabin crew they saw. Even the copilot who had came back to the galley for a cup of water was accosted by a team of furious people, demanding to know if their bags were going to connect.
Their shouts echoed through the plane as we began to descend to Earth, screaming babies in tow and dragging plastic bags stuffed to bursting.
As the plane wobbled and whined to touchdown, the cabin crew pushed them aside to slap tray tables up and bark at people to fasten their seatbelts.
By now the lights of Dhaka were visible outside the window, and people were still standing in the aisles, including seven people right in front of me.
'Ladies and Gentlemen, Inshallah we will be landing shortly at Zia International airport. Please be seated. Allah Akbar.'
The next announcement in Bengali sent the transit passengers to Brussels scrambling to find an empty seat. But in the chaos of the final moments in the air, most were still standing when the wheels touched down on the runway. How no one was thrown down is beyond me, but when we pulled off the runway, someone began yelling and pointed frantically out the window at a Biman DC-10 that was positioning itself for takeoff.
'It is our flight to Brussels!' shouted one man.
'Biman lied to us!' screamed another.
When we got to the gate the DC-10 flight to Brussels was long gone and as we de-boarded the smelly plane, not one, but three, fistfights broke out in the aisles as people screamed and shouted at the crew about the airline's broken promises.
I grabbed my carry on bag and wielded it in front of me like a shield as people shoved and pushed their way off the stinking plane. Security guards were called and the troublesome mob of Brussels transit passengers were hauled off to a secure room (probably padded) to be given the bad news: the next flight to Brussels was in three days, and their next home would be a transit hotel two miles from the airport, and twenty miles from civilization.
All the other BG transit passengers to Kathmandu, Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay who were going to be 'guests' of BG until noon the next day were ordered to wait in line to get their hotel 'vouchers'.
As we filled in the paperwork we could hear the irate Brussels passengers screaming blue murder at ground staff. Our passports were taken away from us, and we were informed of our rights; halfway through the spiel I almost put my hand up and finished it; so used to the procedures in a flightmare that I could read a policeman his rights rather than the other way round.
Then we were marched past immigration where we boarded an even stinkier bus without glass in the windows. It took us to our 'transit hotel' that turned out to be a slimy guesthouse owned by someone's cousin at Bangladesh Biman.
I was told at the front desk that I would have to share a room; I turned to find my foot-hygiene deficient seatmate from the flight grinning at me, until I started imitating the loud yells from the Brussels passengers, and a private room on the top floor magically appeared. So off I went to my room on the seventh floor, trudging up the steps. The elevator was broken.
I think in a flightmare, this is a textbook requirement.
The next morning at breakfast the front desk was empty but a white board cheerfully stated that flight 751 to Kathmandu was delayed by three hours.
Thanks for flying Biman!
Despite this delay we were ordered to be in the lobby three hours earlier in case of schedule changes. So we were rushed back to the airport through the flooded streets of Dhaka that were clogged with throngs of trishaws and their drivers ringing their bells.
Our passports were returned to us via an archaic system of bookkeeping where our plane tickets were rubber banded around our passports forcing each official to spend five minutes searching to find each persons documents. Then, our new boarding passes were issued, and then we were released into an airport that was about as interesting as a cattle barn.
Four hours later, one computer in the terminal said the flight was leaving at three p.m. while another said six p.m. No official knew which computer was correct. The flight was now eight hours behind schedule.
It was too late to leave the airport and we were stuck watching Bangladesh fighter planes doing touch and go's as entertainment, saying goodbye to our fellow jail mates as their flights to Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay left two, four and even six hours later than scheduled.
Finally, a gate was finally assigned for the Katmandu flight: Gate 1.
A horde of irate passengers rushed for the other end of the terminal and when I got there, I realized my boarding pass was missing. Running back to the transit desk white faced and terrified of NEVER getting out of Dhaka, Bangladesh, or Zia airport alive, I explained to the official what had happened, and he shook his head.
'No boarding pass, no flight.'
'But, I have my passport, and my ticket.'
I pushed the documents over the counter and persisted. He just turned his back on me to deal with the next passenger. Then my anger at too many sleepless hours, too many onboard flying cockroaches, too many filthy planes, and the sound of too many swishing synthetic saris, compounded with banging cockpit doors and falling ceiling panels, and too many hours of waiting, and I exploded.
'Listen! I'm on this flight! SO REISSUE THE BOARDING PASS, NOW!'
The terminal stopped moving. Two security guards started walking towards me, probably to check if I was an escaped Brussels transit passenger. But they didn't have to throw me into the padded room, because the man just typed a few keystrokes into his computer, and a new boarding pass popped out. He scrutinized it, and scrawled 'Duplicate' across it. New document in hand, I stepped away, but before I was out of earshot, he hissed me a warning: ‘I, sir, am assigned to Gate 1. If we find another passenger fraudulently using your lost boarding pass, we will hand you over to the appropriate police authorities.’
I ran all the way back to Gate 1, only to see familiar red faces huffing past me in the opposite direction. One of them recognized me and shouted, 'Gate change. Gate 21.'
It was at the opposite end of the cavernous, crumbling terminal.
Running up to a computer, I realized he was right. Not wanting to miss my escape out of this flightmare, I ran all the way to Gate 21, where the gate agent who had re-issued my boarding pass scrutinized it before waving me onboard the creaky Fokker 28 that had flown faithfully at SAS Scandinavian Airlines for twenty five years.
Amazingly, the door to the small plane popped closed, it pulled away
from the terminal, and we took off into the gray monsoon sky. Just like that. An hour and a half later, after stepping off the jet and bidding my fellow prison mates goodbye for the last time, my bag, and my sanity, popped out onto the carousel at Kathmandu.
I was free at last, thank the Travel Gods almighty, I was free at last.
Don't even dream of trying to save $75 dollars because once you are in the middle of a flightmare, there is no oxygen mask or canary yellow slide in the world big enough to evacuate you from that 'situation'.
You have been warned.
I'm off to India in two days. When I venture into Kathmandu for the last time I am going to enter the nearest, gaudiest temple, head respectfully bowed and my posture submissive, and offer as much incense to the Travel Gods as I can find. (My flight tomorrow morning is booked on Indian Airlines, the only airline that flies the route to Varanasi) I am considering all incense offerings as an insurance policy against a possible flightmare. I hope it works.