Chapter 12: First Flight

“C’mon sleepy-head!” Joe’s mother shook him gently. He struggled from a groggy fog. Light from the Cavalieri Hilton and the street lamps was still coming through the window. Then he remembered why he had taken so long to fall asleep. He leapt from the bed suddenly awake as his mother headed for the kitchen to put out breakfast.

Two hours later, the sun was still struggling to clear the Apennine mountains when the taxi left them with their luggage outside Rome’s domestic and European airport in the suburb of Ciampino. Nancy could have asked for a company car, but she did not want the drivers to have to go to work that early. They carried their luggage into the lobby and joined the line.

“I’ve never seen such a long line,” said Joe, after standing for a few minutes. “Is it always like this?”

“Actually, this line is moving well for a change,” Nancy said. “As long as we don’t have some passenger with a problem ahead, we’ll be done in ten minutes.

After checking their bags and collecting their boarding passes, they went through opaque doors into the duty-free customs zone, past a newsstand to the waiting and observation area. Not very impressive, thought Joe, sort of like a large bus terminal. Plastic seats bolted to the floor faced the window.

The view made up for it. Joe looked out the wall-sized windows at the tarmac.

“Mom, I didn’t know that this was an Air Force base,” he said.

“Yes, the airport, such as it is, just sits on the edge, a kind of civilian corner.”

Joe watched as military jets from various NATO countries landed and took off in quick succession from the runway on the other edge. He recognized the Fiat F91, Italy’s newest fighter-bomber, from its short, stubby shape. A dozen of them were lined up outside a hangar on the far side, beyond the runway.

“Mom, look at that! Those are American.” He pointed to a jet just landing. The twin-engine jet seemed to dwarf the other fighters already on the ground. “That’s an F4 Phantom. It just deployed this year on the USS Enterprise.”

“You seem to know a lot about military aircraft,” said Nancy.

“It’s all over the news magazines. Hey, that one’s a Navy plane!” The windows shook from the noise of the landing jet. As it taxied, its engine exhaust pointed at the civilian terminal. The building was filled with the roar of its powerful turbines, which drowned out the drone of announcements on the public-address system.

“God, they’re loud!” Nancy held her hands over her ears, even inside the lounge.

“Here comes another.” Four more of the powerful fighter-bombers landed in quick succession. All conversation stopped, and the growing crowd of waiting passengers all turned to watch the Americans taxi sharply to their parking places near the F91’s. Even on the ground they seemed to move in formation, so that they all made their final turns into their places at the same time.

They did not shut down, but with the aircraft sides to the building and the engines backed to idle speed, conversation was possible. A stewardess from British European Airways came out and announced that the flight to London had been called during the interruption and would everyone please follow her. Another stewardess by the door collected their boarding passes as the passengers filed out onto the tarmac.

Noise was the one constant outside. The idling Phantoms across the base and the civilian jets and turboprops waiting for their passengers filled the air with a pounding din. Joe and the other passengers tried to hold their hands over their ears, but it was awkward trying to walk like that with their carry-on luggage.

The line turned right just outside the door. The first stewardess led them to a BEA Comet jet-liner. Joe had seen them in the sky, easy to identify with the four engines inside the wing up against the fuselage. He was not ready for the size of the plane up close. They filed up the ladder to the door of the plane, as high as the second story of a house.

When the stewardess closed the big doors, the cabin seemed to fall into a hush. As he looked for his seat number walking down the center aisle, Joe realized that there was still plenty of roar, but conversation was possible.

“Here it is, Mom.”

“Good, close to the front,” she said. “I find the ride is rougher in the back. We stow our luggage on the shelf over the seat and buckle up.” She pointed to the seat near the window. “You go in first. I’ve seen the view.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Joe slipped in and swung his knapsack onto the open shelf. In his seat, he found the two ends of his seat belt. “Hey, this looks like the belts that are coming out in the bigger American cars. The new cars at the Embassy have them.”

“Actually, the car makers copied the airplane belts. Do you know how to work them?”

“Sure.” He made it click and cinched it down. There was a colorful booklet of safety instructions in an elastic pouch in front of him. He took it out while the other passengers found their seats and stewardesses edged around them, helping the less experienced get settled.

Joe studied the booklet. He felt a rush of excitement as he learned the procedures for sliding out of the plane if it landed over water. He noticed where all the exits were and tried to imagine what it would be like to open one in the dark. He practiced holding his knees in the brace for emergency landing.

“I hope we won’t need that position,” his mother said with a smile.

“Just checking it out.”

“If you don’t mind I’ll take this.” She reached over to remove the “doggy-bag” from Joe’s literature pouch. She carefully arranged both bags, so she could get to them in a hurry.

“You already know you’ll be sick?”

“Well, I’ve held it down once before. These big jets don’t seem to bump around as much as the propeller-driven models.”

“What if I get sick?”

“I’ll give it back, and we’ll order more.”

Joe noticed a change in the noise. The plane began moving. Nancy pushed her head against the seat back and forced herself to breathe deeply. Wow, thought Joe, she is really afraid of this. Then he realized that he was gripping the seat arms with white knuckles. He put his hands in his lap.

He looked out the window. The traffic on the Via Appia ran parallel to the airport fence. Looking down over the fence and moving with the cars at the same time felt a little disorienting. The vibration of the aircraft throbbed up through his legs and rear, a strange, new sensation.

The stewardess began giving instructions over the loudspeaker system to the passengers. Joe thought they went a little fast considering how many Italians might not be able to follow her English. Then she repeated everything in excellent, unaccented Italian.

At the end, she asked if there were questions. About half the hands in the plane went up. Joe felt relieved that he was not the only one for whom this was new. The stewardesses had their hands full moving from chair to chair showing people how to work the seat belts and pointing to the instruction booklets and the little doors for the oxygen masks.

The jet came to a stop while all this was going on. After a while, Joe felt the buzzing sensation under his seat change and the engines speed up. The aircraft moved again, turning onto the runway and pointing upwind, opposite the way they had taxied. Joe forced himself to breathe deeply to stay calm.

The engines sped up even more, but the plane was stopped. The stewardesses had sat down out of sight. Joe wondered if something were wrong. He looked out the window, but there was nothing but grass at the end of the tarmac. The wings and fuselage began to shake, but the aircraft still did not move. The engines reached a deafening pitch, obviously straining. The big jet began to shake as the engines strained against the brakes. Joe wondered why everyone was so calm. He looked at his mother. She was the color of marble. She was pressed against her seat back. She smiled at him weakly.

“Mom –,” he said. Then the pilot let go of the brakes.

Joe’s body was slammed back into the seat. He gripped the armrests so hard his hands hurt. He closed his eyes and prayed. He made the Sign of the Cross, and he was not alone.

The tarmac jolted the plane, feeling much rougher than Joe had expected. The engine noise penetrated every cell of his body. They had to be running out of runway, he thought. He wondered if he should be in that brace position when they crashed through the fence at the end and slammed into the restaurant across the street. He felt his heart racing, and he alternately opened his eyes and shut them again.

Suddenly his stomach felt like it was reaching under his seat. The cabin swung backwards and tilted up just as Joe was about to pull into the brace position. He held his breath to keep from hyperventilating. The cabin pitched back even more, until odd pieces of luggage and debris rolled down the aisle. He almost panicked as the sunlight changed in irregular flashes outside his window. Bright. Dark, Fuzzy.

Joe was scared. He felt his throat close. He squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath.

He felt his mother’s hand on his. He turned his head to the left. She was still pressed to the chair, but there was more color in her face. She smiled.

“You OK?” she asked.

He nodded. The tension drained from his body like a bucket of water sliding off his clothes. Then he noticed how quiet everything had become. The takeoff noise had dropped sharply after the crashing thud of the landing gear retracting. The roar was steady now, but tolerable.

The changing light was caused by clouds as the jet climbed rapidly to its cruising altitude.

“Wow! Look at those clouds go by. This is better than driving fast in the mountains.”

“At least there are no hairpins turns and oncoming trucks here.”

Pain shot through Joe’s eyes as the jet broke out of the top of the clouds into the blazing sunlight above. He squinted to take in the expanse of puffy, snow-like billows below them.

“That’s wild. It’s like snow or magic. Like you could walk on it.” He found his sunglasses in his pocket and put them on. He stared at the white wonderland that continued to fall away below them.

At last the jet leveled off. It was not as sharp as the takeoff, but Joe noticed that his mother grit her teeth and dug her nails into his arm as she slammed back into the chair. He forced himself not to wince or cry out. She let go of his hand when she got control back. He looked back out the window.

“It’s beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Is it always like this up here?”

“More often than not, but sometimes you have to pass through terrible storms to get up here. And once I flew through a high-level storm all the way. It was terrifying.”

“Do you always have this much trouble, Mom?”

“Yes, Joe. This is a good trip. See, I still have my breakfast.”

“Why do you do this?”

“I try not to whenever I can, but with the packaging subsidiary we just bought in England, I have to fly to get to London and back. Business is picking up everywhere. I’d lose my job if I couldn’t be at the meetings where they need me.”

“Is it worth it?”

“Yes, Joe, it is,” she said. “Sometimes I tell myself it’s because we need the money. But we could live on less. The fact is, I like my work. After you leave home, I may go back to the States for a job with less travel, but we don’t want to move now, right?”

Joe shook his head. The stewardess announced that the passengers could unbuckle their seat belts and move about the cabin but recommended that they keep the belts loosely fastened when in their seats. There was a hilarious rush of clicking noises as many passengers chose to stand a bit or visit their friends and relatives.

A stewardess came by and gave them a menu card and served them drinks. They both chose Coca-Cola.

“We get lunch?” Joe asked, marking the ham sandwich on his card.

“It’s supposed to be a snack, but it’s more like a cafeteria lunch,” said Nancy.

After the stewardess passed by, they sat in silence for a while. Nancy read a newspaper. Joe looked at the in-flight magazine from his literature pouch. It was not as interesting as the articles in the Arland file in his suitcase.

The food came about twenty minutes later.

“Joe, I got the strangest call from Jack Arland just before we left the house.”

Joe’s pulse went up. He forced himself to concentrate as he opened the mustard.

“Oh? Why strange?”

“Well, he started out asking for you, which was strange enough. When I said that you weren’t home, he chatted with me about office stuff that really wasn’t important. I’ve known him long enough now to know that he was really agitated about something.”

Joe did not answer. What am I in for now? he wondered.

“Why would he want to talk to you?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Mom.”

“Have you been seeing him for anything?”

“Well, he did ask me to translate a couple of letters a while back. Simple stuff, really. Is that OK? I didn’t think to ask you about it.”

Nancy thought for a moment. “It obviously didn’t hurt your school work, so I guess a little freelance work is OK. I just wonder what he’s up to — sometimes he acts so strange.”

Joe kept silent, pretending to concentrate on spreading his mustard and carefully eating his sandwich. His mother seemed thoughtful but said no more about it.

As Nancy had said, this was a quiet flight. Joe had just about gotten used to it when the jet began banking to the right, straightening, and banking to the right again.

“Why all the turns?” Joe asked. At that point, the captain announced that they were beginning their descent to London’s Gatwick Airport, and the seat belt sign came on. Passengers walking around hurried back to their seats.

“The plane makes a racetrack pattern coming down,” said Nancy. “It takes a while, but it is much gentler than the takeoff. You’ll be able to see when we break below the clouds.”

Joe watched in amazement as the clouds lifted above them, revealing all of southern England, a patchwork of different shades of green. Slowly, he made out the motorways, and then the highways and villages, and the urban sprawl that had to be London. He could understand the landing pattern now, as they flew back and forth over the country west of the capital.

The captain made a cryptic announcement that caused all the flight attendants to take their seats, Outside, the ground came slowly closer. Suddenly, Joe could see tarmac under the wings. His mother was pressed against her seat again, but she was not as pale as on takeoff.

The touchdown was so gentle that only when the nose stopped tilting forward did Joe realize that they had landed. Some of the passengers applauded, but they were interrupted by the scream of the jet engines and a sudden deceleration.

“What’s that, Mom?” Joe shouted. His seat belt was pulling him as his body tried to move forward.

“I’m not sure how it works,” she said, “but someone explained to me that the pilot reverses the turbines in the engines, which acts like an enormous brake. Some racket, isn’t it?” She no longer seemed troubled, now that they were on the ground. The noise lasted less than a minute, then they taxied calmly to the edge of the airport terminal.

Debarkation was the reverse of boarding in Rome, but the lines at Customs and Passport Control were longer and slower. Joe noticed that there was a separate entrance for British citizens, and that it had no line. As he stood looking around, he found the variety of people in the lines and the advertising and displays in the terminal so interesting that he was surprised when it was their turn to show their passports to the Frontier Police and claim their suitcases.

An hour later, they were checking into a suite in the London Hilton, still known locally as the Great Western Royal. Nancy’s meetings would be held there for the next two days. They had plenty of time to change and take in some of central London together.


(to be continued)


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