Monday, March 2, 2009

Please pay attention to the following safety briefing...

I suppose I should admit that, like many regular air travellers, I stifle a quiet yawn when I hear these words, and I allow my attention to wander. Sure, I’ll take a quick look for the emergency exit, but over the years I have learned how to tighten my seatbelt. I should concentrate more, because once I got a surprise…
I was sitting near the front of a Twin Otter, the small propeller plane that for years provided the inter-island ‘bus service’ around the Caribbean. It even used to work like a bus – when there were no passengers to drop off or pick up at a particular island then they would just fly on by.

You get a real sense of flying, though in a Twin Otter. You can see the engines at work, five feet away from your seat, and hear their massive flatulent roar. They climb like a rollercoaster. And, at times, particularly when there are clouds around, sitting in one can feel a bit like being dangled on a string by a malevolent Caribbean sprite. People pay money to experience that sort of thing at the fairground. Before anyone begins to worry, they are great planes. It’s just a bit intimate with the other passengers, that’s all.

Twin Otters are so small that there is no real flight deck. The passengers can see the pilot at work as he, or occasionally she, works the various instruments. And so it was this time. The flight was quite empty and I could see that the pilot was reading from a card on his lap. ‘Welcome aboard Flight 315. Please pay attention to the flight safety briefing...’ Cue the light thud as my head hit the window…. My thoughts were drawn outside by the baggage handlers wheeling off the trolley. ‘You fasten your seat-belts by placing the….’ Amid the standard spiel, certain words made themselves clear. ‘Burble, burble…Your lifejacket is under your seat… blah blah …’

Then there was a pause, in the middle of the announcement. I came to, as the pilot’s voice began to sound a little impatient (itself a little unlikely as pilots are renowned for not losing their calm). A movement in the corner of my eye made me look up.

‘Yes, you, sir. The gentleman in Row 3.’ The pilot was leaning back out of the cockpit and looking me straight in the eye. ‘You sir, with the green shirt on.’

‘Er, me? Me what?’ I said, startled. I looked down, yes, definitely a green shirt. It had to be me.

Another pause, as the pilot let his disapproval sink in. Around me, as in classrooms I had attended twenty and thirty years before, other passengers began chuckling because they knew I had been caught out.

‘Yes, sir,’ he continued. ‘As I was explaining, we need to ask you to move across to the other side of the aisle.’
Blimey, what’s this, I thought ? Is it the naughty boy’s seat, or something? ‘Er, yes, of course…’

My lack of comprehension obviously engendered pilot-level exasperation (ie still firmly under control).

‘As I was explaining, sir, in order to trim the plane, we need the people in it evenly distributed.’

Ah, they needed me to move to the other window, in order to balance the plane. I moved.

Satisfied, the pilot turned back to his sheet and continued the briefing. ‘Blah blah… on-floor lighting will guide you to the emergency exits…’

With that we taxied to the start of the runway, where we stood for a while, getting ready for take off. Let’s say I’ve listened carefully ever since. Well, when there’s a chance of being singled out in a small plane, that is.

One more thing - I’ve often wondered how the pilots of really small planes know when it’s time to set off. They stand at the start of the runway, engines running nineteen to the dozen, with everything from the engine cowlings to the passengers’ fillings rattling and ready to fall out. Then, once the noise is just right, they let off the brakes and off the plane goes. Perhaps they have a little tuning fork and when the pitch is right they release the anchors.

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