Lola goes flying

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.   Helen Keller (1880-1968)

My first flight.

Following the birth of my only sibling in April, my parents planned what was intended to be our “most wonderful vacation”.  The four of us, my parents, my four-month-old sister, Lynn, and seven-year-old me, would be traveling to our semi-annual family reunion… by airplane from Toronto’s Malton Airport to Regina

I bounced off the wall with anticipation though, of course, I had no idea what to expect.  I had no concept of flying or airplanes but I trembled with excitement.  Even as a child, fear of the unknown beckoned.

It was 1962.   Passenger planes were the new kids on the block.  Only eight years earlier, Trans Canada Air Lines (TCA) made the historic decision to be the first North American airline to operate turboprops.  In those days, air travel was foreign and therefore frightening to most people.  In my immediate family no one other than Dad had been near airports or airplanes and that was only when he was an aircraft maintenance engineer during WWII.  The only person I knew who had actually flown in a real passenger airplane was my Uncle Ron, an executive with a major American petroleum conglomerate.

Yet today, only 50 years later, everyone knows someone who has flown.   Very few question the safety and reliability of modern airlines.  Thousands hop into airplanes with confidence, armed with savoir faire acquired from previous flights or with the knowledge that Joe and Monique down the street fly safely to the Caribbean every year.  The modern holiday traveler spends little time, if any, considering safety aspects of the aircraft that will deliver them to a paradise of palm trees caressed by balmy breezes sheltered by cerulean skies.  Vacationing travelers today often select a destination then choose the cheapest flight or choose the cheapest flight to any one of several on-sale destinations.  Safety concerns are left to government authorities that regulate and monitor rigorous aircraft inspections.  Thoughts swirling through the minds of most travelers are not concerned with the safety record of the airline or the aircraft that will carry them to the destination but only with details concerning their vacation.  Will the weather be hot?  (I hope it doesn’t rain!)  I can almost taste that margarita on the beach!  Will there be beach volleyball?  Will I enjoy the food? (Christ, I hope I don’t get Montezuma’s revenge!)  I hope they don’t scrimp on the buffet!

When I was a child we lived near a major Canadian military air base.  Early in my life, planes spearing into the sheltering celestial sphere had captured my imagination.  The military divulged no specific information about their operations but I knew that these magnificent silver bullets piloted by men traversed continents and occasionally oceans.   Few adults knew much more than I did about airplanes or aeronautical principles, yet an increasing number of people were beginning to place their faith in passenger planes and the ex-military pilots who flew these planes.   My parents believed that aircraft were safe.  At least, I suppose this was true.  When planning this historic vacation for our family they never queried, “So, young lady, do you think it is safe to fly?”  Of course, before we departed I assumed that if they didn’t believe modern jets to be dependable, our travels would have been via automobile or train, as in past years.

Amidst the agitated clamor of passengers anxiously waiting in the departure lounge at Toronto’s Malton Airport, my baby sister Lynn slept, securely harnessed into her molded white plastic lounger that rested on the floor at our feet.  My parents welcomed this new invention that was significantly smaller than Lynn’s stroller that had been banished with checked baggage into the aircraft hold.  Hopping bunnies pirouetted across the ¼” padded plastic padding that lined the lounger.  Mom’s hand-knitted cream-colored wool blanket completed Lynn’s adorable rose-cheeked-cherub image.  Two plastic straps buckled together prevented her from slipping out of the chair and onto the floor.

Boarding was chaotic and slow.  People were unaccustomed to flying, uncertain about the seating plan, and concerned about the placement of carry-on items.  Some scrambled for their assigned seats; others stood in the aisle, bewildered, waiting for the slender, shapely, and perfectly groomed stewardesses to assist them.  One couldn’t help notice the beauty and grace the stewardesses – they were almost like the movie stars or fashion models I had seen in magazines or on our new television.  To maximize safety for everyone during boarding, the stewardess politely suggested that the lounger – with Lynn still buckled somewhat securely in it! – could be placed on the shelf above our seats.  Eliminating the need to hold her allowed us to seat ourselves comfortably in our three purchased seats.  Instead of today’s stow-away overhead compartments that conceal hand-luggage securely behind latching doors, mid-20th century aircraft compartments were open shelves, concavely scalloped, running the length of the cabin.  Vertical barriers located above every third seat prevented excessive shifting.  In level flight, the sloping angle of the curved shelf prevented items from lurching out onto the laps of unsuspecting travelers.

I gazed out the window fascinated with other aircraft moving past us the ramp, occasionally glancing above my head to the luggage rack where my sister perched in her lounger.  The lounger and my sister’s tiny feet wobbled in synchrony with the aircraft’s rolling taxi along the pavement, jolting with each bumpy passage over the seams in the tarmac.  Mom reassured me, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, she is sleeping peacefully.  Our travel agent advised us that babies in carriers are routinely placed on these shelves except during take-off and landing.  During the especially dangerous phases of flight either Dad or I will take her out of the lounger and hold her in our arms.”  Especially dangerous?  Mom obviously wasn’t as confident as Dad had led me to believe.  Her left hand gripped my hand.  Her palm dripped with sweat.  What did she know about airplanes that I did not?

In preparation for departure, Mom released my hand as Dad handed the little bundle that was my baby sister to her.  As the plane rolled down the runway, accelerating, shaking and vibrating, my sister howled, unaccustomed and probably distressed by the thunderous blast generated by four enormous thrusting engines, each with four massive propellers.  I mashed my face against the window, mesmerized by the scenery that whipped past with increasing speed.  Mom clamped her arms around little Lynn, clutching her closely, attempting unsuccessfully to calm her.

Things didn’t get much better for Lynn or for Mom.

As scheduled, we departed Toronto’s Malton airport enroute to Regina via Winnipeg.  Our route was direct but not non-stop, not by choice but by necessity, the route determined by distance capabilities and fuel capacity of the aircraft.  In 1962, and for many years thereafter, passenger planes flew at less than 30,000’ above ground, pummeling through the densest air.  At Winnipeg, our 115-passenger Vickers Vanguard refueled for its return to Toronto while we passengers transferred to TCA’s 40-passenger Vickers Viscount for the puddle-jump flight to Regina.

Both westbound flights were extraordinary.  I loved flying!  I couldn’t believe it when I heard Mom later recounting details of the flight to our friends and relatives.  She was using words like: hair-raising, blood-curdling, and definitely death-defying.

Endlessly, from beginning to end, for the duration of the flight, our turbo-prop penetrated thunderclouds, creations of intense summertime humidity, hidden from sight, embedded within larger enveloping cloud masses.  In what should have been level flight, updrafts and downdrafts forcibly tossed our aircraft filled with 100 terrified passengers.   With each tumultuous upward boost supplemented by a subsequent downward sink, I giggled with delight while my mother shrieked, face pale, eyes bugged, revealing her thoughts of certain death.   Strained to the breaking point she howled, “The wings are going to rip off!  Al, what is holding them on?  Look! AL! AL! LOOK! They are flapping in the wind!  Oh my God.  We’re going to die.  We’re going to plummet – like a bullet – straight into the ground!” 

“Now, Jean, be calm.  The wings are designed to flex, or flap, as you say.  Even in calm weather the wings can be seen to move up and down gently.  Without this flexing, they would rip away from the airplane.”  At this point, I began to understand that although my father’s military experience and knowledge led him to believe that modern aircraft were safe, my mother appeared to have serious doubts.

Two decades later, during studies for my Airline Transport Rating, I discovered that the brilliant marriage combining a jet turbine engine (designed for high altitude performance) with propellers (suited for flight at altitudes below 30,000 feet) theoretically provided the best of both worlds.  In reality, this coupling often ushered planes into treacherous cumulonimbus clouds, roiling black and blue cauldrons that conjure hail stones, icing, and turbulence so excessive that the structural integrity of the plane might be jeopardized.  In plain English?  This meant that severe turbulence might rip the wings from the plane, leaving an aluminum cylinder (the body of the aircraft, technically called the fuselage) filled with screaming passengers nose-diving with rapidly increasing speed toward earth and death.

This agitated blender that is a cumulonimbus cloud percolates the water droplets, transforming them from minuscule droplets into flash-frozen super-cooled pellets occasionally the size of golf balls.  When smashed against an aircraft, these destructive lumps of ice pummel the pliant aluminum surfaces, dimpling the smooth aircraft surface so that it resembles the surface of a golf ball.  Though this dimpling is desirable for golf balls, it is devastating for aircraft.  When aircraft wings are damaged by dimpling, air can no longer flow smoothly along the wing surface.  This disrupted, turbulent airflow along the top and the bottom of the wings reduces the aerodynamic efficiency of the wings.  With efficiency decreased, the wings no longer produce sufficient lift.  When lift is decreased and disrupted the plane is no longer flying properly or safely.  When lift is disrupted, life may be disrupted. 

Pilots flying turboprops in Canadian airspace deal with major problems.  In the early days without effective radar, pilots encountered these pinnacles of terror too late to deviate and as turboprops were incapable of flight above these monstrous force majeure creations, they had to fly through them!  Of course, all this was unknown to us, so off we blundered like cattle to virtual slaughter, for the greater good: the acquisition of knowledge about aviation …and weather.

Each swoosh’n’sink imposed upon our airplane by nature’s fury simulated my favorite carnival rides: The Zipper, Pharaoh’s Fury, Zero Gravity, and The Rocket.  Youngsters visiting a Canadian midway today would be barred from these tempestuous rides by a two-dimensional star-eyed plywood clown advertising “You can ride only if you’re taller than me!”  Height restrictions imposed by carnivals or midways in the 1950’s were rare.  The burden of permission for the midway rides rested upon an accompanying parent or adult.  Of course, as you may have guessed, Mom wasn’t the accompanying parent for my airborne adventures.  She remained rooted on the ground while Dad indulged my yearning to blast about the glittery midway sky.  Mom watched us until the carny shifted the lever, quickly averting her eyes as our cage began to flip and spin, whirling into a blur.  Except for a rare ride on the Ferris Wheel, her zone of safety didn’t extend beyond the dusty pathway of crisscrossed mess electric cables, tossed paper cups advertising Coca-Cola even in their derelict state, and elongate paper cones with remnant candy floss that stuck to the soles of our shoes.  She waited patiently, content to observe the whirling rides operated by weather worn hawkers.

During descents for approach to landing, Dad, Mom, and I imitated the Valsalva technique demonstrated by the stewardesses.  We pinched our noses and cinched our lips, blowing forcefully but gently as if inflating a balloon.  With our cheeks puffed and reddened, I giggled, thinking we looked like three red balloons.  Lynn screamed in pain from the unequal pressure between her ear and sinus canals.  She refused to suck on her bottle, spitting out the nipple Mom kept pressing into her mouth.  Mom did her best, trying to force her to suck but Lynn wasn’t hungry and she was too young to be told that that sucking would ease her pain.

Visiting my cousins was fun but I couldn’t wait to leave.  Leaving meant two more aircraft rides! Giddily, I anticipated our homeward flights not just for the thrill of being airborne but also for the toy I had ogled in the Winnipeg airport store.  My strict parents, determined not to spoil me, decreed that I could have one of the toys I desired but certainly not both.

Mom dreaded departure day and, as I learned later, had contemplated a return trip via train.  Both flights home were fabulous adventures (or terrifying blood-curdling brushes with death if you were to ask my mother).  Adverse weather extended the mandatory layover for aircraft and crew change in Winnipeg.  Crammed for several extra unanticipated hours amid other anxious travelers in the stifling, airless lounge, parents guarded their children closely while chatting with other delayed travelers.  Mom whispered fear-laden murmurs, exchanging her thoughts with other terrified ticket-holders.  Addressing everyone and no one, she moaned, “Oh my god, all three of our flights have been horrible.”  Other ladies, all fashionably attired as if for an afternoon cocktail party, nodded in assent.  Beautiful lady in blue, “My husband and I have never had such horrid weather.”  Mom despaired, “When…I mean IF IF IF …we get home, I never want to fly again.  I could use a drink.  Of course, normally I’m almost a teetotaler.”  (As aviation matured all of us did fly again but subsequent flights were placid events never as exhilarating as these first four adventures.)

Abruptly, without warning my stomach rumbled, spewing out-of-control vomit.  Partially digested breakfast bits flew past my mother’s lap, plopping onto the tile floor, ricocheting onto her stockings and skirt.  Startled by this unexpected hurl, my frightened mother cuddled me without reprimand, likely overcome by guilt for subjecting her babies to danger.  Though I did regret mussing her stylish traveling suit, her comforting embrace minimized my embarrassment.  Not only was I reassured, I was rewarded.  My nausea had summoned a silver lining, swaying the resolve of my strict parents. Instead of being forced to choose between the two toys for which I had yearned since the westbound layover in Winnipeg, Dad and I marched to the store for both toys!

Nausea forgotten, proudly I clutched my new three-inch-tall molded hard-rubber miniature Plains Indian warrior brandishing spear and shield, arms raised above his feathered war bonnet, balanced regally upon his galloping black stallion.  Securely clamped in my other hand was a three-inch-long metal replica of Casey Jones’ Santa Fe steam engine.

Fellow travelers likely observed that my new “toys meant for boys” contradicted my appearance.  In the early days of commercial aviation, everyone wore their best outfits.   My mother had selected my mint-green frock, a fussy dress considered proper for a young lady attending a birthday party.  This dainty two-layer confection was completed by a 2” wide emerald satin ribbon that encircled my waist then tied at my back with an elegant bow, creating ribbon tails that trailed to the hem of my skirt.  My dainty feet were enclosed by lace-trimmed white ankle socks and polished white leather pumps.  I was an essay in incongruity.  I was a girl who looked and dressed like a girl but behaved more like a boy was supposed to behave, according to the social norms of the 1960s.  I spurned the tomboy label, an identity that didn’t appeal to me any more than being a girlish girl or a boyish boy.  I didn’t want to succumb to ever-present rules espoused by my parents and their friends, or the judgments of society that specified certain behaviors for males and certain behaviors for females.   I refused to be squished into a pre-fabricated mold that was someone else’s idea of me.

Of course, like most girls of that era, I had stuffed toys, baby dolls with bottles (to prepare me for the mother I would become) and Barbie dolls (to prepare me for the fashionably attired adult woman and wife I would become).  I have no idea what became of these dolls but I do know that whenever I pause to admire my Santa Fe steam engine, displayed in the glass cabinet of the antique secretary desk inherited from my grandparents, fond flashbacks to my childhood and those first flights frolic through my mind – and my heart.   My grandparents and those flights molded me into the adult I would become.