Lt. JetHead: Something Special In The Heir.
I never claimed to have served in the military. Rather, I was an Air Force officer, like my father before me and my son right now. Said Lt. Jethead recently returned from from three years of duty in Europe where he’s amassed thousands of travel miles and as many hours of adventure in faraway lands. When he related this bizarre airborne experience in the skies over eastern Europe earlier this month, I told him he HAD to write it up for the JetHead archives.
A note of warning: this ain’t a tame ride, which you wouldn’t expect from a twenty-five-year-old for whom life isn’t, in W.M. Rossetti’s words, so much a bit in the teeth as a spur to the flanks. And I haven’t and won’t change a word, so if you have delicate sensibilities–just don’t read any further. Here’s a safe, convenient redirect–click here.
Still reading? Good. Here it is:
It started with a dance, the choreographed rhythmic movements of the three scorching blondes in the aisle. I don’t always watch the safety briefs but the mid-cabin Flight Attendant had commanded my attention. She did not keep your gaze, she took it. One excruciatingly tall heel on each side of the aisle, a stern smile, and perfectly in unison with her colleagues, emergency instructions were delivered. This must be the “way it used to be.” As we often say of the girls in Ukraine: “the only thing higher than her aspirations are her cheekbones.”
Aerosvit flight 13 is climbing to a low cruise from Kiev Boryspil to Odessa, Ukraine and after taking a few moments to appreciate ummm… What I’ll call the skillful distribution of drinks and snacks, I dove into my already-started Kyiv Post.
To demonstrate the veracity of this story, here are my qualifications: none. I’d tell you I’ve flown thousands of times, but the truth is; I haven’t. I’ve sat in the back…and done nothing… (Usually F, but “the back,” nonetheless) while someone else has flown me thousands of times. A certified ass-sitter. I’d offer the 60 some hours of single-engine piston time I have, though that’s also irrelevant when you’re sitting in 25C, and the “I’m a private pilot and I KNEW something was wrong” doesn’t fly either, pun intended. Or worse yet, I recently heard someone feign importance with that disgusting sentence, but referred to himself as a “GA-VFR pilot.” Go ahead; tell the FAA you’d like “one general aviation-visual flight rules, to go please”. Incredible.
So now you know I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll tell you about repeatedly clearing my ears. I became extremely uncomfortable and began all the tricks to equalize pressure. I was fruitlessly jawing so hard it was embarrassing and I turned in towards the window as to not show off my gaping grill and 7-day old road breath to my co-pax. After setting my newspaper on my lap, and jawing my gaping grill and 7-day old road breath at my good friend Joe in 25B, the oxygen masks dropped. We exchanged looks thinking it was just another Ukrainian malfunction of life…but we were brought back by the shouts in Russian and my personal safety demonstrator diving from the aisle for dangling rubber.
All of my training in ass-sitting has taught me to firmly pull the mask towards me to begin the flow of oxygen, first put on my mask, then help small children and those around me. Joe, you’ll have to wait. Trendsetter I am, I was the first in my row to firmly pull one of the four masks toward me (there are four in case of lap children or someone in the aisle.) The video makes it sound like there’s a chance you might not “start the flow of oxygen” but unless you’re very tall this probably is not the case. The mask falls a few inches, and it’s not the O2 line itself that needs a tug, that might even be dangerous. Rather, it’s connected by a thin wire, holding the mask in place, and connected to the system, starting only the masks that have been firmly pulled.
Masks on, O2 is flowing. Or is it? A thousand safety briefs and videos are now bouncing in my slightly hypoxic head. Is it “even though oxygen is flowing the plastic bag WILL not inflate?” or “MAY not inflate.” I think I settled on WILL not for some reason. Now we have a problem, my bag DID inflate, so much so it looked like packing material that would startled your cat if popped. What to do…my bag’s inflated…crowd sourcing shows Joe’s bag is paper flat. He’s sucking wind (presumably, at this point) a la Seabiscuit. I would later find out he had the same internal conundrum and figured HIS bag was the problem because it was different than mine. He later told me he was considering swapping his mask for the unused fourth in our row, an idea that crossed my mind as well. Using my ravishing common sense, I assessed that not only was I still alive, but conscious as well. If it ain’t broke… I would later learn that the whole reason for the “bag MAY not inflate” speech is because of a flight where pax tried to switch masks, as we were thinking, and passed out. While I don’t know Joe’s exact reason for not swapping out, and would love to tout my continued smartness, as a decorated combat veteran with more time in Iraq than you spent in jr high, and the bronze star to prove it, he makes good calls.
Tingly toes, fingers and some passed out neighbors, I am remembering: “breathe normally.” Got that, I’m keeping myself calm and taking normal breaths. I’d also learn later the bag holds oxygen you’re not breathing in, as well as while exhaling — hence my punching bag, and Joe’s sad sack. Next time somebody needs a “wasting oxygen” joke, it won’t be about me. Joe is rustling in his pocket for his camera, my chemistry prowess (a C- in Mr. Listort’s 10th grade chemistry class, which would have been a D except that he never wanted to see me again…) thinks this might be a bad idea: static, oxygen, etc. At the very least I must have given him a look that said “poor form” and the camera went down, for now. In retrospect I’m sure there is much more static and electrical activity taking place than a digital camera…and if we had gone down like Helios 522, all I did was deny investigators images of the almost dead. We were now on our “emergency descent” from FL240, and while not exactly the most lethal altitude, somewhere between Kilimanjaro and Everest, I appreciate a good sense-of-urgency, and it seemed I could have walked down faster. Nothing to do but trust in Boeing, as I’ve been instructed numerous times by Capt. Jethead, I’ll calmly wait it out, happy to be flying American and not Tupolev.
The flight attendants are walking down the aisle, speaking in Russian two or three rows at a time, inciting a cascade of yellow masks up, over, and off dizzy heads. I reached my hand towards the aisle, “In English, please.” Commanding the kind of attention Air New Zealand would hire Richard Simmons or body paint for she curtly mentioned we were “below safety level.”
I noticed we never turned around, and I hear a PA regarding “Odessa” and “apologize for en-kon-veen-yance.” In some twisted way I’m relieved we continued on, what a hassle getting on a new and functional airplane would have been. Thank you to a culture of instant gratification for making me so impatient. Turning to investigate some raucous Russian conversation behind me, two rows back some guys are passing around a bottle of wine. A gift from Aerosvit? Where’s ours? A smuggled 750ml bottle and wine key? Who cares. Applause erupts as the mains touch tarmac again in what was not a smooth or straight landing. You idiots…we’re still in one of the most dangerous phases of flight…
Rounding out the experience we board a dilapidated bus, bottoming out over every bump on tarmac that could be a huge tile floor, with grass for grout. Kicked off near the fence line I found a new meaning for gate; literally, an open gate to the sea of gypsy cab drivers not allowed in the terminal that we were also not permitted to enter. A local article would claim passengers were offered precautionary medical checks. Any US or major European carrier would have offered this, refunds, skymiles, you name it. The cold former-soviet reality: “Ve delivered jou alive, vould jou like something else?”
Greedy Westerners we are, we did want more. A short stay in the near-Turkish quarter of Odessa, then a harrowing, yet pressurized short seven hours on an overcrowded Moldavian minibus to Chisinau. On Sunday after doing battle at the Chisinau bus station, fighting to avoid not only Transnistria, but also the smugglers route that goes much further west, near Romania, on our way back to Odessa.
A quick bite at a favorite fish restaurant, not only serving seafood favorites, but allowing you the full goldfish effect of everyone staring at your westerness, and we’re on our way back to the airport progress forgot. The analog arrivals and departures board would have you believe you’re in the train station. A repeat performance of the same shaky bus, delivered us to the same parking spot, to the very same aircraft, UR-AAK.
Poetically sitting in nearly the same seats, reading the same Kyiv Post, there’s no better way to get back on the horse. The best part of the character building experiences this weekend – both in the air and with 27 people on a bus designed with 19 seats, while dodging livestock and frequently stopping to sell auto parts brought across the border – was not as my obnoxious friend (we’ll call Brian, because that’s his name), shouted, “You had no choice, you couldn’t get away!” True, but not only could we not get away, we asked for this. We bought and paid for those tickets on a Ukrainian carrier, and spend about $6 on that bus ride, where the lone Americans were shoved in the back.
Unable to come to a consensus on why we love traveling the back roads of Eastern Europe, we often use the adage; travel expands your boundaries, tests your limits. I believe it’s safe to say this weekend we crashed headfirst through those boundaries. One of our favorite comedians, Nick Swardson, frequently jokes he wants to start a game show with terrible prizes, such as; live wolves, trips to Iraq, etc. The prize leading the victorious contestant to question; “did I lose?” So why the hell are we in Moldova…did we lose?
I was hesitant at first to write about this dull story, but at the urging of the creative team over at Jethead, and a sudden burst of energy after reading a sign telling me to kiss my smelly ass goodbye in two languages on my final intra-European flight, I succumbed. After all, this doesn’t happen every day, despite the hairy situations I’m often in. I’ve thrown around the idea of starting my own blog to document the mundane details of bribing Bloc policemen, eating pigeons in Morocco, hitchhiking in Ladas older than me, staying in the crosswalks while in communist countries, and the like. For now the world will have to settle for this short installment, and another guest post at the exciting blog of the beautiful GoingGigler.