My beautiful daughter-in-law threw her arms up and yelled: “Thank God! Not a moment too soon!” when I told her Rodent and I would fly back to Norfolk the next morning. We’d delayed our flight three days due to bad weather.
A winter storm tortured DC, Boston, Baltimore, NYC and a wide swath of the Louisiana Purchase, and Delta Airlines had tempted folk to reschedule three days forward by rescinding its change-fee, so we readied to leave LA on 13 February, a holiday-packed weekend.
For only the second time in 15 years, my son volunteered to drive us to LAX. His six-year-old twin boys shrugged goodbye and turned back to their Legos. What did we care? It was sunny, it was noon, it was a short flight, we were racking up our frequent flyer miles, and I had a couple bananas and a baggieful of red grapes in my carry-on.
Row 33 was the last row on the plane. Advantages: we were Really Close to the toilets and to the stewards’ gossip. Disadvantages: we were Really Close to the agonied, foot-shifting toilet queue, and we overheard the steward’s intercom messages to the Captain.
Rodent and I quickly got used to pans whacking in the galley behind our heads, but we paused dramatically at a steward’s cryptic message to the Captain: “We need someone to talk about what’s going on here.”
I’d been happily counting my grapes, not noticing that we’d been fully-planed and sitting for 15 minutes after scheduled take-off.
The Captain came on the intercom, saying: “There’s a leak in the Business Class toilet.”
The combined brains of Coach passengers held the same thought, or worse: “Let ’em pee in Coach.”
The Captain continued: “Mechanics are working hard and understand the time factor. Though it sounds like a small problem, if the leak continues it might cause the water to go below to the Black Box and electrical systems which could—with the much colder temperatures during flight—freeze and cause problems.”
Forty minutes later we launched, and a happy tailwind had us in Cincinnati just in time to board our flight to Norfolk.
Cincinnati is not LA. It is a hellhole of chill. Not that it’s the only place in the USA that patiently provides four months of sub-zero temps and snow. Oh no. But this particular evening, near the cusp of St. Valentine’s Day, we had really ached for some sign of spring—Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction notwithstanding. Hunkering down into our winter coats, caps and gloves, we tramped up and down a byzantine (ok, Rube Goldberg) passageway, stairway and bridge to our silver bullet, and—incredibly—comfortable seats in the fourth row.
My bum generously gripped in soft leather (was this Business Class?), I smiled at Rodent who looked a bit pale but game for the rest of the ride. For the first time ever, I gave careful attention to the Safety directions. At last someone had printed up a leaflet with bright, simple cartoons for each Safety step. I am now able to explain how to grip the levers of exit doors A and C at the front of the plane, though not how to actually open the doors.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Captain announced, “I might as well explain what is going on.”
Had I been counting grapes again and not noticed that we’d been sitting 20 minutes past take-off time?
He continued: “The external air cart that starts the engine isn’t getting air. It’s frozen.”
My brain decided to go walkabout and sit with the man behind us who, according to his female seatmate, was her husband and an airplane pilot.
He was explaining to her: “An external air cart blows air into the engine to get it started. It needs heating up. Some private planes have an auxiliary power unit that bleeds off air to start the engines, to move it to the side of the engine. It doesn’t take much to move the air. But the unit’s expensive.”
I thus intuited that some commercial airlines choose to have external air carts, one which was being heated so that it could blow air into our lifeless engine.
I decided to worry about whether the Norfolk police would have towed my outdated-license-plate- stickered car from the driveway, as they had told my neighbour two days before. This was a worry I could get my head around.
The plane began moving in reverse the way my now-dead 13-year old stick-shift Datsun B210 felt and sounded when going in reverse whilst the emergency brake was on.
The Pilot Behind Us was saying: “That’s one of the pushers. They use pushers so they don’t have to use reverse thrust.”
Right, I thought, and wondered if I’d really rather have reverse thrust, and whether the pushers themselves needed external air carts to get us down the runway at a lively speed.
As luck would have it, we were now moving forward, and the Pilot Behind Us was telling his wife about the signficance of full flights and terrorist attacks, and the comparative power of ship engines and airplane engines.
Announcement from Captain: “During the wait, we seem to have got a little icing on the wings, so we’ll just shoot over to the de-icing fluid.”
Pilot Behind Us: “Smaller planes have heaters on them, but they’re expensive.”
Possibly a bit mad with his info-power, he added: “Hope they don’t do like they did in Greensboro where they sprayed so much de-icer it cooled down the engine, so we had to wait for the engine to warm up.”
Rodent was asleep, doubtless dreaming about the pipe he hadn’t been able to smoke for the last ten hours.
And then Cosmic Birther Of All Radiance And Vibration smiled.
She had us up in the air staring down at a silent lava flow of jewels, the Cincinnati night traffic. Then we were beyond the city and into space, contemplating a sky smatter-rich with stars. Next we knew, the PBU was identifying a glitter of bracelets below: “Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel……Hampton Bridge Tunnel….”
We were home to an airport of lush green potted plants all along the walkway and a sign cheerfully announcing: “Underground Parking. Lots.” (I assumed that meant Norfolk Airport has lots of underground parking.)
We were about to undertake the most dangerous trip of the day: the cab ride home.