On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Anecdotes About Flying- Part II
The Terminals and the Tarmac
With more than 700 flights under his belt, the Footloose Forester didn’t need to think too hard about some of the quirks of flying. The airport grounds, the terminal buildings, the boarding conveyances (or lack thereof) …each of them had unique features. They were easier to remember because they were physical objects. On the other hand, the flight delays, cancellations and other things that are also associated with the experiences of flying were too numerous to remember. But when considered as a package pertaining to the mystique of flying, those myriad details were like so many bees swarming and buzzing about. Annoying, but part of the tableau.
Yes, most jetsetters have tales about modern layouts such as JFK, Charles DeGalle, or Heathrow, but the backpacker lifestyle types like the Footloose Forester prefer to swap stories about quaint two-room terminals like the ones in Cape Verde or Madagascar. Or those only now reminiscent of the past; names like Templehof in Berlin; Orly Field in Paris; or the old Dum Dum International Airport in Calcutta. These days, even the name of the city once known as Calcutta is gone, and so is Dum Dum International.
It may have been in a DC-3 on that first landing at Orly Airport
Years ago, a set of boarding steps mounted on wheels was a common sight even at airports in large cities. As the aircraft taxied into the arrival area, you could see airport employees wheeling the mobile steps into place. The same types of steps were used at departure time. Even before the external boarding steps, however, several smaller commercial aircraft had flexible steps linked together with chains; and secured within the aircraft, itself. The evolution of boarding conveyance structures, of course, had something to do with the size of the aircraft themselves. As airliners got larger and larger, so did the size of the boarding conveyance systems.
What sticks in mind were a few brief, anecdotal episodes that embraced some of the physical features about airports that helped re-create the past.
One particular episode in boarding took place at Tegucigalpa in Honduras. As the small group of passengers passed through the open side door of the terminal and out into the sunshine toward the mobile boarding steps, the Footloose Forester could not help but notice the World War II vintage B-17 bomber that was parked off to the right and quite close to the terminal building. Nobody should expect to see a bomber next to civilian airport terminals.
An outdated Fokker Friendship
Passengers in some places had to walk from the terminal to the waiting airplane, wherever it happened to be parked. Thus, one vivid memory at the commercial terminal of Baghram Airport outside Kabul, Afghanistan stands out. The old DC-6 of Ariana Afghan Airlines was nearly empty as it awaited the arrival of the last of the passengers from the terminal building. As he sat there opposite the open door, the Footloose Forester noted that three people emerged from the terminal building more than a hundred yards away and walked slowly toward the plane. As they mounted the boarding steps, there was no security guard and no checking of boarding passes; in fact there was no Ariana attendant present. One of the three was wasn’t even a passenger. He was there to wish the others a good trip to Tehran. After they were seated in the row directly in front of the Footloose Forester, the bearded gentleman shook the woman’s hand and kissed the other man on both cheeks. Then the bearded man turned around and returned to the terminal area. The episode says something about the state of security in the days. By the way, we backpackers used to call the Afghan airline by another name—Scariana, three frights a day!
Another anecdote about aircraft boarding conveyances that is clear in the memory of the Footloose Forester took place at a tiny airport near the southeastern tip of Madagascar. The terminal at Farafagana, near Ramanafana was so crowded and so noisy, that the Footloose Forester looked for a quiet place to wait as the plane was loaded. There was only one airplane in sight; and that was sitting directly in front of the terminal building, so he could monitor the progress of the baggage loading that always took place before the passengers boarded. Never mind the scheduled departure time; that had already been eclipsed by more than an hour. Planes in Africa departed when they departed, and sometimes the timing had little to do with what the departure schedule said. So the Footloose Forester was wont to seek out a quiet place and read his book or magazine; and occasionally check the progress for himself.
He was definitely embarrassed, however, when his plane completed the boarding without him hearing the loudspeaker proclaiming the familiar “final boarding” announcement. The plane had not begun to taxi out of the terminal area, but they had already closed the side door and secured the retractable boarding steps. He was grateful that they unlatched the boarding steps and allowed him onboard. Needless to say, he did get a few hostile stares.
Being the last person on the plane had happened once before to the Footloose Forester. When he was in the US Army in Germany, he had taken a US Air Force C-124 from Frankfurt, Germany to visit his US Air Force brother at Lakenheath Air Base in England. After a pleasant week of visiting London, Cambridge and Edinborough, Scotland, it was time to return to his own duty post at Langendiebach, Germany. Although there was space available on the same C-124 he had flown the previous week, they refused to take him because the flight was loaded with classified cargo. So, Plan B went into action. He called British Airways in London and tried to book a one-way flight to Frankfurt. For some reason, that was not possible; but he was able to book one-way to Paris, with a connecting flight to Frankfurt. Yes, they would accept cash upon his arrival at the airport.
The next problem was getting into London on time. Just minutes after we saw the C-124 with the classified cargo rise into the sky above Lakenheath, the Footloose Forester was on a passenger train bound for Kings Cross Station, London. He said goodbye to his brother at the door of the train station near Lakenheath.
Time was short, but the next stage was still feasible. Just like in a Grade-B movie, the Footloose Forester hastily exited the train at Kings Cross Station and jumped into the first taxi that stopped. He told the driver that if he got to Heathrow Airport on time, there would be a bonus in store. And just like in the movies, the taxi driver drove like a madman throughout crowded London. We reached the terminal at Heathrow barely on time; and although the cabbie doubted that they would allow him to board at the last minute, the Footloose Forester said that was not the cabbie’s problem. The cabbie got his bonus. He earned it. Truth to tell, the Footloose Forester was elated that he had made it this far. While running as fast as his duffle bag would allow, he hurried toward the ticket counter. The area was actually empty, save for the two female ticket agents behind the counter who were winding things up for the day. In fact, operations had begun to shut down for the night after the last of the passengers had passed through the boarding tunnel leading to the awaiting Boeing 720. When they saw him approaching, one of the agents instructed him to give her his duffle bag for tagging; and the other starting booking him unto the manifest. Before that, however, she got on the intercom and asked the pilot to hold the plane for one more passenger. When the paperwork was finished, one agent gave him a boarding pass; and the other one gave him his baggage check,
The most vivid scene of all came next. The young ticket attendant who had checked in his duffle bag, then stepped from behind the counter; took his hand; and led him directly to the entrance to the proper portal that led to his plane. “Hurry” she said, with a smile. When he reached the end of the enclosed tunnel that served as a passenger portal, he stepped into the cozy confines of the Boeing 720. Everyone on board was already seated and buckled in. He was definitely the last one on board…and he knew that they had held the plane for him. Within seconds we began to taxi.