My ill-fated run-ins with flying

Departure Timetable

The premier sat cross-legged on a leather couch ensconced within the Queensland Government’s private hangar on the outskirts of Brisbane, her attention too often focused on her left forearm as she repeatedly gauged the time on her silver wristwatch.

Her expression remained affable but with each twist of her wrist I, perched on the couch opposite, became ever more agitated. Here was Anna Bligh, then premier and hero of the 2011 Queensland floods, clad in Blundstones and with an Akubra by her side, ready to charter her government jet west to personally inspect a tiny flood-ravaged town.

Except that she wasn’t going anywhere.

It wasn’t so much Bligh that I was worried about. The genuine sensation of impending doom came when I dared to peek at the reddening face of her increasingly peevish major-general, Mick Slater, a man with an iron-like grip on time. An army man, for goodness sake, who likely considered strict routine and an infallible adherence to schedule more important to life than breathing.

We’d all arrived at the crack of dawn, me along for the ride as the journalist assigned to write about the visit. Only problem was, the photographer I’d been paired with had failed to show up. I phoned, he muttered something about being 10 minutes away, and so we waited. And waited. And waited some more.

We waited so long that when he did eventually materialise, groggy-eyed and clearly having just dragged himself out of bed, we’d missed the window for take-off and had to wait even longer while the airspace was cleared of commercial planes. Thin lines of steam appeared to be exiting Slater’s eardrums. A man of few words, he made it clear through a series of murderous looks aimed my way that, by association, I was to blame here.

Bligh, the woman leading her state through a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions, merely quipped casually: “I could have enjoyed an extra hours’ sleep.” My terrified laugh came out more like a muffled shriek.

I suppose I should have expected something would go awry given my track record as an entirely hapless airplane passenger. Mere mention of anything involving movement from one place to another via the heavens and the bad luck gods prick their ears and prepare for a show.

Take the time my jet was delayed for two hours because a bird was sucked into the air conditioning unit’s engine literally seconds before take-off. It was one of those situations in which sadistic officials, happy to subject an entire planeload to abject misery in order to punish an obnoxious passenger or two, proffer some entirely unreasonable reason for keeping all aboard until the problem is resolved. Just perfect when the device charged with cooling and cleaning our far-too-limited air supply had been dive-bombed by a kamikaze avian. The cabin rapidly morphed into some kind of winged Bikram yoga studio, hot as a Delhi heatwave and with a thick humidity that conveniently held a sick assortment of unpleasant bodily odours precisely at nostril height.

On another ill-fated trip, again moments before departure, a cabin crew member apparently fell suddenly and violently ill. ‘A resurgence of the plague?’ I wondered, glancing fearfully up at the air conditioning vents this time cheerfully pumping possibly infected air into every nook and cranny. There we all sat like peas in a particularly cramped and uncomfortable pod – why must they make us suffer in this way? – until a far too grumpy replacement managed to drag himself into work.

Then there was the time my flight to Sydney was delayed out of Brisbane as one of those ubiquitous and menacing summer afternoon storms rolled in like a great volcanic ash cloud, obliterating the sun as it prepared to pummel the River City. Ever the dutiful journalist, after being told our plane had been sent back to Sydney I set about broadcasting this public service information via Twitter. “All planes out of Brisbane delayed due to impending storm,” I crowed dramatically, only to be rapidly informed by other none-too-happy airlines that their flights on identical routes had not suffered the same fate. Because of course I would happen to pick the single flight so unduly obsessed with safety that passengers were forced to wait four hours as a “precaution”. At least I could twiddle my thumbs from the comfort of the hangar this time.

Although I suppose all this moaning is somewhat indefensible as I guess my luck could be worse – at least I’ve never been in a crash. Touch wood.



Words by Koren Helbig