I have never been afraid of flying. For the first time, I boarded a plane when I wasn’t even two. I travelled regularly until I started school at seven, and despite the experience wasn’t always smooth and easy – if you flew in propeller planes in the 80ies, then you know – when I climbed the movable ladder (this time, into a proper Boeing) again more than a decade after it felt like getting on a bus.
I was never scared or panicky, neither take off after the speedy acceleration nor a rough bump at landing made my heart leap. Turbulence always felt like an adventure to tell jokes about in a friendly company later.
Once, when I was five or six, the plane that was taking us home to Riga from the north, made an emergency stop en route. It must have been March since my aunt usually took me away around that time of the year, and it started to snow heavily. I remember that we were asked to leave the plane and ushered into the airport building. Because of the weather, it was impossible to continue travelling on a bigger plane, and it was decided that passengers would continue to Riga on a smaller one. It was then that I found out that those shaky and outdated-looking planes with propellers are way safer than modern ones with turbines. I am not an expert; I can just repeat what I heard then. If one of the propellers breaks, a plane can still fly and reach its destination; if one of the turbines breaks, a plane just falls.
Those propeller planes could take on board twice fewer passengers than newer, bigger ones. So, our lot was divided into two groups, and luckily, my aunt and I found ourselves in the first one to depart. We were ushered back into the flying field and into another place. My aunt and I were seated in one of the first rows – advantages of travelling with small children weren’t invented yesterday – so we were the ones to witness how the captain’s uniform cap flew away in a gust of wind when the man entered the cabin. He looked straight at us. His forehead was creased with worry and indecision. He talked briefly with the second pilot and stewardesses. I could hear clearly every word they spoke, so when he turned to look at the passengers sitting and waiting quietly, I spoke loudly. “We are small. We can fly. We can make it.” I can remember what I said because the story was repeated in my family so many times over the years that when I’ll forget what day it is, I’ll probably be able to recite the words I said to the plane captain who had just lost his hat due to the extreme storm that made him lawfully unsure whether he should risk the lives of half a hundred passengers.
The captain smiled at me and said: “It’s settled then. Fasten your seatbelt. We are going to take you home.”
I felt very proud of myself. Of course, now I have no doubts that the decision had already been made before I voiced my unasked-for opinion. But still, can you imagine how it felt for a five- or six-year-old? Exactly. It felt incredibly huge. And even after decades, I always smile whenever I remember the captain’s runaway cap, my words, and his smile.
So, about fifteen years later, when no decent air carrier treated their passengers with anything except shiny Boeings, our local airlines made an outrageous move and bought a fleet of compact Fokker airplanes. And they had… propellers!
I was waiting for my plane at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm. It was one of my first flights after a long time spent firmly on the ground. Those were still the times when destination “Riga” still meant that you had to cross the whole airport – and try to do that in places like Frankfurt! – walk a couple of winding corridors and sometimes even down a few flights of stairs to a gate the way to which not every airport worker was able to explain. Since I was able to find my way to the furthest end of a modern airport, I was sitting contentedly with a book (yes, I go nowhere without a book), waiting for my flight to be announced. An elderly gentleman virtually stormed into the small waiting area. Deep bewilderment and undisguised panic were written clearly on his face.
I was the only other passenger waiting for the flight to Riga, so he rushed over to where I was sitting and without any form of polite greeting, cried: “Is it true? They said that we’re going to fly on a propeller plane?” A propeller plane sounded more like a witch’s broom.
I looked at the gentlemen with a proper “I know it all” expression only a twenty-year-old can wear in style and get away with it and said: “Yeah. I flew here in such, and it was okay.”
“Was it?” The man looked more confident after my words.
“Yes.” I think that I looked at him condescendingly. “And you know what they say – propeller planes are the safest ones.”
Again, just like I realised that three decades ago the captain hadn’t taken the decision to risk and fly into the storm because a little passenger told him to do so, I knew now that I didn’t perform any miracle for that man. But it still felt good that I could make him feel a little better.