Category Archives: Flying
The firm-jawed young man gazed at a distant blue horizon. The bright sunshine narrowed his eyes and made his cheeks glow. The goggles perched on his head glinted dazzlingly, holding the flying helmet snugly about his head. His fur collar, and the absence of perspiration, indicated the cold of his surroundings. A radio mask hung loosely below his chin, and parachute straps criss-crossed his khaki flying suit. The pilot was confident and determined, looking ahead to a bright future. By his right arm sat a roundel, the circular identification mark of British aircraft, but with the red inner circle replaced by a Canadian maple leaf. Next to this the words ‘Royal Canadian Air Force’ stood proud, while above the young man’s head flew the jolly enjoinder “Join the Team!” Rollie yelped as a fist punched his shoulder.
“Quit staring at that poster, you fat-head. Let’s get inside!”
This is Rollie Bucholtz, an American pilot who volunteered to fight for the Allies in 1941, six months before America entered the war. He was killed four weeks after arriving in England. I have in my possession his diary as well as many of his photographs and other documents. I plan to write about him next year.
Today, Armistice Day, I remember his bravery and willingness to fight oppression.
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
Friday 22nd August – Amsterdam
Yes, OK, it should be #WOMBATSDOAMSTERDAM, but then it wouldn’t fit with all the earlier blog posts and that would be just WRONG. Anyway, over the Atlantic, at about 9pm Eastern Time Thursday when it was dark outside, Captain Keith (not Crieff, thank goodness*) warned us that there was bad weather ahead, which would cause some turbulence. He made the flight attendants sit down. The aircraft leapt about like a mad eejit. We caught brief glimpses of lightning among dense clouds out of the window. That was both beautiful and scary.
I tried to sleep, but dozed only fitfully, even though I used my full snooze-arsenal of squidgy neck cushion, tilty seat headrest, and loosening of the trouser waistband. It seemed hours before rosy-fingered dawn was stroking my eyes. No, you fools, that’s not the blonde who served us with what purported to be beef stroganoff, but tasted like beef with lard lumps. That’s POETRY to describe us flying into the next day.
The plasticky seat was making my arse sweaty, so it was a true relief when Captain Keith told us that we were beginning our descent into Schipol. I did remember to do up my belt before we went through customs. Sorry to disappoint those of you looking forward to a trouser joke. We emerged from customs at Arrivals Gate 1.
“I’m at Arrivals 3 gate,” Yvonne texted, “See you soon.”
“On our way,” I replied. We followed yellow signs to Arrivals 3 which sent us round in a big pointless circle. Bloody stupid airport. Seriously, it took half a bloody hour.
“I’m under the Heineken sign at Arrivals 2” I texted, followed quickly by “Oh bumholes, I mean Arrivals 3.”
It was very crowded, so I went searching for one charmingly attractive Dutch woman among scores of them that were thronging the area. Seriously, die Nederlandse vrouwen zijn prachtig. Soon we were hugging hello, though, and I’m sure I wore a big daft grin at finally meeting one of my longest and best Twitter friends.
Yvonne drove us into the city in her nippy little car, and walked us across towards the canal. We passed massive queues at the van Gogh museum, and I revelled in being in my fourth country in two weeks. I loved all the bicycles, and the trams. We were delighted by random statues of iguanas, too.
Yvonne took us on a narrow-boat tour around the canals, which we boarded opposite Hard Rock Cafe, a nice bookend for the one we’d seen in Niagara. The cruise was superb, and just right for the cloudy day and our slightly hysterical mood. We passed a houseboat museum, Anne Frank’s house, a tulip museum, the Bimhuis concert hall, the Rembrandt Museum, Opera House, and all manner of bicycle thronged bridges, houseboats, and fine houses.
Afterwards, we retired for a pleasant coffee and chat in a pleasant coffee house. It really had been a lovely day. The heavens opened as we left the cafe and we were drenched by a torrential downpour. DRENCHED, I tell you, in DUTCH RAIN! It was WONDERFUL.
Back at the airport after bidding farewell to Yvonne we steamed quietly, waiting for the gate to open for our final flight. And guess what? Yes, after all we’d already experienced, the capricious gods of flight had one last twist to throw at us. A long delay brought on by the very storm that had soaked even our underwear was greeted by a shrug. We were used to such things by now.
Then, a gate change which meant a scurry clear across the airport. Knackered after a brilliant day that had had little sleep before it, we were simply going through the motions now. More security checks, more waiting, more annoyances. Finally we boarded, now desperate just to get home.
Still those Gods of flight had not finished, however. We crossed the North Sea and were finally over England. When we were low enough to see land we spotted Scout Moor wind farm, and from the orientation managed to figure out that we were flying over our house. We gave a weedy “Yay”.
Manchester Airport was surprisingly easy to get out of, and there was Martin, good old Martin, who’d dropped us off on Day 1 seventeen days before for what was to prove, quite simply, two of the most amazing, astounding, astonishing weeks of my life.
Thank you for sticking with the #WOMBATSDOAMERICA blog posts. They’ve been a joy to write, and have helped me to revisit all the magical things we did, and the incredible friends we met and made. Where will we go next? I’m not sure – San Diego? Michigan? Canada? We’ll just have to wait and see.
*one for ‘Cabin Pressure’ fans there. For non-fans, this might give you a flavour http://youtu.be/sHgeeGOypGI
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
Kim, bless her little cotton socks, took care of us perfectly again. Sausage and egg for breakfast, accompanied by toast and jam. We were feeling nervy, so went out shopping, which did help to distract us from forthcoming travel. We found a rather good calendar of US bird life as a gift for Kit. We also went to Target to see whether Mary could buy some more of the stationery pouches that she found last week, but unfortunately they were C by their A. We also looked in T J Maxx, to see whether we could work out why it was ‘J’ in the States rather than ‘K’, but were none the wiser. I was amused to see a post office in a car wash.
The day was hot; a blazing sun beating down on our poor heads. We picked Tom up from work and headed back for mac & cheese, cheese & ham toastie, and cantaloupe.
Kim urged me to drive her Jeep, saying that I’d feel bad if I hadn’t at least driven once in America. Despite misgivings I bowed to her mighty persuasive powers and drove it up the road a way with Monnie sitting on the passenger seat. The car was an automatic, and it took a little while for me to stop my left hand reaching for a gearstick. It was a doddle to drive, though, and I found staying on the right no problem. Tell you what, though, I’d have to work hard to understand (and see!) the tiny road signs, and to figure out how the dangly traffic lights worked.
We said goodbye to Monnie, and bade a sad farewell to Kim and Tom at the airport. At the check-in desk we were asked if we wanted to leave tomorrow instead, being offered $500 of compensatory vouchers, but we decided that it was time to go home. We’d had enough of flying shenanigans. Checking in took a while, since the agent had trouble getting our ESTA confirmed electronically. Luckily I’d thought to have a printed copy handy ‘just in case’, and that sped things along nicely.
And then we were in the air above Lake Erie heading for Detroit and a long flight to Amsterdam. I’ll see you on the other side of the ocean tomorrow for the last #WOMBATSDOAMERICA daily blog post.
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
“Don’t worry,” they had told us about our first flights abroad. “Things so rarely go wrong. I’ve been flying for umpteen years and never had a problem.” Oh yeah, virtual smug person, well you can stick that right up your pipe and smoke it. Stream of consciousness notes from the travel journal follow:
“Gate A8 to Detroit, some ‘weather’ so we’re going over the top of it and coming into Detroit from the east leaving Minn. 3 seats each side of aisle, pro tip: roll-on bags fit better wheels out. Air. Bumpy fluffy clouds.”
That’s enough of that. It’s like reading Finnegan’s Wake, sheesh. I’ll start again.
Sad we were indeed to leave our wonderful South Dakotan hosts. They had shown us such a wonderful week, with unforgettable experiences and laughs that will linger in my memory until the day I kick the bucket. I had moist eyes as we left Barry and Janine at FSD.
We had no problems reaching Minneapolis, and finding Gate A8 for our flight to Detroit. On take-off Captain Sillyname informed us that there was ‘some weather’ in Detroit (no shit, Sherlock) so we would be flying over the top of it and coming into Detroit from the east. Before take-off we were given a bit of good advice – put your roll-on bags into the overhead compartment wheels outwards: they fit better.
The plane did a lot of taxiing at Minneapolis. The runway must be miles away. In flight, the plane was bumpy passing through clouds. That never occurred to me before. I always imagined that a cloud would make little difference to how a plane flew. Such innocent musings were soon gone as, three-quarters of the way to Detroit, Captain Sillyname made an announcement.
“Sorry folks,” he said, “We’ve hit a bit of a snag. We can’t fly over the big fuckoff storm in Detroit because our weather radar is knackered.” (I’m paraphrasing him here) “It’s a sod, but we’re going to have to return to the Twin Cities and have it fettled.” So return we did, and spent some of the time while we waited for an engineer looking up why Minneapolis was called ‘The Twin Cities’. Turns out that it’s actually two cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul’s. Like Manchester & Salford, I suppose, only cooler.
Now, our itinerary had given us a long connection time in Detroit, over four hours, but would we now still make our flight to Erie? Only time would tell. Engineers replaced the weather radar within an hour while the passengers chatted and walked about. The doors were closed. We might just make our connection after all. Captain Sillyname came on the PA.
“Thanks for your patience, folks. The buggered equipment has now been repaired, and we’ve whacked some more fuel in. We have been given clearance for take-off, yay! Oh wait. Bloody Nora – I’m now being told that twatting ATC have closed Detroit to all traffic due to the arsing storms there. FFS.” (still paraphrasing)
And so we continued to sit on the plane and chat or read or sleep. Eventually, after an age, we did take off. We had no idea at all what we would have to do in Detroit, so there was no relaxing on that flight. The Detroit screens showed that the last flight to Erie had indeed left, so we staggered to a crowded help desk where a harassed woman kept telling everyone to use the scanner. The scanner would not scan our thingies though, so we settled in for a long queue to have a word with the poor overworked agent.
“Wombats? Do we have Wombats here?” came a loud voice from a corner of the bay. Puzzled, we answered the shout and took a phone call from a lovely woman called Flo. She told us that Kim had spoken to her on the phone, explained the situation, and that we should come find her in the ticketing office where she would sort everything out for us. We found her, and she did, bless her heart. Also, we will be forever grateful to Kim for her heroic phoning and organising on our behalf.
Flo arranged for us to fly the next morning to Cleveland (where they had been going to take us anyway) to meet up with Kim and Tom. She also arranged a hotel for the night and transport to reach it, which turned out to be a limo. The driver took us through some dodgy looking areas, though.
Knackered, we spent the night at the Country Inn at Dearborn, having eaten only a cheese scone at breakfast. We did nick a couple of cookies from a basket in the lobby, and found some ice to melt for drinking water. The room was very comfortable, very clean, with two double beds. It also had a clock that ran an hour slow, so we made a mental note not to trust it, showered, and collapsed.
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
Wednesday 13th August – South Dakota
We were up at 3am and pretty soon on the road, Tom driving, Kim chatting in lively fashion. Bless those two for getting up at sparrowfart to drive us the two hours to Buffalo, an airport which is helpfully built in a straight line.
We had TSA-pre on our new tickets and so breezed through security. At the gate the agents were asking for volunteers to give up their seats as the flight was overbooked. When the woman on the gate also asked if anyone wanted any bags checking through to the final destination, we handed over our (fairly cumbersome) carry-ons, on the grounds that it would make it harder for them to bump us off the flight. Things worked out fine as it happened, as on the flight we saw two people who had volunteered for the $400 compensation. Mary wondered whether they got to keep the compensation if, as here, there had been room for them after all.
Most of my thoughts on the flight to Minneapolis were picking over the fact that in the Twin Cities we needed to check for our seats on the flight to Sioux Falls. I also fretted about our bags. Would they make it all the way, given that we lacked seat numbers? I should have kept one back. Worry worry worry – wombats are born to worry.
A child sitting by the window closed the blind before take-off. Strange child. Kim had provided us with snacks for the flight – cookies and chocolate-covered pretzels. Yum and nom, and possibly other three letter words ending in ‘m’.
All went without a hitch at Minneapolis, the desk agent simply printing off our seat-numbered boarding passes as soon as I asked. The aircraft taxied for so long at Minneapolis that Mary wondered if perhaps we would simply drive all the way to Sioux Falls. This was a dinky little plane, a CRJ200, and perhaps the smallest yet. It made plenty of clunks and rattles. I rather like the small aircraft, I’ve decided. The roads far below became remarkably long and straight.
Our bags did arrive safely with us at FSD, although my backpack had an odd yellow smudge across it. Janine, looking radiant, met us at the gate, having apparently just that minute arrived. South Dakota was Technicolor sunny. Janine’s car was dead posh, with button-operated sliding doors that took me at least two days to get the hang of.
Janine and Barry immediately took us to a place called, I think, Perkins for an enormous breakfast – eggs, bacon, hash brown, bread. There might have been a sausage. There was certainly syrup. My eggs were scrambled rather than my requested over-easy – oh the discomforts of foreign travel. Barry sloshed his over-easy eggs onto my plate in a show of manly consideration. I took to him immediately. The food was like a big warm hug after our early start and airport travails.
Half-way between Sioux Falls and Chamberlain we stopped at a town called Mitchell, and looked over a large building the walls of which were plastered with different coloured corn cobs laid in intricate designs. This was the Corn Palace, a large hall that is used for lots of community functions, and is decorated every year with corn murals. It was interesting to see the templates for which murals had not yet been stuck up. Inside were a number of merchandise stalls, which made for a good browse. I’d have bought myself a Davy Crockett hat but they only had child sizes, the fools.
Another hour along the interstate brought us to the Missouri River, and the bridge that led across to Janine’s sprawling home. A quick drive through Chamberlain first gave the impression that it was very small-town America, which was just the sort of place I wanted to see. Oacoma, the town name used in Janine and Barry’s address, was almost not there. Just a scattering of houses with no shops.
The dogs greeted us – irrepressible Ranger, old farty Sam, and Lady, a black lab who was not at all well. Barry took her off to the vet shortly after we arrived, where she was kept in overnight for tests and observation. Janine’s house is large and lovely, very well appointed and laid out, with a marvellous sweeping view of the river. We had our own suite – bedroom, walk-in wardrobe and bathroom – close to Barry’s study which was stuffed with books and animal heads on the walls.
On his return, and after we’d settled, Barry took me out on his Grasshopper – a small open-to-the-elements 4×4 thingy. Ranger sat between us, peering ahead. That was enjoyable in itself – the wind in my face, bugs in my mouth, and a big dog’s ears flapping against my face – but having fun with Ranger was even better. We halted by the river, at a boat dock, where Barry flung a wooden duck, Ranger’s retrieving toy, into the lapping water. Ranger leaped into the water with a mighty splash, swimming powerfully back, duck in his mouth.
After a couple more leaps, we drove the Grasshopper around an undulating lea while Ranger looked for rabbits. More often than not we spotted them before he did, and had to point them out. He managed to corner one by a bush but it outsmarted him, dashing away between his legs. He continued to sniff the bush, confused. An excellent dog indeed.
Towards sunset we crossed to the eastern shore and up the side of the valley to a viewpoint that overlooked the broad sweep of the river. A stone sculpture, tipi-like, reached out of the trees to the cobalt sky. Lewis and Clark had passed through there, and we were able to admire a view that they too must have witnessed, the crimson sun setting across the wide Big Muddy. The name Missouri, I’m told, comes from the Missouri tribe, whose name in turn means ‘people with wooden canoes’.
I was surprisingly sanguine at Janine’s tales of ‘chiggers’, small bugs that would crawl up your legs and bite your ‘private underneaths’. My bollocks felt unthreatened. Perhaps it was a sign of relaxation combined with fatigue, but I was also unperturbed by the sign that read ‘DANGER, POISONOUS SNAKES’.
For that evening at least, this wombat did not worry.
Blogging our recent trip day by day, four weeks after the event…
Tuesday 5th August – the New World
Airports are confusing places the first time around, but we managed to trudge through Manchester eventually. The woman at the bag drop was pleasant and helpful, the man at the look-through-your-bags-and-stuff place much less so. We were also a bit confused as we hadn’t been asked to remove our shoes at any point, something I had prepared for by wearing clean socks for a change. Once airside, we realised that we may have been over-cautious in our arrival time. Mary looked around the shops while I looked at women’s legs, and yet somehow there were always still forty-five minutes until the gate opened. The queue at Costa was not in the least enticing. Our first airport experience was a strange mix of confusion and banality.
Eventually, though, WE WERE ON A PLANE! Our first ever flight, which must be unusual at our age given these wizard, modern days of international travel. The KLM aircraft was quite small, with rows of three on either side of a central aisle – Mary got a window seat so that she could click away at the clouds and lose her pencil down the side of her seat. She said the clouds looked like celestial sheep on a blue-grey field. I adored the powerful upthrust of take-off – WHUMF! The experience of flying is much more turny than I had imagined. The aircraft feels as if it is banking far too sharply and steeply.
Snacks arrived over the North Sea – how very civilised, to eat thousands of feet above the earth. Um, above the sea. I thought I’d better avoid the alcohol, given that we had the sprawling great airport at Schipol yet to negotiate. As we banked steeply over the waves, it struck me that we would be in Amsterdam in under an hour, then on to a flight to Detroit on the other side of the planet. My mind said “Blimey” several times.
“Prepare for landing.” Ooer. There was a briefly alarming clattery clunk, which I realised was the wheels being lowered. It was a far less high-tech sound than I had imagined a modern jet making. I peered past Mary at the land below. That was the Netherlands down there, eventually bumping into our wheels with another surprisingly Heath Robinsonesque thud.
Schipol was very big, very crowded and very yellow. It took us some time to reach the gate for our next flight, which was already processing passengers. A bored-looking security chap examined our documents.
“Purpose of your visit?” he intoned.
“We’re going on holiday.”
“Huh? What’s your final destination? Surely you’re not having a holiday in Detroit?”
“Ah, no. We fly on to Erie.”
“Oh I see. That makes more sense.”
He passed us through to be felt up by more security personnel before we shuffled aboard an Airbus 330, along with over three hundred other souls. The Delta flight safety video was fun and made me smile; ideal for relaxing the nervous flyer, I imagine. This time take-off was overwhelmingly more powerful, and made me shiver internally. I decided that I adored taking-off. We had centre seats, due to my inexperience when booking airline tickets all those months ago, and so had very little view. Inexplicably, the wazzocks actually by the window pulled down the blind. This meant that much of our attention was focussed on the seat-back entertainment screens, when our gaze wasn’t inadvertently drawn by the pervy fondling of the couple diagonally behind us. Tut.
There were scores of films from which to choose – Gravity, The Lego Movie, Kick Ass 2 – but we chose to watch the second Hobbit film together. I also liked the Flight Details screen, which showed where we were and gave stats about the flight. For instance, at 6pm in English money:
Ground speed: 836kph
Head wind: 31
Outside temp: -50°C
Distance to Destination: 1762
Distance from Origin: 4608
Time to Destination: 2hr 15m
Minus fifty? Jeebus. Lunch was sweet & sour chicken, salad & a bread roll. Cheese and a biscuit. All in tiny little packs. I felt like a giant.
At one point during the flight there was an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board, exactly like the ones in bad sixties films. I’m not sure that there was, but I believe someone with first-aid knowledge eventually made their way to row twenty-two, just beyond the bulkhead. Mary wondered whether you would get any refund if you were a doctor on a flight who had to do some actual doctoring.
I suppose we should have slept when the cabin lights were turned off for the middle section of the flight, but honestly, we were far too excited. The larger Delta plane gave a much smoother ride, where the small KLM flight had been like a rollercoaster at times as it swooped and bumped through turbulence. I did know about turbulence, of course, but I hadn’t realised that it would be so… bumpety. Also surprising was the tiny size of aeroplane windows, and indeed the fact that airports manage to run at all. There are so many things to take into account, to link together, that if a spanner is thrown in the works (fog, maybe, or snow, or ATC strikes) then a myriad things must be rescheduled to work together. They must have ace contingency plans.
Detroit was a pain at first, since we had to collect our checked cases to take through customs. First, though, a long queue for security, and eventually being told that we should have filled in a ‘blue form’ on the aeroplane, despite being told during the flight that we didn’t need to do that. Among the scattered piles of blue forms available there appeared to be none that were in English.
“There are forms in English there!” snapped a surly man with an oily moustache and pantomime frown, pointing to a pile of forms in Spanish. Luckily, Mary found an English one on the floor a few yards away, and we finally got to talk to the TSA agent.
He was very friendly, thankfully, and eased our nerves with his chatty demeanour. Once past him we sailed through customs, rechecked our bags, and went back into the airport, stressed and sweaty. The ordeal over, I quite liked DTW. The psychedelic tunnel is fun, and the dancing fountain extremely relaxing to eye, ear and mind.
Our final flight was but a short hop over Lake Erie. We were tired – being awake for close to twenty-four hours following only four hours sleep was catching up with us. However, our arrival in Erie was a blast and livened us up, at least for a while. We were expecting to be met by Kim and Tom, our hosts, but as we staggered through the gate a gang of folk from Wombat Towers (our catch-all name for a group of internet US friends) descended upon us, waving stars and stripes flags and windmills and cameras. We were hugged from every direction, by Kim and Tom, Sandy and Dave, Ellen and Jere, and my old friend Jamie with his Barb. We immediately felt very welcome and smiley indeed.
“I love your accent; I just want you to keep saying stuff,” said someone, Ellen I think.
We eventually said goodbye until the next day, and Tom and Kim drove us back to their house. I gaped at the unusual road signs and lights out of the car window, and wrinkled my nose at an awful smell.
“Skunk,” Tom told us. “Must have been run over.”
Back at the house, cosy in its nest of friendly trees, we cooled down with a beer or two (a deliciously dry Australian lager called Landshark) and rather excellent sandwiches, the first sign of Kim’s remarkable skills as a hostess. Then to bed, remarking on the fact that light switches in the US go up when on, and that wall sockets have no switches.