When I wandered back from the loo, he was folding himself into the center seat. I was bummed because I was hoping it would stay empty, of course. The guy was a thin, sandy haired guy in a pilot’s uniform, stripes on his shoulders, and we were delayed. A lot. The kid in the window seat, a nice looking hipster with a newer digital camera, snapped pictures out the window while we sat on the runway. As we rolled back to the terminal and again, back out on the runway, we started to talk.
My neighbor, the guy who folded himself into the center seat, flies the long haul route from Chicago to New Dehli. I’ve never had the chance to talk with a pilot before, not like this. And the kid in the end seat had just signed up to work in Antarctica. If the airlines had interviewed us individually, they could not have picked a more appropriately matched set of seatmates. All travelers, a shutterbuggy adventurer on one end, a globe-trotting writer on the other, and between us, the pilot. In spite of the delays, it was a surprisingly pleasant flight. To top things off, the pilot farms geoduck clams on his land. My seafood loving heart fluttered a little as he told me about seeding clams on the tidal flats on his property.
We talked about—and not in this order—the book Big Dead Place, Shackelton’s travels, the demise of air travel, safety on the runway and what happens during emergencies, old riveted planes, the TSA (he says the pilots call them “Thousands Standing Around”), celebrity sightings, Paris, Vienna, Salzburg, New Delhi, Seattle, New York, Chicago … I won’t say that the seven and a half hours I spent on the plane flew by, but I was mighty diverted, I tell you what. I found it especially interesting to hear about air travel from the cockpit point of view. Pay cuts, no raises, crews scaled back, talk of taking the galleys out all together, the price of fuel, and the absurdity of the security measures we have to go through. (“It’s nothing but eyewash,” said my flying neighbor.)
I was as thrilled as a small child. It was a real treat to get to spend this kind of time with a pilot. Hey, I’m a girl who spends a ridiculous amount of time thinking about traveling. I read about travel, write about it, think about it, dream about it. Though the other night I think I dreamed about a bear with a knife at my bedside. This is, I think, because I was reading a book about travel (Eat Pray Love) and there’s a segment in there when the medicine man explains that the figure the woman’s dreaming about is one of her “spiritual brothers” and he’s there to protect her, not to attack her, in her dreams. But that’s beside the point. What I was trying to say was that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about travel and wow, here’s this guy, right next to me and he wants to talk about travel from a point of view I’ve never had a chance to consider it before. What a thrill.
I hate to fly, I confess. It’s not so much that I’m scared, it’s the discomfort. But there’s a certain extra security I feel now after sitting shoulder to shoulder with an actual pilot for all that time. Back in coach, I rarely give a second though to what’s happening in the cockpit. That’s all changed now.