Unusual Airplanes

I’ll warn you up front: the following pages are strikingly manic. Try to hang with me; it’s been a tough week. For the second October in a row I’m attempting to organize a column while caught in the throes of a baseball playoffs hangover. The emotional kind. If it seems like my thoughts are coming unglued, blame the Boston Red Sox.

The latest Sox-Yankees extravaganza may have been the most excruciating series of baseball games I’ve ever seen, a weeklong saga of mind-melting tension. Watching Tuesday night’s epic, 14-inning battle was like trying to balance atop a giant coiled spring for five-and-half hours.

The irony being that I can’t stand sports. Foreign readers won’t understand, but baseball fans, and certainly New Englanders, will. For a refresher on how this works, see last year’s post-playoff catharsis. In that one, if nothing else, I managed to keep my themes in order, at one point comparing the lives and careers of baseball players and pilots. (Is it just me, or do players’ wives tend to bear uncanny resemblance to the stereotype flight attendant?)

And to think, after the heartbreaking finale of 2003, I’d sworn off the team forever. Sure. Me and two million other people. The Red Sox have a way. A way of snaring you in a sort of cataclysmic gravity, casting you into a morbid, unending orbit of loss. (Red Sox 10, Yankees 3, the demons of the dark Bronx night at long last exorcised. Now, on to business: there’s still that niggling matter of the World Series to be reckoned with. And am I the only one clued in to the eerie political parallels of Boston-v-Houston for the championship?)

The absolute emotional nadir for Sox fans came against the New York Mets in 1986, in the infamous sixth game of the World Series at Shea Stadium. Shea, if you’ve never seen it, sits in northern Queens, near the edge of Flushing Bay and half a mile from La Guardia airport. Broadcasts of Mets games routinely include the roar of jet engines. There’s a visual approach to La Guardia’s runway 31 — a tight, arcing semi-circle with a bird’s eye view of the park from less than a thousand feet. I’ve flown that procedure many times, running the final checklist while peering down into that hideous coliseum of red bleachers and agonizing memories. I can still see the look on catcher Rich Gedman’s face as the tying run dashed home. And then the ball skipping past Buckner.

Landings at La Guardia are challenging enough. Who needs that in the baggage hold?

October, 1986. Eight months earlier, you might remember, while the Red Sox geared up for spring training, I’d been hunkered down in a Leningrad snowstorm with a ferryload of drunken Finns.

I owe a debt of thanks to my Finnish readers, by the way, who in addition to their proud status as the world’s most wired and Net savvy populace, also maintain a rugged sense of humor. My depiction of Finnish debauchery at the Hotel Pribaltiskaya did not, as I feared it might, generate any snarling letters of protest.

I stand corrected, however, for my reference to St. Petersburg as the “Baltic Cancun.” I saw what I saw in ’86, but I’m informed that distinction now belongs to Tallinn, in the former Soviet republic of Estonia. On the southern lip of the Gulf of Finland, Tallinn is less than 90 minutes by boat from the Finnish capital.

“Tallinn has replaced St. Pete,” explains David Schlaefer from the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki. “It’s the destination of choice for younger Finns — to buy cheap booze, frequent the city’s growing red light district, and generally make fools of themselves.”

“The alcohol there is very cheap,” says a Finnish emailer. “So cheap that people bring dozens of cases back to Finland on the ferry. Finns in general like their booze, and who can blame them when it’s dark for 18 hours a day?”

I suppose, but somehow the idea of winterbound Finns escaping to Estonia is a bit like Americans rushing off to party in New Brunswick. With Greece and Spain and Turkey just a few hours away, those party junkets sound awfully crude, even depressing.

No word if Estonian Air, the Tallinn-based operator of five Boeing 737s, has capitalized on its country’s popularity. Seems a weekend shuttle between Helsinki and Tallinn might be an exploitable market, with free vodka on the outbound and oversized barf bags on the return.

Amazing, isn’t it? An aviation column morphs into anecdotes about baseball and the drinking habits of Finns. Cite me for wasting for your time, if you want, but I’m hoping you sense the greater intrinsic lesson:

If done right, any meditation on air travel is a meditation on culture. If Ask the Pilot relies on a single, relentless tenet, that’s the one: the airplane inseparable from the people and places it joins, transcendent of the usual gearhead pablum. We’re all curious how a plane gets to its destination — how high it flies; how fast it goes; how many pounds per square inch are pulsing through its hydraulics. I’m also curious why it’s going, and to where?

Sure, even the world’s most exquisite man-made icons, new and old, from skyscrapers to bridges to cathedrals, are due their share of whipped-cream abstraction: works of art explained numerically as tons of mortar, coils of cable, miles of plumbing. Impressive and fun, yes, provided you also recognize the greater, less tangible context. The trouble with the jet airliner is that it’s never gotten past this. Our respect for the jet is stuck, unable to make the leap from technological gee-whiz to something headier, deeper, more important.

What it needs is some crossover cred. Like the Chrysler Building, he Brooklyn Bridge or the Queen Mary — equally impressive, if for somewhat different reasons, whether you’re an adolescent watching the Discovery Channel or a novelist reading The New Yorker. The Concorde came close, melding the cold mathematics of the left brain with the elegance and poetry of the right. But you won’t find framed lithographs of the Concorde in the lofts of SoHo or in the brownstones on Beacon Hill.

I’ll consider my job complete the day Ken Burns make a documentary about the 747. Until then, for some of us, fascination with commercial flight remains a guilty pleasure.

Who are we? We’re people like Charlie Johnson, musician and managing director of England’s Invisible Hands Music.

“Put a pin in your map for Camden Town, London,” writes Kennedy, “Europe’s epicenter of fashion, music, and recreational drugs.”

However you envision the ways an indie music scenester might spend his leisure time, they probably don’t include shelling out hundreds of pounds for a 45-minute, round-robin sightseeing ride aboard a chartered Iran Air 747. That’s just what Kennedy and more than two-hundred other aeroenthusiasts recently did in Cologne, Germany.

The charter had been organized by Air Events, a German travel agency specializing in flights on rare or otherwise interesting airliners. “The flight was full,” says Kennedy. “It was a wonderful experience meeting spotters and photographers from all over the world.” At least two Americans were among the riders — a US government worker from Texas and an American Airlines maintenance chief from New York.

Making it extra special, wasn’t just any 747, but a seldom seen 747-SP, the short-bodied, long-range, “Special Performance” version of Boeing’s famous jumbo, designed for Pan Am in the early 1970s.

“People were taking pictures of exit signs, galley units, the floor, ceiling. Great fun. The cabin crew couldn’t have been more hospitable, and seemed really proud of the immaculately maintained jet, if a bit bewildered by the feverish enthusiasm of the passengers. They even allowed inflight cockpit visits. On US Airways you can’t even get up to take a piss, but here on the Axis of Evil’s official airline we were invited onto the flight deck!” (Kennedy notes that at least one Iran Air security guard was present in the cockpit, in addition to the three-man crew.)

Every passenger was given a souvenir safety card and a gift from the airline — a wood-framed picture of Persian polo players, wrapped with genuine Iran Air wrapping paper.

The whole thing brings to mind the conversation I had — with Ivan Hoyos, the young proprietor of the Plane World hobby shop near Miami International Airport. The habits and longings of an airliner nut, as Hoyos, Kennedy, and possibly Patrick Smith reveal, are surely peculiar, I’ll grant you that. (Take it easy with your diagnoses please. We could investigate these weird predilections further, but I have too much to lose.) Most of you will hardly fathom the idea of spending money to sit in the middle seat of a 747, fly around in circles for an hour, then land again. Reading Charlie Kennedy’s account, I for one was jealous as hell.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.