Posted by: sean | April 28, 2008

Flight of the Mini-van

I was sipping a cocktail out of a hollowed-out coconut at a poolside party in Monrovia.  Things taste better when they come out of coconuts.  Across the bar, the pilot who had flown my plane back from Harper was clearly at one end of the ‘bottle to throttle’ spectrum.  I ordered him a coconut and we got to talking.  I noticed when we were flying that at one point you turned a knob that on the pre-flight check you had called the ‘fuel line’.  Did something go wrong?  He lowered his head and responded. Well, not exactly…  

Some backstory…I have an intense fear of flying that bemuses most people.  Or rather, I had an intense fear of flying. I bemuse no more!  I landed in Monrovia from the U.S. having conquered my fear.  Happy, glorious day!  But the gods have a sense of humor and decided to toy with me.  They looked down through some orb from their mystic mountain and saw me, filled with joy and eager to fly anywhere, and it angered them.  They are cruel, cruel gods.  Spiteful. Vengeful. So full of venge.  They decided to test me.

I was waiting at the Harper airport for my UN whirlybird to whisk me back to Monrovia.  A helicopter ride! I couldn’t wait.  As it turned out, the head office back in Monrovia wasn’t able to get me on the UN helicopter and instead put me on a World Food Program flight.  A bit of a let down since this was a plane, not a helicopter, but still there were positives.  First, this was going to offer me a chance to solidify my newfound unfear of flying.  Happy, glorious day!  Second, it was a plane full of food and programs, how could you go wrong?  An hour of eating truffles and watching Bonanza! sounded like fun.

The airport is a small building by a dirt runway – quaint.  Four other passengers – a South African woman who worked for the Red Cross, an albino Liberian, and a Middle-Eastern couple – milled about the entrance, torn between wandering down the rustic runway and escaping the oppressive heat beneath the airport awning.  As we made small talk during our wait for the plane, it became apparent that the WFP was running on Liberia Time.  After an overdose of small talk, I sojourned out to the runway, scanned the sky, saw nothing.  On my retreat back to the shade I heard a loud whoooooom! behind me.  The plane shot up a cloud of red dust along the runway.  My initial thoughts were twofold: Golly, that plane came out of nowhere; jiminy cricket, it seems very small.

Small indeed.  It was a Cessna 208 Caravan.  Let’s do some free association…  Caravan: Wood paneling. Van. Terrestrial. 1960s. Cigar.  I feel strongly that if there is a word that a plane model should not have in its title, it’s the word ‘caravan’.  Acceptable alternative names include:  the Cessna Air Fortress, the Cessna Uncrashable, or the Cessna Always Aloft.  The Cessna Caravan? Really?  I do not want to careen at 200mph, three miles up in a caravan thankyouverymuch. 

Back inside the airport, the ground crew/baggage check/security man had me stand on a scale along with my bags.  I submit to you, dear reader, my steadfast opinion that if there is one thing that I should not have to do before I get on a plane, it’s weigh myself.  What if, after I weigh in, I go and cram in some pasta?  Do we go down in flames? I want to know.  I eyed one of the chunkier passengers with disdain.  Was I about to die because they couldn’t diet?  I fumbled in my pocket for the anti-anxiety flying medication I was prescribed.  No Sean. You are strong now.  A plane is a plane.  Caravan is an appropriate model name.  He is not that chunky; besides, he’ll probably make an excellent flotation device.  I resisted the urge to take a pill.

Two South African pilots came in.  Alright, we’re ready to board, if you come this way.  (They said this in a cool South African accent that I don’t know how to type.)  We walked out to the dirt runway and I noticed that the plane only had one propeller.  I also noticed that it didn’t have retractable landing gear.  It really was a mini-van with wings.  Hand in pocket, fumbling for medication.  No. No! This is a test Sean! You angered the gods, they know about your power now! Don’t let them do this to you! Fly Sean! Fly with ease!  I slowly took my hand out of my pocket.

We climbed into the plane.  It had wooden floors.  I know that I often harp on about this, but I firmly believe that if there is a substance that a plane’s floors should not be made out of, it’s wood.  Acceptable alternatives would be: Anything metal.  I took a seat directly behind the pilots and listened intently while they went through the pre-takeoff checklist.  The pilot pointed out the exits – his door and a door in the back – showed us the fire extinguisher (rest easy, we have a solution!) and jokingly talked with ‘the tower’ requesting permission for take-off. 

Just as we were gathering speed for take-off, the plane slowed to a stop.  Sorry, we seem to have a problem with the wheels, so everyone out of the plane while we fix it.  Both hands in the pocket, grasping for pills.  Sean, you fool. Stop. This is normal.  Those gods, they think you’ll fall for this old trick? Immortal fools! The plane just landed on a dirt runway in Liberia, of course there’s going to be a problem with the wheels.  I took my hands out of my pocket and walked back to the airport. 

We watched while the pilots kicked the wheels for fifteen minutes, then came and told us to get back on board.  Hopefully, this time everything will be alright.  Surely in a book of rules somewhere there is a stipulation that if there are three words a pilot uses in a sentence, they should not be the words: ‘hopefully’, ‘this’, and ‘time’.  We re-boarded the plane and, because of its size, I instinctively looked for a seatbelt over my shoulder before realizing that I was on a plane and not in a van with wings.  Another pre-flight check.  Again, building speed for take-off.  The plan sputtered to a stop.  Another problem…  Pill jar in my mouth, my tongue, not trusting my traitorous hands anymore, was trying to undo the lid.  Whaith a minuth Sean.  Dahn’t fall for thith!  They pahfeshnals, all whill be fahn!  Thirth thime’s a tharm! (It’s hard to speak to yourself when your tongue is fumbling with a lid).  I spat out the pill jar. 

Third time was a charm and we were airborne.  We cruised at 10,000 feet along the coast, low enough that you could make out the small, wooden fishing boats just offshore on the left and see the endless jungle to the right.  I forgot my camera in Monrovia (for some reason I had my camera charger though…), so I asked the Middle-Eastern couple to e-mail me some pictures.  On a small plane everyone is family.  On a small plane you can also feel the gusts of wind blowing the aircraft sideways.  On a small plane, you also notice when the pilots look at each other suddenly, sit up straight, start looking intently out one window, then reach for the fuel line knob overhead…..

The plane descended sharply.  My years of incessant worrying about this exact situation began to pay off.  I quickly cycled through five memories I had predetermined to revisit before I die.  (Reader, don’t judge me. Have YOU thought about these things? Hmmmm?  You’re probably just going to crash with any old thought in your head, aren’t you?  You have to make the most of your last 15 seconds.)  Fortunately, nothing was seriously wrong and we landed without incident.  Safely on the ground in Monrovia, we walked around to the trunk to get our bags. 

Sean, old boy! You did it!  Oh, those gods, they know you mean business now.  Your power over them is growing!  Next step: skydiving!  I thought for a second about my triumph over the gods who had toyed with me. 

Voice of reason in my head?

Yes, Sean?

Didn’t I just make the angry gods angrier? Wouldn’t it have been better if I had just taken the anti-anxiety pill and they would stop toying with me?  But now, in the future, the gods will be out to get me.  I’ll probably get a plane missing rivets, piloted by a drunk who likes to chase power lines and flocks of birds.

Um. Shhhhh. Don’t worry about that now. Go drink funny drinks out of a coconut.

So that’s what I did. 

Well, not exactly…  Back at the bar, the pilot was explaining to me why he had cut the fuel line.  See, we were getting knocked around by the wind, so we had to cut the fuel from one side to stay straight.  That sounded perfectly reasonable.  I took a long sip from my coconut and watched my new drunk pilot friend run up to the diving board and pull off that most incredibly painful of dives, the summersault back flop.  I turned to someone beside me. 

Get a load of my new drunk pilot friend, man he’s drunk! 

Oh yeah, those pilots are the biggest partiers in town. 

You don’t say. Well at least they sober up before they fly!

Yeah… About that…

Oh gods!  You are cunning.  Possibly drunk pilots whenever I fly around Liberia? Nicely played, gods.  You have set up a worthy round two.  I squinted surreptitiously at the heavens and sucked on my straw with resolve.  Things taste better when they come out of a coconut with resolve. 


  1. delighful

  2. Skydiving might not be a bad idea….you might need it in the future Liberian skies. Your loving father…who totally understands and supports your completely irrational fear of metal flying caskets…I mean planes….:-) !

  3. word

  4. Not half bad. And what’s up with this person wanting to hang out with you in Liberia. I mean this stuff is good, but not that good, and who would want to hang out with you in Monrovia. I mean seriously, I live with you and I don’t wana hang out with you.

  5. So…let me get this part straight. You wussed out of flying in a helicopter and instead chose a glorified station wagon. WTF?

    Sorry, I don’t actually read any of your blogs, I just skip through like an imaginative teenager.

  6. applause, to assist in creating a culture of inclusion on the comment page!

  7. Pshaw. You call that a scary flight? I once shot-gunned six beers with a pilot mid-flight. And that was before he broke out the absinthe. Your guy cut the gas line? We had to go into a barrel role to avoid those damn fairies and their green fangs.

  8. The most important question is what were your 5 memories you reminded yourself to remember? Surely one of them was hanging out with some fools in Doc H’s class… ; ]

  9. […] just snippets from relayable portions of my time in the land of liberty that can be funny.   My fear of flying, my juice extractor, and my blind obedience to repetitive songlists don’t really tell you […]

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