Experience has encouraged me never to say never. I’ve come close, though. In casual conversation and even in previous columns appearing here, I have said, or at least suggested, that I would be perfectly happy never to fly again.
Flying is not a novel means of transportation to me. I’ve flown to every corner of this continent, as well as to and around the Far East, the Middle East, Europe, and the Caribbean. I’ve been hauled in two-person and multi-person helicopters, single-engine small propeller planes and single-engine jet trainers. I’ve traveled aboard ancient transports and the sleekest of modern passenger aircraft. I’ve had no compelling reason to fly in recent years and prefer the illusion of control and freedom that driving provided, but I don’t object to flying itself.
This year I’d planned to spend Thanksgiving with my daughter and her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’ve made that 820-mile drive several times, both grueling non-stop and more leisurely two-day jaunts each way. But she insisted I fly to Detroit this time, and she would pick me up for the short drive to Ann Arbor. Partly to please her and partly to minimize the time my two dogs would have to be penned up in a kennel, I decided to fly.
The flights were, just as I expected, no problem. Smooth, quick, and reasonably comfortable. There were small children aboard on each segment of the trip, and not one caused any commotion or excessive noise. I even had, flying in both directions, attractive young female seatmates. Decades too late to be of any particular interest, of course, but better than some of the sweaty, expanding, garrulous men who’ve sat by me in the past. They smiled pleasantly, said hello, and were silent thereafter. Perfect.
Too bad that everything connected with flying, except flying, ranges from annoying to outraging. Buying a ticket and boarding an aircraft was once barely more complicated than traveling by Greyhound. Years ago, having been out of the country for 15 months, I was eager on the first weekend back in the States to fly from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Columbus to see my then-fiancee’. There was an airline pilots’ strike, but one flight was available from Columbia, S.C. I reserved a seat by phone. The brigade aviation officer said he needed flight time, so he flew me in a two-place helicopter, following the railroad in lieu of a map, the 140 miles to Columbia. I ran inside the terminal, gave someone at a desk some cash, grabbed my boarding pass, and was on my way. I realize that today’s complications, especially the exasperating security procedures that preclude such simplicity, are for my own benefit. So are my periodic colonoscopies, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy them.
The most exhausting aspect of traveling by air, to me, is the struggle to understand what’s being said over the blaring public address systems in every terminal. My hearing is not great, but it’s obvious that I am far from alone as I strain to determine if the distressing sounds I hear are related to my particular flight or are simply reminding me not to let someone hide contraband in my carry-on luggage. Even as I struggle to comprehend, I am impressed by the industry’s skill in recruitment. Somehow, it has managed to staff all its announcer positions with students who are in the remedial phase of English as a second language.
No matter the stress and frustration, though. At least I was able to extend the idea of Thanksgiving. When I walked out of the airport to my waiting car to drive home, I was flooded with thankfulness.
My daughter is already suggesting that I come up for Easter. I’m already looking forward to the drive.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”