I’ve gotten used to flying in small planes. In fact, I prefer it immensely over large planes. I figure, if a forty ton jet loses an engine, we’re all toast. There’s no way out of that one. But if a tiny plane, the kind that appear to be made from paper gum wrappers and glue sticks, goes down…we’ll just float gently into the tree tops, a bruise here, a scratch there …like landing on a ball of fluff. No problem.
I was headed to a village on Prince of Whales Island in south east Alaska, outside Ketchikan. I’d spent the night in Ketchikan, done an adoption interview with a client the night before, and rose early to catch a flight to the island for another client interview. This part of Alaska is basically ocean with occasional dots of land so everything is water oriented. There are more boats than houses and even the airport is accessible only by way of a ferry ride. (P.S.…it’s not a road to nowhere, it’s a road to the airport…fairly important considering the only way in or out is by boat or plane…duh!)
The small plane I took from Ketchikan to Craig was a six seater. That means they haul four people and shove the rest full of mail, groceries and our gear. Saying the plane seats four is being generous, based on those four being anorexic dwarfs. The plane really only holds one, average sized person. But I digress…
I love the co-pilot seat. I’ve sat there before, always feeling a mix of anxiety and power at the idea that if something happened to the pilot, the other three people crammed into the back are reliant on my total ignorance of the dynamics of flight for survival. I like to look around when I first take the seat, take some notes and ask questions of the pilot prior to take-off, just to give the poor folks in the lesser important seats a slight sense of comfort, knowing I’ve got their back.
So there I sit, all excitement and glee, at having pushed my way in front of the old lady with the baby to get the desired position of control…the co-pilot seat. I don my giant earphones and settle in. The plane is on floats, which means it’s a water take-off and landing. It also means if you have to ditch the plane in the tree tops, the giant floats will work like a barrier between me and the branches, so I feel super safe. The pilot shoves everyone’s gear behind the net in the back. I twist around in my harness to try to get a view of my laptop, now buried beneath a heap of mail bags.
The pilot climbs inside the tiny compartment and pulls the flap door shut, twisting the lock in place. I’m wondering who he’s locking out. He’s an older fellow, white beard and weathered hands. I’ve always been more secure with older pilots. I figure they’ve been flying since the bi-wing days and have proven themselves. When the guy who didn’t have to shave that morning climbs behind the controls, I get nervous. I like my pilots old. Or at least I did prior to meeting this fellow. All secured, we taxi across the water, the engine revs up to speed and we float into the air with ease. I love it.
From Ketchikan to Craig is a pretty short flight through a mountain pass, across a lot of water, and then a quick dive down into the bay at the base of a mountain where Craig is nestled into the trees. Beautiful place. Rain begins to fall and the wind picks up as we hit the mountain pass. We’re low to the trees, so close I could almost make out a birds nest off to my right. The valley below is thick with trees, interspersed with brilliant blue lakes, meandering creek beds and an occasional cabin.
I watch out the window, snapping photos through the foggy glass with my camera, hoping to pick up some sense of the wonder I’m feeling as we soar above God’s greatest creation. The plane tilts to the left, the mountain top is in view and I glance over at the pilot. Holy crap. His eyes are closed. I stared, hoping they would open, as if it were just an extended blink. No such luck. Still shut. Huh.
Just when I’m thinking seriously about screaming, his eyes drift open again, he rights the plan, and all is well. I look back at the people behind me, obliviously smiling back, assuming my eyes are wide with excitement, not sheer terror. I turn back in my seat and resolve to not take my eyes from the pilot for one more second. True to my assumption, not a minute later, his eyes drift closed again…like a baby being rocked to sleep by the gently sway of his mother’s arms…only different because he’s not a baby and we’re 800 feet in the air.
At this point I’m unsure what to do. Oh, you readers are wondering why I wouldn’t just grab his arm, lift his headphone from the side of his head and scream…but it’s not that simple. Have you ever jarred someone awake? Ever notice what their arms do when they are startled? Yes, they fling outward. Well, this guy has both his hands on the control module of the tiny airplane in which I am a potential victim. One false move could send us into a tail spin from which we could not escape and no fluffy soft landing for us. The plane is level, the trees are still a good distance away, the side of the mountain is to our side, not in front of us, so I bide my time. Meanwhile, the pilot’s eyes ease open every minute or so, he groggily looks around, then eases them shut.
I whip out my cell phone and begin to text. “Sandi,” I type, “the pilot keeps falling asleep.”
“WHAT,”she screams back in text caps.
I repeat my previous statement…it seemed self explanatory and I wasn’t sure what other words I could use to describe it. I threw in the “F” word for emphasis.
“ARE YOU F-ing KIDDING ME?”
Always good in an emergency, cussing seems to help. I told her I was indeed not kidding.
“HIT HIM IN THE ARM!” She texted back.
Clearly she did not understand the dynamics of arm flinging upon waking. I shut my phone. I was on my own.
I stared at his face, alternating between that and keeping an eye on the distance between us and the earth’s surface. As soon as I saw his eyes flutter open again, I flung my left arm around as if I were swatting a fly, hoping to get his attention. It worked. He looked around, saw I was watching, and reached over to fiddle with his radio. I assumed at that point he was trying to keep himself awake by adjusting his music choice. Or maybe he could read the fact that I was about to scream and he was cranking his music so he could sleep through it. Hard to say.
The pilot kept his eyes open the rest of the short flight. We made it to Craig alive and I did my job. The next day I was ecstatic to see a different pilot come to pick us up, even if he was about sixteen years old. I’ve now readjusted my pilot prerequisites from old… to old and awake. Seems like a good combination.