Bryson's America: I hate little planes. They're cold, bouncy - and crash

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST time it occurred to me, in a serious way, that Death is out there - you know, really out there, just hovering - and that my name is in his book, was on a short flight from Boston to Lebanon, New Hampshire, when we got in a little trouble.

The flight is only 50 minutes, over the old industrial towns of northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, and on towards the Connecticut River, where the plump hills of the Green and White Mountains lazily merge. It was a late October afternoon just after the clocks changed for winter, and I had hoped I might enjoy the last russety blush of autumn colour on the hills before the daylight went, but within five minutes of take- off our little plane - a 16-seater De Havilland - was enveloped in a bouncy cloud, and it was obvious that there would be no spectacular panoramas this day.

So I read a book and tried not to notice the turbulence or to let my thoughts preoccupy themselves with unhappy fantasies involving splintering wings and a long, shrill plunge down to earth.

I hate little planes. I don't like most planes much, but little planes I dread because they are cold and bouncy and make odd noises, and they carry too few passengers to attract more than passing attention when they crash, as they seem to do quite regularly. Almost every day in any American newspaper you will see an article like this:

"Dribbleville, Indiana - all nine passengers and crew died today when a 16-seat commuter plane operated by Bounce Airlines crashed in a ball of flames shortly after takeoff from Dribbleville Regional Airport. Witnesses said the plane fell for, oh gosh, ages before slamming into the ground at 1,892 miles an hour. It was the 11th little-noted crash by a commuter airline since Sunday."

These things really do go down all the time. Earlier this year a commuter plane crashed on a flight from Cincinnati to Detroit. One of the passengers who died was on her way to a memorial service for her brother, who had been killed in a plane crash in West Virginia just two weeks before.

So I tried to read my book, but I kept glancing out of the window into the impenetrable murk. Something over an hour into the flight - later than usual - we descended through the bumpy clouds and popped out into clear air. We were only a few hundred feet over a dusky landscape. There were one or two farmhouses visible in the last traces of daylight, but no towns. Mountains - severe and muscular - loomed up around us on all sides.

We rose back up into the clouds, flew around for a few minutes and dropped down again. There was still no sign of Lebanon or any other community, which was perplexing because the Connecticut River valley is full of little towns. Here there was nothing but darkening forest stretching to every horizon.

We rose again, and repeated the exercise twice more. After a few minutes the pilot came on and in a calm, laid-back voice said: "I don't know if you folks have noticed, but we're having a little trouble eyeballing the airport on account of the, ah, inclement weather. There's no radar at Lebanon, so we have to do all of this visually, which makes it a little, ah, tricky. The whole of the eastern seaboard is socked in with fog, so there's no point in trying another airport. Anyway, we're gonna keep trying because if there is one thing for certain it's that this plane is going to have to come down to land somewhere!'

Actually, I just made that last line up, but that was the gist of it. We were blundering around in cloud and dying light looking for an airport tucked among mountains. We had been in the air for almost 90 minutes by now. I didn't know how long these things could fly, but at some point clearly we would run out of fuel. Meanwhile, at any moment we could slam into the side of a mountain. This didn't seem fair. I was on my way home from a long trip. Scrubbed little children, smelling of soap and fresh towels, would be waiting. There was steak for dinner, possibly with onion rings. Extra wine had been laid in. I had gifts to disburse. This was not a convenient time to be flying into mountains. So I shut my eyes and said in a very quiet voice: "Please please please oh please get this thing down safely and I promise I will be good for ever, and I really mean it. Thank you."

Miraculously it worked. On about the sixth occasion that we dropped from the clouds there below us were the flat roofs, illuminated signs and gorgeously tubby customers of the Lebanon Shopping Plaza, and just across the road from it was the perimeter fence of the airport. We were aimed slightly the wrong way, but the pilot banked sharply and brought the plane in on a glidepath that would, in any other circumstance, have had me shrieking.

We landed with a lovely smooth squeal. I have never been so happy.

My wife was waiting for me in the car outside the airport entrance, and on the way home I told her all about my gripping moment in the air. The trouble with believing you are going to die in a crash, as opposed to actually dying in a crash, is that it doesn't make nearly as good a story. "You poor sweetie," my wife said soothingly, but just a little distractedly, and patted my leg. "Well, you'll be home in a minute and there's a lovely cauliflower supreme in the oven for you." I looked at her. "Cauliflower supreme? What the - " I cleared my throat and put on a new voice. "And what is cauliflower supreme exactly, dear? I understood we were going to be having steak."

"We were, but this is much healthier for you. Maggie Higgins gave me the recipe."

I sighed. Maggie Higgins was an irksomely health-conscious busybody whose strong views on diet were forever being translated into dishes like cauliflower supreme for me. She was fast becoming the bane of my life, or at least of my stomach. Life's a funny thing, isn't it? One minute you're praying to be allowed to live, vowing to face any hardship without complaint, and the next you are mentally banging your head on the dashboard and thinking: "I wanted steak, I wanted steak, I wanted steak."

"Did I tell you, by the way," my wife went on, "that Maggie fell asleep with hair colouring on the other day and her hair turned bright green?"

"Really?" I said, perking up a little. This was good news indeed. "Bright green, you say?"

"Well, everyone told her it was kind of lemony, but really, you know, it looked like Astroturf."

"Amazing," I said - and it was. I mean to say, two prayers answered in the same evening.

Bill Bryson's 'Notes From A Big Country' is published by Doubleday pounds 16.99