Queen of the Skies


Dreams of sun-kissed beaches, golden sunsets and golden rum supped to the soundtrack of steel bands ran round my head. The prospect of the weekly party on Shirley Heights; the island steeped in a shared, if morally doubtful, history with Britain; riding horses through plantations - Antigua ticked all my boxes.

Then Hurricane Georges changed our plans. The phone rang. The delightful Louis calmly advised me that as our hotel was now filled with sand, our honeymoon was cancelled. The sister resort at St Lucia had space for us, but at this late stage, only one flight option was given, sadly not with the airline with the good films.

Before we knew it, we were winging our way to the airport, still floating on a cloud of post-marital exuberance, checking in our baggage and walking towards the gate where our plane awaited us. My first long-haul experience.

My heart sank as I entered the cabin. Uncertain whether the colour schemes of the Boeing 747 really were 1970s chic, or whether this was the effect of too much champagne the night before, I reached for my sunglasses and took my seat, sandwiched between babies at each window seat. Take off - ears popping - babies screaming. Could we really be condemned to nine hours of this? Suddenly Scarborough seemed very attractive as a honeymoon destination.

Finally we arrived at St Lucia, clambering into an ageing Mercedes, driven by the taxi driver from hell, at breakneck speed round hairpin bends. As our lives flashed past our eyes, we pulled into the driveway to our resort.

Later, chilling out in the hot tub, a British tourist, making conversation, started to talk about the film on her flight and assumed we had taken the same plane. Upon hearing who we had flown with, after a sharp intake of breath, in scandalised tones, she began to recount horror stories of problems and mechanical failures. As if we had had any choice in the matter?

Ten fleeting days of pleasure later, we found ourselves once more boarding the psychedelic wagon of doom, putting behind me Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ comments as one-upmanship, she had after all had the luxury of choosing her airline and had been upgraded to first class. The flight was uneventful, yet Disgusted’s comments lurked in my mind. Prayer seemed an obvious strategy.

As we neared Heathrow, I heard the familiar whirring as the landing gear wound down into place. I had heard it many times before..... whirr, whirr, whirr, whirr.....no clunk. Something was not right. At Heathrow we circled. An announcement said we were stacking, waiting to land. We stacked for an inordinate amount of time. Again whirr, whirr, the landing gear was going back up into its housing. Then, whirr, whirr, still no clunk. Something was terribly wrong. I whispered to my husband that the whirr had not been followed by a clunk, and that was bad. We continued to circle above Heathrow. Then another announcement followed. We were going to fly past the control tower at Heathrow to “check something” – in a hushed whisper, I muttered to my husband that it was the landing gear, had to be, the whirr had not been followed by the familiar clunk.

As the passengers realised that this was not normal, a deathly silence clenched the cabin. Even the babies were silent. The plane made its descent, as if to land, then ascended back to the stack. We were clearly circling to lose fuel before attempting to land. That wretched stack. We circled for what seemed like an eternity.

We made our descent, touching down on the runway, bumping along on the back wheels of the plane, fire engines speeding alongside until the plane ground to a halt. The pilot had somehow managed to land the plane despite its locking pin being disengaged, with its nose in the air. Nobody moved. Eventually it was ignobly towed off the runway and taken to the gate.

The “fasten seatbelts” sign went off and the relief of the passengers was audible.

Surprisingly the anticipated rush for the exit did not happen, people walked off the plane in a trance-like state, to be greeted by a sombre-faced priest clutching his black-bound bible.

We had survived.



B Lewis

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