Sunday, March 16, 2014

Breakfast with Penguins

There are a lot of penguins here.

You saw the captain briefly. He seemed of the right age to be the captain of the world's grandest flying vessel. He exchanges a warm greeting with a passenger, which impresses you. You settle back into your seat and look out your window. Soon the apron, now crawling with baggage trucks on their final run, will be left far below and behind, and it will be nothing but blue sky ahead.

Several minutes after takeoff, the "Fasten Seat Belt" sign is extinguished and the captain announces that you are free to get up and move about the cabin. "Annoy the other passengers," he jokes. You keep your seat belt on, however. You never know -- and right then whump! Some of the passengers give little cries of alarm. Turbulence. Fortunately, it was just an isolated pocket, and the airplane climbs to cruise altitude without further disturbance.

The captain comes on the intercom and makes small talk. It seems to go on an unusual length of time. You catch the eye of another passenger and he smiles and shrugs. He says odd things like, "You know, this is not a bad airline, but there are plenty of others. They all go to the same place." After another bit of turbulence, he comes back on and says, "I like to shake things up!" and laughs.

But a little bit later, he launches into an angry tirade for no apparent reason. "Those of you riding in first class like Renaissance princes. Do you not know there are many who could not afford a first class ticket and are crammed together like sardines in coach with their knees beneath their chins? You self-absorbed, Promethean neo-Pelagians!"

The flight is 13 and a half hours. You can't relax with the constant interruptions from the flight deck, so you stare outside your window, watching the clouds. But after awhile, you notice something.

The light coming through the window is moving. The airplane is changing course. Now, you're no expert, but you know what that means. Why does the airplane seem to be turning... you think a moment... south? 

Once you are sure, you mention it to the lady sitting next to you. She politely looks out the window, and murmurs, "Oh..." but you can tell she's not interested. You look around you, searching the faces of the other passengers. You can tell that some of them have also noticed the problem, but not very many. The rest are sleeping, or watching movies, or making small talk with their seat mates. Eventually, about a half-dozen passengers gather near the aft lavatories.

"So we all agree the plane is going south, then?" you ask. They nod their heads reluctantly. "So what do we do?"

"He's got a co-pilot," says one. "It's not like he's up there on on his own. And he's the only one in contact with the controller. Do you think the controller is going to let the plane go off course? No, he will guide him without error."

"He's the captain," says another, rather belligerent fellow with his hair in bangs almost down to his eyes. "He knows what he's doing. Do you know how to fly this airplane? Are you a pilot? He's the captain. You can't criticize the captain because that's like mutiny or something! If anything, we should be talking about the co-pilot. I don't trust that guy. He doesn't have a clue, I can tell."

You ignore the fact that the co-pilot would not be doing anything the captain did not permit or order. You answer that while you may not be a pilot, you have flown hundreds of thousands of miles as a passenger, and are something of an aviation buff. "I can tell when an airplane has turned over 90 degrees off course. All I want is a straight answer."

"We can't even get to him," another points out. "He's behind a locked door."

"We'd look really stupid if it all turned out to be nothing," the first one said. "I'm sure it will be fine. Maybe he's -- what do they call it -- diverting on account of bad weather ahead."

You take a passing flight attendant gently by the elbow and explain your concern. She looks at you with wary politeness, and assures you that everything is fine. Just go back to your seats and enjoy the flight.

Defeated, you return to your seat. There is nothing you can do. If the airplane goes south, it goes south. It is completely under the control of the captain You wonder what the destination is now. If there even is a destination. If someone, the controller, will eventually do something. Then you begin to doubt yourself. Everyone else seems to think things are fine. Are you really the only one who is so smart to have it all figured out?

The captain seems to answer your thoughts as his voice comes over the intercom once again. "The cabin crew has reported that some of you sourpusses are whining. You seek an exaggerated certainty in courses and destinations. Museum mummies! You shall have nothing! Nothing!" You look at the lady sitting next to you. She just smiles placidly.


  1. A most interesting and at the same time disquieting story. Ill be pondering it for some time.

  2. All insulting remarks are basically accurate, by the way.

    1. What I mean is, they are accurate quotes, although might have been altered only to fit the circumstances of the story.


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