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The Old Fort: A Musing From The Oil Sands

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Flights of Fancy

FLYING IS A NECESSARY EVIL. It is the means to get somewhere in as speedy and uncomfortable a manner as possible. I hate it; loathe, detest, abhor, despise it. These and many other words spew from the thesaurus in my head whenever I think about having to get into one of those malevolent machines waiting for me down Highway 69.

And yet, somewhat perversely, some of my most strident travel memories are bound up in aerial travel.

On 3 February 2005, Kam Air Flight 904 vanished from radar screens on approach to Kabul International Airport in poor weather. I wasn’t on it. All 104 passengers and crew died in the Pamir Mountains. I was on their very next flight.

As a result of the crash, all Kam Air flights were suspended for six days. When the suspension was lifted I found myself sitting next to a Nova Scotian plumber called Pat who was holding on to the armrests so hard I thought he was going to rip them off. “I wish I could remember what they nuns tried to teach me back in school,” he said.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I dunno, but I’m sure it started with ‘Hail Mary’…” Catching the next flight of an airline after a crash investigation seems a little foolhardy but the flying companies that served that part of the world all had dodgy safety records. My first flight into Kabul had former Russian Air Force pilots as the crew. They came over the mountains and dropped down to landing height in a series of spiralling corkscrews normally used to avoid surface to air missiles. As the wheels hit the runway they reversed the thrust so dramatically that I wondered if the wings would stay attached.

“Was that necessary?” I asked.

“Just wait until you get out,” I was told.

They hadn’t yet cleared the minefield at the other end, a relic of years of war and a very good reason to stop as quickly as possible.

I’ve also had more flights in a Dakota DC3 than someone of my vintage should. My dad flew on them a lot, as a passenger in WWII on the Indian subcontinent. A quarter of a century later he’d forgotten their bone rattling scariness as he took the whole family from Amritsar to Srinagar in a C-47, a scrapped Royal Air Force version of the same plane. I don’t remember the flight but I’ll bet it was butt-clenchingly edgy as Dakotas always feel like they were built for seat-of-your-pants flying, even for those in the back.

The ‘Dak’ was the only pre-WWII plane still in service back then. Twenty years later, when I was in uniform, the South African Air Force was still using them, nearly 60-years-old and looking their age. I remember at the time thinking that I should have joined the Navy instead.

Travelling in one of them converts a lot of passengers into God-fearing people. Noisy, smelly, unpressurised and ugly, they have now been scaring passengers for nearly 80 years and are still flying. If you ever get a chance to go in one, don’t.

I first came to Fort McMurray in 2005. By then it had been a long time since I’d been in a propeller-driven aeroplane. This time it was the De-Haviland Dash Eight, commonly known as a Dash.

The first thing you notice is the noise. After the relative quiet hum of a modern jet airliner, twin props sound like the difference between a Rolls Royce, and a Harley Davidson made during the AMC years. They have a banshee-like edge to the sound, a grating shriek that, when accompanied by little blowbacks of oil and smoke and a persistent vibration of the wing, makes you think you’ll not so much land as plummet.

All I could imagine was being thirty thousand feet up and the props stopping. Even worse, I could picture one of them shearing off and cutting a swathe through the meat of the plane, coming to rest an inch into my eyeball.

It didn’t happen. However, after half-an-hour of getting used to the sound of the engines climbing up to thirty thousand feet, it is, for a brief second or two, panic-inducingly quiet when you finally reach your cruising altitude and the engine noise diminishes by half. I wasn’t the only one who glanced anxiously out of the window to make sure that they were still turning.

Luxury flying – that stuff at the front of modern jets – is much better. I flew to Toronto from Amsterdam once, standing at the first class bar on a 747 with an old hockey player. Old? He had a Stanley Cup ring won in Toronto. That’s old.

Eddie Shack and I managed to empty the bar of rum and coke that afternoon before transferring to the cognac. There is a glazed look that crosses most older hockey fans when I tell them that tale. Eddie was a character in his day, the Brendan Shanahan of his generation. Closing down a bar with him, albeit one on a Jumbo Jet, is one for the scrapbook.

And then there is London: my favourite city in the world, with the worst airport. One of my fondest memories was leaving the Middle East, via two stops and a grating delay that added seven hours to a fifteen hour trip. After finally getting to the Heathrow terminal under renovation, just behind nine fully loaded planes from all points of the compass, I was not in a good mood. By the time I got to customs I was bedraggled, tired, smelly and desperately in need of a large drink, a shower, a cigar another large drink and a steak.

The Customs man perused my British passport, war torn but new to its land of origin as I hadn’t been to England in 25 years. Then he scanned it, and the screen showed my distant entry and exit record, my Canadian address, my work permits for the U.A.E and Afghanistan, and my African place of birth. I was about as local as Lennox Lewis. Despite all that he said to me, in that dry yet strangely comforting manner that only the British are able to do, “You haven’t been back in some time Sir. Welcome home.”

I hadn’t the heart to tell him I considered myself Canadian.


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.