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Need Nail File

Those of you who have flown on commercial jet planes know that there is this moment a few seconds after takeoff when the roar of the engines seems to die down and the plane – hulking metal contraption that it is – for the briefest of moments seems to be just hanging there stupidly in mid-air.

Did you see Madagascar 2?

Skipper: “This is your captain speaking! I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we will be landing immediately. (Applause) The bad news is that we will be crash landing!”

For those who did not, to make a long story short, the rickety plane that the penguins were flying – or something close to that – fell from out of the skies. In authentic animation style, the plane – which had run out of petrol – dropped straight down towards the ground.

Do not get me wrong. Since my Dad used to be in the Air Force, I was never a stranger to flying. Statisticians, of course, say that it is safer compared to driving. Still, it is not as though you can merely slow down and park on the service road if – say – your tire gets a puncture. Up there, there is no service road – if you get my drift…

That was why – the first few times I traveled by air – I used to get visions in my head similar to the penguins’ plane plummeting straight to the ground whenever the pilots cut down on engine power moments after take-off. Within the pressurized confines of the cabin, it always sounded as though the engines conked out.

Over time, you just sort of get used to it. Or, if you cannot bring yourself to relax while the plane is trying its best to pretend that there is no such thing as a law of gravity, take a peek at one of the stewardesses.

If her facial expression says, “bored, need a nail file,” then there is nothing about the take-off any different from the hundreds she has probably been on. If her complexion turns ashen and her eyes start to widen as though she has seen an apparition, begin executing crash procedure: 1) put your hands on your head; 2) put your head between your knees; and 3) kiss your sorry ass goodbye!

But I have been watching too many crash investigation documentaries on the National Geographic Channel lately…

In all honesty, I have flown quite a few times and I can only recall a couple of incidents – knock on wood – that came close to the category hair-raising. The first was about a decade ago, when the A330 Airbus I took on the way back to Manila from Cebu ran smack into a thunderstorm cloud moments after takeoff.

Everyone who has flown before knows that ascending into a thick cloud will always cause the aircraft to vibrate. Now, the A330 is a sturdy wide-bodied plane – and it surged into the cloud almost effortlessly. I was in an aisle seat in the window row of two; so, I could very well see what was going on outside.

I was doing my best to try to ignore the vibrations as we climbed – but weren’t those bolts of electricity dancing on the wings? Indeed, they were! A jet plane’s aluminum frame, of course, is an excellent conductor of electricity. I also knew of lightning arrestor systems installed on planes. But that was still lightning dancing on the wings…

As it happened, a fagged out stewardess hitching a ride back to Manila came to the rescue without her ever knowing that she did. She was looking out the window at the exact same thing that had me struggling to stifle a scream; and her eyes were glazed and said, “Wish I had a nail file.”

Three years later, a colleague and I had to fly out to Bacolod from Manila on a trusty B-737. This was in October, still very much and unavoidably the rainy season; and we were taking off into an overcast sky. That would turn out to be the singularly most hair-raising, testicle-busting take-off I have ever had the misfortune to experience.

Getting up and away from the ground was no problem at all. It was when we entered the thick cloud cover that the plane started to shake like it was being sucked straight into a Black Hole. My knuckles were white as I held onto the ends of the arm rests.

I looked at my companion – a first time air traveler – and he was perfectly relaxed, like a hotel lounge habitué waiting for his cup of coffee. How insulting was that? While I was reciting Hail Marys inside my head…

After what seemed like an eternity, the plane escaped from the clouds and somebody could have said, “Joke only!” From shaking to the point when I expected the hinges to become undone, the plane started to fly along in perfect placidity the moment we were above the weather.

I did fly once across the Pacific in a 12-hour flight that bordered on claustrophobia. There was sporadic turbulence the first two hours out of Manila; and at first, I just sort of wondered how a plane as huge as the B-747 could shake so much. Beyond the first two hours, well… There were ten more hours left of it so I guess I just sort of got resigned to more of the same; and started to relax.

The stewardesses were, needless to say, busily walking up and down the aisles and from that alone, I knew nothing was out of the ordinary. Of course, I had to – like – discipline my mind to not consider the thought that there was nothing but water between the eastern shores of the country and the western coast of the Americas. And there were plenty sharks in those waters…

The stewardesses! Look at the eyes! And they said it all… “Need nail file.”

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