Wild life

When flying was fun

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

On the BOAC VC10 flights to Nairobi, the pilots would invite children like me up to sit in the cockpit with them. Once they put me behind the controls and I was very nervous about making a wrong move that could throw us into a tailspin. I had a BOAC badge and a Junior Jet Club book, which the captain kindly signed for me on each voyage. Attractive stewardesses served breakfast, lunch and supper with metal cutlery, the seats were huge with loads of legroom for tall men and the adults puffed away on cigarettes. The cabin was ultra-quiet because the four big Rolls-Royce engines were in the tail, rather than under the wings. Somebody up there cares about you, the advertisements said. Before the Super VC10s came in, we’d fly on the East African Airways Comet 4, its interior all decorated with pictures of wildlife and Bert Kaempfert’s ‘A Swingin’ Safari’ tootling away before take-off and when you landed at Nairobi Embakasi airport. As you disembarked in the warm African twilight, crowds on the viewing deck overlooking the runway would be there, waving and cheering as they caught sight of loved ones coming home at last.

In those years British children all over the world had a wonderful time flying home to Kai Tak, Paya Lebar and Lagos International. When we had to go back to school in rainy old England, the airlines laid on a Lollipop Special, the entire flight filled with school kids of all ages. Near anarchy erupted before we even began taxiing and then it went on like that until Gatwick. Young bloods pilfered the galleys of gin and whisky miniatures. Gangs of small kids roamed up and down the aisles having food fights. Teenagers lit up 10 Cent filterless fags. Boys would attempt to flirt with the stewardesses and adolescent couples who had met on the beach at the Driftwood Club during a recent disco night were snogging in the loos. The cabin crew were always sweet-natured as they struggled to control the mobs turning rows of seats into a steeplechase course. I never saw them lose their tempers in the bedlam. I believe that even during these Lollipop voyages, the captain invited young passengers to come up and see how he was able to fly the aircraft in a straight line over the Sahara despite the rumpus in the rear.

At 4 a.m. over the Adriatic I am rudely shaken awake. ‘I’ve got beef or ham.’ A large figure glowers down at me. ‘What?’ I say. It’s been a hard night with my knees jammed against the seat in front since there is no legroom these days in Economy. ‘Beef or ham sandwich!’ ‘Umm, ham, please.’ A doggy bag with a clingfilm-wrapped bun and a Frosties bar is dumped on my lap. Welcome to British Airways cuisine in 2022, on an aircraft that doesn’t look too old from the outside and does at least get one safely there – but which is no longer any fun.

We all know things started to change after 9/11. But even after that I recall putting my bag through the metal detector in Nairobi and being embarrassed when security discovered I had a belt of shotgun cartridges in there that I’d forgotten to take out after a day’s bird shooting on the farm. Another time a guard searching my bags in Uganda took out my family-sized can of tear gas and queried what it was. ‘It’s personal,’ I replied nervously. He raised his arm and made as if to spray his armpit. ‘Like deodorant?’ ‘Yes, like deodorant.’

I think things suddenly got a great deal worse after the shoe bomber. Then there was that cascade of scares that transformed the entire airport experience. These days I am doing an unusually large amount of air travel and I experience a repetitive ritual humiliation, but there’s no glamour any more: produce your vaccination certificate and passenger locator form, mask on, have your temperature taken, show your yellow fever card, shoes off, laptop out, belt off, no ‘sharps’ or liquids, assume the position in the scanner, multiple metal detectors to push your bags through… I wonder if the style and excitement of how flying used to be can ever return – and if not, how much worse can it get than it already is?

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