Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

48 Years of Flying

Tomorrow, April 4, will be my 60th birthday, and 48 years ago tomorrow, I took my first flight at age 12. The year was 1960.

On that momentous day all those years past, I boarded a Piedmont Airlines DC-3 at Raleigh/Durham Airport and flew 78 miles east to Kinston, North Carolina. I was so excited the night before that I could not sleep.

Entering the door of the plane, I recall having to walk up what seemed like a steep slope to find my row and window seat since the DC-3, on the ground, sat on a small tail wheel with its nose tilted up. As the engines roared up to takeoff speed at the end of the runway and we gathered speed bumping down the runway, the fuselage suddenly straightened up as the tail lifted off. Then, effortlessly, the reliable old Douglas gently ascended into the late afternoon sky and banked east.

It hooked me, already an incurable traveler by train, into a half century of flight around the world. In fact I've been around the world in first class so often that I've lost count. I think it's 18 times (10 eastbound and 8 westbound), but I am not absolutely sure any more.

I had the lucky privilege to fly 3 segments on the British Airways Concorde in the 1980s, and I distinctly remember the debilitating hangover from the 1970 vintage of first growth Bordeaux I drank at Mach 2 because I didn't want to waste it.

Happy memories of 747 upstairs lounges and superb service burble up into my brain from experiences on PanAm, TWA, Varig, South African Airways, British Air, Swissair, Malaysian, Sabena, Qantas, Singapore, Emirates, Air France, and many others in the glory days. Horrible memories, too, including relatively recent experiences which have been documented in this blog.

But on that first flight in 1960, it seems to me that everything went just right. The Piedmont flight attendants, then called stewardesses, were attentive and friendly; the seat was cushy and comfortable; and we flew not far off the ground. I recognized landmarks below as we passed over familiar territory. I think I was served a Coca-Cola. For me it was better than any Dom Perignon I have since imbibed aloft. We descended slowly and kissed the tarmac of my hometown airport with hardly a bump in gathering twilight.

I took my son on his premier flight at age 3 months, and that was to London, and he sat in his car seat in Business Class. Why did it take me so long to fly?

In the 1950s, which we had just left behind in April of 1960, flying was a luxury. Air travel was extremely expensive, and only the rich and serious business people could generally afford it. It would be decades yet before becoming the commodity bus travel it is today.

Too, passenger train service was still a great option. Local trains ran most places in the 50s, and crack streamliners were widely advertised by the railroads in newspapers and glossy magazines like LIFE, LOOK, SATURDAY EVENING POST, and NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. Railroads ran coast-to-coast Pullman cars (sleepers) on such famous trains as the New York Central's 20th Century Limited (New York to Chicago) and the Santa Fe's Super Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles). Flying by air was considered exotic, not to mention more expensive than a Drawing Room in one of those Pullmans.

My grandfather in Raleigh used to take me out to the old RDU airport in the 1950s to watch big Eastern Airlines Lockheed Super G Constellations come drifting majestically in. Their huge triple vertical stabilizer tails looked like antlers on the wrong end. I even remember how to distinguish the original Connie (round windows) from the later, more modern Super G model (square windows). It was exciting in a deeply visceral way to watch those massive four-engine airplanes take off, with a great roar of supercharged power driving the giant propellers.

Reflecting back over those 48 years in the air, I see now that the best experiences were probably when I was young, eager, and more forgiving. But I am trying to recover that youthful enthusiasm and spiritual resilience. As my wife reminds me, it's not so bad. After all, I'm still here, and safe, and generally get home every week when I am scheduled to.

Now if I could just get that upgrade on American this afternoon on my MD-88 flight to Raleigh from Chicago O'Hare.


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