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Basura: Misadventures in flying to Cockburn Town

“Tell me, what do you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”

— Mary Oliver, from her anthology of poetry

We were going from Providenciales on Caicos Island in the Protectorate of Turks and Caicos. Our destination was a half hour flight away, in Cockburn Town, on Grand Turk Island.

We’d flown in from Miami on a small plane. We’d approached the runway at a severe angle, to counteract the effects of the wind. On this day, the only plane at the airport was much smaller than that small plane we’d come in on.

There were four of us; our friends John and Donna, and my wife and me. He’s a nervous flyer. He doesn’t let that stop him. Bravery, of course, has to do with overcoming one’s apprehensions, and then proceeding. He wants to go places. So he flies.

This little hop from one small island to another smaller one was on the tiny little plane. All luggage was weighed, and the numbers recorded. It seemed odd to us that, as the passengers checked in, they were asked how much they weighed. Those answers were recorded in the same notebook as the passenger weights.

The two women in our group were both small people. They were asked their weight, which was duly recorded. John gave his weight, and that was recorded. The young woman looked at me a moment, and she marked the book – CP – without asking me to name my weight. Everyone else had to name a number, except me. I got the little notation.

For the record, it’s a hefty number. I’ve been asked to wear the red suit at Christmas events. That may not be solely because of my gray beard, or wire rimmed glasses, or perhaps a jolly laugh. My bulk played a part.

Typecasting, sure, but I considered playing that iconic role an honor nonetheless (see “The Adventures of a Man Wearing a Seasonal Red Suit,” Townbroadcast archives, under Basura, page 5). Still, I thought it curious that I hadn’t been asked to name my poundage, as everyone else had been. We walked a very short distance from the terminal to the little plane and found our places.

There were 16 regular seats. I’d been assigned the co-pilot seat. Perhaps that was the CP notation. The flight was not entirely full, so I found that odd that I was to be all the way forward, but I liked the idea of having a great view through the windshield, and watching as the plane was put through its paces. There were lots of controls and gauges.

My seating assignment started to make sense when a man in a pilot uniform came out of the terminal and came to the plane. He was perhaps a bit taller than me, though not much. He was probably weightier than I, though maybe not all that much. I think my selection was based on balancing out the weight distribution, with the pilot on the port side, and I on the starboard.

He was a very congenial sort, and talked about the islands. He said he was glad that we were going to another island, and liked our choice of resort there, which had been converted from a military base. We should come back, he said, and see all the islands. He mentioned some restaurants in Cockburn Town, and in Providenciales, for when we returned from Grand Turk.

The pilot said the only complexity encountered in flying between the islands was the strong wind, which had to be considered at takeoff and landing. The wind was usually very consistent, though, and adjustments were quite routine after the first few times. He liked that the short flights were flown low enough to be under any clouds, and the views were something he never tired of seeing. The colors of the sea varied depending on the depth of the water, and whether the bottom was coral or sand. It was beautiful.

There were two sets of controls, with one set in front of the pilot, of course, and one set in front of the co-pilot. About halfway through our flight, after watching the steering yoke adjust clockwise and counter clockwise, and forward and back, in response to the pilot’s adjustments. I asked the pilot if I could lightly put my hands on the yoke in front of me, just to experience how it felt. “Sure, mon, just keep it steady, and don’t do anything.”

I put my hands on the yoke. He kept his hands on his controls. He let me deviate from a straight path a little, just so I could feel the response. It felt like a boat; the responses were sluggish, at least in comparison to a car. Of course, in actual flying, three dimensions come into play, but not on my watch. We stayed at the same altitude, and the same pitch and yaw.  

He laughed a bit, and said, “You be doin’ fine, mon, you should get paid.” It was at this time he put both hands behind his head, and interlocked his fingers. He looked relaxed.

Not relaxed was John. He had been trying to enjoy the view out his window, but picked that moment to look forward. What he saw couldn’t have been a welcome sight. Here he was in a very small plane, flying over water, at a few thousand feet, and the pilot had both hands clasped behind his head while his buddy was flying the plane.

Or at least seeming to be. I wasn’t really flying the plane, I was only steering it; not even really that so much as keeping it steady, which I suspect it would have done for the most part without my attentions. But what John saw wasn’t likely to be reassuring.

We landed not too much later without incident. That is to say, the pilot landed the plane with me watching him do what he did routinely. We got ready to explore our hurricane-proof-former-military-base- resort, and Cockburn Town, but John set his priority in clear fashion. He was ready to explore a cold beer. Or perhaps a few.

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