July 11, 2005

Harrowing Goddamn Airports

I've been fortunate enough to visit five countries and a bunch of far-away US cities in the last few years, mainly due to the relatively cheaper airfares that have been available (though who knows for how long). Flying has always been a love-hate affair for me; I mean it's exciting and all, but for every event like seeing the Grand Canyon at 35,000 feet in clear weather like I did two weeks ago, there's been a screaming kid who would begin shrieking the second our flight pulls back from its gate at Newark and stops the second the plane pulls up to the gate at London's Gatwick 6 hours later. It's a real test of nerves, and I can never ever sleep, let alone focus on such great epics as Starsky and Hutch (and for some reason Iberia is very fond of Simone). I have a relatively good understanding of aerodynamics, so I know that a plane isn't just going to fall out of the sky, but the cold hard reality is that you are basically sitting in an unnaturally bouyant metal can filled with bodies and luggage, breathing other peoples' recycled air, while enormous amounts of flammable liquid are gobbled into more metal cans that droop from a wing to hopefully belch air fast enough to push the whole deal fast enough to take flight and stay there. And landing is the worst part, especially when you consider some of the quirkier aspects of some of the world's airports.

  LA GUARDIA: This fucking place should have closed 30 years ago. It was originally made for DC-3s to land, and was basically built on a riverside bend where the Long Island Sound goes into Hell Gate. It's so crowded on the tarmac you can't swing a cat, and the runways are 7,000 feet (JFK has one 15,000 feet), barely enough to get your average mid-range jet off its ass. Go ahead and watch from a Mets game across the street and see some heavily-loaded 767 get up; the tail almost scrapes the wall at the runway's end. And if it's snowing or icy, forget it. You're gonna take off and find yourself a minute later in the exercise yard on Riker's Island (why do you think they put that place right in front of the runway). On the other hand, if you're landing, you get to see what Astoria people are cooking on their grills in their backyards as you bounce off the roof of a car on the Grand Central. You've got a better chance navigating around the oil refinery towers coming into Newark or taking your chance with the giant flocks of engine-clogging birds around Kennedy. (Above: Mets Locker room gets unexpected visitor, and it's not Kim Cattrall.)

McCARREN/LAS VEGAS: Sure, it's dry, hot, has long runways and plenty of space. But the idea of a guy putting up Celine Dion's marquee letters having to hold on for dear life to avoid jet blast is a scary concept. It's the desert, does the airport have to be a block from downtown?

GIBRALTAR: Saw this place on a recent visit to Spain; since it's a tiny, British-held property on the very southern tip of Spain where the Mediterranean begins and is only like a mile from Africa, it's a crammed little joint. Hence, the airport, a mere 1/2 mile from downtown, has town's main drag cutting right across the airport's runway (see left of the monkey, who may or may not be directing the traffic). So basically, if you run a red light, you might be massacred by a 300 ton airliner.

LAX: Jesus Christ, every landing almost hits the Go-Go Burger sign on Sepulveda Blvd., and at night because people want noise abatement in their neighborhoods, planes have to take off and land over the ocean which means they face each other in the air coming in and out. Besides it being super busy, there's about 6000 little airports (OK, an exaggeration) in the LA area full of private-pilot nitwits like John Travolta (who has buzzed houses with his 707 for a laugh), including Van Nuys, which is almost as busy as Chicago for movements. So there's like 100,000 yahoos flying around the area at a given time. Fly into LAX and pray that Cameron Diaz hasn't decided that she wants to be a private pilot the day you are coming in.

ST.MAARTEN: Some genius decided it would be a good idea to plop a public beach right at the end of this airport's runway, so you literally can have your ass blown into the sea from exhaust from 747s coming in and out of this Dutch-owned Caribbean island (which has some fairly heavy loads coming in from Europe). Jets apparently have to gun it for dear life to get up too, and there's drunk tourists flanking  the very-nearby hotel pool (right) throwing beercans at taxiing planes all day. Who needs that?

KAI TAK/HONG KONG: Though closed in 2000, and I haven't been here, this joint deserves a special mention just for its mere existence. Built on a manmade strip of land in Hong Kong's Kowloon Bay, the mountainous approaches from one end are not even the tip of the iceberg compared to the landside  approaches to the single runway on the other side. Basically, pilots have to look for the fucking MOUNTAIN coming up in front of the plane with a giant checkerboard plastered on the side, which indicates they have to do an immediate, kamikaze-like bank to the right while divebombing over hundreds of apartment buildings pointing almost 45 degree angle, almost tearing clotheslines down off of roofs with landing gear. Sometimes 747s didn't even have a chance to straighten out before landing (as shown on the right documenting touchdown with the plane's ass way left of the center line of the runway), or had to go up and around again to try it a second time. Basically it was like the equivalent of landing in the middle of Houston Street. Friends who have made this trip talk about the barfbags a-plenty in cabins during final approach, though amazingly the safety record for this place has been pretty good. Still, what the hell?

UPDATE: Listener Harry provides LAX report of John Travolta almost hitting a Delta flight in June 2002 on the way in to land (he was told to go around, ignored the command and made a beeline to uncleared runways instead). Way to go, Vinnie!