This morning we are up before daybreak to catch an early morning flight to Los Angeles. We are attending a wedding in Pasadena and I will be introduced to, and inspected by, Dr Nick’s surrogate family in the US. ‘Don’t worry, they know all about you’ he says cheerfully, as if that will help.
Prescott’s Municipal Airport is tiny. The staff multi-task, especially today as their electronic system has gone down, so everything has to be checked manually. Our little plane is basic, no frills. We are advised in the departure lounge that there is no toilet on board ‘So now would be a good time to go.’ You don’t get that kind of personal care advice at Heathrow. Security checks are comprehensive; with no air crew but for the two pilots, you don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. The man in front of us is frisked extensively. His driver’s license is taken to a supervisor and examined with a magnifying glass. ‘They’re worse than the Stasi’ mutters my fiancé, grumpily. Our passports (yes, we are only flying from Arizona to California, but this is America) are scanned with a light pen. The security guy does a double-take at my eight-year-old passport photo ‘You cut your hair,’ he observes. ‘I’m older, too,’ I reply. He says he didn’t notice, which I take as a compliment, especially this early on a Saturday morning.
Our plane appears to be piloted by two highly-efficient fifteen year olds. It is strange and refreshing in this day and age to be able to see into the cockpit and watch the teenagers perform their pre-flight checks. The screens which divide the flight deck from the passengers, when closed for take-off, form an arch, a triptych before an altar of blinking instruments. As we have two pilots I am reassured that Dr Nick, a qualified pilot, will probably not be required to step in should there be an emergency. This plane is small, a nineteen-seater, but it is still bigger than anything he has flown.
I am filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, with a touch of nervousness due to the flight. I don’t bother to read the safety notice in the pocket in front of my seat. This plane is so small that, in an emergency we would all, as my beloved would say, be toast. The emergency exit seats are occupied by two Japanese lads in hoodies and baseball caps and an elderly, well-dressed gent with a watery cough which he is generously sharing with his fellow passengers. Despite being required to provide a verbal response to the co-pilot’s instructions to operate the exits in any unforeseen circumstance, I don’t hold them in great confidence. The Japanese lads grunt and the old man coughs in reply, both of which are taken for a ‘yes’ by our co-pilot. I guess he’s had worse. Suddenly we are in the air, banking sharply to the right. I look down and all I can see is desert. Mile after mile of rock, sand and scrub. I hadn’t realized how remote Prescott is; a true oasis. There is a lake of low-lying fog to our left, and we fly just above the cloud line, bumping our way upward.
A freezing cold breeze blows continuously around my bare legs. I am seriously under-dressed for an early morning flight. Dr Nick has come well-prepared. Warm clothing, earplugs, neck cushion. Lack of caffeine and sleep means he is volatile and grumpy, so I let him snooze. We fly low enough that I can see highways criss-crossing the desert, like the Nazca lines in Peru.
The Beech 1900 is a very basic plane. Our seating is comprised of hard, thin plastic seats which double as flotation devices should we land on water. Someone has thoughtfully provided guidance notes in case this should happen, even though we are in the middle of the desert. I examine the FAA safety guide which pictures a lady floating calmly in the sea, ankles delicately crossed, skirt modestly arranged, hair just-so and both shoes still on, despite them obviously being slip-on loafers. She is hugging her plastic seat cushion in an apparently karmic, dream-like state of bliss. I happen to know from bitter experience that if I should fall into a large body of water fully dressed, I would not look like the lady in the picture.
Halfway through our flight, and the landscape below is beginning to change. I see a few isolated farms. Fields appear in grid patterns, bisected by long, long roads like so many tray-bakes left to cool. As we fly into daylight the sky turns ice-blue. We fly over mountains, their craggy surfaces a deep iron-ore red. Lazy pink sunlight strokes the wings, slowly warming what promises to be a beautiful morning, despite yesterday’s thunderstorms.
The last time I flew in a plane this small was thirty-five years ago. At the age of nineteen I left home and a disastrous love-affair to work in the Outer Hebrides, a remote group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. The landscape there was very different. A filigree of tiny streams and lochs barely connected by thin strips of peat bog. Brown, just like this landscape, but 90% water, the polar opposite of this desert. Both locations are remote, both breathtakingly beautiful.
We fly low over another small airfield, and I see we are nearing civilization. Swimming pools, sports fields and factories spewing smoke. Over the city now, a long, winding river snaking its way over the mountains to one side. Then into thick cloud, turbulence throwing me against the wall of the plane. You feel everything so much more intensely in a small aircraft. How terrifying and exhilarating the early years of flight must have been, navigating blind and seriously cold. We continue to bump down through the cloud toward LAX, bright blue sky to one side, on the other grey-black cloud. LA sprawls for miles, the freeway below us busy with ant-like vehicles even at this early hour. Suddenly we are flying level with the mountain tops; I see tower blocks and skyscrapers, reservoirs filled with murky, grey water. We pass over ‘Crenshaw Christian Center, Home of the Faith Dome’, its painted sign visible only from the sky, in case God decides to parachute in for an ad hoc visit.
Our pilots (or ‘the kids’ as we fondly refer to them) land the plane with more enthusiasm than finesse, and taxi for what must be a further hundred miles to a far corner of this massive airfield. They take the transfer bus with us, laughing and checking their Facebook profiles on their mobile phones as we bump along to the terminal. I look back over my shoulder: the city goes on forever, and I long for the desert, and northern Arizona.