Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Confessions of a First Flight

A Post By Ed Arsenault

Travelling is an exciting way to explore yourself and the world around you. Let’s face it, books, videos and pictures just don’t do justice to seeing things live in the flesh. The smells you miss, the sounds you don’t hear and the feelings you experience cannot be mimicked in any way. The first step to getting to stimulate your senses is obviously to save money for travel, but the next step is to board a plane and fly to your destination.

Now I have watched maybe 15 or 30 too many episodes of Mayday (a television show here in North America that recreates airplane crashes and then the investigation process as to why it happened) so I had already built up a fear of flying. I don’t blame it solely on that show, but more of just being afraid of the unknown. I had no idea what it felt like to be suspended in the air, what it felt like to take off and land or worst of all what turbulence felt like. People try to explain it, but until you actually do it, it is still unknown. Pair that up with a fear of heights and you have the makings for a grounded traveller. With that concoction of fear I was late to the travelling game. Well I am happy to say that I had the pleasure of flying for the first time last year at the ripe age of 26, and I must say everything I initially feared vanished quickly.

My first big trip was a 3 night stay in beautiful Varadero Cuba with three of my good Toronto buds (watch out for a blog post coming up recounting this trip soon). The friends I was staying with were there for 5 nights but because of my work schedule I couldn’t join them for the full trip. This meant I would be flying solo to and from Cuba. For those who do not know, the flight from Toronto to Cuba is a mere 3 hours or shorter if there is tailwind. In my opinion a great starter flight.

So there I stood alone at Pearson International Airport after being dropped off by a friend at 4:30am, awaiting my 6:30am flight out. The check in process at that time of day was incredibly quick and painless so I have no real horror story about long lines. I used one of the fancy automated check in machines to get my boarding pass. Simply select your flight, insert the bar code of your passport, select a seat and voila the boarding pass prints up! Then all you have to do is check any baggage, which is also a very simple process. Just wait in line, show your boarding pass, they will weigh your bag(s) and shoot them off to the luggage area and voila again, you’re done.

The check in process being simpler than I thought eased my mind but the closer I got to the gate the more nervous I made myself. While going through security I couldn’t help but think in my head “what if they think I have a bomb? What if they find something I didn’t pack, like a gun or knife?” just complete nonsense really. They didn’t think any of those things and I went through without being examined in the nude – phew. I just had to put all my belongings into a bin so they could be scanned (including my shoes). TIP: Don’t wear hard to lace up footwear and avoid wearing belts and other metal accessories while flying – it makes going through security so much quicker. After the check in and security screens all that was left was to wait to board the plane at the gate.

Before I sat in an anxious state at the gate I decided to grab a coffee and wandered around the airport. All airports will differ on things to do while you wait, but for the most part they all have a restaurant and somewhere to shop. So that’s what I did, I went and browsed at the duty free store. Not going to lie, this mini window shop really calmed my nerves although the coffee probably didn’t help. But after staring at souvenirs and beer for so long I decided to plump my butt down by the gate and do what all my fellow travellers were doing, waiting. All around me were couples napping on each other, friends looking excited to be on a trip together, families trying to herd their kids and old couples reading the paper like being up at 5:00am was no big deal. I sat there alone with my headphones on and just kept on observing those around me.

During my people watching session I started to think “why I am building this to be something that it is not in my head?” Kids were sitting all around me with huge smiles knowing they’d be on a beach in a few short hours, and here I am being a wuss, surely I am tougher than a kid? Well the time to board came and my heart started to pound as I passed my boarding pass to one of the attendants. Then started to beat even faster as I walked down the corridor leading to the planes entrance. The wobbling of the hallway matched the wobbling of my knees. I stepped in the plane and was greeted with a big Hello and Bonjour and directed to my seat. I had a window seat (as per my choice at the boarding pass machine) that had a great view of the wing. In my mind if the wing fails at least I would know right away right? TIP: Pick a window seat so you won’t have to get up every time someone has to use the bathroom.

                                                             The view from my seat

A couple celebrating their 20 year anniversary sat beside me and I explained to them that “I had never been on a flight before so I apologize in advance if I freak out a little”. The wife laughed at me and said I had nothing to worry about while the husband just kind of chuckled. Well shortly after our exchange of words the plane began to reverse to taxi out to the runway. This motion queued up the in flight safety video followed along by the attendants giving emergency demonstrations. Pearson is a large airport so the taxi process took about 10 minutes. Once we reached our runway we were queued up behind 5 other planes all getting ready to take off. Every 2 or 3 minutes we could hear the roar of the engines of another plane taking off and we would move closer to the runway. Finally it was our turn; the plane straightened out and the engines outside of my window began to speed up. I looked over to the couple who were happily reading their novels and then looked back out the window as the plane began to move. What started as a slow motion instantly turned into me being pushed into my seat as the plane accelerated at an intense pace. The plane bobbed up then back down, then bobbed up a bit, back down and just when I thought we’d run out of space to take off with the nose was up and the rest of the plane followed. Just like that we were hundreds of feet in the air over looking Toronto at 7:00am.

To anyone reading this who has never flown; after takeoff it is not all ascent. We must’ve gone up a thousand or so feet in Toronto then levelled off and actually dipped down a bit. The feeling of those moments can be described like going over a hill in a car at a high speed. The first one caught me off guard but after that I felt relatively at ease because I have actually experienced that feeling before. One of my new favourite feelings is actually banking in a plane (turning) while ascending or descending, it is such a fluid motion that I haven’t experienced anywhere but on a plane.  The rest of this flight was relatively smooth sailing. There was some jiggles and quick movements to the left or right (no different than driving on a highway when a semi-trailer passes you) though. Also, we did hit a small patch of turbulence and the plane dipped quite a bit, it had caught me off guard but after levelling off I just smiled about it to the lady next to me. TIP: For the men reading this; when going to the bathroom in a plane, just sit down to pee, you never know when turbulence will get you and you don’t want to walk back down the aisle with wet pants.

The rest of the trip was nice, I got some spectacular views of the United States, especially down by the Keys in Florida (a place I had driven to a few years prior). The weather was clear and sunny, but then again how could it not be when you’re flying above the clouds! After a breakfast served by the flight crew, 3 hours of amazing views, half a novel read and my flight worries diminished we had arrived at our destination. The last thing that was left to experience for the first time was the landing.

The plane descended and we were asked to strap on our seat belts. As we descended closer to land I could spot the planes shadow gliding over the landscape below, dancing across the trees and roadways of Cuba, it was mesmerizing to say the least. Then one of my favourite motions; the plane began to bank to line itself up with the runway. The plane got lower and lower and we could hear the mechanical sounds below us as the landing gear lowered. The plane continued to descend at a quick rate and then the plane bounced as the wheels hit the ground. The plane stayed on the tarmac and the engines roared as they were pushed to their limit in reverse to stop the plane. The plane came to a rolling stop and everyone on board began to clap with joy because we had made it and the plane landed successfully. From there the plane taxied to the area where we would unload. I looked over again at the lady and she said something to me I will never forget. “For a first time flyer you were really calm, I would’ve sworn had you not told me that you had flown many times before”. With that said I wished her and her husband a happy anniversary and we unloaded from the plane. I looked around the foreign airport and smiled as I had survived something I once feared.

Still nervous about flying? Check out this short video on YouTube from the fine folks at the Smithsonian Channel to calm your nerves!

Tell me about your flying experiences in the comment section below, or tweet me @EdRealManTravel, I look forward to hearing from you!


  1. It is interesting to be put back in those shoes. I don't really remember my first time flying, but I definitely understand how you can be a little bit uneasy about it.

  2. I'm glad that for my first time I was old enough to remember it. And subsequently laugh about it. Thanks for your comment Andy!