The story about that one time I hitched a ride in the cockpit


One of the perks of working as a travel writer for a news website that went into a joint venture with an aviation company, is the fact that I get to book local flights for dirt cheap. They’re called rebates.

Now, the thing with rebates is that once you’ve purchased your pocket-friendly ticket, you have no guarantee of making it onto the flight you’re hoping for… or for that matter any flight following it, until who knows when. If there’s no space, there’s no space. That’s the risk you willingly take. You’re a standby passenger and, well, that could make for some stressful situations at times.

As I found at Lanseria airport on Sunday.

I’d had a wonderful weekend celebrating my lovely little friend, Jerusha’s marriage to her Gideon. The wedding was tearifyingly beautiful and feet-hurtingly fun. The food was fantastic. The music a good mix of Afrikaans sokkie, soft rock, pop and Bollywood.

The only downside – I had to be up at the crack of dawn the next day to find my way back to Lanseria.

After far too few hours’ sleep I headed to the airport and, groggy and bleary eyed, approached the check-in desk.

The dark haired lady behind the counter looked at me with that strange mix of delight and pity, as she shook her head energetically. “No, no sorry. This flight is completely overbooked… and actually to be quite honest, so are all the rest for today. But you can come back just before boarding closes for the next one and we’ll check again.” (Which would only be three hours later).

Ba-boom! Went my heart. What?! This is not right. This is not my luck.

Knowing well my tendency to overthink and hyperventalite, I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to practice a little bit of restraint. To swap my natural inclination toward melancholia for a bout of uncharacteristic sanguinity.

I treated myself to a smoothie at Kauai, settled into one of their nice soft couches and picked up the copy of Eat Pray Love my mom and I once bought together.

I passed the time and eventually sauntered over to the check-in desk once more, oozing faux calm, exuding false cool.

This time it was a guy, practically a boy.

I stated my case. And again that infuriating mix of disdainful pity and glee. “No ma’am. I’m sorry. This flight is completely full… umm, ja. You’re actually out of luck for today. All the flights are full. Maybe you can try getting onto the 6am one tomorrow morning. But, wait, that also looks pretty choc-n-block. Ja.”

I wanted to reach across the desk and punch the little sucker in the face. Instead I leaned over and said something that surprised even me.

“How about the jump seat?”

The little punk looked up in shock.

“The j-j-jump seat? Ummm… ja, ok, that could be an option. You’ll have to speak to ticket sales.”

So I did. And they said they’d ask the captain. Which they did. And the captain thankfully said yes.

He also instructed the cabin crew to keep me in the back for take-off – something about bad weather.

So I ended up sitting strapped into one of those funny little fold-down seats with an air hostess on either side.

They obviously hadn’t been keen on having their space invaded, but we soon hit it off and had a fat chat. We jabbered away about their jobs and mine and airports and airplanes and holidays and kids and Cape Town and Joburg until they had to leave for trolley service.

Once they’d finished they returned and asked if I wanted to move to the cockpit now.

To be honest, I wasn’t really too keen on trading in my new-found bffs for the certain male chauvinism and arrogance of the pilots. But, gosh. When would I get this opportunity again? To see that view… and all those many little buttons?

“Yes, that would be cool,” I said.

So, off I went, passing all 30-something rows of passengers. What they must have thought, I don’t know, as I nonchalantly entered the cockpit and didn’t re-emerge until landing.

The air steward unfolded a little seat for me, just behind the pilots, placing me squarely between them and the door.

I had to strap myself in – a complicated system of seatbelts crossing over my shoulders, circling my waist and even pinching my crotch. Like I was about to drop bombs in a war zone.

The two pilots swivelled round to take in – from behind their aviator-covered eyes – the nosy passenger who would be encroaching on their sacred space.

At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning my outfit: floral shorts and a white vest. Could I look any more ditsy? Could I look anymore ‘affie plaas’? No. No. I couldn’t.

I could almost hear them groaning. And I could feel our collective expectation of an hour-and-a-half of awkwardness enfolding us like the thunder clouds outside enfolded the plane.

Not knowing what else to say, they stiffly explained a few things to me: “this is the autopilot section. This is the button we press to talk to the cabin. There’s another plane passing us on the right. There’s the Vaal River.”

But somewhere over the vast expanses of the Karoo we managed to relax into a comfortable camaraderie.

The one I like to call the Silver Fox (what? He was pretty handsome and had salt-n-pepper hair) had been rather quiet at first, leaving the ‘gawe boerseun,’ his co-pilot, to entertain me, but after a while felt a little left out and started quizzing me on life in Cape Town.

Which were the cool places to go? Where did I live? Why did I think Sea Point was dodgy? Because it really isn’t. Is it hard to meet guys in Cape Town? (yup, even that. Apparently he’d heard this lament from many-a Mother City-based female friend) Did I like my job?

Then we chatted about Brangelina moving to Joburg and some other celeb-related banter.

In between they’d mumble inaudible gibberish into the speakers hovering in front of their mouths, exchanging co-ordinates and wind directions with far-off towers and, I don’t know, passing aircraft?

Table Mountain and Lion’s Head emerged from the distant clouds and they started pointing out landmarks to me once again:

“There’s the Langebaan Lagoon,” the gawe boerseun would say, pointing out the window on his right, after which the Silver Fox would find something to point out on the left: “Paarl, there’s Paarl… and Stellenbosch is just on the other side of that mountain… and there’s Durbanville.”

“There’s… what’s that place called again? Ah, Robben Island,” – Gawe Boerseun.

“There’s Somerset West and Strand and Gordon’s Bay. Oh and Helderberg. I hiked up it once.” – Silver Fox.

“Oh, cool! And look! There’s Hangklip,” – me.

*Kriek kriek*

I’d obviously overstepped a boundary. This was their territory, not mine.

Fortunately, we managed to skim over it quickly enough and in no time we were descending into Cape Town International for the smoothest landing of my life, with a front row view.

Taxiing along the runway, we had fallen into a comfortable silence, which we simply weren’t sure how to break.

I mean, how does one say good bye after the intimacy of the cockpit? I thought of silently folding back my chair and retreating without a word, but that was impossible. Among the million little buttons, there was one to open the door. And I just didn’t know which.

So, we waited.

Finally, the Silver Fox broke the silence.

“Umm… Nadia. I’m going to have to ask you to get up. I drank too much water, you see, and really need the loo.”

*kriek kriek* and then we all burst out laughing. The Silver Fox hurriedly unlatched the door and in a gentlemanly fashion, allowed me to walk first, despite his desperate state.

A throng of passengers swallowed me and swept me along and before I knew it, I had left the plane behind and was navigating the passages of the airport.

And so I will be forever doomed to listen to the captain’s welcome when I board a flight, hoping to one day hear: “Good evening ladies and gentlemen this is your Captain speaking. Welcome aboard this flight. Wind directions blah blah blah. My name is Silver Fox and with me in the cockpit is Gawe Boerseun.”

I don’t know what I’d do. Probably not much. Sit there, smile and remember that one time I hitched a ride in the cockpit and found that there was much more to these muffled voices than weather updates and landing announcements.


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