FROM THE STOOL

Near Death

It could be argued we are all near death some nearer than others. As I indicated in my last column, having fun often requires hard work and extra effort. I recently encountered a glitch, which could have been fatal, and as it thankfully wasn't, would like to share it with you.

Our daughter Jessica, freshman at Boston University, has her Spring break in early March. We arranged for Jess and two of her friends to fly from Boston through Miami to Nassau and to join my wife on our boat for ten days in the Bahamas. As I was unable to leave for the first week, we hired crew to help Mary take the boat from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau and then on to Treasure Key and Marsh Harbor in the Abacos.

I booked out of Chicago a flight on United to Ft. Lauderdale with a connection on Island Express to Marsh Harbor. There are five mini-airlines in Ft. Lauderdale that service the Bahamas, and as our travel service booked Island Express, we assumed a reputable FAA operation.

There was only one individual on duty at the Island Express gate to take tickets, check baggage, make reservations, move baggage to the plane. This should have set off an alarm, but the allure of the Boat Harbor Marina and tropical sun, against the backdrop of high winds, sub-zero temperatures and snow in Chicago, had already clouded my judgment. We were not asked if we packed our luggage, if anyone had given us anything, and our luggage was not x-rayed.

There were only two other passengers waiting for the flight a tall strong shopping center developer from Charlotte, and a Bahamian lady who spoke only Creole. After a delay of 45 minutes beyond our scheduled departure time, the lone Island Express rep led us onto the tarmac. He apologized for the fact that their only plane, an eight passenger Cessna 410, was out of service. Awaiting us instead was a filthy dirty old four passenger Piper Aztec with visible patches on the wing, rusty holes where gauges may have been on the console, and Sky Charter written on the tail. The lone pilot was a nervous looking, shaky young man, who couldn't have been 30.

Every bit of prior light plane experience and measure of common sense mitigated against getting on. My fellow passenger expressed outrage, but was so concerned about his 20 year old daughter alone waiting for him in Marsh Harbor, that he reluctantly climbed on the wing and wedged himself along with our lady behind the pilot and the co-pilot seat in which I ultimately sat.

Our pilot did not introduce himself or give us any preflight instructions no exit location life preserver information nothing. In his lap was a chart, which prompted me to ask if he had ever made the flight or flown this plane. He fired up the engines without answering. He went through no preflight drill and did not run up the engines. Noise and vibration even at idle SCREAMED mistake! Just prior to take off, he mentioned he lived in Las Vegas, a long way from the Abacos. After clearing the airport he headed north and east, a course which could never reach Marsh Harbor.

After several chart checkings, he corrected his mistake, but 20 30 knot gusts, at 3,500 feet over a very rough sea, did nothing for our peace of mind. About 50 miles out the passenger door blew open and our pilot turned the plane over.

As I hung, head down, contemplating for a brief moment my last flight, all I could think about was Dale Ernhart's belt failure, which probably cost him his life.

Miraculously, the pilot got us straight and level before we ditched. With my new friend holding the door over my shoulder, we headed back to Ft. Lauderdale in a deafening roar. The pilot said only that he wouldn't fly the plane again. Not a confidence builder.

We landed and returned to the Island Express gate. My friend's hand is still numb from the experience. The same lone Island Express rep couldn't understand our concern. It took over an hour to pry open the luggage compartment and another hour for Island Express to guarantee us space on their real plane in the morning, with their real pilot. We wouldn't leave until they had located family for our very frightened Bahamian companion.

The lobby of the motel which Island Express booked for us smelled like the inside of a garbage can. We found other accommodations. Feeling like we escaped death, we enjoyed one too many cocktails and an unnecessary bottle of wine with dinner.

Although my friend's luggage wasn't on the plane in Marsh Harbor the next morning we made it! If there ever was a good reason to enjoy some part of every day to take the time to have fun, it came clear during those few seconds which might have been our last.