taking off


It was delicate snow and we hadn’t heard any mention of the polar vortex sweeping its blizzards in from the north. Just light snow, nothing to worry about because our plane to LA was due in a couple of hours, then the final long leg back to Australia. Our six-month adventure was drawing to an end, as adventures usually do these days, with two draining air flights, no sleep and plastic food. We sat in the lounge watching the snow fall. It was light, and seemed to be melting as soon as it hit the tarmac. A final, beautiful glimpse of Dulles Airport and farewell to Washington DC.

Things changed by the time we boarded. The snow was heavier and the wind had rushed in, turning the lazy fall of snowflakes into a thick white moving curtain. But it’s okay, I thought, they do this all the time. We settled into our seats. The captain told us that before we took off, we’d need to taxi to an area of the airport where the plane could be cleaned of snow and then sprayed with a kind of anti-freeze that would prevent more snow sticking to it. That’s good, I thought, they’re taking precautions.

Time passed; we taxied, and taxied some more, to what must have been the outer reaches of the airport, if not the state itself. We waited. Time passed. The captain reassured us that the cleaning team was on its way. On its way? I thought we’d come this far to meet them. Peering out the tiny windows we could see only a white blur of snow. They do this all the time, take off in snow, I thought. And it’s good that they’re taking precautions. The man next to me, in the window seat, pulled out his mobile and made calls about being delayed. ‘Washington is ridiculous,’ he said into the phone. ‘An inch of snow and they go into a panic. How do they think other cities manage? Just crazy. It’s only been snowing for a few hours. Ridiculous that we have to wait and fuss.’

Oh good, I thought. Someone familiar with snow and planes, someone who knows; it’s obviously no big deal.

The cleaning team arrived. We could see nothing, but there were sounds of spraying water, a few bangs. Time passed. The captain, cheery as ever, told us that unfortunately the cleaning team would have to go over the plane again because the snow was falling so heavily it was covering the plane as soon as they cleared it.  Another half hour at least. The man next to me took out his rosary beads. Oh no. ‘And,’ the captain added,’ if you have a connecting flight in LA, you might not make it.’ We had one of those.

We waited. The cabin crew served orange juice and water, but the attendant ran out of supplies before she reached me. ‘I’ll be back with more,’ she said, and she was, but she started on the row of seats behind me. I lifted my hand, opened my mouth, but she was busy, preoccupied. And there were other things to think about. Outside the snow fell in a thick white haze. The captain with his reassuring voice told us that the plane had now been cleaned of snow and sprayed. ‘We just have to wait for them to clear the runway of ice and check that it’s safe for take-off.’ What? Ice now? The man next to me worked his way through his rosary beads, one by one. I watched the silver crucifix slip off his knee.

‘Okay!’ The captain again, relentlessly cheerful. ‘The runway’s clear, just one more thing to do. First Officer Jones will come into the cabin to inspect the wings, and make sure they’re clear of snow.’ Ookaaaay, I thought. Or perhaps we could just go back inside now, leave this flight for another day. I was in the row of seats in line with the wings, and First Officer Jones smiled, excused himself as he squeezed past and shone his little torch out the window. I peered out. Snow, yes, on the wings. I can see it. Can he see it?  ‘Mmmm, doesn’t look too bad,’ he said and smiled, as he squeezed back into the aisle. He checked the other side and walked back to the cockpit, crisp in his white uniform. Not too bad? I thought. Is that a measurement? Just how much snow is safe? ‘So, how about a round of applause for First Officer Jones,’ the captain called. Everyone dutifully clapped, though I decided I’d be more inclined to clap if First Officer Jones had gone outside to check the bloody wings.

And then there was no turning back. ‘Cabin crew prepare for take off.’ We taxied, gathered speed, the man next to me, the man who knew about snow, crossed himself and caressed his rosary beads. I thought about the wings, the piles of snow I’d seen, but there was nothing I could do now, and I didn’t have any rosary beads.