Flying

In previous posts, I have written about what it’s like for me, as someone with a visual impairment, to travel by bus and train. This time I’m going to say something about flying.

My first flight was with the Royal Air Force. (No, they weren’t recruiting blind pilots!)

I had always wanted to fly and during my teens my grandmother happened to live in the same retirement village as the mother of the Community Relations Officer at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. A conversation took place and I was invited as a passenger on an RAF VC10 on a training flight.

It was amazing! I was even given a set of headphones so that I could hear what was going on in the cockpit, not that I could understand a word of it.

We flew to Scotland and did several “circuits and bumps” round an airfield there, diving down towards the runway and then pulling up again sharply. To a visually-impaired person, sensation is very important, and I certainly got plenty of that!

I was fed pork pie and orange juice, which I duly tucked into and thoroughly enjoyed, while the poor nurse they had sent up with me, in case I was ill, spent the whole flight being sick.

Afterwards they gave me a copy of the flight plan, signed by all the members of the VC10’s crew.

The first time I travelled on a commercial flight on my own was when I went to visit a friend who was living in Utrecht. I flew British Airways from Heathrow to Amsterdam and was well looked after by their staff throughout the journey. On the aircraft itself, I was in the care of a steward called Cliff. Despite the shortness of the flight, we were still given drinks and snacks. Cliff kept bringing me the uneaten chocolate biscuits left by other passengers. I was much slimmer then and could afford to eat such luxuries!

Over the years, I took flights to various parts of the world with family and friends, but my longest solo flight was to the US. Two years ago I went to visit my niece, who is studying for a PhD at Cornell University in Ithaca, in upstate New York.

I had booked to fly with British Airways but they have reciprocal agreements with other carriers on certain routes and so I ended up flying with American Airlines. I found booking assistance at the airport and on the flight quite a challenge. I kept being batted backwards and forwards between airlines and each number I rang had several menus and no options for disabled assistance. In the end I just pressed a button and hoped for the best. Eventually I got to speak to a helpful young man who set it all up for me.

My sister and brother-in-law kindly drove me to Heathrow. After the initial formalities I was put into the care of a lovely young woman who looked after me very well. Negotiating the various levels of security was fine apart from a slight hiccup when their X-ray machine showed a tall container in my case which they assumed to be liquid. “You can’t take that! Oh, it’s talc, that’s okay,” the official said.

I have to use a wheelchair for huge areas like airports and our second slight hiccup occurred when my assistant wheeled me away from the last security check, where you have to remove your shoes, forgetting that I was supposed to collect them and put them back on again afterwards. I alerted her quickly, though, and we zoomed back to gather up the missing footwear.

The trans-Atlantic portion of my journey was from Heathrow to Philadelphia. I had booked seats at the back of the plane, near the toilets, on the flights there and back, thinking this would be nice and convenient, (if you’ll forgive the pun). However, once aboard my outbound flight, I was told that they had moved me up to a seat near Business Class.

This was great. A steward named Tony looked after me and brought me bottles of water at regular intervals. He also kindly read through all the music options on the in-flight radio and set it up for me. Every once in a while he would check back to see whether I wanted a different option and would read through the menu for me all over again. He even filled out my boarding pass for me and generally made sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed.

One benefit of my new location on the plane was that I was allowed to use the Business Class toilet. This was bigger than the tiny cubicle in Economy. Unfortunately, I forgot that to open the door you had to push it in the middle. For a while I rattled and banged about while Tony helplessly called, “Are you alright, ma’m?” through the door. I had no intention of spending eight hours in a public convenience so I kept going until I finally worked out the answer and released myself back into the community.

At Philadelphia another helpful lady took care of me. She was concerned that I might not get anything to eat and drink while I waited for my connecting flight to Ithaca, so she took me to buy  a cheese sandwich and get a drink, and then waited patiently with me while I enjoyed my snack.

We talked while I ate. I remarked that there seemed to be several people disembarking from my flight who were waiting for assistance. She confirmed that this was the case but assured me that it wasn’t the busiest flight that they’d had. On one flight, 23 people had booked assistance, and all needed looking after at more or less the same time. It certainly made me realise how much pressure these workers could be under.

Once my assistant was satisfied that I was well fed and comfortable, she took me to the gate for the internal flight to Ithaca. This was delayed due to a maintenance issue. There was some banter between the pilot and my fellow passengers including one lady’s suggestion, after we’d been waiting for a while, that we lasso the pilot so that he couldn’t get away. This seemed a little harsh. He wasn’t responsible for the de-icer not working!

At the end of the short flight to Ithaca I was duly met by another airport employee, who was impressed that I had a niece at Cornell. It was wonderful to be wheeled through Security and find my niece waiting for me. Thanks to all the great people I had encountered at airports and on planes, I had made it!

The return journey was uneventful.

At Ithaca’s Tompkins Regional Airport, I was helped by the same assistant who had met me on my arrival. He greeted me with the words, “You’re the lady with the niece killing it doing History at Cornell!” I wasn’t entirely familiar with this idiom, but I took it as a compliment and basked in the reflected glory.

In Philadelphia, I was parked in a wheelchair near the departure gate when a message came over the public address system telling everyone on my flight to proceed to boarding. I was amused and considerably relieved, though, when, after a short pause, the Tannoy sounded again.

“Don’t worry, Miss Furse, we’ll come and get you.”

The flight to Heathrow was fully booked and so this time I did sit at the back of the plane. The staff were very busy but they still took time to help me when I needed it.

Altogether, I was impressed by the level and quality of the assistance I received.