A Writer’s Nirvana from Cabin to Cockpit

May 19, 2013

I gazed out at the turquoise Atlantic Ocean from my table on the deck of the Singer Island Hilton. Gentle breezes carried fresh salt air and soft laughter. A sumptuous steak smothered in sweet onion rings satisfied my hunger. Merlot and mellow music completed the creative ambiance of my writer’s nirvana. A beautiful Boeing 767 airliner flew past heading south to Palm Beach International Airport. My thoughts drifted back to my two airline careers.

A month after my twenty-first birthday, I began a career as a Pan American World Airways flight attendant. I was based at JFK International Airport in New York City and flew to eighty-eight countries spanning the globe. Those were the glory days of the airline industry. Pan Am stewardesses were treated like movie stars—people asked me for my autograph, and the pilots were revered as sky gods. Gourmet food was cooked to order in first class, and baked Alaska was served flaming. Hollywood legends and international tycoons were frequent passengers.

During my travels with Pan Am, I had many exciting adventures most sane people preferred to experience vicariously in books or movies. Being a blonde in a country full of brunettes helped save me when I was shopping in the bazaar in Tehran, Iran, and rebel factions opened fire with automatic weapons. A shop owner herded me and two blond friends into a back room, down a stairway, and into a dark escape tunnel. He used an oil lantern to lead us to safety. He could have led us to a white slave trader. We had been lucky. Some Scandinavian stewardesses on trips to Beirut had not been so lucky. They had vanished and were never found.

In the early 1970s, I worked a flight to Managua, Nicaragua, and our crew stayed overnight at the Managua Intercontinental Hotel. Howard Hughes resided in the penthouse suite. That night a major earthquake destroyed almost every building in the city, except our hotel which was shaped like a pyramid. HH flew out in his private jet before the aftershocks ruined all the runways and trapped our Boeing. The sky gods drove us out of the burning city on damaged roads all the way to an international airport in the next country. We thanked God for our sky gods.

Throughout my Pan Am career, I experienced many earthquakes, rebellions complete with bombs and bullets, KGB agents hunting me, crazy people and famed international criminals on my flights, and too many adventures to mention now. I participated in the evacuation of Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War. The cabin crew carried DOD cards with military officer ranks in case we were taken prisoner. The pilots retained their commissions as US Navy officers. We called them sky gods because they always brought us home safely, no matter what.

In the late 1970s, I transferred to Miami and joined the Pan Am Flying Club. Three months later, I earned my private pilot license. The Pan Am sky gods were kind to me. They let me hand fly a Boeing 707 for two hours over South America on a flight with few passengers and good weather. I also enjoyed flying a Boeing 747 en route from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany. The jumbo jet felt as steady as flying a big house. That was my light-bulb moment. I wanted to fly jet airliners.

I quit Pan Am. Two years later, I was the first woman hired as a copilot with US Air, bypassing the flight engineer position. After seven years, I earned my fourth stripe and upgraded to captain. My airline pilot career provided many exciting adventures I’ll save for future blogs.

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A Writer’s Nirvana and Scuba Diving

May 19, 2013

I sat at a high-top table on the deck of the Ketch Restaurant at the Singer Island Hilton. The panoramic view of the placid Atlantic Ocean was a nice change after having watched big waves roll in for the past week. The deck was my writer’s nirvana. The fresh ocean air filled me with creative energy. The ambiance felt peaceful, like the silent world of scuba diving.

My first ocean dive, in 2000, was ninety feet deep off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida, where a beautiful coral reef lay three miles offshore from the elegant Breakers Hotel. I had earned my deep water certification in a lake with a depth of over two-hundred feet. The Atlantic Ocean and its inhabitants were new to me. My brother Larry, who had forty years of dive experience—he started when he was ten—accompanied me. We descended in water as clear as air. The sunlight made the air bubbles sparkle like diamonds. Brightly colored fish and corals awaited us.

When we reached eighty feet, Larry pointed under a coral ledge. I swam in for a closer look and was greeted by an eight-foot long, neon-green moray eel. I’m a woman, so I have a God-given fear of snakes that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Eels look like giant snakes. This one was extra large. I swallowed half my air when it opened its mouth and showed me all the razor-sharp teeth. Common sense told me cornering a huge eel was not a wise move. I swam away.

Moments later, my brother tapped his tank with his dive knife to draw my attention and waved me over. He hovered in front of a large hole in the reef and pointed at something inside. Thinking I could actually trust my brother, I swam to the hole and looked in. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed two large yellow eyes glaring at me. The head was the size of a basketball. Then it opened its enormous mouth full of scary teeth. My heart rate skyrocketed as I sucked in too much air and looked for my brother. He was farther along the reef, poking the tail of the fifteen-foot monster moray eel whose head was facing me so it would come out and give me a better view. Nice. I panicked, gulped air, and backpedaled like crazy.

The dive master waved me over and showed me a deadly stonefish that looked like part of the reef. As I tried to get my breathing under control after the eel incidents, he made hand motions that meant never touch this. The bright light of a flash camera drew my attention to an area where two eight-foot nurse sharks were sleeping under a ledge. I arrived just in time to see their eyes pop open. They looked angry. I gulped air. If I had been given a chance to acclimate to the fantastic underwater environment before encountering all the scary stuff, I might have been able to manage my air consumption better. This was like swimming through a living minefield.

My air supply was almost gone so I had to return to the dive boat long before the other divers. On my way topside, a dark shadow blocked the sun. I looked up and saw a shark as big as a submarine. It was covered with white dots. This time I stopped breathing and tried to become invisible while I waited for it to cruise away. I learned later on the TV news that it was a sixty-five foot whale shark that was rarely seen in local waters and only ate plankton, unless an unlucky diver was inadvertently inhaled though its Volkswagen-sized mouth. I also learned the fifteen-foot moray eel was named Gretchen and was accustomed to being fed by local divers. Turned out moray eels breathed through their mouths, so they probably weren’t trying to scare me by displaying their many pointed teeth. Wish I’d known that before the dive.

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A Writer’s Nirvana and Aerobatics

May 19, 2013

I am sitting on the deck of the Singer Island Hilton under a brilliant full moon and gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean bathed in moonlight. A warm sea breeze caresses my skin. A glass of Merlot, a perfectly cooked rib-eye steak smothered in a delicious mushroom demi-glace, and a great guitar player add to the creative ambiance. This is my writer’s nirvana. Memories of aerobatic lessons flood my mind.

My ex wasn’t the best husband in the world, but he was one hell of an aerobatic pilot. We both flew jet airliners for a living. Our home was on a grass-strip runway. Our favorite toy was a 1947 Bücker Jungmann biplane. The German antique aircraft was fully aerobatic. I wanted to learn how to do all the stunts I’d seen at air shows.

My problem was I have a fear of falling. Most people call it a fear of heights, but it’s really a fear of falling off high places. The Bücker had an open cockpit. Even though I was securely strapped into a five-point harness and wearing a parachute, the powerful negative “G” pull during an inverted maneuver made me feel like I was being pulled out of the airplane. Irrational fear made me grip the steel-tube fuselage rail like my life depended on it. So, of course, my ex insisted that I fly inverted straight and level and hold my hands over my head. I did it, but the fear gave me extreme tunnel vision.

He said, “Keep the ridge line on your left and the valley on your right.”

I said, “All I can see is a dark tunnel with the nose of the aircraft at the end. No freaking ridges. No freaking valley. My eyes feel like they’re about to pop out of my head. Screw this! I’m rolling right side up.”

He said, “You need a distraction.”

He was seated directly behind me. I felt him reach into the narrow space on either side of my seat and pull my belts extra tight. Whenever he did that, something scary always followed.

What followed that time was a violent maneuver called a Lomcovák. The stunt was invented by an insane Czech with a death wish. It started with a violent snap roll that flowed into an end over end forward tumble ending in an inverted spin. I was confident the wings and tail would remain attached to the German-engineered biplane. I was not so sure about me.

My ex assured me his slow-motion version of the Lomcovák was tame and fun. The only difference with his kinder and gentler version was the snap roll didn’t bang my head into the side rail hard enough to produce a bruise. Not fun.

I eventually learned how to do what I considered to be the fun stunts, but I never mastered the roll on top of a loop. My main clue that I had messed up the timing and something bad was about to happen was my ex laughing. He would chuckle first. All-out laughter always accompanied our entry into an inverted spin. I failed to see the humor. We’re divorced now.

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A Writer’s Nirvana and Nascar

May 19, 2013

A panoramic view of the turquoise ocean sparkling in the bright Florida sunshine, warm sea breezes caressing my skin, delicious gourmet food, divine wine, and a friendly attentive wait staff combine to create a writer’s nirvana for me. I can’t speak for other writers, but I know what sparks my creativity and nourishes my soul—the covered deck known as the Ketch Bar and Restaurant at the Singer Island Hilton in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Today I arrived on deck feeling cranky and stressed from the annoyances of the day. Ten minutes later, I felt happy and relaxed. The sea air has always had that effect on me. The mellow guitar player singing Layla added to the ambiance. A steady parade of grinning vacationers and the faint scent of sun-tan lotion wafting past my seaside table infected me with positive vibes. Next thing I knew, creative ideas were flowing into me. This is a place where writer’s block is nonexistent.

My thoughts drifted to the Daytona 500. I have attended the Great American Race many times. Television does not do it justice. When forty-three cars crank up their 900+ hp engines, an indescribable roar rises to the grandstands and brings the track to life like a mighty dragon awakened from a long winter’s sleep.

One alpha female will battle forty-two alpha males for the win on Sunday. Forty-three teams of manly men will go to war in the pits. Forty-three spotters perched high atop the tallest grandstand will perform duties similar to the rear intercept officer in the backseat of a fighter jet. They will advise their fighter pilot drivers on the location of enemy race cars and how best to avoid the carnage in a massive multi-car wreck.

The crew chiefs must be master players in a 200-mph chess match with 43 teams on the board. Pit strategy is a key element in the battle plan. Pit road is almost as dangerous as the active deck on an aircraft carrier. One mistake could result in a lost race or a lost life. Anyone who thinks a NASCAR race is nothing more than a bunch of cars running in circles has never experienced the thrill of a live race. Nothing compares to it. Nothing.
The Daytona 500 is so inherently male the air is filled with testosterone and vibrates with raw masculinity. Female spectators become mesmerized by the hormone-infused atmosphere. Sex is literally in the air. It’s a good thing the men are focused on the race. Otherwise the event might lose its PG rating.

The powerful race cars streak by at speeds in excess of 200 mph. They pass by so fast the human eye is incapable of registering anything more than a blur of color. The high-speed intensity of 43 race cars super charges the electromagnetic energy pulsing through the spectators in a way that keeps their hearts racing long after the event has ended. It truly is the Great American Race.

I hope Tony Stewart wins. Danica can win next year.

NOTE: 5-time NASCAR champion Jimmy Johnson won, Danica came in 8th, and Tony was caught up in a massive wreck on lap 35. Danica led several laps—the first woman to do so.

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