14 March 2011

My stormy arrival

I arrived in Charlotte last Thursday afternoon, and here it is Monday already. Since Friday morning, the weather has been beautiful. But on Thursday afternoon, it was stormy — wet and windy.

The flight from Paris was easy. The plane wasn't much more than half full, so there was room to spread out. The flight time was long — 9½ hours — but we left approximately on time, and there wasn't a lot of turbulence over the ocean. The male flight attendant who made announcements over the speaker system — a man in his 50s I would say — spoke excellent French. He was American, I'm sure. I'm always a little embarrassed when the in-flight announcements are in perfect U.S. English but then come on in fractured, nearly incomprehensible French.

Taking off from Charlotte between rain showers,
with the city in the distance

There was a good selection of movies on the AV system, and the video screens on the seat backs were a lot bigger than they used to be. I watched The King's Speech, this year's big Oscar winner, and really enjoyed it. I also watched A Good Year, the film based on a Peter Mayle book about Provence. Then I watched a silly American comedy with Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver — it plunged me into the American environment, Hollywood-style. Plus some TV shows and sitcoms. I didn't sleep at all, and didn't even do any reading.

While we were in flight, I looked at my boarding passes and realized the airline had scheduled me for only a 75-minute layover in Charlotte. That would have been fine if I had been flying in from another American city, because the Charlotte airport isn't as big as some, and I would have had plenty of time to run over to the gate for my next flight.

A Charlotte subdivision — streets lined with trees in full blossom

In this case, I had to wait for my suitcase to be unloaded from the plane so that I could carry it through customs. You never know how long it's going to take for your bag to show up on the conveyor belt, and how long the lines at passport control and customs might turn out to be.

As it turned out, the plane from Paris pulled into the arrival gate nearly 30 minutes late. At that point, I abandoned all hope of making it to the connecting flight in time. And then it seemed like my suitcase would never appear on the conveyor belt. I waited and waited, puffing and blowing, muttering curses under my breath. When my suitcase finally did come out, I grabbed it and ran.

At immigration/passport control, there were a dozen or more agents and lines, and I was right up front in one of them. Unfortunately, the Immigration Service's computers went down at that point. An agent came on the intercom and apologized for the delay and inconvenience. I muttered something unpleasant under my breath, I'm sure. After a few minutes they got the computers rebooted, and the wait-time wasn't quite as long as I had feared it would be.

Downtown Charlotte, just before we went up above the clouds

During all this time, I couldn't see outdoors, so I didn't know what the weather was like. Our descent into the Charlotte airport had been pretty bumpy, so I knew the weather outside was rough. I was connecting to a much smaller aircraft for the one-hour flight down to the N.C. coast. I didn't look forward to that ride in stormy weather.

Customs was easy and fast. The man just glanced at my form and waved me through. It took all of two minutes. But then, I remembered I had to go through security again before I could get out of the airport's international zone and onto real American soil. I dropped my suitcase off to be checked in again for the connecting flight — that was a requirement, according to the signs. The man at the luggage re-check counter yelled at me as I sped away — "Your flight is at gate E4," he said. He obviously thought I needed to get there as fast as possible.

When I got to security, the lines snaked around and around in those mazes of posts and woven bands they use to try to organize the crowds. I walked right past the line where I was supposed to wait, because I misread the signs and also hoped I could find a shorter waiting line farther on. I walked quite a distance, but the next two or three security stations I passed had even longer lines than the first one. That's when I realized my mistake and had to backtrack. I was really resigned to missing the flight by then.

Landing in New Bern, N.C. — even around a small town,
this is what the roads look like. It's 40 miles to the beach.

What I worried about was my 81-year-old mother and her 76-year-old sister, who were waiting for me at my final destination, to "carry me home" (as we say in the South). They wouldn't know what was happening if I didn't show up on the scheduled flight, and they would have to sit in the airport for several hours, waiting, if I had to get on a later flight. I had no way to contact them.

I got back to the first security checkpoint, which was the one for my gate, and got in line. There must have been 150 people ahead of me. My flight was at 4:15. I noticed on the boarding pass the woman ahead of me was holding in her hand that hers was scheduled for 4:10. We looked each other in the eye, and shrugged. She told me she was part of a group of 14 traveling together, so she thought the airline might hold their flight to Atlanta until they all got to the gate.

From then on, things moved pretty fast, considering. Off with the belt, off with the shoes, the jacket, everything out of the pockets — the whole security shebang. The metal detecting gate didn't buzz or ring when I stepped through. I was cleared for take-off, but I had to sit down and get dressed and organized again before I took off running.

I made it to the departure gate at 4:10 — five minutes to spare. Boarding hadn't even started yet! There was a hard rain falling outdoors when I got up to the boarding-pass desk. Mine was a flight for which passengers have to run out onto the tarmac and up the ramp into the little plane. I had a raincoat with a hood, so the rain didn't bother me much. But the dark clouds above and the gusty winds made me dread the flight.

There was such a strong tail wind that the flight time wasn't much more than half the time scheduled. We took off late, but made up most of that time in the air. Problem was, the last 20 minutes or so of the flight took us through thick clouds. You couldn't see anything but gray through the porthole windows, and the turbulence was severe. There was a lot of tension and stress among the passengers, and I was glad when we finally got down below the clouds and I could see the ground. That way, I was sure we weren't going to crash into it.

The little airport at New Bern, N.C.

On arrival, there were my mother and my aunt to greet me. We had to wait for my suitcase to be brought out. We waited for quite a while, and finally I asked an agent what the deal was. He said all the bags had been unloaded from the plane, and the ones on the conveyor belt were just the same ones going around and around. Mine wasn't among them.

We set out in driving rain, at nightfall, to make the one-hour drive to my home town. We couldn't figure out how to get the car's defroster to work, so I had to keep wiping the windshield to be able to see anything at all. "It was a dark and stormy night..." I couldn't really see the edges of the roadway, and the lights of the other cars caused blinding reflections in all directions. The wipers flapped and we splashed through veritable ponds of water. I didn't feel safe going much faster than 40 mph, which lengthened the trip considerably.

We stopped at a Waffle House restaurant about half-way along the route and had a hamburger. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with hash brown potatoes and an iceberg lettuce salad and ranch dressing. I washed down with sweet tea. Welcome to America. I loved it.


  1. yikes scary flight.....i do not care for flying on those little planes! and i no longer feel good about driving at night, even when its not raining.....glad u at least made the flight tho....know ur mom was glad to see u.....i assume they sent ur bag on at some point

  2. Hi Melinda, they delivered the bag the next day around noon.

  3. I hate that sinking feeling when the last few bags are just going round and round and round, meaning only one thing. My bag is lost somewhere else.
    I'm glad yours turned up quickly. And I would have loved that breakfast !!

  4. Wow! I could really feel the tension! Glad you made the flight....enjoy your visit Ken!

  5. I'm glad that you've arrived safely. Walt, I love the way you haven't missed a beat in publishing your blog day in and day out.

  6. the New Bern airport is tiny! I didn't realize your Mom and Aunt were strong enough to "carry you" lol. We don't carry people in KY, but it's still done in Alabama and Georgia...

  7. You were lucky that the plane from Paris was only half full and you could spread out. It seems like most flights are nearly full now. The Waffle House helped improve things, I'm sure - I would have gone straight for the waffles with butter and maple syrup.

    King's Speech was great. Can you believe that King Edward was played by Guy Pearce from Priscilla Queen of the Desert? He was great in both.

  8. Ah, the joys of traveling.

  9. Whew! I'm glad that's over....and you arrived back home safe and sound. You were probably more safe in that little plane than you were in the car trying to navagate the driving rains and road glare.

    Did you have to go thu the whole body scan routine? Hope you don't it' not healthy.

    Victoria, Bellingham, WA

  10. Turbulence. Double-ugh.

    Glad you're on terra-firma and eating well!

  11. I can imagine the smiles on your Mom's and Aunt's faces when you finally appeared. Both because they were eager to see you and because they were probably hoping they didn't have to drive home in that weather and that you were there to do the "deed"!

    You must have been just as happy to see the two of them. Happy Reunion!

  12. Ken, thank you for taking the time to write about both flights and taking pictures. I feel like I am part of this trip too.
    Charlotte's suburb with the flowering trees is amazing.

  13. Wow, what a stressful ordeal! I'm enjoying following your story. Great movies you got to see! I just saw King's Speech...loved it. Your Waffle House lunch sounds sooooo very American...fun!


  14. This just reminds me of why I hate taking a plane anywhere these days. And although I knew that you got there safely, since we've been in touch, I wondered if you would miss your plane!

    To think that you have to fly back!


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