Having hitched around South Africa several times and understanding the ease of road transport, taking to the skies for every game this tour (2002) was a unique feature; something I'm certainly not used to. It meant there were a few short routes to travel, which also meant flying on smaller aircraft that gives the true meaning of flight! It didn't bother friends Darren Moulds, Mark Smith, or myself, but Blair MacDonald is not the world's best flyer and refused to believe me when I said the flight to Durban from Bloemfontein was on a 29-seater.
It isn't the smallest passenger plane in the world, but when the comfort, security, and sight of a Boeing 747 bring beads of sweat across Blair's brow, imagine how he felt when the inbound South African Airways Jetstream landed as we gazed across the vacant expanse of Bloemfontein's Bram Fischer Airport, a long way from London Heathrow.
"Absolutely not! No way am I getting on that. That's not a plane, that's something I construct in my garage on the weekend!"
Alas for Blair, it was the plane we took to Durban International Airport. After a not so soothing Castle Lager, we were asked to board through gate 1. There weren't many other gates but with only one aircraft on the tarmac, we weren't going to mistake which plane to board.
Days earlier we had flown to Bloem from Johannesburg on a DeHavilland Dash 8; a veritable 'jumbo' compared to the Jetstream, and even then Blair was white with fear saying he'd never fly again. Contrary to that threat here he was about to be 'Leaving on a Jetstream'!
Darren, Mark, and I marched across the lawn and then the fractured apron and stood blissfully at the stairs with excitement for the flight ahead. "Where's Blair?" Darren asked. We looked back to the terminal as this solemn and gaunt little fellow trudged through the gate, his head hung in despair. We could only offer simple encouragement, "Don't worry mate, when it goes down in the Drakensberg, it won't take them long to find your body!" as we clambered aboard ducking our heads, after the obligatory photo for posterity.
For those that haven't been to the Caribbean, this was a return to the island hopping days for Darren and Myself, and an introduction to Blair who'd already decided not to tour the West Indies if he has to take any of these 'toy planes'. Most aircraft in the West Indies are bigger than this, but it is the maintenance to concern over!
The Jetstream has 10-rows of two seats on the right (fwd facing), single seats on the left, and not much else. There are no overhead compartments, and certainly no room under the seat to put a lifejacket (not really necessary when flying across the Drakensberg), let alone a bag of importance! It really is quite cozy!
Blair hastened to his seat and fastened his belt before trying to also attach the seatbelt next to him as if it would help keep the plane in the air at the first hint of tragedy! For the joy of our flight, there were only 7-passengers including Jim Maxwell from ABC Radio, all concentrating on Blair's weakness, especially when the flight attendant asked Blair if he wouldn't mind assisting with the emergency exit! Laugh!
The beauty of flying in such a 'light' aircraft is that it doesn't take too long to get airborne and taking off from Bloem, the plane isn't really held up in traffic either! Blair sat concerned that the propeller on his side wasn't spinning and was just about to jump out, grab the blade and shout 'contact' when the pilot switched the ignition. After a few revolutions, it was off with the brakes and away we went!
The little props went hell for leather and soon we whizzed past the terminal and into the sky as Blair, with three vomit bags at the ready, sank deep into his seat, the tightness of his seatbelt making his hands blue as he pulled harder, just to make sure. 45-seconds after one of the best lift-offs of all time, the plane banked hard right giving Blair a fatalistic view of the red earth below!
Blair was silent for the flight that bounced about as a blow-up kiddie's castle would with 6-joyous passengers aboard! The flight attendant was as relaxed as anyone would be, paid to do as little work as possible including telling us the drinks cart was at the back and the pilot at the front; the open cockpit door casting marvellous views of our direction!
While Blair was praying, Mark, Darren, and I chatted with Jim gaining insights into the tour and the future of certain players making it a very informative flight, but what would one expect when talking to the voice of Australian sport? The beers and wine were freely consumed as we lounged between visits to the cockpit for a more in-depth view of the craft we were flying.
What was most tickling was seeing the co-pilot reading the newspaper with the feature headline, 'Riding Shotgun'. After taking a photo, I asked if I could borrow the paper to show Blair what the pilot reads once airborne! Suddenly a fourth sick-bag was needed!
It was a great flight and one of the more endearing features of the tour. Amid blackened skies and the bright lights of Durban, Captain John touched the little craft down, Blair loosened his belt and took his first breath since Bloem. Without a word, Blair gathered his belongings and composure and slid off. Smiling at the baggage carousel he said, "Gee it's good to be here!"
I wonder if he'll be saying that with as much enthusiasm in the West Indies in a year from now?
This Feature Was Edited In May 2020 For Clarity & Grammatical Errors Unnoticed All Those Inexperienced Years Ago. The Story Itself Remains Unchanged.