Story by Melissa Frost, Gold Coast, Australia.
"Are the children secure Madam?" "Yes, Madam," the immaculate Pan Am hostess inquired. My mother smiled nervously and replied "Yes, thankyou," as she checked the seat belts of her siblings.
I glanced down across the aisle to inspect my seat belt. The ground crew of Pakistani Pan Am moved away from the dusty atmosphere surrounding the aircraft to the safety of Karachi International Airport.
"Dusty" was what I thought. It is the colour of Pakistan. "Its dusty."
I looked around the cabin as the engines started to roar. My father was next to me, and my brother was in the aisle reading a comic. We were left in a darkened cabin by the main lights, which made it seem like we were lost. The Pan Am hostess walked slowly along the fuselage checking seatbelts, and closing overhead compartments. I glanced out again at the plane's hull and saw the ground crew removing the wheel chocks. One of the Pakistani ground crew members was calling for the other to hurry up.
Pakistan was the place I first fell in love with, so it was a sad moment for me to leave Pakistan. He was a sweet, dark-haired American boy who would ride his bike back to Sanobar from the colony pool. He didn't say goodbye to me, and my father announced that we were flying to Hong Kong. We had no choice but to tell the packers our most important loves and board a Pakistan Airline flight to Karachi. We were only in Pakistan for 18 months. Our contract was 50 miles north from Rawalpindi at Tarbela. My father was building a dam across the Indus River.
In the 1970s, Pakistan was an amazing place.
A country that carries the British Raj beast's tail. Our bearer, my father, goose-stepped the sahib as he embarked the Landover after a long day of dam building. A country rich in culture and mysticism, where the honorable respond to the call for the faithful, the adhan. It resonates from mosques all over the rugged terrain of Northern Pakistan. The chant would then float down the valley to the dam construction site, where legend has it that Alexander the Great crossed the border many millennia ago with his vast army of loyal Macedonians.
From the terminal, the aircraft began to reverse. As we landed on the runway, the wings of the aircraft were effortlessly moving up and down. This was nothing that I was concerned about as my Civil Engineering father once taught me an impromptu lesson on aviation physics. He said that the movement of the wings is essential for aeronautics' flexibility. He had stated, "It is important Melissa."
As we began our ascent towards the sky, we slowly rolled towards the runway, feeling the weight of it as we did so. The Captain requested that the hostesses take their seats, and the aircraft was maneuvered into take-off position. The 747 engines revved and the aircraft raced down the runway. We were pushed slightly back by the power of our aircraft. "I love flying," I thought. It's the moment of takeoff and the pounding down of the runway. The aircraft flew past Karachi International Airport. It was a two-storey building that had a disused "Welcome To Karachi" sign. As we gained lift, I could hear the engines throb and the fuselage shaking.
It was luxurious to fly around the globe in the 70's. We wore Sunday clothes. My favorite gold sandals were on me.
The cabins were large and spacious with no overhead compartments running through the middle of the plane. The seats were comfortable and large. Two people could easily pass through the aisles; it was easy to slide around the trolleys during drinks or meal rounds. My mother could also rely on the hostesses to watch my siblings while she slept, drank cocktails, or made her makeup. They served delicious meals with real plates and cutlery. After take-off, we were presented with menus that included a variety of meals. Every sibling received a complimentary Children's Pack with colouring books, pencils and other toys. However, I was 11 years old and too old to receive the Children's Pack.
The seat belt sign was removed. According to my father, the flight to Hong Kong would be very long with only one stop for fuel. One movie would be shown on-board at each section. It would be displayed on the central screen after dinner. Then, it would be on to the next leg of the flight. I unbuckled my seatbelt, did a lap around the plane, and found another 11-year-old sitting in the hostess' jump seat at the rear of the aircraft. I said "Hi" to her, and she replied "Bonjour". In the 70's, there were many European children who flew with their parents.
Flying was costly and only the wealthy could afford it. Many times, the high cost of airline tickets was paid by companies our fathers worked for. The aircraft was open to us, and we were free to move around the plane without restriction. You could move from one empty seat to another. In 1970, the capacity was only 75%.
The hostesses would allow us to all meet at the back of our plane in the last row and play. We would chat, read, and play scrabble and snakes and ladders.
Often, the hostesses brought us chips and drinks. We never saw our parents.
As the flight progressed, I said goodbye to my French friend and returned to my seat for dinner. At 30,000 feet, eating meals was like dining in a French restaurant. Etiquette was an important part of the flight. I washed my mouth with the provided cloth napkin. The movie started after the hostesses cleared the cabin of their meal.
My brother and I fell asleep to the hum of the engines, but my brother stayed awake. It was late at night, and the plane was just about to circle the Indochinese peninsula. My mother asked the hostess to let my brother and me go to the cockpit of the pilot. This is a rare occurrence in modern times, but it was common in the 60s and 1970s. My mother was retorted by the hostess, who said that she would allow us to visit the cockpit. We followed her along the dark fuselage past the sleeping passengers, and finally entered the cockpit.
We were greeted by friendly and helpful pilots who turned to welcome us. I could see the moon reflected off the coast as I looked to my left from the cockpit window. The plane was close to the Vietnam coast. The cockpit's flashing instrument panel was stark contrast to the low-lying storm clouds miles below.
Fireballs suddenly exploded from the dense cloud cover along the Vietnamese coast, one, two, and three
I knew what was happening because I had seen the Vietnam War broadcasts on BBC Karachi. I was rattled by the sound of more fireballs 1, 2, and 3. It was an intense scene, and I knew every time one of those bombs exploded that many people had died.
We were told by the pilots that this sight was common on their route from Karachi to Hong Kong. Pan Am was unable to fly over the Indochinese peninsula and had to stop in Dacca, East Pakistan, for fuel. I was watching history, and was rooted to my seat in the cockpit. I was incredibly aware of my surroundings and felt vulnerable at 35,000ft. I was not safe on the ground. Instead, I was playing in the sandpit at the back of my house in Sanobar.
We made our way back into our seats after the pilots had signed our logbooks. The flight was still several hours away from Hong Kong so I spent the remainder of the flight in my seat reflecting on a Chinese proverb that my mother used to say, "If people have one heart, even the yellow Earth can become gold." This scene has been a constant reminder of my life.
Six hours later, we arrived in Hong Kong. I could see Lantau Island's junks as the plane approached Kai Tak airport. The pilot flew low, and asked passengers to fasten their seatbelts. My mother was holding my younger sister, a newborn, close to her chest.
In 1971, all aircraft approaching Kai Tak airport were guided by a checkerboard in red and white, located on the hillside. This was their final approach marker. The pilots were two nautical miles away from their final approach and had to be at least 1,000 feet below the checkerboard. We made a sudden right-hand turn, and I could sense the aircraft banking.
Pan Am flew at 700 feet above Kowloon City. I could feel my fingers reaching out to touch the laundry hanging from the balconies below. It was so exciting to hear the engines roar. My mother looked at me again. There was nothing thrilling about this. With a powerful bouncing force, the large Pan Am aircraft landed on Kai Tak. As we raced down the runway, which protruded into Hong Kong's famed fragrant harbour, the pilots applied brakes. We slowly returned to the terminal after the aircraft finally stopped.
We had safely landed in Hong Kong, and we were now heading to my father's next project: High Island reservoir in Hong Kong’s New Territories.
Story by Melissa Frost, Gold Coast, Australia.