Karl and I were flying back from a 10 day visit to Afghanistan to visit my brother and his family. It was COLD. In fact, they said it was the coldest winter in 50 years. Of course it was. You don’t want to pick a warm winter to visit a war zone where heat is optional.
In a normal trip to the airport - you walk inside, find the check-in, get your ticket and fly away. The “fly away” part being key in that scenario.
Not so much in Kabul on this day.
Driving to the airport (notice the low visibility)
We first went through security outside of the airport – “security” in the very loosest sense of the term.
The men have an actual “security building” of sorts, but for female passengers “security” is a dark little shack that looks like it’s out of Deliverance – with a serious looking Afghan woman who glances at the contents NEAR the top of your suitcase- not inside- because, of course, if you were going to hide a weapon of mass destruction in your suitcase you would lay it ON TOP OF your undies and nightgown (you certainly don’t want random Muslims looking at your undies – a self detonating bomb is a sure-fire way to distract them from any embarrassing under garments).
Once we were “through security” our driver took us to what appeared to be the American equivalent of “long term” parking and dropped us off– it was that far from the airport. We were instructed to stand with about 100 other passengers and wait for our flight to be called.
This sounded somewhat reasonable. Somewhat. However, they didn’t seem to be calling our flight (no loud speaker system, no flight information boards) – just a parking lot with too much snow and some unofficial man blocking the gate.
We started to ask around. It appeared our flight was canceled. I say appeared because no one quite seemed to know. We couldn’t call the airline (they weren’t open yet – it was 6 am – why would they be open?). We couldn’t call our travel agent (it was midnight in Omaha).
I was 6 months pregnant at the time and FREEZING (did I mention it was the coldest winter in half a century)? My undaunted husband sprang into action. They wouldn’t let us go into the airport to try to make arrangements (since our flight was canceled), but Karl found someone who seemed to know something. Oh, he knew something alright. He knew if you paid him 50 bucks he could get you closer to the airport (something more promising like short-term parking distance from the actual building). We gladly paid the bribe and got about half-way there. He passed us off to someone else who, for another bribe, got us to the airport door. At the door we paid a third bribe and were finally in.
Still of course, the airline hadn’t opened yet. It was 8 am. Why should they be open to answer pesky customer questions?
We were instructed to wait in a lounge that looked like it had not been in use since the Soviets left. Literally.
Around 10 am the airline finally opened their desk and when Karl asked about our flight – the airline employee said he could get us on a later flight for a little sompin sompin - $200 specifically. At this point Karl was finished donning out bribes for a legitimate flight we had already paid in full.
The airline also explained that they couldn’t take off until they could physically “see” the mountains (it had been snowing and the mountains were blocked from view). Kabul is surrounded by mountains and apparently they don’t have typical airport commercial radar for planes to be able to take off without being able to PHYSICALLY SEE the mountains. This was a point of concern.
He said to Karl, “Since you’re up in the lounge with all those windows – could you let us know when YOU can see the mountains?”
When WE can see the mountains?
This was a point of further concern – much further concern.
After hours and hours of waiting – it eventually cleared off and we could, in fact, “see” the mountains. We had met a very nice American from the state department who took pity on us and somehow sweet talked her way to getting us on the later flight to Dubai.
It was about 4 pm. We had been waiting a long time in the terminal filled with Taliban looking men. They didn’t look pleased either – but I couldn’t tell if it was the delayed flight or the inevitable unpleasantness of being Taliban that vexed them.
The snow had subsided enough that the mountains were now visible. FINALLY we were traipsing over the tarmac to our beloved plane. And then it began to snow...again.
Boarding our plane moments before it begins to snow
(with mountains somewhat visible)
It snowed so much in that 20 minute period that once we were snug in our seats, the pilot walked to the middle of the plane, took a careful look out the window and determined that there was too much ice on the wing to leave. No instruments needed for THAT crucial decision apparently.
Out again onto the tarmac and back to the Taliban Terminal.
Another hour passed.
No information boards – no loud speaker announcements.
Finally a character that perfectly embodied Jack from Lost emerged. A fellow passenger with an Austrailian accent, he stood on his chair and began to make announcements.
Jack’s first announcement: They don’t know if we will be able to take off tonight!
Some murmuring. This was perplexing – as it was now dark and you certainly COULD NOT see the mountains – to say nothing of the fact that all information seemed to be relayed through Jack from Lost.
We considered packing it up and trying to catch a flight another day – but our luggage was AWOL in the annals of Kabul airline delirium.
Jack’s second announcement (20 minutes later): We may be able to take off tonight if ISAF can give us clearance to leave in the dark!
Applause broke out. No one else seemed to care that Jack was the only one that knew what was going on (ISAF was the “International Security Assistance Force” that acted as the governing body at the airport. Weird. But at this point – what isn’t?).
Jack’s third announcement (1 hour later): ISAF has given us clearance and we’ll be taking off soon!
More applause. Where’s Kate?
And so we were back on the tarmac, shuffling through the snow in the pitch black, headed to our certain doom.
Once on the plane and settled in, the ice began to accumulate again on the wings. This time ISAF said it was OK (how this is OK I’m not sure). They announced that they would de-ice our plane, but since we were the third plane in line to take off, it would take about an hour.
I tried not to notice that the plane looked like it had been pieced together from several different airlines. The seats said American Airlines, the beverage cart was Delta and the bathrooms featured British Airways appliances.
At this point in the melodrama off my life – I began to feel a bit ill. OK, maybe not just a bit ill. I was crammed into a hot, dark plane, 6 months pregnant with the worst cramps of my life. Worse than child-birth pain. And nausea.
I threw up. Into the bag.
Karl got me a new bag.
I threw up again – into the new bag. That one had a hole in it. I essentially threw up onto myself.
Karl got me another bag – presumably without a hole.
I threw up again – and again. On myself –in the bag – it was hard to tell.
I was in the fetal position in my seat. It was excruciating (I later found out it was an appendix attack).
For three hours we sat on the tarmac – me throwing up – in my own personal hell. It took this long to de-ice three planes – as they were using a garden-hose equivalent to spray the de-ice stuff.
Jack got concerned.
Jack’s fourth announcement (shouting from his seat on the plane): I’ve spoken with the pilot and told him we DO NOT want to take off if it’s not safe.
I’ll say we don’t!
Enough was enough so Karl went to talk to the pilot himself. He decided that he needed to get his wife to the hospital.
Once to the pilot’s door he looked down to see a few guys on the tarmac – dressed very unofficially – arguing about the details involved with de-icing a large plane. Becoming convinced that they had never de-iced anything before, he told the pilot we needed to get off the plane immediately.
The pilot said in a thick middle-eastern accent, “No! We take off now!”
Where is Jack when we need him?
Karl returned to our seat, the plane finally de-iced, and we heard the pilot start the engine. Well – start is an exaggeration. It sounded like trying to start a car when the engine is dead. He turned it over again. Nothing.
Apparently the pilot didn’t take into account the energy that would be used running the heat on an airplane sitting on the tarmac for three hours.
The plane’s battery was dead.
What else is he failing to take into consideration, we wondered? Altitude? Wind velocity? Fuel? Very, very disconcerting!
ISAF comes through again and gives us a jump start.
The plane was now ready to take off. “Ready” may be pushing it.
However, we did a “cork screw take-off” and circled hard to presumably miss the mountains. Karl was convinced we were about to meet our certain death (in my condition this didn't sound so bad). He wondered, "If you crash into the mountains, do you see the plane folding like an accordion in front of you? Or do you just die instantly – glad to finally be off of KamAir?"
I proceeded to throw up on the three hour flight to Dubai. The stewards were smoking in the back, sleeping on the floor and not caring much about finding more holeless throw-up bags. Karl, in a state of total desperation, convinced the crew to let us off first, due to my dire medical emergency.
We landed, pressed our way through customs and I laid on the pristine Dubai airport floor while Karl tracked down the first aid crew. About this time I started to feel better.
In the end – I was fine – and we somehow managed to catch another flight back to Omaha unscathed.
I walk away with 5 insights I will hold dear the rest of my life:
1. It’s never good if the airline puts you in charge of visibility (run fast if they ask YOU to let them know when you can see the mountains)
#2. Jack Shephard can come in handy in any airline emergency.
#3. Save your appendix attack for a first-world country.
#4. A garden hose can accomplish many things, but de-icing a 737 is not among them.
#5. Always, always check the throw-up bag for holes BEFORE use.