That was the year my work commute was transcontinental with every other weekend home. I made my connection from Los Angeles in Tampa with little time to spare and was barely settled before the jet launched into the stormy evening above Tampa on the way home to Tallahassee. Familiarity had dulled my fear of crashing and it was just another bus ride home. Until it wasn’t.
We flew into one of the most horrendous thunderstorms I have ever seen. The fasten seat belt sign stayed lit. Rough winds pushed us around and the fuselage groaned and creaked. There was a line from a song once about the lightning walking about, and it did a lot of walking that night inside the massed thunderheads. Even the seasoned stews got quiet and introspective.
This was so long ago they hadn’t banned pipe smoking, let alone cigarettes. My notes from that flight say I filled my favorite pipe of the moment and settled back to enjoy the spectacle. I have no idea where my fatalistic streak came from. I had no fear; none. I observed that other passengers averted their eyes every time the savage lightning blasted the sky open, to reveal looming dark clouds evidently solid as the tortured rock pinnacles of the Utah badlands. Some carefully closed their little window shade to keep it outside. I smoked peacefully on.
The bursts of lightning seemed to linger, illuminating that frozen nightmare world of cloud monoliths. Then the plane would slip into the clouds and shut off the hectic lightning as effectively as entering a tunnel. The eye would ease back from its startled bulge and the pulse would quiet. Then we would be back into that flickering, crowded valley of enormous shadows. I could see the port wing flapping as if to urge the jet engines along.
I had behaved badly on less stressful flights but for some reason I was at peace, enjoying my privileged seat at nature’s fury. I was not even diverted by the musky sexy odor emanating from nervous stews as they crouched, clinging to seat backs, to check seat belts.
Tallahassee in those days had a notoriously short runway. I had flown with other pilots who made you sure you were going off the end into the scrub oak and jack pine. The pilot that night dropped us out of the storm light as thistledown and stopped halfway down the usual rollout, turned and trundled us to the terminal. It was the perfect ending to an amazing flight and he stood grinning by the cockpit door as if to accept accolades. I gave him some, and shook his hand and complimented his skill. He deserved it. He flew like an angel.