Volume 12, Issue 18 ~ April 29-May 5, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Airport Insecurity

The brothers tossed a coin to determine which one would be the first to fly.
— Wright Brothers’ Machine Takes To Air: Chronicle of America, 1995

Tell you what, dear readers. If this big encyclopedia of American history hadn’t informed me otherwise, I’d have assumed Wilbur Wright had won that flip, seeing as he got to stay on the ground.

But it was the other way around, and Orville, 32, climbed into the cockpit — if there was such a thing in that fragile 650-pound aeroplane powered by only a single 13-horsepower engine — leaving Wilbur, 36, running alongside on the terra firma, stopwatch in hand.

Look: That flimsy biplane with a sputtering gasoline engine pushing to takeoff into a freezing 20-mile-an-hour headwind was my kind of flight. Know why? Because it lasted only 12 seconds by Wilbur’s timepiece, that’s why. Furthermore — and just as significant in my eyes — that December 17, 1903, flight in a twin-engine aircraft that cost only $1,000 (including design, building and shipment costs from Dayton, Ohio) traveled only 120 feet.

Here we are 101 years later with airplanes that travel thousands of miles in one hop. But to board one of the multi-million-dollar flying machines, I have to stand and wait in a line that’s longer than Orville’s first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Me, I’d be just as happy had the Wright brothers stuck with their original vocations — mathematicians and machinists.

Had humankind opted to leave flying to the birds and kites after Samuel Langley crashed twice into the Potomac River earlier in 1903, just think how different public transportation would be. We’d get from here to there via train or ocean liner, which might be slower than traveling six miles up above the clouds — slower, that is, if we don’t count all the time wasted in all the lines at airports, which are busier and more populated than the first three communities I lived in. Combined.

Wilbur subsequently made a flight of 852 feet in 59 seconds. Know what? That’s not nearly as long as one traipses these days to get from security to the dock on a flight, which brings up another question. Why is it that whenever one is now forced to fly commercially, boarding is always at the farthest end of the pier?

Why is it always B-100, or even B-200? Don’t any planes use B-1 or B-2? Is such planning the way airport administrators figure they can get us to walk (or run) farther past all the shops selling food, drinks, newspapers, sweatshirts and such so vendors can ring cash registers, which means, of course, they can afford to pay more for space rentals? If you know the answer it’s not a question.

By now you’ve got an idea about my thoughts on commercial flying. I bet I’ve got a lot of company, and daily the list gets longer.

Formerly Fearful, Now Frustrated
I once was president of Eastern Airlines’ Former Fearful Flyers. That was back after I took three different flights in aircraft that had to make emergency landings. That list doesn’t include World War II, when I was riding in a twin-engine hospital plane that lost one motor midway between Hawaii and Oakland, California.

Some of my fear was dispelled after taking a fear-of-flying course over six weeks, courtesy of Eastern. I still am what at best might be called a nervous flyer, but lately I’d rather be looking down on the clouds than treading the carpets of an airport, especially at the security gateways.

You see, following various surgeries, I’ve got more metal screws holding my neck and shoulder together than are included in an Erector Set, so I’m fair game as I try to get to a pier. Boy, how the bells and whistles go off! Do you think the fellows with the badges will listen when I try to tell ’em to wave the wand over my neck and shoulder. Nah. That would ruin their fun.

If It’s Not One Thing …
Just last week, wife Lois and I had to get to Vermont quickly to attend the funeral of Aunt MiMi. So off we trot to BWI for a Southwest flight to Hartford to meet a sister, then drive the last leg of the journey. I packed hastily, and in my shaving kit three small pair of scissors that I had forgotten about, my last trip just several days earlier having been a driving venture to and back from Vermont. With Mimi going, I wasn’t thinking about what was in the kit.

Also, seeing that a razor hasn’t touched my face since ’66, the fact I even carry a shaving kit in my satchel roused suspicion. Upon finding the scissors, a security officer went through everything in my carry-on luggage. So far, so good. Only the scissors were confiscated.

… It’s Another
But we had to fly back from Hartford two days later, and we were pressed for time. Lois couldn’t find her driver’s license. With no acceptable ID, she had to try and straighten that out without enduring a strip search. Then it was my turn, and the buzzers went off. Inside the same shaving kit, a security officer found not one but three small and expensive Leatherman-type utility knives that were obviously overlooked at BWI.

Does that make you feel secure about the thoroughness of airport screening?

The security officer didn’t think a 78-year-old man goes around trying to hijack flights; alas, she was too kind. I said keep ’em, but no, she insisted, and as I protested she took me by the hand. Having me leave my luggage with Lois, who was still trying to convince inspectors who she was, she led me to another area to mail the contraband to myself.

She told me I’d have no trouble getting back in. “Just see that man over there,” she said. But she neglected to tell that man over there, and you know the rest: shoes off, belt buckle off, emptied pockets, frisking and such.

I finally made it through security again, but Lois was gone. I feared they had shipped her off to Guatamano Bay. It was now less than 10 minutes before flight time, and the boarding dock a marathon-run away.

All’s Well that Ends Well
I had to catch the plane; I was hosting a fishing party of 90 at Tilghman Island. So I sacrificed Lois and my satchel in favor of camaraderie and big rockfish and raced to the plane. There I found my wife so nestled down she had already placed her beverage order. She was taking wagers whether she’d ever see me again.

Ah for the choo-choos, with their big comfortable seats and boarding not so far from the ticket counter: no seat belts and confinement, no turbulence — and until lately just cursory searches. Why did the Wright brothers have to fly? Enough said …

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 22, 2004 @ 1:20am.