So today, just a sweet story from 33 years ago to the minute.
On February 1st, 1988, I started my job at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC. I had really no sooner arrived than I left again: months before I’d won the job, JJ and I had planned to be wed in Toronto on Saturday, February 13th.
Nothing as minor as a new job in a foreign country was going to get in the way of that. On Thursday the 11th, after a surprise chocolate cake send-off from my brand new colleagues, my about-to-be husband and I headed for the airport.
Now that I think about it, none of this (the travel saga, not the wedding) would have happened if I hadn’t learned to fly.
The way international air travel was set up in those days, before Canada-US preclearance and the Open Skies Accord, most people who wanted to fly from Washington DC to Toronto would have taken a nonstop from Dulles International Airport (40 minutes’ drive from DC in no traffic and nice weather) right to Malton (Toronto Pearson.)
Except that I didn’t want our trip to begin or end at either of those airports.
First, and less important, the oh-so-convenient National Airport (DCA) is located a mere ten minute drive from where we were living. It was, and still is, exactly as its name suggests: a domestic airport, not an international one. In those days before preclearance, passengers departing DCA for a destination in Canada had to stop and, if need be, change planes so that the final leg of the flight leaving the U.S. departed from an international airport.
Second, and more important, for reasons of sentiment, economy, and nominal convenience, I wanted to arrive into Toronto Island (now “City Centre”) Airport, on the shore of Lake Ontario right below the CN Tower. Toronto’s big international airport (also a solid 40 minute drive from downtown even in decent weather, and traffic was almost always bad on top of that).
Between 1986 and 1988, a short-lived air service operated a small fleet of DeHavilland Twin Otters — 19-seat turbo-prop aircraft — between Toronto Island and Buffalo, Rochester, and Newark. But the best part was the price: just $29 one way, instead of about $350 if you went from Pearson to Buffalo.
And the sentimental part? Well, Toronto Island was my favorite airport because I had just learned to fly there. I had friends among the pilots at the flight school as well as various Skywalker aircrew, whom JJ and I had gotten to know as we’d flown back and forth to visit each other over the past year. It was…our home airport.
I’d spent a lot of time wandering around Buffalo International Airport while waiting to change planes. It had become kind of a no-mans-land: my body had left Toronto, and my brain was already in Washington. But, for what it’s worth, it remains to this day the only airport I’ve ever seen that featured an entire trophy case dedicated to the prowess of its ground crew in emergency airport snow clearing. Buffalo routinely gets socked with weather the locals call “lake effect.” In the winter, that means prevailing westerly winds whistle by, suck up tons of water from Lake Ontario, chill down once they hit the shore…and dump the snow on Buffalo.
We didn’t pay much attention to the forecast before we left DCA. We took off in the afternoon sunlight in a nice big shiny USAir jet. When we landed in Buffalo to change planes, we saw the Skywalker pilots saunter off to play pinball while waiting for departure time. They seemed unconcerned by anything. All was well.
Nine passengers boarded and sat wherever we liked. The Twin Otter had single seats along the left side of the aisle, and pairs on the right. In the days before 9/11, access to the flight deck was wide open for all to see. JJ and I sat together in the two seats right up at the front, leaning forward watching all the flight operations as we took off into the night.
The flight was rough. Rockityrockityrock. We hadn’t paid much attention to a massive winter storm that had been pushing its way eastward for a couple of days, and now we were in the thick of it. This plane had “de-icing boots”, so that if the leading edge of the wings got covered in ice (very bad for airplanes that want to stay airborne), the pilots could activate inflatable strips that would break up the ice. That night, they needed them. Every time the pilots cycled the de-icing boots, we could hear and feel the broken ice hitting the fuselage. Bam, bam, bam.
I could see the pilots changing their communication radio frequencies. I looked at JJ and shook my head.
A few minutes later, the copilot came back to talk to the passengers, and explained the situation:
“So, the weather at Toronto Island is below minimums: it’s not safe to land there. We can either go to Pearson, or divert to Hamilton. What do you want to do?”
The passengers took a vote, and we all decided we’d prefer to end up in Toronto, even if it was the other airport.
The co-pilot belted back in and then turned from the cockpit and looked behind into the cabin and yelled to me, “Would you pass me my approach plates?”
His flight bag was just in front of my knees. I knew what he needed: the instructions for landing at a different airport than he’d planned. I dug through the bag and handed them to him.
I’m now following the COM frequencies intently.
Rockityrockityrock. BAM. BAM. BAM.
I look at JJ and shake my head again as the plane banks left. That’s definitely not part of the original flight plan.
Now the pilot comes back to talk to us all.
“Well, folks, there’s a big stack of planes in a holding pattern over Pearson, and we don’t have enough reserve fuel to be able to fly long enough to be able to land, so I’m sorry, we have to go back to Buffalo.”
The passengers, while not happy about the change in destination, are happy to have decent odds of landing safely at any destination at this point. Just as we literally tighten our belts, the pilot turns around again and looks at me and asks,
“Is your name Judy?”
“Your dad says you should call home when you get to Buffalo.”
I guess one nice thing about knowing the people who run the Fixed Base Operation at the Island is that your family can pass messages to the flight deck.
We landed safely. Our group of nine grateful and slightly grumpy passengers trudged out of the terminal to the pickup lanes and looked at each other through the near-horizontal snow. Now what?
We had one thing in common: a single destination.
Sitting right in front of us, a white stretch limousine was idling. One of us had the inspiration to chat with the driver. Turns out he’d been waiting to pick up passengers who were clearly not going to be arriving from Chicago any time soon.
How would he like to do a nice long trip, with a big fat tip, to Toronto?
Everyone’s day got a little brighter.
We piled in.
After a brief stop at the nearest drive-thru McDonalds, we were on our way in the ideal ride for a blizzard: a long heavy vehicle with snow tires that was very good at going in straight lines.
And that was how we arrived, fashionably late but in high style, in Toronto to be married.
Skywalker is no more; flights ended a few months after that, in April of 1988. They lasted just long enough to get me married.
My name is still Judy, even though nobody flies with paper approach plates anymore, and passengers don’t get to watch flight operations. It still snows in Buffalo.
We are still married, and still flying in every sense of the word to destinations we never even imagined possible. Life is good.