Monday, April 18, 2011
The first time I ever flew wholly within Europe I was treated to a custom that at first frightened the hell out of me. The flight itself was perfectly fine, featuring an exhilarating take-off out of Paris, a long scenic flight across the Atlantic followed by a long and slow glide in to the then relatively new Washington/Dulles International Airport. The TWA 707 touched down with precision handling by the pilots, the engines screamed a little on reverse thrust and the brakes thrummed low as the aerial beast slowed to a smooth canter for the taxi in to the gate. As the deceleration continued so began the strange phenomenon: clapping. What? This was new. I wasn't the most seasoned traveler in the world at the tender age of 13 but I'd been on a few flights before and had never experienced anything like that. To clarify, all of the other flights were wholly within the United States or were military charters loaded with American servicemen and their families. We didn't clap in the United States at the end of any flight, short or long, and especially not in the military. What were these people doing? This was a commercial flight between Europe and the United States. Given the network of connectivity even then it stands to reason it was not crammed only with French and Americans. There had to be people from other European and probably a few Middle Eastern or North African countries on board as well. We had departed from the main hub of Air France, after all, serving the capital of the French Republic along with its attendant former colonies and overseas "departments." Whatever their origin or nationality the majority of the people on this flight were quite accustomed to clapping after landing but it escapes me to this day the exact beginnings of this custom or what specifically the applause was for. Relief? Were they all excited to be once again safely united with terra firma and not vaporized in the atmosphere from an explosive decompression or smoldering in the ruins of a disastrous crash in a field or shopping mall short of the runway or on the side of a mountain someone forgot to consider. The jet age by 1977 was still less than 20 years old with rapid developments in technology that had not all seamlessly come together with more than a few spectacular mishaps to show for it. Excitement? Were they all bursting with joy at being home, on vacation or one stop closer to wherever they were going? This kind of outburst I understood, being unable to contain the joy of being someplace or about to experience something hyper-charged with anticipation, like Christmas morning or a major rock concert. The very air is electric and the thought of finally being there, in that moment, can easily cause unchecked emotions to overflow. Applause would be a very polite and tame expression of sheer joy. Nah. I may have been the young one on this flight but the hardened road warriors who make this hop on a regular basis would hardly be the type to erupt in euphoria simply for landing in Washington, DC, epicenter of international cynicism. So if it wasn't relief at still being alive or excitement at being in the nation's capital, what was the reason behind this sudden outpouring of thanks and gratitude? Perhaps it was all merely to acknowledge the skill of the guy behind the door. Nice flight, nice landing. Thanks! Gotta go.