First Flight

by Carol Grant

In the early 60s, my closest friend Lynn and I decided to take our first vacation as independent adults. We had just completed our first year of employment..she as a physical therapist and I as a graduate nurse and we had managed to save a small amount out of our meager salaries. Lynn’s parents had just returned from a trip to Mexico and they told us how reasonable everything was and encouraged us to go. They made it even more enticing by describing their itinerary. It all sounded so simple: a direct flight via Air Canada to Mexico City where they recommended their hotel and the city sights to explore and then on by bus to Taxco, San Miguel de Allende and Acapulco.

We decided to purchase our tickets and then shopped for our travel outfits. We bought  new summery dresses with pinched waists and very full skirts, cute pillbox hats (inspired by Jackie Kennedy, of course), white gloves, handbags and very high heels. Those were the days when people really dressed up to travel by air! I seem to recall that we both dared to buy our first bikini bathing suits as well!

Oh yes, did I mention that this was a first flight for both of us? We were both extremely nervous but we tried to look very worldly and sophisticated as we climbed the exterior steps of the small “prop” plane in our wobbly high heels. We tried to appear nonchalant as the small plane began to roar down the runway and seemed to take a lifetime before it actually rose above the ground. I was amazed and enthralled as I looked out of the window to see my city below. I glanced at Lynn and  to my shock realized that she was perspiring profusely and her face had a distinctive green hue. I then remembered that Lynn had always suffered from car sickness and was in distress as the plane wove and slanted as it climbed and turned south. I grabbed the small paper sac from the pocket in front of me just in time and Lynn was very discreet in her misery. Gradually, when the plane reached its desired speed and altitude, Lynn’s normal color returned, and we both calmed down and chatted about our upcoming adventures.

To our mutual dismay, after a smooth flight of several hours, the plane started to vibrate, the engine seemed to stop and then restart again and we seemed to be rising and falling in the sky. Everyone in the cabin, including the two stewardesses (before the days of “flight attendants”), looked very concerned and frightened. I admit that even my sturdy stomach became queasy and my mouth became very dry. After about 10 endless minutes, the pilot announced that there was engine trouble and that we would be making an unexpected landing in the Mexican town of Tampico located on the Gulf of Mexico!

The plane sputtered , shook and  groaned as it gradually descended. We were instructed to bend our heads down onto our laps.  We were all shocked by the loud sound the plane made just before the landing gear was released and then the wheels actually touched down on the tarmac.  The pilot immediately pressed on the brakes and the plane came to a very abrupt stop. Our plane had landed! Needless to say, there was a spontaneous cheer and many people uttered “Thank You, God” or “Gracias, Deo.”

When the stewardess opened the door, we were literally hit by a sensation of being on a different planet as the heat and humidity was like a moist barrier that we had never experienced. We were helped down the stairs and led into a very small one story building which had a large picture window,  one small unoccupied desk, a single restroom, a large ceiling fan revolving slowly  and several old metal chairs scattered around the room. There was no air conditioning and the heat was stifling. This apparently was Tampico’s very local Airport Terminal!

Within ten minutes after our arrival, there were at least fifty people, including adults and children who were outside the dirt streaked window and peering in to get a glimpse of the extraterrestrial beings who had just arrived from outer space! Thus began our first evening in Mexico.

The four Air Canada employees (two stewardesses and two pilots) tried to reassure us as they were attempting to converse with the local authorities and airport employees. They told us they were trying to reach their Air Canada supervisors to get instructions, but the telephone connections were very limited. They did learn that there were no local airline mechanics nor spare parts available. It would be a very long evening…

As the sky darkened, the parade of  window gawkers gradually dwindled and we surmised that  probably most of the town had paid us a visit. However, it seemed to us that they had been replaced by men of all ages who surveyed us with leers, hand gestures and comments that we could not hear or translate, but seemed threatening. The prospect of spending the night in this suffocating room was alarming.

Finally, the Air Canada pilots informed us that we were going to be saved! An AeroMexico plane on its way from Mexico City would pick us up and return us to the city before dawn. We were all very relieved until an old graffiti-decorated plane careened recklessly down the runway and stopped in front of the  building with a shudder. The “crew” descended and entered the waiting room. The two pilots were dressed in old jeans with stained T shirts and wore cowboy boots and sombreros! The two women who accompanied them were large, buxom females with dyed-blonde hair who wore mini skirts, tops cut off to expose their midriffs, and stiletto heels. This motley foursome was to be our saviors?

The four pilots attempted to communicate, but appeared to be floundering until one of our passengers who was bilingual came to their aid. It was announced that the Mexican crew would be going into town to have dinner while our luggage was transferred to their plane. We all felt helpless by this point but really had no choice…stay in Tampico for the night or risk our lives flying with the “cowboys”? No one could say when the Air Canada plane would be viable again so there really was no choice except to board the rickety old relic which awaited us.

After about two hours, our Mexican “saviors“ returned, laughing and obviously well lubricated! We reluctantly boarded their “spaceship” which was even worse on the interior. Seats were broken, litter was everywhere, empty bottles were strewn under the seats and in the aisles and the rank smell was overwhelming. The two “cowgirls” were no help so we grabbed the least stained seats we could find and soon discovered that even the seatbelts were  broken. The take-off was very loud and shaky but we were finally aloft. Of course, flying in total darkness was another new experience for us and I know that I prayed the whole flight. Meanwhile, the two Mexican women spent most of their time going in and out of the cockpit from which we heard much laughter.

The crowning event of that flight was the serving of refreshments to the passengers. The women came down the aisle, which was already littered with debris, holding metal trays filled with tall bottles of Mexican BEER! One of the women tripped on the torn carpet almost beside us and the whole tray crashed to the floor. The beer splashed us and the odor wafted throughout the plane. I joined Lynn, who was already making use of one of the brown paper bags she had found on the seats. The other woman hastily went to the restroom and came back with a roll of toilet paper, which she didn’t offer to us but unwound up and down the aisle’s stained, torn and soggy carpet!

We actually landed smoothly at the Mexico City airport just as dawn was breaking over the city. Our taxi driver must have wondered how these two disheveled young women dressed to impress, but reeking of perspiration, beer and vomit, ended up arriving at the airport at 5am on an antique Mexican plane.

The rest of the trip exceeded our expectations and our Air Canada flight home was smooth and uneventful.

The following year Lynn and Iwent to Jamaica, but that is another story…


This essay was stimulated by the topic, prompts and support given to the study group “Guided Autobiography”  by coordinator David Grogan  in the Spring 2019 session. Thanks also to my co-students in the group who listen attentively and support me in my writing efforts.