People of the Clouds
By Mia Arderne
Remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous?
These are the words printed on the Men’s bathroom of 43 Air School in Port Alfred. Port Alfred is a South African coastal town situated between Port Elizabeth and East London, home to a choice school for professional pilots.
Pilots, I was soon to discover, are a special breed of professional. Balancing rigorous training, regimented lifestyles and relentless pressure, these men and women need to let go, unwind and de-stress. When they do, they sound something like this:
“They changed the SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] and I was like well fuck, this isn’t the way I learnt, but it’s fine. I’m on full approach for a crosswind landing. So I correct the plane for the crosswind, and the landing – listen, the landing was doof doof doof!”
The pilot recounts, slamming his hand on the wooden table, splashing his drink, reliving the moment,
“Could’ve been better. But at least the approach was stable.”
He takes a huge swig of what looks like brandy and then continues recounting his last flight, only to be interrupted by another pilot,
“Can we stop talking about flying and start talking about vaginas!”
I find myself at The Wright Place, the pilots’ bar at 43, which you can only visit if accompanied by a cadet. Visitors must be out by 21:00 PM. But that is enough time to get a taste of the pilot’s downtime. I’m here visiting my brother (21-year old pilot) who is all too pleased to introduce me to his world. And right now, his world is dancing on the tables, collectively singing in perfect off-key unison,
“Don’t you worry, don’t you worry, child!” under a ceiling covered in dangling ties, each one representing a licensed solo flier who has had his tie snipped off as part of the ceremony. Strange folk, I think to myself.
The bar-counter and bar tables are made of plane wings, massive old propellers serve as décor, and all around me, a hundred thirsty pilots want their drinks immediately. The bar lady loses her cool and slams the bar counter, punctuating every syllable with her fists, screaming:
“I can’t get to everybody at the same time, please just calm down!”
There is one particularly tall, particularly charismatic Kenyan pilot that has conquered my attention. I am still pondering his appeal when he elegantly slides into the chair next to me and says in deep, measured timbre,
“From the minute you walked in here, I could tell that you find me so attractive,” he pauses,
“I just thought I’d sit down next to you here and tell you to relax – put you in your place and tell you not to worry. You’ll get your turn.”
Flawed, I have no response. And I’m not one who easily suffers a lack of words. Suddenly the appeal becomes clear to me: It’s the confidence. There’s a certain confidence about pilots. A confidence that comes with the ability to control an aircraft at 1000kmh, 41000ft off the ground. Self-doubt rolls off them like water. There’s no space for that kind of thing here.
Biceps, stylish, tall, flamboyant, ripped, smooth, suave guy next to me drinks his vodka clean in a plastic glass with a bottle of Sprite in his other hand, slugging the spirit, then chasing it down. He goes on to take my hand to his muscle-cut abdomen and touches my fingers to a tiny metallic ball on his chest. Nipple ring. Eight-pack. I get up to go and find my brother.
We proceed in my brother’s car to the two decent watering holes in Port Alfred. One is overwhelmingly White. The other is overwhelmingly ghetto. And, in true South African style, they are situated right next to each other: Guido’s (upper class, Pop-Rock and Dubstep) and Slots (lower class, House and R&B). Driving down the hill to the entrance, I am told that we are now at “4000ft altitude,” driving further down the hill, “3000 ft, 2000 ft altitude”, all the way down the hill to the club.
“Do you know what the most powerful jet engine in the world is?”
“No, I say.” Genuinely interested.
The pilot in the backseat points to his groin.
Eight ciders and three shots later, I am getting twerked on by a hot female pilot in training, except that unlike Miley Cyrus, she has an ass and the rhythm to carry it.
Hearing another pilot describe his flight through the Fish River Canyon – which he could quite literally fly into due to unrestricted airspace, I come to understand that I am dancing with people who have their offices in the clouds. And they have long abandoned the mundane.
As the pilots throw their inhibition to the wind, it occurs to me that I often entrust my life to these guys every time I travel. Like he’s read my mind, my brother says to me,
“It’s eight hours from bottle to throttle. See these guys in the cockpit and they’re completely different people. Focussed. Level. They have to let go of all that stress. That’s just the pilot’s life. Work hard but play just as hard.”
For pilots, this philosophy may be a perquisite of sanity. But one thing is for sure: They bring the party.