After suffering through years of physical and emotional abuse at the slacken paws of the Greyhound bus, I avoid it at all costs. Through years of riding the bus, I’ve learned how to make it (almost) bearable. You avoid unwanted seat mates by putting headphones on and blaring Boston while avoiding eye contact, reading self-help books and drooling slightly. Or by pooping yourself (malodorous but effective). If you do have the misfortune of company, you can contort your spine into an accordion and crumple into the window. Or lay underneath the seats like a corpse on the floor.
The 11-hour bus ride (a 7 hour drive) from Sault Ste. Marie to Toronto is a world of pain. I no longer have a car and couldn’t find a ride, so I was filled with dread at the prospect of another Greyhound venture. When my Richard Branson-esque uncle offered me a ride in his ’59 Piper Comanche plane, I jumped at the chance.
The plane is essentially a car with wings. The boarding process consists of me stepping on the wing and flinging my backpack onto the seat. No more taking off my belt and shoes like a (potential terrorist) sucker! I plop down on the plush, velour backseat (the color of Merlot, the texture of privilege). I feel like I’m in the back of my friend’s old Monte Carlo. I understand nothing of the science of flight so this trip promised to be chock full of new thoughts and revelations!
He gasses up with 30 gallons in each wing, with an extra five gallons “to get home.” I note this detail with particular interest due to my knowledge of the Gimli glider debacle (which you should watch – a highly informative account of what to do when you run out of fuel in an airplane). His girlfriend reminds him to pee before we leave, wise advice that he quickly heeds.
The interior has all of the original 1950’s stylings with notable modern touches (GPS, stereo and iPad dock). He whips out the iPad and tells me he uses a navigation app to comandeer the plane. He also has a moving map GPS that will basically keep the plane on a pre-determined course when it is on auto-pilot. “Stupid seagulls,” he mutters to the birds sunning themselves on the runway as we begin our short take-off.
I buckle up a clasp seatbelt and start wildly photographing everything I see. I put on my archaic, avocado green noise-cancelling headphones and sit back in delight. If I were riding the bus, I would most definitely be seated next to some horrible foot fetishist by now (long story), hating my life. Instead, I am flying (majestically, incredibly!). We crest out over the town and I see the house where I grew up, dwarfed by the enormous sewage lagoon adjacent to it. We fly above forests of trees that look like fake lichen from toy train sets. We glide over the gorgeous green patchwork of the farmer’s fields, the 100-mile expanse of Manitoulin island peppered with lakes, and the miniature silos and pools and golf courses and highways. This is how you do it right.
He has to let Toronto Island know we’re coming into their airspace, and informs me that this is called Squawking. Adorable! We’re all just baby birds flitting around in potentially lethal, 1000 pound bodies. He radios to air traffic control which assigns us a Squawk (transponder) code. This is so we can be identified on radar and avoid a collision.
We get up to about 130 knots (150 mph). We also have caught a tailwind so are getting some help (about 10 knots of push). We level out at 7500 feet. This is my uncle’s 5th Comanche, and is considerably quieter than his twin-engine model that would ‘vibrate apart your insides.’ He runs the iPad plane navigation system and cues up the Eagles’ Desperado. “All we need is a glass of wine and we’re good to go,” chuckles his girlfriend, the co-pilot.
It gets a little rocky as we near city limits. He shouts to his girlfriend to “keep an eye out for planes.” This seems a vaguely discomfiting ‘radar’ system, but I’m confident in his abilities (he’s been flying these little planes since 1967). An hour and a half later, we touch down on Toronto Island, I get off the plane onto an empty runway, save for a couple of air signallers. They point me to the ferry – no questions asked, no passports scrutinized. I board the ferry with tired-looking Porter passengers, smug in the knowledge I dodged the greyhound bullet. For now.
Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson.