Eyes on the skies
Julie Farrell recalls her fascination and longing for the glamorous world of air travel. Illustration by Liam Rotheram.
Since my childhood I’ve always felt in awe of airports. Not so much being inside them, but rather seeing the planes streaking across the sky, coming and going with the regularity of buses, and with as little impact on passers-by.
Every time I see a plane take off or indeed, swoosh in to make a bumpy landing on the tarmac, my stomach gives a little jolt. Watching them taxiing around the runway has me positively buzzing as I sit on the edge of my chair, craning my neck for a better view.
I didn't fly until I was nineteen; quite an achievement in today’s world. My parents never took us abroad for a holiday – it was always off to the Highlands for us, any chance they got. I can understand this; the quiet tranquillity of the hills affords a lot of relaxation for busy minds. Having now got a fair bit of travelling under my belt (though still not enough) I can’t help but think I missed out. The thrill of the engine thrumming under your feet and the knee-jerk behind your navel on take-off would, I imagine, be quite something for a child to experience.
A feeling of anxiety, given the apparent impossibility of powered flight; a feeling that you're somehow cheating mortality, going way, way up there, closer to space station than the birds; a feeling of leaving everything you know behind, and seeing so much farther than have you ever before. I didn’t realise how big the world was – and how little my own – until I took off for the first time.
Travelling gives you a huge dose of perspective and one which I think is hard to find elsewhere. Every time I travel, my life and all its problems shrink away behind me as I jet towards the myriad possibilities ahead. As a child, I think I would have had a stronger sense of the world, and my place in it, had I seen more of it. That penpal in the USA would suddenly seem so much more real and would stop taking shape in my mind as whatever character was big on Nickelodeon in those days; instead they would have been a real person who could communicate a lot more to me about their life, had I only known how to ask the questions.
I was forever asking my parents to drag out their old slides (as in, tiny, old little thumbnail photographs, like a negative strip, each in a little white frame which slotted in front of a projector lamp) out for a show of their worldly travels. My parents, before my sister and I were born, were voyagers. My Dad was a First Officer in the Merchant Navy, and his job took him sailing all over the world on colossal oil tankers. The Cape, Thailand, the Panama Canal – you name it, they’d seen it. I can vividly recall taupe-tinted images of emerald palm-fronds, swaying in the breeze above my Mum’s floral-clad shoulder, an azure blue stretching out behind her as it met a golden caster sugar beach. I could imagine shrieks of laughter and a wet splosh as she was inaugurated into the sailors’ clique for the first time in their special ‘ceremony’ – their laughing faces forever frozen in a fragile slide.
So why did they not travel with us? I’m not sure it’s a question I can answer. Maybe they had seen it all? Maybe they didn’t have the money. Maybe it’s because my Mum had poor health after having my sister and I.
Whatever the reasons, we never got to explore that world with them. Instead of sun-soaked holidays, trips to the airport. They would drive us out to watch the planes – usually from the tinted window of Garfunkel’s restaurant in Glasgow Airport – where my plate of congealed pasta would sit abandoned as I stared in awe at these streamlined tins on wheels moving around each other with a grace I wouldn’t think possible for their size. My Dad would tell us all about the aerodynamics of flying, pointing out all the different elements of their structure. To my young mind it was fascinating.
It seems odd, perhaps, that we should have made a day out of chasing planes and not boarding them. I was none the wiser – it only made me curious, and all too aware of all the possibilities waiting at the end of the runway. It planted a seed that has grown into a voracious thirst for travelling, and my longing to see the world has made my experiences all the richer. The first time I stepped off a plane in a truly foreign clime, I was stunned. My husband (then boyfriend) and I had opted for Lanzarote for my first ‘proper’ holiday – a week in the sun.
We landed at sunset. The heat and humidity almost lifted me off my feet, it felt so solid. The air smelled of so much that wasn’t home. The hills were Indian ink; silhouetted against a postcard perfect sky awash with hues of pink and gold, fading into night. I felt my eyes widen as I spotted palm fronds swaying in the breeze. It really did exist. I felt like I was on another planet. My husband stood beside me waiting with baited breath and an expectant expression on his face; he knew how big a moment this was for me. I turned to him, laughing as he grabbed my hand and we jogged to the shuttle bus, taking our first steps towards a love affair with travelling that is sure to continue for the rest of our lives.
Along with those age-puckered slides, there was proof in these day-trips to the airport that there is a whole wide world out there and a transporter waiting to take us there at any given moment – all we need to do is board.