Long-haul flight leaves me with an unwelcome memento

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IS there a more unhealthy place to be than aboard an aeroplane on a long haul flight?

I recently had to endure two separate eight hour stretches on a Boeing 767 to the Caribbean and back – tough I know, but someone has got to do it.

And while the flights were both smooth and uneventful, both Mrs Hextol and I are still suffering from horrendous bugs, picked up no doubt from having to suck in other people’s foul outpourings for what amounted to two full working days.

I have never shared a plane with so many wheezers and snifflers, coughers and barkers and breakers of wind.

A lady two rows ahead was copiously sick early in the first flight, spectacularly missing the sick bag, and despite the liberal application of gallons of disinfectant and what may have been two tins of Swarfega by gagging cabin staff, you could still smell it a fortnight later on the way home.

The holiday companies do make a special effort on long haul flights, by dishing out several free meals and complimentary drinks, and there are films to watch and games to play on the little television screens installed in the back of the seat in front.

I won something like £18m on the Who Wants to be A Millionaire game, but the enjoyment was impaired by the man in front, who had found a way of reclining his seat to an almost horizontal position, impairing my view of the oleaginous Chris Tarrant unless I twisted my head to an impossible angle.

I did ask him politely to straighten up at one point while I had my meal, but he glared at me, and went off into a torrent of unmistakably Eastern Europe invective, and remained determinedly prone.

His female travelling companion, who bore a startling resemblance to Rosa Kleb, fixed me with a baleful glare from eyes like two chips of Caspian Sea ice and clearly regretted she had left her boots with the poisoned toe caps in her case.

Denied seat back stimulus, and with the flyingophobe Mrs Hextol snoozing fitfully in the seat next door, I renewed my opinion that air travel, while the best and safest way to travel long distances, is far and away the most boring pastime ever.

You may be travelling at almost 600 miles per hour, but the view out of the window consists entirely of clouds, with the occasional glimpse of a sliver of land far below.

Annoyingly, the captain never says where that little piece of land is, so I am never quite sure if we are flying over Iceland or Ireland.

I am sure that part of the rigorous training airline pilots have to go through is the development of an unintelligible mid-Atlantic drawl, accompanied by twiddling with the volume control so that no-one really knows what is going on,

I believe it comes just before the bit on the course where the pilots are instructed to set the air conditioning in the aircraft either to “Sahara” or “South Pole” with nowhere in between.

For pleasure flying, I much preferred the old-style short hop planes, like the much-missed Gill Air aircraft that used to fly out of Newcastle AIrport.

They were like service buses with propellors and wings, with sliding windows you could open without fear of being sucked out into the sky. They didn’t seem to fly high enough to reach the clouds, so you always knew where you were going, and you could see people’s houses from a whole new angle.

I always had the feeling that if something ever did go wrong, the pilot – doubtless wearing a silk scarf and sporting a handlebar moustache – could land in a field, and fix whatever was wrong with a ball of string, a Swiss Army knife and a little ingenuity.

I was lucky enough once to fly in an RAF Hercules with the Falcons parachute display team, when they dropped in on Bellingham Show. It was decidedly odd to see these macho heroes holding hands as they rehearsed their moves on the tarmac before taking off, and then casually hurling themselves out of the gaping rear door of the huge aircraft to land with pinpoint precision on the showfield.

And I was still aboard the Hercules when it did a low-level flypast as a grand finale, before the pilot mischievously stood the plane on its tail to fly away almost vertically, the G-force reducing my already modest height to Lilliputian levels.

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