So the summer continued. I had a chance to return to home to spend some days with my boys Jake and Harry. Willed myself out of bed at 5.00am to catch the early flight to Heathrow. Keflavik Airport was its usual July self, a snake of passengers worked their way via the cordons to the check-in desks, most as blurry eyed as me. The walk from the security is almost as long as the journey from Reykjavik. The reason why the passport control is situated so far from the heart of the airport is found in one word – Schengen. Whoever or whatever Schengen is, it seems that he she or it has done a fine job in creating unnecessary hassle.Why? For no good reason is why. But it is the way this Schengen seems to operate. The name actually sounds like a mythical creature, if that is the case, then the people of Iceland have really upset him. He makes you and your visitors walk needlessly from point to point at unfriendly hours of the morning, whilst making some of your nations finest sit wearing guns in bullet proof boxes, checking passports. We live in times of global uncertainty, the axis of evil etc. But, if Islamic fundamentalists are going to strike, Icelandic passport control will not be high on their list of strategic priorities. These passport officers seem uncomfortable in their uniforms and gun belts, as do their female counterparts newly trained at the ‘full service’ TGI Friday’s in Reykjavik. State policing and service seem refreshingly alien to Iceland’s youth.
I boarded the plane and eyed the safety video. It had a cheery section of a 7 whatever 7, floating in the sea with life rafts around it. A regular traveller, I of course ignored the video and read instead. We climbed away from the city and levelled off at a cruising altitude, when the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing a problem with one of our engines we are returning to Keflavik.” They were as welcome as a positive blood test.
One of our engines? A glance at the wing confirmed that we only had two.
I looked around ready for the inevitable panic which would have gripped my fellow travellers and took the opportunity to show some sang-froid, to see there was absolutely no reaction from the Icelanders who made up the bulk of the passengers. The group of drunken students who had been up all night, started to sing “Ground control to Major Tom” and continued to swig from beer bottles. The remainder sat in silent indifference while this seasoned traveller began to panic. The old woman and her son sitting next to me were amongst the few non-Icelanders on the flight. They were from Somalia. How they ended up in Reykjavik is another story, but he had fallen asleep the moment we took off, while she sat huddled in her shawl, gazing at the folded tray-table. I thought of family friends and listened anxiously to every sound from the engine as the aircraft banked hard to retrace our course.
There’s time to reflect in moments like these. Why no reaction from the Icelanders? They are Lutherans not Buddhists, a hymn might have been appropriate. Certainly, in America, the aircraft would have filled with the chant ‘Oh my God…! In Italy, passengers would have crossed themselves, gabbling and arguing. Anywhere in South America, we would have a riot on our hands. But here we are, 29,000 feet over the Atlantic with only one functioning engine and there was – nothing. Screens showed an ancient rerun of a ‘Friends’ episode and the passengers sat watching, oblivious to the drama they were part of. For me the image of the aircraft in the ocean beckoned and it occurred that I had actually never seen a floating aircraft in my life before.
I was brought up on a rich diet of black and white movies, the Dam Busters’ school, ample material for my fear-loaded imagination. The pilot would doubtless be wriggling in his seat, brow-furrowed and adopting that calm in a crisis tone that generates panic in all of us who think we know better. The co-pilot would be flicking switches and making ‘Mayday’ calls, before the aircraft was given the ultimate test of its amphibious potential. The female purser, beautiful in a way that had survived a million drunken leers, would be preparing herself to issue the big one – the numero uno of in-flight announcements ‘Ladies and gentlemen please adopt the crash position!’ I reached below me and was comforted to find, for the first time in my life, the buoyancy aid.
I looked around the aircraft newly comforted and impressed by my partners in crisis. I felt a fraternal charge with people who showed such phlegm, spunk, pluck (all sound pretty terrible I know, but that’s the way the great book, the Oxford Dictionary, tells us is what we show in the face of adversity.)
We pierced the low cloud that now enveloped Keflavik and landed without further incident or comment from the passengers. My heart rate returned to normal and the Icelanders made no remark as we were asked to disembark the aircraft, and endured the long wait for an announcement and inevitable disruption to their timetables. A call that would send other nations into apoplexy, in Iceland it did not elicit a shrug. What I’m trying to say is that they coped. No drama queens, no hissy fits, no ‘ you’ll be hearing from my lawyers’, just a shrug and let´s get on with it. And I like them all the more for it.
Oh yes, the Somalians. The mother remained transfixed throughout and the son awoke as we arrived at the terminal – He looked at his watch and then asked ‘London?’
‘No’. I smiled, enjoying the new found confidence that only terra firma can produce. ‘No, not London – Keflavik – we have a problem’.
Iceland air Flight 105 returned to service a day later (?).
Robert J Jackson 2003
Robert Jackson is a writer. He divides his time between Reykjavik, Vik and the UK. His first book 69 Degrees North, an adventure love story with an environmental twist, is available at Penninn Eymundsson, Austurstraeti 18 or through Amazon.com.