Tell Me A(n Aviation) Story
As those of you who follow my personal newsletter already know, I’ve been taking part in a theatre event in Tallinn called Tell Me A Story. Every month, six storytellers get on stage and tell a story …but there’s a twist. Five stories are absolutely true and one story is a lie. There’s a question and answer period and then the audience has to vote as to whether the story was true or a lie.
I’ve found this great fun and, of course, it is amazing to get away with telling a lie that everyone thinks is true. But my greatest success has been to tell a true story and have everyone convinced it is a lie. Important for context: the audience don’t particularly know me. There are a few who have learned, after a 30-minute lecture, not to ask me about plane crashes or what happened to MH370. But in general, there’s no reason for them to associate my name with aviation.
Up until now, my true stories had been obviously true. No one ever asked me any questions and no one raised their hand when the host asked if they thought I’d been lying. Everyone thought my truth was the truth. I wanted to do better than that. If they could think my lie was the truth, surely it must be possible to convince them that my truth was a lie.
I eventually worked out what was going wrong. All of us had been attempting to tell stories that seemed outrageous enough that it wasn’t possible to tell which one was the lie. But the audience was happy to believe that strange things might be truth. What they were looking for was holes in the story.
My plan was to let them find holes in the story while being very, very careful that every word I said was true.
The readers of Fear of Landing, more than anyone, will be able to recognise exactly what I left out while remaining committed to telling the truth.
Here is the story that I told, as well as I can remember it, marked in bold. My commentary, added after the fact, is in plain text.
So I was on a flight in Spain…
I used to live in Spain, sunny beaches, the sea is warm, basically the exact opposite of Northern Estonia in February. In fact, when I first moved here, I went to the German Consulate to register and… German bureaucracy. This civil servant sits with you and asks all the questions on the form and fills it in. And the woman is like “It says here that you are resident in Spain” and I said “I was resident in Spain but now I live here.”
“And what is your reason for being in Estonia?”
Which… that’s a really good question. I work from home, so it’s not business. I brought my boyfriend with me, so it’s not love. And I don’t have any family here… Basically, I went to Helsinki and turned right and here I am. “I guess you can put down personal reasons,” I said. “It’s complicated.”
And she just stared back at me and said, “It’s not on the form. I just want to know why anyone would leave Spain to move here.”
So, uh, I guess she’s not very happy with her posting.
This is just as it happened although it isn’t related to the story about flying. But I hope it is amusing and it gives my story context: I used to live in Spain, now I live here, some people who live here think that maybe it was better to live there. I’ll come back to this.
But I was telling you about when I was in Spain, flying from Almería to Málaga.
That’s a short flight. I don’t even know if they do it anymore but it used to be, there were a couple of airlines operating out of Almería and you could just hop on over for the day and back again, which is what I did, this one sunny Sunday. So, I’m flying back to Málaga and — not the international airport but a smaller airport, only for domestic flights, called Málaga Axarquía.
These are objectively true facts. I lived in Málaga and I was a passenger on many flights. It is a short flight to Almería. On the day of the story, I was in Almería for a brief visit (in fact, I never even left the airport). At the time, there were cheap flights operating out of Almería. It’s certainly possible, although tedious, to go to Almería as a day trip: it’s only two hours by car.
Málaga Axarquía does not have customs so it is reasonable to say that it is only for domestic flights.
So a thing about Spain, and especially at smaller airports, is that you can speak either English or Spanish on the radio, your choice. If you don’t speak both, though, you’ll miss stuff. And on this day, the pilot is speaking English but there’s this a voice over the radio in Spanish.
There was a risk here that someone might wonder how I knew that but I forged ahead.
My Spanish isn’t great but I like to try to use it and I like to be helpful, so I’m like “there’s something about people on the left of the runway.” Which seems odd but I’m assuming maybe some sort of maintenance or something and maybe she’s meaning to talk to them, right? So I’ve done my bit, I mean, I’m not going to grab the radio and start talking Spanish, or something.
This isn’t obvious if you don’t know me, but I am being very careful about this radio call. I’m trying to describe what happened without getting into detail. The statements I’ve made are true: I understood the call and the call went unacknowledged.
So as the plane descends on final, I can see the runway and sure enough, there are people on the grass to the left of the runway. There’s this old guy and a little girl with him, just walking their dog in the sunshine or something. I know there was a dog because it heard the plane and panicked. It totally freaked out and there’s just this brown and black streak running …directly across the runway.
And everyone is like Oh My God. Because no one expects that, right? Honestly. But then, bearing in mind this plane is hammering down towards the runway, the little girl chases after the dog, right across the runway. Right in front of the plane.
I’m telling you, I was screaming. Everyone was screaming. I heard later that the guys in the tower, they were screaming too.
You might notice the use of the vague “no one” and “everyone” here. Axarquía is an uncontrolled airfield but it has a disused tower. Cliff and my instructor used to sit up there for the best view of the runway. Apparently they were both shouting GO AROUND at full volume, as if I could possibly hear them.
And then, the last thing I saw was the old man stare in horror at the plane. We’re so close, I can see his facial expression. And then HE chases after the little girl. Onto the runway. Right in front of the plane. All I can think is that he reckoned his life was not worth living if he let his granddaughter get run over. Suicide by plane. I don’t know.
And that was the last thing I saw before blue skies, because the plane is going up up up up like we’re in some kind of airshow. Full power ahead and then out towards the coast and back again.
I wondered if anyone would notice how often I shifted to the plane doing things, as if by its own volition. Answer: no one did.
And this time, it’s quiet; it is perfectly still. There’s no one moving on the ground and there’s no one on the radio, just nothing. I think everyone was just holding their breath until the plane landed safely. Which it did. [wipe brow]
After the plane landed, I was thinking, maybe they locked the little girl up somewhere, I mean, for her own safety. Until she’s 16. And her grandfather too because what the hell?
Those were the first words out of my mouth as I got out of the plane, actually.
But no, because afterwards, I saw her, playing by the cafe. It made me shake just to look at her, I have to tell you. She had no idea how close to death she was.
OK, full disclosure: I think I saw the little girl playing in the parking lot, but that sounded weird and grimy. So I admit this was an embellishment but not for the sake of confusing people.
So you know, I like Estonia. This wouldn’t have happened at Tallinn Airport.
I’m circling back to the initial premise: is Spain better than Estonia? Also,I’m reinforcing that image in people’s minds of a big airport.
I mean first, no Estonian would spend a sunny Sunday at the airport to walk their dog, right? I mean, honestly.
And if they did and if their dog went running across the runway, well, an Estonian girl wouldn’t have chased it. An Estonian girl would be like, “Wow, that dog is stupid. Grandpa, we need a new dog”
So that’s one of many reasons why I like living in Estonia.
[big smile; exit stage left]
Everything in my story is true. However, there are a few really big assumptions that I’m relying on the audience getting stuck on. I’m hoping that the way I set it up, they are imagining their own flights to Spain, a big airliner and an international airport, rather than paying attention to the detail of what I’ve said.
If so, then my answers will reinforce their belief that I am lying.
I knew my weak points and had some pre-prepared answers to try to deal with “what was the airline” (“I’m not sure I’d call it an airline, it was a small British operation, they only had like three planes.”) or “Where were you sitting?” (“Right at the front, left side.”). If someone worked it out, they could ask me outright and I’d have to tell the truth. Mostly, I was just hoping that for once, I’d get some questions.
I didn’t need to worry. The audience completely turned on me. They were ferocious. And they didn’t bother asking anything that I had prepared for.
The question that really threw me: “What was the little girl wearing?”
I had no idea. I don’t know that I ever noticed but I certainly couldn’t recall now. My instinct was to make something up like any good fiction author would but luckily, I remembered that I was committed to the truth. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess maybe jeans and a t-shirt? I mean, what I saw was ‘small child on runway,’ not a fashion show!”
Then came the question that should have exploded the whole story wide open. “What kind of plane was it?”
Now I was in trouble. I made a face and said, “It was a Cessna 172.”
There was no point in pretending. I had to answer honestly and so my story was blown. The blood rushed to my head.
But to my confusion, the next question was for one of the other contestants. There were a few more questions that I didn’t even hear. Maybe there was even another one for me. But no one said a word about the plane.
The Q&A was over. Was there really only one person who had worked it out?
Dan, the host, told the audience they were going to need to decide who was the liar. He gave a one-line description of each of us and when it came to me, he said, “…and what about Sylvia, who knows what the airplane was but not what the little girl was wearing!” It was a great way to cast shade on the story but he was also giving me a bit of side-eye. He knew he’d asked me to tell the truth; did he think I was lying?
The voting started. No one raised their hand for Mitzi, who was sitting next to me. Then Dan called out my name and hands shot up everywhere. Not everyone, not quite, but almost.
The other four performers each got a scattering of hands up (I’m pretty sure I saw one person vote three times). I wondered which of them was the liar. Everyone on stage began stomping our feet for the drumroll.
As we reached a crescendo, Mitzi stood up and stepped forward. My jaw dropped. I had no idea that she was lying. Her story had been hilarious but also so very real. And even funnier, her husband, who was sitting in the front row, jumped to his feet shouting, “You what?”
Because she had not even told her husband that she would be lying. She just told him she was going to talk about when she went to Bratislava and he, like the rest of us, assumed that it was a true story.
Dan thanked everyone for coming and made a funny face and said “And Sylvia’s story, what’s up with that?”. I don’t know if he was just making conversation or honestly worried that my story didn’t make sense — which was, of course, my intent. Either way, I wanted to explain while I was still on stage.
“Give me the microphone,” I said, but of course without the microphone, no one could hear me. I waved frantically at him to give me the microphone. He gave me an odd look but handed it to me. I was SO GLAD he’d taken the time to coach me to be more comfortable with the microphone, because I didn’t have to think about how to use it at all.
I grabbed it and stared at the audience. “I was the pilot. That’s the one question that none of you thought to ask.” And then with a swirl, I handed the microphone back and flounced back to my seat.
“BOOM, mic drop,” said Dan, laughing. Then he asked everyone to give a round of applause to the story tellers and the show was over.
I’d noticed before that when I told a lie, people approached me at the bar to talk about the story and how I thought of it and why, but when I told the truth, someone might say that they enjoyed the story but there wasn’t really anything to talk about.
This time I knew I’d done it right because people kept coming over to talk to me. “I wondered how you could see the runway,” said one.
“I knew it was wrong somehow but I didn’t want to ask too many questions,” said another. “But when you said you were the pilot, suddenly it all made sense.”
One person looked dubious. “You said that you work from home but now it seems you are a pilot.”
Axarquía is a small untowered airfield in the countryside. A Cessna 172 is a four-seater single-engine light aircraft. He was still stuck on the idea of an airliner at an international airport. “I am a pilot,” I said, “but not commercially. I fly little planes. For fun.”
“I wondered why there were no more radio calls,” said someone else.
“But you didn’t wonder how it was that I could hear them,” I said, which brought a round of groans from those around me: of course I should have been wearing a headset to hear the radio at all. “But there’s no air traffic control at Axarquía,” I explained. “The two people in the tower were my boyfriend and my instructor.”
This story has always been one of my favourites to tell because it was my solo cross-country flight, which every pilot needs to complete to get their pilot’s license. That landing should have been the easiest part of the whole trial and then suddenly the runway was full of little girl. My instructor was even more upset than I was.
The reason it worked so well for Tell Me a Story was that I found one easy piece of the story to leave out, the fact that I was alone in the plane and flying it. I don’t look like people expect a pilot to look. I seeded the idea of big airports and commercial flights into people’s minds from the beginning. As they tried to make sense of the story, they found more and more holes in it. Something was wrong.
It was easier to presume that I was lying than that I might have been the pilot.