The problem was that the mere prospect of landing in Mangalore airport in the ageing Boeing 737s of Indian Airlines filled me with such abject terror; I could not sleep for days prior to the flight.
Now, before the corners of your mouth curl down in barely-disguised contempt and you start rummaging in your vocabulary for the perfect adjective for such weak-kneed quavering, I beseech you to close your eyes and visualise this:
Imagine a hillock, the top of which has been flattened to build a short—and it is really short at 5200 feet—runway. Imagine also that at both extremities of the runway, the edges of the hill drop away precipitously into a blue haze. And, if you have not already switched off mentally by now, imagine that the runway is not level, but slopes down from east to west, almost by 30 feet.
All these factors combine to ensure that landing in Mangalore airport, especially if you are occupying a window seat, is not an experience for the weak-hearted. The pilot has to touch down precisely at one extremity of the runway, apply the brakes immediately, and bring the aircraft to a complete stop at the other end. Any small error would mean either a crash during the final approach or the aircraft overshooting the runway and plunging into the arecanut trees 300 feet below.
On one such flight, Heinz Lehmann is my co-passenger, to whom I solicitously offer the window-seat. As we start our descent into Mangalore, the aircraft is buffeted by heavy turbulence. It is a heaving, tumultuous descent and we go down, down, down. Heinz is looking out of the window anticipating level ground to rise up and meet us and all he can see is hills and valleys all around. His is the aspect of a man, whose heart seems to be in a hurry to convene with his tonsils and probably go further on. I can see his knuckles tightening on the armrests and for a moment when he turns around to look at me, there is sheer panic in his eyes.
Suddenly at the very last moment when you see the runway, you are already on it and the brakes come on. The whole aircraft seems to shudder and scream at the effort. As we turn around and taxi back to the terminal, Heinz looks at me and smiles wanly.
I can see his face is bathed in perspiration.