Thirty years of long-haul flying

Here’s a few words on flying after more than thirty years being paid to go on aircraft at someone else’s expense, both at the front and at the back of the bus. I worked for 17 years all over the world as field crew in marine seismic survey, and have worked for the last 18 years for a maritime trade association – again, all over the world. I’m on the way to Singapore and have just boarded the aircraft for the first leg – a Gulf Air 787 Dreamliner bound for Bahrain. On this occasion I am at the front of the bus, in seat 2A, a window seat. There is effectively infinite legroom. Interesting to see that the aisle seat has much less leg room, in order to leave space for the window seat customer to squeeze into their seat.

A row of Airbus A380’s at DXB (Dubai)

The first aircraft I ever went in was a British Airways Hawker Siddeley 748 “Vanguard” from Aberdeen to Birmingham in May 1988. My first long-haul flight was in February 1989. We flew in a UTA 747 combi, from Brazzaville in the Congo, to Paris, stopping along the way in Doula and Marseille. We boarded the aircraft up steps from the apron – no jetway. Because De Gaulle was fog-bound, we were four hours on the tarmac at Marseille, with no refreshments or anything. From Brazzaville to Paris took 12 hours. You can read more about that trip here: https://plateroom28.blog/2020/05/31/marine-seismic-in-the-tropics-1989/.

Hawker Siddeley 748 (image: Wikipedia commons)

The route I’ve flown most often is probably London to Houston, generally Gatwick, generally Continental Airlines. In the five years between 2000 and finishing offshore in Autumn 2004, I crossed the Atlantic something like fifty times, in Economy. I say that – it was actually 49 times. When my dad died the company flew me back home at less than 24 hours notice, from where we were working offshore Trinidad, with British West Indian Airways.

There have been some standouts over the years, though I’ve never been involved in any airline mishaps or near-misses. I know people who have. I know a guy who missed a flight that ran off the end of the runway at JFK and ended up in the water. I know someone who told me he was in a KLM DC-10 when all three engines spooled down mid-flight. I know someone whose dad was stuck in traffic and missed Air India flight 182 from Canada to London, that crashed with total loss of life in 1985.

British Airways flight 74 from Lagos to Gatwick was always a favourite in the mid-1990’s. I’m no fan of BA today and avoid flying long-haul with them, but back then, getting safely onboard that flight could make you start singing the national anthem. As the Lonely Planet guide of the time said, “every flight out of Lagos is like the last flight out of Saigon”…

I once flew in an Alitalia A310 Airbus from Dakar to Rome and the inflight meal was still half-frozen. The steward just looked blankly at me when I complained, and moved to the next customer. A remarkable and almost Soviet disinterest in the customer which sticks in my mind over thirty years later. I’d still avoid Alitalia to this day if I could. I once flew from Rio to Europe with VARIG – the national carrier of that proud nation Brazil…and was served instant coffee. You couldn’t make it up!

I flew from Addis Ababa to Heathrow with Ethiopian Airways. Sat in departures, a fellow turned to me and said, “Is this your first time?” I replied that I’d been on many aeroplanes in my time. He said, “No – I mean with Ethiopian Airways”.

“Are you scared?” he asked. “No”, I replied.

“Well you should be”, he replied, “I’m an aircraft engineer and I’ve seen their maintenance”.

Charming! For political reasons the aircraft could not overfly the Sudan and detoured up the Red Sea, and had to refuel in Athens. Ten hours from East Africa to Heathrow.

I once flew first class from KL to Amsterdam with Malaysian Airlines. More champagne, Mr Nick? Well seeing as you’re asking…That came about because my employer’s travel agency, organising an already heavily delayed crew change out of Songkhla in Thailand, messed up the flights for two of us. The local agent told us that there were no flights from Thailand to London. I said, you’re not thinking deeply enough: think Southeast Asia to Europe, not Bangkok to Heathrow. They came back with two tickets from KL to Amsterdam. One of them was first class at a cost of $5000. I said to the travel agent – just do it!! I didn’t actually lose my job over it, but the vessel manager arranged for me to be immediately “posted” elsewhere to a less salubrious role. Life-changing, but I neither apologised nor ever regretted it. The other guy messed up was a German fellow called Christof. He said, “you can’t treat field crew like slaves” and he was quite right. The principle still applies. That trip was fun: we had to take taxi from Songkhla in Thailand, across the border to Alor Setar in Malaysia. I was sat in the little provincial aerodrome at Alor Setar, waiting for the domestic flight up to KL in an hour and fifteen minutes. In the departure lounge it became very quiet all of a sudden…where was everyone? I realised at the last moment that there was a one-hour time difference between the two countries. Whoops!! I made that flight with minutes to spare.

On a BA leg from ABD to LHR I was upgraded from business class to first class. That was OK although the first class experience with BA is probably about on a level with the business class experience with a front-rank airline like Emirates or Cathay Pacific.

We once took a leg from Buenos Aires in Argentina to some provincial airfield in Tierra del Fuego, in what was effectively the Argentine equivalent of Airforce One. A remarkable and never to be forgotten luxury experience. Others have had to fly for four hours from Puntas Arenas to Port Stanley in a twin Otter with no lavatories – we get “Air Force One”.

The aircraft have changed. The ground-breaking Boeing Triple-7 came out in 1995, with its twin engines rather than four, and extensive use of composite materials in the body. We’ve seen the 400-series jumbo jet with the extended bubble. Upstairs in a 747 was always a special, rather intimate experience for a wide-bodied aircraft. And then of course the mighty double-decker A380. There’s nothing on earth like those lumbering monsters. I’ve often flown into Gatwick on A380’s. On one occasion, I made the mistake of selecting the forward-looking camera to my display screen. Let me tell you, an Airbus A380 needs EVERY SINGLE INCH of that runway to land safely. When the aircraft turned to taxi after landing, all I could see on the screen was green Sussex grass…

An airbus A380

In all those years I never missed a flight because of my own error. But other people’s errors? Well! In the early nineties some of us made a flight from Arlanda (Stockholm) to Heathrow only because there was an “air conditioning fault” on the aircraft. In 1993 I was flown by my employer from Manchester to Gatwick, taking the 10.30a.m flight. It was heavily delayed. Once aboard, I checked my car park ticket stub, and saw that I’d parked the car at 9.48a.m…that would be completely impossible in the post-911 world. That one WAS my mistake, misjudging the traffic driving into Manchester airport. In 1997 an idiot member of the opposite crew overslept in a hotel and quite deliberately left his phone off the hook, delaying a crew change flight from Hurgarda to Cairo. We caught the onward flight from Cairo to Heathrow ONLY because our agent had an uncle who was a Colonel. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Several of us once made a flight from Mexico City to Paris, after it had closed, because the check-in lady was in a good mood and was attracted to one of my colleagues. In 2015 two of us flew from Luanda to Johannesburg, on a plane delayed by four hours. We raced through O.R Tambo International to the gate for the ongoing leg to Heathrow, to see the BA 747 just being pushed back from the gate. So close!! Only after considerable difficulties with my employer’s travel agent did I secure an economy class passage from Johannesburg to Schiphol with KLM.

Air travel: it’s been a fun journey…or has it? More of a love/hate relationship. I’m 194cm tall. Whilst I enjoy meeting people and visiting faraway places as much as the next person, I have to say that if you told me that I’d just been on the last long-haul flight of my life, I don’t think I’d be crying into my beer for more than about thirty seconds.

Idwal Skyline, summer

“If it stops raining by eleven, we’re going mountaineering” I said, at about 9.30a.m. My colleague just grunted in reply, his eyes on his book. The rain pattered lightly on the tent; the clouds looked oppressive. Eventually he deigned to put his book aside and get ready, and we set off around 10.30a.m. Measured steps along an old track saw us at the base of Tryfan, my dear friend having tried without success to charm a lone young lady from Southampton who we met along the way. I grinned inwardly and steamed upwards over the heather. It was 11a.m. The lower slopes, heather and grass, give way to bands of cliffs up which we eagerly scrambled. The A5 soon shrank to matchbox car proportions, a thin line winding along the lake.

Eventually the rock proper begins. I clambered onwards, far ahead of my friend who chose to take his time, savouring the delights of scrambling up the best mountain in Wales. Tryfan never fails to delight the scrambler or casual climber – a veritable delight of routes up good, rough grey rock. Quickly I gained height, choosing, as far as possible, the testing bits rather than the worn pathways. The summit of Tryfan is rarely visible whilst on the north ridge, as the ridge is stepped into terraces. Grey towers up ahead are the tantalising target. The cross-cutting clefts – one of them called “Heather Terrace” are one of the few places where everyone follows the same path. I got to the summit in 77 minutes – a personal best for Tryfan. My companion arrived, at a more leisurely pace, almost half an hour later. He polished off my remaining orange and set the food-consumption rate for the rest of the day.

We continued, trying our best to down-climb rather than walk, down to Bwlch Tryfan where my companion insisted we stop for lunch. I gave in graciously and we sat quietly eating lunch at the col. Then, quivering in anticipation almost, for the afternoon’s work, we arrived at the foot of Bristly Ridge. We climbed and climbed, enjoying ourselves. This section was most enjoyable – an almost endless progression of easy rock that grew sadly easier as we approached the summit. Behind us, Tryfan was a tooth. From the sun-drenched summit of Gylder Fach, though, it looks positively diminutive. Strange shards of slate stand up in clusters on the summit, giving it a rather fantastic look, as if in a scene from “The never-ending story” or other such film.

Out in front again, I continued along to Glyder Fawr in warm sunshine, seeing Snowdon dark on the left, and the Nameless Cwm on the right. Arriving on the summit, we met again with the young lady from Southampton, who complained of a painful knee, and continued downhill in her company, ostensibly helping her. My potential philanderer of a close friend and climbing companion abandoned his position as obliging gent as soon as it was clear she was quite happy on her own; he stampeded off down the screes at a suicidal rate. I went downhill a little slower, particularly after falling on my a**e at one point. At the bottom he gazed wistfully up at the slopes, to the girl with the painful knee, and we continued.

Up Y Garn, where there were a few specks of rain out of nowhere, it seemed. Oddly it’s always cold and windy on Y Garn. Today was no exception. We sat at the top, looking down the slopes into Cwm Idwal, noticing the grey clouds swirling over Glyder Fach at 3200′, whilst the Carneddau on the other side of the Ogwen valley, remained clear of cloud at 3400′ and higher. The last movement of the Idwal Skyline is down the sharp arete above Cym Clyd, which is again as on the Glyders, punctuated by sharp upstanding slates. A wise place to walk with your hands out of your pockets. We arrived at Idwal Cottage well satisfied, at about 6pm. Chips and steak pie at Idwal Cottage, made us feel brighter by far, and deeply content, we tramped back along the A5 to our tent on the far side of Tryfan.

A walk on Kinder Scout – but when?

I’ve just been looking through my old hand-written route books. I have hand-written reports of days on the mountain going back forty years to 1983. I’m in the process of typing them all up and posting them online, here at the plateroom28 blog, in the page Forty Years of Mountains. There’s quite a lot there to read. I am influenced by the writing of the great Scots mountaineer and early environmentalist W.H Murray (1913-1996). As a youth, I obtained a very old copy of his first book “Mountaineering in Scotland”, and deliberately copied his style – though perhaps not his grace – in writing trip reports.

We travel here to the Peak District on a Royal Wedding day. But which one – the reader can be the judge. Two of us left Edale about 10.30a.m and ran off up Grindsbrook. As we neared the top, a rain shower turned heavy, and we waited as it drove down-valley, a grey stain along the skyline.

The peat hags were steaming gently in bright sunshine as we moved over the flat and desolate sea of heather. Up here on Kinder, the flatness envelopes you. We arrived at the “summit”, more of a gentle watershed marked by a cairn, and from there, navigated by reference to the Holme Moss TV transmitter tower, a tall thin mast, its warning lights a-flashing periodically, some 16km to the north. Crowden Head was replaced by the dry bed of the Kinder River, which led us to the Downfall. As we lunched at the Downfall, large and sturdy sheep appeared, until around fifteen of them stood around us patiently waiting for titbits. Black clouds swooped by, darkening the fresh blue skies, soaking the good citizens of Hayfield far below.

From Kinder Downfall, north, followed closely by another line squall. Swiftly, as the skies grew dimmer, we sought shelter under a block of gritstone and waited for the squall to pass. It blew itself out after a dozen minutes or so, and we continued, now again in warm sunshine, advancing along a gentle scarp, past the white front of the Snake Inn far below, past the steep Seal Stones path downwards. We arrived at trig point 1937′ and rested for a while in warm summer sunshine. In the distance, Win Hill was a square grey top. We followed paths downhill through heather past crumbling outcrops, onto the lower moor, Crookstone Hill. In the distance, Ladybower reservoir was visibly empty. As we walked, there were a few mutters of suitably distant thunder. Along the moor, great clouds of blue and grey heaped up behind us, motivating us to hurry. Shelter was far ahead, in the woods at the edge of the reservoir.

A dense squall rushed past on our left, thunder began to crackle, and lightning fork cloud-to-cloud and onto the surrounding tops. Heavy rain began to fall. Lightning flashed again and the rain turned to hail. We flung ourselves into a ditch, hiding our heads from the hail, and then dashed for cover behind the shelter of a stone wall. Hail fell…and when it was over, the world was white like winter. It was amazing to behold. We walked in deep cold past a group of terrified pony-trekkers, their mounts as scared as any of them, down to Hope Cross and along. Fresh clouds gathered, and we tarried a while, hiding from the real risk of being struck by lightning.

Clouds back of us, we continued down the track to Hope. Hail came again, almost painful as it battered our legs, heads and backs. Water ripped at the track, a veritable flash flood, and we were grateful to leap into a Land Rover when a lift was offered. Being driven through the hail-covered lanes to Hope, we reflected that this was the most startling thunderstorm we’d seen for some time.