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:

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.

Rocket Fighter, by Mano Ziegler

What a remarkable read! Mano Ziegler, a second world war fighter pilot with the Luftwaffe, published, in 1961, “Raketenjaeger 163“. This excellent little book was subsequently published in English as “Rocket Fighter”. It is the very readable story of the development of the Messerschmidt 163 rocket-powered interceptor during WWII. My copy came as a gift from a close friend of mine.

image: Wikipedia

It is wonderfully written. Lovely English – one may ask whether this is because it was well written in the original German (which I find more than likely) or is it an artifact of translation by someone who can write beautiful English? It comes across in waves of easy-to-read, rolling prose.

It’s worth mentioning, at a remove of seventy years since WWII, that the work is completely free of any political rancour or bitterness, and there is little mention of the war itself at all, except toward the end of the book when the onward juggernaut of the Soviets was making its way across eastern Germany. The war is seen always as an effect, a shadow, an influence.

The story here is about the airmen who worked to the best of their abilities to transform this innovative new rocket plane into an actual operational fighter. The heroes are the airmen. They are no different to American airmen, or British airmen. At one point, a pair of Mustangs fly over and strafe the airfield, causing the flyers and a number of their female colleagues (WAAFs of some kind) to fling themselves into a slit trench or ditch for shelter. Emerging from shelter after the raiders had gone, one of the airmen shakes his fist at the retreating Americans: “look at my bloody trousers – straight from the cleaners too!!” These men had an excellent custom of “birthdays”. if something happened to an airman where he ought by rights, to have died – but survives – that day, ever afterwards, becomes a new birthday, with cake and drinks and appropriate celebration.

The heroes are the men that lived and died working on the rocket planes, which were unreliable if amazing when they worked. And these brave men sometimes died hard, literally dissolved by the liquid rocket fuel, which was concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide.

The astonishing technology is the other hidden hero here. History is generally written by the victors: I was brought up in 1970’s Britain, and was taught in school that Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. German aviation technology seems almost like “alternative history” to me. Men like Alexander Lippisch, who pioneered the tail-less “delta” shaped aircraft (so iconic later in the Avro Vulcan) so nearly brought the Germans victory in WWII. To read or watch Philip K Dick’s nightmare vision of a 1960’s where the Nazis won (“The Man in the High Castle“) and see a world spanned by supersonic jets, and a manned mission to Mars, is to shiver. Terribly plausible, at one level, when you consider this frighteningly advanced technology, and the upright, honest and capable men, like Mano Ziegler and others, who were set by the Nazis to develop it and fly it.

Jet: when Britain ruled the skies

Nostalgic, sentimental, patriotic, a little gushing, perhaps. These programmes are redeemed, for me, by the presence of Lord Tebbit. Tebbit is one of the few politicians who actually worked for a living before going into politics. We’ll learn a lot by him; when he goes, we shall not see his like again.

These programmes look back at the UK’s all too brief period of air supremacy in the ten years or so after the second war. It can be exemplified, distilled, as it were, by that image of a Vulcan bomber flying alongside a Lancaster. Two Avro machines, separated in design by a dozen years at best, but worlds apart. One, a creation of the late Thirties, the other, of the Atomic age.

We might look back on that period in the early 1950’s with a sense of wonder and not a little unbelief. From the end of rationing, until Suez, something golden was happening. A short renaissance of Empire, perhaps. A final gleam of sunshine out from under lowering clouds. A last fling of power; a final throw of the dice. We might well look back and feel justified in saying, hell, what went wrong? The historians might give a blunt one-word answer: Suez. But, it might just be a little bit more complicated than that.

Notwithstanding that potential complexity, it’s fair to say that our embarrassing failure at Suez was a milestone in the fall of the British Empire. After Suez, post-Imperial Stygian gloom. Before Suez, you might have kidded yourself, were you thus inclined, that the British Empire and it’s Commonwealth might have endured.

Directions were taken in those years that might have been otherwise. Were there really “cusp”points in those years? Could it have been different? Given the financial and economic reality – the Marshall Plan – post WWII, it seems unlikely.

But what, they built some magnificent flying machines.