Carole Allsop writes about her own flying experiences.
Being in a large airliner for twelve hours flying over oceans and continents fills some with fear, others with boredom and others still with excitement. I’m in the latter group, and though I’ve often wondered when my luck might run out – I’ve been flying since a tiny baby – air travel has always been for me a source of both wonder and adventure. A few hours watching the monitors at a major airport, or the runway itself, or even better, one of the flight tracking websites such as flightaware.com showing live flights on screen, would surely dispel some of the anxieties the flight-phobic experience – the number of planes on entirely accident-free journeys at any single moment of the day is staggering.
The picture above shows a screenshot taken at 7pm on a Monday evening, but gives an idea of the number of planes flying safely at any one time across a section of the planet.
A sense of guilt is a more appropriate response for the long-haul traveller. A return journey from London to Los Angeles has an energy cost for one traveller equivalent to that person leaving a 1kW electric fire on, non-stop, 24 hours a day for a year*, and the plane’s round trip will dump around 3.68 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
There are different types of long haul travellers. I recently flew from Costa Rica – an eleven hour flight – to London, and the young man in the seat next to me, in tight jeans and denim jacket sat down without a book, a bottle of water, or any other kinds of assistance to his comfort than what the airline might provide. I, on the other hand, am in the well-prepared traveller category, dressed in loose-fitting clothes of the smoothest fabrics, I retrieve my ‘flight bag’ from my cabin bag in the overhead locker. From this I pull out my bottle of water, my two books (in case I finish the first one), packet of peanuts (I’ve been hungry before after the vegetarian meal option on flights), and my deluxe eye shades, and tuck them into the seat pocket in front of me. I then don my flight socks (just in case of DVT – a healthy middle-aged colleague who frequently flies long-haul was horrified to be diagnosed with DVT after a flight) and slippers, pull out my state-of-the-art J-pillow with special chin support to prevent head bobbling, wrap my tie-die shawl around my shoulders, and arrange the blanket provided by the airline over my knees. My ipad and phone are switched off in case I forget to later, and to save battery power so I will have a full charge on arrival, and I begin to read my book, sheepishly deciding to wait for a discreet moment after take-off to blow up my inflatable foot support.
Aisle seats are my seat of choice on a long-haul, in order to avoid the boxed in feeling of window or middle seat, but I hate to miss watching take-off out of the window, and put on my specs and crane my neck to get what view I can. Again, there are different types of airplane traveller. Some seem oblivious of take-off and landing, not averting their eyes from their screen or page for even a glance. If it was fear, I’d be more understanding, but the lack of awe at the spectacle always stuns me. We are taking part in an experience that should amaze us – mankind has discovered how to ascend into the air in defiance of all our physical limitations – the majesty of this huge machine as its engine reaches a climax of power and thunders effortlessly from the ground.
Most pilots have always wanted to do the work they do, love their job and never cease to experience pleasure in this mastery of physics and engineering. My companion on a recent flight was the book Skyfaring by British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, a man who is clearly in love with flying, and writes lyrically on all aspects of piloting a plane and the joys and curiosities of moving so rapidly across such immense distances. As a car owner relishes their Porsche or Ferrari, pilots relish their 747s, 757s or 767s. Vanhoenacker relates an account of flying a 747 near sunset over the Netherlands, and getting an aerial catcall over the radio from a pilot passing nearby. The majority of passengers are barely aware of the model of plane they are on beyond how large it is, but most of the longest intercontinental flights are on either a Boeing 777 or an Airbus 380. This giant of aluminium alloy and carbon fibre clatters and shudders as it lumbers along the runway before reaching the point at which its engines roar to a gravity defying crescendo and it mounts the skies; like a whale re-entering the water after being beached, it is transformed into the most graceful of beasts, natural master of its element.
Most people barely heed the safety instructions, as either the cabin crew or a video run through the position of exits, how to inflate a life jacket and the details of doing up and undoing the seatbelt. I try to listen and count the rows to the exits since seeing a TV documentary about the survivors of disasters. One thing that struck me was the grim information that passengers in a burnt out plane found dead in their seats had their hands in the position of car seatbelts, as if in their panic they’d reverted to automatic daily habits to undo their belts, and failed to do so. It may be wise to pay attention to the patronising instructions about how to unfasten your seatbelt.
After take-off, the routines of the journey inside the cabin begin, the harried cabin staff dispense drinks in cramped conditions from crammed trolleys, whisk out the special diet dinner trays before the considerable endeavour of serving hot food to every one of the four to five hundred passengers. The crew of up to twenty five flight attendants have often never met until this day, and may not meet again for years. Passengers settle into their rituals – selecting among the formulaic Hollywood movies on offer – I start several movies and give up after ten minutes before finding one that will get me through the early hours of the journey. Once we have all dined, the cabin lights are dimmed, and the lucky ones drift off to sleep.
There are generally three or four pilots for a long haul – again the chances are high that they are strangers – as extras are needed to accommodate sleep allowances, and there must always be someone who can fly the plane if one pilot is taken ill – the captain and first officer eat different meals as a precaution against food poisoning. There is a special bunk area behind the cockpit where one of the pilots can sleep during a long flight. Similarly, the crew have a special hidden sleeping area. I didn’t know about this until recently when on a Korean Air flight from London to Seoul, I noticed crew members disappearing into what I thought was the toilet one after another. I watched mystified assuming there was some problem in there until I realised they were descending. A ladder takes them down to a special sleeping area where the lucky sods can lie flat with a pillow and get some rest.
Sleeping on a flight is impossible for me. Perhaps it’s some primeval anxiety about sleeping in an exposed place, some ancient need to keep watch, but I cannot rest despite all the paraphernalia I take to maximise my comfort. When I was young and hitchhiked across Europe with friends it was always me who sat up in the front of the car or lorry – I never dropped off, and was able to stay alert and check our driver was behaving normally. On a flight I enjoy the feeling of darkness, of traversing a continent in this airborne cylinder of power, cutting through the upper atmosphere, carried along on invisible jet streams which may disturb the plane’s smooth course or create tailwinds that speed our journey. It is reassuring to be surrounded by my fellow humans, sleeping peacefully mostly. Viewing the cabin from the back as I go to bother the flight attendants with requests for water or glasses of wine, I take in the screens on the back of every chair, a few have the flight map charting our gradual movement across the globe on their screens, while an assortment of action scenes flicker from others.
I read, I watch movies, I nod off briefly for a few minutes now and then, and the hours pass until that moment around two hours from our destination that the cabin lights up and comes to life again heralding the delivery of the breakfast meal. A few risk lifting the pulldown shades on the windows to be dazzled by the bright sunlight and blue skies outside – pilots sitting out front have to take great care as they are exposed to massive amounts of UV light and are consequently at greater risk of skin cancer. Some time after these last refreshments a sense of our destination begins, the engines quieten and our plane’s gradual descent becomes perceptible. The approach to a new destination is always distinct.
Flying into Cairo at night for the first time I’ve never forgotten those moments as the idea of the place became a reality and the lights of the city grew in size below.Or into Accra, where many of the lights visible as we approached Kotoka Airport turned out to be flames gushing from gas burners on street stalls rather than electrically produced illumination. And the vast forests approaching Moscow on a flight back in Gorbachev’s time, and then seeing Russian ground staff on the runway and marvelling at this first glimpse of real people behind the ‘iron curtain’. Korea did not look modern and built up as I had visualised on our descent after hours of flying across Russia and China, just an irregular piece of land projecting from the sea in the sunlight of a February morning as we approached our journey’s end.
In the cockpit at a certain point of our downward gradient a voice announces itself ‘Radio Altimeter!’, a device that gives the height of the plane above land at regular intervals starting at 2,500 feet, and these call-outs increase in frequency, until they reach the point at which the plane is 50 feet above land, and then the voice announces ‘Decide’ and the pilot must make the choice – to land or not to land.
There is always a sense of palpable relief in the cabin after touchdown, and many times the passengers burst into applause, at last an appreciation of the magnificence of what has been accomplished.
*The calculation comes from Sustainable Energy – without the hot air by David J.C. MacKay (UIT)