Sunday, May 06, 2007

Aviation Milestones

Having just landed in Singapore after taking the world's longest non-stop commercial flight (18.5 hours, Newark to Singapore on an Airbus A340-500), I was thinking about all the flying I have done.

I have been flying on commercial aircraft for a very long time, starting with Vickers Viscounts and Vanguards with Trans Canada Airlines back in the '60's. Also the DC-3, landing on a grass strip at Whitehorse, in the Yukon.

DC-9's were the main aircraft of Air Canada for inter-city routes, and of course, the Boeing 707 for intercontinental flights. I remember flying Pan Am from New York to Lagos, Nigeria, which seemed interminable, particularly as the in-flight entertainment was a 1 hour music loop that repeated 10 times.

By the time I got posted to Hong Kong in 1982, the Boeing 747 was the dominant aircraft for long distance flights, and it has been my favorite through all of its variants. I was on the first Cathay Pacific non-stop flight between Hong Kong and Vancouver, using the new 747-300 with Rolls-Royce engines. With the relatively short runway at Kai Tak, and the fuel load required for the distance, we started the take-off roll with the tail almost touching the fence at the beginning of the runway. Today, such a flight is routine, but it sure was exciting the first time.

British Airways ran a promotion in the late '80's in which you could get a flight on the Concorde if you flew into London on a first class BA flight. At the time, I had an office in Hong Kong, one in London, and a supplier in the States, so it was easy to arrange an around the world ticket to take advantage of the offer. After finishing up a deal in Columbus, Ohio with Compuserve, I caught the shuttle to NY, and boarded the Concorde flight to London.

I wish I could say the flight was wonderful, because the plane was wonderful - a Formula 1 race car to everybody else's minivans. The reality was less than stellar. The Concorde was so small inside, it was like flying coach on a discount narrow-body. Even the port holes were smaller than usual. The ride was OK when at cruising altitude, but the landing was pretty rough. The plane made the landing approach in a tail down/nose up attitude, which meant you were basically looking up the aisle as you landed. It was noisy and rough, and not something I ever wanted to do again. I am glad I had the experience, but the idea was better than the reality.

I was on the last flight out of Kai Tak, Hong Kong, a very bitter sweet moment. As we taxied out, I could see tens of thousands of people lined up along the airport fence and in the parking garage. It really was the end of an era, with the airport shutting down after we took off, and all personnel and equipment shifting to Chek Lap Kok over night.

The relatively recent addition of the Boeing 777 with its long range versions has made things even more comfortable, with more headroom and storage. The Singapore Airlines cabin treatment in Business and First for the 777-300ER is amazing, with a huge seat that lays flat, big LCD display, power point, and sliding table/desk. It is never a pleasure to fly, but this is the closest to "normal" that any airline has come. It has allowed me to keep my sanity while maintaining a monthly commute to Europe from Singapore.

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