Thursday, January 6, 2011

First Flights

Image: First flights have come a long way since the Wright Brothers!

I must be getting old, because I have no recollection of my first flight – although it almost certainly took place when I embarked on my first overseas journey in April 1971. That was the year I set off on one of those rites of passage trips that thousands of young Australians undertook then – and still do – and I have no recollection of ever having flown before that.

I write about this now, because of an interesting incident that took place during the Denver to Tucson leg of my travels down to the American south in 2010. A young male passenger sitting in the seat behind me was travelling by air for the first time, and his general excitement as the plane prepared for take off got me thinking about first flights, and how they are totally different from what is depicted on television shows and movies.

In those media (unless used as part of the drama), the aircraft is always whisper quiet, take off always smooth, and the seating in Economy Class always spacious! You hear no engine noises, passengers never experience ear popping discomfort, and never have to sit through the safety demonstration or frequent announcements from stewards or pilots.

Since this passenger’s main reference points were the movies and television shows he would have seen, the actually experience of flying would have been quite different and even nerve-wracking. No doubt he would have had conversations with family members and friends who might have already flown in aircraft, but nothing prepares you for the experience like being there, strapped in your seat waiting for the plane to take to the air.

Watching movies, you miss the whine and roar of jet engines as they pick up revolutions that set the plane rolling slowly down the tarmac; and you miss the thumps and bumps that occur as the front landing wheel rolls over the runway lights helping guide the pilots. As the plane ramps up to maximum take off speed the roar of jet turbines becomes even louder until the aircraft finally severs the link with gravity and takes to the air. The list goes on: the thumps, as wheels are retracted into their wheel bays; the ritual of in-flight meals, the regular announcements, visiting the restroom for the first time, and making an effort to actually read the safety guide.

Image: Flaps down and speed brakes up as this plane lands once again

When you watch movies, you never get to experience those moments of tension as the aircraft begins to descend to your destination. Even I never get bored watching as the wing flaps are extended exposing hydraulic cables and other mysterious aircraft parts within the wing cavities. There are more thumps as the wheels are now lowered into place. Ears popping again, you watch as the plane skims over fields, houses, highways, and airport perimeters, the ground rushing by seemingly faster and faster until finally wheels hit the tarmac with a jolt and the flaps extend to their maximum length to create as much drag as possible to help slow the speeding aircraft down. Finally, adding even greater levels of noise to the whole landing experience, reverse thrusters on the engines roar into life as they too are brought into play to help slow the plane.

Video of thrust reverser being deployed on a 737


And to think, all these and more exciting moments are included free in the cost of your airline ticket!

Image: Sunset over Europe during my 2010 flight to Paris

Of course, there’s more: entertainment channels to play with; breaking through cloud cover into bright sunshine and blue sky; turbulence; flashing wing lights; golden sunsets; and traffic flowing down streets and highways at night lighting up cities and towns like flowing lava.

No wonder this young man was excited. Heck, I’m excited just writing about it!

I remember the Denver to Tucson flight took place at night, which makes me pose the question: What would be the best time to take a first flight – or any flight for that matter – during the day, or at night? Each has its own joys and delights, but each is quite different. Personally, I prefer day flights, but can get just as much enjoyment from night flying – especially when passing over large cities.

What about you? If you’ve read this far, why not take a few minutes to share your first flight experience or express your preference for day or night flying. I look forward to your contribution.

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