It’s just before 11pm. A plane flies lower than usual. Living near a flight path, I usually ignore the dull roar as they descend to the airport 15 kilometres distant. I check Flight Radar and see that this flight has gone into a circular pattern, toward Port Phillip Bay.
I sidetrack. I think about men in their flying machines; the Wright Brothers, Kingsford Smith, Amelia Earhart – the old school aviators. I think of the WW1 pilots in their tiny aircraft, blue Air Force uniforms and Top Gun. I remember the furore about Deborah Wardley – the first female commercial pilot in Australia.
I check back on Flight Radar. This plane, a massive A 380 is circling the bay and is now dumping fuel. I find out this via Twitter and the flight number is now a hashtag and people check its progress, take photos and some complain about the fuel dumped into the bay. Someone chips in and says the fuel will evaporate due to the altitude. I just think of the souls aboard. The people sitting silently in rows as the huge plane banks and glides over the bay.
I think of my dad, a wannabe pilot who joined the Air Force, but was discharged being “unfit for flight crew”; he probably was too much of a maverick to fit into a small team. Instead, he had his own plane and flew around the continent for the fun of it. The point was that he was flying. In another life, he may have been a commercial pilot.
I look at these miraculous people and yes, there’s a bit of hero-worship here. These folk, who work long hours and sacrifice a normal life, are responsible for passenger’s passengers’ lives – there’s something otherworldly about them. As if they are not from here, they could be from somewhere up there – sent down for a while to carry us from place to place.
Back to Twitter, It’s a landing gear issue, apparently. More and more people join the Twitter conversation. People just in from a night out or about to go out. It’s not just flight geeks; the plane spotters who go to airports and note down flight serial numbers, the make and the model. Now it’s on the internet, on a Twitter feed where the most unlikely people join up on one humid night to check the progress of a plane in trouble.
I think of me – the nervous flyer, the one who winces at every jolt and who panics even in mild turbulence. I never used to be like this – I flew many hours and thousands of kilometres before air travel began to scare me. Maybe having babies caused this – I read somewhere that childbirth can turn a complacent air passenger into a quivering wreck.
Yet at the same time, despite the terror, I still love to fly. Two years ago I sat by a window for five hours watching the snowy expanse of the USA roll out below me. I saw for the first first time the curve of the earth, I watched the progress of another plane fly beside us( 10 miles away) for hours. I glimpsed our plane shadow on the tarmac at JFK as we landed. Two and a bit decades ago when I wasn’t so scared, flying into Hong Kong was still an adventure. Coming over the Australian continent at first light and seeing the smudges of brown and red below and knowing I am home. Flying low over Manhattan in the late afternoon and been so excited I was bouncing in the seat and having a crew member say, ‘Take your photos. When we sit down, you sit down.’
Twitter now says the plane has dumped its fuel. Nowadays you can listen to garbled remarks from ATC on the internet. I did this for a while, hearing the exchanges between the pilots and the controllers. It’s all calm and regimented and sounds normal.
Twitter holds its breath as we all watch the yellow symbol of the A380 do a few more loops, then there’s a turn and descent begins. I think of the pilots, the crew and passengers. And while most of Melbourne is asleep the plane lands. I turn off my light, satisfied they are on the ground. In an odd way, it’s been as compelling as a TV show, except that it was played out online for us to follow.
I wonder as I lie in bed whether the people aboard this flight knew that there were people barracking for them on the ground or whether they’d care. For pilots, it’s just a job really, but for something like flying perhaps it’s more- it’s a vocation, a privilege and a passion. This is a tribute to all of them really; pilots, crew, air traffic control.
Pilots say that it’s different up there – that world above the clouds. I trust them on this on this so long as they get me back down again.
A few airline videos No apologies- it’s very Qantas centric
This one from British Airways
This vintage, very cheesy one from Qantas
Even more vintage from Australian Airlines RIP
A very impressive A380 takeoff and landing