There are few assignments these days that give you a chance to circumnavigate the globe, let alone do it by a true classic airliner – and all the while inspecting some of the most advanced composite manufacturing sites in the world.
This highly unusual odyssey was set-up by Boeing which wanted to show the progress being made on the 787 by its global partners in the US, Italy and Japan. Our ‘vessel’ was a distinctly venerable 727-100 (pictured above) which had originally plied the Berlin corridor routes for Pan American. It was first delivered to the now vanished carrier in June 1967 and in later years had been converted into an executive jet. Lavishly appointed inside, the trijet had formerly been the corporate barge for a jeans manufacturer and the personal transport of tennis star André Agassi.
Our journey began on a sunny Sunday morning at Paine Field, home of Boeing’s enormous Everett production facility. Taxing for take-off it was not the gleaming lines of new 777s that attracted attention, however, but the incongruous sight of a brand new Messerschmitt Me-262 being refuelled with an over-wing fuel bowser for its next test flight. Combined with the everyday Boeing testing and the presence of preserved aircraft such as the B-52 and de Havilland Comet 4, the sight the Me-262 doing circuits (as captured by Flight TV at the ILA Berlin air show) surely makes Everett one of the most eclectic airports in the USA, even from my vantage point of an unusual rear-facing seat (pictured below).
The first leg of the journey took us to Charleston and the steamy summer evening in South Carolina. A warm, deeply humid wind funnelled through the city, driven by the distant tropical storm Alberto which – although we did not know it at the time - was to affect our journey the next day. Fort Sumter, starting point for the US Civil War, was a distant group of lights across the wide bay that night.
Global Aeronautica and Vought were the hosts the following day, proudly showing off brand new facilities still under construction (pcitured above) and telling us how acres of swampy land and its resident population of alligators and large spiders had been cleared to create the site.
With Alberto coming closer the sky had by now turned steel grey to the south, and as we boarded the 727 a tell-tale ‘dog star’ appeared in the west (a sure sign to sailors of bad weather on the way). By now the crew had abandoned their original flight plan to head to Italy via a fuel stop at the Azores, and instead announced we would be heading to Gander, Newfoundland.
Chased north by stiff tailwinds we made good time, tracking off shore before crossing Nova Scotia and landing in twilight at Gander. Canadian immigration officials approached us across a rain slicked apron and entered the 727 via the aft stairs beneath the tail. They informed us the gift shop had been re-opened specially for us, but that we’d better hurry if we didn’t want to get wet as “there’s another shower due in a-boat now.”
The Gander terminal (pictured above), totally empty on this quiet Monday night, was essentially unchanged from the day it was opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1958. Still echoing to the days of its lost grandeur when it was a pivotal refuelling stop on the North Atlantic run, the terminal displayed pictures of its historic past – including memories of 11 September, 2001 when it temporarily became a refugee camp for thousands of passengers who were forced to divert there that day.
Returning to our mission, we took off and joined the North Atlantic traffic heading east. A lottery was taken among the onbaord hacks (pictured above) to see who would sleep in the only bed on the aircraft, a double queen-sized, en-suite affair in the state room close to the flight deck. I was amongst the losers, so made do with an air mattress on the floor of the aft most cabin by the galley. From my lowly couch I could see the intakes of both side-mounted Pratt & Whitney JT8D-7As (right), though the noise was not as obtrusive as I would have expected.
Sleep was difficult; despite the gentle and perpetual ‘Dutch roll’ which tried to rock you into a slumber as it went through a full cycle roughly every seven seconds. As a very short night ended the sun came up over dense cloud covering the UK as we tracked towards Europe. Crossing the Belgian coast near Ostend, our 727 flew through clear skies over Brussels, Luxembourg and the Franco-German border country all the way south to the Alps, before heading out over the Adriatic. Leaving Venice beneath our port wing, the offshore islands of Croatia's Dalmatian coast lay well to the west the 727 hugged the Italian coast.
Our approach to Brindisi (pictured above), on the heel of Italy, was delayed while air traffic control cleared the local airspace to shepherd a lost Cessna 172. On landing we discovered the errant aircraft was German registered, prompting comments that it was probably a group of World Cup escapees who were determined to get a good place for their towels on the beach before the rest of Europe went on holiday!
Soon we were on a compact bus trundling through the olive groves en-route across the actual heel of the Italian boot to Grottalgie, home to Alenia Aeronautica’s new 787 facility, where we were shown a 787 section-holding robot vehicle (below). Greeted by Alenia’s senior management, we all sat down to a buffet lunch with mozzarella cheese, olives, bread and wine. Discussion was dominated by gossip about the Airbus A380 delay, news of which greeted us on arrival, and of course, the recovery plan for the failed Boeing 787 barrel test.
Later, asking a question about the supposed nearby location of the house of Virgil – the ancient Roman poet and author of the Aeneid - I was surprised by the reaction of my host. Turning to me, clearly shocked and confused he replied: “well obviously our composite manufacturing site requires many new people who may be inexperienced, but we would certainly not call them as you do – ‘virgins’.” Note to self: must try harder on the old language skills.
Italy was also a reminder that the World Cup was indeed being played, a fact easy to miss in the USA where the event goes largely un-noticed. There was a chance to catch up on the group stage action during our overnight stay which was otherwise unremarkable given the wave of jetlag which washed over one and all after our return from the almost classically designed Alenia site.
The following morning saw us head to Japan via a refuelling stop in Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan. After take-off from Brindisi we quickly crossed the Adriatic before overflying southern Albania and Greece. Skirting the northern shore of the Aegean, we crossed the Gallipoli Peninsula and flew over Istanbul before travelling along the southern shores of the Black Sea and northern Turkey. We entered Russian airspace near Sochi and glimpsed our first views of the snow-clad Caucasus Mountains as the 727 tracked across the several small semi-autonomous Russian states, the last but one of which was Chechnya. The embattled city of Groznyy could not be seen in the gathering haze as we headed out across the Caspian Sea towards Kazakhstan.
Although our flight plan called for a routing through Uzbekistan, Kazak air traffic control needed our money and re-routed the 727 north around the rapidly vanishing Aral Sea – now evidently more a series of lakes and dried up salt flats rather than a sea-like entity (pictured below). The diversion did produce one welcome surprise, however, in the shape of a perfect view of Baikonur and the Cosmodrome space complex, the launch towers casting long shadows in the low sun.
With darkness falling swiftly we descended into Almaty, the looming 7,300m (24,000ft) peaks of the Tian Shan mountains foreboding shadows to the south. Taxing in behind a Follow Me truck, we passed rows of parked Antonovs, Ilyushins, Tupolevs and Yaks only to discover 737s, Fokker 50s and a Boeing Business Jet on the ramp! Although eager to feel the fresh breeze on faces, the Kazaks did not allow anyone to leave the aircraft, and we were forced to view the comings and goings from the confines of our 727.
Fuelled to the brim we backtracked down the immense runway at Almaty for take-off close to midnight local time. After lift off, we entered a climbing right hand turn and noticed that the city appeared to have few lights, and none of them neon. “This is the only place in the world where they actually encourage you to stay on the deck and use as much power on take-off as you like,” joked someone who believed the airport (where there was a neon sign, below) and its aircraft movements was the liveliest part of the whole country.
I lucked out and won the lottery for the bed that night, sleeping surprisingly well for a couple of hours as the aircraft was tossed around in turbulence over northern China and the blacked out wasteland of the Gobi desert. As dawn broke I ambled out to the corridor which, like an old British Railways carriage, ran down one side of the fuselage by the cabin door, and stretched. To my amazement, far below, was the clearly etched line of the Great Wall running apparently endlessly across the landscape below. I ran for my camera to grab a shot – but failed. But on a positive note, I found out from the moving map that we were over a place called Fengzhen.
Soon after passing Beijing, which was almost totally obscured by smog, the Yellow Sea and the vast man-made island airport of Inchon (above) on the southern Korean peninsula came into view. Thick cloud greeted us over the Sea of Japan and by the time we approached Nagoya (below) it was blowing at more than 40kt (75km/h) as we came in for landing.
Japanese efficiency soon saw us installed in the Marriott hotel downtown, a towering edifice whose head was lost in the clouds of the tropical depression sweeping in from the south. With less than an hour to rest we were back on the bus bound for Fuji Heavy Industries and our first visit to any of the Japanese 787 partners.
With an immediate introduction to the company’s newly installed autoclave we had the growing awareness that each partner in this global enterprise appears to believe that THEY have the largest, most voluminous, widest, longest or heaviest autoclave in the world. Shell-shocked with statistics by now, no-one was ready to argue the point – at some point it seems when you have seen one autoclave you can’t help but feel you’ve seen them all!
FHI did, however, have the first real part of the 787 on show – a massive, black piece of composite wingbox skin with co-cured stringers (pictured above being loaded into the autoclave at FHI).
Even the hard bitten hacks had to stand back in some wonder at the moment. It was, after all, what we were flying around the world to see, and the first real proof that the Dreamliner will actually be a solid product. An example is the first inboard wing ribs we saw at FHI (pictured below).
Back to the hotel and, for the diehards, a 2am wake-up call to catch the England match on Japanese TV. A few more hours sleep and back on the road to see Mitsubishi and Kawasaki Heavy Industries for another autoclave (below).
More massive new factories, autoclaves, automated tape lay-up machines, drilling machines and clean rooms. The automation was, in itself, impressive particularly when it involved a host of clever robots that moved majestically around the factory floor announcing their presence with jolly, jingly songs we were told are karaoke favourites.
Although we did also stop by the original Mitsubishi design offices, where the Zero type fighter, commonly known as "Zeke" (pictured below).
Finally back to Nagoya and the airport, and time for departure. Some of our band was already due to leave us at this point and we began to feel like the characters from an Agatha Christie novel as our numbers gradually dwindled. After some time to plan, replan and plan our route again, and after strenuous attempts to fool the fuel tanks into absorbing more Jet A than they appeared ready to hold, the crew announced we were ready for the off.
Everyone settled in for the long haul as we climbed over Nagoya and headed towards the towering head of Mt Fuji which appeared imperiously above the thick stratus (pictured above). Then something unexpected happened…..the spoilers came up, our nose went down (pictured below) and we headed straight back to Nagoya. It seems a ‘strange smell’ had permeated the front of the aircraft, and with a night crossing of the North Pacific coming up, the crew wisely decided to check out the cause rather than press on.
Back on the ground it quickly became obvious nobody would be flying that night, so we made the best of it while the hard-pressed Boeing staff frantically re-arranged flights and booked everyone on commercial airlines. In the early dawn the next day, as the band finally broke up to go its separate ways, we could all see our sad little 727 parked forlornly on a remote stand. Despite its eccentricities, or maybe because of them, I had enjoyed my time on the trijet. I for one was not looking forward to exchanging my brief brush with bizjet travel for the crowded airports, security and immigration lines of my normal life. But at least I got home……