Air travel evolution: Connie to A380

On a warm night in 1950 a four-year-old boy, holding his father’s hand in manly solidarity, walked through the echoing terminal at Sydney‘s Mascot airfield and out across the pan. A long-legged Qantas Super Connie stood waiting in a halo of light, avgas fumes heavy in the humid air. Together the boy and his father climbed the airstairs - as he saw it - to heaven.

 

Today, the same person is strolling through the endless 21st century souk that is Dubai‘s Terminal 3, a shining cathedral to consumption. Aviation feels secondary.

 

From the languid Emirates lounge, he is injected – as if intravenously – via the airbridge into the upper deck of an unseen aeroplane the size of a ship. He knows it’s an A380 because it says so on the boarding card. He occupies not just a seat, but his personal space.

 

The New Aviation experience begins.

 

The pan’s a long way down outside the window, as far down as the sea is from the deck-rail of a liner.

 

Within his touching distance is an embarrassment of electronic riches, comfort controls and comestibles. Where to start? He chooses “Flight View” on the inflight entertainment system.

 

The selected video camera is looking down over the length of the aeroplane from its mount in the tall tail-fin, and on his screen it shows the A380 in its dock surrounded by activity – what the navy would call victualling. The “coaling” had, presumably, been done.

 

Then, concurrently with his chosen external view, he selects an endless library of touch-screen-navigable musical tracks to be piped to his headset. He creates his own playlist - just because you can. A soundtrack for his trip. Emirates has chosen well and widely.

 

On the upper deck there is a ship’s company of bustling, attentive cabin crew, no visible pilots at any point, but a captain – sounding reassuringly like a captain – welcomes the passengers via the PA.

 

Ready to go. Our passenger watches pushback through the nose-mounted camera, then witnesses taxiing progress, nosewheel tracking the yellow centreline, and he can feel the intimate bumps through the seat as the wheels pass over concrete joins. A bit like a simulator. But reality’s available from the window beside him confirming that, yes, it is happening.

 

Clearance to line up, and he sees a pilot’s-eye view of the runway stretched out ahead on his LED screen. After a momen’t hesitation, just as AC/DC’s “Shoot to thrill” surges into his headset, the take-off roll begins. As if powered by the music, the A380 gathers pace and, after a suitable time, casually shrugs off the ground in favour of its natural environment.

 

It’s almost better than being in charge of the aeroplane, he thinks: the flightcrew don’t have the musical accompaniment.

 

The seat belt sign extinguishes and the cabin crew spring to life in an orchestrated preparation for the passengers’ lunch. Their well-drilled activity is hubbed on the kitchen-sized galley at the aft end of the cabin.

 

In an intimate space ringed by sofas just forward of the galley is a stand-up bar where Pearl, a Canadian stewardess with family origins in Kerala, southern India, is dispensing drinks, olives and chat.

 

Oz Ege (from Turkey), as he spreads a linen cloth upon the table in front of our passenger, describes his task in Emirates’ A380 Business Class as being “like working in a restaurant”, and deftly pours him another glass of Meursault. 

 

To the passengers also it’s like being in a restaurant. The ambient calm has more in common with a civilised eatery than an aircraft cabin. The chink of cutlery on chinaware is the dominant sound. No chatter. The pax are inside their headsets, absorbed in movies, computer games or music.

 

Meanwhile Flight View’s tailfin-elevated camera shows the big ship sailing the sky with the grace of a galleon, huge wings embracing the cloudscape that’s slip-sliding away beneath. Rod Stewart and Paul Simon provide the appropriate accompaniment.

 

No pilots. No announcements. No turbulence. No big thrumming radial engines to leave you tooth-chatteringly deaf for days afterwards.

 

It may not be aviation the way it used to be, but if travelling big distances is what you have to do, this is definitely the way to do it.

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Air travel evolution: Connie to A380

  1. David Nicholas 31 January, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    A dark wet afternoon in 1952. With my hand tightly grasped in my mother’s we scampered out of the door of Jersey’s rain-lashed terminal towards the swaying Dragon Rapide. Clambering first up the wooden step and inside the cabin (catching for the first time that indescribable aroma of dope, leather, oil, and who knows what else?) I sat as far forward as possible, on the right side, just behind the cockpit (the Rapide had a half-partition on the left side behind the pilot, but the front row right side passenger seat was perfect for aspiring pilots such as I!). Outside the small wind-driven generator on the upper wing leading edge, spun rapidly in the strong gusts, and I excitedly examined the silver fabric, running with rivulets of rain, as the aircraft rocked from side to side. A slammed door behind, and then footsteps as the hero of the hour, swathed in blue gabardine, a white scarf, brown gauntlet gloves and dripping hat, squeezed between the passengers seats (only 7 of them) and into the tiny cockpit. No fear or apprehension, just excitement which had been building ever since the tickets were bought for this Cambrian Airways flight to Rhoose Airport, Cardiff. Not my first flight, I have since learned, but the first one that I can remember in any detail, at the age of 5.

    A couple of adjustments to switches and levers, a shout through the side window, and the engines roared into life, the aircraft rocking even more enthusiastically. The pilot, headphones firmly over his ears, spoke into a brown Bakelite microphone and with a glance left and right released the brakes and turned us across the wind, his legs dancing on the rudder pedals and holding the control wheel hard over as we trundled across the otherwise deserted apron and around the corner towards Runway 27. For those that know Jersey, before the first of a number of extensions, the runway commenced more or less opposite the Aero Club hangar and was suited only to the DC-3s, Vikings and Rapides which constituted the bulk of the traffic in the early fifties.

    Back into wind again and each engine was run up in turn, the aircraft shaking and shuddering and the noise precluding any conversation. At last all was ready, and we rolled forward onto the end of the rainswept tarmac, and without stopping, accelerated away towards the unseen end of the runway.

    We were airborne in seconds, and in cloud before we passed the airport boundary. I did not know what to expect, and my recollection – quite clear to that point – ends with the pilot turning to me, passing me a white paper bag of barley sugar sweets, and saying “Take one and pass it back….”. The very first words spoken to me by a pilot as we flew on, still in grey wet cloud, over the unseen waters of the English Channel, towards Devon, and Wales.

    Reflections – no cabin staff, no safety card, no safety briefing, just No Smoking! The journey across the apron was the usual, indeed only, way to reach an aircraft before the advent of the jetty/airbridge (or, in transatlantic parlance, jetway). Usually this involved closely following a member of the airline’s ground staff, if female she would have a white silk scarf tied tightly around her head to avoid the hat being blown off in the propwash of aircraft. This presented a first class opportunity to photograph aircraft, as well as overtake slower passenger to enable a better choice of seat once on board!

    IN CONTRAST, IN OCTOBER 2009 I FLEW FROM SYDNEY TO LONDON IN BUSINESS CLASS ON A QANTAS A380 – AND MUCH OF WHAT DAVID WRITES BRINGS BACK MEMORIES OF THAT, AND SIMILAR “IF YOU HAVE TO, THEN THIS IS THE WAY TO DO IT”-TYPE REMINISCENCE. I AM TOLD THAT THE EMIRATES ACOMMODATION IS MORE OPULENT AND THE SERVICE MORE CONSISTENTLY HOSPITABLE, BUT OTHERWISE I SHARE DAVID’S CONCLUSIONS. IT’S LONG WAY FROM DRAGON RAPIDE TO A380 – EVEN FURTHER IF WE CONSIDER THE ROCKET-LIKE ABERRATION (AND I MEAN THAT IN A LITERAL NOT CRITICAL SENSE) OF CONCORDE.

    (David, you’ll have to report from the Virgin Spacecraft yourself….I don’t aspire to that!!!)

  2. nikos 31 January, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    My parents tell me that I once flew in a BOAC Connie from Istanbul to London – must have been 1959 as I remember flying the route on Comet 4Bs via Athens when I was a little older.
    I don’t particularly relish flying in an A380 – just too many darn people around me!