Australia Bound

Monday, travel day.

We’ve done this before, but this will be the longest we’ve gone in a single day. We start in Chicago at 19:15 on Monday and land in Sydney at 6:30 on Wed. They say life is short, well it just got a day shorter. We’re completely skipping Tuesday this week.

Our first flight, from Chicago to San Francisco is mostly uneventful, though I’m disappointed to find that the ATC channel is almost unlistenable due to low volume and high static. I follow along on my iPad and keep track of the flight that way. Even though we’re flying the friendly skies for 18 hours starting at dinnertime, because this leg is a domestic one there is no food on board. Just four and a half hours of A320 action with a tiny video screen showing movies we aren’t interested in.

Luckily, with the help of some friends, I loaded up my kindle before the flight and spent some time on the tail end of Tell To Win (a very good book about business presentations) and Trainspotting. I now own the entire Trainspotting trilogy, having bought it before we left, and am very disappointed. The whole thing is written with a scottish brogue, making the reading laborious.

“The only thing ah kin move for is smack. One wee dig tae unravel those twisted limbs and send us oaf tae sleep. Then ah say goodbye tae it. Swanney’s vanished, Seeker’s in the nick. That leaves Raymie. Ah go tae bell the cunt far the pay phone in the hall.”

I suppose I’ll give it an honest try and hope that enough of the accent becomes readable thanks to repetition and I can make better progress. At this point I’m reading so slowly and thinking about the words that I lose the story. If I want to be baffled and confused I’ll read a primer on trickle down, er, supply side, er, Reaganomics, er, the Romney stimulus. Surely if one reads enough it will finally become clear how, after 35 years it will finally actually work. Nah, I’d rather read about heroin addicts in a language that’s painful to digest.

I’m going to make sure to post this to the blog immediately upon landing, before I end up dead, as the woman one row back and across the aisle has a cough like one you would use in a movie to setup the lead actor getting a horrible disease at the beginning of an epidemic except that the audience might find it implausibly over-acted. So I sit, hungry, listening to typhoid mary and trying to read a book in scottish while I count the hours to the guaranteed best part of the flight. Landing in San Francisco.

As a flying geek, San Francisco is one of my favorite airports. I’ve flown here 10-12 times over the years and always landed on 28L or 28R. After a long approach with several turns that allow for great views of the bay area, the final approach is over water until about 50 feet about sea level. In a flash you transition from being over water to a runway and a few moments later touch down. In the case of todays flight, you touch down extremely smoothly. Rock star picking up a super model at a club smoothly.

Which brings my tally for good landings to three for four in the past week.

A week ago today Beth and I flew our friends Chris and Emily up to Wisconsin for dinner at Grand Geneva. We had excellent flight conditions and landed up north as the sun was setting over the beautiful wooded hills surrounding the airport.

The landing was a little challenging due to obstacles (trees that should be cut down) at the approach end of the runway. I carried a little extra altitude and landed a little longer to compensate and my passengers were impressed by what I thought was a good, but not great, landing.

We had tasty steak and shrimp dinners along with cocktails and wine for the non-aviators, the pilot was sipping club soda, and soon headed back into the skies.

Due to the same obstacle issues, I opted to do a short field take-off. 10 degrees of flaps, taxi all the way to the very end of the runway, apply the brakes, full power, release brakes and get off the ground. Wheels up, climb at Vx until above the tree line, level off to gain some speed and take out the flaps. Climb at Vy until at cruise altitude.

The funny part about aviating is that the stuff that the non-pilots miss is the most important and most fun for those of us behind the yoke. That sort of a take-off at night, with unlit trees and a short-ish runway surrounded by hills is where training really pays off. I was beginning to feel like a rock star myself.

In the air, we turned east toward the lake and proceeded down the lake shore for a city light tour of Chicago. If you like big cities at night, there is no substitute for these kinds of flights. We generally fly at an altitude just below the highest buildings downtown and enjoy 10-15 minutes of scenery as we glide by.

South of the airspace owned by O’Hare and Midway, we turn west again and head back home. Upon arrival I do a much better than average landing. Night landings are much harder to get smooth than ones during the day. You simply have fewer visual clues and the added stress that accompanies that lack of information. On top of it, I was flying a plane that I’ve just never gotten the feel for. Don’t get me wrong, I pilot it perfectly safely, but my landings are… well… noticeable. But I nailed this one and act as if every landing is that good.

A couple days later, I get a chance to do my second city lights tour of the week. I take my buddy Stu and his 76 year old father Alton up for the evening. Alton had a pilot license back in the day so we’re not going to do a dinner flight, just fly around the city and talk about airplanes. On the way north-east I give him a flight lesson involving essentially every instrument in the airplane. At the end of the lesson we’re crossing the lakeshore and head south again. This time with Stu snapping his camera furiously in the back seat. When we get back home I request a right hand pattern for runway 10, which brings my passengers directly over the airport for a neat view from 1,000 feet. I turn base, then final and we’re right on the money for our approach. Altitude and speed are pegged and I can explain runway lighting systems as we approach instead of having to make corrections all the way down. At ten feet above the runway the winds go completely calm and I have the good sense to just let the plane settle on its own for one of the best landings I’ve ever done. Rock star status achieved.

So that’s three excellent landings in a week. We’ll see how the landing in Oz goes. Which brings us back to the current flight.

San Francisco to Sydney is 14 hours 2 minutes. A long, long time. We’re very disappointed to find that the plane doesn’t have an entertainment system at each seat. Just a couple screens (of acceptable quality) showing the same video to everyone in the plane. I try some more Trainspotting for a while and then supper is served. It’s pretty terrible, even for airplane food. A few pieces of chopped rubbery chicken with some rice and a salad that’s inedible. The brownie (approximately the size of a pat of butter) was delicious though. On the whole, I think the chef’s at United misunderstood the axiom “always leave them wanting more”. The point isn’t to have bad quality, it’s to be fantastic, but then stop before you’ve worn out your welcome.

Oh well, breakfast is about to be served, maybe that will turn the tide. And we’re going to be landing in another couple of hours, so the boys up front have a shot at another greaser. We’ll see!

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