December 7/8 – Boeing 747
There are certain tasks that become a lot more pleasurable when carried out with old technology. Listening to vinyl records, for instance. Or grinding coffee by hand in a manual grinder. Or even breaking out a fountain pen to write the odd letter with. There is something quite satisfying and pleasant about accomplishing an achievement through simpler means without any loss in quality.
Flying over Siberia is not a job I would really want to think about adding to this bracket. The worst that can happen if your coffee mill gives up the ghost is a few shards of metal in the half-ground caffiene, whereas if forty-year old aviation technology exceeds its limits you’ll most likely have your clothes ripped off you before you’re smashed into the ground twelve kilometres below. In short, when it’s real lives and high stakes that are being dealt with, it’s generally safer to plump for the more modern option and leave the retro stuff to areas of the lifeworld that feature higher margins for error.
I therefore experienced a rather strange feeling yesterday afternoon/this morning (depending on the timezone) when I looked up from the little monitor on the back of the seat in front of me, glanced out the window of flight BA0005 from London to Tokyo, admired the twin engines on the lengthy wing and thought ‘bloody hell! This plane is based on a forty-year old design!’ My heart seemed to tighten up, my leg muscles went tense and my ears started burning. This was kind of like trying to drive a Land Rover on the motorway and expecting nothing to go wrong, I reasoned.
By virtue of the fact I am sitting on Tokyo typing this, you will have gathered the big Boeing did indeed hold up – and it did a remarkably good job of it. The Land Rover analogy is probably a little unfair, because as I slung my hand baggage into the overhead locker and slunk into my seat, the analogy that sprung to mind was a comfy, cavernous old Jaguar. Practically a metre of space stretched out between my seat and the oblong window, and my fully outstretched legs barely stroked the seat in front. The seat supported my strangely-shaped body without a hint of complaint, enticing me to relax and enjoy the flight in a way the Air France 777s I’m more accustomed to never do. This was more like what I imagined flying was supposed to be like in an age when we weren’t made to feel guilty for taking a plane.
Forget Airbuses while you’re at it – this plane was rocking the whole upstairs idea at a time when Elvis Presley was still alive. I really, really, really wanted to try to sneak onto the jumbo’s upper deck just to assure myself it was an area of extra seating and not a place for pilots to set up a Scalextric track, and I also had a hankering to walk up to the front of the jet and peer out of the windows by the nosecone like some modern, miserable Leo and Kate from Titanic. I did neither of those things, however, remembering that the more interesting parts of the plane are reserved for the better people in life. Maybe some day though…
After the 747 hit the Narita tarmac with a concerning amount of wobble, I was given a superb demonstration of its size and weight in comparison to the smaller 777. Halfway up the runway at Tokyo on the left, the word NARITA is spelled out with green plants. Normally the 777 is turning off the strip and heading for the terminal at this strange floral arrangement. The jumbo, by contrast, was still scrubbing off a considerable amount of speed and continued to do so for a good five or six hundred metres more. These things are vast.
It’s pretty rare for something designed at a point in history when England’s football team were capable of winning trophies to still be on the go today, and even rarer for such an object to be performing at the highest level in an area of such high danger as air travel. Of course the 747 has evolved over the years, but the fundamentals remain the same. If I ever want to design something big and want it to last, I’ll know where to look to get my ideas from.