Since September 11, 2001 it has become increasingly difficult to enter the flight deck of an commercial airliner, even at the airport.
With regret I always look though the open door when boarding, knowing that it would be exceptional circumstances which would give me access now.
So with great fondness I do remember the instances I had been invited or in one case, just walked in.
My very first flight deck experience was on the venerable Viscount. It was on the return journey of my very first commercial flight. I boarded the aircraft in Hamburg to return to the now defunct Muenchen-Riem airport. It was a very cold, snowy January day. Our aircraft, a Lufthansa Vickers Viscount 900.
At this time business class had not been invented and I found myself in the first row of the cabin. Crew jump seats seem not to have been available, so the stewardess sat next to me.
Being young, it is always easy to strike up a conversation, in particular with a charming, young lady.
Sadly after we reached cruising altitude, she had to get to attend her duties.
The flight time to MUC at those times, and maybe hampered by the weather, was nearly 2 hours. Remind you, that Lufthansa could also not fly over the DDR (East Germany) and had to take a longer way around.
So well into the flight, somewhere above the middle of Germany, my charming flight attend came and asked if I would like to join on the flight deck?
Of course, no questions asked. Now the flight deck of the Viscount was rather restricted in size. (If you ever come to Melbourne, you can experience this on the Viscount on display at the National Aviation Museum, where, against usual policy, you have full access and can even sit in the pilot seat. If you fit in, that is.)
So I found myself squeezed in with an veteran captain and his co-pilot. The flight deck of the Viscount looks a real mess, compared to modern aircraft, with dials, switches and buttons everywhere. I was concerned to activate something unintentionally as I looked out onto the cloud cover below. I don’t remember any of the conversation, but it was a great experience, considering that it was the only time on a 4 engined prop-aircraft.
Unfortunately, policy did not allow me to stay during the landing, but I am forever greatful to that captain of giving me this experience.
BOAC PPT – HNL
My very first, very long international flight experience came just a few years later in 1971. It came just after I had moved in to a new apartment and spend lavishly on furniture, when a friend asked me if I would like to travel to Tahiti on a new route Airtours International has started. In youth exuberance and confidence I said yes, raided my bank account and off we went. More about this in another segment.
On the way from Tahiti (PPT) to Honolulu the crew left the cockpit door open. It was a charter flight after all. The aircraft a BOAC Boeing 707-400 series, the one with Rolls Royce engines.
So well into the flight, my friend and I sauntered into the cockpit to have a look around. It was a nice sunny day, clear shy and no turbulence in sight.
The crew welcomed us and we engaged in some talk. Mind you, our English, as German speakers, was really only rudimentary, but enough to ask the questions any aviation buff would be able to ask.
But our stay came to a sudden stop, when my friend asked why one of the throttles was much further forward compared to the other three. Maybe something wrong with the engine.
A valid question, since we still had 4 hours over water flight ahead and the Pacific is not dotted with many airports able to handle a Boeing 707.
However the captain did not like this inquisitive question. So instead of explaining he just ordered us out of the flight deck and the door remained shut for the rest of the flight.
Condor Boeing 727
In my job at Kodak, at that time, I was involved in a special promotion together with Condor, a than subsidiary of Lufthansa. It was a great experience and the first time I was allowed to roam on the tarmac. As part of the promotion was a photoshoot in Ibiza.
So we flew down to the island, spend a few sun-drenched days, and flew back.
On the return flight I was invited to the flight deck of the Boeing 727. It was a memorable experience. I don’t know if charter pilots have a different attitude to life or was it that at those times flying was more relaxed, but the atmosphere in the cockpit was just great. Much less tense, than on any commercial flight I experienced later. This does not mean less professional, just more relaxed.
It was a three man cockpit and maybe the pilots had less workload. So we overflew the alps and into southern Germany. Unfortunately obscured by clouds. But to top it off, I was allowed to stay during the landing with the provisor that I had to get to my seat before the doors would be opened. Easy task, since I had a front row seat anyway.
It is an amazing experience and has always been, seeing the first climps of the runway. Very far down and tiny. One can not really imagine how the pilot can land on this postage stamp. But gradually the concrete strip gets closer, the landing lights appear and the touch down with the slight bump. Full reverse (at those times noise abatement, etc. was only on the horizon) and we taxi to the parking position.
A great experience. I just loved it.
This is quickly told. I was on a Bangkok Airways flight from Loei to Bangkok. The aircraft a BAS 146, four engined aircraft, ideally suited for country airports, like Loei which are surrounded by mountains. The BAC 146 is a four engine aircraft, which was popular with Bangkok Airways and Thai.
Somehow, the flight attendent liked me and got me on to the flight deck. Standing room only. Not much was said, but I still remember this brief stay fondly.
For a short time I worked on projects with Qantas flight operation in Sydney. This was at the times of paper flight manuals and Jeppensen printed charts. The elctronic flight deck would come later, but we discussed already possibilities to project approach profiles and airport maps to the inside of the cockpit windows.
Anyway, as a result was allowed into the cockpit several times, pre-arranged by HQ.
On one flight, a Boeing 747-400 from SYD – SIN, we had just overflown the Australian northern coastline and passing over Indonesian airspace. The crew, which of course had flown this sector hundreds of times at the same time, knew everything was supposed to be in the air at those times.
So at one point my pilot indicated that the TACAM, anti collision system would come on any minute. An yes, it did not take long. A blip appeared on the radar screen.
This was a flight going into the opposite direction, they had seen many a times before. It would be several thousand feet below, but the system had already identified it.
Since it was a clear day, even that the sun was setting, the small dot of white, much below us, finally appeared in the cockpit window and passed to the rear of our plane.
A great feeling to know how technology protected us, provided the crew would follow the instructions, which sadly was not the case at the terrible mid-air collision between a russian airliner and a DHL plabe over Ueberlingen in Southern Germany.
On another Qantas Boeing 747 flight I have had the opportunity to be on the flight deck during a night landing in BKK. QF 1 flew at those times the SYD-SIN-BKK-LON route.
It is just a great view, getting closer to the large city and the lights sparkling below. Among the sea of light a white, blinking light, indicated the position of the airport. At those times it was the Don Muang airport, much closer to the city centre and years later the scene of a Qantad 747 crash, luckily without fatalities.
Gradeually we turn to the runway heading and suddenly the lights separate into city and runway lights.
An uneventful landing, but a great experience.
The final Qantas flight deck experience is one, which can never be repeated. In the 90’s Qantas had a great triangle routing, flown with a Boeing 767. SIN-BKK-HKG-SIN.
I was booked on BKK-HKG and had a business Class upgrade. Since it was a Saturday morning, only two passengers occupied Business Class. Another passenger and me.
While the other person was engrossed in a newspaper, I enjoyed looking out of the window as we overflew Vietnam. Thinking about the lines, the Lufthansa Captain Rudolf Braunburg [ insert book title] wrote, overflying Saigon during the Vietnam war.
Suddenly the purser came up and asked me, if I would like to join the cockpit crew.
What a question?
It was a very young crew and we have had some nice talk. Getting closer to Hong Kong, the weather became cloudy and thunderstorm were breeding. A diversion to fly around some of the cloud towers was denied by air traffic control. So we strapped in tightly, but in the end it was a no event.
In those years KaiTak airport was still active and we were assigned a northern checkerboard approach. Slowly we came out of the clouds, skirting along the mountains, below us Kowloon. The huge checkerboard, painted onto a mountain side was the guidance for the crew where to head and when to make the turn, getting us to the runway. Not so bad during good weather, but this, most difficult approach, which could only be flown by specially trained pilots, was treacherous in bad weather or hurricanes. More than one crash, runway overshoot or just harrwing landing prove of that. Aprtly documented on YouTube.
So we headed down to the checkerboard. The runway could not be seen from my position, but suddenly we banked to the right and there, right at the end of the sea of houses, was the airport. It appeared that we would almost de-roof the buildings.
Uneventful landing with a bright grin on the face of the co-pilot.
A fantastic experience, which can never be repeated, since the airport has been closed and moved.
Years later, before the airport closure, I would spend time on the top deck of the adjacent car-park, watching flights come in, including my Qantas flight back to Sydney. The airport was small and security not as time consuming, so there was plenty of time to watch the aircraft and still get to the gate.
Sadly, as I said before. Many youngsters will be denied the opportunity to get to the flightdeck now and in the future. But of course, there are at least simulators available. It is a great experience and makes you understand much more the great responsibility the men and women up front have.