I Fly

Give me an option, and I’ll chose the flight any day. Not because of the “business values” and the short time of travel, but the sophisticated and technological masterpiece that the plane is, is something very unique, something that nothing else can replicate. And of course, there is this charm in flying that you will not get anywhere - not in trains and not in buses.

My first flight was when I was transferring to Guwahati back in ‘02. Jet Airways Flight Niner Whiskey - Two Zero One, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International to Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Guwahati. Fifty minutes of flight time, an hour and ten minutes total. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-800, brand new. I didn’t notice it’s tail number, though - at that time I didn’t know that it was there. The first time I got a look at it, I was like - this is BIG. In the pictures, they looked as tiny as ants compared to in real life. Our aircraft was parked somewhere in the main parking bay facing the terminal, along loads of Indian Airlines Airbuses. If you remember, IA’s aircraft had a perfectly white body with an orange tail and IA written in a typographical way - their logo. On one side of the aircraft, Indian Airlines was written in English, while on the other side it was written in Hindi.

NSCBI did not have any aerobridges then, so a bus took us to the foot of the airstair attached to the aircraft. A lady took the Boarding Pass, smiled and tore it up. She handed the pass back to me and kept the counterfoil. I proceeded up to the aircraft, being greeted by the stewards and air hostesses. I distinctly remember that the air hostesses, on seeing a kid like me, would give me their best “Good Morning”, and me, the innocent kid, would return the pleasantry in the exact singsong voice. And later suffer the consequences - expressly, my dad’s teasing me. Anyway, so I got my perfect seat - just behind the trailing edge of the right wing. A perfect spot to watch both the scenery down there, as well as observe all the control surfaces on the wing.

By and by the air hostesses (who, in those days, wore a black skirt and a blue blouse with tulip imprints) would come and give us hot towels, chocolates and other stuff, in preparation for the flight. Sadly, none of this happens in even full-cost airlines today, save in Business Class. The aircraft pushed back from the gates, started it’s engines and began a long taxi to the active runway under it’s own power. This is where the exhilaration and thrill began. Nothing like the surge of power from the two CFM International CFM56 turbofans and the resultant acceleration of the aircraft, gently bumping over the taxiway can drive up your adrenalin better. Fasten your seatbelts, and sit back, this baby is about to take to the sky.

The active runway, at that time, was One Niner Left. NSCBIA’s longest, and also the toughest to navigate to. The taxiway does not connect to the end of the runway, so the aircraft has to enter the runway about two thirds of the way up, go until the piano keys and make a 180 degree turn to face the take-off direction. Our flight then aligned up with the centerline, and stopped, applying brakes. I saw the control surfaces move - the pilot was testing the spoilers, ailerons, elevators and the rudder. Then five degrees of flaps were extended. And then the engines increased to a roar.

View from an A320 taking off

If you have never flown before, believe me, the takeoff is like nothing else. If you thought that during taxiing, the engines were loud, then during a takeoff the engines are like fifty of them running inside each of your ears. The amazing vibrations, coupled with an unbelievable acceleration that pushes you back into the seat and leaves you with no scope of leaning forward - are things that can only be experienced first hand. Pretty soon I felt something like a sense of weightlessness, and saw that the Taal Gaach-es were getting smaller. The plane had taken off, and we were on our way.

About ten minutes later we were at an altitude of 18,000 feet - Flight Level One Eight Zero - cruising at eight-tenth the speed of sound, or Mach Zero Point Eight Two, still ascending to the final cruising height of Flight Level Three Five Zero. The seat belt sign came off, but I decided to keep mine buckled. I always keep mine buckled throughout all flights - it’s safer when that Clear Air Turbulence suddenly hits - and yes, it happens much more often than you think. The air hostesses, by this time, began had begun serving the food.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think the menu was somewhat like Chicken Pepperoni Sandwiches, a slice of cake with a cherry on top, a tangy and spicy raita type thingy but continental so it couldn’t have been a weird raita, and some soufflé. The sandwiches were shrink-wrapped on a tray - and we could take the tray, as well as the soufflé bowl, home! In fact, over time, we would have a collection of such bowls and trays, and Jet’s signature toothpick style desert spoon with a handle-top shaped like Jet’s logo. Sadly, all food nowadays are served on disposable Aluminum boxes with disposable plastic spoons - sick.

Anyway - the rest of the flight was pretty uneventful until the descent began over Bangladesh and the Khasi Hills. The seatbelt sign came on, flaps were deployed, with a little bit of the spoilers coming up, and the speed was reduced. To the unaccustomed - this is the scariest phase of the flight when it feels like the aircraft is dropping out of the sky. Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening, but in a controlled fashion, so enjoy the forces.

The approach to LGBA is something called a CDA - Continuous Descent Approach. This means, the incoming aircraft begins its descent from cruising altitude at a precise point in its flight path, and maintains the same rate of descent all the way to the runway, not leveling of even once. This is in contrast to conventional approaches, where the aircraft levels off at anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 feet until it intercepts the localizer - A radio beacon guiding the aircraft to the runway in a straight line. The LGBA has a CDA because of it’s unique vectors-to-final - It goes parallel to the runway back about 7 kilometers and then makes a 180 degree turn to intercept. Conventional approaches intercept at 45 degrees.

All through the approach I sat with rapt attention, looking intently at the wings for changes in the control surfaces. As the aircraft came out of the final turn to face the runway, the flaps extended to the full 45 degrees and the engines increased to a roar to maintain the speed - a hundred and sixty knots, or nautical miles per hour. The aircraft descended and landed smoothly. In fact, I don’t know why, maybe because it’s a change in the training of pilots but what they do is bring the aircraft to a level flight about ten feet off the runway and idle the engines, letting the aircraft drop the final ten feet. This makes for a very bumpy and unpleasant landing. However, back then, the pilots always used to do a brilliant job of the landing. In fact, you could not even feel the wheels hitting the ground - It would be descending and suddenly you would be thrown forward gently as the thrust reversers and spoilers deployed, bringing the aircraft’s speed down pretty fast. Thrust reversers until sixty knots, then brakes until thirty knots and then without stopping continuing all the way to the tarmac where we would disembark, head into the terminal and collect the baggage.

In the next two years of our stay in Guwahati, I had flown no less than twelve times - that’s an average of a return flight every four months. Yes, we used to catch planes like buses, at less than a week’s notice. Every time I would discover something more about aeroplanes. I also used to be quite fashion-conscious in my own way, wearing the best of my formal clothes on board. Always a tie (even though our school uniform required only a pre-tied strap-on tie, I would wear a full tie, having learnt to tie it when I was six), always a plain shirt with proper trousers and belt, and always a coat. At least a waistcoat, anyway. Also, cuff-links were mandatory. I also had a prized navy-blue bow-tie which I would wear quite often on a flight. Come to think of it, I was always a success with every flight attendant on every flight ;-)

Now that we’re back in Kolkata, there’s nowhere to fly to, but once in a while when we go on a holiday, at least one of the legs of the journey have to be on a flight - it’s pure bliss, being on one.