Monday, March 21, 2005

Some Light Chop

Could you repeat??” pleaded the American pilots as we passed over Scotland. Of all the people the Brits could have picked to handle the passage of Atlantic-bound wide-bodied jets over our nation, why did it have to be the one bunch even the rest of us can’t understand?

I was tuning into Channel 9, which on a United flight allows you to listen to all communications between air and ground in the current sector.

Having read the Economist article about how this novel piece of audio entertainment persuaded Microsoft to hire the Scobelizer, thereby making blogger history, I was just a little disappointed. This was eavesdropping on an FM channel not on the cockpit itself, but interesting none the less.

“Expect light to moderate turbulence on the descent today” LA Centre informed us as we approached, snow-capped peaks to our right and the line of the Pacific coast visible to our left through the lunchtime haze. Beneath us endless, ugly sprawl. Gulp; is it better to know, I mused. At least I now know where “light to moderate” is on the choppiness scale.

It's mostly flightdeck members with different accents exchanging requests and instructions with local air traffic controllers, often using obscure terminology - "American 655, what's your cruising Mach?" Over US airspace the dialogue can get pretty pally. “What’s the air like up ahead? What’s the ride like at 33?” etc.

When we made a final swivel turn before take-off at LAX I caught a glimpse of another big jet coming into land right behind us. Just enough time to wonder…what if we got stuck on the runway?

Shortly after this eastbound departure from Los Angeles I was tuned into Channel 9 again and could hear all the crews jostling for smooth ride flight levels. “You’ll get some light chop which will improve on the other side of Las Vegas” they told us. Vegas flashed enthusiastically below in many colours like a giant pinball machine while we bumped away, as if in sympathy. Others descended to 26, but our pilot said she needed to keep our speed up.

Sleeping on aeroplanes is less an experience of unconsciousness for me than one of altered consciousness. I shut my eyes and lean my forehead against the window. The buzz of the engines, the vibration of the bulkhead, the slight swaying of the plane all add up to a sense of disorientation that I tend to take with me into sleep. I've never had one of those meditative experiences where you sense that the particular nature of things has been temporarily suspended, but I suspect this is somehow similar - except that it is a source of cosmic anxiety rather than inner peace. I often wake with a start.

This is what happened shortly after I decided to have a little shut-eye over the Atlantic on the westbound leg. I woke with a very big jolt indeed, but it wasn't in my head. In times of turbulence I often reassure myself that it's really not much worse than being on a train. This time however it felt like the train had had a nasty prang and come off the rails! "Cabin Crew, please be seated", a voice announced urgently as we were then thoroughly shaken by some very bad air just above the eastern seaboard of Greenland.

Three weeks later and back over Britain, the clipped tones of a controller somewhere below us near Manchester instructed us to hold at Bovingdon as there would be the usual twenty minute delay at Heathrow. “You may slow down if you wish”.

I never feel especially comfortable on a plane going round in circles. It’s a bit like when you miss your turning on the motorway and are conscious of driving at speed in the wrong direction. It also reminds me of my two full-on emergency landings at Miami, both of which had earlier involved dumping fuel over the ocean for many painful minutes. When you are up in the air it helps to know that you are at least closing in on your destination!

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