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Big birds do fly

Started: 2005-07-09 22:20:40

Submitted: 2005-07-11 22:41:02.199195

Visibility: World-readable

Saturday, 25 June 2005

My wake-up call came at 0530 BST; I tried to ignore that it was 2230 MDT Friday night in my target time zone. I was disturbed to see that it was already light outside. I showered, packed the rest of my stuff, checked out of my hotel (charging the entire £680 hotel bill on my personal Visa), and met the driver Xaar contracted to take me to Gatwick.

My driver took me west on the A-14 and south on the M-11, past London Stansted airport. We turned clockwise (er, south-east) on the M-25, London's orbital motorway, over the River Thames at the Docklands on a massive toll bridge, and south on the M-23 to Gatwick itself. The entire trip took about an hour and a half, bringing me to Gatwick at 0730 BST, three hours before the scheduled departure of my flight to Newark.

I found Continental's check-in counter, tucked away in a corner beyond the main terminal, and answered the screening questions. One of the questions was, "Do you have any electronics?" My immediate answer was "Yes"; when asked to elaborate, I listed them all: a notebook, a mobile phone, an iPod, a video camera, and a GPS receiver. (I'd have trouble hunting down more electronics to bring.) The follow-up screening question was if any of them had been serviced in the past year, which they hadn't.

I had the great honour of being selected for a detailed search of my checked baggage. I followed the security guy back into the main terminal to the baggage-search annex. (Had this been the US, the guy would have been a TSA employee; I don't know enough about the UK's travel security apparatus to make an intelligent comparison.) I pointed out that my suitcase contained mostly dirty laundry; they were used to seeing that. The security guy performed a quick hand search and declared my bag safe. I tossed it onto a luggage conveyer for its journey into the bowels of my plane.

I easily passed security and entered the departure lounge, a massive three-storey complex with shops, restaurants, seating, and a T-Mobile wireless access point. After surveying my surroundings, I staked out a chair on the second level observation lounge where I could see the concourse in front of me with dozens of planes from almost as many airlines. Most of the planes sported British Airways' livery, followed by Virgin Airways and American carriers, but there was no shortage of planes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

I didn't hesitate to fire up my notebook and enter my credit card information to pay £7.50 for three hours of Internet access. I was thrilled to see that I was unproxied; for the first time in a week I could ssh to Ziyal. I responded to several e-mails on Ziyal and posted my three off-line changelogs.

When my scheduled departure approached, I headed down the concourse to my gate and eventually boarded my plane, another massive Boeing 777 operated by Continental. I got a window seat on the opposite side of the plane and two rows back, 35A. I set my watch back five hours to 0530 EDT, the time zone of my target airport.

The flight pushed back from the gate on schedule but took off a few minutes late due to unspecified air traffic control delays. We took off to the east but quickly turned around to head west across the North Atlantic. Southern England was covered in clouds, but I did get to see Ireland from the air before we abandoned land for good for our extended over-water operation. I concluded it was probably a good thing that the seat-back situation display didn't show the distance to our nearest diversion airport, and did my best not to wonder how many planes have actually intentionally ditched over water and had to use the life vests and evacuation slides that become life rafts.

I was a little fuzzy on what my jet lag manuals would have me do on a west-bound flight; I probably could have slept but I elected to peruse the in-flight entertainment system, since two of the movies actually seemed like they would be amusing plane movies. I watched The Pacifier, which was amusing (although fairly stupid at least half of the time), an episode of CSI: NY, and (when the programming looped two hours and forty-five minutes into the program) The Wedding Date. The latter was fascinating because about 95% of the movie took place in England, which I was flying away from, and involved a trans-Atlantic plane flight. The super-cheap over-the-ear headphones Continental issued (free on trans-Atlantic flights) were barely passable when I pressed the earpiece against my ear, which was a bit unpleasant for extended operation.

I eagerly anticipated the arrival of solid land under the wings. Our flight path took us directly over St. John's (most likely an important diversion airport), the eastern-most tip of North America. As Newfoundland approached on the situation displays liberally placed around the cabin, I counted down until I could see land out my window. The land was short-lived; we crossed ocean, Nova Scotia, and more ocean before entering American air space just south of Boston. On our approach into Newark, I saw the New York skyline just across the Hudson River. We touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport and we were, at last, motionless on American soil at 1330 EDT.

I passed immigration without incident. The only problem passing customs was waiting for my suitcase from baggage claim, which seemed to take longer than it really should have. (A 777 full of people holds a non-trivial amount of luggage.) After handing my customs declaration form to the customs agent (declaring a whopping US$20 of goods I'm importing; obviously this was a business trip with little time for trivial things like tourist shopping) and being waved through, I followed the crowd upstairs and located the re-checking counter. I successfully passed security and wandered towards my gate, somewhere towards the end of Concourse C. I made a quick pass through the food court but nothing inspired me. I felt a bit of nausea for the last three hours on my recently-completed trans-Atlantic flight, but I knew I should eat something, especially before my four-hour no-meal flight to Denver. I headed to my gate, hoping I'd find something worth eating along the way. I sat at my gate, voicemailed Kiesa, and rested a bit (trying to ignore the bawling child at the end of my row of seats just like his apparently-supervising adult was). After a bit, I headed back to the food court and grabbed a veggie burger at a sandwich shop. (The burger turned out to be a cut-in-half-and-folded sandwich, wrapped in paper, which made eating it a bit difficult.) During a small check-out snafu (I think the cash register I stood in front of couldn't handle credit cards, which was my only method of payment since I lacked US dollars), Kiesa called, finally out of church. I told her I'd call her back in five minutes, finished paying for my food, took it to a secluded table, and was about to sit down when I heard a page: "Continental flight 728 with service to Denver is now in final boarding at gate (something)". I gathered my carry-on luggage (the official travel notebook case and a smaller over-the-shoulder pack I used principally to carry my camcorder), my sandwich, large cookie, and large Pepsi and made a mad dash across the concourse, down the stairs and across the tiny waiting area to my gate. As I fumbled for my boarding pass, the woman at the gate asked if I was really ready to board and I assured her that I was. I made my way down the jetway and into my plane, a Boeing 737-500, and fumbled once again for my boarding pass stub to remind me what seat I was sitting in. When I reached my row, my seat (the middle seat on the right side of the plane) was occupied; when I queried the occupant I learned that the elderly woman seated in the aisle seat was in fact ticketed in seat A, the window seat on the opposite side of the plane, which was still empty. She didn't want to move, so I volunteered to take the window seat. After I managed to take the window seat (after displacing both of the women occupying seats B and C, stowing my notebook case in the overhead compartment, and somehow managing to keep my large Pepsi from spilling), I observed to the woman in seat B that it was inevitable that someday I would cause a major catastrophe while boarding an airplane. (Although as major catastrophes go, this was a minor inconvenience.)

As we took off from Newark, I caught another glimpse of New York's skyline, complete with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As we turned westward, I finished my sandwich and continued reading Perdido Street Station, which I had been reading throughout my flight from London.

Somewhere over Nebraska, I looked up from my book and noticed that we were banking sharply to the left. I watched the sun's shadow on the wing as we banked; when we returned to level flight we had executed a 180° turn. Thirty seconds later we executed another 180° turn, putting us back on course. Five minutes later the pilot came on the intercom and announced that some weather-induced delays on approaches into Denver had diverted us from a north-east approach to a south-east approach, requiring our little spin in the process. (The thought crossed my mind to wonder what the turning radius of a fully-laden 737-500 at cruising altitude was.)

We landed in Denver at 1730 MDT (0030 BST, nineteen hours after I woke up in Cambridge) without further incident and parked at the very same gate I started my adventure from a week prior. It took another hour and a half to claim my baggage, reach Lyta, and drive back home. I managed to stay up to a plausible early bedtime (2130 MDT, after twenty-three hours awake) and actually managed to nail jet lag once again. I was rather impressed.