Love Let­ter to the 747

A flight in an empty jumbo jet can change your per­spec­tive.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY MARK VAN­HOE­NACKER

SOME PILOTS JOKE THAT THE AP­PEAR­ANCE of their plane does not mat­ter to them, be­cause they are look­ing out from the in­side of it. Still, the aes­thetic qual­i­ties of air­planes are a reg­u­lar topic of con­tem­pla­tion and con­ver­sa­tion. Pilots might say that one air­liner looks right, or that another looks—vaguely, but def­i­nitely—wrong. Or that one plane looks as though the engi­neers kept stick­ing bits on, seek­ing a frus­trat­ingly elu­sive aero­dy­namic so­lu­tion, each de­sign amend­ment then re­quir­ing another; whereas, other planes look good from the start.

Oc­ca­sion­ally one air­plane catches the imag­i­na­tion of pilots and cabin crew, or even of the gen­eral public. More than a few col­leagues told me they de­cided to learn to fly only be­cause they wished to fly the 747. I am never sur­prised when a col­league’s email ad­dress con­tains those fa­mous num­bers.

Re­cently I was taxi­ing a 747 past a por­tion of the tar­mac at San Fran­cisco that was closed off for re­con­struc­tion. More than a dozen air­port work­ers, pre­sum­ably al­ready ac­cus­tomed to the sight of air­planes at close range, nev­er­the­less put down their tools to pho­to­graph us. On one sum­mer evening near sunset when I was fly­ing over the Nether­lands, a dif­fer­ent air­craft type passed over us, and the other pi­lot let out an aerial cat­call to our 747, a low whis­tle over the ra­dio, then: “I hope you have a lovely day on that lovely air­craft.”

Par­ti­sans of­ten say that the 747 jet “just looks right.” I agree, but this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily what you’d think of a plane with such an un­nat­u­ral bump (a de­sign that moved the cock­pit up­ward

and back to per­mit an up-swing­ing cargo door to be fit­ted to the nose). The lines of the 747 may be so sat­is­fy­ing not de­spite this nose but be­cause of it. Maybe it re­calls a nat­u­ral re­la­tion­ship, that of the head of a bird— a swan per­haps—to a long body and wide wings. Joseph Sut­ter, the 747’s lead de­signer, was drawn to birds as a child: ea­gles, hawks, ospreys. He might be pleased to know that his achieve­ment has come full cir­cle, that a writer on the wildlife of Vir­ginia has de­scribed the great blue heron as the “747 of the swamp.” Sut­ter re­marked that his air­plane was “a place, not a con­veyance,” one that an ar­chi­tec­tural mag­a­zine would de­scribe as the most in­ter­est­ing ed­i­fice of the 1960s and that the ar­chi­tect Nor­man Foster would name as the 20th cen­tury build­ing he ad­mired most. Yet this build­ing, this place, moves nearly as fast as sound it­self.

Then there is the air­plane’s so­lid­ity, the me­tal heft of it so in­com­pat­i­ble with the un­gras­pable medium it moves through. We speak of a jet’s weight in short­hand—340 to­day for take

off to San Fran­cisco, 385 to Sin­ga­pore tonight—and I am oc­ca­sion­ally shocked to re­call that the unit we do not bother to ap­pend to these num­bers is met­ric tons. The 747, what­ever its abil­i­ties to make light of the planet, is too heavy to stand on the tar­mac of many of the world’s air­ports.

When visi­tors clutch­ing the latest smart­phones come into the cock­pit of the 747, they are of­ten so shocked by its rel­a­tive an­tiq­uity that they can’t help but com­ment on it. Many pilots take such a re­ac­tion as a com­pli­ment, and joke that “it’s a clas­sic” or “it’s steam-driven but we like it that way,” while rest­ing their fin­gers af­fec­tion­ately on the four stilled throt­tles.

IT’S OC­TO­BER 2007, and I’m en­ter­ing the cock­pit of a 747 for the first time. But there’s only a cock­pit. No plane is at­tached to it. It is a box, sur­rounded by banks of screens, perched on jacks in a cav­ernous room. Though the sim­u­la­tor’s wrap­around video screens do an ad­mirable job of con­jur­ing the cock­pit’s ex­pan­sive views of the world, the sim­u­la­tor must also sim­u­late the blind­nesses that are a strik­ing fea­ture of fly­ing a large air­liner. The plane is so high, and the nose so rounded, that we can­not see any­where un­der­neath or im­me­di­ately ahead of the plane.

From the cock­pit, we can­not see any­thing be­hind us. When giv­ing taxi in­struc­tions, air traf­fic con­trollers must take ac­count of this. For ex­am­ple, they may ask us to inch for­ward to al­low an air­craft be­hind us to make a turn, the kind of ma­neu­ver that might oc­cur nat­u­rally be­tween cour­te­ous driv­ers us­ing their rearview mir­rors. On some air­planes the pilots can see noth­ing of the wings. From my seat on the 747, I can see only one of the four en­gines and a small por­tion of one wing, and even these only with dif­fi­culty. Nor can we see the wheels, some of which are 30 yards or so be­hind us, or the tail, a fur­ther 40 yards or so be­hind them. Be­cause of this un­seen length, and the enor­mous wing­span, ma­neu­ver­ing on the ground can be more chal­leng­ing than fly­ing. It’s like walk­ing while car­ry­ing long planks of wood: You must adapt your sense of size and shape and con­sider be­fore­hand how you will move and turn. Some­times a con­troller asks us to re­port when we have left a run­way, and we must re­mem­ber that while we, in the cock­pit, have left the run­way area, nearly all of the rest of the plane be­hind us has not. OC­CA­SION­ALLY AN AIR­LINE PI­LOT flies an empty plane. Flights with­out pas­sen­gers are rou­tine for cargo air­craft, of course; that is their pur­pose. To fly a pas­sen­ger plane that has no pas­sen­gers feels un­nat­u­ral. It oc­curs rarely, when weather dis­rup­tion has left an air­craft at the wrong air­port or when it needs to be moved to or from a main­te­nance base, for ex­am­ple. I have flown an empty air­liner only a hand­ful of times. Even be­fore de­par­ture, the idea that no pas­sen­gers will join us is dis­cour­ag­ing. The red-cap may shrug when they meet us on such days. Their work is, of course, much eas­ier with­out pas­sen­gers, but they do not ap­pear to like it ei­ther.

Flights with no pas­sen­gers are of­ten flights with no cabin crew ei­ther, so one of the pilots must help close the door on the empty and silent main deck be­fore head­ing up­stairs to join col­leagues in the cock­pit. Open­ing or clos­ing an air­craft door safely is not en­tirely straight­for­ward, and un­til my first flight on an empty air­craft I had never ac­tu­ally opened or closed a 747 door other than dur­ing an­nual train­ing ex­er­cises, prac­tic­ing with flight at­ten­dants on an air­craft mockup with a door to nowhere. Take­off on an empty plane is dif­fer­ent too. The jet feels un­nat­u­rally light. The ab­sence of pas­sen­gers is mea­sured in tens of tons, a rare re­minder not only of the size of air­lin­ers but also of the phys­i­cal­ity, the take-this-up-there me­chan­ics of flight.

On an empty flight it is a pi­lot who must walk through the cabin to con­duct the rou­tine safety

You must adapt your sense of size and shape and con­sider be­fore­hand how you will move. Some­times a con­troller asks us to re­port when we have left a run­way, and we must re­mem­ber that while we, in the cock­pit, have left the run­way area, nearly all of the rest of the plane be­hind us has not.

checks that the cabin crew nor­mally per­form. On the 747, this re­quires a long and lonely walk away from my one or two col­leagues in the cock­pit, down­stairs and all the way back, past hun­dreds of empty seats that may be dressed and ready—mag­a­zines, tooth­brushes, and head­sets laid out—for the pas­sen­gers that are not there.

I’m on an empty air­craft, fly­ing from San Fran­cisco to Lon­don. Among the three pilots, I am al­lo­cated the first break, and I choose to take it in a com­fort­able seat in the cabin down­stairs, rather than in the cock­pit bunk, be­cause I’ve never had the ex­pe­ri­ence of doz­ing in the en­tirely un­tenanted vol­ume of a 747’s pas­sen­ger cabin. Hum­ming to my­self, I pre­pare a lux­u­ri­ant bed in the nose of the jet, more a nest re­ally, from the all-but-un­lim­ited sup­ply of blan­kets and pil­lows. I think of the vast cells of the cargo holds be­low me, which are nearly full tonight with the com­puter and biotech­nol­ogy equip­ment and fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles that are the fin­ger­print of the Cal­i­for­nia val­leys and in­dus­trial parks we over­flew on de­par­ture. Out­side I can see the peaks of the snow­capped Sierra Ne­vadas stream­ing past in the gath­er­ing dusk. But breaks are short enough with­out sight­see­ing, and so I lie down to sleep.

What I hear next is the wake-up call at the end of my break. On a nor­mal flight this would be a chime in the bunk area trig­gered re­motely by the other pilots, a pleas­ant enough noise that is nev­er­the­less burned into ev­ery long-haul pi­lot’s brain as the last thing we want in­ter­rupt­ing our dreams. On this empty flight, how­ever, my wake-up call takes the form of a public-ad­dress an­nounce­ment, per­son­al­ized to me from a col­league in the cock­pit, broad­cast to the hun­dreds of empty seats and one lonely pi­lot who sud­denly bolts up­right in a cor­ner of the for­ward cabin.

It takes me much longer than the usual sleepy mo­ment to re­al­ize where I am. The plane has been fly­ing to­ward the night of the north and the east, so it is dark out­side and nearly dark in­side as well. Scat­tered oval pools of cold moon­light spread across the cabin floor and roll gen­tly back and forth over the car­pet with the sway of the ves­sel in the high wind. No cur­tains are drawn be­tween the cab­ins, and as I look down the full length of the main deck, only a few splashes of light dot the shad­owy ab­strac­tion of the aisles. I sit in my pa­ja­mas on the cabin floor, con­tem­plat­ing for a mo­ment the white noise of the en­gines and the un­in­ter­rupted length of this ghost ship, this pe­cu­liar li­brary of num­bered and let­tered va­can­cies that is even now heav­ing it­self for­ward to­ward the Arc­tic.

The phrase “souls on board” comes to mind, an an­ti­quated term in avi­a­tion that is still heard when an air-traf­fic con­troller, for ex­am­ple, wishes to know the to­tal num­ber of per­sons, pas­sen­gers and crew, on an air­craft. Many tens of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers and crew have flown on this plane and will fly on it; no one who saw only the map of us, the far-scat­tered con­stel­la­tion of our present lo­ca­tions on Earth, would ever guess that what we had in com­mon was one air­plane. I change out of my pa­ja­mas in front of the un­shut­tered win­dows, which for once open onto a night no less lonely than that in­side the cabin.

I walk up­stairs and make my way care­fully down the dark aisle of the up­per deck. The cock­pit door has been open the en­tire flight—there is no rea­son to close it tonight—and from the end of the up­perdeck cabin the softly glow­ing cock­pit screens are as wel­com­ing as a hearth. I walk past the empty seats and through the open door. The mug of tea my col­leagues have made for me is steam­ing in a cupholder by my seat. As I walk in I say: Guess who? And the cap­tain laughs, be­cause tonight there is no one else in the world it could be.

The plane has been fly­ing to­ward the night of the north and the east, and so it is dark out­side and nearly dark in­side as well. Scat­tered oval pools of cold moon­light spread across the cabin floor and roll gen­tly back and forth over the car­pet with the sway of the ves­sel in the high wind.


One of only a hand­ful of four-en­gine air­lin­ers fly­ing to­day, the 747 has a roomy cock­pit with that clus­ter of four thrust levers at its cen­ter.

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