Fireballs and a laser: QF34 home

Stepping aboard the Haruka Express, it is time to begin our journey home. If only the train could take me all the way, but it is merely a carriage to the main event.

I sit back and try to enjoy the journey. The waning day, undecided between cloud and clear skies, gives rise to a fiery sunset, a red, gold and grey background edge to the uninspiring landscape around Osaka.

Alex is excited by the sunset. It is delightful the way he has started noticing the world around him, appreciating it for all its wonders.

As the light fades and the nightlife awakes I still imagine walking those streets. Yet now that the die is set I am ready to go home, ready to fall back into a familiar bed and routine.

The long bridge to the artificial island that houses Kansai International Airport provides amazing views and I watch the aircraft landing on the runways, bright landing lights against evening skies, as we rattle across it. In the back of my mind I am studying them, watching how they fly through the weather. Will it be smooth? What should I expect?

Arriving at the station, we drag our bags up the escalators and to the Qantas check in counter, realising that because I’ve already checked in online we can skip the queues and use the near empty bag drop. The Japan Airlines attendant apologises for only being able to hand out two entry cards to the Sakura Lounge as full Qantas Club family entry does not apply here, only a single guest can go in. Alex insists on it being him.

I’m glad to be rid of the luggage, my very heavy backpack full of hair washing refill sachets and cosmetics, the other carry bag holding the clothes. We are left with the carry on dayback and red bag of food treats.

We go down to level 3 to the shops and food courts. Alex is excited to discover a toy shop and I purchase some airline paraphernalia for him. B spots a western restaurant selling steak and decides she wants dinner there. Alex accompanies her.

My guts are doing the familiar churn, but I know I need to eat something. Opposite the restaurant is a Choco Cro. I order an ice chocolate and french toast with berries. Fortunately the strong flavour of the toast is offset by the ice cream on the side and I manage to eat it all and charge my phone at the same time.

It’s now getting late so we head to security and immigration and pass through without issue. A shuttle train takes us to the gate. Boarding time is fast approaching, but the screens are warning of a delay. Despite this, our aircraft is already at the gate, a white and red tailed Qantas Airbus A330-300, like the one that brought us here to Osaka.

Alex and I leave B at the gate lounge and head off for a brief visit to the nearby Sakura Lounge. It’s nothing particularly special, though it is Halloween decorated. Neither of us are hungry for food, which seems to be appropriately, despite the mainly Australian crowd, Japanese focused. Instead we just grab drinks, use the facilities and return to B.

The business class and passengers in the rearward seats are already boarding. Eventually it is our turn. We are on the same seats as on the flight up as I had managed to change them a few days ago. 24K bulkhead for me and 25J and K for Alex and B. Unfortunately, there’s somebody sitting next to me this time, but she quickly put on earphones are descended into her own world.

I do the same, again choosing relaxing music. I can still hear the safety announcements and demonstrations by the very senior (in age at least) crew. The captain then pipes up and explains that we are delayed by a minor technical issue in the cockpit, that it’s been fixed but that the paperwork takes longer than the fix. What he doesn’t mention is that the flight should be smooth. I’m not sure whether to be concerned or not. There’s nothing I can do anyway.

About twenty minutes late we finally embark, taxiing out to the runway. Our takeoff is towards the north and I can see Izumi-Sano and the long bridge race past my window before we make a left turn out across the bay. There are no major hassles as we rise through the cloud layer, but the city lights start to fade away, leaving a moonless blackness.

An announcement is made requesting that passengers close their window shades prior to falling asleep and later an attendant asks me to do so, but I explain that I need it open for reassurance, and she accepts that.

Meals are handed out. The main choices are sushi, linguine with mushrooms or teriyaki chicken. Though I feel slight hunger pangs none of them interest me right now, so I go without. I just want to be left in my own world.

It is not a smooth flight. Continuous bumps, never too large, but varying in magnitude. Some as we fly through high cloud, others just seem to be the winds up here. The seat belt lights are not switched on, but I am in a constant state of underlying tension, unable to completely relax or shut my eyes. At the same time I’m okay and not finding the bumps themselves particularly disturbing.

I pull up my screen from the arm rest and just leave it on the flight map. I’m mainly staring out of the window, watching the skies. In the west I can see the bright red dot of the planet Mars. Elsewhere I think I see Jupiter. Unfortunately there is too much ambient light to appreciate the full glory of the high altitude night skies, but I can still see so much more than from land.

I count at least five fireballs from meteors entering the atmosphere.

Eventually, after the map says the Bonin Trench, things finally quieten down. I look for movie options. I either own most of them in my digital library or have no intention of watching them. What I want is something unchallenging, as I know I won’t be giving it my full attention.

I choose an older movie in The Abyss. I’ve seen it many times before, but the groundbreaking special effects are looking a bit dated now.

Around Guam, as usual, the atmospheric disturbances pick up once more. We start winding around storms and now and then there is a flash of lightning, fuzzily hidden behind cloud. A little calmer near the equator, more clarity with high cloud replaced by the distant clouds of gas and dust and their stars along the arms of the Milky Way, then again storms as we approach Papua New Guinea.

The lights of towns are visible along the coast, but further west, towards the horizon, there is a storm system flashing red, like a patch of Hell above Earth. In the starlight I can make out some structure of cloud ahead, but PNG is remarkably clear.

A distant blinking aircraft looks to be following us in the distance, but we outpace it.

In the middle of the night many villages are dark, but occasionally there are bright lights, especially around the mines. As we fly over one inland town I see a flash of light, then something looking light a search light shining through cloud, pointing away, then upwards, seemingly random. I realise that it’s a powerful green laser and wonder what on Earth it is doing at this hour of light in this part of the world. Terrorising aircraft at high altitude? Doesn’t seem likely.

Port Moresby comes and goes and are back over the ocean. There are a few more bumps and then things finally settle down. Morning is approaching.

I finish The Abyss. It’s not really a flying movie. I wish I’d watched something dreamier, maybe a Christopher Nolan movie (other than the Batman series) but the only one available had been Batman Begins.

There was Airplane available as well!

I am beyond exhausted and sleep for fifteen minutes, then wake up again feeling a lot more refreshed.

A crew member, noticing that I am awake, hands me a banana. Alex is also awake behind me and has his own banana. It’s not quite ripe, but it’ll do for my immediate hunger pangs.

I don’t want to watch another movie, but my earphones are still attached to the screen so I hunt around for some music to listen to in the soundtracks section. There’s the same old John Williams compilation that’s been on the entertainment system for ages. Then I notice a couple of new additions. I try Hans Zimmer: The Classics.

Zimmer is fast food to John Williams’ fine dining. A quick, satisfying hit without subtle flavouring. But this is terrible. A compilation of guest artists and not a very good one. It’s muzak, not music. Skip, skip, skip, give up.

The James Horner: The Classics fares much better, perhaps because of the composer’s classical underpinnings. Once that is done I go back to my phone and just listen to a random selection of tracks.

The first hints of morning are showing outside the window. I lower my shade further, determine that my screen is making more light pollution inside than the window. It will be a race as to whether breakfast or morning wakes people up first. Behind me, Alex is excited by the morning too. He is awake, though he has switched on another movie on his screen.

I’m on the wrong side of the aircraft for a first glimpse of the sun, but that works to my advantage with regards to the light situation. We are approaching the Whitsunday Islands, marking our crossing of the coast.

This is one of the best times to be flying over Australia, with smooth morning skies over a land touched by tendrils of fog and morning cloud.

Breakfast is served with about an hour and a half of flight time left. The choices are onigiri (rice cake) or an egg and bacon pastry, both with a fruit salad. The sizes are disappointingly small and the topping slides off my pastry. Still tastes good and I am hungry! I heartily approve of the serving of fruit salad for breakfast as it’s the one food I invariably feel like eating whatever the situation.

I don’t have the opportunity to ask for a drink so I just sip the bottle of water given to us at the start of the flight.

Another aircraft flights parallel to us, eventually overtakes us. I think it’s a China Eastern flight.

We are down to three-quarters of an hour of flight time when the first officer pipes up with a good morning an explanation for our descent path over north Sydney and over the Royal National Park for a landing from the south. There are showers, he expects bumps and we will have a bus gate again due to our lateness.

That’s not good news.

At the half hour mark I feel the change in the engines and wing configuration. We are descending. As we approach the initial cloud layer the captain orders all passengers and crew to be seat. Terse. Nervous now.

After a little wait the cabin manager announces that the seat belt sign has been switched on for landing. Reassuring.

As we cross North Sydney and head over the 2000 Olympics site at Homebush we penetrate some of the cloud over Sydney. So far, so good.

Then, over the southern suburbs, our home, the dense clouds of the rain stand like a wall before us.

There are bumps, but I’ve felt much worse and they barely disturb me. This is great, evidence that big cloud doesn’t always equal suffering. The views are impressive too, but I am reticent to hold up my camera.

We are now under the cloud and over the ocean, doing our big U-turn up across the Kurnell Peninsula and down to the main runway.

The landing is soft and we roll across the wet tarmac, reverse thrust blasting, slowing down until at last we are in taxi mode.

Sitting across from us is a German government A340. That’s rare for here!

We park near the freight terminal, the attendants admonishing a passenger who unbuckled while we were still moving. The business class cabin empties and then we head down the stairs towards the waiting bus.

Behind us, an Emirates A380 roars up into the air.

There are views of another Emirates A380, a Qantas bird of the same type and the American Airlines 787 as we drive along towards the terminal.

Inside, we pass by a young group just returned from the Kennedy Space Centre. What an experience they must have had! We hurry through immigration and two of our bags arrive quickly on the carousel, the last one slower. A jovial customs official greets us in many languages, telling us to go through the declaration path due to me ticking “prohibited items such as medicine” (Panadol) on the card. But with that explanation we are waived and straight through the exit.

It’s Sunday, we have heavy bags, so we splurge on a taxi home, back in time to collect our overjoyed dog from the kennel.

The weather is strangely not as perfect as usual for our return home, but I’m still glad to be back and very, very tired after such little sleep.

As I reflect back on the flight, it wasn’t the best I’ve had, but I blame me rather than Qantas. I coped well with any turbulence, but it was the stress of it, the inability to relax, that got me. It felt long. I realise that, for the entirety of the flight, I was in my own little shell, my seat and nothing else. No sense of cruising with a plane full of other passengers, of admiring our shared transport, of interacting with the crew or enjoying relaxing entertainment. Just me, focused on the small square of a window, hoping not to be attacked from the world outside, wishing for time to pass quickly.

No magic in the flight.

Except for what I did see out the window. Cities like jewels and stupendous flashing battles between clouds. Space stuff falling to Earth, other planets and stars far away. A crazy laser. Coral in the morning, plateaus caressing us with updrafts. Other aircraft in the skies, trains snaking along the ground.

I don’t apologise for keeping my eyes on all that.

And then, after nine and a half hours in the air, we touch down on Earth and prepare to go through it all again next time.

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