The last flight out

With the coming of daylight saving time the last of the flights overhead is the Qantas 747 to Japan. I will often be outside, taking the dog out to do his final ablutions for the night, when I hear the soft roar of a four distant jet engines cruising north into the dark night sky, lights blinking, distinguishing it from the stars. And I wish that I was up there with them, looking down upon the city lights. I know that flight, just as I know its destination.

Nine years ago we caught QF21, then a 747-300 on the first of eleven trips (so far) to Japan. Since then other flights have taken us there. I recall arriving so early that first time, utterly exhausted from a sleepless night in the air, unable to check into the hotel. Far better, is it not, to land in the evening, with time for dinner and rest?

Yet… Three years ago I had a love-hate relationship with flying. I enjoyed the views from above, loved the travel, but was terrified of turbulence. It wasn’t until three Qantas 747 flights in a row, from Singapore to London, then back to Sydney via Hong Kong, that I rediscovered just how much I loved flying and largely conquered my fears.

There is something about the 747 which just feels right, makes it more special to me than its more recent cousins and rivals. And despite flying since on other airlines’ jumbos there is something special about Qantas too. So it is with fear that I see Qantas retiring so many of these less efficient four engined birds. They still ply a number of routes, though one wonders what will happen post the beginning of the partnership with Emirates.

Soon after the announcement I knew I wanted to fly on one. The obvious, and near cheapest, choice was to Tokyo. I cannot seem to tire of Japan. It is an easy country, safe (barring natural disasters), with an incredible density of sights, both natural and man made. More importantly, there are train lines everywhere. I was born to love trains, it is in my genetic heritage. But just as Qantas faces increasing competitive pressures, so does Japan. It is a declining country, both economically and demographically. Many of those train lines that I love, many of the towns they serve, must disappear. I feel a need to experience and document what I can before they go.

I book return flights to Tokyo, just for myself. I will do some of the things that I cannot in the company of my wife and son. Then I shorten my stay to three days, because I will miss them so. Despite the short time, there is still much I can do, though there is so much more I want to see, far beyond what even the original time would permit.

Tuesday evening arrives. I take Alex back from childcare and meet my wife at Town Hall. There I say goodbye to both of them and catch a train to the International Terminal. I have plenty of time to waste. The flight is at 10.30pm and it is only 5.30pm. I have checked in online and only have a medium sized backpack, small enough to be carried on board.

International Terminal station title

Check in desks at Sydney airport

Road side at Departures, Sydney Airport Terminal 1

I climb the stairs up to Observation Deck, with its views of the city, the northern end of the main runway and the domestic terminals. Above is an early evening sky of wispy clouds, the kind of sky to make one dream of flights away.

Observation deck, Sydney Airport

There is surprisingly little action happening on the tarmac, until a silver and orange Jetstar A330 backs out from its gate and begins a long taxi to the south. So often now have I flown on such an aircraft to Japan, the last time being only a few months ago. Pleasant memories as I watch it lift into the skies past the city.

View towards Sydney CBD from the Sydney Airport Observation Deck

Jetstar A330 jet aircraft

I return inside of the terminal, change some currency, walking past the queues of passengers checking in, feeling some of their excitement and apprehension at their upcoming journeys. Then I step through immigration and security behind a group of Second World War North Africa Campaign veterans dressed in sandy beige.

Empty Qantas check in desks, Sydney Airport

Qantas 747-400 VH-OJC

The perfumes, alcohol and tobacco that immediately confront the airside passenger as the walk away from the x-ray machines and are inserted straight into duty free sales hold no allure for me, but I stop by the electronics section. The selection of goods is disappearing before my eyes as stock is packed away for the night. As much as I need a new camera, laptop, speakers, the prices are not particularly cheap and now is not the time to spend the money. Even if it was, I am off to Japan, home of the manufacturers.

Sydney Airport Duty Free

I have a fantasy of turning up to the airport with only my passport, wallet and phone and buying everything else I need on the spot, making do with whatever limited choices are available. Imagine a new bag full of green, gold and Aboriginal themed t-shirts! Though I am travelling light, I have packed all I need for my limited trip. So I wander around places like the Lonely Planet store, dreaming.

Shops and seating facilities airside at Sydney Airport

Another fantasy was hanging around the airport watching it slowly shutdown for the night. I had researched the food options airside, somewhat improved from the past, imagined sitting at a cafe viewing passengers rush for their flights while shopkeepers and waiters prepared for the ebbing of life within the terminal. However, prior to arrival at the airport I had also debated whether to use my sole remaining Qantas lounge entry card, a limited perk of a silver frequent flyer member, here in Sydney or wait until the return flight from Tokyo. At stake are a shower, free meal and somewhere to sit. I had tried both and there is no doubt that the Sydney lounge is larger and better equipped.

Aircraft and the Sydney CBD at dusk

Faced with a longer stay in Sydney Airport I chose the lounge here. I’m sure my hygiene obsessed fellow train passengers in Japan would prefer it if I wash away the sweat of the workday first (more the sweat of travelling to and from work). So I go upstairs and enter the door past the honeycombed first class lounge.

Nothing seems changed from my breakfast visit back in 2010. Conservative, but modern, brown decor with distinctive string balls covering the hanging lights. Part of the lounge is closed off for the nights, but service is still being provided to the remainder. Dinner choices are limited to roast chicken, chips and a wonderfully sophisticated warm pumpkin and balsamic dish, along with a variety of salads. Fruits and subtly delicious cheesecake and passionfruit slices complete the meal.

Inside the Qantas International Business Lounge, Sydney Airport, seating and lights

Buffet at Qantas Business Lounge, Sydney Airport

Washbasins at Qantas International Business Lounge, Sydney Airport

Seating inside the Qantas International Business Lounge, Sydney Airport

I call home and almost change my mind altogether about the trip when I hear Alex crying that he misses his Daddy. Then I realise that I am already airside and it’s all too complex now.

Outside the sky is dark, the airport tarmac harshly and unnaturally illuminated in amber. A Scoot tail is unexpectedly visible out of the window; a flight that should have left at the middle of the day. I should know as my last flight was with them. It roars into the sky very late and I wonder what effect that will have on the rest of their schedules, limited as they are with aircraft.

Tail of Scoot Airways 777.

View outside of the Qantas Lounge

The lounge showers have raindrop heads that are more like a waterfall. Unlike the free showers prior to immigration, everything here is provided and I feel refreshed when I emerge.

Washbasing, toilet, shower at Qantas International Business Lounge

When the call for our flight is made I join the small crowd of lounge users as we make our way downstairs and to the gate. The shops are now shuttered with only cleaners and security staff still prowling the airport.

International Duty Free shutting down for the night

Boarding has already started when I reach the gate and it proceeds smoothly. I am taken aside and my passport checked due to my self-printed boarding pass. Then I walk down the gangway and into the aircraft, past red premium economy seats. Will it or won’t it be a refurbished 747?

It isn’t. In fact the seat covers are still the original blue, despite a many aircraft being updated to a red cover by 2009. Truth is, I’m not terribly fussed, though I would have appreciated the in-seat power to keep my mp3 player/phone charged during the flight.

Empty Qantas 747 seats, blue in colour.

I settle into my window seat of 50A and immediately think “Aren’t I comfortable!”. What a contrast to my last flights, with Scoot, with its rock hard seat, poorly placed seat supports blocking leg room and lack of head support. I am really feeling good sitting in this Qantas seat.

Even better was the fact that nobody sat next to me. I had all three seats in the row to myself!

The 4:3 seatback screens were a bit small, but still better quality than those of the Malaysia Airlines 747 I had flown last November. The system was already available, so I quickly check through  the music options, hoping for something decent to play during take-off. Yes! Finally a real soundtrack in the system, if only one, and TRON: Legacy is good flying music. Otherwise I can make do with some of the modern classical and electronica options.

Seat backs, Qantas 747-400

Seat back screen showing soundtracks in the entertainment system library

We are handed earphones, simple amenities packs containing eyeshades, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a printed menu detailing both the meals and when to expect service.

Menu cover with pomegranate photo

Printed menu contents

Amenities pack

Then it is time for us to leave the gate and begin our taxi out to the runway. The safety presentation is quite new and features Australian Olympic and Paralympic athletes. I noticed when flying Scoot that they seemed to use Qantas’ “Your safety is our priority” in their own video, but now Qantas has moved on with “Your safety is our first priority”.

Seatback and window view

Steve Hooker pictured on the screen

After the safety demonstration the pilot then welcomes us to the flight and apologises for the long taxi, though I didn’t find it such. We line up to the south along the main runway and power up into the sky. It’s a quarter to eleven at night. Despite missing Alex and B, I am excited!

Streaks of light

We roar across Botany Bay, then cross the Kurnell Peninsula, where the brightly lit refinery faces a conversion into a simple fuel import terminal. Then we turn across the Royal National Park until we face north and I guess there we are, somewhere high above my house, that aircraft I was dreaming about.

Only, I can’t see my suburb. When I next see lights below it looks like coastal suburbs, narrow sparkling jewelscapes hemmed in by murky blackness on either side. Then we ascend into clouds and all is hidden.

City lights at night

I would like to sleep. It is my bedtime and those empty seats beckon. But I am also curious about the meal, so I wait. On this moonless night there will be little to see outside, so I go to find a movie to watch while eating. Only, the screens suddenly go black and stay that way for the next half hour while the crew attempt a full reset.

When the meal is offered I select the Steamed Fish with Lemon Caper Sauce and Sweet Potato Puree rather than the Sukiyaki Chicken with Koshihikari Rice. Though the fish seems a tad overcooked, the dish is rather nice, the accompanying simple leafy salad refreshing. The star is definitely the Cookies’n’Cream Mousse. It might look very commercially prepackaged but it is smooth and delicious.

Tray of food and drink.

Fish with cream sauce and sweet potato.

Cookies and cream mousse

I lie flat along the row of three seats, listening to music, yet sleep does not come. There is nothing to see outside but the odd reflection of the aircraft’s lights against high cloud. Fortunately, any turbulence is minimal and the seatbelt lights are never activated.

Though I do not sleep, at least I rest. The entertainment system returns to life, I listen to music, keep an occasional eye on the flight map. As we pass over Guam I see the lights of civilisation below, before they are replaced by cloud and ocean once more.

I amuse myself watching “Men in Black 3″, Josh Brolin a very convincing young Tommy Lee Jones. Later it’s some episodes of the Walliams and Lucas comedy “Come Fly With Me”, which I have previously watched in its entirety. Last Qantas 747 flight I took it was “Little Britain USA”.

Two Japanese schoolgirls in Come Fly With Me

Before I know it both sunrise and breakfast are upon us. The Japanese breakfast of fish in ponzu sauce with rice runs out early and it is a choice of fried or scrambled egg for the rest of us. I choose the former, enjoy the banana muffin and fruit salad most of all. I ask the attendant if I can have a hot chocolate and she returns with one once the trolley service is over. She tells me that they normally don’t do hot chocolate runs out of Sydney, which is a bit of a pity as I really enjoyed the Cadbury hot chocolate and marshmallows on the London flights back in 2009.

Tray of breakfast with fruit, muffin and hot meal

Sausage and egg

I love the orange glow of the sunrise as it streams through the windows on the opposite side of the cabin, reflecting off my wall. So too the carpet of cloud below, so serene in the morning light. This is why I fly.

Morning light through a passenger's window

Early morning over a carpet of cloud

Dawn light across the aircraft's wing

Dawn light reflecting off the aircraft interior

We are soon turning to make our final approach into Narita airport. The pilot warns us to buckle up for expected turbulence, but it never eventuates. Golden light reflects of the long, kinked 747 wing as we turn and descend. No other still-flying large commercial aircraft has a wing so swept, designed for speed. It is an object of beauty.

Wing of the aircraft dipping toward the clouds

We approach the cloud layer through a sky of salmon and pastel blue and orange, penetrating it, crossing over beaches and paddy fields separated by forested hillocks. A smooth landing under the golden rays of the following Sun.

The orange sun reflects off the wing


Close up of wing

Japanese coast

Japanese countryside

Narita Airport from above

Sunrise over a runway

American Airlines 777

Airports are at their best in the morning light and here there are a variety of aircraft on the tarmac, including the all too familiar Jetstar A320s. It’s not that long ago that the airline launched local service here. Though it’s barely past 6 am the airport is waking for yet another busy day.

Two 737s at the gate

The Spirit of Australia on a seatback screen

It’s been a wonderful flight, truly enjoyable, but as soon as we reach the gate I am off. No time to waste appreciating the airport, for I have a long way to go today. There is already a fair sized queue at immigration, where we are photographed and fingerprinted. But there is no need for me to wait for a bag as my possessions are already on my back. This seems to confuse the customs person, but I am let out without any hassle.

Qantas 747 view through gate lounge windows

I am back in Japan!

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