Cockpit Chronicles: Travel Tip: Don’t leave home without pants!

The third and final London trip of the month was the most memorable. I doubt if I’ll be able to see London again before it goes back to the 777, which normally operates the route, in March. Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted.

European trips generally allow just enough time for a half day of sightseeing. As a result, traveling outside of the city is nearly impossible. So for years I had vowed to make the trip to London on my days off and see the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, England.

This museum, located near Cambridge, was on my list for a very personal reason. In 1983, my dad (who is also a pilot) bought a B-25D WWII bomber for $15,000 and spent a good portion of his savings restoring it. Unfortunately, he was left with no choice but to sell the completed airplane when the company he was flying for went out of business. It was picked up by Stephen Gray and displayed at the museum in Duxford. The aircraft regularly participated in the airshows there. The closest I ever came to seeing the finished bomber was in the form of a magazine article that featured Duxford. In 2005, the airplane was sold to a collector in Seattle which, ironically, is where my dad kept it 23 years ago.

With a forty-four hour layover in London, would it be worth visiting the Imperial War Museum, even if our old airplane was no longer there? I knew my aviation geek friend, Ruthann, had checked out Duxford, so I asked her if it was worth it. Not only was it worth it, she said, but she would show me herself. Since her mom and brother had been dying to get out of Western Ireland for a break from the rain, this was as good of an excuse as any. You know the weather is bad when you book a trip to London during the winter in the hope of escaping the rain!

Captain Mark and I took off from Boston just after the sun came up and chatted all the way across the Atlantic. Conversation is a big part of this job at times and since Mark has five kids, he’s able to give me an idea of what may be in store for me when my two daughters are older. Once on the North Atlantic portion of our flight, this conversation was interrupted by the requirement to give a position report to the Gander and Shanwick ATC facilities.

Occasionally I’d snap a picture or video clip of the sunset. I’ve gathered a few clips together and put them to music. Sometimes it’s easier to share a video to give you an idea of the view from the front. After a while you tend to take these sights for granted.

Since there’s no radar for these controllers to see our position, we have to line up on one of about seven or eight parallel ‘tracks.’ The airplanes are separated by 1000 feet and spaced at least 10 minutes apart along each track. We call in our position through a High Frequency (HF) radio that’s like talking into a Geiger counter because of all the static. To get an idea how painful it is, there’s a great website,, that allows you to listen to airline traffic all over the world and they have a good North Atlantic feed where you can hear some of these position reports. Think World War II technology and you’ll get the idea. We talk to Gander on the west side of the Atlantic (based in Newfoundland, Canada) and Shanwick (based in Shannon, Ireland) on the east side.

After a few hours of chatting, the sun had set and it was time to get ready for the approach into London. After three London trips this month, I’ve figured out that holding over the Ockham VOR south of London is commonplace for this time of day. After two race track patterns lasting 15 minutes each, London control turned us loose for the approach and landing.

The plan was for Mark and I to meet up on Saturday with Ruthann and her family at King’s Cross station in London before jumping on a train to Cambridge. I figured we’d get a few hours in Cambridge before or after the museum visit as long as we got a good sleep and an early start. Unfortunately I came to a horrifying realization after checking into the hotel.

After checking in on Friday night, Mark and I planned to get some dinner at a Chinese restaurant across the street. When I went to unpack my suitcase, however, I discovered that I had left my pants at home. Horrifying might be a bit of an over reaction, but I can’t think of much worse than having a long layover and sightseeing in airline uniform pants. I was insistent that there’s no way that would happen.

I met up with Mark and explained my situation. Someone mentioned that Tesco might sell clothing, and that there was a 24-hour Tesco near the hotel. I had always assumed that Tesco was just a grocery store. I texted Ruthann and asked her if she knew anything about this. She assured me that I could probably find a really cheap pair of pants there. So Mark and I set out close to midnight and after nearly an hour of walking around we finally talked to a local lady who assured us that the Tesco we were looking for wouldn’t be the place for us. Apparently Tescos in the city just sold groceries.

So the quest for a pair of pants would have to wait until the morning, which would cut into our already packed day. I rolled out of bed at 8 a.m. even though I craved another 5 hours of sleep. The walk to the ritzy High Street in Kensington took a half hour, but at least I was quickly awoken by the price tag of $80 for a suitable pair of pants. I was in a hurry and didn’t have much time to comparison shop.

Mark and I picked up a couple of Oyster passes, which are like prepaid cards for the Tube in London. These cards require a £3.00 deposit, but they save you more than 50% in Tube fees and therefore pay for themselves in the first ride.

Ruthann, her mom Joan and her brother Gary met us at the Kings Cross tube station where we bought tickets for the train to Cambridge. The one-hour train ride for them was the same price, $25, as their round trip Ryanair flight from Western Ireland to London.

As we were lined up for the train I snapped this picture of platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross. Crazy Brits, I figured. Who would have a 3/4 platform number? Then Ruthann pointed out that this was the platform used in the filming of Harry Potter and everything made sense. Notice the cart left behind. Seems the Muggles don’t allow the carts to continue to the platform.

We got off at the Cambridge stop and then waited for a while for the bus to take us to Duxford. Because of the time I wasted looking for pants, it looked like we wouldn’t be seeing much of Cambridge. But the conversation with Ruthann’s mom a
nd brother made the time fly while we were waiting at the bus stop. They got some mileage out of my pants that caused such a delay, but by now, I was justifying my purchase. I showed them how the lower part of the legs could unzip, leaving me with shorts. This was the perfect solution for a New York trip that happens to cancel in the Caribbean. Hey, it could happen!

I’ve been to a number of aviation museums in England and the U.S., but Duxford was one of the best I’d ever visited. I’m a bit partial to British airplanes, and two of the sexiest, the Spitfire and the Concorde, were there. They also had a very expansive American Air Museum complete with its own quonset-hut style hangar. If you ever find yourself near Cambridge, I highly recommend a visit the the Imperial War Museum – Duxford. I’ve included my pictures in the gallery above and I would be remiss if I didn’t add a link to Ruthann’s wonderful shots from the same trip. She’s quite the photographer who practically lives on Flickr.

I was thrilled to find that the museum would take my old Northern Ireland bank notes that Ruthann told me had been cancelled a few years earlier due to a huge bank robbery thought to have been carried out by the IRA.

We raced back to London with the intention of catching a play, but since it was a Saturday night, we didn’t find anything of interest that wasn’t already sold out. It pays to plan ahead on weekends.

We elected to walk to the Apple store that’s becoming a landmark in London. Well, it is for me, at least. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Apple Store. You could easily travel around the world to Apple stores everywhere and then start a blog about it, but it appears someone has already done that.

We decided to eat at an Italian restaurant. Ruthann and Joan insisted that they pay for my dinner since my birthday was the next day. When the bill came, neither one had a credit card that would work. So I put it on my card and they paid me back with a combination of US dollars, Euros and I think they slipped in some of those darn cancelled Northern Irish bank notes.

By the time Mark and I took off the next day, Ruthann and her family were back in Ireland and I couldn’t help but say hello over the radio as we passed by. I’m sure I’ll be talking to Ruthann someday when she lands a job at the Shannon ATC facility. I know she’d be great at it, if she doesn’t decide to learn to fly instead.

To make sure my birthday would be memorable, the flight attendants chipped in and bought me a cake and even managed to sing Happy Birthday half-way across the Atlantic. I can’t think of a better way to thank them than to share with the world their singing talents (along with Captain Mark). So thanks Patricia and Lisa!

For the next trip we’ll go to Panama City, Panama and Caracas, Venezuela. It will be my first trip there and I’ve always wanted to see the canal. So stay tuned!


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.