Cockpit Chronicles: A new year’s eve to celebrate in London

When I was in high school, I got to know a sweet and charming exchange student from Germany named Linda. We hung out together and I did my best to show her around Seattle before she had to go home six weeks later. I regretted not having the opportunity to get to know her ten months earlier when she first came to the U.S.

Five years went by, and we would write an occasional letter. She’d tell me about her life in Germany, which revolved around a constant barrage of tests or how she’d been accepted into a school she’d always wanted to attend and I’d tell her about whatever flying rating I was chasing or what classes I was taking at the time. I always knew I’d see her again, or at least I had hoped I would.

While flying for Era, a regional airline based in Anchorage, I happened to write a letter that would forever change my life. I was in the town of Deadhorse, up on the north slope of Alaska, flying some scientists who were tracking the migration patterns of bowhead whales. For nearly a week, the weather wasn’t good enough to look for these whales from the air, so I wrote to Linda and happened to mention that I could travel cheaply-free in fact, if I were willing to ride on a FedEx cargo plane to Germany from Anchorage-and that I would love to see where she lived.
Before heading out to dinner one night in Anchorage, I checked the mail. A letter from Germany had arrived. I stuffed it in my coat pocket and drove to the restaurant with my sister and a good friend. I couldn’t wait to open it, so after placing my order for beer battered Halibut, I tore open the envelope. Linda hadn’t wasted much time writing back. The letter explained that she’d be in London for New Year’s eve with some friends from school and invited me to join them if that was possible. I was excited to leave right away, but I wondered if we’d have anything in common, since we last saw each other at the age of seventeen.

In London, we stayed at a place called “Ken’s Guest House” in a room that wasn’t much larger than a walk-in closet. The decor included three black and white TVs stacked on top of each other in the corner, no furniture to speak of and a shared bathroom down the hall. We didn’t really mind the spartan room since we wouldn’t be staying there long-we’d be moving to a youth hostel the next day anyway. After ringing in New Year’s of 1991, we talked until 7a.m. For a better idea of what happened to us, just watch the movie Before Sunrise. The next day, Linda introduced me to her parents who were also visiting London.

It wasn’t long before Linda was visiting me in Anchorage and I was spending all of my time traveling to see her in Germany and later in Wales. For two years I commuted from Alaska to Europe. We were married in Seattle just weeks before I landed a job at a major airline that promptly furloughed the bottom 600 pilots. We moved ten times during those next three years, but now we’re happily settled in New England.

Today, I fly to London regularly as a crew member and I can’t help but think of that first meeting with Linda, at the Victoria train station, and how we celebrated New Year’s eve together at Trafalger Square in 1991. Twenty years later, I managed to trade away my Barbados 25-hour overnight for a 44-hour layover to Heathrow. With so much time in London, why not bring my wife along to celebrate twenty years since the date that brought us together. We could swing through the Victoria station and just catch the midnight swarm of people at the square.

I immediately checked the loads, which is to say, just how full the flight was over and back. Three months earlier, I tried to get Linda on one of my trips while her mother was visiting from Germany and was willing to watch the kids. Unfortunately, I found myself waving goodbye to her from the cockpit as we were pushing back from the gate in Boston. Every seat was filled on the 767.

According to the computer, this time we’d have plenty of seats on the flight over. Coming home would be a different story. Should we risk it, I asked? Linda thought there were worse things in life than being stuck in London, a position I’m sure a few London travelers who had been stuck at the airport earlier that week would disagree with.

It couldn’t have worked out better. Linda got a seat in the back but stayed up in the cockpit while the passengers boarded and I explained just how to preflight the airplane, what we checked for and what everything on the overhead panel did. It had been eight years since Linda had been on a flight with me, and I was probably more excited than she was to have her come along.

Let’s face it, layovers by yourself can be boring, repetitive and even depressing. Flying to the same hotel, in the same city over and over, with little energy or motivation to get out-especially in the winter-can leave you wishing you could bring along a friend or loved one. Of course, it’s nice to fly with co-workers you consider friends, as I’ve written about in the past, but it’s a huge treat to bring along a spouse.

It was my ‘leg’ to fly over to London, so of course, anytime you know someone in the back, the pressure is always there to make an extra smooth landing. With a little help from the tower controllers at Heathrow, the touchdown was even better than my usual “landing only a mother could love.”

Typically at Heathrow there is an airplane flying just 3 miles behind you when you touchdown. This means flights are required to spend a minimum amount of time on the runway. That night however, the tower informed us that there was no one behind and we could plan on rolling to whatever turnoff we’d prefer. I touched down in the normal target a thousand feet down the runway and then instead of using a significant amount of brakes and reverse thrust, elected to roll to a slow stop using two thirds of the two mile long runway.

I escorted Linda through the terminal, meeting up with the rest of the crew as they pulled up in the bus that would take us to the hotel in western London.

By this time it was 8:30 p.m., so we decided to get some dinner after changing at the hotel. We made an appearance at the pub downstairs and had just enough time for a drink and visit with a few others from our flight before going upstairs to watch the rumored fireworks from the window of our room. I had heard that most of the fireworks would be near the London Eye, but we were shocked by the spectacular display which broke out directly from the giant wheel. Without a doubt, they were the best fireworks display we’d ever seen. From the BBC:

A 44-hour layover gives you the luxury of sleeping in a bit and staying closer to your home time zone. As much as London has to offer on January 1st, Linda was very much looking forward to not having to set an alarm clock.

We wandered down to a Starbucks quaint cafe for some tea.

“Did you put sugar in my tea?” Linda asked.

“Uh, yeah. Don’t you take milk and sugar?” I said, realizing immediately that she didn’t.

“I’ve never put sugar in my tea!”

This was bad. Linda was actually born in Belfast before she moved as a kid to Germany. The one cultural habit she kept from her years in Northern Ireland was an affinity for tea. And not just an occasional cup of tea, she started the day with tea and she took time in the afternoon for her “wee cup of tea.” After eighteen years of marriage, not knowing how she took her tea was not a good way to start off a romantic weekend getaway.

After retracing some of our steps twenty years ago, such as finding the best book stores in London and eating at a Chinese restaurant where I first got to know her parents, we popped into a cafe (this time not Starbucks) for a pre-theatre cup of tea. I managed to get the order right and we joked about it a bit.

I may have salvaged the tea faux pas with tickets to We will Rock You, which I knew would be the perfect musical to see if we were feeling a bit jet lagged. Linda loved the show and we were certainly wide awake afterwards, so we headed down to Trafalgar Square to see the area where the New Year’s celebration had been-the night before and ours twenty years ago.

A few blocks south was the Thames, so we headed down there to look at the London Eye across the river. We headed back toward another tube station, and just passed Big Ben as the clock struck midnight and the bells wailed.

The next morning we still had plenty of time to tour the city, so we set out to walk in front of Buckingham Palace and then to take a peak into the famous department store Harrods, during their one and only annual sale. Harrods turned out to be absolutely packed, and honestly there wasn’t anything there that either of us were interested in. But it was a spectacle to be seen, that’s for sure.

With just a couple of seats open for the flight home, we were a bit worried about Linda getting a seat. Fortunately the loads improved and the flight ended up with ten open coach seats. The flight attendants, some of whom I hadn’t worked with before, gave Linda a little extra special attention without making her feel like a burden on them.

So while being married to a pilot may have a few significant drawbacks-Linda often feels like she’s a single mother-there are occasionally some times when a really good deal like this comes along.

Thanks Linda for putting up with twenty years of this often turbulent career. It looks like a smoother ride is ahead, I think. But maybe we’ll just leave the seatbelt sign on.

London Travel Guide

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Egyptian host family starves student

The term ‘starving students’ took on a whole new meaning during a recent exchange to Egypt for one American teenager. Jonathon McCallum, once a healthy 155 lbs, recently returned home to his family–or, at least half of him did–weighing only 97 lbs after spending a school semester with a family in Egypt. So weak that climbing stairs and carrying baggage were a struggle, McCallum’s emaciated appearance stunned friends and family members in Maine when he returned home recently.

What’s the reason behind the dramatic change? McCallum’s host family. Practicing Coptic Christians, they traditionally fast for 200 days out of the year, and when they weren’t fasting, they doled out only meager portions of food to their charge. Although classmates urged McCallum to request a new host family, the 17-year-old was determined to stick it out.

However, McCallum’s host father, Shaker Hanna, is denying the teenagers claims, calling them a lie. He goes on to say, “The truth is, the boy we hosted for nearly six months was eating for an hour and a half at every meal. The amount of food he ate at each meal was equal to six people.” Right. Because this looks like the body of someone who eats like a pig.