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.

Photo of the day (12.31.10)

It’s New Year’s Eve, a time to make (and eventually break) resolutions for the incoming year. Time to start exercising, cut down on junk food and alcohol, keep a journal longer than 2 weeks this time, etc. Even us at Gadling have some travel resolutions to keep. These girls on the sands of Tel Aviv, Israel are fitting in some yoga with their day at the beach and it looks like their friend on the left has made a resolution to get in shape as well, or maybe just get a girlfriend. Thanks to Flavio@Flickr for this resolution inspiration and Happy 2011!

See any resolutions in action on your vacation? Submit your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool and we might just choose one as a future Photo of the Day.

Winter holiday celebrations in Russia

In most of the western world, Christmas and Hanukkah have come and gone, but in Russia, presents are being wrapped in anticipation of tonight, New Year’s Eve. In the days of the Soviet Union, religious celebrations were frowned upon, so Russians shifted their winter celebrating to December 31 and combining the traditions of gift-exchanging and New Year’s revelry into one night. In the Russian Orthodox church, Christmas isn’t officially for another week, with the Julian calendar corresponding December 25 to January 7, 2011.

I arrived in Moscow last Friday (western Christmas Eve) to find the capital freezing but festive, with New Year’s yolki (trees) decorated all over the city and various versions of Ded Moroz walking the streets, and now in St. Petersburg, locals are rushing home with Champagne and Charlie Brown-like trees under their arms. Nearly every public square has a large decorated tree and every store has elaborate holiday displays.

%Gallery-112268%Ded Moroz (Grandfather or Father Frost in English) is the Russian version of Santa Claus. He wears a blue (or traditional red) and white fur suit and carries a white staff. Ded Moroz originally was a more sinister figure, extorting presents from parents in exchange for not taking their children. In the Russian fairytale (and according to my Russian husband), Father Frost ruled the winter and if children were polite to him, they received gifts, but if they were rude, he would let them freeze to death. Sort of gives a new meaning to naughty and nice! These days, he brings gifts to children at parties rather than leaving them under the tree and he is accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka the Snow Maiden. According to the Moscow News, a Ded Moroz appearance can run 2,000 to 10,000 roubles (about $65 to $325 USD) and professional Santas might make more than 10 visits a day during Christmas week, making it a lucrative seasonal profession.

Tonight in Russia, the usual pre-New Year’s partying and indulging is going on, along with tree-trimming and presents. Be sure to stick to your resolutions and be polite to snow kings or you could be left out in the cold next year! S novym godom!

Got New Year’s Eve plans? Cruise lines do

Cruise vacations that include New Years Eve are among some of the most highly sought-after sailings of the year, and for good reason. On board, the mood is festive, drinks flow freely, entertainment and dining is included and nobody has to drive home.

But that’s pretty much what cruise lines do every day. Sailings that include New Year’s Eve have special bonus events and amenities well worth the premium price of ringing in the new year at sea.

If you want to book one it’s probably too late now as these are some of the quickest to book of all sailings. Along with Christmas, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July they fill up fast with many guests booking a year or more in advance.

On Princess Cruises, guests get a fun-filled New Years Eve party with music, confetti, noise-makers and champagne and the festivities range from black-tie affairs to casual depending on the ship and itinerary. On New Years Day, football fans won’t miss their games and served alongside will be popcorn, chips, mini hot dogs or burgers and other stuff that is equally bad for you but surely part of it all. Other major lines run similar on board programs but are not the only choices for sailing over the holiday.

Pretty much any city with a large body of water close-by has New Year sailings with special packages available. Those too fill up fast though so its probably too late to book those as well.

This year we don’t even need to be at sea to get in on the cruise line fun though. Carnival Cruise Lines has been crowned “Official Confetti Sponsor” of New Year’s Eve in New York’s Times Square and confetti-fever is building in anticipation. Streaming video starting at 8PM ET will feature the line’s zany Senior Cruise Director John Heald who performed a confetti-worthiness test yesterday.

Flickr photo by ahisgett

Gadling’s 2011 New Year’s travel resolutions

It’s that time of year again. A time when we all make certain promises to ourselves, in an attempt to make our lives more organized, our bodies stronger or leaner. We vow to spend more time with loved ones, give back to others, or ditch that cubicle job. And some of us…well, we just want to keep on traveling, any way we can manage to finagle it.

In the spirit of New Year’s, I asked my fellow Gadling contributors about their travel resolutions for the coming year, and came up with some of my own. Our goals are all over the map (no pun intended), but a common theme emerged. Despite our love of exotic adventures, most of us want to spend more time exploring in our own backyard (that would be the United States). That, and invent musical underwear.

Leigh Caldwell

  • Go on my first cruise.
  • Spend a weekend somewhere without Internet access, and, if I survive that…
  • Celebrate the Fourth of July with my family in Banner Elk, North Carolina, home of the quintessential small-town Independence Day. There’s a three-legged race, a rubber ducky race down a mountain stream, and a parade filled with crepe paper, balloons, and every kid and dog in town.

McLean Robbins

  • Quit my “day job” so I can do this full-time.

[Photo credit: Flickr user nlmAdestiny]Laurel Miller

  • Get back in shape after a two-year battle with Oroya Fever (contracted in Ecuador), and climb a volcano in Bolivia.
  • Finally start exploring my adopted state of Washington, especially the Olympic Peninsula.
  • Visit India for the first time; see if it’s possible to subsist on street food without getting dysentery.
  • Learn to wear DEET at all times when traveling in countries that harbor nearly-impossible-to-diagnose diseases like Oroya Fever.

Sean MacLachlan

  • Get back to Ethiopia.
  • Explore Green Spain (the north part of the country).
  • Show my son a non-Western culture.
  • Invent an underwear stereo that plays cheap jazz music when subjected to a TSA patdown.

Mike Barish

  • Drive cross country.
  • See the Grand Canyon (finally).
  • Finally learn how not to overpack.
  • And, for the fifth year in a row, I resolve to learn how to play the keytar (2011 has got to be the year!).

Darren Murph

  • Bound and determined to visit my 50th state, Alaska.
  • Dead-set on relocating a childhood friend of mine back to North Carolina, and then taking him on a road trip of some sort.

Meg Nesterov

  • Visit more places where I know people.
  • Be in more travel pictures and get my husband out from behind the
  • camera occasionally.
  • Take at least one guidebook-free and paperless trip. Okay, maybe one map.
  • Take better notes. I might think I’ll always remember the name of that fun-looking restaurant or weird sign I want to translate, but it’s easy to forget when you’re taking in so many new things.
  • See more of Turkey while I still live here. I spend so much time traveling to nearby countries, I have to be sure to see the landscape of Cappadocia and eat the food in Gaziantep before I go back to the U.S..

Grant Martin, Editor-in-Chief

  • Travel a bit less and work a bit more [Sure, Grant!].

Annie Scott Riley

  • Travel less alone, and more with my husband.

Alex Robertson Textor

  • More open-jaw travel, flying into one destination and traveling by land to another before returning home. It’s my favorite way to see a new or familiar territory–gradually and without any backtracking. I need to do it more often.
  • More thematic consistency in my travels. Instead of scrambling to meet whatever assignment comes my way, I want my travels in the next year to be focused on a region or two, and on a number of overarching questions or issues. I’m still collecting ideas: Remote European mountain villages? Neglected second-tier cities? The Caucasus?
  • Northern Cyprus. Have been wanting to visit since I was a kid. 2011’s the year.

David Farley

  • To take back the name “Globetrotters” from the Harlem basketball team.
  • To introduce eggnog and lutefisk to southeast Asia.
  • To eat fewer vegetables.

[Photo credits: volcano, Laurel Miller; Grand Canyon, Flickr user Joe Y Jiang; Cappadocia, Flickr user Curious Expeditions; lutefisk, Flickr user Divine Harvester]