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Crossing the Atlantic

October 7, 2015

rhotel jfk intercon frankfurt Entrance_to_Roosevelt_Hotel 2014-08-02 12.13.39shahnon

Intercontinental Hotel, Frankfurt. I have a crush on the tall German girl who is serving drinks at the Bar. But she is quick to clear the air with a subtle hint of her boy friend who lives in Berlin. So I am stuck with lots of peanuts, draft beer and the boring talk of Ronald Hagestung, an architect, who invariably bumps into me during my slip here. The Air Nippon crew walks in, looking fresh, even after their 15 hour flight from Narita (Tokyo) on their extended range B-747. They always move in droves, are talkative and continuously keep bowing their heads.  Frankfurt, the Banker’s city, is dull and cold with tall gray buildings and equally somber people on the side walks. We are flying to JFK (New York) next afternoon.

At airport, our aeroplane has already arrived from Athens and is being re-loaded and re-fueled. It is a Cargo flight. The “Tower’’ gives us the “Push Back’’, tow tractor pushes us back from the “Gate’’  and then pulls us forward on the taxy track; while we are starting the engines. Controls checked, Flaps lowered and a final “wave off’’ to the “Marshaller’’. Throttles are opened, brakes released and we are on our way to JFK.

Frankfurt is a busy airport. There are eighteen aircraft in front of us waiting for take off. Two runways are used for “Arrivals’’ and the longest runway 18 is used only for “Departures’’.  Taking off aeroplanes are heavy because of fuel load. One third of our total weight is our fuel. The aircraft lifts off after 7000 feet and we climb straight to 5000 feet at minimum speed. The Europeans are fussy about the noise pollution. We clean up the aeroplane – wheels & flaps up; and head towards the British channel. The controller gradually clears us to higher altitudes. All pilots agree that the German controllers are one of the best and speak the clearest English.

It is a blue sky  barring some scattered sheet type stratus clouds through which one could see  the green European countryside with neat roads and small hamlets with red roofs. We transfer to the Belgium  ‘Maastrich control’ and then, over the British channel, to the ‘London control’. As we level off at 35000 feet, power  is set to cruise and we ask for a 5000-mile coffee. Eight hours of flight time is yet to go.

The JFK forecast is not too good. There are low clouds with marginal visibility and rain. En-route weather is clear but the report talks of strong head winds. We plan to make a technical landing at Shannon, in Ireland, and get our tanks topped up in case we have to divert to an Alternate airfield. Ireland is a prettiest imaginable place on the earth.

After re-fuelling, we again take off and head for the Atlantic. “Oceanic Control’’ allots us track “Charlie’’. These are parallel tracks over the ocean with pre-determined Lats & Longs ; and each aeroplane is allotted a track to cross the Atlantic at the allotted altitude. Our primary navigational aid is the inertial navigation system which requires no ground aids. There is a Jumbo right below us on track “Charlie’’ with a 2000 feet altitude separation. This is a good re-confirmation that our computers are keeping us tight on the track. Down below are also patches of wavy white clouds indicating air turbulence. We are lucky to get the right altitude. The ships cruising below look like  dots over the wide expanse of the ocean. A position report is to be given to the “Oceanic’’ every 15 minutes. We are nearing the North American landmass; and the instrument needles of the ground based navigational aids come to life.

We hit land at Gander in Canada. Incidentally, the shortest distance between two places on earth is not along a straight line on the map; but is along the circumference of the globe which appears a curved line on the flat two-dimensional map. We will be now flying along the East coast of North America, for roughly  1200 miles, before hitting the US; and then into the New York, JFK airport.

We are transferred to the Canadian ‘Moncton control’  which clears us through its airspace. The snowy cold desolate expanses of North Canada are below us. English accent and the phraseology over the radio waves has changed from the austere businesslike European style to a more informal style. ‘Turbulence’ has become ‘Choppy’ and the ‘flight’ is being called ‘ride’.

Signs of fatigue are also setting in. It is already over seven hours and two hours are yet to go. Since we were flying with the sun, it is going to be a long day. We would be catching up six hours and our day would be of 18 hours. We will be landing at the JFK in early afternoon. This is what gets the bio-clocks topsy-turvy. This interruption in the circadian rhythm has even a greater effect on air hostesses whose menstrual cycle get interrupted or repeated in a month. The dry air of air conditioning  causes dehydration requiring an increased water intake.

When 250 miles out, we are already in the  JFK arrival phase and are ‘Cleared to Kennedy via Kennebunk 3 Arrival’ . As we commence the descent, we are engulfed in clouds. The radar keeps clearing us to lower altitudes incrementally. Periodically, we enter an area of turbulence and rain. We level off at 3000 feet, lower our wheels and flaps; and intercept the final runway course while the flight engineer reads out the ‘Approach checklist’. As we hit the glide slope, we commence a steady 6-700 feet per minute rate of descent on the final approach. The runway is still not visible. Slowly, the cloud layer becomes thinner and the ground is hazily visible below the clouds. We break the clouds at 300 feet and runway 31 is in front at 2 miles. Auto-pilot is disengaged,  ‘Final checklist’ carried out and we land. After touch down, ‘Speed Brakes’ are extended and ‘Reverse Thrust’ is applied. JFK airport is a maze of four runways and innumerable taxi tracks. The airport taxi chart has to be kept in front during Taxy. Experienced pilots have gotten lost on the airport after having navigated for thousands of miles over the Atlantic’s wilderness.

Getting out of the JFK and heading from the Queens to the Manhattan,  the scene explodes into the full splendor of the American countryside. Rush traffic of gas-guzzlers, long limos on the highway and huge parking lots. Even when coming from Europe, one can not miss an air of bigness and openness of US. Larger than life English sign boards have replaced those mind crunching German signs – Platz, Eien Fart, Aus Gang. Hotel Roosevelt is an old colonial style hotel on the 42nd Street where we settle down. It is a long seven  day leisurely slip.

It begins with slow steps on the side walks where everyone seems to be overtaking you.  By the third day, we are into the local tempo with the rest. My permanent guide in New York is Ms. J, a film critic and a journalist, a Jewish New Yorker, who lives on the 59th Street. Her best qualification is that she has learnt the Indian Classical dancing on a Rockefeller scholarship in India. She is sharp, carefree, short tempered and restless. She is also into the Hindu mythology and Gods, of which I know little. We go to our usual digs – special offer Cafes, the Soho seedy smoky bars with loud music or to the many press functions that she gets invited to. She handles all the entry formalities – I just tag along like a dumb blond. One day, we make a  trip to the Hampton film festival, Long Island. Watch two movies and enjoy all the journalistic junkets and return late into Manhattan. We are both hungry. She wants to eat Sushi; I am for the spicy daal ghost type food. Restaurants are closing and we are arguing. Hunger makes us lose our tempers. She loses her ear ring. I try to remain cool. It is a disaster. Women friends, when get too familiar, begin to behave like wives. May be I will refuse my next month flight to New York to get some space. Tomorrow, I am flying out to Paris.   

We get to the airport around eight at night. The Kennedy tower clears us to Paris, asking us to initially  turn to 060 heading after take off; and climb to 10,000 feet. As the aeroplane lifts off,  we go into a steep climb turning left to  060 Heading.  I look down at the Manhattan lights, shining bright and getting reflected in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. A wave of sadness ripples through my body. We are now heading East towards the sun. The day break would come just in two hours. After a few more hours, we would be landing at Orly, Paris, the land of the Parisians; and into the soft sounds of the French. But that is another story ……

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