Published in October 2015 issue
By Peter Summers
I first glimpsed the inviting steps of the magical spiral staircase leading to the Boeing 747’s exclusive upper deck on April 18, 1971, just two days before my 12th birthday. Although I had to wait until Virgin Atlantic came along to actually climb the stairway to heaven, that staircase was just one of many astounding sights I took in as I boarded my first jumbo jet. And it wasn’t just any jumbo jet; according to my BOAC Junior Jet Club Logbook, it was Aer Lingus’ inaugural 747-148 EI-ASI (MSN 19744/84) flight from New York ( JFK) to Shannon, Ireland (SNN), and on to Dublin (DUB).It was a night flight and, as my parents and I waited in the terminal, we were electric with anticipation. My father had first crossed the Atlantic in a Boeing Stratocruiser—in fact, he’d had a window blow out next to him on one such flight—and my mother and I had first made the trip on a Bristol Britannia. Impressive though these planes were, almost as the crossing itself, nothing had quite prepared us for the magnificent sight of the giant that emerged from the darkness and rolled majestically up to our gate.
Resplendent in Aer Lingus’ green and white livery, with a cloverleaf on its tail and bearing the name St Columcille, the 747 looked too substantial to possibly take to the air. Around us, at the gate, was a crowd surely too large for any one plane to accommodate. Each of the four Pratt and Whitney JT9D-3 engines alone could swallow several of us if it so wished.
I was used to new and strange sights as I traveled the world, just as I was used to new and strange feelings as I grew from a child into an adolescent, but there was something thrilling and unique about this one.
When it was time to board, we drifted out into the bracing night air, lit by the harsh white lights of the ramp, and walked in wonder towards the mighty machine. Before we mounted the steps, we paused to look into the jaws of the inboard engine, amazed at the power it must contain to lift this mechanical city from the earth and catapult hundreds of souls across the ocean.
Once inside, having traveled on so many smaller aircraft, I immediately noticed another innovation. While all other planes were limited to a hard right turn on boarding, this one also offered a graceful left to those fortunate enough to be heading to First Class. It was the first of many occasions in which I strained my neck to peek at the enchanted lair of space, comfort, and ease which followed the quick left turn. Many more years would pass before I would finally be admitted to that sanctuary. But it was worth the wait!
However, any such envy was quickly dispelled as we made our way through the cabin. There were two aisles, not one. There were multiple galleys, multiple toilets. If you looked straight back from the front of the cabin, it was impossible to see right to the back because of the curvature of the sides. You were, as it were, in a hall of mirrors, seeing an infinity of seats and, eventually, of people.
The Boeing 747-100 had a three-person crew, with a flight engineer joining the two pilots. These three would guide a fully laden ship weighing 735,000 pounds, and carrying at least 50,000 US gallons of fuel and about 450 people, off the runway. Eventually, on later models, the flight engineer would be dispensed with, leaving just the two pilots sitting alone atop the bubble on the aircraft’s elegant frame.
I had first seen a photo of the 747 in a backwoods cafe in Nova Scotia, Canada, a year earlier. My Dad had shown me a local paper which pictured a prototype on its front page. Everyone who was eating breakfast crowded round to marvel at its size.
And now we were sitting in our seats, listening to the pilot welcoming us aboard and explaining that the takeoff roll would be longer than we were used to because of our weight and because he intended to take advantage of the full length of the runway. And that we were not to worry.
I wasn’t. I was excited! I loved takeoff more than landing. From the firm thrust and smoky trail of the Douglas DC8’s near blast-off to the elegant airborne hop of the Vickers Viscount, I enjoyed them all. Jets invariably took off faster, while propeller planes had their own gentle power.
Nothing, however, had felt quite like the 747. We sat on the runway threshold, feeling the latent power being held in check by the brakes. The engines roared, the brakes were released and we started to roll. Slowly at first, we lumbered forward. As we picked up speed, I remember feeling the little bumps along the runway, with the plane seeming to lurch upwards for a second, the overhead bins rattling in concert with our motion, and then putting its head back down and continuing to build up speed towards rotation. Looking out of the window, the airport seemed to zoom by faster and faster, and the roll seemed to go on and on. Surely, I thought, there can’t be any runway left!
Then, it happened. We were airborne, leaving the ground with a heavy thump as the gear snapped back into place, and the angle of our motion turned softly upward. When we banked sharply, I saw a whole swath of people all around me lean into the plane’s motion as if we had been on an amusement park ride.
Seated with us in our section were some special guests: an Irish national sports team. Although they were already as jubilant as we were on takeoff, as time wore on, their spirits astonishingly increased further, buoyed up by large amounts of liquid happiness, freely poured by the giddy flight attendants. Some strange sporting songs were sung that night, adding to my vocabulary several words which I’ve still never used. Yet, in the excitement of the maiden flight, it all seemed perfectly normal.
Dawn arrived too soon and, out of the window, I could see mist on the green fields of Ireland. My eyes were bloodshot and burning because of the powerful overhead nozzle, which had been blowing smoke-filled air into my face for five and a half hours, as a myriad cigarettes had been smoked in the cabin. Yet, as we descended over the Shannon and Fergus estuaries, within sight of the rolling hills of County Clare, the view cured any discomfort I was feeling, replacing it with exhilaration as we gently kissed the runway.
Decades later, as I climbed the staircase to the upper deck of a Virgin Atlantic 747 flying from Los Angeles to London, deposited my carry-on in the side bin next to my seat and settled into the comfort of the Premium Economy section of the cabin, I managed to contain my envy of the few lucky souls almost fully reclining in Upper Class comfort ahead of me. They may have had more room than me, but we all shared a very select and very private section of a very special plane; we’d climbed the stairway to heaven and were alone—about 20 of us up top and several hundred left below.