There are lots of ways airline travel has gone downhill post-9/11: all that extra bureaucracy, the constant demands for photo ID, the long queues at security, the orders to take your shoes off and stumble around in your socks and then, when you get off the flight, finding your checked bag has been rifled through. But for me the biggest disappointments about flying post-9/11 is that I no longer get to sample the best seat on the plane. No, I'm not talking about 1A up in first class, I'm talking about somewhere even closer to the sharp end of the plane. The jump seat on the flight deck.
Flying in America I don't think that seat was ever available to the fare payers on board, but in other countries or flying internationally if you asked politely you could often get an invitation to go up front and look over the pilot's shoulder. No, I never got up there because of who I was, I don't think anybody ever had a clue that I was involved in travel when I asked. And sometimes it was just for a brief look, but other times I've been lucky enough to enjoy much longer visits to the cockpit. Three I'll remember:
1993 — a Concorde to New York — it was the only time I ever flew Concorde and lots of us took the opportunity to go up to the very sharpest of any airliner's sharp ends. My first reaction when I squeezed into the flight deck was shock, it was more like a World War II four-engine bomber than a modern computer screened 'glass cockpit' of a 747-400. It was a reminder that by 1993 Concorde was already old engineering, a creation of the 1960s. The day Concorde made its last flight the British newspaper the Independent ran a collection of Concorde stories and I wrote that there was probably an incentive to getting passengers up to the flight deck: 'It left a little bit more room in that cramped cabin.'
1997 — a 747 to Bangkok — it was a beautifully clear late afternoon when I asked to go up to the flight deck and when I told the flight crew who I was I had a long chat with them and scored an even better invitation. To come up to the front for the last half-hour of the flight and join them for the approach and landing at night into Bangkok.
2001 — a 747 across Afghanistan — just a few months before 9/11. I was flying from Singapore to London and I'd recently read that air traffic control over the still Taliban-controlled country was now good enough for airliners to fly directly across Afghanistan and shorten the route to London. I explained to the crew my interest in the country and that I'd driven through Afghanistan nearly 30 years earlier. As a result I got to sit up there right the way across the country, with the co-pilot pointing out approaching aircraft, on their way from London which they'd left the previous night.
The jpgs are all 'from the aircraft window' in 2006 or 2007.
Central Australia from a Qantas 737 — just a few weeks ago, coming in to land in Alice Springs.
Kabul-Herat from an elderly Kam Air 737 — crossing Afghanistan when I was researching Bad Lands.
Kurdistan region from an Emirates 777 — flying just north of the Turkey-Iraq border.
Swiss Alps from a private Cessna Citation — flying out of Turin towards England.
Books mentioned in this post
Tony Wheeler is the author of Bad Lands (Travel Literature)