Postcard from . . . 35,000 feet

What is it like to be at the controls of a 747 while everyone else is celebrating Christmas?
© Cat O’Neal

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Few of us are happy to be dragged into adulthood, of course, and so it’s nice that airline pilots seem to remain particularly tuned in to the dreams we had as children. Perhaps it’s because one of our big ones came true; or maybe it’s because as adults, we notice that children tend to be fascinated by our job. Whatever the reasons, flying an airliner at Christmas time can be a lovely and nostalgia-rich experience.

Long-haul pilots often fly overnight, and I love the sense we get of the peacefulness of the world when we cross over it in the small hours. We see the lights of all the front porches, and all the street lights, summed or distilled into the palmistry of whole towns and cities. We sail far above these lights, halfway (imaginatively, at least) between them and the stars that are so luminous at cruising altitude.

Such a quality of the world below, and its cosy suggestions of what we can’t directly see — of embers glowing and frosted windowpanes — is heightened by the presence of snow. And so it’s on dark nights in December, and on routes over the north where snow has already fallen for months, that the lyrics of certain carols — of nights when “all is calm”, and of snow that lies “deep and crisp and even” — come most easily to the pilot’s mind.

Indeed, in the skies over much of the planet, Christmas is uniquely tranquil. Take the region of north-western European airspace known as “Maastricht”. It’s one of the busiest “sky countries” that form the largely unknown geography of the air. Flemming Nyrup, a performance manager for Eurocontrol, told me that last Christmas Day, 1,815 flights took to Maastricht’s skies. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only one-third as many as on the year’s busiest day (the nearly opposite June 27, for some reason). In the heavens, at least, Christmas is the quietest day of the year.

Such serene skies are an opportunity to share a Yuletide camaraderie with everyone else in the aviation world who has had to come to work on Christmas. The strict rules that specify how we communicate with air traffic controllers — how we must pronounce the number nine as “niner”, and the letter H as “hotel”, for example — also warn that “the excessive use of courtesies should be avoided”. But around Christmas, the skies and radios are so quiet that it seems downright Scrooge-like to not add a “Happy Christmas” after you lift away from the Earth’s surface. And in such a normally strict environment, the rare joke from a pilot or controller — “turn right on taxiway Ho-ho-hotel . . . ” — sounds all the naughtier, and nicer.

If there’s a sadness to flying at Christmas — aside from the fact that we may be zooming away from our families at 600 miles per hour — it’s what such journeys say about adulthood. When I was a kid I believed that the whole world, really the whole world, was sleeping soundly late on Christmas Eve. Now what strikes me when I fly at Christmas is just how many nurses and police officers and power-plant technicians and airport cleaners must be working, too; and I suddenly realise how many such folks were working on all the Christmases of my childhood, all the December 25ths when my parents gave me the gift of not having to think about such things a little while longer.

The other problem of flying at Christmas is time zones. When you fly long-haul on a significant occasion — New Year’s Day, Christmas, one’s own birthday — it’s not always clear when the big day has started. Should we calculate Christmas on the timezone we left, or on that of our arrival city? There’s always GMT, the universal time that the aviation industry runs on. Or Bethlehem time, I guess. Not that it really matters to be so precise when wishing a colleague or customer “Merry Christmas” — it’s just that even the biggest human milestones can seem smaller or more arbitrary when we’re moving on a fully planetary scale.

And speaking of earth-sized issues, there’s the International Date Line to consider. Depending on which way a racing jet (or sleigh, for that matter) crosses it, you can end up with effectively two Christmas mornings, or none at all. All pilots know which they’d rather have to explain to a young visitor to the cockpit.

If anything can outweigh such challenges of Christmas flying, it’s the joyful parallels between the job of an airline pilot and the job of Santa, at least in the eyes of younger passengers. Jeremy Goodson, a friend and colleague of mine who now flies the Airbus A380, told me about a visit he made to his children’s school, and the heart-warming reaction of the six-year-olds when he described the red dot he’d seen zooming across the northern sky late one Christmas Eve. Years later, the mums and dads still talk about it.

Such enthusiasm recalls not just our own childhoods but the earliest days of aviation, when flying machines seemed nearly as unlikely as reindeer-drawn sky sleighs. I love the story of the pilot, breathlessly described as an “intrepid birdman” in news reports, who flew over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Christmas Day in 1912, tossing gifts from the “speeding aero” down to boys who “cheered the modern Santa Claus as he circled about”. So much about this Christmas, 103 years later, would astonish that pilot. The sleek modern airliners, of course, and the 25,000 mince pies that BA will load onto them, and above all the speed and distance those planes will travel, when they lift off from Heathrow and take up their great circle routes across the midnight clear skies of the north.


Mark Vanhoenacker is a senior first officer for British Airways and the author of ‘Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot’
(Chatto & Windus)

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