Monday, 22 February 2016

Scooting and Storms Pt 1: SYD-SIN TZ 787-9

In the golden light of the late afternoon, when I'm tired of the day and the mind wants to wander, I dream. As I gaze outside the office window and watch the big jets slide silently away into the distance I dream of escaping from the office with nought but my wallet, my phone and my passport and heading out on a adventure.

My dream has many small variations and is, for the most, based on past experiences. If you have read my other reports you may spot them.

It starts with the sense of exhaustion and elation of completing a large project. Drained, I find myself staying at the Novotel Brighton Beach on the shores of Botany Bay, in a room overlooking the bay, the airport and the city. There, as I walk the sandy shores, the sea lapping at my feet, I watch the aircraft arrive and disappear, stirring my sense of adventure.

That night I watch a storm front pass out to see across the bay.

I book tickets on a late afternoon flight and, in that same glorious golden light, fly to Singapore. I can relax, watch the Australian landscape below, the red glow of evening matching the desert. Enjoy a meal and, when darkness falls above the ocean, entertain myself with a movie I've had to miss with my busy life.

Arriving late in the evening into Singapore I check into my hotel, the Grand Mercure Roxy, and immediately go out to find a late night snack of satay at an old kopitiam, eating under the harsh fluorescent lighting.

I fall asleep to the sound of my music and the rumble of thunder and rain from a storm I had spotted in the distance as we landed.

The next day I wander along the old shop houses lining the area, snack on local delights that take my fancy and pick up supplies from Parkway Parade shopping centre. That night I return to Changi Airport and fly on the next leg of my trip. Is it to Europe, Hong Kong or Japan? I'm never clear on what happens directly afterwards, except that I know this journey ends, of course, in flying home from Japan after many adventures.

Can dreams and reality ever match?

I had a chance to explore the answer to this question in January. For the last two weeks of the school holidays my wife B, 7 year old son Alex and I were booked on Scoot from Sydney to Singapore, followed by a flight up to Hong Kong the next day. After a couple of nights there we were to fly to Taipei for another four, then back to Singapore where we would meet up with my wife's mother in law and her friend. Five nights in Singapore, then we'd all be flying back to Sydney.

That was the plan. But if you've been following my trip reports lately you'd know that my flight plans haven't been working out so well. In October last year I got as far as Melbourne when I was supposed to be flying to Singapore in what would have been another test of the dream.

In November, on a points run with Qantas, heavy winds on approach to Melbourne drove me to return by train.

I have a fear of turbulence. I hate the dropping sensation. Actually, I think it's a fear of the fear of turbulence.

But I keep fighting the fear.

Finally, in December I had a short flight to Canberra on a QantasLink 717, a route that has caused me great grief in the past. This time I really enjoyed the flight. But I had prebooked a bus rather than flight back to Sydney, in case of evening storms.

So I was in a better state of mind for the upcoming flights to Singapore. But I was also exhausted, like in the dream, juggling working on a major project for work, karate grading and looking after Alex at home. I felt like I'd forgotten how to sleep a full night.

The night before the flight I'd booked us into the Novotel Brighton Beach, a hotel which holds many special memories for us. Our room overlooked the city, Botany Bay and Sydney Airport. Sure, you might not have as close up views of the runways as in some other hotels, but you also don't have such a great view. Nor the chance to feel the sand in your feet as you take a stroll along the beach.

Looking across the Bay towards the airport

The city and airport by night
Good morning!
We were relaxed and well fed by the breakfast buffet when the time arrived to catch the taxi to the airport. There we join the already long queue for Scoot check in. It's certainly not scooting along now. A strangely clueless pair of old men are ahead of us, an Indian family with too much luggage and an inversely mixed young couple. It's interesting to watch the other passengers.

The queue

Once checked in we have only a short time before boarding commences. Alex and B purchase a kebab for lunch at the food court and we drink the last of the spiced ginger beer. Then we hustle to immigration, but the queue there is fortunately very short. The middle of the day is not a particularly popular departure time for international flights.

From the food court

One advantage of taking tablets instead of laptops is that you don't have to remove them from your bag. Security don't even kick up a fuss over all the charging wires in my bag. Maybe I've finally packed them properly. I don't get non-randomly selected for a bomb residue scan, as I have since my third ever flight in 1991.

There is still building work going on in the International terminal. I can hardly think of a time when they weren't rebuilding something. I still like this much maligned airport though.

Duty free

Airside

When we reach gate 59 I am not at all surprised to discover Barry waiting there for me. It's always Barry. Even though he's now a Boeing 787-9, my first of that type, it's still Barry, same as with my first ever Scoot flight back in 2011.

G'day Barry, nice new bod. You been working out?

We are in the final group to board, seated up in 12 H, J and K on the right around the forward nacelle of the big Rolls Royce engines. The 3-3-3 configuration of the 789 is much maligned, but it enables the three of us to sit by the window with the intimacy of a narrow width seat not an issue, especially with a kid in the middle. I was by the window, of course.

Boarding

Our seats are the cheapest, no headrests or extra legroom, but it is sufficient for this flight. They are more comfortable than on Scoot's previous Boeing 777-200 and there is no annoying seat support right where my feet wish to go.

Legroom was okay

Looking towards the "Scoot in silence" cabin

It's Alex and B's first flight on a 787 of any description. I've flown on Jetstar's 787-8 and loved the aircraft.

I barely notice the mood lighting. It's not a firey red like Jetstar. In fact the yellow colour is more reminiscent of yellowed old lighting on a classic aircraft. Then it flickers white and back to yellow again.

Getting in the mood?

The captain, an Australian, welcomes us to the flight. He's one of the more informative pilots I've experienced.

"We'll be taking off on runway 34R, which means we'll be heading towards the northwest. There will be some great views of the city for passengers seated on the right. Our route today will take us over the Blue Mountains and Katoomba. We'll pass over Alice Springs and cross the coast at Derby before passing right over Bali today, the islands of Indonesia (Jakarta will be on our left), before landing in Singapore. Estimate flight time today is seven hours and twenty-five minutes. There may be a few bumps today for the first couple of hours due to the Big Wet and over Indonesia in the final hour of the flight."

Oh dear. Bumps. The turbulence forecast maps had shown clear skies with only isolated cumulonimbus, but I knew about the big wet and the tropics, so I can't say that this is unexpected.

Time to leave

The crew do a manual safety demonstration. There are no screens at all in the aircraft. It's entirely BYO entertainment. There is a booklet in the seatback pocket advertising streaming entertainment, but I'm pretty certain it's not available on this flight. You can leave your personal electronic devices switched on though and I put my earphones in to listen to music on my phone.

A "Scootie", or flight attendant as the rest of us know them, comes over to tell me to remove my earphones for take-off and landing. That's a new one! Qantas don't require it and I would never play my music so loud not to hear a crew order.

That is the sum of my personal interaction with the crew.

It's a long taxi to the end of the runway. Alex wonders if it will ever end. Then we turn the corner and Alex's scary bit begins as we begin our race down the track and up into the skies.

Out towards the runway.
Rising above the Qantas jetbase
Alexandria Canal

The air has cleared now and there are indeed great views of the CBD, then over Homebush and Olympic Park. Only the week before we were playing down there with my brother and his family.

Sydney CBD

Rhodes and the other Ikea

Silverwater Correctional Centre

Penrith passes and then we are following the Great Western Highway over the Blue Mountains. Well, following its general direction, for its route twisted and were straighter than most birds fly.

Nepean River

Megalong Valley

The Megalong Valley loomed huge beneath us. I hadn't felt so close before from the air. Everything seemed so large. We now entered some scattered cloud, but could still see Katoomba. After we crossed the mountains to Bathurst and the surprisingly green summer plains the captain piped up again, announcing our location and the next town, sure enough, of Parkes.

I couldn't see our radio telescope below.

Crossing the Blue Mountains

Bathurst

Near Parkes

The further northwest you go the drier and redder the landscape generally becomes. It also became cloudier.

The captain is proactive when it came to turbulence. The moment it looks like we are flying into high cloud or the flight is starting to get a bit bumpy the seatbelt lights are switched on.

I don't know whether to feel confident that the pilots of this aircraft were on the ball or to be afraid in anticipation.

The other two are amusing themselves by watching videos or playing games on their iPads. I have my own tablet with lots of great videos to watch but I just can't be bothered to take it out of my bag. I am too preoccupied with staring out of the window, watching the landscape below and keeping an eye out for sources of turbulence.

Read and green patchwork fields

Above the clouds

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I find it very reassuring to look out and understand where the bumps are coming from. It doesn't help with clear air turbulence, but at least with cloud you can often see an end to it. It gives a small sense of control to events.

I am also listening to music on my phone and posting live updates on Instagram, Facebook and WordPress. This is the first time I've used inflight Internet and it's quite fun. I do wish there was a live map though. FlightAware seems to lag in comparison.

This landscape is familiar to me after the last few AirAsiaX flights, but this year there are changes. The salt lakes and desert rivers have water in them!

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Salt lakes

The source of this water is visible outside. Scattered around us are thick clumps of cloud and even storms. This is the Big Wet, monsoonal conditions, that have crossed over from the tropical north and reached as far inland as the desert.

They are why this ride is so bumpy.

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Real desert

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Seatbelt light on!

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As announced earlier we cross the Australian coast over the mudflats of Derby. Sadly no gorgeous views of the Kimberleys today. The ride calms a bit and I look forward to a respite. I'm tired and stressed by all the bumps. Somehow I still can't take my eyes off the window and watch a movie. I have no trust in the skies.

Near Derby

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Leaving Australia

I miss seatback entertainment, something that can't fly up if the aircraft suddenly drops, something you can leave on at eye level and easily switch between indoor and outdoor views. But Scoot has nothing.

Alex and B get hungry, order some pot noodles.

I can't stomach anything.

Mini rainbow

The respite doesn't last long. I spot some Indonesian islands outside, Bali and Lombok. Despite their greyish appearance in the late light they are easy to spot by the large clouds above them. We are soon in high cloud again, the misty extensions that stream from the tops of the storm banks over the islands.

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Bali and Lombok

And so it is for much of the rest of the flight to Singapore. Breaks in the cloud with views of the island, then the seatbelt light goes on again.

Hi cloud, err high cloud

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We are placed in a holding pattern due to congestion in Singapore. As the aircraft curves around there are some beautiful views of the cloudscape in the golden evening light, as well as of some scary looking storm clouds. Other aircraft also circle, higher and lower, stuck with the same wait.

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Over Indonesia

At least we got some gorgeous views

Somebody else is waiting

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Finally we begin our descent. Suddenly the seatbelt light flashes on and the pilot tersely orders everyone back to their seats. A couple of seconds later we strike a cumulonimbus cloud and there is a rapid rise and drop.

I really didn't need that. After coping all day I feel scared.

As we align ourselves with the runway I see a second aircraft pass through another thick cloud between us and the runway, but thankfully we skirt around it before lining up to land.

Down over the mass of ships, over the golf courses and motorways and softly on to the runway.

On descent

The ships, my first memory of Singapore

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Golf course

Welcome to Changi Airport

I am so glad to be on the ground in the fading light of the Singapore evening. Twenty years ago in December 1995 I took my very first overseas trip. Now I have returned to that same destination.

There are some nice views of the airport as we taxi a long way to our gate. I don't really appreciate them. I just want to get to the hotel.

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Jetstar

Colourful Jetstar

Control tower

On our way towards immigration we pass some Stormtrooper mannequins from The Force Awakens, stop to pose for photos.

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B and Alex, members of the First Order

While B waits for our sole checked in piece of luggage to emerge from the belt I go out and purchase a prepaid SIM and sort out the free shuttle bus to the hotel.

We have half an hour to wait and it's no longer inside the terminal but outdoors in the stuffy Singaporean air. All of us are tired and hungry, Singapore being three hours ahead of Sydney and none of us having had dinner. I haven't even had lunch.

Eventually the minibus drives us to the Grand Mercure Roxy, the same hotel I daydreamed of staying at, we dump our bags, and with a protesting Alex cross to the hawker stalls for a supper of noodles. It's nice but my stomach can barely handle the richness.

It is a huge relief to collapse into bed, on stable ground and knowing we can sleep in.

If Alex will let us.

Part two will detail the intra-Asian flights.

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