Friday, 10 February 2017

Of storms and snow part 1: QF/EK SYD-MEL-SIN


Here begins a three week trip from Sydney to Singapore via Melbourne, to Osaka via Taipei and from Tokyo to Sydney via Cairns. Each route I have flown before, but this will also be my first flight on Emirates.

I have been to Japan yearly or more since 2005 but I have never seen it in winter. Alex, my eight year old son, has never played in snow. So we hatch a plan to visit Japan during the Australian school holidays.

My wife B is originally from Malaysia and fears the cold, insisting on visiting somewhere else warm first for a "holiday".

Being school holidays flights are expensive, so we use the Qantas frequent flyer points returned from last year's cancelled points trip to the United States, or the United Soviet States of America as it seems to be now.

The points booking necessitated a roundabout route. Sydney to Melbourne with Qantas, to Singapore with Emirates and Jetstar back from Tokyo. We purchased Jetstar tickets to Kansai International via Taipei separately - Australian school holidays don't apply to this route!

Those of you who have read my earlier reports will know that I suffer anxiety at the thought of turbulence on flights, hating the vertical motion. So I decided to do something about it and enrolled in a fear of flying course.

The course I wanted to do was Fearless Flyers, which frankly seems like an aviation nut's wet dream, but unfortunately the timings just weren't right. Instead I enrolled in the Flight Experience Fear of Flying course. They use cognitive behavioural therapy and relaxation techniques to decrease the anxiety response. There was also a couple of hours speaking to an ex-Qantas 747 and A380 check pilot along with a session in a static 737 simulator.

This was to be my first trip since completing the course and I was curious to see how effective it had been.

I have done each leg of this trip before, sometimes in the opposite direction and on a different airline. And for each I can point to a challenging time. This will be a real test.

It starts well. The skies are clear as we catch the bus and train to Sydney Airport. As ours is an international connection we check in our bags at the counter at Terminal 3. Then we pass through security and, to Alex's delight, head for the Qantas Club lounge. I've just dropped back to bottom tier status with the Qantas Frequent Flyer program, as I couldn’t bring myself to take all my flights last year on account of my anxiety and time commitments, but I maintained my Club membership.




The food at the lounge is mainly salads and cold cuts, which suitsme fine but disappointing the little guy. Licorice allsorts make an appearance on my plate. I could have done without the Foxtel though with their miserable (or smugly tr(i)umphant) conservative commentators.




I relax myself, though there is still a small knot of fear inside. After all, my last two flights to Melbourne were "disasters" where I gave into fear.

I want to take B and Alex up to the Qantas Heritage Display so we leave the lounge a bit early. Annoyingly it is closed for a private function, but the sign is up at the top of the stairs.



It is soon time to board our aircraft, a Qantas Airbus A330-200. The load is light today. Alex and B sit ahead of me, I have a window row to myself. The 2-4-2 seating normally forces families to the middle. I need my window!





We are on VH-EBJ, my first flight aboard a refurbished A330. I'm not sure what the deal is with the deep magenta colour but they are comfortable. Instead of seat back screens there are mechanical holders for the iPad Minis stuffed into the seat pockets. I have two in mine, but no intention to use either, unlike Alex and B. They can only be mounted after the seatbelt lights are switched off, otherwise it's strictly hand-held.



I have installed the Qantas Entertainment app on my Android phones and, while the soundtrack music selection is as limited as ever, I am very pleased to see there is now a flight map.





The safety briefing is delivered and we begin our taxi out towards the third runway for a take-off towards the north. There is now a thin layer of cloud in the sky. Clouds frighten me, especially the thicker ones.





It is too late. We are committed. Deep breaths as I am forced back into the seat by the acceleration. Up into the sky, then the big Airbus wing is up, pointing towards the grey and blue above as we turn northwards, in the opposite direction to Melbourne, turning, turning, Sydney's CBD outside until now we are facing east and heading out to sea.




The climb pauses. I know this now. We are at 5,000 feet and checking with ATC that everything is hunky dory. Then up again and out past Bondi Beach and the Harbour Heads.


Now we begin our turn south over the ocean, running parallel to the coast for a while. And rising up through a clear patch of sky. Clouds avoided!



I have my two mobile phones with me. I'm using the old one to listen to music, my own collection, while the other does photos, checks the flight map. I leave my big camera down in my bag until I feel safe to take it out.

It's a different feeling now on the flight. I'm not concentrating on the flight, not a trip reporter or an aviation nut today. Everything is different, yet nothing really is.

I know this route. I've flown to Canberra so many times, to Melbourne on pointless trips for points.

We cross the coast over Wollongong, as a change from blue to green and brown beneath the scattered clouds and a few small bumps attest. Yes, I knew they were coming. They always do.



The crew pass through the cabin with trolleys handing out the snack. Packs of olives with fetta and lavosh and drinks. I don't think it gathered lavish praise as I hear the attendants offering rice crackers and fruit instead to children. I hand mine back, not feeling at all like eating olives and not hungry. My stomach doesn't cope well with anxiety.


Staring out the window, dreaming, listening to my music, I suddenly realise something. This flight is smooth, really smooth.

I am relaxed, enjoying myself!


The clouds thicken over Victoria and, as we start our descent into Melbourne, the thicker cumulus makes an appearance.



But no, I am not tested by that. Again, we bypass the clouds and yes, that is apparently intentional.

The land below us is the dry yellow of summer. I expect some bumps due to the terrain. There always are. But as we start our final turns around Tullamarine things get really rough with the wind buffeting us and the aircraft feeling like it is rising and dropping. It was like the last time I flew the A330 into Melbourne from Sydney. Even my wife thinks it is bad and normally she barely notices.







I don't enjoy the feeling at all, but I cope. I know we'll be down soon. There is an end point for all this.

It is a relief to land and taxi to our gate, but in a final wrinkle, there is a gate malfunction and we have to wait. Eventually it is resolved and we are in the terminal.




Hello Melbourne! One flight down for the day, one to go.

We already have our boarding passes and our luggage is checked through to Singapore, so all we have to do is walk to the international terminal. Say what you will about Melbourne Airport, but the structure retains enough of its historical appearance that I am still reminded of my early childhood, waving Dad off on a flight to Sydney, meeting relatives flying in.




The Qantas check in at Sydney even gave us our international exit forms. How thoughtful!

No giant queues today. We pass through security and all of us, even Alex, are able to use the facial recognition automated smart gates.

I'm not in the mood to do airline spotting today and Alex asks if we can use the lounge. We snake our way past duty free and a hodge podge of shops to the airline lounge area buried away in the lower levels. When we check into the Qantas Business Lounge we are informed that, as we are flying with an Emirates flight number my Qantas Club membership is not valid for letting us in, but she kindly makes an exception in our case. Much appreciated Qantas!

I've been here before on a (valid) Jetstar ticket. There are no views outside, but I am content to just rest while Alex plays on the computers and eats some snacks. There is a curry, rice and some delicious looking cakes and sweets, but we aren't too hungry.



It's time to board our flight and it turns out the lounge is quite handy for the gate. Up through the long glass air bridges.



Our Emirates A380 looks massive. This is my first A380 since 2010 when I flew back from Singapore to Melbourne on Qantas with a very sick baby Alex vomiting and pooing on me the whole way.

It's also the first time I've flown Emirates, my first new airline since 2014. I'm looking forward to something new.

First impressions were good. Rather than the overblown fake wood and gold trim of some business class reports the economy cabin is of subtle desert themes, sand colours and dune patterns. Just a bit of fake wood around the windows.



The seat back screens are large and clear and the legroom is large. I immediately check the soundtrack offerings and find a number to listen too, build my playlist. There are many movies too.

The advent of Google Play and similar subscription services means that it is very easy to access movies and music, thus making the novelty of on board selections less valuable. Do I want to watch a movie on the (admittedly decent) seatback screen, or would I rather wait to view it on my big television?

That's assuming I ever have the time to actually sit down and watch anything at home...

B and Alex have already decided that the screens are the way to go and have placed the boxy Emirates earphones over their heads. As for me, I have discovered that the aircraft has three external cameras - a pilot's view, view from the tail (same as on Qantas) and a belly cam. I like the tail view. Plus it's easy to switch between them and the flight map. No wonder people get addicted to ICE!



In addition to the seatback screens adverts and the flight map are displayed on cabin screens allowing me to watch the camera view and the map at the same time. Perfect!

The captain introduces himself and the crew. Both pilots are German, the cabin crew from forty different countries if I remember correctly.

The Eastern European (or is she Portuguese? She looks Eastern European...) attendant looking after our section hands Alex a nice red vinyl bag containing Lonely Planet activities. He doesn't actually use them but they are a nice keepsake.

As we taxi out to the runway I calm myself. What about the winds on descent? Winds pass and besides which ascents are faster than descents. We'll pass through it soon enough. Those clouds? Nothing.

And indeed the huge whale jet ascends placidly into the late afternoon sky and past the clouds. This is my favourite time to fly, I remind myself, Golden Hour, the traveller's time.

Essendon Airport is to my left as we head south, then west, the sun shimmering off country dams before the reflections disappear beneath the hazy cloud below.


















We are handed menu cards, though we aren't yet hungry enough to do more than quickly peruse them.



The inflight internet is switched on and I pay the token $1 for 500 megabytes. I don't use it anywhere near as much as I did on Scoot, mainly let my photos backup.


The flight map shows us near the northern tip of the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. I can see it shining silver out of the window. Cloud has lain beneath us, blocking the normally spectacular views of inland Australia. Greener views than is common according to reports of heavy rain.




If there's one word I could use to describe Emirates from a passenger perspective it is generous. A generously sized aircraft with generous legroom, generous entertainment options, a generous kids pack and generously cheap Internet access. In this era of competition from low cost airlines, generous is hardly a word one uses to describe an airline.

The main meals are generous too. Too generous, as none of us could finish them. Alex were isserved first, an unappetising but tasty blob of brown meat and sauce on penne pasta. B chooses the beef ragout and raves about it. I have the butter chicken and rice and find it very flavoursome. There is a cooked salmon salad, mango cheesecake dessert, cheese and crackers, chocolate, biscotti.





Honestly, I should be enjoying this flight, but I am not. I'm tired and just want to land and go to the hotel. I can see a passenger in front of me watching the Japanese animation "Your name", which I also want to see and is the kind of "foreign" movie difficult to get online. But I can't tear my eyes away from the window or camera.

The Qantas pilot gave me another perspective on turbulence. In my mind the aircraft is rising and falling, but in actual fact the vertical movement tends to be tiny. What you are actually feeling is the force on your body rising and tailing off.

Keep in mind that this is my formulation of the pilot's explanation, but think of Newton's cradle, those suspended balls that knock into each other. Imagine the first ball is the updraft, the middle ball is the aircraft and you are the ball on the end. The turbulent force is transmitted through the aircraft to you inside.

Hopefully you remember that F=ma, force equals mass times acceleration, from school. Rearrange that and the acceleration equals the force divided by the mass. Now, the mass of a human is less than one ten thousandth of an A380. Imagine what would happen if you push an A380 (bugger all) compared with a single person (the equal and opposite reaction may be violent!). So even allowing for the distribution of the force across everything in and around the aircraft, the individual acceleration will be a lot higher than for the aircraft itself.

That’s why you should keep yourself strapped in! And aircraft can still undergo major changes in altitude, dropping many metres. It does happen, if rarely.

I'm characterising the bumps as we fly on, reinterpreting them according to the pilot, converting fear to understanding. It helps a bit, especially while the bumps are minor.

As the sun sets we finally strike the high cloud of the northern Australia monsoon. The seatbelt lights are switched on and the bumps get stronger. My anxiety level goes up.





Eventually, somewhere off the coast of Western Australia they are switched off. There is a period of calm. Alex has had enough of being on the plane. Me too. It's been a stressful month, due to work, family and the anticipation of the flights. I'm seriously questioning if I like travel any more, certainly I find it difficult to believe that I was ever enthusiastic about aviation.

Land below. Indonesia. Jogjakarta I think. Then it disappears under more clouds. We meet the storm clouds again and the seatbelt lights return, this time for over an hour. It's not horribly bumpy, but it's constant, especially annoying when I'm in this mood. Unlike on a Qantas Group aircraft the seatbelt light is not enforced. Crew still serve and passengers get up as they feel like it.

A late meal of rosemary and lamb pie is offered. None of us is hungry enough to eat.

Above us in the darkened cabin is a ceiling of artificial stars.



We skim past bulbous storm clouds, white in the moonlight. Lightning flashes spectacularly within, illuminating their shape.

This doesn't scare me. Another piece of pilot information was that you can fly within 500 metres of the front of a storm cloud and feel nothing. It's the rear where the winds are strong.




Finally the ride became a bit smoother and the seatbelt lights were switched off. It was in January last year that we last flew in this area, on Scoot, and our path both ways was littered with storm clouds around the tropics. This seems no different. There was one moment that frightens me most of all. We were lining up for our final descent into Singapore after circling around storms when we suddenly entered a cumulonimbus cloud. There was just enough time for the pilot to switch on the seatbelt lights and order everyone to their seats before we struck.

So I felt apprehension as we approached the island nation. But to my great relief it was a smooth descent down towards Changi Airport. Down over the adjacent islands and across the strait filled with ships like lanterns in the water.









We actually arrive half an hour early! But that is still 2 AM Sydney time and we all want to go to bed. We make our way quickly through Terminal 1, our usual terminal at Changi, actually spend longer at immigration in Singapore than in Melbourne, and collect our bags.


All done, we just catch the taxi straight to our hotel, the Roxy Square Grand Mercure in Katong, and go to bed. It's too late to hit the hawker stalls.

The hotel is my favourite in Singapore. Not so much for its features, reasonable as they are, but for its location.




Behind the hotel, hidden away in Roxy Square is Janggut Katong Laksa, across the road are hawker stalls and the Parkway Parade shopping centre with reasonably priced rather than luxury goods. Further behind the hotel is East Coast Road and Joo Chiat Street lined with old shop houses and eateries, many which serve old fashioned local food.

Janggut Laksa


Roti prata





Chinese New Year lights at Marine Parade


The MRT station being built out the front will no doubt herald a faster move upmarket, as Singapore appears to deplore actual heritage as opposed to reconstructed "cool" redevelopment, so you have to enjoy things while you can.




While in Singapore we visit Universal Studios on Sentosa Island. Not as good as the Osaka version (itself probably smaller than the US versions) in my opinion, but then I'm not a fan of Adrenalin anyway. A walk around the Botanic Gardens and Orchid Collection is more my thing.









Singapore's heat leads us to Wild Wild Wet, where I rediscover the fact that I really hate high speed acceleration downwards but that bobbing in waves is actually quite pleasant. Again I am characterising bumps.



All up we spent four solid days in Singapore. If you want to read more then please see my blog.

In the next instalment we will fly from Singapore to Osaka via Taipei aboard Jetstar.

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