Tuesday 18 April 2017

Diverted by floods: QF SYD-BNE-GLT return

People fly for many reasons. Some fly for work, some because they seek adventure. Others fly just for the joy of being in the air. And some fly because they have no choice. That's me right now.

It's been a long time since I last visited my family in Central Queensland, six and a half years in fact. Even longer since my last stay in Gladstone. I would still have been of primary school age then.

We had no intention of visiting Gladstone, but Cyclone Debbie filled the catchments and the Fitzroy rose, flooding the airport. So I contacted Qantas via their web chat and rebooked our flights to Gladstone. Then I booked us a night and changed the car hire.

I was tempted just to cancel the whole thing, but familial duty stopped me.

In the weeks leading up to this trip I have actually been quite excited about the prospect of flying. But with a few days to go my subconscious interfered again. It is incredible how visceral reaction it is. I actually felt really bad. The stress hormones act on my guts, my sleep. I feel ill, but I know that it is me and I know that I am wrong. There isn't anything to fear but I can't seem to stop it.

I didn't want to write another post about my fear of turbulence, but I would be mischaracterising my experience if I painted a simple happy picture.

This morning I feel physically ill, to the point of dry retching. Food tastes bad, I just want to curl up in bed. The wind is gusting and dark grey clouds skid across the sky. Will I have to fly through them? I don't want to fly through them. Bring back the clear blue skies!

At each point of the day if I could pull out I would. But I can't. And I know that it won't be anywhere near as bad as my subconscious makes out. I will be able to cope. My subconscious doesn't believe me.

It's B and Alex that stop me from quitting. I can't stop because of them. We catch the bus to the station, the train to Domestic, walk to Terminal 3. I have already checked in using the Qantas App, changed our seats to over the wing. I put our one checked bag in under my name, now if I quit the others can't fly without my bag being unloaded.

Through security, my bag of electronics is pulled aside as usual. Walk up to the Qantas Club, Alex insists.

The others eat a late lunch. I just sip drinks. Maybe it would be easier if I drank alcohol. I don't. I'm not going down that path.

Time to go down to the gate. I want nothing more than to quit as I watch aircraft landing from the north in front of the bitter grey rain clouds. But there are patches of blue the other side. I try to hope.

Our aircraft is a Qantas Boeing 737-800, the workhorse of the fleet. The 737 recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday, a remarkable achievement. New models are still under construction.

Our aircraft has a refurbished interior. Gone are the faded grey and yellow hexagon fabrics, now charcoal and deep reds. The majority of 737s, including this one, are without any inflight entertainment apart from small fold down ceiling screens and seat sound. However, earlier in the week Qantas unveiled its first 737-800 with fast WiFi Internet onboard. It's a pity it isn't this one, though they hope to roll it out to the entire fleet by the end of next year.

The gate agent asks Alex his age and as we board we are handed a small activities pack by the flight attendant. A luggage tag, pencils and a puzzle book.

Our seats are just ahead of the overwing exits. There's no recline, but we don't use that anyway. On the plus side we get two windows to our row.

Breathe deeply. Now it is time to relax.

The aircraft fills quickly, every seat taken, and it is time to push back. The screens fold down from the ceiling and support the flight attendants in their safety demonstration as we taxi out towards the third runway.

Alex is already falling asleep.

We thunder down the runway, heading south into the blustery winds of the huge low that is right now threatening New Zealand, towards those deep dark clouds. Quickly we make a left hand turn, but we cannot escape.

White envelopes us and the winds shake us. Of course it is not as terrible as I feared, but I can still feel it. I can feel the aircraft turning through the clouds. They thin, they thicken, they thin again and finally we are through.

I have survived. Of course I have. Now there is blue sky and the puffy threats are all below. Now I can admire their beauty, and I do. There is something magnificent about a cumulus, a cumulonimbus. They are made of nothing but tiny droplets of water, yet they contain such power.

Now I can relax. I take out my photo and listen to music. I start with "Adrift", the music that really relaxed me last trip, but I don't feel I need it. A random selection works better.

We are handed a box of snacks. Inside are rosemary crackers, a block of vintage cheddar cheese and a pack of salted caramel popcorn biscuits. I haven't had lunch and am actually hungry, so I eat mine. Quite nice, though my stomach is still a little uncertain about "savoury".

The clouds thin and I can see patches of coast. Long beaches and small towns.

I feel our descent before it is announced. Below us a Qantas jet takes off far below us from Coolangatta Airport. I recognise the shape of the landscape and the mouth of the Tweed River from our flights to Japan from there.

North Stradbroke Island appears, complete with a sand mine wound as we cross over Moreton Bay. Great sandbars sweep below us, while white horses dance across the blue-grey surface, replaced by the shimmer of the Sun as we turn to face the south on final descent.

The aircraft fights the crosswinds as we touch down in the golden light of the late day.

As we taxi I look across the airport and see more dark clouds. I hope they will not interrupt our next leg, especially as it will be on a turboprop.

I point out to Alex the Bombardier Q400s taxiing around us.

"Our next flight" I tell him.

Then we are out at Brisbane Airport. It feels like a long time since I've been here, yet it is all so familiar.

B wants to shop, Alex wants the lounge. B wins and we explore as far as the entrance into the "airlines other than Qantas mainline" section.

With our next flight approaching we turn back towards the gate and the lounge. But when I check the departures board it says that our next flight is cancelled.


The Qantas service desk is adjacent, so I ask them.

Indeed our flight has been cancelled and we've been rebooked on to a later flight. The good news is that it is a jet. I think I hear that it's a 737, at least I assume so. Must be the demand with Rockhampton airport still closed. I can easily forgive Qantas for this, as the airport's reopening is a day by day proposition.

The good news is that we each have a $20 food credit to use at any eatery in this section. That's $60 worth of food. There's dinner sorted.

Alex chooses Subway, his favourite. We double the size and add extras, bringing the price to $19.50. Not bad!

B and I have Vietnamese inspired Roll'd, which is nice because my stomach would rather eat salad like food now.

Then we head into the Qantas Club lounge, which is extremely busy and in the middle of a refurbishment. While B and Alex help themselves to food, I just eat a few sweets and take advantage of the wifi.

By the time we reach our gate, down in the "other airline" section boarding has already commenced. I look out expecting a 737, but am surprised to see a T-tail. A Boeing 717? Unfortunately (for Alex) it's not. This QantasLink flight will be operated by an Alliance Fokker 100. The last time we flew on one was our last flight out of Rockhampton.

I'm a little concerned as we are seated in row 8 and the centre of gravity of this aircraft is quite far back. My fears were unfounded however, as row 8 turns out to be quite far along in this smaller jet.

I recall that this aircraft was quite the pocket rocket on our last flight, and this heartens me as it shouldn't take us long to get to cruise and above any clouds.

There's a real country Queensland feel to the passengers aboard this aircraft and even the captain sounds like an older fashioned country bloke. On our flight up from Sydney there had been a mix of passengers, though the man opposite drinking XXXX gave his heritage away.

It doesn't take us long to make our way to the runway. Right before us a huge Emirates A380 touches down, a massive contrast to this jet.

It is a short sharp take-off into the night sky. As we climb and bank we are treated to a spectacular display of the Brisbane CBD beneath us with the just risen full Moon in the background.

There are a few bumps as we ascend through some light cloud and the seatbelt light is left on for a long time, with the captain reminding passengers not to use the facilities, though food packs are handed out.

We aren't very hungry, so I stash some of the food away for later. The contents are quite eclectic compared with Qantas mainline. Rice and soy crackers, Blue Cow cheese, a salami stick and a chocolate.

The moonlight on the sea gives away the coastal outlines as we cruise through the dark sky. There are a few little shakes now and then, but nothing major. Breaks in the cloud, which is quite thin, reveal the amber and white stars of townships below.

This is a shorter journey than by turboprop and I can soon feel the aircraft pitching down as we begin our descent. Again we are treated to a city display, though Gladstone is an industrial port city rather than Brisbane's commercial and residential nature.

Many ships sit off the coast, no doubt waiting to be loaded with coal stalled by Cyclone Debbie. Gladstone is a hub for this highly polluting source of energy that is steadily, but not quickly enough, declining in popularity.

There is also the aluminium refinery, the fields of red bauxite that stand out so prominently as the last sight of the Queensland coast when flying north to Japan from the Gold Coast hidden by the dark of night.

We loop low around the city, a scenic night tour from above, before coming down to rest on the tarmac of Gladstone Airport.

This is my second time here. The first was on a milk run to Brisbane from Rockhampton, strangely enough also on board a Fokker, but this time an Ansett affiliated F50 turboprop. That aircraft stuck in my head after my father telling me about the old milk runs he caught on Fokker Friendships.

A Virgin ATR72-500 also sits on the tarmac, along with the Skytraders Airbus A319, a rare sight! I wonder if it is a mining charter.

While B waits for our luggage, I go to the Budget counter to pick up our hire car. The lady is so friendly and upgrades us.

This is our first 4WD, a Nissan X-Trail. B is excited, but I am less so, concerned about the fuel usage. It takes us ages to get out because the car is equipped with a foot parking brake rather than the handbrake we are familiar with.

Eventually we get going and make our way to the Mercure hotel. After a day like today I am glad we are treating ourselves. We are frequent users of Accor hotels and it was nice to find one in Gladstone. In comparison, Rockhampton lacks most of the big chains, is more downmarket. Even the big Iwasaki Resort has closed.

It is a nice hotel room indeed, though the Amino television set top box is rather underpowered. I think Alex broke it and we had to get a staff member up to fix it. Not that it was an issue as the staff are very friendly!

Tomorrow we drive up to Rocky and back to a period of my past. Today's flights were both very good. I just wish I could get over the anxiety associated with it. Practice makes perfect.

Though our stay in Capricornia Region was all about family we managed to spend some time exploring old haunts.

Gladstone Harbour

HMAS Gladstone, a patrol boat

Yeppoon's Main Beach

The Kraken water playground at Yeppoon

Ferry for Great Keppel Island

Rosslyn Bay

Great Keppel Island

Great Keppel Island

The Singing Ship at Emu Park

Sunset at Emu Park

Crabtastic crab tying festival at Keppel Sands

Mum's place

The abandoned station at Yeppoon.
My blog has all the details.

Rockhampton Airport is now open again and has been for a few days. Though we could have attempted to change our flights without charge the issue is that the car was hired from Gladstone, so we must return there.

We pack our bags and check out from the motel. On the way out of Yeppoon we pass the entrance to my old high school. I can see some changes, but it's school holidays and there's no chance for a closer look.

The drive up to Rockhampton and down to Gladstone is unexciting, just reversing the previous journey without the familial interlude. Many coal trains are operating along the line, a kilometre long hauled by electric or diesel locomotives interspersed between the snakes of coal hoppers.

We have a couple of hours before we have to return the car and check into the flight so we head down to the Gladstone Marina to the Harbour Festival fair. This is like a substitute for the Sydney Royal Easter Show that we aren't taking him to this year. The number of rides and sideshows is quite impressive and Alex immediately starts compiling a list of those he wants play on. Unfortunately the prices are surprisingly high, especially the sideshow alley. Twenty dollars for three games? I would hope that the odds of success are quite high for that price.

In the end he just jumps on the suspended trampolines and takes me for a spin on the dodgem cars. We eat a lunch of nachos and pork buns under a marquis. It's quite warm, though there is a fair breeze blowing and scattered clouds scooting across the sky. While they offer relief from the heat they are also a source of anxiety for the flight.

How do I know I'm feeling anxiety? By the number of trips to the bathroom that I need to make.

We farewell the fair. At least we made some use of the detour to Gladstone.

When we drop the car off at the airport it is dustier than when we collected it. I've already checked in online but we collect our boarding passes and drop off our single bag at the QantasLink desk. The friendly young agent points out the pin code for the unmanned Qantas lounge and we are all set.

The lounge has a self serve bar with chips, biscuits, cakes, coffee and alcohol. No bathrooms however, so just when I am trying to relax Alex demands to be taken out to the facilities.

I arrive back in time to see our aircraft taxiing into the bay It's an Bombardier Dash8-Q400 turboprop, the same type I flew late last year in an effort to put my turbulence anxiety fighting skills into practice.

We walk out along the tarmac, boarding from a long ramp rather than the built in door stairs. It's a narrow tube with two sets of seats on each side. I take the window next to a stranger while B and Alex sit opposite.

It's a full flight so far as I can see. There are two attendants serving us today and they perform the safety demonstrations prior to our taxi out to the northern end of the sole runway. We pass a temporary hanger housing a couple of Army NH90 helicopters, presumably used for the disaster recovery efforts after Cyclone Debbie and the associated floods.

Suddenly we are racing down the runway. My heart is in my mouth. Up we rise into the air and it is okay. Then we turn right and there are views of the Queensland Alumina Limited refinery, red from the bauxite they process. Further around and we see what look to be salt lakes, red from the algae. But no, these are lakes of red mud, the leftovers after alumina is extracted from the bauxite, leaving an iron rich slurry, hence the rusty colour.

From the ground, depending on where you looked, the sky was clear, had scattered cloud or, in one spot, a larger mass of cloud. I hope that the pilot would steer us through the clear skies away from the puffs of doom.

But no, we seemed to be aiming at the clouds. As we approached we started bumping more. Then we entered and things got rough. As the view outside turned white I felt the force pushing us up, then dropping us down. Yes, this aircraft was light enough that there were actual drops.

A flicker of clear sky, then the next cloud mass, and the next.

When we emerge above them my hands are shaking. Now that might be due to the fact that I am level with the propellers and there is lots of vibration, but I certainly feel shaken.

That was not fun.

The seatbelt lights are switched off and  the first officer welcomes us to the flight, telling us that it should be good conditions in the air and in Brisbane, but that it's QantasLink policy that passengers should wear their seatbelts at all times when seated. No need to tell me!

Below us are scattered clouds and a dark green undulating landscape occasionally riven by a brown river or pale mine scar. I half hope that this flight will be over quickly, half fear descending through the cloud again.

The crew come through with small packs of greasy bread and butter pudding cakes and drinks. I eat the food, more out of duty than anything else, and request a bottle of water that I won't have to worry about spilling.

When I'm in this mood every small shake disturbs me. I imagine apologising to my aviation enthusiast friends that this wasn't the classic tropical turboprop ride, luxuriating in the scenery on a slower, lower ride as I have in the past.

Our descent into Brisbane took us over the Glass House Mountains inland from the Sunshine Coast, in particular Mount Beerwah, a flattened volcanic core pyramid poking out of the flat landscape.

The clouds come to an end and I feel happier. There are houses and greenery visible below us. At one point I see a giant words "NORTHEAST HARBOURSIDE PARK" carved into a broad expanse of bright green grass.

We turn out towards the coast and fly out over the long, long Redcliffe Causeway segregating the mangrove lined Hays Inlet from Moreton Bay. Our wheels drop and we are over the water. There are some strong crosswind shakes as we turn. I lose track of how far we do turn. It doesn't feel like enough to align us with the runway, but we are.

The landing is fairly hard, though not as bad as in my last Q400 flight where the aircraft had to be removed from service for inspection.

At last we are on the ground. One more flight to go.

We taxi into the QantasLink remote stand at the northern end of the terminal. Two buses appear. We board the first and take a very circuitous route around the Dash8's, 717s and 737s until we reach the terminal entrance.

Fortunately there is no need to go through security a second time like in the old days. Instead we head straight up to the Qantas lounges.

The Qantas Club is closed due to a technical issue, so we are diverted into the posher and recently refurbished Qantas Business Lounge. The food selection is a little limited at this time of day. We each try a bowl of mulligatawny soup, which is basically curry sauce, washed down with some Bickford's cordials. A recent addition to the lounge is the Cantina, which today is serving "Mexican" baked potatoes with cheese, black beans, bacon pieces and some brown avocado sauce that I refuse. Not the best really, but I am not in desperate need of food either.

It's time for our final flight of the trip. I am not as nervous as for the last. We are flying in a Qantas Boeing 737-800 jet again and I feel confident that the weather will be better than on the flight up.

We take our spots on board, looking out over the engines forward of the wing. It's a good spot and I'm glad it was free at check in.

The cabin manager introduces himself and informs us that this aircraft is equipped with QStreaming. I take out my phone just to check, but sadly the flight map has gone. Perhaps it is only available on certain flights.

We have to wait for a few stragglers, mainly in business class, then the doors are closed and the safety briefing commences. We taxi out to the runway for a northerly take-off.

Alex and B both tell me to put my camera away and stop hogging the window as we rise into the air. I can see ships carrying cruise passengers and cars at the Port of Brisbane on the opposite side of the river, then we are turning south across the bay.

Brisbane's port, airport and central business district are visible from the window, but disappearing into the late afternoon glare as we ascend, this time avoiding any clouds.

The seat belt lights are quickly switched off and the meal service begins. This time it's a pack of raw carrot sticks, Jatz crackers and spring onion dip. It's the kind of thing we would have happily snacked on at home and B steals some of mine because she refused to take one herself. Alex is fast asleep on our laps, otherwise he would definitely have eaten them. He was busy dipping carrot sticks into his soup at the lounge.

The cloud has reappeared beneath us. The low sun glitters off country dams like diamonds on the ground. I'm just listening to music. B watches the news on the fold down screens. They display captions so it's not necessary to use the supplied earphones.

The captain has describe the weather in Sydney as fine with wind from the south so I expect we'll be making a direct descent over my workplace. By the time we begin our descent the cloudscape below us has become more complicated. Is it smoothed by winds, I wonder. There are a few shakes as we approach the first layer, but it's better than in the turboprop.

What I am rewarded with is the most gorgeous evening scenery. First greys and golds as we begin making some adjustments to our course (ATC delaying us probably), then brilliant orange from the setting sun.

We fly down over the Hawkesbury River, over my work place in North Ryde, past the Parramatta River with the Homebush Olympic Centre in the background. I can see the neon towers of Easter Show rides in the grounds.

I point out more landmarks to Alex, including the Ikea store that says you are just about to land. But we have the extra distance of the third runway, over the terminals. I don't know it until we are driving home, but there's a rarely seen Antonov An-224 parked at the freight terminal below too. You can spot it in the pictures.

Finally we touch down, racing along the runway towards the sea. The reverse thrust kicks in and we strain against our seat belts. Then it is all over and we turn to make our long taxi back to the gate.

We park at Terminal 3 next to a Boeing 717 with the sky alight with fire. It was a wonderful way to end the flight.

Our bag is out quickly and we catch a taxi with a speeding driver back home as, being a Sunday, buses to our area are lacking and we have to get home to watch the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (appropriately enough called "The Pilot").

It was a good, if too brief, holiday. I would definitely think of returning again during the cooler months now that Alex is old enough to really enjoy the company of his cousins and his Nanna.

Would I fly there again? I had no complaints against Qantas. Their customer service and the experience was flawless. The flights themselves illustrated my frustration with turbulence. You get all worked up about it and the flight is smooth. You approach with confidence and you hit some very uncomfortable bumps. And past experience seems to be no guide. Just because you have a good experience with one lot of clouds doesn't mean you won't be bumping around next time, similarly with aircraft. The only consistency is inconsistency. But then you see the most spectacular sunset outside your window and it all seems worth it again.