I’ve just figuratively come back down to earth after what to me was the ultimate boys own adventure. A few weeks ago now I got to take a daytime jump-seat ride from Auckland to Queenstown return in an Air New Zealand 737. Yes, for those that know I’m a simmer, this time it was a real live airplane!
I’d gotten to know the skipper recently and he generously offered to get me on-board under the cockpit familiarisation program. (please no Airplane movie quotes about grown men naked) It took a few weeks to organise the paperwork, involving a security/background check and the help and support of other staff at the airline, and next thing I knew my tickets arrived by email and we were all go.
Being a flight-sim junkie and a Boeing fan in particular to say i was stoked to get to ride in the pointy end of a 737-300 (my personal favorite) would be the understatement of the millennium. Instructions arrived for where and when to meet, I turned up on time for one of the first times in my life, then we were through the security gate (skipping the queue of course) and into the briefing room for prep for the flight.
Was fascinating to sit in on the flight preparation process being a fly on the wall as the guys worked diligently through fuel, passenger and freight loading, weather conditions and forecast, and how they would affect alternate airport selection. At the time of the flight we’d just had a non-stop week long storm all over the country and the flights were to be right in the middle of it. Miraculously winds seemed to calm a little on the morning of the flight, and you’d hardly know it was still blowing during push back, taxi, takeoff and climb out to the south.
The skipper politely but firmly asked for a quiet cockpit below 10,000’ on departure and the same when on approach so I did my best to stick to the plan and bite my tongue, sitting quietly taking it all in with a huge and no doubt stupid looking grin across my face. Taking off is a buzz back in the cabin anyway right but it’s a whole different perspective and thrill from the cockpit. We were relatively heavy with a full passenger load and enough fuel to return to the North Island if necessary but even so the sporty 737 was up and away in no time.
Cloud was blanketing the Auckland approach area at about 9,000’ so soon after breaking off the LENGU1A departure on runway 23L the skipper spotted a 737-sized hole in the cover which we slipped gracefully through (for passenger comfort of course) to a lovely clear blue expanse of sky above which we remained in till cruise and all the way down the west coast of both Islands.
Though we were heading into a brisk sou’wester, and had a fierce jet-stream below at one point, we made pretty good time tracking the upper airways to pass near New Plymouth, to the west of Nelson then down over the southern alps for a top of descent near Mt Riley.
As we passed the northern tip of the South Island the guys pointed out an approaching aircraft on the TCAS traffic warning system. A few moments later we spotted the company 733 on a parallel track 1000’ above us heading back in the opposite direction to Auckland. It arced silently by in the distance with the morning sun glimmering off the hull, vanishing out of view to the north as quickly as it had appeared.
I was able to listen along to ATC radio comms via the jump-seat headset as the crew were passed from Auckland departures, tower and approach then the various regional Christchurch control sectors as we headed south, and finally to Queenstown tower on approach there.
The approach into Queenstown was via the rather technical RNAV 23Z approach which passes over Cromwell then weaves and winds along the Kawarau gorge descending gently along the way until finals for Queenstown. It’s a spectacular approach as a passenger as for much of it you are looking at the tops of mountains that are above you as the aircraft is descending along the gorge. From the cockpit the view was simply amazing. I think I just sat there mouth open or grinning like a schoolboy for most of it. It sure is a tough day at the office for these guys when the weathers like that.
Got to learn a lot from the crew about the RNAV capability (this approach cannot be hand-flown) and the limitations and history of the system. Very cool stuff which saves a huge number of missed approaches when operating in reduced visibility conditions at Queenstown. On this day however there were few clouds and very scattered, much to the skippers dismay, I’m sure he was hoping it would clag in to give me an impression of the feel and tension of flying a low visibility approach in such hostile terrain.
On the ground in Queenstown I also got to go on the walk-around inspection with the first officer wearing one of those super fashionable fluro-vests. The tarmac was warm, the air was full of the smell of jet fuel, the APU was still roaring at the back of the aircraft, and the aircraft surfaces glistening in the bright central Otago sunshine, which all meant it was complete and fantastic sensory overload, and another nice touch on the whole experience. I did my best to listen in as the F/O explained the elements and states he was looking for, and did lots of head-nodding and pretending to look like I knew what he was talking about.
After a slight delay with refueling we were back in the seat, paperwork signed off, security doors closed, passengers in place, and we were pushing back for the start-up and return to Auckland. Takeoff from QN was even sprightlier than before with engines uprated a little and packs off due to heavy load and local environment. The 737 leapt into the air and climbed purposefully out to the west up and over Frankton then turning on the climb around Kelvin Heights to double back over the airfield before joining the track back to the North Island.
The return leg was another dream experience for me, getting to watch out for other procedures I’d missed on the way down, listening in on the ATC conversations a little more intently, and to hear a little more from the guys about their chosen career, their flying histories, impact on lifestyle and family and their near term prospects given the imminent retirement of the 737 airframe and movement of staff to the A320 platform.
Being the simming uber-nerd that I am I kept the guys busy with questions and luckily for me they were more than happy to answer, and then some. Was thrilled to discover the panels are very well modeled in the simulator as compared to the real thing so was great to see some familiar processes going on, and to learn as much as I could about some others in the 1:45 or so of flight time per leg.
I got so much out of the experience its hard to know what and how much to write about it so I figure I’ll keep it pretty brief. I have to acknowledge the obvious though, that it was a huge privilege to get to fly these two legs with the crew. In these days of heightened security, and time-poor and competitive professional and service demands there really aren’t many opportunities like this available now.
To the crew that hosted me on the day, your guys are awesome!. Kiwis are well served by our national airline, should be proud of how well if operates and fares in the modern age of global airline competition, and if you two are anything to go by we’re in bloody great hands when we do choose to fly. Thanks so much guys.