…About that time I flew half way around the world on a plane with 16 Russian crew and only one other passenger.
2007, Emirates Team New Zealand, based in Auckland had been preparing for the 33rd America’s Cup, half a world away in Valencia. Transporting the boats from New Zealand to Spain by ship would have taken almost two months out of the training / testing / practice schedule. Time is the most precious commodity for an America’s Cup team so deciding to fly the yachts to Spain would mean that transport time could be reduced to a few days.
Muggins here volunteered to go along for the ride. My thinking was I could document both the loading and unloading and have a little adventure along the way. Also, as a bonus I wouldn’t have the usual stress of trying to get my 18 kilos or so of essential gear on board as carry on.
My fellow passenger was one of the team’s security guards.
AUCKLAND Loading up at Auckland International Airport. Two Version 5 hulls, two keel bulbs, five masts, tons of sails, booms, rigging and other sundry gear get swallowed by the beast.
The set up of the plane is essentially two tubes stacked on top of each other. The cargo hold makes up the bulk of the plane with access at both ends for loading unloading. The top tube for crew and passengers is accessed by ladders from the cargo bay. It’s bisected by the wings so that the flight crew are separated from the loading crew behind the wings. The cargo and crew areas are maintained at different pressures during flight so the loading crew and flight crew can only communicate by phone while in the air. Below are shots of the loading crew / passenger compartment where I spent the trip.
The only windows were tiny round view ports by the emergency exits. (to the left of the orange life raft in the above photo).
We were fed standard airline meals but we could get up and make a coffee or a snack at the kitchenette (above photo) whenever we wanted.
Traveling high up and behind the engines with little in the way of insulation meant it was extremely noisey. Thankfully we had been forewarned and I was kindly loaned a pair of Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones . What a life saver. Without them on it was quite difficult to have a conversation let alone get any sleep. I ended up buying myself a pair later on and wouldn’t fly without them now. The crew we travelled with spoke little English and spent most of their time in their bunks in little cabins at the front of the compartment. While extremely professional they had a nonchalance that comes with familiarity. There were no announcements to do up your seat belt or prepare for take off or landing or any of the safety briefings you get on commercial passenger flights. The only signal we might be landing was the change in air pressure and then the engine noise and feeling of slowing down. The crew didn’t seem to give it a second thought and might be leaning against a seat having a chat and a coffee right though the manoeuvre.
SYDNEY First stop for fuel. The Antonov An-124-100 has a range of 5200 Kilometres so we would be making five refuelling / rest stops between Auckland and Valencia.
DARWIN Not too eventful, tho because one of the airport’s fuel pumping stations had been struck by lightening a few hours before our arrival refuelling was much slower than expected.
KARACHI Splash and dash pit stop for fuel. No chance for a look around.
ISTANBUL Arriving at dusk, we had to spend a second compulsory rest stop for the flight crew but were gone again before the sun rose. So while I can technically say I have been to Istanbul I didn’t see anything except the Airport, the very little I could catch from the van to and from the Hotel and the extremely dodgy hotel room. The area around the hotel that I did see from the van dissuaded me from taking a night time sight seeing stroll.
Departing at 3.00 AM, the airport was completely empty except for a lone immigration officer occupying one of the dozen desks. She had obviously been rostered on specifically to deal with our departure. The flight crew sailed through with their crew passes but when it came our turn at the desk we were asked to show our boarding passes, which we of course didn’t have. She ushered us across the huge hall to a ticketing desk where she entered our details and printed out boarding passes which she handed to us. Then we all walked back to the immigration desk where she took the passes from us to check. (My memory might have invented that last bit for comedic effect) She stamped our passports and handed back our boarding passes then accompanied us all to the gate where she again took our boarding passes and wished us a pleasant flight before unlocking the door so we could walk across the tarmac to the plane. I seem to remember her also trying to subdue a smirk at the absurdity of the situation.
VALENCIA Finally home, for the following 6 months anyway.
The An-124-100 has some pretty neat tricks. It has gantry style cranes running the length of the cargo bay bulk head to load or unload to trucks waiting under the tail. The front nose opens and the plane can ‘kneel down’ on the landing gear so that long trucks can drive straight in. Watching the nose open, the ramp unfold and the plane kneel down was like watching a bit from a Transformers movie, though in extreme slow motion.
This was a great trip. Not altogether comfortable but an experience not many can say they share.