Saturday, November 12, 2011

Standing up for Mr. Thicky McThick

Idiocy comes in varying shapes and sizes. On a large scale, you have the Italian electorate, who chose Silvio Berlusconi as their prime minister. Three times. 

On a different scale you have Karl Pilkington, the sometime radio "producer" whom Ricky Gervais turned into a media phenomenon by providing the opportunity to display his apparent imbecility in the very funny Ricky Gervais Podcast series.

There is, however, a difference between exploiting the simplistic prism with which Pilkington views the world, and the outright mocking of the afflicted that takes place with An Idiot Abroad. This series of fish-out-of-water documentaries - which should have been named A Gag Stretched Too Far - finds Pilkington tossed into unfamiliar situations. "With hilarious results", of course.

Then there is the more sympathetic representation of idiocy represented by the scene in City Slickers where Billy Crystal attempts to explain to Daniel Stern how a video recorder works. It's a modern classic, even if now somewhat dated by technological progress. Advancement has always meant making life easier or more convenient. But no matter how much easier it makes complex tasks simpler or removes tedium from repetitive chores, there will always be those who get left behind. The elderly for example. And me.

With this in mind, What Would David Bowie Do? comes to you today from 38,000 feet up in the sky. I have no idea how I got up here.

Well I do, sort of: I took a taxi to the airport, checked in, sat around in an Air France lounge getting bored, and then boarded my plane - the sixth Airbus A380 in the airline's fleet.

The 380 is an enormous aircraft. I've travelled on plenty of large airliners before, but despite being the same length as the big Boeings, its proportions just seem huge. It is so big that to get on board its upper story, I had to take an escalator at the departure gate itself. It is, basically, a double-decker bus with wings. It is designed to move as many people as possible across oceans and continents in one go. And thus it does: my flight is full, with some 500 passengers on board, which is roughly the same number on board a single car ferry crossing the English Channel. Getting us all on is the easy part of the equation to understand. Getting us up here is not. 

I am, it should be said, a fairly frequent flyer, and over the last 30 years have flown in pretty much every type of commercial aircraft, from ghastly puddle-hoppers - aircraft which seem barely evolved from the Sopwith Camel - plying their trade between America's regional hub airports, to the big engined, wide-bodied flying limos that criss-cross continents and oceans. For the most part, they work, and without dwelling too much on the obvious, they only don't work when freak conditions weigh in, mechanical failures occur, or nutters with explosive underpants succeed in getting away with their nefarious intentions.

So why, then, after three decades of air travel do I still not get it? How the hell do they get up, stay up, and in theory and, mostly, in practice, come down again? Many have tried to explain it to me, dumbing it down to an insultingly condescending level of simplicity. But still, I remain a retard when it comes to understanding the principles of flight, which come as natural to almost every winged creature except the penguin, and which Orville and Wilbur Wright got down with a few lengths of balsa wood and a rubber band.

Before anyone takes it upon themselves to send me Flying For Dummies (it must exist), or directs me to Barney The Dinosaur explaining how planes work on YouTube, don't bother. I have come to the conclusion that this is just my blind spot.

No matter how often you tell me, I won't understand that what gets several tons of metal, flesh and matching luggage from one side of the planet to the other is air being forced over a wing to create a difference in air pressure with the air flowing under the wing. As it creates lift. Obviously.

Frankly, I'm still convinced that the brothers Wright carried out some form of sorcery at Kittyhawk. The takeoff in this A380 didn't seem to happen at all. We pushed back from the gate and trundled slowly along the taxiway for a few minutes - the entire journey presented for us on our seatback TV screens thanks to a forward-looking camera on the tailfin. Then we started moving a little quicker...and that was it, we were airborne. 

There was no lurching pelt down the runway, no sensation of acceleration, or being pushed back into your seat. For a plane so logic-defyingly huge, it floated down the runway like a ballerina before lifting into the air with the gentlest of angles.

Of course, once airborne it is no different from any other airliner you've ever been on. After all, the 380 is basically a Boeing 747 with an extended hump. But that doesn't help you overcome the irrational fear that comes with in-flight turbulence, which I hate with a passion. Until 15 years ago, I would step onto any plane with boyish glee, caught up in an anachronistic, 1950s 'jet set' wonderment of it all. I still do consider flying to be something of a luxury*, even though I spend so much of my time doing it out of necessity.
*This obviously doesn't relate in any way, shape or form to any journey undertaken with Ryanair.

But then I was on a plane from London to Eindhoven. Actually, it wasn't a plane, more of a converted A4 envelope that someone had strapped a couple of propellers to, crammed us in and painted sky blue with 'KLM' in big bold letters on the side. On the night Geri Spice almost burst out of her Union Jack costume at the 1997 Brit awards, my fellow passengers and I were treated to the tail end of a near hurricane-strength storm. For much of the flight, the journalist sat next to me dug her nails into my right hand, causing bleeding that I didn't even notice until we had safely repaired to the hotel bar later that evening.

A month after 9/11 I flew to New York from San Francisco for a meeting. The mood on the half-full plane wasn't made any better by the fact that somewhere over the Midwest we flew into the kind of storm that, when you look out of the window, makes the wings flap like a bird's. This, I've been shown, is meant to happen. At the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, they will demonstrate the wings of the giant 777 being put through a stress test in which they are bent through as much as 13 feet before anything really bad happens.

I was still unimpressed by the storm. And then I discovered Channel 9 - the service on then-United Airlines flights by which you could listen to the pilots talking to air traffic controllers up and down the country. It was the closest thing to actually looking out of the cockpit window, and very reassuring it was too. Even as we were being heaved around, listening to the pilots talking to other captains further ahead, hearing them requesting a higher or lower altitude to optimise the air flow, managed to make this back seat driver feel much better.

On the A380, the cameras do it for you. The ability to see straight ahead - especially when air turbulence is such a completely invisible force - was unbelievably calming. I'm not sure why no one has thought about it before - especially Richard Branson. Unlike the on-board cameras of Formula 1 cars, which capture the excitement of speeding along tarmac at almost 200 miles an hour, watching yourself travelling three times that speed, seven miles up, but apparently hardly making any progress at all over the clouds beneath you, is as hypnotic an experience as any I can think of.

The downside to cameras and having a pilot's-eye view of the journey is that if something were to happen - mid-air collision, UFO encounter, Ryanair publicity stunt - your final seconds will probably be spent watching yourself getting even closer to God.

And on that theological note, I'll return to enjoying the ride, even if I don't have a clue how I got up here. Which I don't. Still.

Coming into land at New York's John F Kennedy Airport.

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