In which archiewood gets a massive perk from being in ATC

I am noding this because of the gleeful satisfaction I have derived from relaying this story to anyone that will listen. Sorry, internet. You have been warned.

This day marked the conclusion of my eleven-day maiden excursion to the United States. Actually the conclusion came a day later than planned, for reasons that will soon become clear. The purpose of the trip is almost extraneous detail to this particular story but I will say The Custodian was met, the Space Shuttle was launched, and blisters were painfully created. All were awesome, and none came in that order.

The icing on the cake came with the flight home. Now I, recently endowed with a small piece of plastic identifying me as part of the air traffic control infrastructure of the UK, am permitted certain latitudes ordinary citizens are not. Like flipping off babies. I have not done this yet. But I haven't met any babies either.

Another thing I can get is very cheap flights. The level of discount varies from one airline to another, from a ~50% discount right up to 100% (you still pay tax, of course). The other edge to this sword is that seats are predominantly unconfirmed, so the traveler may find themselves turned away from the gate because the flight is full, and having to wait for another. If you're travelling alone, as I was, and don't mind doing stupid things, as I don't, this isn't too much of a problem.

So, when I got to Delta's check-in desk at Hartsfield-Jackson, enquired after the status of the flight - finally having received a ticket after some behind-the-scenes wrangling by multiple staff - and was told it was sold out, I shrugged my shoulders and thought I'd give it a punt anyways. If I had to wait I had to wait. My friend who delivered me to the airport thought I was insane, but I can think of far worse places to spend the night than an airport. Atlanta may not have eateries furnished with iPads like JFK - fairly unpleasant though that airport is - but I was brandishing a Kindle and, lest we forget, at the centre of the largest aeroplane hangout in the world, and thus ready for what might lie ahead.

The first hint that causality might be diverging from the plan came when I arrived at my gate and eyed up the plane. I frowned at the position of the nose wheel on the painted parking lines and muttered to myself "...that's not a '400." It was either a 200 or a 300, about twenty feet shorter than the 400ER that was supposed to be operating my flight to Heathrow. Still, I was about three hours early at this point so I lounged around to see what would happen, enjoying the storm raging outside (how you guys' thunder sounds so much better than ours is lucky sods). People started gathering, the plane didn't move, and nothing happened on the information screens for a long time.

Eventually, after a protracted accretion of passengers around the desk, a gate agent picked up the PA, announced a "change of equipment" for the flight (love the language - are we supposed to scratch our thick monkey craniums in confusion if "change of aircraft" is said?), and asked for forty volunteers to give up their seats and get a later flight. The next flight was not until the next morning, and this one had already been delayed about two hours by that point.

Although the forty who gave up their seats were promised $400 in vouchers and free overnight accommodation, I technically had no seat to give up. So that's that, I thought. I'm standby - there's no way I'm getting on this plane. I guess I'm here for the night.

After sitting fairly indifferently in the departure lounge for a little while, watching passengers swarm like angry bees around the desk (because public announcements never apply to you), it dawned on me that while there were fewer passenger seats, the aircraft variant would probably have little or no effect on the number of jump seats available. If you're unaware, jump seats are the type of folding seats predominantly used by flight attendents or off-duty crew, which sometimes go spare and are used by so-called 'non-revenue passengers' like myself.

So I joined the queue and over the next forty-five minutes or so worked my way to the front. Now, it's worth mentioning at this point that in order to enjoy my cheap flights I have to follow a number of rules. One of them is a dress code, since these flights are treated by airlines as staff flights. Suited and booted you must be. Another is keeping a low profile. You don't advertise to the person sitting next to you that you paid a fifth what they did for your ticket.

So I'm at the desk, surrounded by pissed-off people almost certainly about to be bumped off the flight. Very carefully I muttered to the gate agent: "I'm on a nonrev ticket - are there any jump seats available on this flight?" Some back-and-forth ensued over who I was, who I was with, where I worked, and over the next few minutes frenzied clacking of keys, conferring with colleagues and some back-seat input spat out a boarding pass, which I accepted as furtively as it is possible to do when a few dozen people are huddled behind you.

My seat number? 01P.

The bottom of the pass read: CPT JMPST BP/DOCS-OK.

"Huh," I thought. Interesting. I know what this looks like, but I've never done this, so I'll wait and go with it. As I had discovered is the convention for freeloaders like me, you wait until everyone else has boarded the aircraft before you make your move. Once the snail shuffle had cleared, I presented myself to the chap at the jetway, and it was like I was one of them. He looked at my pass, grinned at me and flicked his eyes towards the jetway: "you can go on through." I grinned back and thanked him, then sauntered down the ramp.

The flight attendant at the door of the plane looked at my pass, narrowed her eyes then looked at me: "oh, you're riding up front, right?"

What. The. Fuck.

"Er, yes. Yes, I am," I poker-faced. I do this all the time. She then left me to it, somewhat surprisingly, and I groped my way without too much difficulty to the goddamned flight deck. There, one of three captains paused their pre-flight checks to get my pass, inspect my ATC card, and I was in. Holy shit. Was this real?

6 Things you prolly don't know about a jump seat

  1. It is uncomfortable. As with most folding seats the amount of padding is limited. Also, cockpit jump seats are at the rear, against the bulkhead. So no reclineage for you.

  2. It is probably very bright. The cockpit windows don't have blinds; this is obvious, but only when you actually think about it, and why would you until you're in there? So, unless it's already night and/or you're flying west long-haul, no sleeping for you either. Even if you are, considering point 1, well...good luck.

  3. It is awkward to talk to anyone. You're behind everyone, so either they have to crane their neck or you do.

  4. It is probably behind the cockpit door, so you'll get clonked on the knee every time someone comes in. Which, to be fair, will probably not be that often.

  5. It is cramped. Your feet will probably have to fight for space with all of the gear that the captains have crammed into the little unused space at the back of the cockpit.

  6. It is freaking AWESOME.

For some time I was sitting in my perch (what it felt like, nestled tight behind the port window), as the captains were all business doing their checks, not quite able to believe what was happening. Finally we got pushed back - well after midnight and into the date of this writeup - I did up my four-point harness, and we started a long taxi roll. The moment we rotated on takeoff was like being in an express elevator (not like in the back of the plane, where you go down first before going up), the shooting was good, turbulence was nothing to worry about, nor was the food (business class all the way, baby) the view was something else (about ninety minutes after takeoff the captain turned round: "so, Dave: ever seen New York from the air?" It was 2am. I hadn't), and just being able to see where you're going was magnificent. Landing at Heathrow (ten hours later - eek), the five planes in front of us in the sequence were all clearly visible. Minimum separation in trail is reduced to 2.5 nautical miles on approach to Heathrow, fact fans. Yes, apparently vortex wake doesn't affect planes when it's really busy (archiewood narrows his eyes).

The captains were also three very cool customers. I'm well aware of the stereotype of what guys are like when you get them in a group, and it'd be stupid of me to deny ever having lived up to at least some parts of that stereotype. But these guys? Doting fathers to a fault. Here's a quote:

You think it's amazing when you see your wife give birth? Wait until you see your daughter give birth - there's nothing like it.

Aw. To be fair it probably takes a certain sort to be captain of a heavy jet - and these guys were all in their early/late 50s - but still. Aw.

As soon as they found out I was involved in ATC in the UK I got to talk about it for a while, and you can bet I yapped to them about flying too. We had a ex Air Force pilot, a former Naval Aviator and one guy who'd got himself qualified from scratch. Their surprise that UK airspace is pretty busy ("why do we always get vectored as soon as we get into your airspace?") was...surprising, but I had holes in my knowledge I'm sure were obvious to them too (for instance, it turns out the FAA doesn't allow you to be type-rated on all of the variants of the 767 at once, even though the only major difference is a glass cockpit in the '400), and they explained everything I asked about, and were good enough to turn on the cabin speaker so I could hear all the ATC.

Now, I'll be first to admit to what will probably be seen as a certain naïveté about flying (I think demonstrated best by my Take off and Landing wu); it is an exciting, adventurous thing for me - to the point that if I hear anyone complain about it I want to give them a playful clip around the ear and make them listen to Louis CK's "everything is amazing and nobody is happy" rant:

Flying is the worst one, because people come back from flights and they tell you their story. And it's like a horror story. They act like their flight was like a cattle car in the 40s in Germany. That's how bad they make it sound. They're like:
'It was the worst day of my life. First of all we didn't board for 20 minutes. And then we get on the plane and they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes. We had to sit there!'
Oh, really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air, incredibly, like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? You're FLYING! It's amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going OH MY GOD!! WOW!! You're flying. You're sitting in a chair, in the sky."
"But [the seat] doesn't go back a lot. And it smells, really."
You know, here's the thing. People say there's delays on flights, delays. Really? New York to California in 5 hours. That used to take 30 years to do that and a bunch of you would die on the way there and have a baby. You'd be with a whole different group of people by the time you got there. Now you watch a movie, you take a dump and you're home.

I waited almost four hours for boarding to start. It was an hour after they started boarding before I got on the plane. It was another 30 minutes before we started rolling. We were taxiing for 20 minutes, and sitting on the runway for another 20 before takeoff. My flight was amazing.

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