Transatlantic From Massachusetts: My 747 Experience

I had one dream as a kid: to fly transatlantic from my local airport.

To me, it was about more than just getting up in the air. To me, transatlantic flights symbolize prosperity — not every state can be served by a transatlantic flight. Additionally, it showed that your state is recognized overseas — that the common man in the city across the pond knows of your state. I’ve always been somewhat competitive, and transatlantic flights were, in my eyes, an indirect way of showing the prosperity of a given place. On another note, such flights are usually operated with larger aircraft than domestic flights, which makes for a more fun trip in my opinion. Indeed, I longed for the day when I would be able to go to Portland, get on a plane, and get off in another country.

However, there was one problem: Maine doesn’t have any cities that are large enough to sustain an international flight. Despite having an international airport that sees a number of unscheduled tech stops for transatlantic flights, Bangor doesn’t have any scheduled flights. Likewise, Portland doesn’t have any international operations scheduled. My father and I flew to London from Boston when I was 12, but it was on a twin-engine plane (Boeing 777-200ER) from an airport 2+ hours away. It was certainly a cool experience, but it wasn’t the same as if I had gone from my local airport at the time (Portland) or been on a four-engine jet.

I finally moved to Massachusetts full-time after graduating college in the spring of 2014. One night while talking to my parents that summer, I expressed my desire to go to England again, 10 years on from my first visit. My father offered to help fund the trip, and I wasn’t about to turn that down. Suddenly, it was official: I’d be going to England in the fall of 2014, direct to London Heathrow Airport from Boston Logan International Airport, and on a British Airways Boeing 747-400 – my favorite plane and airline.

Why British Airways? Why the 747-400?

It’s hard to describe why I like British Airways and the 747-400 so much, but I’ll give it a shot.

The 747-400 combines everything that I like about planes: four jet engines, two decks, and winglets. And while other variants of the 747 possess the first two characteristics, none of the other variants possess winglets – only the -400 does.

With regards to the 747 as a whole, some might prefer the Airbus A380-800, as it has the same features and is bigger, newer, quieter, and faster, but I prefer the 747 to the A380. For me, the 747 is equal parts beauty and beast, and I like the look of it much more than that of the A380. Furthermore, its legacy is cemented as an all-time great – it will always be remembered as the plane that brought seats into the market and made flying affordable. Indeed, the 747 revolutionized air travel.

Similarly, British Airways as a brand combines modernity and elegance with ease. The Speedmarque logo is very easy on the eye, and the Union Jack on the tail is incredibly majestic in my view. The crews are incredibly helpful and polite, and I’ve had nothing but great experiences flying with them. Finally, it doesn’t hurt that their main colors are my two favorite – red and blue – and that they’re based out of London Heathrow, which was the first international airport that I learned of and is my favorite airport that is outside of the U.S.

November 25, 2014

I woke up the morning of my flight at around 9 a.m. Before doing anything else of importance, I opened my laptop to look at flightradar24 and see what aircraft would be flying my flight that night. Most transatlantic flights — and indeed, most flights in general — work on “rotations,” meaning that any given aircraft arrives at an airport as flight X and then departs from the airport as flight Y. With British Airways in Boston, it usually works like this:

  • BA213 arrives early afternoon / BA212 departs early evening
  • BA203 arrives early evening / BA202 departs late evening
  • BA215 arrives early evening / BA214 departs late evening
  • BA239 arrives late night / BA238 departs early the next morning

Sometimes rotations will vary slightly — there are days when BA203 returns as BA214, and BA215 returns as BA202 — but they usually remain very consistent. In this case, as is consistent with the standard rotation, I would be flying to England on BA212 on the same 747-400 (registration G-BYGD) that had arrived earlier in the afternoon as BA213. ‘No equipment change,’ I thought, relieved, although I wasn’t incredibly worried in the first place.

After taking an Uber to the airport, I hung out in Terminal E near the airplane. I talked on the phone with my father about the trip in general, and what I had hoped to do while in England. Either way, I was pretty excited to finally accomplish my goal of flying to Europe from my local airport — and on a 747, too!

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British Airways 747-400 G-BYGD at the gate.

Boarding the Bird

I truly didn’t realize how massive a 747-400 was until I boarded the flight and sat down in seat 43A. Looking out at the wing, visible engine, and winglet, I was finally able to understand.

Before we took off, the seat belt chime sounded twice. Instead of the normal “high-low” single chime that is heard on most aircraft, this one went “low-high” twice.

Airborne

The takeoff went by in a blur. We lined up on the runway, and I heard the engines go from idle to full power. Next, we began to roll, at first slowly but getting faster with each yard. Finally, I heard a couple of loud thuds and bangs that I had never heard before on takeoff, which I later found out was the suspension of the landing gear extending as the weight is transferred from the wheels to the wings. The same thing happens on smaller planes, too, but it’s much more pronounced on a 747-400, which has a maximum takeoff weight of 875,000 lbs. Before I knew it, we were airborne off of Runway 22R and on our way to England.

As we made our turn from a southwesterly takeoff to a northeasterly departure track, which was called the LBSTA3 departure, I looked out the window at the lights of Boston. I couldn’t make out any buildings in particular, as we had gained too much altitude since takeoff and it was dark out, but I could start to see the city slowly vanishing.

BA212 flt path that Henry took to England
Departing Boston on the LBSTA3 departure before flying along the Maine coast. (flightradar24)

Coast o’ Maine

We flew northeast at a heading of about 40 degrees for a while, crossing the Massachusetts coast one final time around Gloucester, before flying up to Maine and turning to around 70 degrees over Casco Bay. Normally, flights from Boston to Europe (such as the same flight from the day before) track much further out to sea, around 20-30 miles off the coast of the Maine, but we flew over Maine towns from Phippsburg all the way to the Canadian border. I was a bit disappointed that it was dark out, or else I likely would have been able to recognize a number of places along the way, perhaps even my hometown, but I was happy knowing that we were flying directly over Maine.

Around that time, we were served dinner. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but the food was appetizing enough, and the crew was courteous. We were also the beneficiary of a killer tailwind, so our groundspeed was 726 mph according to the photo below.

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Whew!

Stairway to England

The last time I’d gone across the pond, I had one song stuck in my head the whole time: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. However, I didn’t have it on my CD player (it was 2004, to be fair). This time, armed with Led Zeppelin IV on my iPhone, I plugged in and put the Zeppelin classic on repeat.

In addition to being my favorite song, I also realized that this eight-minute classic was, for me, the perfect analogy for a transatlantic flight to England. Before you call me crazy, hear me out.

In terms of the distinct “parts” of the song, there are four, and while none are equal in length I’ll define them as “quarters.” The first quarter of the song (0:00-2:14) is like the first quarter of the flight — you’re thinking ‘this is never going to end.’ The second quarter (2:15-4:18), you’ve know you’ve moved far from where you’ve started, but you still don’t feel like you’ve really gone anywhere. The third quarter (4:19-5:54), you know that you’ve made significant progress, but still have a long way to go. The last quarter (5:55-8:02), you’re over the British Isles and seeing the lights of the towns and villages as you get closer and closer to landing. At the very end, which is as Robert Plant sings the final line, the wheels hit the ground, and you roll out down the runway.

Early Morning Arrival

The previous time that I had flown to England, we left in the morning and arrived shortly after dark. This time, we took off from Boston at 6:09 p.m. and began our descent into Heathrow around 4 a.m.

It was mostly cloudy, so there wasn’t much to see, but we broke out of the clouds and seemed somewhat close to the ground. I could tell that we were approaching from the west from the map on my seatback TV.

Usually, when planes come into Heathrow, they descend through a circular pattern, called a “stack.” There are four stacks at Heathrow: Biggin Hill, Bovingdon, Lambourne, and Ockham. We were slated to use Ockham, but since it was 4:30 a.m. and there was virtually no traffic, we flew pretty much straight in on the approach to Runway 09L.

The ground kept getting closer and closer. Even though I wasn’t looking at my seatback TV, I could tell that we were probably below 1,000 feet or so. We buzzed by some buildings in the dark, before floating over the runway threshold. I waited for us to hit the ground, knowing that it would happen soon, before we finally touched down at 4:34 a.m.

We exited the runway, taxiing to Heathrow Terminal 5. At that time, I turned my phone off of airplane mode. I had no service, and it was still dark out, but instead of it saying that the time was still in the 11 p.m. range, it now read somewhere in the 4 a.m. range. I disembarked the aircraft, having completed the first half of my journey — 5 hours and 25 minutes from takeoff to touchdown!

December 2, 2014

After a fantastic visit with relatives, seeing one Premier League match and one Europa League match, and having many other fun experiences, I arrived back at Heathrow Terminal 5 some time around 8 a.m. GMT for my flight back to Boston. Getting through security took a bit longer than it had at Logan, but I was still at my gate with plenty of time to spare for my 11:20 a.m. flight.

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British Airways 747-400 G-CIVF at Heathrow T5.

Waiting for the flight seemed to take a long time, but I kept myself entertained. I even talked to a passenger who was flying to Canada and was supposed to go through Frankfurt, but the Lufthansa strike sent him through England instead. As far as my observations of the plane went, the one thing I noticed is that the 747-400 that I would be returning on (registration: G-CIVF) needed a new coat of paint! However, all in all I was still very excited to be returning home on BA213.

Taxi and Takeoff

I sat down in seat 34A, so a bit further forward than I was on the way over, but still on the left side of the aircraft. I kept myself entertained on my phone and with an aviation magazine before the captain announced that we would be slightly delayed due to having to empty the cargo hold to find the bags of two passengers who didn’t make the plane.

After a somewhat lengthy delay, we got taxiing, and ended up in the queue for Runway 09R behind a couple of Virgin Atlantic A340s. I’ve always admired Virgin planes from afar, but my loyalty is with the UK flag carrier. Still, I make an attempt to see the majestic Virgin planes when they leave Boston.

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My flight faded into cloudiness within minutes.

We lined up on the runway, fired up the engines, and shot down the grooved asphalt surface before becoming airborne at 12:12 p.m. Unlike the flight over, we took off during daylight, so things were much more clear this time…until we entered the clouds.

The flight wasn’t all clouds, though — as we climbed across Ireland, I could see the city of Cork, where my friend had studied abroad for a summer. I also enjoyed the view of the Irish countryside, but it was gone in a flash as we started our transatlantic journey.

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Flight Level 380 (38,000 feet)

The transatlantic portion of the flight was a bit long, as we were battling some pretty nasty headwinds, as is common on westbound transatlantic journeys. Hey, I suppose it was the price that I paid for such a smooth flight over!

After around 7 hours, we began our descent into Boston, and I immediately began to wonder which runway we would be landing on. I looked at the seatback TV map, and, due to our altitude and direction of travel, realized that we would be landing on Runway 4R, coming from the southwest.

We broke out of the clouds near the beginning of our final approach, and so I took out my phone to record our landing. At first, the houses were incredibly small and numerous, like specks on a carpet, punctuated by an occasional baseball field here or a running track there. Then, I-93 came into view, with cars moving about like well-directed ants.

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I-93 in Dorchester.

The ground kept getting closer and closer, and we went over the cranes in Boston Harbor. Apparently, planes are normally hundreds of feet from the crane laterally, but it seemed like they were right there. Either way, it was pretty cool buzzing right by the blue and white cranes that are visible from around Boston. Following that, we flew right above a long ship, chugging along in the harbor. Below, you can view my video of our landing.

Our landing was incredibly smooth. In fact, I only really became aware of the fact that we’d actually touched down when the spoilers came up, such was the grace that we landed with at 2:21 p.m. After the Rolls-Royce engines reversed thrust, the aircraft rolled gently off the runway and onto a taxiway, and the flight attendant welcomed us to Boston.

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Touchdown in Boston – spoilers up!

We taxied to the gate, where I and the other passengers de-planed, went through customs, and got our bags. Finally, it was time to go home.

I arrived at home around 3:30 p.m. and laid down on my bed. The trip was exhausting, but I had a blast – not least because I was able to fly to and from Europe on a transatlantic flight from an airport in my state.