I have been an air traffic controller for nearly 22 years, and I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I still absolutely love my job. A fun fact about me is that I’m actually trained to work in both tower and approach environments, but I’ve always been grateful that my entire career has been spent working exclusively in air traffic control towers. There’s a funny, self-aggrandising hierarchy amongst approach controllers in which they believe that they’re the top guns of ATC, and that the tower is where air traffic controllers go to die (we don’t call them figjam for nothing). I’m not going to get into that debate here, but I will say that every single day I go to work I’m thankful that I get to look out the window and see the aeroplanes I’m controlling, rather than being stuck in a cheerless radar room with row upon row of radar screens and no windows or natural light.
Truly, one of the joys of my job is just being able to watch the aircraft fly. In 22 years I reckon I’ve seen over a million takeoffs and landings, so you’d be forgiven for assuming I might be a bit jaded by it all. But no, I still totally get off on it. I definitely wouldn’t call myself an aerosexual, but there is one particular aircraft’s takeoff which absolutely fills me with awe and wonder every time I see it, and that aircraft is the Boeing 747. For something that has a maximum takeoff weight of 442,252 kilograms, the Jumbo jet veritably glides off the runway with such elegance and grace, it still takes my breath away.
The first B747 flight took place from Everett, Washington in the United States in 1969, with the model entering service a year later. Years in the making, the “Dream Team” of over 50,000 employees that worked on the aircraft, produced a remarkable feat of aviation engineering which revolutionised air travel by making it cheaper and easier for people to fly. The Boeing 747, which is capable of carrying 660 passengers (in a single, cattle-class, configuration), is commonly referred to as the Queen Of The Skies and is beloved and revered by aviation enthusiasts all over the world, including me. It’s no surprise that the 747, with its unique and classic shape is one of the most iconic, popular, and most recognisable aircraft in aviation history.
How much do I love the B747? Let me tell you the ways. I own a clock, a truly magnificent work of art, made from an actual Boeing 747 passenger window. I love the fact that I have a little piece of flying history up on my wall. I love that instead of rusting away in some desolate scrapyard heap, part of this remarkable aircraft was salvaged and lovingly handcrafted into a beautiful timepiece. For over two decades, the window that my clock is made from travelled thousands of miles, at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet. Its history no doubt contains tales of severe turbulence, strong winds, rain, freezing temperatures and possibly even lightning strikes. My B747 has traversed the globe countless times, crossing oceans and deserts, and possibly even poles. Her ports of call have included New York City, Miami, Cape Town, Singapore, San Francisco, Johannesburg and São Paulo (special shout out to all the aerosexuals out there who keep track of this sort of stuff).
Who knows how many passengers gazed out of my window, on their way to a holiday, a business conference or to start a brand new life. How many people looked through my window with wonder, how many with terror or sadness or with joy. How many of them had a little too much to drink out of too many miniature bottles of booze? Who was the youngest person to ever sit in my window seat? Who was the oldest? Oh, what stories my window could tell. How many hard landings did she have to endure, and how many landings did the pilot absolutely glue to the runway? Did my British Airways 747 ever experience a near miss? How many times did she have to divert due to a sick passenger, or an unruly one? How much drama and intrigue unfolded in the galley, long after the cabin lights had been dimmed? And exactly how many people were initiated into the mile high club? These are things I’ll never know, but it sure is fun to wonder. The things I do know about my window is that the registration of the aircraft it belonged to was GCIVM (that’s Golf Charlie India Victor Mike to the uninitiated). Her maiden flight was on Tuesday, 27th May 1997 and her final scheduled flight was 23 years later, with wheels touching down on Sunday, 15th March 2020.
Sadly, in July 2020 British Airways retired their entire fleet of 31 passenger Boeing 747s due to the sharp downturn in air travel hastened by covid. I received my clock seven months after my B747 was put out to pasture, thanks to two brothers in England who have combined their love of furniture-making and their passion for aviation to form a business called Plane Industries, repurposing old aircraft parts.
British Airways isn’t the only airline to stop flying the fuel guzzling, four-engine wide-body aircraft. Demand for the Queen Of The Skies has dwindled in recent years and two years ago Boeing regretfully announced that they planned to stop making the aircraft in October 2022. It will be a very sad day in aviation when the last Jumbo jet rolls off the production line, but I do feel some consolation that the B747s currently being used as freighters will remain in service, roaming the skies long after I ride the tower elevator down to the ground floor for the very last time.
How much do I love the B747? At the beginning of May, I got my very first tattoo in Amsterdam, at the ripe old age of fifty. The image is an outline of a Boeing 747 taking off, on the inside of my left wrist. Though it is beautiful, the aircraft doesn’t just appeal to me aesthetically. It also represents my work, which I love. It represents the job that totally changed my life and allowed me to pursue and indulge in my other passion, travel. It represents my wanderlust, and my desire to soar, and to keep seeking new experiences in far-flung places. It represents hope, and anticipation and joy.
You want to know how much I love the B747? My very first business class flight was in a Jumbo jet. I was travelling home from a trip to San Francisco in 2006 and the plane stopped over for about an hour in Sydney. When we re-boarded to fly the final leg to Melbourne I decided to shoot my shot and boldly asked if I could sit in business class, playing the old “I’m an air traffic controller” card. Don’t ask me how, but it actually worked!! The lovely cabin crew escorted me up that glorious stairway to heaven, also known as the upper-deck, business-class section, where for the next hour they plied me with champagne and treated me like a queen. Queen of the goddamn skies.