Monday, February 28, 2005

Air Hostesses

I knew that title would grab your attention. It appears that most of the people who I have forced into reading this blog on a regular basis are more interested in reading about air hostesses and human mating activities at 37,000 feet rather than the actual airplane and boring stuff like who invented the jet engine etc. So this blog is dedicated to those who couldnt care less if they are flying on a Boeing 747 or an Airbus A340 or a A320 or if the plane has 4 engines, 6 engines, 2 engines or indeed none at all.

Most people associate the term "air hostess" with an image of a rather striking woman in a sexy uniform politely offering you a choice between veg and non veg. I have noticed that when men are about to fly on a new airline or have just flown on an new airline the first thing they do is to enquire/comment on the looks of the air hostesses. It appears that the looks of the air hostesses is second only to the price of the ticket when it comes to choosing an airline. No doubt the level of attention during the emergency procedures demonstration prior to takeoff is directly proportional to the looks of the crew member.

Unfortunately most people underestimate the importance of their role and the skills required to perform their jobs effectively. The term "trolley dollies" is often used to describe them which I think is very unfair although it has a nice ring to it :)

Let me briefly describe an occassion where I found a whole new level of respect for the members of the above mentioned profession. Not too long ago I had the opportunity (or perhaps the misfortune) of being selected as a guinea pig along with few other victims in a mock aircraft cabin evacuation trial which was being used to train cabin crew. I was placed inside an aircraft cabin mockup along with the other victims and we were being looked after by the soft spoken cabin crew as if it was a normal flight.

The "captain" shortly announced that an emergency landing was about to take place and we had to assume the crash positions. At this point we were all happily sitting in our seats looking around with silly smiles and not taking it seriously at all. Shortly before "landing" the crew underwent a startling transformation which at the time reminded me of Bruce Banner and his alter ego. They rapidly moved from seat to seat to ensure we all assumed the brace position and our belts were fastened etc.
After the "landing" which was accompanied by very realistic crash noises from the surround speakers in the cabin and smoke being released into the cabin the crew made us unfasten our seat belts and shouted out instructions and literally pushed us out of the "plane" as fast as possible in as orderly a fashion as possible. Gone were the "welcome aboard", "thank you for flying with us" tones. They were replaced by "get the **** out of here before i kick you out" tone which no none dared question. It is difficult to describe the entire exercise in words but the professional and almost military like manner in which it was executed was most impressive.

I think by this point most of us had forgotten that the whole thing was an exercise and we were actually sweating by the time we exited the aircraft mock up and assembled outside beside the exit slides. The exercise turned out to be very realistic. The one thing that really struck me was the drastic change in behaviour of the crew and the effective way in which they herded us out of the "burning wreck" and got us all out as soon as possible. You may think you can ignore the routine oxygen mask demo at the start of every flight but you certainly cant ignore them in the event of a real emergency. I almost felt that they would physically attack me if I didnt listen to them and did what they said after the emergency was declared. This I felt was exactly the kind of approach that should be taken as their advice is probably the only thing that will save your life in a real emergency.

Therefore in addition to serving coffee and tea these people are directly responsible for your lives in the event of a crash landing. It is their duty to stay calm and ensure the passengers are evacuated as swiftly and as safely as possible. If an aeroplane catches fire after landing then the first few minutes if not seconds are the most important. It is vital to evacuate the aeroplane before the fire takes over completely. It is the crews duty to ensure that panic and fear does not overcome the passengers. In a smoke filled aeroplane it will be the "trolly dollies" and their male counterparts who will have to ensure the emergency doors are opened and the passengers including the old and frail, the disabled, the kids are all safely evacuated before worrying about their own personal safety.

If you ever have the misfortune of ending up in a burning plane and you are not Bruce Willis and are screaming like a baby, or sitting frozen in shock or regretting listening to your IPod during the safety briefing it will probably be the "trolly dollies" who will guide you to safety.

So the next time you fly remember to show these crew members a bit more respect :)


Sunday, February 06, 2005

What is that strange noise I say?

Back in the summer of 69 (actually I think it was 99) I clearly remember a day when I lay on my back on a grassy field in the beautiful English countryside gazing up lazily at a rare sight in this country. Clear blue skies. I was not alone though. A couple of my friends and a few hundred other people were doing pretty much the same thing. I remember looking around and seeing several people engaged in heated discussions as to what the bright unidentified object in the sky could be. You see in England it is quite possible to reach the age of 25 before you see the Sun for the first time in your life. Therefore it is not a surprise that it is often mistaken for a UFO when it makes a rare appearance.

The place in question was an airfield located in picturesque Shoreham on the south coast of England. The reason we were all there was to witness an Air Show which in my opinion and most other people was a Bore Show up to that point. It had consisted of seemingly endless fly pasts by planes that appeared to have escaped from an aircraft equivalent of an old age home. These propeller powered planes had almost succeeded in putting most of the visitors to sleep except for a few aged enthusiasts and keen airplane spotters. We obviously failed to take a hint from the title of the show which was "Second World War Battle of Britain" and had decided to turn up anyway.

The commentator was doing his best to keep the crowd awake by promising that the next airplane on the schedule was going to be amazing, incredible, mind blowing etc etc. By late afternoon however most people had given up and had started dozing off. Therefore after yet an other mind numbingly boring display by something that looked like a Cessna on mild steroids the commentator once again returned to the speakers and promised that there was something “potent” heading our way and we should take notice.

As usual we chose to ignore his advice. That proved to be a big mistake. I remember scanning the skies lazily to see what was next. I spotted a shiny object hurtling towards the runway at a speed no propeller plane could match. As the object closed in on the runway I looked around at the unsuspecting people most of them half asleep. The object soon revealed itself to be as "potent" as the commentator had promised. As the Royal Airforce's front line air defense fighter the Tornado F3 blasted across the runway at low level with wings fully swept back the pilot suddenly pulled the plane into a steep climb and lit the twin afterburners to demonstrate its phenomenal climb rate. As the thundering jets powered the airplane high in to the sky several of the sleeping spectators had already reached an altitude far higher than the Tornado could ever reach (heart attacks etc).

The change of pace (quite literally) at that airshow resulted in an enjoyable afternoon as the Tornado put in a spectacular flying display before zooming back to its home base.

Nothing has more wow factor at an air show than what is possibly one of the greatest inventions of all time. The Jet engine. The Tornado is an old plane and is by no means the most impressive fighter in today’s skies however on that day it certainly stole the show when pitted against the Spitfires and Hurricanes :) Once you have seen a jet in action a propeller plane just doesnt feel the same anymore.

I watched an old British second world war movie some time ago and I just cant seem to remember its name. In one of the scenes two RAF officers are walking past a hangar at some air force base. In that hangar Frank Whittle is busy testing his new invention and outside the female officer stops listens to the weird howling noise and remarks “What a strange noise I say!”

Little did anyone know that the “strange noise” would one day be directly responsible for the 7 year old brat sitting behind you in economy class practising his kick boxing skills against your seat back. Little did anyone also know that the “strange noise” would also induce murderous thoughts in perfectly normal human beings when it makes you feel like lifting that little brat and throwing him outside the window into one of those jet engines (yeah yeah that was a bit mean but after 8 hours in a flying tube after being fed meals catered by the nearest prison get the picture)

I am not good with history lessons so I will just provide a brief overview of the dawn of the jet age. In the 1930s engineers around the world began to realise that they were approaching the limits of what could be achieved with a reciprocating piston engine and propeller which had been used up to that point. It was soon realised that a whole new type of power plant must be devised to push planes to go faster and higher than ever before.

While it is true that work was underway in different countries to devise a new method of propulsion there are three names which stand out the most, England’s Frank Whittle and Germany’s Hans von Ohain and Anselm Franz.

Von Ohain’s designs made it on to the Heinkel aircraft company’s He 178 which in 1939 became the first jet powered airplane in the world. Back in England Frank Whittle’s engine was fitted to the Gloster Pioneer E28/39 which flew for the first time in May 1941. Von Ohain is credited with the first operational turbojet engine however Frank Whittle was the first to register a patent for his engine.

Later in 1944, Anselm Franz’s engine design became the first mass produced jet in the world eventually making it on to the feared Messerchmitt Me 262 which became the first operational jet fighter in the world. The fighter jet entered service with the Luftwaffe too late in the Second World War to affect the outcome (thank god for that).

The rest as they say is history. The invention of the jet was probably as important as the invention of the aircraft itself.

Thanks to the jet we no longer have a valid excuse for not visiting our relatives during Christmas inspite of being separated by thousands of miles which we mistakenly thought was a safe distance. Thanks to the jet we have regular modern day wonders like jet lag, lost baggage, and DVT. Thanks to the jet that we have the horrors of carpet bombing, "shock and awe" and cluster bombs.

Howeer thanks also to the jet for making the world a smaller place and enabling us to see more of our wonderful planet than at any other time in history. I think it was Bill Gates who once said that the airplane was the world’s first World Wide Web.

The airplane certainly was the world’s first world wide web but it was an airplane with a Jet Engine.

As always please leave comments. Also feel free to suggest any topics that you might find interesting.