Arctic to Equator : Endurance record on a Boeing 757
by Sean Mendis
(DISCLAIMER: The below narrative is based upon a true story but names have been changed, abbreviated or withheld for various reasons. Some details may have been withheld or modified to protect the privacy of individuals and organisations. Any resemblance to actual events or organisations should neither be assumed nor is implied.)
It had been a quiet month for travel. Well, it really hadn't to be honest. By the time the 26th rolled around, I had already flown just over 35,000 miles but since most of those were accumulated on two personal weekend trips to India, I felt they didn't count.
Still, that was about to change. There was a 757 due for delivery on winter lease from Iceland and I was supposed to fly up to London in order to tick the boxes, kick the wheels and initial, initial, initial, sign to confirm that we wanted to decline the optional CDW insurance.
Alas, the best laid plans have the habit of going to crap. Someone in maintenance had overlooked something and so she had to have work done in Copenhagen right about the time she was due to be delivered in London. She then had to be inspected and signed off at Keflavik before we could take delivery. With the aircraft due to go into scheduled service immediately the following day, it looked like the only option would be for us to take delivery in Iceland and then ferry her down to Africa overnight.
The overnight flight up to London is typically uneventful. I forego the Business Class seat for an entire row near the back and leave instructions not to disturb me for any meals. I stir about 30 minutes before landing while the girls are busy clearing away the second service, so I brew myself a coffee in the rear galley and freshen up before we touch down at Gatwick just after 6am local time. IRIS is typically quick and with no luggage, I'm picking up the rental car within the hour.
The M25 can be very hit-or-miss at this time of day, but fortunately today was one of the hits. I make it over to Heathrow in under 40 minutes and pull off into the Marriott car park on Bath Road just before 8am. An old friend who flies for Emirates is on a Heathrow layover today and we've arranged to meet up at her hotel for breakfast. After a few hours catching up, I make my way over to the Avis lot where I drop off the one-way rental (NOTE : Avis has now instituted drop-off fees for oneway rentals between Heathrow/Gatwick leaving Hertz as the last holdout to consider them coterminals) and board the shuttle to Terminal 1.
The Icelandair checkin area appears quite lonely amid the sea of British Airways and BMI desks, but that suits me just fine as it means zero wait. We are completely full in Saga Class today, so 2 rows of "convertible" seats behind door 2 are being used in addition to all of A-zone. I manage to snag the exit row window and make my way through a lengthy security que into the departure lounge. I have barely time to grab the latest ECONOMIST from WHSmith before I need to wander down to the gate. I presume there is some sort of lounge access for Saga Class passengers, but since I am non-revving (albeit positive space) I don't care to waste their time and money.
At the gate, I note that our ride today is TF-FIV, otherwise named Gu?r??ur ?orbjarnard?ttir. For those unfamiliar with the Icelandic Sagas, Gu?r??ur is considered the first Caucasian woman to land in modern-day North America during the 11th century. Unfortunately, the aircraft is more commonly referred to as "India Victor" nowadays to correspond to the phonetic alphabets representing her registration. Less of a mouthful for ATC I'm sure, but definitely loses out on the romantic imagery that the Sagas can conjure.
I'm one of the last on board and score some brownie points with the stunningly beautiful flight attendant by responding to her "welcome aboard" greeting in English with an Icelandic "G??an dag" response. Despite my very limited Icelandic vocabulary, I've found that much like the French, even a poor attempt to speak their language tends to make you many new friends. The service on the short hop up to Kef is typically efficient and hospitable. Lunch consists of a sesame salmon appetizer with reindeer steak for the main course. I've always considered Icelandair's Saga Class catering to be exceptional, although their presentation sometimes leaves room for improvement.
It is a lovely clear day and we overfly downtown Reykjavik before turning onto finals for Keflavik airport. Once we're on the ground, I make a few phonecalls to check if things are going per schedule. Everything is in order, so I grab the FlyBus and head to the Hotel Loftleidir. This is conveniently located right next to the lessor's offices where I need to sign a few papers. The ride takes almost an hour and I doze off, waking up only as we pull into the first stop at Hafnarfj?r?ur. I finally make it to my destination just before 5pm and quickly get the work sorted out. With a few hours left before the aircraft gets back from Copenhagen, a friend and I head out to grab a coffee at a nearby cafe. We then pick up his 7 year old daughter from some sort of sports practice (she speaks as much English as I do Icelandic so it was great fun trying to communicate with her!) before dropping me back off at the office where the crew shuttle to Keflavik picked me up just after 7pm.
The captain for the delivery ferry down to Africa is an old friend and he's pretty psyched about the trip. According to the info that dispatch has been able to dig up, our 4178 statute mile flight will be a new endurance record for a wingletted 757, beating the 4161 mile record previously held by Northwest who flew from Detroit to Frankfurt. Although Condor has flown from Punta Cana to Frankfurt (4672 miles) and Finnair allegedly flew a tsunami relief nonstop from Helsinki to Bangkok (4916 miles), both of those were with non-wingletted variants making the feats even more impressive, but still allowing us to go for the wingletted record!
The departures section at the airport is deserted at this hour of evening and we head straight to the crew checkpoint. The security screeners are a little taken aback by my crew ID (I'm quite confident that this is the first time that an ID from my airline has ever been used in Iceland!) but a quick call to ops confirms my identity and they let me through. Our aircraft has just come in from Copenhagen and the engineers are busy doing the paperwork. Two engineers will be accompanying us on the flight tonight, making a grand total of 5 on board, in addition to a half-ton of spare parts in the rear hold.
We push from the gate just after 10pm and taxi out for takeoff. The captain invites me to ride jumpseat as he anticipates a nice Northern Lights display to be visible above the clouds just before we turn onto our southerly course. Sure enough, there is a spectacular show up there and we all watch mesmerised for a few minutes before he reluctantly activates the autopilot and sets course for our long 8h47m journey.
Our route today will take us from Iceland south over the Atlantic, crossing over Ireland and then South-Western England before hitting continental Europe over France, then over Spain, into the Mediterranean near Valencia, over Algeria, Mali and Burkina Faso before reaching our destination. The engineers go rooting through the video box and pick the order of the films they plan to watch. I decide to grab a sandwich from the cooler that catering has kindly provided us for the flight and then settle down with my noise-cancelling headphones for the night.
I stir about 6 hours later, with still about 90 minutes left in the flight. It is just past 530am local time in our position and a tropical dawn is peeking over the horizon. The engineers are stretched out in sleeping bags by the exits (why can't they just use the seats like normal people???) so I step carefully over them and freshen up in the lav before visiting the front office to check how our pilots are doing. They are glad for the company and we chat for a while after I brew up some coffee for everyone.
Finally its time to begin our descent. The captain leans over and yells something that sounds suspiciously like "wake up you lousy bums, we're almost there" and the engineers groggily start rolling up their sleeping bags. It's a lovely clear morning and the captain flies a visual approach in to touchdown smoothly at 654am, exactly 8 hours and 47 minutes after liftoff from Iceland. We've flown nonstop from the Arctic to the Equator on a 757 and set a new endurance record doing it - approximately the same distance as Vancouver to Japan. As we taxi to stand and shut down, I check the fuel consumption. To my surprise, we have burned barely over 26 tons for this sector. We could have easily flown another 2 hours without blinking an eye. Once again, I am reminded just how versatile a performer the Boeing 757 can be.
The pilots and engineers pack up and head off to their hotel, but unfortunately I have more work to do. I need to supervise and sign off on the loading for the impending departure to London, then ride back up to London and check off the return departure from there before I can get to a bed. I greet the new crew and then put on my hi-viz and head down to the ramp. We do a quick job filling up the holds but unfortunately a computer system failure in the terminal means that there is a slight delay getting the passengers out to the aircraft. Still, we are airborne by 830am and set course back towards Europe, this time with a load of 132 passengers and 1600 kilos of freight. Having had a decent night's sleep, I'm more peppy than most of the passengers so I relax in a Business Class seat, eat breakfast, watch "Hairspray" and catch up with the ECONOMIST I had bought at Heathrow the previous morning.
We land in Gatwick just before 3pm local time and its deja vu all over again, doing exactly what I had done this morning in the location I had been in yesterday. We get the plane out quickly and efficiently and I finally make my way to the hotel to experience my first soft bed in almost 72 hours....