Running a high end audio design and manufacturing company selling products around the world means a lot of travel. Asia, in particular, is a big market for audio and I've traveled there at least once a year, over the last 30 plus years, sometimes more. One of my all time favorite cities to visit is Hong Kong. The people, the food, the culture, the sophistication of the city are not found anywhere else I've ever been. I adore Hong Kong and know it well.
Getting to Hong Kong today is easy with its modern airport linked to the city through a fast and efficient high speed rail line; the airport well away from the crowded downtown areas. But up until the late 1990's, there was a different airport. This airport was smack dab in the middle of Hong Kong and was famous for being one of the more difficult approaches for pilots the world over. This airport was named Kai Tak and up until 1997 was the only airport I ever knew getting into Hong Kong. I knew it was a difficult landing because if I happened to be sitting on the right side of the aircraft, I'd be looking straight down onto laundry drying in the warm humid air atop an apartment building as our plane banked steeply in a hard right turn - a turn steep enough those passengers paying attention had a few white knuckles.
I would choose the right side of the plane every chance I got, so thrilling was the turn. I never knew much about how this all worked but because of the steepness of the turn, the quick recovery from the turn and then an almost instant wheels touching the runway afterwards, I suspected it was a tough one. I always hoped for a chance to actually be in the cockpit of a 747 when it landed at Kai Tak and in 1996, I got my chance.
We had just finished the Japanese high end show in Tokyo and grabbed a Cathay Pacific 747 direct from Japan to Hong Kong, about a 4 hour flight. I was on the upper deck of the plane and sitting next to me was Steven Taylor, then of Acoustic Energy loudspeakers in the UK. Steven and I had both attended the show and shared the same distributor in Hong Kong, so it was pleasant chatting with him as we travelled. I am not sure how the subject came up but we got talking about landing at Kai Tak and how cool it was. I don't think Steven had ever given it a second thought (most people don't pay attention to such things) and I was happily pointing out how dangerous and exciting the landing would be and how glad I was we were both on the right side of the plane. I think Steven got a bit nervous as I babbled on.
This was well before 9/11 and the cockpit door was wide open. I was in the aisle seat and kept peering into the cockpit, fascinated to see all the dials and displays of the aircraft. I am an electronic toy nerd and love all things electronic and cool. The cockpit of a 747 is nothing but cool to a geek like me.
The captain of the aircraft was walking up the aisle chatting it up with passengers as he strolled back to the cockpit. This guy was a tall bald headed Brit that looked every bit like Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, NCC-1701. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, tie and captains bars, he looked every bit the ship's captain. As he approach my forward seat from behind I got a wild hair idea. It just bubbled up from the dark recesses of my head.
"How are you gentlemen doing?" Jean Luc even sounded like the captain of the Enterprise.
"Great, and yourself?" Steven wasn't paying attention, instead reading a magazine as I chatted it up with Picard. "May I ask a favor?"
"Sure. What can I do for you?"
"I have flown into Kai Tak many times and always wondered what it would be like from the cockpit. Is there any chance you'd let me watch you land this thing in HK?"
Picard furrowed his brows, took size of me from top to bottom for perhaps the first time, said nothing for a long period and then "Sure. Why not?"
Steven, who had obviously been half listening, slammed the magazine into his lap and stared up at Picard with the biggest puppy dog eyes I've ever seen. The eyes said it all.
"I suppose your friend here wants to watch as well?" Picard was a kind and generous man.
Steven couldn't even speak. He just nodded his head violently up and down in acceptance.
"Ok, I'll have the flight attendant come for you two about an hour before we land." And with that, he turned, entered the cockpit and the door closed shut.
The next couple of hours were torture for me. I tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I was terrified he'd forget or the attendant wouldn't know it was me the captain would be calling on. I was so excited I was afraid to even get up and leave my seat even for the bathroom. I would not be missing this event.
Tomorrow we learn how to exit a 747 with a fire hose.