Wednesday, April 27
In Toulouse, a behemoth takes to the skies . . . and in Birmingham, one man realizes he's not a little boy anymore.
If you're a plane geek like me, today was a big day, because we officially have a new biggest passenger plane in the world -- the Airbus A380, which successfully made its first test flight this morning.
This thing will carry 550 people in a three-class layout, or as many as 800 in an all-coach tourist configuration. Which would already qualify as "friggin' huge," but they pack all these people in with such features as a frickin' bar --
-- sorry, they call it a "social area," wink-wink -- and an upper-deck first-class cabin that's nicer than my house:
Even the economy-class cabin that peons like me are going to have to make do with is pretty nice.
So on the one hand, it's pretty awesome that they managed to build something that weighs more than half a million pounds and get it up in the air. On the other hand, though, I can't help but feel a little sad that the biggest airliner in the world is no longer American-made. I loved planes throughout my childhood and wanted to be a pilot when I grew up -- and not a fighter jock, either (as much as I loved the movie "Top Gun"), but a commercial pilot, flying 747s across the Atlantic or something like that. I considered my aunt, who lived in Seattle just a short hop from the Boeing widebody plant in Everett, to be the rock star of the family -- as an employee of British Airways, she got to fly on the Concorde once and got plenty of other hookups to pretty much anywhere she wanted to go. A few times she and her co-workers even hitched free rides on the brand-new BA 747s right after they popped out of the factory -- the planes were constructed in Everett but the interiors were installed in Hong Kong, so they'd basically fly these empty 747 airframes to Asia to get the seats and interior trim put in. And since the plane was going over there anyway, my aunt basically got to go to Hong Kong for free as long as she didn't mind riding in a basically empty airplane. She told me stories of how she and her friends would bring their running shoes with them on those flights and get some exercise running laps of the empty airplane as it made its way across the Pacific.
So if for no other reason than simply because of how big it was, the 747 was my favorite airplane, the one I wanted to fly when I became a pilot, and one of the biggest thrills of my entire life was when I got to fly out to Seattle all by myself at the age of 12 and go see the Boeing widebody plant in Everett. One of my most vivid memories is of getting to the Everett plant on a foggy morning in August, and as we were walking across the parking lot to the tour center, I heard this whistling noise off in the distance and looked up. Pretty soon a line of nearly a hundred little yellow dots appeared inside one of the clouds hanging over the runway and almost as soon as I'd figured out they were actually windows, a big Qantas 747-400 materialized out of the fog right before our eyes and landed on the runway right next to us.
It was hard for me to imagine a passenger jet any bigger than the 747, but now somebody's built one. And on the one hand, I kind of want to be sad because my favorite plane isn't King of the Sky anymore. If you think about it, it's kind of a symbol of how the rest of the world is catching up with the United States, and the country that once produced the biggest and best of everything -- cars, skyscrapers, airplanes -- can't necessarily be counted on to do that anymore.
But on the other hand, I'm thinking, "Awesome. A plane that has a bar."
So I'm officially not that wide-eyed 12-year-old anymore, I guess. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things . . . and replaced them with other ones. Specifically, booze.