Tuesday, February 26, 2008


“Good afternoon, Ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard the Maiden flight of Cathay Pacific’s new Boeing 777. We hope you are all enjoying the experience. We are currently flying at 300 knots, and our altitude is 28 feet.”

A Glorious piece in the paper yesterday showed a still from a bit of YouTube footage with one of Cathay Pacific’s new Boeing 777s taking the Great and the Good of the Airline up for a jolly. The only problem was that the pilot, one Captain Wilkinson, decided to give the passengers a flight they would remember for the rest of their lives by blasting down the runway, wheels up, at what has been measured at 8.5 metres off the ground. I suspect the passengers’ feelings about this strafing run will be rather dependent upon whether the pilot informed them about what he had planned for them before he did it.

You can’t help but imagine that Captain Wilkinson must be a closet Tom Cruise/Top Gun fan, and, instead of fixating in that film, as any real man should do, on the straightness of Kelly McGillis’s stocking seams, he must have seen a once in a lifetime opportunity to respond to the “Top Gun” line when Cruise asks permission to buzz the Tower - “That’s a Negative Ghostrider, the pattern is full”, knowing that he was in a uniquely good position to copy his hero’s subsequent antics.

The airline, as you might rather depressingly expect in today’s environment, did not take too kindly to all this, although it does not seem to be the people on board who whinged about it. Putting a video of it on YouTube seems to have done for him. In an internal review lasting a week (!), the suits in the Airline decided to sack him.

Given the buckets of free publicity he has generated for the airline, I’d have thought they’d have promoted him to Head of Marketing, but maybe I’m missing the point here.

But when you read the Airline’s press release, you start to get that “here we go again feeling”. The spokesman droned out “ …. was dismissed as he had neither sought nor obtained the necessary company approval to undertake such a fly-by.” Actually, looking on the bright side, it doesn’t say that he wouldn’t have got it if he’d asked, so maybe I’m being a bit down on Cathay Pacific, and they may be less stuffy than you’d think.

A Cathay Pacific “insider” who is also interviewed says “He decided to give them a flight they would never forget (I think he’s right there), but why he chose to do it with the chairman on board (whose surname is Pratt, if you’re interested) is anyone’s guess. ….. Maiden flights are treated as a bit of a jolly for executives with lots of champagne flowing, and these fly-bys used to be done for a wheeze in the old days. But they are dangerous, because however good the pilot thinks he is, he isn’t trained for it, and the planes aren’t designed for it.”

Hang on a minute – we’re talking about flying in controlled conditions close to the ground here. Now call me old fashioned, but I want my pilot to have the maximum possible experience in flying feet above the runway. Most of the accidents I read about seem to occur quite close to terra firma. If Cathay Pacific isn’t training its pilots to fly close to the ground, or it’s buying aircraft that are uncomfortable near it, I think a different airline is called for, irrespective of how gorgeous the Stewardesses are. If you want to see why I want these guys to know what they’re about, just look at this landing of a 747 at Hong Kong.


It’s things like that make me admit I’m not the greatest fan of flying. I can’t rid myself of the nagging thought, when I’m up there, that every single component of the aeroplane I’m flying in was purchased from the supplier offering the lowest cost. And, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I’ve got a Degree in Aeronautical Engineering, I’m still not totally convinced that the reason planes get off the ground has got anything to do with Aerodynamics – I think it’s all to do with the exponentially increasing collective focus of every passenger on board willing the plane into the air after its acceleration along the runway.

The real clue to this story is in what the “insider” said. These things go on all the time, and the freedom we now have to put everything on the internet has here resulted in a case of The Law of Unintended Consequences taking its toll.

If you want a classic example of the ways of the past, look up the following link to find the doyen of test pilots, Boeing’s Tex Johnson http://www.aviationexplorer.com/707_roll_video.htm, who during the test programme of the original Boeing 707, performed a barrel roll in one at a sales demonstration. There’s a grainy video of it happening, with a great still picture of the aeroplane flying upside down over Lake Washington, as well as a beautifully underplayed commentary from the great man in his laconic American drawl. The boss asks him on the Monday after the event, what he thought he was doing. “Selling aeroplanes” was Johnson’s classic answer.

He kept his job, and they immediately stated to sell shed-loads of 707s.

Simple really.



1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

Nicely stated.

My understanding was that this was a delivery flight, not a scheduled line flight. As such, a certain latitude should be granted for photo opportunities and maneuvres that express the simple joy of flying.

Furthermore, the captain is paid to think and act on behalf of his airline. Requesting a "call mother" for anything not in the textbook misses the entire point.