Originally, I had planned my trip to Germany for July 2003, to coincide with my 30th birthday. Given vacation time issues, money, and the war in Iraq, I decided not to go and defer it until this summer. In Dec. 2003, UA increased the number of miles that you could buy in order to redeem for an award flight. At that time, I had 29,000 miles, and needed another 21,000 to reach the "Saver" Award. Since I had decided to go to Germany first, and then fly home from LHR, and knew my dates of travel at that point, I called up UA to get my options for flights to/from. The original routing outbound was SEA-ORD-FRa, on UA940, and then 949 coming back from LHR, via ORD. Seating availability was really limited for me, as I was on a saver award. Still, the cost to buy the 21k miles was $590, plus $71 for all the EU/UK taxes. Not bad, considering it would have been upwards of $1,600 if I didn't have the miles. About a month later, I was contacted by UA (email I think) to contact them regarding a change in my flight. Great, I thought...turns out that UA wasn't operating the ORD-FRa flight that left ORD at 9pm CT. The guy looked at the other options, and with a supervisor approval, I was put on #916, which originated in SEA and went to FRa, with a stop/change of planes at IAD. Perfect! I love flying through IAD, and I was flying out on my 31st birthday, and would be my first flight on a 777!
The six months leading up to my trip was difficult for me, personally and professionally, so this trip was a way for me to forget everything and have a good time. I had done a lot of research, and by the time I left, I had every day in Germany planned out, covering nearly every corner of the country in 10 days. About a month before the flight, I checked the UA website itinerary again, and the times/flight numbers were the same, following a small 20 min. change in departure from SEA and LHR on the 26th. The one major change was that the IAD-FRa segment would now be a 744!!!!!! I had been in one when I worked for UA in SEA, but never flown on one. I was thrilled beyond belief.
7/3/04- MY 31st BIRTHDAY!
UA 916, SEA-IAD
Ch. 9: Not at first, but then YES.
Wx: cloudy, with drizzle in south Everett/north Seattle.
Photo © John F. Zielinski
Photo © Chris Barrow
(I'd use my own pictures, but the webmaster doesn't seem to like mine, so I'm using what's on the website already)
The day had FINALLY come...given that I live 2 miles from PAE, the most cost effective way for me to get to SEA is via the local Shuttle Express vans, $35 plus tip. Only problem is that you have to make other stops to pick up others, so the van had to pick me up at 3:45am, and my flight didn't leave until 8am. Yikes. I woke up at 3am that morning...
We arrived at SEA at 5am, which was earlier than I expected. I had a full backpack and a smaller wheeled-suitcase that is the max. size allowable without having to check it. That was my goal: pack smart, and don't check in bags. Not that I don't trust UA, but it's a waste of time having to wait on the other end. My trip was 3 weeks, but only packed for 10 days, as I'd be doing laundry at my Uncle's in Scotland. The check in counter line was long, but moved quickly. Since my flights were int'l., as far as I knew, I couldn't use the easyCheck-In system, which is GREAT. I was in line for 10 minutes, and then the guy behind the counter issued my boarding pass, and told me I wouldn't have to check in the case. Perfect...total time at the counter: less than 5 minutes. It was on to the TSA security checkpoint, which meant another 10 minute line, but seemed to move fairly quickly. I went through security without hassles. The guy ahead of me somehow forgot he had put scissors about a foot in length in his suitcase, and quickly surrendered them to TSA after turning bright red, and boy, that sure must have woken him up!
After getting to the North satellite, the first order of business was to get a tall, non-fat mocha with whip cream and a piece of banana bread at Starbucks, which of course is strategically placed near the top of the escalator. I then walked around to see the other flights: a US flight to PHL, AS planes at N7 and N8, and other UA planes headed to various destinations. I think I saw an AC A320, but can't recall right now. My flight was leaving from N6, and there was a 752 already there. But, it was heading someplace, and shortly pushed back after I got to the gate area, probably an early departure to DEN or SFO. Shortly after, N580UA pulled up, which is what I'd be riding on.
Boarding started on-time at 7:30am, and was uneventful. A full flight, but don't recall hearing requests for volunteers to take a later flight. I sure wasn't, I had waited long enough! I made my way back to 24A, and stuffed my backpack under my seat and the wheeled case in the overhead bin, which proved challenging. There was a college kid from Syracuse, NY who I talked to a little, and the guy on the aisle said nothing. The doors were shut, we pushed back, and after a very smoky startup on the #1 engine, we were off to the races, specifically 16L. The captain came on an announced Ch. 9, and the call sign of UA8158. However, due to some audio problems, it wasn't actually on so I couldn't hear the taxi out and conversations following takeoff. We took off, and I saw an EVA Air 744 parked in the cargo area. We made a left turn over Federal Way and then headed east, making our way up to FL370. After following the route of US Highway 2, once the clouds broke up, I could see downtown Wenatchee, but not Lake Chelan to the north. Just east of Wenatchee (EAT), the audio problem was fixed, and I picked up Ch. 9. The movie was "The Whole Ten Yards" with Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis. I didn't like the first one, so I wasn't going to watch this one. Besides, as any A-net member knows, Ch. 9 is the ultimate IFE! Ch. 9 was fairly active, so I was writing notes a pretty quick pace, all for the purpose of my report!
To make things go a little faster, here's the highlights:
Meals: Cheese omelette with German-style sausages, southwestern potatoes, orange juice, and an orange flavored cake. Later in the flight, we were given another drink and some mini-pretzels. I didn't eat the omellete.
Cabin service quality: No problems...just like the vast majority of UA flights I've been on. Interestingly enough, I was really watching the UA employees at SEA and on the flight to see if the morale had gone down, because only a few days earlier that week, UA was turned down for the 3rd and final time for the ATSB loan guarantees. But...nothing. Everyone I had encountered so far was polite and professional, which is what I always experience at UA.
Route to IAD, based on Ch. 9: we followed the route of I-90 across northern Idaho, then over Montana, some light chop over South Dakota to Minneapolis, and then over Lake MI towards GRR. At that point, we were given our route for the rest of the flight: direct to Bel Air, Jet City, and Morgantown, WV. Over Lake MI, we made a right turn heading 160, then 140, then 120, and back to 140. There was also a reference to Drier/Dryer on Airway 34. Another navigation point mentioned was Kessel, not sure where that is.
Descent and landing: FL370 down to 330, then to 290, 250, then to 11,250 feet, down to 070 before entering the traffic pattern for IAD. We turned south for the downwind leg, turned left for the base, and left again for final t landing on 1L. OAT was 86 degrees, and the altimeter setting was 29.98. It was a smooth landing, and we taxiied to D11.
OVERALL GRADE FOR 916, SEA-IAD: A-
- Exactly what I had anticipated, no problems. Slight deduction due to the audio difficulties for the first 30 minutes and lack of Ch. 9.
Layover at IAD:
Following a pee break, I took some pictures of the TED aircraft and gate area. People must have thought I was nuts or something. Oh well, too bad. Then...I saw her! No, not a beautiful blonde, but N777UA!!!! Below the cockpit were the words "Working Together"..the first 777 to enter service. I was thrilled...I had the unique pleasure of walking around this plane the day she was delivered to UA on May 15th, 1995, in PDX, parked at gate E5. I was hoping to fly on it, but at least I saw it, and on my birthday. Part of a GREAT day. And...sitting next to N777UA, was the 757 (N508UA?)in the new livery, so I took a shot of that. I guess I like it, but it will take some time to get used to it. I still like the red/orange/blue myself. Finally, it was down to C1 for the continuation of 916 to FRa. For anyone who knows IAD, the distance between D11 and C1 is pretty significant, and I was surprised that for a flight that continued on, UA didn't try to park it closer to the international flight.
UA 916, IAD-FRa
B747-400 (not sure the specific model of this 744, sorry)
Ch. 9: NO
Wx: sunny, but a little hazy. Probably really f---ing humid, too. OAT: 86
Reg: N174UA, del. date 1/20/90
Photo © George Canciani
Photo © Resocha
Photo © Aaron Hall
Photo © Aaron Mandolesi - Mile High Images
I got down to C1 just in time, and boarding had actually already just begun. The lounge was REALLY packed, mainly due to the fact that our 744 was boarding, PLUS there was an LH744 presumably going to FRa as well, parked right across at C2. So, imagine two full 744's of pax at one end of a concourse...at IAD. Claustrophobia city! Anyhow, I fought through the mob with my wheeled case and backpack to the counter. I had 34C, which was the original seat assignment on the 777, and still had it on the 744. Mission: get a window seat, which is what I prefer. The lady behind the counter was on her own and in a rush. I gave her my boarding pass that was issued back in SEA, and asked if I could get window seat. Quick answer: YES! On top of that, it was in Economy Plus, and I was supposed have been in reg. Economy. Happy Birthday to me from United Airlines! Cool...37A, over the back part of the left wing and just behind door #3. I asked the f/a if I could go up to the flight deck, and she advised I could, but after we landed. No problem. Also, I noticed the Spanish-speaking f/a, about my age, was gorgeous! Black hair, great smile, a little chunky, but sadly for me, had a ring. Anyway, nice eye candy for 7 hours! Seated next to me was a teenager named Alex from nearby Ashburn, VA, and a larger sized African-American woman from TPA, on her way to Nigeria, who liberally put on some perfume she bought at a duty-free shop. Not overly obnoxious, though...better than b.o., I guess. Anyhow, both of these two happened to have the new Bill Clinton book, and quickly opened it up and went into a trance it seemed. Why anyone would carry a 900-page book on vacation, I don't know.
I started taking pics. instantly. The one of the TV screen and map didn't come out, but took several of the wing and winglet, but #1 and #2 weren't visible from my angle. I couldn't even hear the engines start up, and took some more pics. once the flaps were set. According to the display, estimated flight time was 7:10. We had a fairly quick taxi out to 1R, behind an AZ 763. That took off, and then I got another pic. as we turned onto 1R.
Takeoff was AWESOME!! The engines spooled up and we were on our roll...due to the heat and humidity, we used about 6-7k of runway before rotating. Being close to the engines, I could really feel the plane surging through the thick air like a hot knife through butter. Add in some vapor trails, and damn...BEST TAKEOFF EVER! We continued north into MD, and then turned right (another wing/winglet pic. at this point) and flew south of BWI out towards the "Del-Mar-Va" peninsula east of Baltimore, which consists of the three states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, for those who didn't know that. I wanted to follow the map, but unfortunately, they started the main part of the IFE at that point. We were also given drinks and a party-mix to snack on, and also a hot towlette at this point. The documentaries were about sharks, and then about trying to find the wreckage of Columbus' Santa Maria. Interesting.
Movies were "Starsky and Hutch" and then Hidalgo, once we approached the coast of Europe. I didn't watch S&H, but I did see Hidalgo, which was actually pretty good! I recommend it, and I don't even like horses.
Again, to make things go a little quicker here:
Meals: I chose the beef, which consisted of beef chunks in gravy, along with vegetables, salad, a fruit/cheese plate, and a piece of spice cake, which was the closest thing to birthday cake! Also, since drinks were free, I treated myself to a Heineken. (they didn't have Pabst Blue Ribbon, neighbor...) I usually don't drink alcohol on the international flights, as it speeds up the dehydration process and adds to jet lague. Still, it was my b-day, so why the f--k not?
We had something for breakfast, but I forgot what it was, and didn't write it down.
Route: Ok, with no Ch. 9 and no constant map on the screen, so I'm defaulting to my knowledge of IAD-Europe flights here: Take off to the north, right turn and over southern Maryland out to the Delmarva peninsula, and then northeast past NJ, NY, CT, RI, and Boston. Continue NE towards Newfoundland, and then east over the Atlantic, towards the southwestern tip of Ireland, and I officially turned 31 a few hundred miles southwest of Ireland after calculating the local time at the origin (IAD). Then, gradually southeast towards Belgium, Luxembourg, and then the start of our descent near Bitburg, Germany. The map came on again, and we crossed over Mosel river halfway between Trier and Koblenz. We continued on towards Mainz, and then it got a little hazy for me on specifics, as we made 2-3 turns, and then I got caught up again...we flew south of FRa, and then turned left, and left again, and landed on 26R.
I took pictures like crazy of the approach and landing, especially with the flaps and speed brakes. Across the airfield, I noticed the US Air Force base...Ramstein, isn't it? The runway at FRa was a little rough. We taxied over the the terminal and I saw a lot of Condor and LH planes parked. In the distance, I saw UA 945 from ORD land, which was a 772. We pulled up to gate B28 and parked. As I waited for everyone to get off, I noticed a CX 744 being towed to it's gate.
Finally, everyone got off, and I then asked again if I could visit the flight deck. I had seen it once before in 1996, but wanted my picture taken of me sitting in the captain's seat. The F/A called up, and I was given the green light to go up, after leaving my stuff down below. I saw the awesome Business/Conoisseur seats upstairs, and then got up to the flight deck, which still seems cramped on the 744. The f/o was there, his name was Sal, which I suspected was his nickname, as that was the initials on his crew bag. He started out flying smaller planes for UA, presumably 737 and 727's, and then made his way to the 747. Anyhow, he was more than happy to let me sit in the captains seat and let me take pictures, including two of me, which was what I wanted. He then turned on the avionics and pointed out key instruments. Granted, I knew what several were, especially the basics, and then I asked about some others and pointed out some other things. He seemed impressed about what I knew, and asked if I was a pilot myself. I replied "I wish" and he then said it seemed like I knew my way around the flight deck pretty well! Needless to say, that REALLY made my day. Sal was getting anxious to pack up this things and get going, which was understandable. I went back downstairs, thanked everyone for allowing me to go upstairs, and for a great flight.
In the 10 minutes or so it took to leave the flight deck, exit the aircraft, and walk towards customs, I must have had the biggest smile on my face. After a great first flight on the 744, being on the flight deck and having the f/o tell me I knew my way around pretty well, two things happened:
- I realized that despite what I had been told years earlier, I SHOULD get my pilots license! I already know a lot, it interests me, and why stop there?
- 6 months of personal and professional setbacks and disappointments were quickly washed away into oblivion. What a great start to my vacation, and towards getting my life back in order.
OVERALL GRADE FOR UA 916, IAD-FRa: A+ !!!!!!!!
I am more than willing to forgive the lack of Ch. 9...this flight was by far my BEST EVER on UNITED!
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed it!
[Edited 2004-08-02 02:23:53]