In the week before we left my wife had been packing clothes, gifts, and parcels to be carried for other people. As it came down to flight time, she had everything densely packed in 4 big bulging suitcases. One of the suitcases contained 12 boxes of Earl Grey tea, specially requested by a Chinese friend who'd developed a taste for it. (When I bought it at the supermarket, I was waiting for the checkout clerk to ask me what all the tea was for, but she checked me through without any interest at all and I did not have the opportunity to say I was taking it to China.)
So much for travelling light! Fortunately when we got to DTW we were dropped right at curb side and only had a short distance to roll to check-in. The NWA clerk asked me "how long ya goin' for -- a year?" I guess we were under the weight limit, but it must have been close.
Our aircraft was 747-400 #6307. It was the same plane we flew 5 years ago from Shanghai to Narita in the weeks after 9-11. Now it was 5 years older and so were we. I wondered if I'd have the same tolerance for cramped conditions. I'm 6'2" and I weigh an eighth of a ton. We were in 57A and 57B with our deeply discounted Economy Class (K) tickets. I settled into my seat and found my knees coming to within two finger widths of the seat in front. My home for the next 14 hours! My wife kept eyeing 57C which remained empty through the boarding process. An adjacent empty seat or two can make a big difference in comfort. But she always jinxes herself by putting stuff on the empty seat or even moving into it prematurely. That's what happened again -along came 57C about 5 minutes before the doors closed and claimed her seat. However there were more empty seats around the cabin, and after loudly sharing her farewell phone call home with us, 57C moved off somewhere else.
We didn't see much of our fellow passengers. I think well over 50% where Asian and the backs of very few heads appeared over the top of the seats.
The doors closed at 2:17 p.m., we pushed back at 2:21, and we took off to the south at 2:35, making a climbing turn to the right and heading northwest over Michigan.
Nineteen minutes after takeoff, I looked over and noticed some Japanese women acting strangely. It turned out they were just following the exercise video. Do only Japanese people do those exercises? I guess non-Japanese passengers are too cool to be seen doing them. Funny though, everyone in the video was sitting in wide seats with lots of room for movement. They didn't have to worry about deep vein thrombosis.
I had a window seat on the sunny side of the plane and I was disappointed to realise that there was a lot of glare on the glass window so that I couldn't see much below.
By the time we were crossing the upper peninsula of Michigan, the beverage service had started. I got a whole can of Pepsi -- a very minor thing but it made me feel good about the way things were going. It seems that Japanese and Chinese prefer orange juice.
Fifty-five minutes after take-off my wife has already made her first washroom trip. She came back, excited, advising that the crew were busy preparing shrimp cocktail in the galley. I suggested that such grub was probably for our World Business Class companions up front. But I was wrong. Shrimp cocktail was on the economy menu and quite good.
Dinner was served to us about 70 minutes after take off. We were the last to get our food and for our patience there was no longer a choice of beef/rice or chicken/potatoes. My wife missed the rice more than the beef. Booze now cost $5 on the flight. I didn't see many takers. I was still enjoying my whole can of Pepsi.
An hour and a half after take-off, I looked out the window and took a fix with my GPS. We were cruising along at 850 km/hr and 9,105 km from Narita. Thirty thousand feet below us was bush and water, or water and bush - it was hard to tell which. We were still over the far west of Ontario which felt a little discouraging. Ninety minutes of flying and we were still in our own neighbourhood.
Just under two hours from take-off, after the aisles were more or less clear from the post-dinner washroom visitors, there was an announcement that the duty free service was starting, followed by the entertainment program. We were requested to lower our window shades. The entire flight is carried out in broad daylight but the shades have the effect of simulating night in the cabin for the next nine hours or so.
At 4 hours 30 minutes elapsed time, I risked opening the shade and got a dramatic view of the Logan Mountain Range below us. The bright light hurt my eyes and flooded the cabin. The opposite wall looked like a search light was being shone on it. I quickly closed the shade. It is frustrating to know all this scenery may be passing below but is blocked out so others can watch "X-Men: The Last Stand". Fortunately my GPS seemed to receive signals through the closed shutter.
The first movie ended at 4:24 elapsed time. I did a rough calculation -- 35% of the trip was completed. It seemed by then like we'd been flying forever. The rest of our section of the cabin seemed to have drifted off to sleep. Only two reading lights were on. The second movie "Cars" started and then restarted.
I took a washroom break. It was still pretty clean. One trip I made the big mistake of going back without putting my shoes on. Sometimes I've gone in there and been really glad I'm not a woman and have to park down on top of what I see there. My wife has previously made comments to me about the relative washroom behaviour of various nationals. She is embarrassed by the lack of sanitary sophistication of many of her former countrymen. Anyway on this trip either the passengers were better, the crew was on top of things, or it was just early in the flight, but it was very clean in the washroom.
On my return to my seat, I noticed that in our section, a few people were watching the movie, a few were reading, but the majority were dozing - a few of these were in contorted positions across 2 seats. I don't think anyone had the luxury of stretching across three seats. My wife was sleeping; her head was bent forward supported by her inflated neck pillow. She looked like she's just been executed by firing squad and was hanging from the stake. Wouldn't it be more humane to rig aircraft for these long flights with even simple litters 3 or 4 high like those military medevac flights, and let passengers sleep with some basic comfort and dignity?
I watched the "Cars" movie out of boredom but it didn't hold my attention. I guess it was the bad angle to the screen, the poor audio, and the generally second-rate movie. I can recall only one movie on an airplane "The Shawshank Redemption" that really grabbed my interest and caused me to forget that I was on an airplane, thousands of feet in the air and thousands of miles from home.
At 5:24 elapsed time as we passed over the Yukon-Alaska border, the flight attendants brought around a "mid-flight snack" consisting of a small sub sandwich. I found it quite tasty and convenient to eat. I was hoping my wife would be too sleepy to eat and give me hers, but that was not the case.
The second movie ended at 6:42 and the third one "Garfield" started at 6:58. By that time we had left the coast of Alaska and were out over the Bering Sea. It was quiet in the plane. At 7:50 elapsed time, it was about 10:30 p.m. back in the Eastern Time zone, getting close to people's normal bedtimes even if they were not lulled into sleep by the flight.
At some time between the 7th and 8th hour of flight, we crossed the International Date Line and Sunday became Monday.
By plotting my GPS readings on a map after the trip, it looked as though we were coming down the Asian side of our trip well out to sea. In past trips I was always intrigued to be flying over eastern Siberia -- a region area where they would have been shooting at us not too many years ago.
At nine hours I took another peek out the window and saw far below what looked like white lint on blue corduroy. Ice on the water or just low cloud? My GPS indicated 2,700 km from Narita. The cabin was dark and quiet. It seemed like this was the lowest point in the energy of the flight -- like it was 4 a.m. on the graveyard shift. I was bored and turned to the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine. That occupied me for about an hour before I gave up and checked the answer page. Damn, I missed some easy ones.
At ten hours, the plane's navigation display was back on, indicating we were south of the Kamchatka peninsula. It seemed like we were in the home stretch with "only" 1,850 km to run. There was an 89 mph headwind. The cabin seemed to be coming back to life with more reading lights on and more activity in the aisles. A few people gathered for a chat in the open space between the door, the galley, and the washroom.
At eleven hours I looked out again and saw milky wisps of cloud below. We seemed to be following the vapour trail of another plane. At 11:11 elapsed time, the cabin lights came back on abruptly and I could smell food heating. To me, airline food always smells good when it is heating. By 11:55 breakfast had been served and eaten and there was another post-meal run on the washrooms. Below us there was now complete cloud cover, with blue sky above us, illuminated by a pale afternoon sun. Maybe I was getting antsy but it seemed by then that we had been flying down the east coast of Japan forever. It is not that small a country, at least from top to bottom.
We landed at Narita after a flight of 12hr42min35sec according to my stopwatch and taxied in for the connection to Shanghai. First we had to go through the Japanese security screen. I guess that is to cover the possibility that bored passengers might have fashioned weapons from everyday materials during the long flight. But the Japanese screeners were friendly and smiling giving me the impression they might be having fun doing their job.
We made it to the departure lounge for our Shanghai flight. By now, darkness had overtaken us on the ground, ending what had been a dark cloudy afternoon at Narita.
As we sat in the lounge our Chinese visas were checked by a comely NWA Japanese employee. I was acutely aware that after 14 hours and two meals my breath might not be as sweet as I'd like it to be. Funny, I never worried about that before they banned toothpaste from carry-on.
We boarded early, returning to our same seat numbers, but probably on a different plane. The new crew seemed to be entirely Asian and we were greeted with a smile and "good evening" from each crew member on our walk to the back of the plane. The unseen purser was American though, and she made the opening announcement with that Minnesota (?) accent that I've just started to become familiar with. The cabin crew on this leg would win any beauty contest against the crew of middle-aged white Americans on the DTW-NRT leg. But you know what? I preferred the mature group. They were courteous enough for me. They had kind of hinted at an "I'm-here-to-look-after-you-but-don't-think-I'll-be-kissing-your-butt" attitude, but I had the feeling they knew what to do when it counted. The Asian crew seemed like mature high school kids. Most of them could hardly reach the overhead bins.
Anyway we took off from Narita into low broken or overcast cloud and headed south west to the East China Sea. Shortly after take-off I finally flaked out. Dinner was served at some point but we were too stunned to decline it and then too tired to eat it. We landed at Pudong after a flight of 2hr37min49sec. My wife, who had been mostly comatose since Detroit, suddenly came to life with the lights of her hometown shining in the distance. Thoughts of taking a shower and then stretching out on a bed gave me strength to continue. Now, how were we going to get all that damn luggage downtown?