We'd spent over two weeks in Shanghai reconnecting with friends and relatives. It was my fifth visit and frankly I went through a "been there, done that" phase during the first week. Chasing from one place to the next, I was wishing I'd stayed at home. After a bit longer I started getting enthusiastic again about where we were. We had been greeted warmly by all our friends and relatives. It is hard not to be excited about this dynamic city.
But our time was now up and we were heading home. Our motto is "travel cheap and travel often". In this case that meant a short taxi ride to XuJiaHui to catch the #3 bus from Hong Qiao airport to Pudong airport at a cost of ¥18 per head. But along came another taxi. The driver jumped out and quickly organised a group rate of ¥20 for us and another would-be bus passenger. The entrepreneurship of the Shanghainese is formidable. Hard to believe Communism ever existed there.
We were all sitting in the back seat of the taxi feeling good about Capitalism when the cab slowed abruptly on the approach lane to the Nanpu Bridge. There was a police car two vehicles ahead of us making about 5 km/hr along the single lane. Our driver honked at the cop once or twice and we were able to get by and on our way. I wouldn't try that at home.
We arrived at the airport in good time and queued up at the gate for check-in area M. A young couple rolled up to the front of the line, apparently to assess the possibility of butting into line, then moved off to the back under the scornful gaze of my wife.
We checked in after 07:00, then passed through customs, passport control, and security into the departure area. Now seemed like a good time for breakfast so we went into a café only to find that nothing we proposed to order was available. My wife stomped out angrily thinking she was being manipulated into having the special of the day or whatever. Eventually my breakfast consisted of a can of Coke.
The west windows of the Pudong Terminal were being cleaned as we waited. Two guys hanging from ropes were dusting and squeegeeing. A couple of their lines were surplus to their needs and these were dropped to the floor below with a lot of clattering and banging. Things are done differently here.
At 9:23 a.m. we are in our seats on the 747-400 aircraft (#6314) after further passport and carry-on checks in the jet way. The doors are closed at 9:49, we pushed back at 9:55, and after a long taxi we depart at 10:16 off the new Runway 16 on a planned 2hr 14min flight to Narita.
After takeoff we make a left turn out, climbing over the dirty brown water of the Yangtze estuary, up to FL250 and later FL400 over the East China Sea.
Forty-two minutes after takeoff we have drinks and lunch. No pop cans here, it was all poured from 2 litre bottles. "Frazier" is on the entertainment system but there is no audio. I turn away to the window and watch the islands of Japan start to drift by below us. Japan is really a mountainous country. Only a small percentage of the surface area seems to be inhabited.
At 1:40 minutes I spotted Mt. Fuji at our 10 o'clock position, even before the pilot announces it. I'm pleased with myself but the photo I take is no prize.
The approach to Narita is straightforward with no holds and we land after 2hr 12min 34sec in the air and taxi in for the connection to Detroit.
We go through the Japanese security screen again. I remember ten years ago when we had to stand on a small stool and get frisked by a lady inspector. They always asked first "May I touch you?" "Sure", I'd reply enthusiastically.
We spent about an hour in Departure Lounge 22. I was busy throughout that time, looking for those fancy Japanese toilets you read about in Popular Mechanics (didn't find any); buying my wife noodles, fetching drinking water from a drinking fountain (try that in China!); and checking out the airport souvenir stand.
Eventually boarding for Flight 12 was announced, World Business Class first, then the rest of us. They used to have a neat little way of boarding, forming a row in front of a girl with a sign with the row numbers listed. If you weren't in those rows she wouldn't let you in her queue. You had to follow the rules in Japan. Now it seemed like open boarding for Economy. The queue stretched back about 50 metres, out of the boarding area.
At 3:19 p.m. local time we were in our seats on the 747-400. At 3:36 our pilot, Captain Stevens, came on the PA system, giving us an update on the loading process, the flight time (10 hr 44 min) and the weather in Detroit (cloudy 64°F). Boarding continued in dribbles and drabs, the late comers finding it difficult to find space in the overhead bins, especially the inboard ones. We watched one guy try from several angles to jam a box into a space where it just wasn't going to go. I reminded myself never to put fragile stuff in the overheads without guarding it until push-back.
At 3:46 the "boarding door closed" announcement was made, followed soon after by the start of the safety video. We pushed back at 3:51, taxied for 15 minutes, and took off at 4:07 local time.
Eighteen minutes after take-off I looked the window to see a white plume venting from the port wing tip. It looks like we are dumping fuel. The venting stops after a couple of minutes just as the hot paper towels are brought around. I assume by the performance of this routine cabin activity that everything is okay with the fuel system.
My GPS displays the great circle track from NRT to DTW. It seems we are heading significantly south of the great circle track. At 34 minutes after T/O the captain comes back on and advises we would be flying at 32,000 ft initially, then up to 37,000 later. We'd be arriving in Detroit 25 minutes early. Currently it was 3:42 a.m. in Detroit, overcast with light rain falling, and a temperature of 60°F. I thought that the people who will handle this plane when we arrive, are now still snug in their beds around the Motor City.
An hour after take off, we have passed into darkness over the Pacific, although the horizon is still discernible to the northwest. My GPS says we are motoring along at 1,107 km/hr and we have 9,482 km to run to Detroit. I'm wondering how many thousands of people are flying out over the Pacific tonight.
We're in 53A and 53B. Abruptly, 70 minutes after T/O, a rather chunky girl in her late twenties, ahead of me in 52A reclines back into my little world. The effect is demoralising.
Two hours into the flight, dinner is coming. I got the last chicken curry; it was beef in BBQ'd sauce for the remaining Economy class diners. It seems like sitting in the 50's rows is not the best place to be for meal choices. Later in the flight we had to take the default breakfast selection as well. Our neighbour in 53C, with whom we never spoke, ordered wine with dinner at $5 a bottle. There wasn't much booze on this cruise, at least back where we were.
After our trays are picked up, 53C flounces back against the seat back. Her long auburn hair is about 8" from my nose. I fantasize about snipping it off, or dipping it into an inkwell. But options are limited though because of the new carry-on regulations.
The normal post-meal crowd gathers in the open space near the washroom. There are eight people standing there including two crew. A minute or two later it gets bumpy and a "please return to seats" announcement is made. The message is ignored by two of the men but not for long. The flight attendant in our area speaks to them both and they're gone. I like being on a tight ship. There are almost 400 people on board and it is important that people do what they're told.
Meal clean-up continues. It seems the crew get along well with each other. There is a lot of smiling and easy going behaviour between them. "Our" flight attendant is a woman in her late 50's or early 60's. She's not really Mrs. Conviviality but her tone and behaviour hits the mark with me.
At 3 hours flight-elapsed time, the exit door crowd has gathered again. It seems like the guys in the premium seats at the emergency exit, are most likely to be up and about, because they don't have to worry about disturbing anybody getting in or getting out.
At 3 hours 21 minutes, the cabin lights are finally dimmed as we pass about 500 km south of the Aleutian Islands. No wonder the Japanese invaded these islands in WW II. They're so much closer to them than they are to us.
The first movie "Just My Luck" comes on. After a few minutes I know I can't handle it, so I pull off my headset and just look out the window. The big dipper looks like a golf club, right at the farthest point of the back swing. I remember seeing Comet Hale-Bopp out there on a similar trip in March 1997. The view of the comet with its two tails was worth the price of the trip.
A few seats over, our neighbour was trying to sleep leaning forward with his forehead resting against the seat in front. That position never worked well for me, and it doesn't seem very successful for him either. Later in the flight, he will start sniffling non-stop across North America, and drive my wife nuts.
Four hours after take-off we are still south of the Aleutians, sifting along at 1,048 km/hr, 6,385 km from Detroit. We have crossed the International Date Line again, getting ready for the second dawn of October 18th.
Five hours after take off we are below the Gulf of Alaska. Since leaving the Japanese shoreline east of Narita this entire flight has been over water. A few minutes later we are served with a slice of fruit and nut loaf. It tastes fine but it is a bit of a come down from the ice cream bars we used to get at this stage. My wife remembers those ice cream bars from her first trip out of China in 1993. The ice cream bar was kind of a symbol for her of all the good things that lay ahead on her trip.
At 5 hours 22 minutes, we are at the half-way point (at least in time). It is about a 1,000 km south of Anchorage. There is still activity in the cabin. It has been livelier on the eastward flight than two weeks ago on the westward flight, in spite of the fact we are travelling through a real night. I wonder if all passenger loads follow a similar routine, or are some groups livelier than others?
An hour later, at 6 hours 30 minutes we are in cloud, with the strobe lights on the wingtips reflecting off the cloud. From the sounds and smells, breakfast preparation has started in the galley. The sky is brightening and we make our North American landfall over the Northwest shore of Vancouver Island just before we pass the 7 hour mark. That's not obvious at the time because cloud covers everything over the West Coast.
The third movie starts at 7 hr 15 min elapsed time. It is another clunker about some girl who can talk to animals. But I'm bored and I start watching it. Outside the sun is starting to shine on the engine nacelle so I'll have to close the shutter. Breakfast preparation continues in the galley it seems.
At 8 hours into the flight we are in daylight but a full cloud deck obscures the ground. Just as I am about to close the shutter again, the clouds break up and I get a dramatic view of flat land below stretching for what must be a hundred miles to the north. I try for a photo but the 2-D result just doesn't do justice to the scene. We're crossing the northern tier of the western US.
My stopwatch now indicates 9 hours of flight and it occurs to me that we've been flying over North America for about two hours and breakfast still hasn't been served. Looking around me I see dull, morose looking people yawning at each other. Far below the cloud moves in again.
Finally at 9 hrs 46 min, breakfast is served. But the Japanese noodles are all gone and only scrambled eggs with cheese remain. That's fine with me. I especially enjoy the coffee after the Pacific night.
My GPS shows us passing north of ORD and out across Lake Michigan. Just as we start across Michigan, the GPS batteries give out and I'm lost.
Our approach into DTW seems straightforward; we break out below cloud fairly high and land after 10 hrs 39 min 47 sec in the air. There is a slight delay taxing in as our spot is not ready but the wait is short. When the cabin chimes go off, we unbuckle and jump up like everyone else, ready to get off. It's the first time I've stood for over 11½ hours.
In the past I've had some unpleasant feelings about going through US Customs and Immigration at DTW. Actually it wasn't the INS people but the people guiding us from the aircraft to the inspection areas who were not nice. But for the last two arrivals now, things seem to have changed and I've got a fairly warm feeling about them. I heard one of the Americans walking near me being randomly welcomed home by one of the guide ladies in red blazers. That's really what you need to hear after a long flight, not being made to feel that you're part of a big cattle drive.
So, summing up, I enjoyed the flight, partially because we were homeward bound, and partially because it felt reasonably painless. We were moving along with a tailwind and that has to give some kind of psychological boost. I think we paid about 15¢/mile to cross the Pacific. That's a pretty good deal.