Flight Number: VS603
Carrier: Virgin Atlantic A340-600
This trip report is all about weather, about turbulence, about a plane that seems to handle turbulence differently to other wide bodies I have been on.
Let’s talk about the weather forecast first. It showed 4 distinct weather zones: a heavy mist at departure; a pronounced jet stream across France, a cluster of storms across the equator and a clear scope for South Africa. This might be an interesting night flight.
Part One: the departure.
Doors shut and cross checked, we push back slightly early, 20:30. I am securely buckled into seat 31A, the extra leg room afforded by the emergency exit most welcome given the normal economy seat pitch (really not liking my company’s decision to make everyone fly economy from now on!!) I have been briefed by the friendly stewardess about my exit seat responsibilities, her making sure I wouldn’t endanger all souls using exit Wing Left in an emergency. No pressure here
The mist is really heavy at Heathrow this evening. I am not sure if this is delaying operations…a light south westerly wind means we will be taxi-ing around T3
down past T2
and lining up on 27L for departure. This, as is the norm at Heathrow, takes a bit of time. Traffic seems to be everywhere. I watch as a Singapore 777 is pushed back into the path of an Emirates 340 and a Qantas 744. Beautiful - airframe ballet at work.
We line up onto 27L, the high intensity lights on the runway glowing brightly in the mist. The airframe shudders as the nose wheel crosses one of the centre line lights. A small pause before the 4 engines whine up to partial thrust. Another pause and the engines are pushed to take off thrust. The A340-600 is a long and large airframe so it is no surprise to find the take off roll is slow and sedate. I know the engines are powerful, but the urgency of the initial roll is a lot more timid than other heavies. Maybe the pilots have set a gentler thrust setting to conserve fuel? The condensation on the wings forms well before we lift, obscuring my view with puffs of white mist. I I have to rely on occasional views of the airport whizzing past the window when the condensation clears. We lift the nose just past T3
. When I have seen these Airbuses lift before, it is well beyond T3
and more level with T5
taxiways. I surmise we are light. My view is now totally obscured by a steady condensation effect over the wing. Bet it looks impressive from the ground!
We clear the mist layer into a clear night. Our straight out departure is interrupted with a small turn to the right and then a longer turn to the right. A wispy contrail spins off the wing fence, the effect heightened by the spot light basking the British flag liveried wing fence. Quite stunning and a shame that my emergency seat assignment and proximity to the crew mean that cameras are a no-no!!
The seat belt sign stays on for a long time, much longer than normal. Even the crew are held in seats. I begin to wonder why.
As far as departures are concerned, all could not have been better.
Part Two: the climb to cruise and off to Africa
The First Officer comes across the tannoy informing us that there is expected turbulence over France so the seat belt will be on for a bit longer. The weather forecast for the region shows a jet stream looping down through France, something to do with the Arctic Oscillation that Europe is experiencing at the moment…really cold weather for us all!! A sister Virgin flight is about ½ ahead of us going to Johannesburg and maybe they are giving our crew a head’s up. We all brace for jolts, lurches and shivers.
We can brace as much as wee want, as the expected turbulence did not materialise, and the climb and early cruise proves uneventful with only the lightest of shudders encountered – safety first though. The crew rush around to catch up on their service tasks and we get our meal (a chicken and rice dish for me – edible and not bad tasting).
We have reached cruise at 33,000ft. We are watered and fed and the hours are starting to tick by, time sped by a huge selection of entertainment on the Virgin AVOD.
The scene below is one of cloud, and above one of starry night. Our plane cuts through the sky, not one jolt, not one hesitation. I can’t remember the last time a flight is this smooth. This is more impressive given that we have a jet stream induced tailwind of 150 knots.
The smooth flying, a full belly, the soothing tone of the 4 engines at cruise, and ultimately the boring movie I am watching take their effect and I fall asleep.
Part Three: what the f*** was that?
In the back of my dream filled head, I start to register some trembling of the airframe, the indicators of light turbulence, nothing to worry about. The trembling worsens to shuddering. The seat belt sign comes on and all passengers are ushered back to their seats. The shuddering continues, enough to waken me from my slumber (well, one shudder is sudden enough to bang my head against the window frame….yep, I woke up…heart rate raised, wondering what was happening).
I glance out of the window and see some high level cloud just below our assigned cruise altitude. I assume that the cloud is just kicking us around a bit. I was wrong. The clouds were the start of a thunder storm and within a few minutes, the crew were ordered to their seats and we began a wildish ride.
The cloud soon enveloped the plane’s wing, and the lightening visibly flashed around the plane. Occasionally I could see another thunder head in the distance flashing forks of lightening all over the sky. I could only imagine our storm was doing the same. The clouds continues to form and dissipate over the wing, flashes lighting us up every few seconds or so. The plane went from jolting to banging, swaying, falling and climbing, all in quick succession. I steady myself to look at the wing; normally a good indicator of the severity of turbulence…the wing is oscillating violently, the control surfaces twitching wildly from one extreme to another, trying to keep us on track and at assigned altitude. At one stage, I could see the mid wing going up but the tip going down….very cool engineering in motion, but very weird for passengers who don’t watch the Discovery channel as much as me!!
The engines spool up and down, many times, desperately trying to stop over speed, under speed, all sorts of speed except our wanted speed.
I became very aware of the creaking of the airframe just behind the wing. Given the length of the fuselage I could only imagine this was the flexing of the airframe, much the same as the wings do. I am pretty sure that the people up the back of the plane in row 60+ would be experiencing a real thrill ride. As it was, in row 31, over the wing, the ride was bumpy and thrilling, but nothing too extreme (probably moderate on the scale.)
This impressive event went on for about 1 hour, us leaving one storm and then entering another. The pilots, I could tell, from the map, were trying to route around the storms over central Africa, but I can only think that the storms were in a line, making dodging them a little difficult – buckle up and push on through!!
Eventually we cleared the storms and the seat belts were released. I drifted off to sleep again.
Part Four: Sun, sea and land.
I wake again as the sun creeps through the window blind, breakfast served, and crew readying the cabin for landing. The coast of Cape Town reveals itself, a crystal clear blue sky welcoming us to South Africa. Our descent is easy and jolt free, our approach assigned, landing on the southerly runway. The flaps wind down with a loud whine of the hydraulics (I assume they are directly below my seat). A small adjustment on finals with power and pitch and we touch down with the softest of thumps. Our arrival is 15 minutes ahead of schedule, 10:15 local time, courtesy of the jet stream over France.
Reverse thrusters are deployed but not really used, the engine noise staying constant through out the rollout; we rumble down to the end of the runway and turn right to make our way back up to the terminal. The terminal is full: a Malaysian 744, an Etihad A330, a Singapore 777 all sit prettily with their jet bridges attached. So, we have to make do with a hard stand and wait for the steps to arrive. It looks like a BA
744 has suffered the same fate as us; she sits there shimmering in the morning sun.
Our flight is over, the journey complete. Until Friday when I fly back!!
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed.
I got talking to the crew on the taxi, asking whether the turbulence was that bad from their point of view. One of them was in the crew rest section and said that the ride was quite interesting up the back. The long A340-600 seems to have a sweet spot, just over the wing….where if I am honest, the turbulence wasn’t that bad. The service wasn’t either. Thanks Virgin, Hello South Africa