This is my first report in probably a few years, but I felt compelled to do one out of sheer excitement over returning to the land of the rising sun. After nearly a year in Hawaii, it was, at last, time to return to my wife's homeland for a number of reasons. Those efforts culminated in this flight, which reacquainted me with Delta and the beloved 747 after a long hiatus.
My previous Delta flight was sometime in late 2004, and that wasn't even really DL metal as it was SLC-SFO. My previous B744 flight was (unbelievably) on May 20, 2007, aboard Korean Air on the last leg of SFO-ICN-NGO. I had not been aboard the B744 in the upper deck since March 31, 2003, when I enjoyed a scant 45 minutes aboard ANA's JA8094 from ITM-NRT. So in many ways, this flight meant a lot to me. All the more reason I extend heartfelt thanks to those who made it possible.
April 19, 2011 - Delta Air Lines #639
Departure Airport: Honolulu International (HNL/PHNL)
Departure Gate: 12
Scheduled Departure: 09:30
Actual Departure: 09:24
I arrived early around 07:15 and was checked-in (one bag was a bit heavy so I made a $50 contribution to the Delta revenue stream) and through security by 07:40 in a relatively painless and efficient process in HNL's aging and ever transitory departures hall. The facility has long since seen its best years and is in dire need of a makeoever, the only saving grace being the gentle breezes that blow through the building. I enjoyed taking mental notes on shortcomings of American employees for the last time in awhile, as I observed TSA agents applying breath mint, checking text messages, and talking weekend sports in plain view of Asian holidaymakers. On the other hand, I should mention the Delta ground agents I encountered at check-in were shining examples of the HNL crew as they were outgoing, smiling, and more than ready to assist with anything. Once past the TSA hullabaloo, I made my way past the duty free shops mostly devoid of customers at that time of day, and took in the warm tropical surroundings of the well-known HNL central garden en route to Gate 12:
Proceeding down a dimly-lit hall past storefronts also in dire need of makeover, I briefly surveyed Gate 12, where a few
passengers had already gathered like cattle in a narrow steering space prior to the boarding area being opened. I'm not sure who decided to put extra widebody gates in front of such a narrow hall, but it's an unfortunate result of the hodgepodge expansion work that has added capacity to HNL over the years.
Fortunately I found the open air connecting passage to the Diamond Head concourse was just around the corner, and spent a few minutes enjoying the activity buzzing around N665US, our 1989-vintage 747-451 for today's flight. The white lady gleamed in the bright morning sun, looking as graceful and ready to soar as ever. Perhaps I'm overly-sentimental, but there's just always something inviting about seeing the perfect proportions of the 744 from any angle on the ground.
By now it was still only 0800 or so, so I continued walking to the deserted Diamond Head concourse used primarily by United. I hadn't spent more than a few minutes in the facility in more than 10 years, and found it looking ever more the relic of the past than I remembered. The 1970s designers had the right idea with the big windows and open spaces, but the light fixtures, carpeting, and musty smells are simply atrocious. With the revenue situation in the Aloha state, it's understandable why the building still looks like this, but things can best be summed up by the fact that when I attempted to exit the building, the first automatic doors I approached had masking tape over them that had "out of order" handwritten across them!
From there, it was a fairly long walk back to Gate 12, which had a decent crowd of mostly Japanese travelers assembled by now. Boarding was slated to begin at 0845, so I hurried to a nearby gift shop to pick up a couple copies of favorite magazines. By the time I returned, the doors to the holding area had been opened, and passengers were beginning to line up. When I approached the entry podium and submitted my papers, I was delighted to hear the smiling local agent ask me: "do you want up front or upstairs today?" Naturally, I opted for upstairs, and with boarding pass quickly in hand, went to the windows to admire N665US once again. The fueler was just getting finished packing up his truck, and two Delta mechanics that had been behind engine #1 jumped into a van that had been parked just off the left wing. Realizing the time was fast approaching, I contemplated the two PW4056 engines in front of me for a scant few moments until I heard business class passengers being called. I walked a few feet over to the small line that had assembled, and made my way down the jet bridge, the excitement building beyond measure. I paused at the entry door as is customary for me, and tapped the door frame three times, which is a bit of a lifelong tradition. Two smiling agents said, "welcome aboard" and I proceeded upstairs to my seat.
The morning sunlight gleamed through the windows as three cabin crew attended to passengers while I got settled and figured out how to use the seat. I had not been in the old World Business seats before and found them to be a bit trying to use at first, but somewhat quickly got the hang of it. The cabin crew quickly started coming around with the welcome drinks, and I naturally opted for champagne, despite the time being not even 9 am I was one of only three non-Japanese passengers upstairs, which presented something of a problem for an attractive attendant who appeared to be Korean-American and apologized profusely to the woman in front of me for not being able to speak more than a few words of Japanese. Fortunately, another Japanese-fluent attendant quickly appeared and took her meal order. Already in the mood, I gave her my order in Japanese as well. Having had a sizable meal at breakfast in an attempt to have a final denver omelette in who-knows-how-long, I opted for the Japanese meal, despite how tempting the western course looked.
It was quite a festive mood upstairs as it turned out two Delta HNL employees well-known to the cabin crew were also non-revving and were reunited with two deadheading pilots who seemed happy to be sharing a cabin with them as well. I had to wonder for a moment what the Japanese passengers in their midst were thinking - "did I end up in the party cabin??" The Captain of DL 639 for the day, a tall lanky man with square-rimmed glasses, said hello to every passenger and tipped his finger to me in mock-salute as he made a beeline to the rear galley for a bottled water. I was impressed by the fact he had served himself. He hastily returned to the cockpit, where there was quite a bit of activity from what I could see over my seat. In no time, two line maintenance personnel came upstairs and made their way into the front office to work what appeared to be an avionics issue, as they hunched over the center console for several minutes. Apparently satisfied with what they had done, they left, giving curt smiles to everyone on their way out of the tiny upper cabin. It was now just about 10 minutes after 9, and most certainly the time was near!
I got the last of the stuff I wanted to use for the flight settled in the cabinet next to me, buckled my seat belt, and waited for the inevitable. At 09:24, we began pushing six minutes early. Soon after they turned us around facing west, a familiar vibration began building as our four powerplants sprung to life. We sat with engines running for a couple of minutes before the slats and flaps were extended, flight controls were checked, and then finally, brakes were released and we began the long taxi out to the reef runway.
It was actually somewhat surprising that the Captain came on the PA as we were on the isthmus taxiway to the reef to welcome us and announced that "we are number two for departure behind the FedEx jet in front of us - just a few more moments and we'll be on our way to Narita. Flight attendants please take your seats." We came to a brief stop at the runway 08R threshold, heard a big rumble as the FedEx plane departed, and then made a tight turn over the piano keys to line up for departure. We held for what seemed like two or three minutes before the two PWs below me briefly howled, came up to and held a familiar whine, and then sang for their supper as we began a 37-second takeoff roll. Rotation was effortless as usual, and almost immediately after becoming airborne, initiated the gradual right 180 degree turn on the Keola2 departure to head for Japan, with the blue-green water and coral reefs beckoning below just off the wing. While the surface winds had been light, it was suddenly quite blustery and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the wing, bobbing engines, and ailerons getting a work out as we went through the first several thousand feet. The crew quickly reduced power and cleaned up the aircraft as we climbed out past Pearl Harbor. I was disappointed not to have the clear parting views I had hoped for, as the central mountains of Oahu were obscured by low-lying clouds.
We quickly began to accelerate further, and the leeward communities and Waianae coast disappeared from view in a matter of a couple minutes as the wind apparently died down and we settled into smooth air. The 10,000 foot chimes sounded, and the crew began their announcements for the day's service. I settled in further as well, intending to enjoy every last minute of our climb to initial altitude of 34,000 feet. In no time, a cup of warm nuts arrived at my seat, which only made things that much sweeter. Though they were overly salted, I did not hesitate to oblige when prodded to have seconds. Soon the south end of Kauai passed, mostly obscured by clouds, and the wind noise reached its peak. The Captain came on again to tell us about the day's flight plan, and indicated to us it would be a mostly smooth ride except for an expected encounter with the jet stream's effects in the last hour and a half or so before arrival, which he warned would probably be "pretty choppy". We began to level off, and now having reached the boring phase of flight,
I immediately got to work deploying the entertainment system and excellent noise-cancelling headphones while firing up "The Social Network". I lost track of time somewhat, but about 20 minutes into the film, our lunch began to arrive.
I dove straight into the first course of daikon salad, rockfish, shrimp, egg, and assorted goba and fried agedashi tofu appetizers that were wonderful paired with the incredible California pinot noir that was on offer. I should have taken down the name but neglected to do so. My only complaint was that an otherwise good Japanese presentation was served with a packet of Kikkoman soy sauce, which is rather disappointing considering how important it is to pair quality sauce with quality fish.
The second course arrived soon thereafter - an interesting take on nikujyaga with generously-sized grilled pork shoulder in a tart sweet sauce over konnyaku noodles and chunks of potato. Served with standard fare miso soup and a hot bowl of rice, nothing could have been better. I soon began to feel quite full, and was already getting sleepy thanks to a third glass of the pinot. Fortunately, dessert was promptly on offer, and the attendant somehow convinced me to accept it through my half-hearted reluctance to say yes.
Having finished off the sundae and fresh fruit, as well as a fourth glass of wine, I was hopelessly down for the count. I
went to go brush my teeth, returned to my seat, extended to about 3/4 recline and passed out for a good 90 minutes or so. When I next awoke briefly, we were halfway across our slice of the Pacific, and treading pretty lightly on the headwinds:
With jazz selections from the Delta audio entertainment station streaming into my ears, I quickly descended into another nap for another hour or so.When I awoke, I decided to get the juices flowing, headed downstairs, and did a customary several laps of the aircraft, all the way down to the nether regions of row 50-something and back, and back again, and back yet again. The flight was around 2/3 full, with plenty of vacant seats through all four sections of economy class. Feeling refreshed, I headed back upstairs, and surveyed the sunny scene outside, while considering the unbelievable-no-matter-how-many-times-you've-seen-it expanse of ocean beneath us.
I decided it might be time for another movie, and settled on "Little Fockers", as opposed to "The King's Speech", which likely would have been the better choice except that when you're having a really good day, it doesn't really matter so much. When the film ended, I checked the airshow again and it was obvious that we were starting to run into some serious headwinds, as our ground speed had dropped to the low 400s. Within a half hour or so, the cabin crew began taking our orders for the pre-arrival meal, which ended up being much larger than I had anticipated. This was more than welcome as I was somehow really ready to eat again. The western choice that I opted for ended up being a cold cuts plate of roast beef and steamed peppered chicken over greens with deviled egg, red peppers, and a mysteriously orange mustard sauce, which tasted much better than it looked (it required considerable courage to try it!). It was nice to have fruit again, but I was a little saddened by the dry chocolate cake that looked and tasted like it was the forgotten child of the catering department's bakery at HNL.
All in all though it was plenty filling, and the meal service seemed to be perfectly timed, as just when everyone started cleaning up the fun began with a 25-minute spot of turbulence strong enough that rumbling could be heard against the airframe and the cabin attendants were asked to sit down. These typically brutal east of Japan headwinds were the likely culprit:
The turbulence soon became even more enthusiastic, with several abrupt rolls to the right and left that had the woman in front of me more than a little frightened as she was looking nervously around. Our crew apparently decided against staying at 40,000 feet, and we headed down to 32,000, where things were decidedly more gentle. We stayed there about 15 minutes before the airshow made it apparent that we had started down for Narita. Descent was rather smooth and our initial approach was prolonged per the usual Japanese ATC requests for staying below 10,000 feet a good number more miles out than is customary elsewhere. We made a series of right turns through some clouds and the familiar sight of the coastline near Choshi appeared. The neatly clustered industrial areas fronting the wide beach with patchwork farmland right behind could only mean Japan. It was a very good feeling to be back. I began putting my things away and endeavored to man the window for the remainder of our arrival.
April 20, 2011 - Delta Air Lines #639
Arrival Airport: Tokyo Narita Int'l Airport (NRT/RJAA)
Arrival Gate: 14
Scheduled Arrival: 13:09
Actual Arrival: 13:02
With two more right turns over the water, I knew we were lined up for runway 34L and sure enough, the beach soon afterpassed beneath us. It's somewhat strange actually, but in the 15 or so times I've arrived at Narita, I've only experienced a landing from the north on the 16s twice. The familiar scenes welcoming me to my second home greeted us below:
As is typical for Narita, the approach was plenty windy, with strong gusts between what seemed like 1,000 and 5,000 feet and lots of generous aileron inputs on my side. In no time at all, we coasted past the little museum across from the maintenance area, over the long extended threshold, held a few moments in the 744's large ground effect and made an almost imperceptible touchdown on runway 34L. After a brief landing roll, the reversers were stowed and we turned off runway to head for Terminal 1.
The purser came on the PA to welcome us to Narita, noting that we were just a few minutes early, and had touched down at a few minutes before 13:00 local time. Flight 639 would continue on to Hong Kong later that afternoon using a different aircraft. Due to ground traffic, it took several minutes to finally arrive at Gate 14 at the north endo f Delta's innermost satellite at Terminal 1. The last photo I took from the aircraft was of the Skyteam liverty 767-300 that was parked next to us. As if I needed any reminder I was back in Japan, the noticeably spotless and organized ramp areas were the last bit of confirmation I needed.
We came to a stop at the gate at 13:02, the four PW4056s that had carried us over a good part of the Pacific were shut down, and we waited a few minutes while the jetways were brought up to the enjtry doors. I lingered a few moments taking in all the minute details of the upper deck cabin, wondering if I would ever find myself in those surroundings again anytime soon, if ever. N665US was showing her age here and there, with ceiling panels that appeared not to seat properly anymore, but nonetheless had done her job with aplomb for our eight hour and thirty-eight minute journey from Hawaii to Japan. I bade farewell to her and the warm crew wishing everyone safe travels as we deplaned, only to be greeted again by the smiling faces of Delta's Japanese ground crew at Narita manning the jetway. As I began my walk through the familiar terminal halls of the airport, I took special notice of the signs that have always had a meaningful distinction between their English and Japanese greetings. The English one said "Welcome to Japan", while the Japanese one said "welcome home". This time, for the first time in all my time here, felt like it applied to me.
I had a connection a few hours later to Nagoya, and enjoyed the renewed architectural details and amenities of Terminal 1, which saw extensive renovation in 2005-2007. The tasteful touches that combine modernism with traditional Japanese appreciation for lines and modular forms were a delight to the eye after the staid 40 year-old concrete walls of HNL.
I took a long walk over to the Star Alliance wing and experienced for the first time what has been repeated at many other airports of late: three incarnations of United colors on display. It may have just been the late afternoon light, or the majestic form of the 777's tail, but I still say I prefer the 1990s stealth colors over the more recent versions.
After that, and a brief stop at McDonald's, it was another long walk back to enjoy the views of Fortress Delta, and its requisite scatter of types on display, including 757s, 767s, 777s, 747s, and of course the A330.
Unfortunately, having slept only two hours the night before, I was spent by this time, fell asleep in a comfortable little corner for what was intended as a short nap and missed my connection. This meant plan B - taking the Narita Express to Shinagawa station and catching the shinkansen to Nagoya. All in all it wound up taking only 40 minutes longer to my destination than flying would have.
I have little or no memory of even getting to the hotel that night, but bright and early the next morning, on the outskirts of Nagoya, my surroundings were unmistakably Japan.
I hope you enjoyed the window into my journey back. Delta offers a fine product for a mostly tourist leg between Hawaii and Japan, and the J cabin on the 744 is plenty comfortable even by today's standards. The catering is not without some minor demerits, but the attentive service in this cabin more than makes up for it. It was a wonderful trip back when all was said and done, and my hat is off to Delta and especially their NRT staff for keeping their chins up through what has undoubtedly been a trying couple of months.
[Edited 2011-05-10 19:27:01]