Firstly, I'd like to point out that the main point of this trip was to visit Asuchwitz-Birkenau and the town of Oświęcim in Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust's 'Lessons From Auschwitz' project - this therefore means that the flights were not the main priority, and is the reason I took no photos, and why this report will be brief. I'd applied through my school to be one of the pupils (2 from every Sixth Form in the region) who got the opportunity to take part in this project, and I was successful. The project consists of 4 elements - an orientation seminar, the one-day visit to Poland, a follow-up seminar and finally a project later on to present to the local community/school. After the orientation seminar, in which we heard survivor Kitty-Hart Moxon's testimony, it was soon time for the one-day visit to Poland...
Outbound - 29/04/08
Airline: First Choice Airways
Flight Number: FCA6634
From: Birmingham (Terminal 1)
To: Krakow (Int'l Terminal)
(Actual): Off Stand - 06:50, Airborne - 07:10
(Actual):Touchdown - 10:25, On Stand - 10:30
Aircraft: Boeing 757-28A
Class of Travel: Economy
Seat: 11E (Emergency Exit Row/Door 2R)
Photo © Russell Collins - UK Airshow Review
The flight was scheduled to depart at 06:55 and we were told check-in would open at 5:00. My friend arrived just before 4am to pick me up, and we drove to Birmingham International Airport, arriving in a little over 25 minutes. We walked into the terminal, and were surprised to see on the check-in screens that our flight, FCA6634, was showing 'Check-in Desks 21-24.' We proceeded over to the desks, and after a very short wait I proceeded over to Desk 24 where I handed over my passport. I asked the agent if I was booked for an emergency exit row seat, which she checked and confirmed for me. I was put in seat 11E, which on First Choice 757's is the 2 seats next to door 2R (there is no 3rd seat due to the protrusion of the door). I met up with my friend again to find out he'd also been allocated 11D, the other exit row seat - it appears the trust had already pre-seated everyone where they wanted them, and because I'd specifically requested an emergency exit row seat they'd put him next to me. We made our way upstairs to the first floor, and sat down for a few minutes before having a drink and something to eat. By this time it was 5:15 and we decided that we would proceed through security. I haven't flown from BHX for a number of years, so it was like flying through for the first time again. Security was a bit busy this morning, with a number of flights leaving. However, within a few minutes we were at the x-ray machines and through quickly. We then proceeded through to the departure lounge.
Once in the departure lounge I was quite surprised with it. I understand it's been 'done up' over the last few years, and it certainly looks better than I remember it was in the past. It's now much lighter and 'shiny' if you will... however I did pick up on one issue - space. This was early morning, and there weren't too many seats left. I'm sure when the daily Emirates and Air India flights leave, it would be a nightmare for space and seating. The new seats are adequate, although the wooden ones with no padding can become a bit uncomfortable after long periods. We wandered around the lounge past the various shops, and after finding nothing of interest we decided to sit down for a while. At around 6:05 I decided to get up to check on the status of our flight, and the screen said 'Gate Opens in 10 Mins' - we thus decided to go for a quick walk around again, and ended up near the 50's gates where there is a view out over the apron. On stand this side of the pier this morning were 3 WW 737's, a LH 737, a ZB 321 and a TOM 757. As soon as we had returned to the departure lounge, our flight status changed to "Gate 41 - Rows 1-11 and 30-40 only," so we proceeded through the door to the Gates and arrived at Gate 41 in good time. We queued up outside the Gate, but within a few minutes they'd opened up the lounge and started accepting us in. We were the first ones in, and took a seat and waited while everyone else was admitted. About 10 minutes later, they made an announcement that our flight would now be boarding, and that it would be strictly by row number. Rows 1-10 and 30-40 were called first, so we just sat and waited for all other rows to be announced. This was done after about 5 minutes. We proceeded down the air bridge and arrived at the door of our 757 for the day, G-OOBE. The crew welcomed us on board and pointed us to our two emergency exit row seats. The crew member opposite the seats kindly offered to place our bags and coats in the overhead lockers for us.
On our seats were bottles of mineral water which I think was a nice touch. After everyone had boarded (slowly due to people putting things in overhead lockers and blocking the aisle) the guy from Servisair came onboard with the final pax numbers etc (224 altogether), and once that was complete the door was shut and we were ready to go. The Captain for today was Dave Keys (sp?) along with First Officer Tim Hardy, I think that was his surname anyway - I can't quite remember. He explained that we would be pushing back shortly and our routing for the first part would take us on a north departure, with a right turn after a mile or so flying out towards Northampton before crossing the North Sea towards Amsterdam. After the announcement, the Cabin Safety video was played and following this, doors were armed and cross-checked. We pushed back very soon after this, and it seemed we would make good time in departing - however, when we got to taxiway E we stopped and the Captain came on to inform us we would be delayed by about 5-15 minutes due to fog descending on the airport which had slowed operations down, while there were 5 departures ahead of us. After a wait of around 15 minutes I did get a laugh, as the Captain announced "Cabin Crew, seats for blast-off"... which I'm sure you'll agree is very true of the 757! Soon it was our turn, and we lined up on runway 33 before performing a rolling takeoff. Power was increased and we 'blasted off' down the runway and rotated a little after the 06/24 intersection before breaking quickly through the fog and cloud into the clear skies above. What I really love about the 757, aside from its powerful takeoff performance, is the sound of those beautiful Rolls Royce engines. We were soon completing a right hand turn, and after 10 minutes the crew were released for their duties.
The in-flight service today consisted of a hot breakfast, which was served about 25 minutes after takeoff. The crew came around and served us our breakfast in the paper box/tray type things and today it consisted of; Omelette with mushrooms, beans, potato pieces and a tomato. I must say, it wasn't too bad considering it was airline food. Accompanying the hot meal was a croissant with jam and butter, and a portion of orange juice. After our meal, the crew came around with tea or coffee, of which I selected the tea. About 10 minutes after finishing all of this the crew again came round to clear all the rubbish from our tables, and then return to the galley. It was at this point I got to really enjoy the seat I was sitting in. The seats on First Choice are a turquoise leather, but I noticed they are a bit narrow. Still, I couldn't complain... I had a lot of legroom to play with, and I must say it was great! I'm definitely going to endeavour to get emergency exit row seats as often as possible now. The Captain again came on to notify us we were at our cruise alititude of 37,000ft and we were about to fly over Amsterdam, and would be routing over Mid-Germany before flying into Krakow. The rest of the flight was uneventful, except for some areas of very light chop which were not too much trouble. I spent it reading our booklet which had been given out by members of the Holocaust Educational Trust, to prepare us for our visit. With about 30 minutes to run the Captain was once again on the PA to announce we had started our descent and were 120 miles out of Krakow, and we'd be landing in a westerly direction which meant flying past the airport on downwind and turning back on ourselves for final, which he said would unfortunately add a few minutes onto the flying time. He also said that the weather in Poland was currently 16c with some scattered clouds. We approached Poland and continued descending, watching the hills out to the south get closer. We flew downwind for runway 07 passing the airport on our right, seeing an aircraft depart as we flew past. The Cabin Crew were informed "10 minutes to Landing" and soon after came to take their seats opposite us. The two crew members opposite us, I must say, were fantastic across both flights. They were very friendly, welcoming, and great to talk with. While on the approach we started talking about Sixth Form, University and how I came to get the extra legroom, which led onto me talking about Thomson and eventually us talking about the Thomson/First Choice merger - "Thomson, that'll be us next year" one had commented. We were then on the final to runway 07, and it is a rather interesting one with some hills close to it. The plane was rocking slightly from side to side all the way down, and we touched down just behind schedule and used reverse thrust with some heavy braking to slow us down. We turned off at the very end of the runway and taxied along taxiway B to the International Terminal at Krakow. On our way to our stand, we passed several aircraft including an El Al 747-400 from Tel Aviv, a LOT Star Alliance liveried 767 and a Central Wings 737. Soon after arrival, the crew members disarmed the doors and the stairs were attached allowing the doors to be opened. We bid farewell to the crew and got our first taste of Poland which was sunny and warm. We got onto the awaiting buses and eventually departed for the terminal, passing through immigration with ease, proceeding out to our coaches for the day.
Auschwitz-Birkenau & Oświęcim
I must say that the day was an eye-opening one, and also a sobering experience. We visited the Jewish Synagogue and Jewish Museum in Oświęcim, where our Rabbi talked us through what went on in a Synagogue, and other things like this. We then visited the first Auschwitz Camp, Auschwitz I the smaller of the two that remain to this day. I was surprised at how much of a tourist attraction it is, and it just didn't feel right being there knowing that I was 'just another tourist' albeit in a different light, as this was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust to raise awareness and to pass on the message that this happened and it was very real to later generations - the work they're doing is great. Similarly, when in the gas chamber, I thought "Okay... thousands upon thousands of people were murdered in this very room," yet I still couldn't imagine it... you just can't grasp something this big. After visiting exhibitions in the barracks (in one a room full of human hair which had been shaved from the women), and an untouched barrack from 1947, we moved on to Auschwitz II, Birkenau, with our guide. The size of this place has to be seen to be believed... it just stretches well out into the distance. We toured the barracks and toilets, before moving around to the Gas Chambers and Kanada II. Finally, we had a ceremony in the evening with the Rabbi, allowing reflection of the day. It was definitely a day that I won't forget for a long time, and it really did make you think about what happened, even if you can't 'picture it' in your mind that thousands of people died in some spots you visit. Soon it was time to return to Krakow Airport, and we boarded the coaches for the hour journey there.
Inbound - 29/04/08
Airline: First Choice Airways
Flight Number: FCA6635
From: Krakow (Int'l Terminal)
To: Birmingham (Terminal 1)
(Actual): Off Stand - 20:50, Airborne - 20:55
(Actual):Touchdown - 22:10, On Stand - 22:15
Aircraft: Boeing 757-28A
Class of Travel: Economy
Seat: 11E (Emergency Exit Row/Door 2R)
Photo © Sergio Domingos
As we had been issued with our return boarding passes at BHX, we proceeded straight through to security in the terminal. After clearing that without any problems (although some people did have to chuck a lot of liquids away, despite having been told several times of the rules), we proceeded through passport control to the departure lounge. The International Terminal at Krakow is very smart inside, but you only realise how small it is when you're in it. The departure lounge was tiny, and the only real seating areas were at the gate. However, I assume it fits its purpose and is all they need. Our Gate was being displayed as G4, so we proceeded upstairs to the small seating area by the gate. At least there was a bar/coffee shop at the gate if you needed a drink or a bite to eat. Despite our departure time being 21:00, I was surprised when airport staff came to G4 at 20:10 and made a boarding announcement. As I was sitting right by the gate I was one of the first to get up, and we had our boarding passes and passports check before heading down the stairs and out to the waiting bus. After waiting for the bus to fill up, we eventually left and drove the short journey to the aircraft. I was first off, and consequently first at the plane. The crew member who had sat opposite us for takeoff/landing was at the bottom of the stairs to welcome us, and asked us if we knew where we were sitting. I explained that all the boarding passess had "open" written where the seat number should be, and she suggested that we just sit where we were on the outbound to minimise confusion. Having done that, I contuned up the stairs alone - my friend was still in the terminal enjoying his Polish Lager, and would eventually turn up on the 3rd bus - and was greeted by the Cabin Supervisor and the Captain, who asked us if we'd had a good day. It was then I found out the Captain and the Cabin Supervisor member had both visited Auschwitz themself during the day, and had obviously returned to operate our flight back. I'm not sure if any other Crew members went to Auschwitz too, but I know some went for a walk and found a shopping centre for their day. The Cabin Supervisor mentioned how she'd found the day, and talked with the Captain about it. Once everyone was onboard, confusion seemed to be around regarding seating - some people hadn't sat in their original seats meaning some people had to move also - eventually though the Cabin Supervisor sorted this out along with the lady from the Holocuast Educational Trust, and everyone returned to their original seats (grudgingly). The doors were closed, the stairs withdrawn, and the Captain came on the PA to give us details of the flight. He said that the First Officer would be flying the return, and we would be departing in a westerly direction before flying over Germany with a cruise altitude of 36,000ft, while the flying time would be around 2 hours 10 minutes. As we had boarded so early, it seemed like we would be taking off early too. This was so, and we pushed back as the Cabin Safety video was played - after this, the crew armed and cross-checked the doors and checked seat belts in the cabin, before taking their seats for departure. The cabin lights, as is procedure on night flights, were dimmed and we had a short taxi to runway 07, before turning on. The engines again roared into life, and this time we really did blast-off, flying down the runway and rotating gently into the night sky.
Around 10 minutes after a bumpy departure the Crew were released for their duties. It was announced that the inflight service would begin shortly, and that a hot dinner would be served tonight. 10 minutes later the meal service started, and the now familiar box/tray thing was placed on my tray table. Tonight the meal consisted of; A mashed potato style thing covered with cheese and on a base of vegetables in tomato sauce, with some additional vegetables. Along with this came crackers with cheese and butter, and a chocolate and vanilla cake/mousse style desert. Again, it wasn't too bad, although it wasn't that big so they could've done better here. Once again, the crew came round with the tea or coffee, and I again selected tea. About 10 minutes after this the rubbish was collected by the now familiar crew members who sat in the door 2R crew seats. I think it's a sign of a good crew when you feel like you've got to know them after flights, although I guess it was helped by the fact that the crew were with us for both flights and were looking after just us, and the fact they were sitting opposite me during the flight and we got chatting. Saying this though, they were very friendly, nothing was too much trouble for them, and I think that they're a credit to First Choice Airways. This flight was much bumpier than the outbound, with continued areas of light chop for most of the flight. The Captain came on the PA over Germany to tell us we'd be flying north of Prague and South of Berlin, before passing over Brussels, over the North Sea and into the UK. He also informed us that we were cruising at 38,000ft, which was 2,000ft higher than originally announced, and I assume this was to try and get above the weather/turbulence below. The view outside was basically lights and darkness, although I did see several aircraft passing below us. During the remainder of the flight I read one more document handed out by HET staff, and they made an announcement thanking everyone for the time they'd given to the project, and also thanking the crew firstly for those who came along, and then for those crew who had come to operate this flight on their day off, which I think was very good of them. This earned them a round of applause from everyone onboard. Once over the North Sea, the worst of the turbulence materialised. It wasn't the worst turbulence I'd experienced, but it was enough to make it difficult to walk around the cabin - typical of me, I chose this opportunity to go to the toilet... urinating during turbulence is challenging to say the least. During my trip to the toilet I heard the PA stating the seat belt sign had been turned on, and could all passengers return to their seats, also saying that toilets could not be used during this period - good job I'd gone beforehand then. I walked back to my seat and strapped myself in.
Out of the window there was nothing but cloud below, and this seemingly fitted in with the report the Captain had given us of the weather in Birmingham - the temperature was 6c and it was drizzling. This was a bit of a departure from the weather we'd experienced in Poland - not a cloud in the sky and 20c! The light chop was still continuing, and I noticed the engines had been throttled back to idle and we'd pitched down, so we'd clearly begun our descent into Birmingham. The Captain, however, made no further announcements until landing, so they must have been busy up front. The Cabin Supervisor did, however, announce we'd soon be landing and we should return to our seats and fasten our seatbelts. The seatbelt sign had only been turned off for about 5 minutes due to the earlier turbulence, but I always keep mine loosely fastened anyway so this was no bother. We continued descending, mostly through the thick cloud that was bringing rain to the UK, and it was relatively bumpy due to flying through all the cloud. We made a few turns, and I speculated whether or not we'd arrive on runway 15. It turns out we were going to, and we eventually broke out of the clouds somewhere over Walsall, as I recognised the M6 and the junction with the M5. For the last few minutes of descent through cloud, all you could see outside was rain lashing past the wing when the strobe flashed, and later when the landing lights were switched on. The Cabin Supervisor again dimmed the lights, and with 10 minutes to landing the two crew members came to sit opposite us. We made a 180 degree turn after flying downwind for 15, and lined up on the ILS for the runway. The final approach was still a bit bumpy, and the engines were very active, to keep our speed steady. We were riding up and down all the way to the railway line connecting Birmingham to the Airport, and we crossed the threshold where it steadied up. We floated down and made a smooth touchdown on the runway, while the crew commented "That was smooth." We used reverse with a lot of heavy braking, as the spray was picked up around the engines. We slowed down and turned off at taxiway C, before we taxied onto the apron and arrived on stand at Gate 41. During the taxi the Captain came on and made an announcement welcoming us back to a soggy Birmingham, and thanked us for flying First Choice and that he'd had an interesting day, as he was sure we had too. The Cabin Supervisor also made a PA thanking the HET for giving them the opportunity to operate this flight and also the visit they made to Auschwitz, which they agreed was a sobering event. This then got a round of applause from the entire cabin. The air bridge was attached and the door opened. I decided to wait to allow people off before gathering my belongings and leaving. I thanked the two crew sitting opposite me, and bid them goodbye before leaving along the air bridge and walking out to passport control. As there were 224 people on board, there was quite a queue - yet they didn't open more lanes. This was in stark contrast to LHR Terminal 5, where they opened more lanes as soon as a queue built up. However, after 10 minutes were through and done. That was it - the day had come to an end.
These were probably the best 2 flights I've taken in terms of enjoyment. This was probably aided by the fact I was not conecntrating on taking photographs, so I could really take the time to appreciate the flight and what went on. The Cabin Crew, and the flight crew were all fantastic, and I genuinely believe they are a credit to First Choice Airways. The two in particular who sat opposite us, were excellent and I couldn't have asked for more from them. I think they enjoyed the trip as much as we did, and those who visited Auschwitz definitely felt that it was an opportunity they would never forget. I'm glad that they also got to experience this, as it's not often you will. The food served onboard was adequate for the flights, and the Captain was very good with his announcements, always keeping us updated during the flight - especially when he was standing at the door welcoming people onboard in Krakow. It's the little things that make the difference, and they certainly did today. By the end of the flight, I felt as if I somehow knew the crew - well, certainly better than I did before the flight. If all crew are like this, I'll be flying First Choice more often! It was an interesting and sobering day, which made me think a lot... and it was certainly made better by two wonderful flights.
[Edited 2008-04-30 07:07:33]