Sunday, August 16, 2009

Less Bliss and more Boredom

Three weeks after our inbound flight, it was time to say goodbye to the European summer and brace for the Australian winter. Not that we noticed much difference: we spent our first afternoon back in Australia soaking in the sun at Balmoral Beach, officially for the sole purpose of helping our Circadian Clock readjust itself to Australian time.

The flight back was very long, entirely experienced in economy class and entirely uneventful. The photo below was taken at sunrise over the Queensland coast, about one hour before touchdown at Sydney.

The Great Circle from Frankfurt to Seoul took us over Berlin, Gdansk at sunset, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Riga and Tartu before entering Russian airspace not too far from St Petersburg.

Entering Russian airspace in a Korean Air 747 brings back memories of KAL 007, the airliner shot down by the USSR Air Force in 1983. I was only nine at the time but I remember reading about it in the Midi Libre newspaper while on summer holidays with my grandparents in the South of France. Not that I was reading international news at such an early age, I was most likely attracted to the article by a photo of the airliner.

In Russian airspace we used a metric flight level at 11000 meters. However, when flying from Poland to Lithuania through the small Russian territory around Kaliningrad, we stayed at FL 350, i.e. 35,000 feet above the reference datum of 1013.25 hPa.

The landscapes of the Gobi desert over Mongolia and north-western China reminded me of the Australian Outback, minus the color red. Then I realised that, since the Great Wall of China was built in order to ward off Mongolian invasions our flightpath would eventualy cross it and I could maybe spot it from the airplane. I remembered something about it being visible from space, so if I kept my face glued to the window I would not miss it. How awesome would that be.

Unfortunately this was not meant to be as a thick layer of stratus clouds started building below us as we approached Beijing from the north-west. Soon after the airliner altered its south-easterly course to track due south towards Beijing, before resuming a more direct route to Seoul.

The reason for the dogleg could be seen right out the window: a massive thunderstorm had developped right on our intended flightpath.

On approach to Seoul I could observe the little crystals of ice that build up on the inside side of the window quickly melt as we passed through the freezing level at about 15,000ft. Yes, I was utterly bored at this stage of the flight.

By the way, I learnt by reading a German flying magazine on holidays that the German word for freezing level is Nullgradgrenze, literaly "zero degree limit". Another funny one is Wolkenuntergrenze, which means cloud base.

We approached Sydney at sunrise, Brooklyn bridge is sort of visible on the photo below.

We landed on 34L at Sydney after a left-hand circuit. We cleared Customs and Quarantine relatively quickly and jumped into a cab direction home. Just like most cabs it had a GPS on the dashboard.

It's amazing how in the space of a couple of decades a classified military technology initially developed during the Cold War to guide ICBMs has now found its way into most cars, mobile phones and of course airplanes.

It's in 1983 that the Reagan Administration took the decision to declassify the NAVSTAR GPS satellite navigation system in order to allow civilian applications, such as better navigation systems for airplanes. It became operational in 1990, just in time for the first Gulf War.

A decision that was taken when it became clear that the downing of Korean Airlines flight KAL 007 by a Russian fighter jet had been triggered by a navigation error that took it over a prohibited section of Russian airspace.

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