I wrote this in 1995 before 9/11-style terrorism, when travel journalists were sometimes allowed to sit in the jump seat behind the pilot on commercial jet flights.
Thought I’d post it for something different.
"May I visit the cockpit," I asked the frightfully polite and proper Malaysia Airlines stewardess.
"Yes, that will be OK Mr Flynn, but I must go and ask the captain."
It was only a short trip to the cockpit, but there were a million smiles along the way.
These were all from the crew _ there weren’t many passengers in business class on the Monday morning flight from Kuala Lumpur to Darwin.
Not that anyone missed the lack of Aussie company – the lucky few passengers were receiving virtually undivided attention from the lovely Malaysian hostesses.
But while I will one day perhaps forget those hostesses, I won’t forget the sight of that cockpit.
There sat two pilots in front of a panel.
There were no controls, no steering column, no joystick with which the pilots of yesteryear would have wrestled their planes through storms and war zones.
The throttle controls _ instantly identifiable to anyone who has watched one or two airport dramas _ were the only thing I recognised.
Hell, even the dials that used to cover every inch of cockpit wallspace in older jets were missing.
In their place were a few computer-generated images.
"My God, this thing is automatic _ we’re relying on a computer," I thought.
The pilot, after introductions, must have recognised my horror.
"It’s all fly by wire you know," he said. "I still have this joy stick, but the control inputs are now electronic signals."
"What joystick?" I asked.
He leaned back and there it was _ a joystick in his left hand that looked pretty much the same as one you would buy at a Dick Smith’s outlet for a home computer game.
It was all a bit much. Earlier I had relived the old fantasy that the pilots got food poisoning and I volunteered to fly the plane.
Some help I would have been: "Can we reboot? I think I’ve crashed the computer."
Also surprising was just how small the cockpit was.
The Airbus is a wide-body plane and the passenger compartment is known for its spaciousness.
But the cockpit was like a dark corner in a pinball parlor, with darkened faces slightly illuminated by various colored lights.
As I sat behind the pilot and co-pilot, they would occasionally talk to each other and then twiddle a knob.
"The ningcalibrator is osmollating a little over 6.023. Maybe we should slice the 3.14," I vaguely recall the co-pilot saying.
"Don’t worry about it," the pilot said.
The ride started getting bumpy
and I looked up at the windscreen.
"My God, lightning!" I exclaimed, as strands of blue electricity crawled slowly over the cockpit window.
"No, no. That’s St Elmo’s fire," the pilot said.
"We see it quite often."
It was the weirdest thing.
Like evil hands, it caressed the glass as if trying to seduce its way inside to wreak havoc with the flight computer.
I asked: "What happens if the plane is hit by lightning."
It was a question I had always wanted to ask a jet pilot.
"Not much," the pilot said. "It just leaves a small mark."
Later I was invited back to the cockpit for the landing in Darwin.
I was strapped into a seat behind the co-pilot.
In the distance I could just see the lights of Darwin runway, like a scene out of so many airport movies.
As we neared the airstrip the cockpit quietened.
Ah yes. The pilots were concentrating on the landing approach …
I said nothing. I didn’t want be a mystery voice on the black box flight recorder asking "what does this bit do?" just before the jet plummeted to earth.
Closer to the runway there was silence.
Suddenly the cabin door swung open.
The steward pushed his way through and called: "Glasses, any glasses!?"
The pilot and co-pilot passed out there empties.
Nearer still, another shock.
The flight computer talked.
"100," it said in a loud stern voice.
It was referring to altitude, I suppose.
"50," it said a little louder.
Then, just off the tarmac, in an urgent and loud tone.
"Retard! Retard! Retard!"
From this I gathered that a)the computer was politically incorrect b)something had been lost in the manufacturer’s translations c)we were going to crash unless someone did something quick.
But the pilot took the retard remark as a queue to pull back the throttle and flare the plane for a gentle touchdown.
And the Airbus did just that, landing about as gently as something that big and heavy can.