415 days.

Boeing 787 Instrument Panel Owen Zupp

415 Days..

It had been 415 days since I last strapped into the flight deck and it is difficult to put the emotions of my return into words – but I will try.

The pandemic saw me grounded for even longer and yet that seemed different. All pilots were in the same situation with the world’s airliners parked up against airport fence lines. These 415 days seemed more isolated and were tinged with envy every time that I cast my eyes skyward to see a contrail or cocked my ear to hear a light aircraft out enjoying the Sunday sun. To quote Pink Floyd, I was an “earthbound misfit”.

As I took each step in my recovery, the metres gradually grew into kilometres and my body grew stronger. All the while I kept my focus on two goals. Firstly, to return to full fitness to enjoy a long, active life with my wife and kids. Secondly, to fly again – I didn’t care what I flew – I just wanted the earth to fall away from my wheels once more.

Bit by bit my goals grew closer. Kirrily and the kids supported my unerringly from those first immobile days to being able to run laps again. At work, I was grateful to be around aviation again in a ground role as I bided my time. There were tough career choices to be made but again the support of my family was unfailing. Slowly, I regained my various qualifications in the simulator and in a light aircraft but a return to the jet seemed distant. And then my roster announced my first flight. Sydney – Tokyo – Sydney.

Having passed my final simulator check for the Boeing 787, there was a teasing hiatus until I was to fly. In fairness, the time was far from wasted. I was able to attend the launch of my new book and use the downtime to study the 787 and its route structure. Slowly, the days counted down.

The night before departure my uniform was readied and my bag was already packed. I reviewed the route, the weather and any other information that I could ingest as my brain gathered the appropriate momentum.

The next evening as I passed through the Customs gate, the international terminal and ultimately entered the crew room. I almost felt reborn. The days when doubt of a return to the sky simply slipped away and the hill climbs I had battled to rebuild my body all seemed worthwhile. When I first saw the aircraft parked and waiting, I felt like a kid again.

Qantas Boeing 787

There was a time when I had contemplated retirement but in my heart I knew that I wasn’t quite done with my career. The passion still burned and there were aviation and worldly experiences that I still needed to consume through my senses. Kindly, the airline had agreed and now I was strapped in and ready to take flight again. 415 days since I had last heard “V1. Rotate.” and watched the nose raise to the night sky in tribute, leaving the earth behind.

As the 787 gracefully rolled to the north and pierced the thin layer of stratus, the familiar rush of cloud in the landing lights reminded me of what I had missed in my days on the ground. With the stars above and the glow of city lights below, we accelerated and set course for Tokyo.

Queensland, New Guinea, Guam, Saipan. They all slipped silently beneath our wings until Japan appeared at the top of our navigation display and we readied for descent. Strong winds had cleared the skies and Tokyo’s lights shone brightly, although Mt. Fuji hid in the distant darkness.

As the runway drew closer, winds in excess off 100km/h still pushed us from behind as the captain slowed the Boeing and manoeuvred to align with the runway. The approach and touchdown zone lighting reminded me of a decorated Christmas tree on this December night. But soon those lights slipped beneath the nose and wheels reunited with Terra Firma.

Parked at Gate 145 at Haneda Airport, I took a breath. It had been a long road back to the flight deck but now I was certain that it had been worth it. A second wave was soon upon me as I contemplated the flight home. It would be by day and ideal for my eyes to trawl their net and catch a whole new collection of memories. Even more significantly, it would be my sector to fly and I couldn’t wait.

But that’s another story……

Zupp Book 50 Tales of Flight.