500 Days. By Owen Zupp.
It doesn’t get much more scenic than that.
As the QANTAS 747 made its way to the threshold of runway “8 Right” at Honolulu’s international airport, a small inlet of white sand and crystal clear water sat just off to the side, the giant jet’s wingtip seemingly reaching out to shake hands with the gentlest of waves. A small catamaran glided across the surface, powered by the lightest of breezes and I made a mental note to hire a car and visit this little slice of heaven on my next trip to Oahu.
Soon it was the outstretched length of asphalt that filled the windscreen, its dashed white centreline beckoning us to take flight. The air traffic controller cleared us to go, the thrust levers came to life and the rumble of acceleration began. Speeds were called, hands eased the yoke back and the mighty Queen of the Sky raised her nose with style and began a graceful sweep to the right without delay.
As she set her heading for home and rolled her wings level, Waikiki and Diamond Head waved farewell, but this was not goodbye. We would be back – and soon.
That was 500 days ago and the world is now a very different place. And I never made it back to that little slice of heaven.
So many aviation professionals have had their world collapse around them. Some have seen their jobs disappear, while others have fared a little better and entered a state of “limbo” referred to as “stand down”. Kirrily and I are in the latter group, with the 747 being retired from QANTAS earlier than had been planned – again due to the impact of the pandemic. Personally, I was very fortunate to be called back to work for a few precious days last July when I was part of the final flight of “The Queen”. A farewell that saw Wunala cross the Pacific one last time before a short hop to its final resting place in the Mojave Desert. There she now sits with her sisters, gradually being stripped of her components and dignity.
Otherwise, it has been a very long time since we were able to convey our treasured passengers on their adventures to far-flung cities and far-flung loved ones. The absence from the camaraderie of the flight deck and the hidden wonders of distant destinations has been a difficult change. However, it is the uncertainty of when this will end that rankles the organised brain of flight crew more than anything else. And while I have a strategy laid out for the months and years ahead, others are still struggling and through no lack of effort on their part.
I have been fortunate in that I have been able to serve with the Air Force Reserve, fly light aircraft, write extensively and contribute to an aerospace training project. It has meant adapting, diversifying and working across different spheres and it has been difficult at times. Still, it has meant that I have been able to remain engaged and enthused about aviation in possibly its darkest hour.
However, without doubt, the greatest benefit has been the time with our family. The pandemic has presented us all with challenges and the ability to weather those hurdles as a family unit has been a treasured experience. Even through lock down and isolation, the bond has grown ever stronger. When we look back on these dark days at some future date, my family will be the absolute beacon that I recall.
The future beckons and for me it is training on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Whether at the end of that training I am stood down again with international borders closed – who can say? And if I am, so be it. I will move down which ever road lies in front of me as I’ve never been able to drive looking in the rear-view mirror. I will cherish whatever positives can been drawn from these times.
And yes – it may be 500 days but one day I will once again climb Diamond Head and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. And I will certainly swim in that little slice of heaven – with my family.