By Claire Spencer
BA have been flying from London to the Rock for many years; indeed they were the first to do so, originally as a subsidiary carrier, GB Airways, until BA finally took over a few years ago. My first flight to Gibraltar in 1996 with them is etched indelibly on my mind, as the landing proved to be both lively and exciting as we landed safely in the teeth of a blustery Levanter. On this flight I distinctly remember sitting next to a guy who I swear was John Altman aka ‘Nasty’ Nick Cotton of EastEnders fame; this wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility either, as apparently some of the cast of that popular TV soap were regular visitors to The Rock.
And so, on a beautiful December afternoon I found myself back yet again for the umpteenth time waiting on the terrace at Gibraltar International Airport in brilliant sunshine for the BA flight to arrive to take me back to the UK. The plane duly arrived ahead of time, cruising in from the bay, with its wings looking like friendly arms outstretched in welcome to an old friend, the Castle and Keys waving back in the Levanter breeze from The Moorish Castle, and The Rock looking on as ever in silent witness.
However, despite this early arrival, I knew that due to the French air traffic controllers strike that we would be late departing. So, it came as no surprise that once we were all comfortably seated in our luxurious leather seats, that the captain’s polished tones announced from the flight deck that we had a one and a half hours wait until we had a clear slot for the flight back.
An unprecedented move to take the sting out of the situation we were in.
My heart and those of my fellow travellers sank on hearing this rather unwelcome news, but our spirits were soon raised when the captain went on to say that we were free to wander around the plane and come up and visit the cockpit if we so wished. This was an unprecedented kind move by BA to take the sting out of the situation we were in.
Rather than sit and wait for take-off, I took him up on his kind offer and, somewhat cautiously, as if I couldn’t quite believe what I’d heard, approached the cockpit. A friendly chief purser encouraged me to enter, whereupon I found myself in the welcoming company of Captain Karl Stringer and First Officer Jon Fernandez surrounded by the mesmerising myriad dials and controls of the flight deck.
Someone else, who had taken up the offer of the visit, was taking advantage of the chance of a photo opportunity to sit in the pilot’s seat whilst I was chatting to the captain. As well as delving into various subjects including the deeper mysteries of multi-layered flight paths and the billion pounds insurance value of the aircraft, Captain Karl answered a common question that many people ask: “Why do we have to board the plane if we are delayed, instead of waiting in the terminal?” The logical reason he gave was, that if a slot became free, we had to be ready to depart. In fact, this happened on this occasion, as we took off about twenty minutes or so earlier than the original delayed departure time.
First Officer Jon Fernandez was equally friendly, kindly posing for photographs and patiently answering my many questions. Jon told me that he did his pilot training in nearby Jerez, and treated flying into Gibraltar very much a routine procedure, a fact which would be very reassuring to people who worry about flying.
It certainly added a bit of class
It would appear that BA is a good airline to work for, as the cabin crew have notched up many years’ service between them; one stewardess I spoke with had been with them for 28 years, so was possibly on that first flight I made back in 1996, whilst the friendly purser alluded to earlier had been with them for just 23 years.
The time soon flew by, and all too soon, the captain was telling us all to return to our seats ready for take-off. As the plane taxied down the runway as if on a proud lap of honour by the floodlit Britannia Stadium, the lights of Ocean Village winked at me as I said my silent farewells to this very special place.
When we reached the bay end of the runway, the aircraft seemingly pirouetted to face East ready for take-off; then the engines roared back at the crouching lion of the Western Med as we accelerated past the waiting traffic which turned into a blur as we leapt up into the clear evening sky.
Normal service was resumed: the cabin crew went about their duties, but not before we were all treated to a very entertaining safety procedures video with an all-star cast including Michael Caine and an absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley amongst others. It certainly added a bit of class to what is usually a well-rehearsed choreography courtesy of the trolley dollies on other airlines.
Before long, after a reasonably smooth flight, we were beginning our descent into a rather blustery Heathrow, just about an hour behind schedule. Those on board who were concerned about their onward connections were reassured when the friendly purser informed them that they would be met by a team of the airline’s representatives who would book them onto alternative flights and sort any overnight accommodation on arrival.
As I made my way off the plane, to be wished goodbye from the smartly turned out crew, I reflected on the experiences of the day on a flight made so much more memorable by one of the world’s leading airlines, and was actually grateful that the flight had been delayed, otherwise all the exciting events of the day would never have happened.
Claire has donated her fee for this article to Street Safe, a charity for the homeless.