My Most Outrageous 747 Voyage

( This is the first part of my tale of an outrageous round-the-world business trip that I first published in 2014.)

Alan Gardiner and I sent our first post card to his boss, Doug Adams, during our layover at O’Hare International Airport. The front had a skyline shot of Chicago and on the back, I penned:

Hi Doug,

This place is nice and the girls are great.

John & Al.

I would write this identical  message on picture post cards that I’d mail to Doug from Tokyo, Manila, Kula Lumpur and Paris.

We planned this trip in the late winter of 1983 to visit an oil company client in Malaysia. The outbound flight was the brain child of my buddy, Mike Scott, who discovered an ad in The Wall Street Journal, for a special fare that offered first class travel on Northwest Airlines at a bargain price on their route between New York and Manila. “Hopie,” (then my nickname at work,) look at this crazy cheap price for your trip to K.L.” (Kula Lumpur, Malaysia.)

Mike was right; Northwest’s price for a first-class ticket to the Far East was less than business class on every other airline. Better yet, it also put us in first class for all of the other legs of our journey: Manila to KL, KL to Paris and Paris to JFK. The bad news: the flying time was insane, especially the outbound journey. The first leg was JFK to Dulles just outside DC, Dulles to O’Hare, O’Hare to Tokyo’s Narita Airport and Narita to Manila. Total flying time of 23 hours!

Somehow, I convinced Alan that this could be a blast and, being 39, I considered myself young enough and eager enough to believe it would be fun. Our 747 left JFK about 9 AM and the first two legs to DC and Chicago were uneventful. Our accommodations were in the upper cabin where we occupied two of the nine seats. These seats were the most luxurious that either of us had ever sat in on a flight. We were seated in Row 1, Seats A and B.

Our defacto private nine-passenger airplane remained exclusively ours during these first two legs. I cannot describe what the seating was like in the rest of this jet as I never ventured below except to deplane during layovers. Service was attentive, Bloody Mary’s, before take-off and in-flight; though the flight attendant let us know that her crew was deplaning in Chicago.

We did notice one thing on the airplane that seemed unusual. On the bulkhead in front of our seats were three metal stanchions arranged like an upside-down letter “L”. Neither one of us could imagine what purpose they served.

A few other travelers joined us at O’Hare but several seats remained vacant. The purpose of those mysterious stanchions became apparent once we reached cruising altitude out of Chicago as in-flight service began. A flight attendant climbed the spiral staircase from the main cabin carrying pieces of metal and fiberglass and went to work. She fitted a “u” shaped metal leg into the two stanchions one on top of the other and the bottom and a straight metal leg into the third. Then she placed a fiberglass table onto the top of the “u” brace. By Jove, she had built a bar and then this angel proceeded to stock it with spirits, wine, ice and mixers. She had our complete and undivided attention. Satisfied with her effort, this extraordinary woman turned around and addressed her charges: “tell me what you are drinking gents. I’ll make you each your first drink but from then on it is strictly self-service.”

I asked her if this was heaven? She replied, “No, but we’re flying over Iowa.”

Compounding this experience of being a kid in a candy store, the fourteen-hour flight to Japan had left O’Hare about 11 AM so we’d be traveling during the day most of the flight meaning sleep wasn’t an option. Add to that the excitement of making this trip and I was still running on adrenaline when we deplaned in Narita 14-hours later for a layover.

The first-class lounge was outside the main terminal meaning Northwest had to issue us “shore passes” allowing us to clear Customs and Immigration. Not much to report about the stay. We bought the post card and a stamp and found a mail box to post it. But I do recall teaching a group of Japanese businessmen a mathematical card trick that my colleague, Lisa had taught me called, “The Sundance Kid.” Using a prepared deck, I dealt three fellows and Alan each a hand. When they turned over their cards, each of them had a full house. But I had also dealt a straight flush to myself. They were astounded.

I “crashed” as soon as I re-boarded the 747 and slept for the full six-hour flight to Manila. Think about it, six-hours is the same flying time as New York to London. Not a bad nap.

At baggage claim in Manila, Alan tried to tell me about things that happened on the flight from Tokyo, But I explained that I had gladly missed all of it. To this day, I don’t regret sleeping through almost that entire flight. It would appear that I finally learned exactly how to utilize  those luxurious seats to complete the last leg of this outrageous journey in peace.

In 1983, the suitcase of choice for people flying into Manila was the corrugated box and I do not believe I had seen that much cardboard since I quit being a cargo surveyor. I deemed cardboard boxes to be the national luggage of the Philippines!

Looking back, this was my most outrageous aircraft journey and that Northwest 747 Queen of the Skies, was the only airplane up to the challenge.