The Joy of Flight. Remember?
At 36,000 Feet, Sunset’s Afterglow Paints a Rare Beauty of the Land
And a long gin and tonic on ice can enrich the view.
Written by Scott Johnston. Last updated Sunday August 7th, 2011
By SCOTT JOHNSTON
It’s twenty years or so ago.
Long before sunrise on an early winter morning my business colleague Ian and I leave our hotel in downtown Copenhagen and take a taxi out through the dark suburban streets to the airport. Coming the other way, into town, is a constant stream of cyclists, three or four abreast, and sometimes more, making their way to work.
Anyway, Ian and I are on our way back home to Scotland, taking in a morning business meeting in London.
And this is an early morning business flight. Even before the plane pushes back from the pier captains of industry all around us have snapped open their brief cases, pulled out reports and charts for close perusal, and calculators to fiddle about with. They are men with a serious purpose. Those of them accompanied by colleagues start business meetings, speaking softly but intently.
Already, before breakfast, the working day has begun. In earnest.
The SAS jet take off, rise steeply, and sets course pretty well due south west in a straight line, for London. Coffee and Scandinavian breakfast smells pervade the cabin. Enticing. We shall eat our croissants and bacon with a sense of Olympian detachment, overflying Hamburg and Amsterdam at 30,000 feet on a still morning, with the orange glow of dawn coming up, gradually backlighting below us the much fought over Low Countries and the North sea where it begins to narrow into the Straits of Dover.
This is where the Battle of Britain was fought in 1940 - the last time Britain “stood alone,” and won a victory that decisively changed the course of history. Millions in the two World Wars of the twentieth century died on these lands and seas and in the skies above them. Many more millions died in the preceding twenty centuries of recorded history, for this is where the white tribes of Europe and their kings and dukes and ruling families struggled endlessly for command of the land and of the seas, for access to resources and trade, and for territories to conquer and to settle.
But not much of this is in our minds, nor in the minds of these around us, engrossed as they appear to be in income stream projections, stock option analyses and other mysteries of commercial conquest. And then the galley doors open.
A trolley comes into the cabin. It is propelled by a Scandinavian blonde, every man’s fantasy incarnate. But she offers nothing to eat. This is a breakfast aperitif for God’s sake, a phenomenon I have encountered nowhere else - Romania excepted. It is no ordinary aperitif. It is a minimum of a couple of generous miniatures of Gammel Dansk, a bitters liquor, matured with 29 types of herbs, spices and even flowers. The complete recipe, Wikipedia records, is “naturally kept secret.”
On board the plane was the version that comes in full industrial strength.
The blonde patrols the aisle, smiling and dispensing generously. The next course, to dispel the pungent aftertaste of the Gammel Dansk is now a powerful Swedish lager that is not at all for the timid or the unadventurous.
But the captains of industry seem to take this in their stride. A prelude to a hearty breakfast. Maybe it’s explicable as a diluted genetic hangover from the reputedly immoderate habits of their Viking ancestors, early predators in the seas beneath us, people not above drinking copiously from the hollowed out skulls of their victims.
Between Hamburg and Amsterdam breakfast proper is served. It was excellent. That is all I recall of it, save that over the coffee, and pondering the early morning habits of the Danes as we’d observed them, Ian remarked, “Small wonder that the bulk o’ them cycle to work if that’s what they have for their breakfasts.”
Fast forward a year or two and I’m with another colleague, Jim. We’ve been in Lisbon for a couple of days’ stay, and now we’re at the airport to take the direct flight to London, then on home to Edinburgh. It is Saturday afternoon and the place isn’t busy. A score of passengers stands in line for security checks for flights to half a dozen European destinations, London and Paris included. A woman behind me asks, in French, if she is in the right line for the Paris flight. I tell her, in French, that she was OK, the security desk was handling all European destinations.
Jim hears this exchange in a foreign tongue unknown to him and says to me, “You’ve managed to pick up Portuguese pretty fast.”
God doesn’t hand you these opportunities too often. I cannot of course speak a word of Portuguese. And technically I told no lie by answering casually, “Not too difficult if you just keep your ears open.”
And there was icing on the cake.
On the second leg of the flight home, from London to Edinburgh we flew unusually high, at 36,000 feet in unusually clear northern skies, still daylight at 10:30 on this late June evening. Our pilot was a man with a soul. “I’ve never seen this before,” he announced over the PA, “The Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the mountains of North Wales, Newcastle away on the east coast of England, and the mountains on Jura off the west coast of Scotland with the afterglow of the sunset still behind them. I’ve got clearance to circle once to let everybody see. You’ll likely never see the like again.”
It was magnificent. It happened once more, over the Alps, on the way home from Rome. Sipping a long gin and tonic poured over ice, observing from double their height the snows of the complex chain of alpine peaks stretching in the afternoon sunlight from France to Austria, and all from the comfort of a business class seat, a luxury now long denied me now that I need to pay my air fares out of my own pocket -- I knew then how God must feel on one of his better days.
Unendurable for an unreconstructed elitist like myself, at least when I contemplate the vulgarities inseparable from air travel as I now must suffer it.
Scott Johnston is a native of Dundee, Scotland, and a graduate of Durham University in England where he earned honors in philosophy, politics and economics. From 1979 until he retired in 1995, he was the chief executive of the National Farmers Union of Scotland. In retirement, he has been a consultant to the European Union in Romania and Bulgaria. He lives in Edinburgh.