Tuesday, June 18, 2013

HKTrip12: Day 6.2 - Flying Home

This thirteenth and last episode covers the flight back home to Christchurch.

Sydney Airport - International Departures
In a previous episode I've already mentioned a bit about the Sydney international departures area - specifically how they have a bunch of full body security scanners, or how some of the really nice food outlets are actually located outside the security cordon.

Check In Hall
Compared to the rest of Sydney Airport (or at least the parts I've seen), perhaps them most drab part of the whole terminal is the check in hall. By and large, this still looks like some brand of dull non-offensive architecture from the 1980's (or perhaps something more like the one of those "American" airports you often see in old films). Contributing to this is the colour scheme (one of those beige, cream, light grey-brown ones), the fogged-up tubular plastic roofing covering the drop off area outside the building, and monotone vinyl flooring. Perhaps the only redeeming characteristics here were that: 1) it was still quite spacious (though at the same time, this means quite a bit of walking), 2) they thoughtfully provided bunches of grey plastic seats beside the windows (which proved to be really nice for taking naps on, resting, and generally passing out on).

The Back Wall
The majority of all the "interesting" parts of the airport are all located on the back wall of the check in hall, behind all of the counters. These include several restaurants/cafes, including Coffee Club (they have nice cakes and slices, as well as providing some nice meal options such as All Day Breakfasts and a number of other tasty offerings), another restaurant (IIRC, it might've been Japanese, though I can't be sure), and the obligatory shop selling standards-compliant suitcases. These were located between aisles C-F.

The toilets were located between aisles A to C or so, with multiple entrances available. Around the same area, there was a strange passageway labelled "transfers" or something similar, through which hoardes of roller-bag toting passengers would occasionally stream out from in a hurry.

Down one of these is a door leading outside to an outdoor bar area / smokers zone / "beer garden" / open-air viewing deck. Perhaps that's a benefit of this still being one of those "older" airports, in that you still get to stand outside the terminal and watch the planes at close distance (i.e. close enough to still get an earful from all the jet noise and wind gusts) without any retaining glass walls or protective cages to get in the way of camera lenses. It's a bit of a pity though, that this was by and large occupied by smokers puffing away like smokestacks.

The entrance to the security screening area/immigration was located around aisle J - or basically halfway down the length of the check in hall. From the perspective of someone who came in via the trains (which result in you arriving from beside aisle A), this is a pretty long walk which takes you past 2-3 sets of entrances.

Passing through to the Departures/Transit Mall
As usual, you have to pass through the two clearance points to get inside the departures area. There's the immigration counter (basically, "Australians", and "Rest of World"), followed by security (i.e. a bank of unused full body scanners in the background, etc.). Though there wasn't that much of a rush that afternoon, the security folk were still quite efficient at processing all the passengers, with several queues running that day. One interesting deviation from the others though is that there would be one staffer who'd hold a round plaque divvying passengers up between the various queues.

After passing through these steps, all of a sudden, you find yourself standing in the middle of the big large Duty Free zone (i.e. the one with the big yellow signage that feeds off from the giant oval skylight in the middle of the mall), surrounded by cases of wine. Again.

Passing Time Before the Flight
Since there were still a few hours before the flight home was scheduled to leave, there was still quite some time to burn in the airport (sleeping at that point was still an option, if, albeit a rather risky one). However, the top priorities during this time were: 1) have dinner (since there'd be no meals on the flight, and it'd be past midnight by the time we landed in Christchurch), 2) buy some water (to last us through the flight), 3) check on exam results.

Walkabout - The hunt for a decent meal, and/or some shopping
After taking a quick rest to figure out what to do, we started on a long trek through the terminal building to the "far end" to check out whether there was any decent offerings down that way. As it turned out, there were none. In fact, that end turned out to be even quieter/chillier at night.

Along the way, we got some water from the vending machines (these are light blue bottles, with pink labels on the top). Closely around the corner, we got to look closely at an old/battered looking Thai Airlines 747, which was being prepared for service (which was parked around the same area where I managed to get a shot of the APU exhaust fan/tail section of another 747 a week earlier). While I took a few snaps of the details of that, the most interesting of the bunch was perhaps this one of the engines:

Interesting... so they have a bit of an exhaust vent out the side, and stick out in several sections like that.

Another Spotting Session at my Favourite Window
In an earlier post, I mentioned one of my favourite viewing spots in the terminal where you can just sit right beside the glass and watch planes take off and land (actually you hear and feel the rumble of their engines first, which somehow shakes the entire terminal when they pass). In that particular spot, you'll usually see the big jets start to pull up their landing gear.

Anyway, with some time to kill, this was the perfect spot to do so. Especially when it gives you views of stuff like:
Various tow-trucks, and those nifty rotating lifting-platform thingies...

More tow trucks - if you look closely, you'll see that they actually have different sizes, which are indicated on their sides with a bit S, M, W!

Other jets parked out on the tarmac - After sitting out there for so long, this Qantas jet finally prepares to get into the air again...

... just sitting around there in front of you. As the "Qantas area", all of these pieces of equipment were naturally emblazoned with their livery.

While staring out across the airfield from such a nice vantage point, I also managed to attend to another one of my todo items: checking my exam results for the semester just passed (and also for my research project paper). Those results were being released that day at 7pm NZ time. Just prior to clicking the link to bring the results up, I briefly wavered - do I want to know this before I return home or not? (One or two of the assessments for those papers were a bit patchy... or hopefully I didn't make any catastrophic mistakes in this or that paper). Finally, I clicked on the results. Woohooo! A straight A+ record for all of those. And that, is the memorable story of how I checked my last ever paper grades for my BSc(Hons) degree - right there, in front of "the Qantas window" in Sydney airport, looking out across the airfield, mere hours before returning home from an exciting and refreshing trip to Hong Kong.

To celebrate, we ended up having dinner at the Chinese restaurant located just next to this window. While their prices for Dim Sum lunch were frankly quite ridiculous (though it's probably a given, since they're operating in such a prime spot within an international airport), for dinner, these were probably acceptable. The food quality was OK - not the very best I've had, but certainly well above crappy/mediocre standards, so it did the job well enough.

Heading to the Gate
After dinner was demolished, it was soon time to start heading off to the gate for our flight. This turned out to be quite a long trek, far out down a branch that we hadn't been to before (but which was very close to the runway). On one side of the terminal building around there, there were a bunch of Pacific Island carriers parked up at the gates (i.e. Fiji, etc.)

However, that evening, the terminal was noticeably a lot quieter than it had been at the other times that we'd been in it. There was hardly anyone around walking about, or sitting in the various restaurants. There weren't many people walking around, and definitely no one doing any shopping. It just felt like the whole place was about to shut down operations for the night, and that we were probably the last flight or two to leave for the day (wow... one of the first to arrive, and one of the last to leave that day).

While waiting at the gate, there was plenty of time to take some snaps.

As usual around sunset, the heavens caught my eye:
Ooh... what is that you ask? It seems like some complex dark-stormy cloud formations with some "god rays" peeking through...

A few minutes later, the scene had evolved once again, and once again, it was really tempting to take a second shot...
Ooh - it seems to be clearing up a little, with some bits of sun poking through now, but still all behind the fragmented cloud up there. Dunno if that's gong to make for a bumpy ride up though...

Walking around the terminal a bit and turning my sights downwards, I finally got a chance to have a closer look at some of the markings on the concourse:
Ahh... so that's how they decide where/when to get planes to stop. They have different markers for the different planes!

The Flight
The flight back to Christchurch was operated by Jetstar - the budget subsidary of Qantas (unfortunately, you don't really have any choice there anymore; Qantas doesn't fly those routes directly anymore, and neither does Air New Zealand which now offloads to Pacific Blue IIRC). In other words: 3 hours without food or entertainment (unless you stump up with the cash in-flight).

That's not such a bad deal if you can sleep through most of it, though the lack of an in-flight entertainment system to provide up to date flight progress info (when there was a delayed departure) was a definite downer, leaving me wondering that dreaded question, "Are we there yet?", mid-flight, with no other plausible ways of figuring out where we were or how much longer the flight would last.

Departure Delays
As it happens, several events conspired to delay the departure time of our flight. While we were supposed to depart around 7:45 pm, the eventual departure time ended up being something more like 8:45 pm.

Firstly, when we arrived at the gate, it turned out that the previous flight was still boarding (this was perhaps sometime between 7 and 7:20pm). However, there was one particular passenger, Doctor Something-Or-Other, who was running very late. They called his name numerous times - the "paging Doctor Blah Blah, last boarding call, your flight is waiting for you and will leave in 2 minutes" - and just about retracted the bridge, before he finally showed up some 7 minutes later, and was rushed onto the plane.

As it happens, this had apparently meant that the plane we were to be boarding (which had landed about halfway through this ordeal), was still stuck out on the taxiway somewhere (it could be seen in the distance, just sitting out there) waiting to come in. So, once the delayed Virgin flight finally got going, it was another 10-30 minutes of waiting while they got our plane in, cleaned it, and loaded in the luggage.

After a bit more waiting, they finally started boarding passengers - tail end first. IIRC, we were seated relatively far back there, so got to head in relatively early. Before boarding, I spied a tanker parked under the wings with a big fat hose plugged into one of the sockets under there. It was only when we got into the cabin that it became obvious what that had been up to: from the air vents, a cold, foggy, misty white gas was flowing out from the vents and downwards onto the seats and passengers. There was also a strong scent of insecticide (which also permeated the suitcases that were put into the hold, as well as some of its contents). Judging from NZ's biosecurity paranoia, it's fair to assume that they were just gassing all of us right there and then on the tarmac in Australia that night.

Finally, we were underway with the doors closed, or so it seemed, before the captain came on the intercom and said that there were delays that evening due to a lot of traffic having had to be rerouted or diverted due to "weather", with a significant storm cell apparently brewing on one side of Sydney that night (perhaps that's what caused those "god rays" I managed to snap earlier while waiting for the flight), and that we'd also have to wait while they took on a bit of extra fuel. Great.

So, peering out the windows, I watched as darkness set in - from a relatively dull grey twilight, to deep blues (and runway lighting starting to come on), to full blown darkness before we set off.

View out the window as we waited at the gate to depart, with twilight setting in. Here we can see a steel walkway for getting on/off planes (surely they don't frequently expect passengers to have to walk down off planes and scamper across the tarmac regularly?), and a large array of what seem to be flatbed luggage trolleys for Jetstar (look closely - they've all that orange branding and the black star logo on them). 

Finally, we started to taxi a bit before ending up just sitting there on the taxiway, waiting for a bunch of planes to land, and the ones in front of us to take off. Here are just a few of those...
Dunno what carrier this plane is for, but it's checkered tail fin sure is eye catching...

A Virgin 737 waits for takeoff. The (new) control tower in the background.

A jet landing coming in to land. Unfortunately, given the darkening sky at the time, it seems to be moving too fast to have fully captured it in this shot. In this distance, we can see parts of the CBD.

A Qantas jet taxiing around, while a few smaller jets are all lined up to land (they're probably going to have to do a bit of a loop around before being able to do so).

More traffic queued up in the skies and on the ground

Some more jets coming in to land - one was a Qantas, and the other a SwissAir IIRC

Finally, it was our turn...

Bye bye Sydney. 
I've also got a short clip of the latter parts of the climbout from Sydney, that seems to show parts of the bays (or ports, judging from the regular structures and bright/blown out lighting there).

Mid-Flight - Somewhere over the Tasman
For most of the flight, I tried to sleep, though those attempts were mostly futile and nowhere as productive as during the first flight. Unfortunately, it seems that the quality of Jetstar plane seating varies quite a bit, and while the first flight had seats that were surprisingly comfy and spacious (with the seat pocket stuff located up to for greater leg room), it turns out that not all their jets are set up like that (even though they're all A320's). Rather, on this one, they once again had the blasted pocket down below, making things quite cramped. Similarly, like the A380 (but perhaps not quite as badly), there wasn't much leg room to the left once again beside the window. Then again, the views on this flight were definitely worth a window seat IMO.

So, after several sleep-wake cycles, I randomly got the urge to peek out the window and see what was going on out there. I wasn't expecting to see much, given that much of the journey would supposedly be flying over the sea. But lo and behold: I noticed a brightly glowing dot floating above the wing...

Lo and behold - a brightly glowing sphere floating above the wing! After puzzling over it a bit, I quickly figured out that it was in fact the moon (and the other dot in the top left is probably either a satellite OR the ISS). I'm not too up on these space-things, so I'm not sure exactly what I we're looking at here, but it's probably one of those two given it's relative size.

With hardly any clouds in the way, and a much reduced distance between us, I figured that it was the perfect opportunity to try and get a more decent moon shot. Not too shabby that...

The view out the other window - we were flying over a layer of fluffy cloud (it looks a lot like ceiling insulation, don't you think?). The redness on the fins come from the strobe lights that flashed regularly about once per second. It took a few attempts to capture them in action lighting up the wing.

Around 11:30pm Sydney Time, the first signs of land started appearing below. For all intents and purposes, it looked to be just a small provincial town - a thin line of yellow and orange lights defining the coastline and a few clusters of houses a bit further up on the hill. At first I thought that perhaps this was the outskirts of the city, but when the flight carried on for 10 minutes, it became obvious that that was probably the West Coast at best.

Most flights back to Christchurch that I've been on have usually come in from the northwest, passing over the Rakaia river and acres of farmland before silently slipping onto the ground. However, that night, we were in for a treat: with crystal clear skies (i.e. no clouds anywhere to be seen or to obstruct the view), the pilots went for the "scenic approach" as I shall call it, flying east (sea) to west (airport) across the city from the north, giving us a beautiful view of the city lights. I've always wanted to see this landing (as opposed to the Harewood farmland ones we usually get) for years, so what better time to do so that when I had my camera primed and at the end of a great from to Hong Kong.

I'll leave you with the pretty images:
Starting from the coastline - the vertical strips on the left are the New Brighton spit; the curving lines mark out the estuary, while the chain of lights across the image in the far distance are for the main access road to the beachside settlement of Sumner. Above that, you can see some of the houses up on the hill. The areas surrounding New Brighton are relatively dark as those are some of the most hard-hit areas in the quakes - Bexley and Parklands - with many homes in that area now "red zoned" (or effectively written off and bought out by the government); not many people lived there anymore (at time of photo), and nearly none do today.

A nice overview of the city sprawl, and what appears to be one of the main routes north.

Main north road, heading off to Northwood?

 That dark patch in the middle is probably Hagley Park

I'm not really sure where this is, but what I do know is that this is home.

I also shot footage of the last 2 minutes of the descent, including the actual touchdown (i.e. firm). This is quite a large file. Unless I can find a way to compress it, it might be a while before I get around to uploading it around the end of my monthly broadband quota (to avoid maxing things out).

Christchurch Airport
Having seen a few major international airports during my travels on this trip, it was great seeing my home airport again at last. Compared to the ones I've seen, from the outside it really doesn't stack up too badly - the brightly coloured LED lighting (that regularly rotates colour schemes) really look quite nice.

The welcoming lights of the Christchurch Airport terminal building, with a few jets parked/abandoned outside for the night already. Here we see part of the terminal building, and the control tower.

At the gate - an Air New Zealand jet is parked next to us with its lights still on. More likely than not, passengers that jet had only recently arrived not too long before us, and is still being cleaned or unloaded.

Stepping off the plane, the first thing that struck me was the chilly weather that evening. It was freezing, even in the airbridge! Speaking of the airbridge, unfortunately it didn't have some of the pretty forest-themed decorations that the one I left on did (at the time I was 50/50 about taking a shot of it; now I wish I had), but instead only had a rather staid airport-branded one.

Getting into the terminal, it seemed that they'd finally finished replacing the carpet in the departures lounge, which was supposed to resemble the Canterbury Plains (much like one of those street-map rugs/mats for kids they used to make when I was a kid). Stepping off a plane, you're directed to a long sloping ramp that leads off away from the departures lounge about, around a corner, and on a bit further. Just around the corner, there is a toilet, which many passengers quickly rushed off to before carrying on ahead.

But before passing through immigration, you firstly have to pass through - surprise surprise - yet another Duty Free shop, titled "Your Last Chance Duty Free Shop" or words to that effect. As usual there were those wine and chocolate offerings, as well as a sunny sign instructing passengers to "Come collect your Duty Free items here" (in reference to those sealed bags of prior purchases passengers may have made at the previous stop, and had to hand over to crew for "safe storage" during the flight).

Passing through immigration was a breeze - SmartGate worked the first time, with no fuss whatsoever (even though I was probably looking quite jetlagged, drowsy, and off-colour by that stage) *ahem ahem* - and I managed to easily bear-hug our suitcases off the conveyor belt with barely any effort.

For anyone who hasn't been to NZ before, I should warn you at this stage that they do have detector dogs (usually beagles, wearing a green bib and on a leash) wandering around (and sometimes on top of) the baggage carousel. Last time, one of these got a bit suspicious with one of my bags as I had previous kept a bag of bananas in there to eat on the flight overseas (NOTE: the bananas themselves were long gone by the time I returned to NZ; it is illegal to bring food/fruit like that in with you). For the others, you'll probably have a bit of sympathy for those stuck in the long "to declare" Customs/MAF screening line, which stretched on for ages as they carefully picked apart people's suitcases, lest another cockroach-laden bun were to get in :P

Returning Home
Although it was late in the night when we finally got back home (it was 2/3 am in the morning already!), it was felt great to be home. Despite the weather outside being unseasonably cold (it was a mere 3-6 deg C that evening - in other words, freezing), home was warm and comfy (and didn't have that chilly "unlived in" stench that you'd normally get when returning home after a long trip).

Oh how nice it felt to finally be able to have a hot shower (my hair at that point was absolutely killing me, after so long without being able to wash and "degrease" it), and to proceed to flop on my own bed again that night. Wow... never before (or after) had it felt quite so welcoming and comfy - a warm cocoon of soft blankets, pillows, and mattress, all wrapping around me like the most form-fitting hugging-foam ever. No wonder I slept soundly that night, right up till the ripe old time of 2pm the next day!

After a quick meal, I was out in the garden that afternoon, sweeping the paths, raking the lawn, and cutting a few overgrown bushes in one fell swoop without the slightest need to pause (or even any feeling of tiredness at all). Wow. It was great to be back home.

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