By Antony E Woodward
Flying up the Gulf of Siam in a Boeing 727 at 37,000 feet we were in and out of the cloud tops and experiencing moderate turbulence at times. With the 727s high wing loading we couldn’t request a higher level because we were already quite close to “coffin corner”. That’s the top area on the performance chart where the two lines converge to show a very small margin between the low and high speed buffet boundaries. Aircraft with large wing areas such as the Boeing 777 can comfortably climb straight to 41,000 feet and fly above most of the weather on short to medium sectors.
Off the coast of Cambodia, one of the young stewardesses came into the cockpit visibly upset by the rough ride we were having. It was her first solo flight after completing her training. The seat belt sign was on and cabin service had been suspended. We smiled and asked her politely to get rid of the food trays, so we wouldn’t have metal projectiles in the form of knives and forks flying around the cockpit, then to come back and sit in one of the observer seats and keep us company for the rest of the flight. We quickly managed to restore some of her self confidence but added that flying in rough weather occasionally was part of the job she had chosen and that she had better get used to it.
I was going to give her the universally held definition of flying; that is, hours and hours of sheer boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror, but I thought better of it. Instead I gave her the definition of a pilot to divert her attention away from the lightning flashes.
“The average pilot, despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. These feelings just don’t involve anybody else.” She started laughing until tears rolled down her cheeks. I quickly added that the definition did not apply to the three of us, who were overflowing with compassion, affection, and caring for others.
Approaching Rayong we copied the ATIS (automatic terminal information service), briefed the approach, and asked for descent clearance. We were radar vectored in a wide arc and we were number 9 in landing sequence. Eventually we were cleared for an ILS (instrument landing system) approach to runway 21R at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. At the final approach fix we were handed off to the tower for landing clearance. A trainee air traffic controller asked us to maintain 1,500 feet which was contradictory to the approach clearance we were flying. When we were over the runway threshold, still at 1,500 feet, she cleared us to land. That’s asking a bit much of any pilot of a large aircraft, despite the 13,000 ft runway. I suppose with the pressure of trying to handle so much inbound traffic, she simply forgot about us. In any case, it meant following the published missed approach procedure. Realizing our plight she had us handed back to approach control who gave us radar vectors to the back of a long queue for another approach. It was 6.30 pm with aircraft converging from many points of the globe.
We eventually landed after 11 other aircraft. It was not critical, just a little inconvenient, as we had plenty of fuel. As we were leaving the runway, a trainee stewardess came through the cockpit door bearing a silver tray on which were placed three crystal glasses containing champagne and brandy – this was called a “reverse thrust”. Normally this kind gesture would be handed out at the gate, if at all, and not while taxying to the gate. She returned a few minutes later and stuffed 3 cold lagers into everybody’s flight case for the “fourth sector”. No objections here! The schedule involved flying three sectors terminating in Bangkok. The trip into central Bangkok in the hire car was called the “fourth sector” because at that time of the day it could take almost as long to get to the hotel as it did to fly up from Singapore. The flyover had not yet been constructed.
As I had a flight into Bangkok about every 14 days, I got into a routine for my 16 hour layovers. On arrival at the hotel I showered, changed into casual clothes, then hailed a tuk tuk (motorized samlor) to take me to the Oriental Hotel on the Chao Phraya river. I would relax with one, or perhaps two, cocktails in the Bamboo Bar listening to jazz while soaking up the atmosphere of this excellent watering hole. Afterwhich I would wander up Charoen Krung road to “the Wall” restaurant which was partially hidden down a small soi (lane) off Suriwongse road.
This restaurant was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, in the evenings there was always a log fire burning in the fireplace. Outside the temperature was 30+ degrees Celsius, but inside it had been cooled down to a chilly 18 degrees. Requests for tables by the fire were common. I usually managed to get one because I was a regular who arrived after 9.00 pm. The place was very dark and the only illumination came from candles which were placed on every table as well as the glow from the log fire. The menu clearly indicated that the proprietor was Swiss. The food was very good and not at all expensive.
The second unusual feature was that there was another menu on the table featuring a wide selection of music. Every evening, except Tuesdays, a big white-haired Frenchman sat at a table grand piano and played anything that the diners ordered from Rachmaninov to Blues and everything in between. He was a likeable character and extremely versatile as a pianist.
After dinner I would take a taxi up to the bar area centered around Patpong, and spend two or three very pleasant hours in the “Other Office” or “Lucy’s Tiger Den” imbibing the local beer and chatting to some interesting characters, or listening to the exploits of a group of Air America pilots who had been involved in the secret war in Laos, and were now resident in Bangkok. In these two bars the girls did not hassle patrons, but were available if you wanted them. Often I’d finish up the evening with a massage to loosen up a little before walking back to the hotel. On Friday and Saturday nights the bars stayed open until 1.00 am which made it just that little bit harder to go to work the next day. However, with an 11.00 am departure time it was still quite legal and well outside the “eight hours bottle to throttle” rule. The next day was an easy single sector day of just under two hours flying.
Of all my South East Asian layovers I enjoyed Bangkok the best. The girls were friendly, the food and beer was cheap, and there were plenty of interesting and slightly eccentric characters to talk to. My only regret was that we saw Bangkok by night and didn’t have the opportunity to get out on the river or do any of a myriad of other interesting things in the daylight. The sort of things that make up real Thai life!
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