AT THE END of a four day stay in Venice, a city, which I have loved ever since my early childhood days, I felt sad at the prospect of departure for home. Wandering about the city brought back happy memories of visits there with my parents as well as giving me the chance to experience familiar sights and to make new discoveries. Although Venice is a little overrun with tourists, its history as a gateway to points further east remains fascinating and evocative. So, the anticipation of leaving filled me with sadness.
We left Venice on a waterbus, which arrived punctually and was not overcrowded. After a lovely 70 minute voyage, which included stops at the Lido, the Fondamente Nove, and a couple of stops on the island of Murano (famous for its glass production), we arrived at Marco Polo Airport. And that is where our journey became wearying.
First, we had to queue to reach the baggage depositing facility for our airline Easyjet. Next, we discovered that our departure would be delayed by about 30 minutes. Then, we sat in a crowded waiting area without knowing from which gate we would be boarding our ‘plane. It was important to know this because there are two sets of passport control points, each leading to a separate set of gates. Once the gate was announced, another queue. This time, we had to wait (not too long) to have stamps placed in our non-EU passports. On arrival at the departure gate, we were told that boarding was beginning. What this meant was that everybody had to stand up, to show our boarding passes, and then to stand in a long sloping corridor for at least 10 minutes before we were invited on-board. The 1 hour 55 minute flight to London’s Gatwick Airport was pleasant, although delayed.
At Gatwick, we disembarked at a point distant from the immigration hall. The latter was reached after a good 15 minute walk. The passport control area was chock-full of people, some of them inebriated. Unlike in the EU, where EU and non-EU passport holders are separated, at Gatwick (and Heathrow), both kinds of passport holders and those from several other countries (e.g., Australia, NZ, and Japan) queue together to use the automated passport checking machines. The process, which might save spending on labour costs, is not user-friendly. Many passengers had difficulty using the machines and had to be helped by other passengers and a few members of airport staff. Fortunately, because it had taken so long to get through the immigration control, our suitcase had arrived in the baggage collection hall.
After one more short, but fast-moving queue, we reclaimed our car keys, and soon began the 1 hour drive home. Although I was so sad leaving Venice, after the many hours spent at airports and the numerous lines in which we waited, I was glad to be home. Years ago, when I was a child, leaving wherever we had spent our holiday was always sad, but even worse was returning to everyday routines of school and life in the staid Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived.
WHILE AWAITING TAKE-OFF from Lisbon’s main airport, our aeroplane was ‘parked’ beside the largest aircraft I have ever seen. Operated by Maximus Air Cargo company, its nose was pointing upwards towards the sky. It was being loaded with freight through an enormous aperture at its front end. The aeroplane was so large that it dwarfed the numerous workers around it and the forklift trucks being used to load its cargo. Even the Airbus 320 craft standing nearby seemed tiny in comparison. As we had to wait for what seemed like ages before we taxied to the runway for take-off, I had plenty of time to stare at it and to take photographs through the window next to my seat. My curiosity increased when I observed that the ‘plane had its make written on the raised section of its nose: Antonov 124-100.
The Antonov aircraft were built mainly during the years that the Soviet Union was in existence. The company that built these freight carrying ‘planes is named after the aircraft designer Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov (1906-1984). Born in the Moscow region, he was the son of a civil engineer. From 1923 onwards, he was deeply involved in aircraft engineering and design. By 1938, he was the leading designer in the aircraft plant headed up by AS Yakovlev (www.antonov.com/en/biography). And in May 1946, he headed up his own aircraft design plant, based in Novosibirsk. By 1948, ‘planes designed by Antonov and his team were being manufactured in Kiev (Kyiv in what is now Ukraine). In 1952, Antonov and his design bureau moved to Kiev. Antonov’s team began designing the AN 124 heavy transport aircraft in the early 1970s. The AN 124’s maiden flight was in 1982, but the vehicle only became known to the world at large when it was exhibited at the Paris Air Show in 1985. The AN 124s were produced at two factories: one in Ulyanovsk (now in Russia) and the other at Kiev (now in Ukraine). One special feature of the AN 24’s design is that its landing gear with 24 wheels is designed both for landing on rough terrain and to enable the ‘plane to kneel down so that its front entrance can be lowered to make loading and unloading easier. About 55 of the AN 124 craft were built between 1982 and 2004. According the uk.flightaware.com website, the AN 124 (registration UR-ZYD), which we saw on the 17th of June 2022 had flown from Leipzig to Lisbon that day and was about to fly on to Cairo (Egypt). It flew to Kigali (Rwanda) from Cairo on the 18th of June. Another website ( www.planespotters.net/airframe/antonov-an-124-ur-zyd-maximus-air-cargo/ejn4jx) revealed that UR-ZYD was built just over 18 years ago, in about 2013/14, making it one of the last to be built.
Maximus Air Cargo, which operates the AN 124, which I saw, is an Abu Dhabi based company, which specialises in transporting larger than usual objects. The company owns one Antonov 124-100, about which its website (www.maximus-air.com/fleet/antonov-124-100) noted:
“The heaviest of the heavyweight cargo lifters. It has a unique self-contained multiple winch and overhead crane system capable of self loading / unloading 120 tonne from front or rear. Can carry 21x Toyota Land Cruisers or 4 x Mi 17 MTV Helicopters without breaking a sweat.”
The aircraft’s maximum range is 6710 nautical miles (‘nm’), but when it is carrying its maximal pay load (120,000 Kg), this reduces to 2420 nm.
I had heard of the Antonov aircraft before, but the example I saw in Lisbon is the first I have seen ‘in the flesh’. I found that seeing this giant was very exciting.
BROMPTON CEMETERY IS in west London. Richly populated with memorials to the dead, it is a remarkably lively place on a sunny day, being filled with walkers, cyclists, and picnickers. The bodies of people from all walks of life and from many nations lie at rest beneath the many stones in the cemetery, which was first opened in 1840. During our recent visit, I spotted two memorials to men with a military career. Each of them was particularly eye-catching.
The first of these is a pink granite slab resting on stone cannon balls made of grey granite. A pile of similar canon balls is arranged like a pyramid on top of the stone. I felt that it is a particularly fitting design for a soldier’s gravestone. One of the cannon balls is carved with the word ‘BEYROUT’ and another with ‘PORTUGAL’. This is the memorial to General Alexander Anderson (1807-1877), of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. The monument was restored in about 2016. A document relating to its restoration (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Other-1833173.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=1833173&location=Volume2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1) informs that three of the cannon balls are engraved “Syria”, “Beyrout” (i.e. Beirut), and “Gaze” (i.e. Gaza). However, I photographed one bearing the word “Portugal”, which is not mentioned in the document. The monument was erected by Anderson’s friend Richard Eustace, MD, who lived from 1833 to 1908 (www.bmj.com/content/2/2490/865.2). Eustace entered the Royal Navy as a surgeon in 1854.
“He obtained his first commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Marine Forces in May, 1823, and had during half a century seen much active service. He served with the army of occupation in Portugal, and was for some time quartered at Fort St. Julian. He served at the battle of Navarino in 1827, and at the commencement of the action boarded with his men one of the Turkish ships and captured the flag. … He served throughout the campaign on the coast of Syria in 1840-41 … was at the attack and capture of Beyrout; the bombardment and surrender of St. Jean d’Acre; the surrender of Jaffa, and was a volunteer in the expedition against Gaza. … He had received the war medal with two clasps, also the Turkish silver medal from the Sultan, and when a colonel, received the good-service pension. He became colonel-commandant in November, 1859; major-general in March, I860; lieutenant-general in November, 1866 ; and general in April, 1870.” (www.newspapers.com/newspage/396245337/)
A memorial, less original in design than that of Anderson, also caught my attention with its bas-relief depicting an old-fashioned biplane heading away from a large flying zeppelin from which clouds of smoke are billowing. The grave marks the resting place of Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford (1891-1915). The stone bears the words:
“Accidentally killed 17 June 1915”
Given the year he died and his rank, it was hard to imagine what kind of accident caused him to die during a war when most fatalities were not described as ‘accidents’.
“…taught him the law of the jungle; to read the moon and stars across the wide Indian night skies; to be able to study cloud formations. Rex rode on the footplates of the service engines, rode the work elephants and hunted tigers.” (http://kes1914.net/the-boys/reginald-rex-warneford-vc/ – a highly informative web page)
At the outbreak of WW1, he joined the British Army and then was soon transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service to be trained as a pilot. He was a good student even if somewhat overconfident. Soon, he became involved in hunting down and intercepting German Zeppelin airships that were being sent to attack London and other targets in the UK.
On Sunday, the 6th of June 1915, Warneford was sent in a Morane Saulnier L monoplane to intercept the heavily armed and well-powered LZ37, a 521-foot-long German zeppelin, which had just taken off from Belgium and had got lost in the fog over the English Channel. German radio signals, intercepted by the British, discovered that the airship had been ordered to return to base. Warneford was sent out to find and attack it. He reached the airship when it was 10,000 feet over Bruges. Warneford rose to 11,000 feet and dropped six bombs onto the Zeppelin, which burst into flames. The hot air from the explosion caused Warneford’s ‘plane to go into a spin and damaged its fuel line. Warneford managed to land in a field behind enemy lines. After rapidly repairing the damage, he managed to fly back to safety, not before landing to refuel at a French base en-route. On the 8th of June, he was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for gallantry. Just before that, he was also awarded:
Modestly, he told a friend that in comparison to his grandfather, who had constructed railways in India:
“Bringing down the LZ37 was just routine and over in a flash. But building a railway, that was something.”
Returning to duty after his heroic activity, Warneford’s next mission was to take a new Henry Farman F27 biplane on a test flight. He took off from Paris on the 17th of June 1915 with an American reporter as a passenger. At 2000 feet, the aircraft began to disintegrate and fall downwards. It turned upside down at 700 feet and both pilot and passenger, who were not strapped in, fell to the ground. The reporter died instantly but Warneford survived. However, he died on his way to a hospital.
Had Warneford died whilst attacking a Zeppelin or during any other military encounter, his death would not have been regarded as accidental. As his death was a consequence of an unforeseen disaster, I suppose that calling it an accident is appropriate.
These graves I have described are two of many I saw that attracted my attention. I might well describe some of the others at a later date.
There was a young receptionist at one of the dental surgeries where I once worked. Let us call her ‘M’. Engaging her in conversation was not easy, but I tried often and succeeded occasionally.
Once, M announced that she was taking a week’s holiday. When she returned, I asked her:
“How was your holiday?”
“Ok,” M replied vaguely.
“And, where did you go?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Really?” I queried.
“I just got a last minute package trip and got in the ‘plane,” she told me.
“If you don’t know where you went, what was it like?” I asked.
“Not very exciting, really. All of the beaches were covered with black rocks and stones.”
I guessed that M had probably been to one of the volcanic islands in the Atlantic. It surprised me that someone could take a flight somewhere and have no idea where she had landed. What if something awful had happened to her? Who would have known where she was?
I used to be very apprehensive about flying. It scared me to think that each time we lifted off from the runway might be the prelude to the sudden ending of my short life. I used to read the safety instruction card, and still do today. However, I had little faith that by following the safety instructions, had there have actually been a disaster, would my life have been saved. On one occasion, I became very agitated because the man in the seat beside me had not fastened his seatbelt when instructed by the voice that cracked through the loudspeakers of the ‘plane’s tannoy system. My mother mentioned my concern to him, and I felt reassured when he told us that he worked for BEA (British European Airways) and knew exactly when it was essential to fasten this safety device.
During the 1960s, there were no moving map displays in aeroplanes such as are commonplace today. However, halfway through the flight, a small piece of paper used to be passed from passenger to passenger. It contained a bulletin about the progress of the flight, and it was signed by the pilot. I used to feel privileged being allowed to handle such an important document.
It was many years later that my hitherto irrational fear of flying became rational. I was on a jet ‘plane flying into London’s busy Heathrow airport from where I cannot remember. The ‘plane was descending, the buildings below us were becoming larger and clearer, and most of the clouds were above us, when suddenly the aircraft jolted and began to ascend rapidly.
“We have had to climb,” the captain announced calmly over the loudspeaker system, “to avoid another aircrft that had come into our flight path.”
A few minutes later, we began descending
“We can now continue our landing,” the captain announced in a nervous voice, “There are no other aircraft in our way this time.”
My wife, Lopa, and I flew to Bangalore in India in late December 1993 to celebrate our marriage with a Hindu ceremony. This was the first time that I had ever travelled further east than Cyprus.
We flew from London on a ‘plane operated by the Sri Lankan line, Air Lanka. The flight was memorable because the food served on board was superb. It was not the bland, insufficient fare usually provided when airborne. What we received on our trays in large metal foil containers was delicious Sri Lankan food, which tasted as if it were home-made by a cook who injected his or her love of food into the flavours.
Our first stop was at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. As we descended for landing during the slowly brightening dawn light, I could see acres of palm trees below us. This was the first time that I had ever seen groves of palms. This exotic sight made me feel that at last I had arrived in Asia.
After disembarking, we had to wait for our next flight for several hours. In those days, we took anti-malaria tablets. That morning, the only liquid we could find to wash them down was tea. Until that moment I had always drunk tea without milk. The tea stall only provided sweetened milky tea. I found it to be sickly and no help for ingesting the evil-tasting tablet. Now, after many visits to India I quite enjoy Indian milky tea.
My wife and I waited in a room along with other passengers, all of them from the sub-continent. Suddenly, one of her eyes began streaming with tears because some foreign body had entered it. Lopa began dabbing her eyes with a tissue. All the people around us glared at me. They thought that I had upset my wife!
On landing in Madras (Chennai) after walking across the tarmac from the ‘plane to the terminal, Lopa became nervous about the Indian customs examination. She told me that the officials could be very awkward. In those days, very little in the way of foreign goods were imported into India. Visitors or returning Indians were often laden with goods that then attracted high import duties at the customs. Smuggling was rife, and the customs’ officials were eagerly on the look-out for hidden treasures such as electronic goods, booze, and so on. We were not carrying anything of dutiable value. Nevertheless, Lopa was anxious.
As we approached the customs’ officials, the gods blessed us in an unusual way. Lopa’s nose suddenly began bleeding profusely. Despite using a handkerchief there was blood all over the place. The custom’s official, whom we were approaching, took one look at the bloodstained woman approaching him, and waved us through the customs barrier without stopping us.
At this point, let me tell you another thing that surprised me during my first visit to India: women police officers dressed in saris, albeit plain khaki saris. Another ‘plane took us from Madras to Bangalore (Bengaluru).
Lopa’s family met us at the airport (this was the old HAL airport east of the city, which has now been replaced by the newer Kempe Gowda Airport north of the city). After fighting our way through a crowd of taxi touts, we scrambled aboard the family’s ageing Maruti van, through its sliding side door.
By now, it was late at night, and dark. When we reached the family’s house, we disembarked, and stood in front of the main entrance. The top of the front door was decorated with leaves attached to a thread, a ‘toran’ (तोरण). Instead of entering, we all stood in front of the door. I wondered whether the front door key had been mislaid.
After a few minutes, there was suddenly a deafening sharp cracking sound, a loud bang. I thought to myself: “Oh no, we’ve been in Bangalore for just over an hour, and someone is shooting at us.” The noise that had startled me was no more than someone cracking open a coconut with an axe. Cracking coconuts is a part of Hindu traditions, especially at weddings. Amongst other things, the coconut is associated with fertility.
Some days later, we began the three-day long series of events connected with our Hindu wedding ceremony.
After the blessings by the priests, Lopa and I, connected together by several flower garlands and scarves, struggled into the back seats of a small Maruti car (not the van!). As soon as we were aboard we were driven a few feet forward. The purpose of this short journey was to drive over and thereby crack a coconut placed beneath one of the car’s front wheels.
I can truly say that my experience of India began with a bang.