Winter’s vengeance

When I flew back from New Zealand, I came across an article about interesting hotels of the world. Most were the typical exotic types: posh rooms and lavish spas with four-digit price tags. The one that caught my eye didn’t include either feature, and its price also wasn’t sky-high. Apparently, a little more than a decade ago, a 747 came to its final resting place not in an airplane graveyard but rather as a hostel. I figured the chance of a consensual nap in the cockpit of a 747 was going to be rare if not impossible, so I took the bait and booked the trip. As London had been, it was supposed to have been a quick weekend: two nights sleeping in the plane, then back to Germany. The drive to Munich started off cloudy, and the Alps weren’t visible as I flew on to Zurich.

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As we began our approach into ZRH, it became apparent just how low the clouds were. Tops of radio towers poked into the sunlight, and when we dropped below the puffiness, the ground seemed to swell up almost instantaneously.

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We taxied to the gate in a light mist, one of Swiss’ Boeing 777 appearing out of nowhere and melting away just as quickly as the grey enveloped us.

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In intent, this was supposed to be another pointed exploration of one small diorama that in a larger context has nothing or little to do with its surroundings. I wasn’t going to romp around Stockholm, and I knew that if I loved it — as I am wont to do with S-places — that I’d have to come back for a longer time; in summer, say, when the weather is nicer or at least more stable. I arrived at the practically-empty hostel mid-afternoon and had about thirty minutes of unadulterated joy. I don’t remember ever having been inside of a 747 front office, and with planes like the 787 and A350 coming into their own I doubt there are many more chances ahead of me for that experience.

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The sheen of excitement waned somewhat as I realized all the shiny bits of expensive cockpit hardware had been removed, probably sold for spares before the plane found its final resting place next to an airport. I was still quite giddy, though, and marveled at the switchgear. This thing had been used in its day, and the levers and knobs showed it.

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Reception downstairs probably found the bumps and other loud noises strange as I tried to arrange myself in a cramped space, taking pictures of hardware that had long sat idle. Or maybe every guest in the cockpit suite is just as much of a nerd as I am.

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I asked myself how much of this workspace hadn’t been photographed yet, but in my research about the hostel never found many pictures of the interior. I decided to keep clicking away.

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I slowly began to realize I was shooting some things twice, and glancing outside it was clear time was passing; the skies began to darken. I was considerably farther north than Germany, and given that winter evenings there bring darkness by 4:30 PM, I decided I should probably make plans for dinner. I finished playing pilot and taking pictures, setting all levers back to cruise and looked into where to go to appease my stomach.

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The cheap train ride into Stockholm from the airport takes about an hour. It was snowing gently but consistently, and it was a quiet night. The seafood restaurant I had scoped out was closed for renovations, so I walked another block and found another one. It was delicious; IPA was on tap and it, too, was delightful. I headed back into the Nordic winter, making my way to Stockholm’s collection of contemporary art, Fotografiska. I stopped along the way to take a picture across the water, thinking that with warmer weather it’d be interesting to explore this city in more detail. It thus far hadn’t quite enraptured my imagination, but the city seemed still pretty appealing. Curiosity goes a long way in falling in love with travel, I’ve found, and with such a short trip I intentionally didn’t turn on all the burners to full inquisition. And it was cold, windy, and snowy, so I hustled into the gallery.

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In the time that I was there, the gallery was showcasing the work of Kirsty Mitchell, a former English teacher who turned to photography when her mother passed away. Her series Wonderland captures a five year journey after her mother’s death. Without trying to relate to the exhibit or any single piece, the gallery is dark and strange, but as the context of the collection began to sink in, I found myself circling the exhibit multiple times, finding it simpler and simpler to connect the dots and put myself in Ms. Mitchell’s shoes. Beneath an airy wistfulness to her scenes is a distinctive nod to brooding and sadness.

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I originally ventured to Fotografiska to make at least one journey into Stockholm, but found myself oddly attached to Wonderland. I spend the better part of two hours reading each description, getting a sense as I read and contemplated the enormity of love the painstaking work reflected.

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Upstairs in the exhibit was a gallery called Stockholm Forever, in which various facets of Stockholm and its history were on display. Having spent most of my time downstairs, I watched the clock tick toward when I needed to catch my train back to my flight deck, and headed back out toward the city. It was still snowing.

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When I awoke the next morning, I couldn’t see out of the cockpit windows, a good half foot of snow blanketing them. I checked out of the hostel and wandered around the plane, never having before seen the 747 up close.

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I was surprised that I hadn’t seen any other visitors and asked the receptionist if this was normal. Surprisingly, most guests don’t book the rooms — main-floor has shared dorms; private rooms are in the engines, black box area, and cockpit — on weekends but rather for short stays during the week, when the plane is as full as it would be in revenue service. I found it hard to believe, but I also didn’t complain. It was a wondrously quiet weekend, and I was ready to head back to the airport and onwards back to Germany.

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And this is where the blog would have ended and should have ended. As was the case with London the week prior, I was “in Stockholm” for just one exploit, and as I trudged through what was maybe now 7″ of snow, I mapped out what I might do with the six hours until my flight. I figured I’d check in, put my suitcase into a locker, and head downtown again, where I could go wander Gamla Stan, the old town, or just pop into some stores to check out Scandinavian design. But then things began to unravel. I was told that the bus to get to the train station wasn’t running due to the weather, and furthermore that the trains themselves were on reduced schedules. Without a sure connection between station and airport, I decided I’d explore the airport instead. It’s nice, with new, modern, and bright spaces, and there were plenty of connections to the city to make actual trips there straightforward. Not all of them were cheap, however, and I didn’t want to pay €50 on top of my weekend pass I had purchased the previous day.

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So I watched the snow continue to fall, not giving much thought to the looming question of flight cancellations.

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Initially, there wasn’t much activity on the departure boards. Gradually, the airport began to fill, however, a first indication that the flow of passengers leaving wasn’t quite matching that of those arriving.

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Toward the beginning of the morning, one could be forgiven for thinking the airport had standard snow-handling equipment. I saw wheel loaders and graders, from Volvo, not surprisingly. I remember staring a single skid-steer move snow in my childhood subdivision, and as banal as this scene nearly twenty years later might have appeared, watching this unfold piece-by-piece was a return to a childhood innocence that I sometimes feel like I’ve long since forgotten.

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Soon, it became obvious that the amount of snow falling was starting to overwhelm the apron, and red text, first in the form of delays, began to appear on the departure boards. Delays became cancellations, arrivals changed to diversions. Still the snow fell.

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The individual wheel loaders and graders would soon need reinforcement if the whole airport wasn’t going to shut down, and sometime around mid-morning the first backup arrived in front of my terminal. I had heard of them before, but I’d never actually seen a unit in action. In front is a blade, as with any snowplow, but in the middle are a giant brush and blower, capable of clearing snow down to the etch of concrete it lay on.

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They showed up in gangs of four or five, making quick and gorgeously-choreographed work of the maybe ten inches that by now had seemingly grounded operations. The most beautiful execution was when a dozen of the giants cleared the runway, a lone snowblower waiting on the apron while the runway was rendered again useable.

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I wasn’t quite sure what the intention behind the snowblower was. It was here to chew through snow, it seemed, but all it could was blow it somewhere else, which didn’t seem to really help given the general presence of the stuff, well, everywhere.

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As the day wore on, it became more apparent that even the massive snowmoving fleet wasn’t going to be the savior in the face of the relentless snowflakes bombing down outside. A tiny window of clearing started around midday, giving me some hope that my own flights wouldn’t be affected. By this point, the ground crew had begun to load the snow into trucks, a long ordeal given the incredible volume of snow that had been piled into long windrows in the middle of each apron.

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Not long after I took this shot, the inevitable appeared next to my flight: I was delayed. Interestingly, though, the flight bringing the plane I was to fly back on had already been cancelled, so it became fairly clear what the next step was going to be. I tried without much success to get rerouted in the SAS lounge, one option looking promising, before it too succumbed to winter’s wrath. The other three big Scandinavian airports — Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Oslo — were all affected by the storm, and even mainland Europe was dealing with some snow of its own; the World Cup ski race in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was cancelled for snowfall of its own. Eventually, I was rebooked on a flight the next day, and I stayed in a hotel for the night before setting foot the following morning in the same airport for the fifth time in three days. This time under a far lighter sky, the ground crew was still working to clear away the snow, but flights were at least moving.

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The weather almost seemed to be bemoaning not having caused more disruption, the sky darkening menacingly every so often to make its point. The Volvo wheel loaders came out again to play, this time not pushing snow but rather blowing it into waiting dump trucks. The windrows finally began to shrink.

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The travel mess from the previous day began to unsnarl as well, with flights that were postponed out of the weekend finally landing. There actually would have been a nice shot here had my vantage point been a bit better — an Austrian A320 in the foreground, an SAS B737 parked next to it, and an SAS A320neo behind that. Oh well.

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One flight I was really looking forward to photographing was the lone Singapore A350 that was departing back to Singapore. I’m not sure how full this flight would have been; I can’t imagine that anyone could fill an A350 between the tiny island state and Stockholm.  I saw the plane taxi toward the runway, but between its quiet engines and the fog now draped over the grounds, I barely caught the ghost as it launched skyward.

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My Lufthansa A321 had a small delay but finally did arrive, and we began our cruise back to Germany. I was relieved but also disheartened that I had no further weekend flees planned. Europe is a fascinating place, and one that lends itself to spontaneous trips both in terms of its relatively short distances and an infrastructure evolved to support them. Winter travel — as it did with my trip to the Faroes last year — interrupts from time to time, but in general air travel here feels far more laid-back than it does in the US. Over the clouds in German airspace, I shifted my mind back to work topics, taking in the tranquility that followed this weekend of tumultuous weather.

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We dipped below the clouds as we approached Munich, and I wished I was seated on the other side of the plane as I watched the orange sunset stream in through the windows. Where the week before I was exploring an element of culture admittedly somewhat out of my comfort zone, this week I got to sleep in a 747 cockpit. It’s hard to predict whether this would happen again, but between a lack of orders for true jumbo jets and my travel not taking me on routes that utilize the 747 in the first place, I’d say it was a successful trip, even if the weather didn’t really play along with the timing I wanted for the trip. It brought back memories of my youth, when aircraft were awesome and flying brought only joy. I also got to spend time watching construction equipment again, too, something that work and social norms don’t really allow these days. Despite, then, the cold breath of winter reminding me what disruptions precipitation in its frozen form can create, its cold caress was a warm welcome to rekindling old memories. I just hope that my next destination — which will be in the beginnings of winter — doesn’t suffer the same touch!

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Winter’s vengeance

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