Chasing Elevation

Being so close to the mountains, I had hoped — and expected — that I could ski several times between December and April and figured that by the end of the season I would know enough about skis and my type of skiing to buy skis. A lack of being around in December and a dearth of snow in January made skiing a lot less common than thought, however, and by February I began to get fidgety about not being in mountains so close they are home. Thankfully, I was saved from the doldrums of valley life by… commercial aviation!

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But first, some background. Just under three years ago, I let out a whoop of excitement when I read that Swiss International Air Lines, a Lufthansa Group member, had ordered the Boeing 777-300ER as part of their fleet expansion. The thought that I would someday fly on that plane never crossed my mind; it was unlikely to serve any city pairs that I would fly to for work, and flying into Europe to get to Asia, while an aviation enthusiast’s dream, isn’t practical. Fast forward to 2015, when Swiss announced its intra-Europe routes for the plane to build up familiarity for the crew and staff and when I conveniently happened to be in Europe. One route caught my eye: Zürich to Genève, a route that not only would allow me to fly on the brand-new 777 for far cheaper than trans-Atlantically later but that also flies nearly over the Swiss Alps, breathtaking scenery that first made my eyes water when a friend shared a Swiss (of course) video of an A320 flight from Zürich to Nice. When the booking system allowed booking ZRH – GVA on the new large twinjet, I booked the ticket before considering what I’d do in Geneva once there.

 

I arrived at the Zurich airport early on a Friday morning, making good time and arriving at  the Star Alliance lounge before it opened. I wandered around the terminal sleepily and had breakfast once it did and then got to the boarding area a good half hour before boarding was supposed to start just so I could be the first to board the plane. Planning panned out, and I was the first passenger greeted and probably the only one with a camera in hand. The first photo I took I didn’t even look through the viewfinder; I just snapped and hoped my settings and composition were close enough.

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I booked my flight for two Fridays after the inaugural Swiss 777 service in order to provide a buffer in case HB-JNA was delivered late, and after seeing how full the inaugural service was I was surprised at the emptiness of the plane: there were no more than fifty passengers that flight. Once in Geneva, we deplaned via stairs into a bus that was comfortably not full. This load factor wasn’t particularly surprising, given that Switzerland has an outstanding train system and the journey by car between the two cities is less than three hours anyhow.

 

Of the fifty passengers, I think I was the only one absolutely awe- and starstruck by the brand new jet. It was a figurative heaven. Although I knew I’d book the flight as soon as I saw its availability, I wasn’t sure sure what class of service to choose: a total trip time of fifty minutes (gate-to-gate, not flying time) didn’t seem to justify paying for a business class seat, but a friend pointed out that on my own dollar I’d likely never get the opportunity to fly business class on a new jet again. It was a good point, so for the first time in my flying experience I splurged. I flew 4A on the westbound leg, which in Swiss’ staggered 1-2-2 configuration was the “throne” seat. It had at least four cabinets in which to store personal items but was a bit farther from the window than is comfortable for prolonged aerial photography. Fortunately, our flight time was only 35 minutes that morning so ergonomics wasn’t much of a nuisance.

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Before departure, I chatted with the flight attendants some and also ran into a Boeing support engineer; burbling my fascination with the plane in both English and German wasn’t enough to get me bumped up into [the empty] first class, so I took pictures of the massive spaces before settling down into my own enclave for takeoff.

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Even for such a short flight, the captain turned off the fasten-seatbelt sign for most of the journey, so I wandered around the front cabin and allowed myself to gawk. I was fortunate that the clouds were high enough to obscure the mountains: on the outbound, I was genuinely thrilled to be on this flight and could barely contain my excitement. My adrenaline was pumping and I lapped up every moment of flying aboard my favorite plane. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t wait for the return, when the weather was due to be clear from heaven to earth. In the meantime, two friends, who were themselves visiting Barcelona but had taken the weekend to visit me on my little adventure, and Geneva were waiting for me.

 

I had known about Geneva since I was young, attributing it to the European seat of Caterpillar before I knew about its financial status or UN affiliation. I never got to seek out that headquarters this trip, however, and instead went to CERN on the first day for their difficult-to-book tour. (n.b.: the window for reserving tours opens at 8:30 AM European time fifteen days before a given date. Once the twelve spots are filling for this date, the next opportunity is to try again at 8:30 AM three days before the desired tour date. Trying to show up the day of to get tickets is nearly guaranteed to end in disappointment; the tickets go fast.) While seeing CERN was incredible — nothing makes one feel so insignificant as particles that can’t be seen and whose presence can hardly be explained simply in words — the Large Hadron Collider wasn’t running, and it was difficult to grasp the significance of the work for someone not remotely trained in particle physics.

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The tour was led by a CERN scientist who was perhaps the highlight of the tour and who reminded me of a few of my old engineering professors. Asked about green energy sources for massive complex, he smiled wryly and said that no green energy was being used to crash particles into each other. The tour ended with a visit to the first accelerator, the almost-comically named Synchrocyclotron. Parts of the room still had levels of radiation unsuitable for prolonged contact so were barricaded off, but that something was built nearly sixty years ago to smash previously-invisible subatomic particles against each other is nearly beyond comprehension.

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After the mentally-exhausting afternoon trying to understand what CERN was doing, we started the next day by visiting the St. Peter’s cathedral and after lunch headed to the Museum of Art and History. It’s no Louvre, but it houses nonetheless art from the masters and artifacts explaining Geneva’s history in grand fashion; a small gallery even contained some works of modern art.

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While most of the paintings were of unrecognized Swiss, there were scattered around the museum various paintings of Mont Blanc, which I barely got to see in my visit to Chamonix and which I also didn’t see from Geneva this time. I suppose I can say I’ve seen the Mont Blanc now!

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My favorite work was that of a patch of forest, seemingly lifeness or at least genuinely unpleasant for animals. The artist left in a bear, however, behind the fallen tree — a touch of hope, perhaps, or a sign of the resilience of the animal.

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There were also some works of Rodin at the museum, including his La Muse Tragique.

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As a history museum, there were also various exhibits on the history of Geneva and its people; one room discussed the impact of the Roman Empire on the formation of Switzerland and included several busts of various Roman leaders, featuring foremost Augustus.

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And then, after walking around the city some and having dinner, the exploration of Geneva was over. The city wasn’t quite on the same culturally-stimulating level as Paris and Florence, two other cities the same two friends and I had visited in years past, but catching up with them is a pleasure regardless of venue. Too often “serious conversations” about current events are hashed out over social media, and the art of actual discussion and inquiry seems somehow gradually lost.

 

After a final chat over dinner and one last sleep, it was time once again to venture into the world above the Swiss Alps. After a quick lunch, I again arrived at the boarding area early to get on the plane ahead of the masses. This time, business class filled in rather quickly, but as I was once again the first to board I snuck in one photograph of the rear business cabin before it filled up.

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I was in 9K this time, a window seat in a set of two. Row 8 had a 2-2-1 configuration; row 9, 1-2-2. The biggest difference was the proximity to the window and the lack of all those storage compartments!

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This time, in addition to being the first to board, I was also the last: while the flight attendants were preparing the cabin I asked permission to grab a few pictures from outside the plane; I was pretty certain this would be the last time I’d see this entryway for years to come.

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Back in my seat, I settled in for takeoff and felt my jaw slowly drop as we climbed to our cruising altitude. I don’t think I expected at any point in my life what spread out below me for the next 26 minutes.

 

We took off to the southwest and banked gradually to the northeast, first passing Annecy.

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Miles upon miles of Swiss Alps unfurled below us, at times showing the chasms that are today’s populated valleys. (Zermatt is at the end of such a valley).

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About halfway through the flight, the Matterhorn appeared as a random outcrop about a third of the way into the photo from the left.

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A half-hour flight doesn’t require much altitude, but seeing the Alps from above was exactly what I had been passively seeking out the entire winter. The sight was phenomenal, though the photos here don’t do it justice. The sun streamed in at a poor angle, giving my lenses fits with flare and lack of contrast, but seeing the scenery that I had dreamed of for so long and that I have hiked eight (!) times was a raw, emotional exclamation point to what was already arguably my most touching aviation experience (rivaled, perhaps, by flying on N777UA — the difference being that I was wide awake the whole time this flight). I had imagined my first experience with the new jet to be powerful, maybe enlightening even, but coupling that wondrousness with the sight of the Swiss Alps was breathtaking in ways not explained by the 8000 foot cabin pressurization of the 777.

 

The trance was short-lived, however, as we soon descended into the clouds above Zürich. As we deplaned, I noticed people taking photos nearly directly above our gate and found out the airport has a big patio that turned out to be an observation deck for anyone to view the gate area. From above, it was possible to see the flurry of activity surrounding the jet as it was prepared for its next journey, which itself was also a significant one: about two hours after she landed, HB-JNA was to set off to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to inaugurate international 777-300ER service for Swiss.

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The last time I visited a new member of the 777 C-market family was at the 2005 Paris Air Show (at Le Bourget); at that time, it was a 777-200LR on static display that had me stunned. I think I took more pictures in one day of that plane than I did of anything else in the rest of my two-month study abroad. Such was the case here, too; while Geneva is far from a boring city (if anything, sticker shock kept it more entertaining than any other I had been to this year), being able to relive my childhood dreams was a more powerful experience than even I had expected. In hindsight, it’s a bit strange, this, that I’m more touched by a plane whose design is now over two decades old than by the newest member of Boeing’s widebody family. Perhaps it’s due to knowing the back story of the 777 and how it changed airplane design and manufacture in the twenty-first century, but this trip showed a rare proof indeed: that meeting a childhood hero doesn’t always end in dismay.

 

[nota bene: I debated for some time whether I should publish this post as it’s a far more personal account than I’d normally put online. And while it is about Switzerland, fundamentally it’s not about Switzerland; it touches on elements deeper to my psyche, and specifically the significance of the Boeing 777 to me and to my engineering vision. Part of the name of my WordPress handle — the “77W” part — is a nod to the plane, and so after much thought it only seemed appropriate that I have one blog post written in the spirit of the name of my blog.]

Chasing Elevation

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