When I first found out that we would were definitely transporting the spacecraft to the launch site by air (there had been talk earlier of shipping by boat) I was very excited indeed. In my role as the Quality Assurance Engineer for the Spacecraft, it was kind part of my job to travel with the spacecraft, to ensure that it arrived safely and that throughout the journey everything remained tickety boo!
Why, some might ask, was I so excited to fly all the way from London to Cayenne on board a Cargo plane... in fact a lot of people even questioned my sanity when they realised how super excited I was by the prospect, "you're mad", "rather you than me", "what no windows, that sounds awful!" were just a few of the comments!
Well I might be a little mad, but at heart I am a massive plane geek! (Or maybe just a massive geek generally!) I've always loved planes. I have fond memories of trips to the RAF Cosford Museum with my grandparents and cousin's as well as attending the air shows as we lived very near two RAF bases (growing up in Telford, nestled between Cosford and Shawbury). Then of course there is my husband who is a pilot and I love asking him all sorts of questions about what he does. He's a plane geek too (sorry honey, but you know its true). So you can see that there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity (quite possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity) to take a ride on one of the worlds largest aircraft!
Enough rambling, you want to know what it was like!
It was a lot more comfortable than I'd been led to believe. The passenger cabin was a cross between an old 80's passenger aircraft and an 80's train carriage. The cabin was accessed via a step ladder at the rear of the aircraft. True there are no real windows to speak of (a couple of very tiny porthole windows in the emergency exit doors) as you might expect for a cargo plane and the interior was of course basic, but all the essentials were there, in a fashion. Our merry little band of volunteers and those whose "job it was" (not that we minded) to travel on this flying juggernaut settled ourselves in the back two rows of the 20 seater cabin, got out our travel pillows, and buckled up for the ride.
Taking off was kind of surreal, in fact you were ony really aware of being in the air from the noise! Oh was it noisey on there!!! If you've ever thought you needed ear plugs on a regular commercial flight, then you would have required ear defenders on this one. Even with the ear plugs, the noise level was only reduced to "normal" aircraft noise levels. We quickly adapted to lip reading and hand gestures to communicate with one another.
After about an hour or two we all felt a little peckish, so a couple of our group went to investigate the boxes of on board catering that had been loaded on for us. Yep, no steward or steardess on this flight, it was all self service ;-) Even the safety briefing, good job its a fairly universal set of instructions, given the safety card... (see below) all in Russian of course!
Food was good, smoked salmon and prawn salad, cheesecake, selection of cheese and biscuits and more bread rolls that you could shake a stick at. Drinks, well, since we were officially on duty, the rules state that it was a dry flight, but there was plenty of soft drinks, and tea and coffee on tap (of course we had to go out to the little kitchen to make it).
Probably the most "interesting" thing to note on board was the toilet... afraid I didn't take a picture, just didn't seem quite right! The good news, the door was fully lockable and unlike some had tried to convince me prior to the flight, full height (yes people tried to convince me the door was only half height!) Behind the lockable bathroom door though a bit of a surprise... two toilets, proudly facing one another! That's right, the toilet was a social space! Luckilly though we all chose to go it alone!
Landing in the Azores just before 1am, we were only aware we had landed due to the slight change in feel of the vibrations of the aircraft. Being so huge and with us being so high up, you really didn't know if you were in the air on on the ground. We stopped off for a bit in Santa Maria, just an hour or so to refuel and being the only aircraft there, we were allowed off the aircraft briefly to stretch our legs. I also performed my checks on the spacecraft container, making sure the temperature and humidity were still good and the special purge line we have to run for the instrument was still running. Then it was back on board, time to buckle up again and jet off across the atlantic to Cayenne.
I have to say, it was probaby one of the most fun and interesting experiences of my life and certainly something I'll never forget, in fact I fully intend to be boring people recounting the story well into my old age!