Two of the great benefits of being a journalist is that you can sometimes combine your interests with work. And being a journalist, you can sometimes gain access to areas that are usually out of bounds to the average person.
Since a kid, I’ve been fascinated with aircraft. When I was growing up on a farm in New Zealand, my walls were covered in aircraft posters and my desk and chest of drawers packed with Airfix models. Part of my desire to become a journalist was this love of aircraft, and in my first few years as a reporter I covered all sorts of aviation stories.
A few decades later, I’ve found myself in a job where that childhood interest in positively indulged. I work for BBC Future, one of the BBC’s science and technology sites, and aviation is one of our core subjects. A fantastic opportunity to accompany one of our columnists, Jack Stewart, on a trip to London’s Heathrow Airport and get up close and personal with the world’s biggest airliner, the Airbus A380.
The Airbus A380 is a monumentally huge aircraft, and it’s almost impossible to realise how huge until you see one in the flesh. The A380 is a great deal bigger than the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747. It’s more than 72 metres (238 ft) long and has a wingspan of more than 79 metres (261 ft); the top of the tail is 80 ft high – about as tall as an eight-storey building. And it can pack an enormous amount of passengers into its outsize frame; should an airline want to cram as many as possible into its outsize frame (all travelling economy, naturally) then an A380 could carry 853 people. There’s an awful lot of luggage and in-flight meals on top of that too, of course.
After first having a hands-on tour of British Airways’ flight simulators (essentially an airliner’s cockpit balanced on a hydraulic platform) the BBC Future team made it the hangars where British Airway’s A380s are checked and inspected. One of British Airways’ 12 A380s was due for a regular service check, and the aircraft was slowly taxied under bright spring sunshine towards the hangar we were standing in.
The hangars the A380s spend some of their time in date from the 1940s and are historically important, listed buildings. They can swallow a Boeing 747 with ease, but the A380 is different. The hangar had to be especially modified, by cutting a section out of the top of the door, to make room for the giant tail fin. It is a tight fit.
With a cameraman shooting the Airbus’s gradual approach for a time-lapse video, I was able to rattle off half a roll of film, capturing the flying behemoth’s slow roll towards the hangar. It had rained earlier but the west London sky was a mixture of bright, golden sun and dark rain clouds; a perfect backdrop.
I chose to shoot on slide, to make the most of the sunshine; a roll of Kodak Elite Chrome 200 that was expired but still perfectly useable. Elite Chrome 200 was one Kodak’s consumer-grade slide films that was discontinued some time in the last decade. Kodak’s Elite Chrome range – 100, 200 and 400 – was a fantastic trio. They were not a million miles away from the more rigorously refined Ektachrome range, beloved by National Geographic photographers.
The A380 trundled toward the hangar, towed by one of those squat airport tugs that can somehow help pull an aircraft that weighs some 276 tonnes when empty. The giant nose entered the enormous hangar, and with some last-minute manoeuvres, the giant tail fin inched through the slot cut into the hangar.
I’ve never travelled on an A380, but I’ve seen them innumerable times in the skies over London, and at a distance their bulk seems deceptively compact. Up close, however, the scale is astounding, from the enormous wings to the giant tyres. The one thing I’m missing for my Nikon set-up is a wise-angle. A 28mm or 35mm would have come very handy for fitting all of this enormous aircraft in the frame. At least I know for next time…