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A Man of a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

The Boeing 983

I estimated that the aircraft should be landing at Heathrow within 15 minutes.

The flight had been fine although the “no frills” nature of these budget airlines meant forgoing some luxuries. On the plus side, however, the lack of food or water helped to avoid problems caused by the absence of toilet facilities.

I glanced again at the spartan décor with its weight saving lack of carpets, fittings and interior panelling. It was certainly interesting to see the struts of the airframe and the myriad cables and pipes passing throughout the fuselage.

A flight attendant approached. ‘Excuse me sir, can you please stand up?’

I obliged, and the attendant released a catch at the base of my seat, detaching it from the floor.

‘Please help me carry this,’ he continued.

I assisted in manoeuvring the seat through a door at the rear of the plane, and we began to descend some steps.

‘What are we doing?’ I enquired.

‘We’re going to the boiler room,’ he explained. ‘These new Boeing 983s are specially designed for budget airlines. They’re “dual fuel.”’

‘Dual fuel?’

‘Yes, they burn aviation spirit and wood. There were headwinds over the Atlantic, and we’re having to circle, awaiting landing clearance. We’re almost out of aviation spirit, so the Captain wants a couple of seats burned just to ensure we reach the runway.’

At the bottom of the stairs we were met by two stokers in blue overalls who carried my seat to a boiler. One lifted a sledge hammer and broke the seat into sections while the other fed the splintered wood into a glowing firebox.

‘I haven’t got anywhere to sit, now,’ I reminded the flight attendant.

‘That’s been a problem,’ he conceded. ‘It’s not so bad for you as we’ll be landing in ten minutes. Last week the Captain forgot to fill up with aviation spirit in New York, and we ran out halfway across the Atlantic. We had to burn most of the seats, and the passengers had to stand for a couple of hours.’ He paused to recall the incident. ‘We nearly had to use the reserve fuel supply.’

‘Reserve fuel supply?’

‘The passengers’ baggage,’ he clarified. ‘As you’re here’, he continued, changing the subject, ‘can you help me with a tyre?’

He led to where the landing gear was stowed and prodded a tyre with his thumb. ‘It was nearly flat when we took off,’ he noted, ‘but it was raining, and we didn’t want to get wet pumping it up.’

The flight attendant produced a foot pump and connected it to the tyre’s air valve. ‘Would you mind pumping?’ he asked. ‘I need to go and prepare for landing.’

I had just completed the inflation when the undercarriage doors opened below me and I found myself being lowered with the landing gear. The wheels touched the runway, and I was gratified that my tyre appeared to be at the correct pressure.

The aeroplane taxied to a halt, and I climbed down to the concrete.

‘You shouldn’t really start to get off the plane until it’s landed,’ advised a baggage handler as I removed my rucksack from the external luggage nets.

I thanked him for this valuable piece of travel safety advice and made my way to passport control.