Past Talks : January 2023

Sextant to SatNav” – Part 2, by Peter Griffiths

(45 years in aviation, with a fear of heights)

Two years ago Peter Griffiths entertained us immensely with a talk about his time with British Airways and Cathay Pacific. Peter started flying in 1967, joined British Airways as second from the bottom on the seniority list and in a convincing demonstration of consistency, he was still second from the bottom in seniority 7 years later. Time to move on, so Peter wisely joined Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong, where enjoyed 29 years of flying and a gallop up the seniority list.

The ‘home’ airport for Cathay Pacific Airways was (until its closure in 1998) Kai Tak International. Do you know it? If you have flown into it, you will remember it – probably more so than any other airport. Hong Kong is perched on the water’s edge of a vast range of rugged mountains. The runway is built on reclaimed land into a bay and is consequently surrounded by water on three sides. On its fourth side – the landing approach to its runway, there is a 2,000ft high mountain. Formidable. Peter wasted no time in showing a long series of films clips of numerous ‘Jumbo’ jets making their approach into Kai Tak. If you have not seen examples, then get Googling and watch some. The 2,000ft mountain blocks a normal straight-in approach, so pilots have to manually fly the aircraft at right angles to the airport, aiming for a huge red and white checkerboard on the side of a mountain. When the checkerboard starts to look a bit close you make a 47° degree turn to the right at less than 600ft altitude. You descend between the skyscrapers (yes, you can peer into the windows of the skyscrapers) of Kowloon City, onto the narrow finger of the runway projecting out to sea. It is truly gripping stuff. Apparently pilots loved experiencing a landing at Kai Tak.

When you attend a talk by Peter, you quickly gather that he will see the funny side of any situation and this talk soon enveloped us in mirth with anecdote after anecdote, no matter how serious a position it was.

In 1990 the first Gulf War erupted, necessitating the movement of tonnes of military materiel to the war zone. At that time Peter was Deputy Manager of the Cathay Pacific ‘Classic’ Boeing 747 fleet and the Army wanted to lease a freighter for resupply purposes. Cathay operated a suitable 747 freighter with a 130 tonnes capacity and Peter was nominated to fly it. For cargo access the nose hinged upwards and there were doors at the rear of the aircraft to enable scissor-lifts to do the handling. Initially it was to be a six month contract, but in the event it stretched for the duration of the war. On one occasion, having landed and taxied in, a member of the RAF ground staff duly arrived with just one scissor-lift to unload the entire payload – where normally they would operate at both ends of the aircraft. The aircraftman was happily intending to unload everything from one door, until it was pointed out that the aircraft would very quickly tip onto its tail. In the end he spent many hours trundling alternately from one end of the aircraft to the other to unload evenly. This prompted Peter to discuss and illustrate at length the sometimes very peculiar looking variations in specialist freight aircraft, from the Boeing factory through to Airbus offerings.

Ultimately, Peter reached the age of 55 years and like most big airlines, retirement from flying was compulsory at Cathay Pacific. What next? Peter was not ready to stop flying, so he looked at options and NetJets definitely looked interesting.

NetJets is a company very attuned to the 21st Century. It specialises in fractional ownership of private business jets to enable the wealthy to whizz world-wide wherever they like, whenever they like. To Peter that meant flying a ‘Falcon 2000 Easy’ aircraft, which he simply described as wonderful. It used Mirage jet fighter wings, was entirely computer driven, with no knobs or switches, it was covered in external in-flight cameras to monitor external surfaces, engines and goodness knows what else. The whole atmosphere of this new world was completely different to commercial airline flying and NetJets is no back-street company, scratching an existence.

The first thing that Peter quickly became aware of is that the ‘rich are different’. During his 9 years in the job, Peter met a wide gamut of people from Russian oil magnates to mining magnates, Belgian (boring) bankers, ex-Heads of State, celebrities and the simply stunningly rich. Not only did Peter meet some strange people, they also wanted to be taken to some strange places. Places that Peter did not know existed and had names that he certainly could not pronounce, let alone spell.

The humorous anecdotes tumbled out so fast that I could not keep up with them, and they caused a great deal of joyful, loud laughter in the auditorium.

One client wished to make a longish journey and ordered 8 different (lavish) meals to be brought along, from which he would choose one to eat. Shortly before the scheduled departure, he postponed the flight until the next day. The next day he did the same again, and again for several days running. Each time 8 meals were put on board and not touched. That was just one example of how different the rich can be. Another time, Peter flew Bill Clinton and his four protection ‘heavies’. Prior to departure, Peter asked the guards to give him their pistols so that they could be stored in-flight in accordance with the law – pistols in one locker, bullets in another locker. The response was a curt “if you think you can take the gun off me, help yourself”. Umm, I think that means No!

Celebrities were numerous, most of whom cannot be named because of non-disclosure contracts. However, Peter was greatly amused when one screen tough guy was scared stiff from the moment he boarded the aircraft and constantly asked ‘It is safe isn’t it?’. Maria Carey (a singer) was a different kettle of fish and when Peter entered the airport to collect her, she demanded that no one must look at her directly in the face and her bodyguard took every action to ensure that no one did. Rich people are different.

Another source of great amusement to Peter were the very rich Middle Eastern passengers, who typically arrived at the airport sporting very Western clothes and rather revealing attire on the ladies, plus a strong alcohol perfume all round. Once the aircraft took off, each passenger in turn disappeared into the toilet closet and reappeared in modest Middle Eastern dress complete with ‘letterbox’ headdress for the ladies. Double-standards, thought Peter? Likewise, Peter met many people from the same region on flying training and refresher courses. It was not at all uncommon for individuals to fail courses time and time again until one day their stars aligned and they actually passed. On arriving home, they were rewarded with captaincy of large passenger aircraft in the national airline, for which the father was probably boss. These are barely a hint of the yarns and anecdotes we heard.

Peter has a list of airlines that he would never, ever fly with based on his first hand experience of  witnessing the process and outcome of people he has encountered.

I cannot do justice to the knowledge, wit and experiences Peter Griffiths presented to us. It was a thumping good entertainment and true value for money evening. if you were not there, you missed something rare and a great deal of fun. If you cannot make it to the auditorium (£6), then do fire up a computer and splash out £4 to join us on Zoom, at home. Do not be shy to ask us how to set up Zoom. It is not difficult.

By the way, Peter’s fear of heights is only that of those awful external lifts clinging to the side of so many expensive, modern hotels.