On Friday, May 4th, I got to experience something that was a true treat. I got to witness the landing of the first British Airways Double-Decker A380 at Chicago’s O’hare International Airport. It’s something that has been in the works for a long time and something that I’ve very much been looking forward to. I rarely have ‘British’ related things to do so close to home, so it was a real honor that British Airways invited me along. Not only did I get to witness the historic occasion (it’s the largest plane to ever land at O’hare, the staff there were understandably excited), I got to do it airside – next to the runway where it would be landing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’m an AVgeek. I’m not as big of one as most AVgeek’s; my AVgeekry is mostly confined to one airline, the one I fly the most, British Airways. The airline that always takes me to Britain. They fly two daily flights direct to London from Chicago. I leave my house, and 8 hours later I’m in London. It’s magic. The closest thing to being transported, Star Trek style, we’re ever going to get (until Supersonic travel becomes vogue again). British Airways started flying the double-decker A380 back in 2012, and ever since I’ve hoped they would bring the massive plane to one of the routes that serve Chicago.
It always seemed, to me, like a good candidate to have such a large plane. In recent years, almost every flight I’ve been on has been almost full. British Airways’ partnership with American Airlines ensures they have a steady stream of passengers coming into ORD from smaller airports to fly transatlantically. They’ve needed more capacity. So, rather than add a third daily flight, it always made sense that they would eventually bring the A380 to Chicago for at least one of their two daily flights. This expansion means that BA will now fly the A380 on their coveted ‘sleeper service’ BA297 and continue to fly their 747 on the afternoon flight from Chicago to London (BA294). This is a lot of capacity. BA has been flying from Chicago for over 60 years so they know how to judge demand!
For those that aren’t familiar, the A380 is manufactured by Airbus, the European aerospace giant. It’s the largest passenger plane in service and the only one operating with two full decks. The Boeing 747 never had a full-length upper deck (when it was being developed they wanted to have two full-length decks but couldn’t make the math work with technology at the time). Now that the 747 is largely being withdrawn from passenger service (though BA will continue until at least 2020) that leaves the Airbus A380 as the new ‘Queen of the Skies.’ There’s just something amazingly romantic about a double-decker airplane. It’s an engineering marvel.
I mean I understand perfectly well how airplanes work and the engineering behind it – but it’s simply magical how something that weighs 575 tons or 1,268,000 lbs can soar into the air and fly 4,000 miles. While it’s very common to see an A380 when you’re traveling abroad, it’s rare to see them here in the USA, especially at O’hare where they’ve never flown before. British Airways would be the first. It’s been a long time coming; the airport had to make modifications to accommodate such a massive plane. The biggest change was upgrading BA’s gate at Terminal 5, M11, to accommodate an aircraft with two decks. The new skybridge now has two sections, one for the upper deck and one for the lower deck.
British Airways flies 12 A380’s. They fly to Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, San Francisco, Singapore, Miami, Boston and now Chicago. They come in a configuration that allows 469 passengers across four classes – World Traveller (coach), World Traveller Plus (premium economy), Club World (business class), and First Class. They’re evenly distributed across both decks so not one class dominates each deck. The main deck is the widest on any commercial aircraft – and is 20” wider than a 747. I’ve heard from other travelers that the A380 feels very roomy, even in coach, you do not feel crammed in and that it has one of the most comfortable flying experiences – and also one of the quietest inside the cabin.
Last year, British Airways announced they that would begin flying the Airbus A380 to Chicago, replacing one of their daily flights. As soon as the news was announced, I wrote to my press contact at British Airways and expressed my interest (or rather pleaded) to be there when the flight started. I’d hope to be on the first flight on an A380 from Chicago to London. But a few weeks later, a certain Royal couple decided to get married ten days after the flights were due to start. So instead of booking on to the first flight, I booked onto the A380 for my flight over to cover the Royal Wedding. This meant that I was free to at least attend the landing and welcoming ceremonies for the new plane.
On Thursday, the final confirmation came through, be at the airport at 4:30 on Friday at the American Airlines terminal. So, I grabbed my camera equipment and made the 90-minute drive to O’hare on a sunny Friday afternoon. We had the perfect day for the arrival – the sun was shining, and there were barely any clouds in the sky.
I arrived early to the meeting spot – I’m always early for important things like this. Slowly as the scheduled time approached, Chicago’s media started to arrive. WGN. CBS. NBC. ABC. Univision. I immediately felt a rush of imposter syndrome. While I’m a member of ‘the media’ my niche is so specific (Britain), I’m rarely around the local media here in Chicago. I finally met my press contact at British Airways in person who I’ve been communicating with for years. I met some other interesting people including a nice chap from FlightRadar24 and an AVGeek O’hare employee with a big Instagram following.
At the appointed time, we were given gate passes. These would allow us to go through security without having a flight booked. This is always a strange experience; you have to go through all the tokens of the security checkpoint, removing shoes, emptying pockets, etc. But you’re not actually going anywhere. Since 9/11, going beyond the security checkpoint for anything other than flying is extremely rare. I’ve only done it once before (you can read about it here for BA’s 60th anniversary of flying to Chicago).
Once we were through security, we were escorted to an American Airlines gate for something special. We were being taken to two key events that day. The BA A380 was the second one. The first is that American Airlines began its first seasonal direct flight to Venice from Chicago on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. They pulled out all the stops – they decorated the gate in Italian stuff. They had opera singers singing arias. They had people dressed up in Venetian Masque costumes (which were both scary and awesome). There were speeches – including from the Italian-Scottish executive at American Airlines who had the most amazing Edinburgh brogue for an Italian. There was Prosecco and cake. Mrs. Anglotopia will be very pleased to know that you can now fly direct from Chicago to Venice, it’s a place we’ve always wanted to go.
After all that was over with, it was time to go airside.
I cannot tell you how excited I was. I’ve never been airside at a commercial airport before (other than when being bussed to a gate at Heathrow). It’s such a rare treat to be able to go beyond the gates into the grounds below that you can only usually see from the windows above. We were escorted by the Chicago Department of Aviation media team down a staircase to a door, and like magic, I was airside. We waited a bit, and an old repurposed school bus pulled up. This would take us out to the runway.
We all piled onto the bus and once we were all on board – and the media with all their equipment, the bus went on its way. It weaved it’s away across special roads, laid out to avoid any planes but we got incredibly close. O’hare is one of the busiest airports in the world, so there were planes landing and taxiing all around us. It was incredible, a true treat. It was also cool to see the airport like this because, in a few years, all of it is going to change as O’hare just finalized an $8 Billion expansion plan that will see most of what you see now, changed (for the better).
We went through a long tunnel that too us under one of the main runways. We drove a little more – by this point, we were now on the other side of the airport, closer to the cargo terminals. And then we were left off the bus, onto a runway. A runway. Or a taxiway (AVgeeks I’m sure will correct me). Obviously, this part of the airport wasn’t currently being used, so it was safe for the media to be positioned to shoot the arrival of the A380. Being with a group of AVGeeks, they knew the best place we should be positioned, and we all settled in about 45 minutes before the flight was due to arrive. Our position was probably two hundred feet from the active runway. You cannot get closer to airplanes than this.
In fact, someone mentioned that there was a line we could not cross. “You need permission from air traffic control, who are watching us, to cross that line.”
But as there is a flight landing every minute, there was something to see the entire time. To quote a line I overheard from one of the other folks there; there was plenty of ‘heavy metal’ landing. I would have taken a lot more pictures that I did if I’d remembered to bring my extra camera battery, but in my excited haste to get to the airport, I forgot to so had to save my battery for the big show. The atmosphere was jubilant. It was in the 70’s temperature wise, the sun was setting, and we were all standing next to an active runway, watching airplanes land. A perfect way to spend a Friday afternoon.
The time approached, and pretty soon, you could see four lights on the horizon. Each light was a plane that had been ‘stacked’ into approach at O’hare. The fourth light was the British Airways A380. It was ending its 8-hour flight from London. It had left London at 4 p.m. London time, and due to the time difference, it was arriving at 7 p.m. Chicago time. BA297 for the curious. It’s a flight I’ve been on many times. It’s a very long flight as it’s not overnight, so it makes for a very long day. The 469 passengers on board were probably ready to get off that plane.
Then there were three lights.
Everyone practiced with their cameras on the plans landing so that they could get the best shots when the A380 finally arrived. Others were more prepared than me – a lesson I’ve now learned if I ever get to do this again. I should have brought my tripod and my GoPro. I realized as the plane was approaching that it was important for me to get great pictures of the plane but I also wanted video of the occasion. I was going to have to hold my iPhone with one hand and my good mirrorless camera with the other. It would have been nice to have a tripod for one of these.
Then there were two lights.
The atmosphere of anticipation was palpable.
“5 minutes out,” someone shouted.
Everyone began to get ready. A massive cargo 747 (that was very dirty I should add China Cargo) taxied and took off. So many plane movements. It was overwhelming to see how many amazing airplanes in one place. José, an O’hare Ramp Controller but confirmed AVgeek commented that this is the stuff he sees every day but then something special like the A380 arrives and he’s gotta see it in person. I was starting to get a bit overwhelmed by the jet fuel fumes. Kerosene is such a strong smell. I was getting a headache from the noise and the fumes. But it was so worth it.
Then were was one light left. That was it. That was our A380.
Here’s the landing in sequence:
The next few minutes seemed to happen in slow motion as the A380 slowed down to 220 knots for its approach (BA A380 pilot Captain Dave Wallsworth actually wrote an article about how you land this thing, read it here). We all watched as the point of light turned into a plane. Then you could see it’s four engines. And it’s massive wings. It was very clear that something big and something special was coming in for a landing. Camera shutters started clicking.
It approached like a slow lumbering UFO. Only it wasn’t slow for the plane. Just slow for us watching it approach. Pretty soon we could make it out completely. It’s massive nose. It’s massive wings. It’s powerful engines. Time seemed to freeze.
And then time sped up, and the A380 approached and landed, practically right in front of us with a furious burst of speed and power as it applied the flaps to slow down. O’hare’s runway is very long and it would need a lot of it to slow down. And like that, the lumbering beast was on the ground. Our shutters had opened and closed thousands of times. The Chicago TV stations got their shots for the news at 10. I managed to get a great video out of my iPhone, and I got some fantastic shots on my nice camera.
Here’s my video of the landing and taxi:
We continued to watch the plane slow. By this point it was a mile or two away but was so massive, you could still see it clearly. Then it got off the main runway, turned around and began slowly taxiing to Terminal 5. Seconds later, another plane landed. And another. Airports don’t stop, even for this Queen of the Skies.
It taxied in front of us, and we got more shots. Then it turned to park at the Terminal, and it was presented with a water cannon salute by the airport to welcome it properly on this momentous day. And like that, it was parked at the gate. The skybridge was deployed. The passengers, most of whom probably had no idea the importance of their flight, departed the plane and continued with their journeys. Ground staff now had two hours to clean the plane and prepare it for its return journey back to London that night as BA296.
And with that, it was over. I was buzzing, what an incredible thing to witness. I’d only hoped my camera got the shots; I wouldn’t know until I got home later to check. We were ushered back onto the bus. The bus drove us by the terminal, and we got a good look at the A380 as the gate, and it was a hive of activity as the ground staff got to work. The bus took us to a gate and dropped us outside, back at the entrance where our adventure started.
It was as surreal. It was amazing. I’d just witnessed history. The largest passenger plane in service just landed at O’hare, and I was feet away from it happening. A real treat.
Thank you to British Airways for inviting me. There are not enough adjectives to describe what an incredible experience it was. I’m publishing this two days later. The plane has since done the return journey again already. And it will do it again today. Modern aviation is an incredible thing.
And my unique experience with the A380 is not over. On May 16th, when I leave for London to cover Harry’s Wedding, I’m booked on an economy seat on the upper deck of the A380 flight BA296, and I cannot wait.