Is this even a real plane?

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 05/06/2013
Fiji-landscape
Photos.com

BACK TO EARTH: Do you know how much more exciting landing is when you can see the runway approaching through the front of the cockpit?

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The captain of our fine aircraft swivels in his seat, removing his headphones as he turns to face us. "Hello!" he says. "Welcome to Northern Air."

It's not often you get such a personal greeting on a commercial flight. Then again, it's not often you're sitting close enough to the cockpit to be able to reach out and fiddle with the buttons.

Our copilot, who can't be more than about 24 years old, quickly takes over from the captain.

"Now we have the safety speech," he announces. "Please, no smoking on this flight. And keep your seatbelt buckled. The emergency exits are the doors you entered by. Life jackets are under your seat. Our flight time to Levuka this morning is 12 minutes."

It's a concise safety spiel. So concise, in fact, that you soon realise there are certain things he's failed to warn us against doing.

Such as: opening the doors midflight. There's been no arming and cross-checking on this flight, the aeroplane doors are simply slammed shut like a car. If I wanted, I could click one open and jump out.

Another possible warning: don't press any buttons. They're arm's length away, it's worth mentioning.

Also: don't speak to the pilots while the plane is in motion. I could tap one on the shoulder and chat about the rugby if I felt like it.

I don't, however, because soon the pilots are firing up the engines. I know this because I see them hitting the switch marked "starter" and I can see the propellers cough into life on either side of us. We're about to have lift-off.

Today's 12-minute flight will take us from Suva on the main island of Fiji to Levuka, the country's former capital.

Actually, it will take us to an airstrip near Levuka - the taxi ride from there into town is far longer than the flight itself.

I'm flying Northern Air, a Fijian carrier that travels to such places as Labasa, Moala and Kadavu. It's a tiny company that flies tiny planes.

My bag was weighed at Suva airport. Then I was ordered to join it on the scales.

Now this is flying at its most basic. When was the last time you thought about weight distribution on a commercial flight - aside from packing the heaviest things in your hand luggage?

You probably haven't, because modern air travel is dumbed-down and easy. Use the air bridge and you could forget you've even boarded an aeroplane - it's just a cylindrical room with bad food.

Not on Northern Air. To board a Northern Air flight you wander out onto the tarmac and wait for someone to tell you which side to climb into. A member of the ground staff assesses your girth and then points you in the right direction.

There are eight seats on our plane - a Britten-Norman Islander - divided into four rows that I like to think of as first class, business class, and two of economy.

I'm back in cattle class, so I can't press any buttons or talk to the pilots, but I could open the back door easily enough.

Is this even a real plane? Gazing out of the window next to me I can make out the word "gascolator" hand-written on the side of the fuselage. I'm convinced this is a made-up word.

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Soon our little plane putters over to the runway, the pilots push some buttons and we're racing ahead, the white stripes on the tarmac turning to a solid line as we pick up speed.

After a while the captain yanks back on whatever the thing is that aeroplane pilots steer with and we're in the air, gradually climbing to our cruising altitude of about 40 feet.

OK, it's more like a couple of thousand, but this still feels like flying in miniature.

Small patches of turbulence take on a whole new significance when you're soaring through the air in something that's roughly the size of a Tarago.

But we're making progress. The green hills of Viti Levu soon give way to clear blue ocean as we make our way across to Ovalau island, where we descend on our approach to Bureta International Airport.

(Of course it's not really an international airport, it's just a landing strip with a hut next to it. But you do have to go overseas to get there. In that you have to go, um, over the sea.)

Anyway, do you know how much more exciting landing is when you can see the runway approaching through the front of the cockpit?

Much more, that's how.

Our captain and his smiling 24-year-old sidekick bring us smoothly back to earth on Ovalau, pulling the plane through a neat little twirl and bringing us to a stop outside the main terminal-slash-hut.

We've arrived in no time. If only all air travel was this interesting. And this fast.

What has been your most unusual flight experience? Post your stories below.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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