Tripping the Light Fantastic

The experience on Concorde’s flight deck was a highlight of first-class travel. agsaz/Shutterstock

With a satchel full of years and a bucketful of good fortune, you might say I’ve been privileged to travel in style to an unconscionable degree. Much of the high life has been “purchased” with airline-mileage, hotel or credit-card rewards points—the best use for these “incentives” is to experience otherwise unattainable treats.

The St. Regis Hotel is my favorite hotel in the world. Service here is personal, not formulaic. You may hear, “May I help you, sir?” and “My pleasure, ma’am,” at a Ritz Carlton (fine properties to be sure), but not at this St. Regis. No matter what your request, it is never parried with a flat “no.” They may say: “Well, sir, I’m afraid we can’t ride motorcycles in our small lobby, but the nearest Harley dealer is nearby. May I get them on the phone?” One time, we had to wait for a room. Turns out the Israeli prime minister was a late check out from a massive suite. My wife, Cathy, and I got it—it was worth the wait.

I’ve been lucky with high-end airline travel. One time, while sitting in Delta’s Crown Room in Atlanta, I was unhappily surprised to hear, “Dr. Richard Karl, report to the service desk.” Uh-oh, what was happening to our business-class seats to Paris? “For weight-and-balance purposes, the captain has asked to have you move forward to first class.” Oh, OK! Three hours later, I smiled as an alert flight attendant asked Cathy if she’d like more caviar. Those huge maroon leather seats on that magnificent Lockheed L-1011 provided good comfort, but I can’t say I arrived in Paris feeling refreshed. Hungover was more like it.

Speaking of “crossing the pond,” I’ve had three trans-Atlantic rides on Concorde. I was solo the first time; we didn’t have enough points for Cathy, so she went a day ahead—coach! As I boarded the jet, I had one goal: get to the flight deck. When I explained to the boarding flight attendant that I’d like to visit the captain, she replied with practiced British disdain: “Most of the children do.”

I took my seat, pouting. We jolted through Mach 1. (“Just like pulling out of a train station,” the captain said.) About midway across, the flight attendant came back and invited me up. As we walked forward, you could feel the heat of the airplane—a product of air (what little there is of it at 50,000 feet) friction and high speed.

I knew I had to establish a friendship with the flight engineer as soon as I entered the flight deck if I wanted to stay more than a minute. He was kind, and I was invited back for the landing. Astoundingly close on fuel, we were momentarily sent into a hold (“For show,” my new friend assured me). After landing, we held short of a runway and watched a then-new Boeing 747-400 rotate in front of us. The captain turned to the first officer and said, “It must be like flying a bloody brick.”

Round trip on Air France’s Concorde was a different matter altogether. No chance of the cockpit, but we were treated to the sight of a wealthy couple having a lively and mean-spirited spat all the way across the ocean at Mach 2. I couldn’t help wonder: Couldn’t you cage that rage gyro until you got home?

A round-the-world first-class trip was the gift of my hosts in New Delhi, India. When the flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to India was disrupted, Delta Air Lines bought us two first-class tickets on Lufthansa. The 747 was eight hours late, but who cared? We were on the upper deck, watching a practiced flight attendant produce ribbons of fine Italian cheese from a huge round the size of a nosewheel. Got the jumpseat for that landing too. When the first officer called minimums, I couldn’t see anything in the early morning smog/haze, but the captain said only, “Continue.”

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

Three years as a Part 135 charter pilot gave me a chance to see how truly wealthy people get around. Most of them were polite and friendly, but some gave off a whiff of “leave me alone.” A celebrity’s assistant would arrive in advance to be sure the water was cold and the Wi-Fi worked. Rarely did celebrities travel in anything but leisure clothing, but their appearance could be breathtaking. I heard one captain say, “I’ve flown them all, but this was the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen.” No, not J.Lo—Goldie Hawn. (“It was her smile,” he said.) My own personal best-dressed-pax prize goes to Chris Rock; that tuxedo must have cost $10,000.

But ownership of the simplest airplane beats any airline extravagance. I remember pulling into the FBO at Newark (KEWR), New Jersey, in a Cessna P210—about which I was very proud—with a passenger I had hoped to impress. The lineman sputtered: “Hey, you can’t park here. This for them jets.” So much for showing off.

When we upgraded to a Cessna 340, I really felt like I was traveling in style. Now, the taxi centerline was of importance. The airplane sat up high, and the left seat made you feel like you were the captain of a great airliner. The 340 gave way to a Piper Cheyenne, and I was burning jet-A and traveling solidly in the flight levels. The reliability of turbine engines and speeds in the 230s made possible pressurized long-distance travel.

My experience in 135 operations made single-pilot-jet ownership possible. A Beechcraft Premier was impressive, often broken, and didn’t last long thanks to a bird strike. A more-practical Cessna Citation CJ1 has graced our hangar for three years now. When I find myself drinking coffee at Flight Level 390, I can’t deny feeling I’m at the epitome of style.

It has been a rich and privileged life to be sure, but the most elegant travel I have ever experienced was long ago. As an Army captain stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, I bought a Beechcraft Musketeer, my first airplane. One day, I flew from Louisville to Ithaca, New York—on top, nonstop. That was the best.

This story appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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