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Catching the pocket rocket to Canberra


It's a feature of social media apps these days to remind you of what you posted in years past. Mine were showing photos of flights to Canberra a year and seven ago. Titles like "The Turbulence Wuss Flies to Canberra" don't exactly inspire enthusiasm, but indeed I was scheduled to return to the nearby capital of Australia for a team meeting and Christmas celebration.

I had a different plan this time. I was going to drive the three hours each way. Now, I've never driven by myself for that long before, but I figured that it was a pretty easy drive and a very, very familiar route, at least as a passenger.

B tried to convince me otherwise. We only have one car and I tend to get very tired and headachy by the end of the day. When it comes to dangerous modes of travel cars are definitely up there and it's not good to drive sleepy.

Also, I'd probably reach Canberra a bit late for the meeting.

I look into flights there. After what happened earlier this year I flat out refuse to fly a turboprop to Canberra in anything but the most perfect weather. For such a short route it tends to pack in a lot of turbulence. But I find a Qantas flight on a Boeing 717 and it fits into our budget possibilities, just $6 more than the cheapest fare.

The 717 is the only currently operational aircraft I haven't flown on the Canberra run and one I've only caught a single time before anywhere. It's very tempting!

I dither, check the weather forecasts, focus on working, not booking.

Monday arrives and I discover that yes, I still have a work credit card so I can book my own flights and yes the flight is still available. After more dithering I go ahead and book it. I even get to book an emergency row window seat over the front of the wing.

I'm still not game enough to book a flight back. Not after the last few failed attempts. I see that seven years ago I also cancelled my return flight and caught a bus. This time I save the hassle of cancelling and just book a coach ride back to Sydney on the Greyhound service. It saves the organisation money too, instead of the $300 plus turboprop fares otherwise on offer.

After I book the weather forecast suddenly looks worse, with the threat of high winds in the middle of the day and possible storms in the evening for Sydney. I'm glad I'm not flying back. The weather outside the office window looks quite nasty as well.

It is fortunate that I did arrange an alternative to driving. In part no doubt to my fear of the flight I had a poor sleep, waking around midnight. I was then woken again an hour later by Alex with a nightmare and insomnia. He took a couple of hours to settle, disturbing me.

I wake at six am, before the alarm clock could sound, and quickly get ready, farewelling the rest of the family. I walk under cloudy skies to the bus stop, small grey clouds whizzing past in the wind. I’m feeling nervous, there’s a pit in my stomach, but at the same time I don’t feel like I’m going to back out. I can do this, I say to myself. Just one more flight to Canberra, one flight on the 717.

I’ve already checked in on my phone, so after alighting from the train at Domestic I go straight through Terminal 3’s security and up to the very busy Qantas Club lounge. In my shorts and bright orange t-shirt I must be the most casually dressed occupant of the lounge. But hey, I wear this work and anyway, we are having a Christmas party.

Qantas aircraft from the Qantas Club

My stomach is churning too much for breakfast, so I just grab a juice and some biscuits and use the facilities before heading back down to the gate.

Our flight

I’m pleased to see that our 717 is the pawprinted Tassie Devil liveried jet, celebrating their service to the island of Tasmania. The out of production 717 was inherited by Boeing from McDonnell Douglas and has a T-tail, rear mounted engines and a nose that looks nothing like other more modern Boeing jets.

I’m curious how the ride will be. My only other flight on the 717 was also with Qantas when they flew the seemingly unsustainable Sydney to Rockhampton route many years ago. All I remember of that was a little disappointment that there was no entertainment system or seat audio.

The aircraft are operated by National Jet Systems for Qantas’ regional QantasLink brand and many have been refurbished for use on higher profile routes such as the one to Canberra.

It’s time to board.

I printed out a boarding pass at the lounge and it is checked by the young but very spiffingly dressed flight attendant William at the gate. Two more female attendants join him on the flight as we walk down the long airbridge at gate 9 to the aircraft. It feels like the same one I used for the abortive Melbourne A330 flight.

The interior of the aircraft has indeed been refurbished with all black seating. At the front are the 2 x 2 business class seats, wide recliners, nothing too fancy. But then we aren’t talking long flights here. Next comes the 2 x 3 economy class with black cloth seats and leather movable headrests.

Business class


I settle myself down in 13A. The seat is well padded and I enjoy the long legroom of the exit row, though I do not require it.

Qantas Jetbase

I'm surprised to see my boss walk down the aisle past me as I thought she would have caught an earlier flight. Glad because it will make paying for the taxi from the airport easier.

An announcement is made that this flight is equipped with Q Streaming entertainment, available via an iOS or Android app. No iPads are sitting in the seat pockets, though the seatbacks retain the mounts for them. On such a short run as this one there is really no point, but I take a look at the streaming entertainment options nonetheless. Still the same too limited soundtrack options, so I go back to listening to music on my phone. The large windows will provide the visual entertainment.

Q Streaming Soundtracks

Safe and smooth goes my mantra.

Sharon the flight attendant comes over to check that we are happy and capable of operating the emergency exit hatch. We are. Then it’s time to taxi out while the crew does a manual safety demonstration.

Qantas A330

We’ll be taking off towards the north on the third runway today. I watch a couple of other aircraft, 737s and A320s perform the feat, turning right just before the grey clouds. Then it is our turn.

Tigerair landing

Rex Saab
Wow! The 717 is a real pocket rocket when it comes to take-offs. One second we are on the ground and the next we are racing steeply into the sky. We make a hard right turn across the funny grey cloud and I’m already losing track of where we are.

Take-off video

Ah, there’s there’s the CBD and the harbour and then we are out across the coast. There are glimpses of the ocean below, we are already up above cloud layer and turning until at last we are over a cloud bank and the ground view is obscured. The seatbelt lights remain on but the cabin crew rise to start serving snacks. More cloud below us, a turn and the crew brace the trolley, then the seatbelt lights are extinguished and the service continues. I think we may have crossed the coast again, but it’s difficult to be certain.

Sydney Airport

Approaching the clouds

The coast

Moore Park and the CBD

Heading above the clowd

I accept the pear and raspberry slice and an apple juice in a cup, though I'm still not really hungry. It tastes good though! Outside the window all I can see is the stubby wings of the aircraft in a sea of white. The mind projects its own imagery on the blank screen, shadows flicking across, dancing, swirling patterns. There is room there for fears, but the flight is smooth, only the merest of occasional shakes.

Apple juice

Pear and raspberry cake

Approaching the cloud layer

Over the water

Above one cloud layer and into the next

What do you imagine here?

We have barely reached cruise when the first officers announces that we are about to begin our descent and that we are running almost ten minutes ahead of schedule.

Cabin shot
Though the outside is still featureless I can feel the change, the nose no longer pitching up. Rubbish is collected efficiently collected and the seatbelt lights are switched on with the reassurance that this is for our descent.

Eventually dark shapes appear below as we reach the bottom of the cloud, resolving into valleys, fields and roads. There’s a serenity about the landscape beneath the grey skies, the Brindabellas, foothills of the Australian Alps, folding their way into the distant haze while the foreground is bright yellow summer grasslands.

First sight of land below



So often this is a rough descent, the aircraft bucking in the winds off the hills, but today it is almost smooth. The landmarks of central Canberra grow larger as we steadily descend, a fly buzzes around my window. A flying fly flying.







The aircraft makes a confident landing and I feel a smile on my face.

Outside two Qantas 737-800s prepare for departure, one of them the Aboriginal liveried Mendoowoorrji. But I am happy with the aircraft I'm on as we taxi to the gate and wait for the air bridge to be connected.


As I wait in the terminal for my boss to emerge from the rear of the aircraft I feel almost sad not to be flying back this evening. I do hope that Canberra eventually gets some international and more extensive services as it is such an attractive airport.

My seat

Emergency exit

The long bridge

The Tassie Devil

Airside at Canberra Airport
However it's also nice not to have to spend the rest of the day stressing about the flight home. Our team consists of members from Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, so it's great to have some face to face time. Then it's time to celebrate a year of very hard work.

Some dessert from Ricardo's.

And further proof (not that I needed any) that bowling skills on the PS3 don't translate to the real world (although practice certainly helps!).

I have to say that the Greyhound coach ride home was very comfortable. There was USB charging, good legroom and seat recline. I had a bit of a nap and spent the rest of the time just listening to albums. It made me realise how little time we spend simply relaxing and appreciating the world as it drifts by these days.

Greyhound buses
Empty Lake George

The coach services stop at the Sydney International Airport terminal for those Canberrans who don't want to spend the premium prices charged for these short domestic hops by air. As the coach pulled up to departures I spotted a Qantas 747-400 at the gate. Another classic aircraft, the scene perfectly encapsulated the romance of international air travel.

The terminal itself is looking good after the latest round of renovations with some stylish looking (though not necessarily dining) eateries in the food area. Watching the crowds of passengers buzz around the terminal reminded me of twenty years ago, almost to the day, when I set out on my very first international journey, flying on a Singapore Airlines 747 to its home country.

Sydney International Terminal
That is where we are heading for my first flight of the new year, but I think this short and simple little journey to Canberra was a great way to finish off 2015, especially after all the recent struggles. The 717 is a confident, compact and classic successor to the 737-400s that used to ply the route. It might not be as modern as the increasingly rare Virgin Australia E190 jets, but I prefer its handling.

I feel like I have completed my Canberra flights, that I can now drive there without regret, but if I do fly there again then I want to make certain its on a 717, the pocket rocket.


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