My romance with the monster of the jet age

James Dalrymple's Notebook
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The sky had come all the way down to the earth on Wednesday morning, covering the entire Thames river flood plain in a blanket of impenetrable grey mist. Out there somewhere, dominating the flat skyline for miles, should have been the slab-like glass palaces, concrete towers with whirling tops, and electronic minarets of Britain's strangest city state. On this day, even from the M4 motorway that forms one of its immense boundaries, it was totally invisible. Only the distant howling chorus of fan jet engines told thousands of arriving pilgrims that Heathrow International Airport was hard at work in the fog, doing what it always does, short of nuclear attack and earthquake: taking care of business.

I have been coming to Heathrow for nearly 40 years. As a child, I made my first flight on a Vickers Viscount of British European Airways from Glasgow into an airport that consisted of one prefabricated terminal building, one narrow exit road and a straggle of tin hangars, where ex-RAF types and their debutante girlfriends crewed the planes, the flight boards showed a dozen movements on a good day, and fog could close the place down for a week.

Over the years I have watched it grow into a monster of the jet age, swallowing up vast acreages of the valley and rising into a full-blown commercial-industrial city employing more than 50,000 people in the service of 60 million transient inhabitants every year. Heathrow, by far the largest international airport in the world, is both a living demonstration of performance art on a vast scale, and the ultimate in technical achievement.

To me, it has always been a place of romance and fascination. Sometimes I come here just to look and wonder and remember. As I roamed around the other day, it seemed that every nook and cranny of the place held an image from the past. As a news reporter I was once sent sprawling by one of Frank Sinatra's goons outside the old Queen's building, and I can still see the grinning sneer on the little entertainer's face and the gleam of his highly polished, built-up shoes as he stepped over me and into his limousine. Another troubadour, from a different era, Jerry Lee Lewis, inbound from Memphis, got so drunk in the first-class section that they had to strap him down and sit on him during the landing. And my abiding memory of the fiery little rock'n'roller was of his being wheeled along a corridor, strapped to an invalid chair and demanding where a guy could get a drink in "this goddam country".

Then there was the most blissful memory of all, the day that the actress Kim Novak suddenly appeared out of a toilet, far from where I and the photographer expected to see her, and pleaded for a cigarette. The three of us retreated into a coffee shop and spent half an hour in a conversation of which I cannot recall a single word. I just sat there, stunned and paralysed by the power of this woman's beauty. "Thanks for the cigarette, honey," were her last words. Thirty years later, standing in the same spot, I felt warmed at the very thought of it.

There were less enjoyable times at Heathrow. None worse than that awful summer day in 1972, when we waited to find out the death toll from the BEA Trident that had fallen like a stone out of the sky over Staines minutes after take-off. And piece by piece, over the next few days, hearing on the grapevine the ghastly news that the disaster had been caused by a row in the flight deck between an officious captain and a rebellious young first officer, a simple shouting match that had caused the plane to go into a fatal stall, killing all 118 on board.

Apart from a horrendous crash nearly half a century ago, when a Vanguard had smashed on to the runway in thick fog, this, thankfully, has been the only loss of life through aviation disasters suffered by Heathrow. Frights aplenty in the form of air misses and faulty undercarriages and the like there have been, but the big mortuary under one of the terminals has stayed silent and unused for decades.

They don't talk about the bad side of flying at Heathrow. But they prepare for it. The curious will wonder about a strange, bile-green aircraft that is parked just off one of the two main runways. It is not really an aircraft at all, simply a steel shell fitted with ingenious gas burners that can simulate any kind of fire aboard; scores of firefighters can get as close to the real thing as possible. And every week there are dozens of worst- case-scenario gatherings, when the thousands of people involved in security devise battle plans for everything from plane wrecks to political assassinations.

But it is usually the small, mundane things that can cause the most trouble. Last Friday, an explosion in an electrical switchboard cut power to Terminals 3 and 4 and brought the airport to its knees. Power was fully restored in less than four hours, but planes could not be refuelled, resulting in cancellations and chaotic scenes of angry passengers screaming at harassed ground staff and being forced to bed down on the terminal floors, while air and ground controllers attempted to squeeze huge airliners into spaces too small to hold them, and cope with a backlog of flights coming in from all over the world. But within 24 hours Heathrow produced one of its usual miracles, unravelling the entire mess, fixing it, and coping effortlessly with up to 170,000 people who passed through the airport during the next two days of a bank holiday.

Of all the great visual panoramas on offer in the world, there are few that match that seen from the roof of Heathrow, looking out over the two massive runways, where you can watch the intricate choreography involved in the receiving and dispatching of moving objects that are longer than city blocks and higher than three-storey buildings. In one period of just 60 minutes I watched 30 take-offs and 30 landings. About 6,000 people had just arrived via the polar icecap or the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, from cities from Tokyo to Adelaide, and another 6,000 were off to South Africa, Korea or Guatemala.

The figures are mind-numbing. Last year, more than 60 million men, women and children - more than the entire population of these islands - either landed or took off from these two strips of concrete on the outskirts of London. Similar numbers are doing the same in a thousand cities all over the world. And one particular aeroplane has been more responsible than any other for this great explosion in intercontinental travel: the great steel galleon of the air that its makers, the Boeing Corporation of Seattle, called the 747, and we know as the jumbo jet.

On a routine Wednesday morning, I counted 27 of them out on Heathrow's runways. And that set me thinking about a man named Joe Sutter, now living quietly in retirement somewhere in the United States. Few people have ever heard of him, but countless millions have crossed continents and oceans because of his vision and engineering skill. Some 30 years ago Sutter walked into the Pan American Airlines boardroom with a long piece of rope, laid it across the big room, and told stunned aviation moguls that this was the width of the cabin in the plane he was going to build them. At a stroke, Boeing's chief engineer doubled the size, range and capacity of the world's best airliners - and changed human history as surely as Columbus did.

Nobody can ever estimate how many people Sutter's 747s have moved in the last three decades. But just take one example of the scale of it. In one given hour, five years ago, Boeing announced, 1,000 of Joe's Jumbos were airborne at the same time, carrying exactly 389,897 people. One hour, one day. Multiply that by 30 years and 365 days a year, and you have the transport arithmetic that changed everything, everywhere.

I once spoke to Sutter. He's a shy man, and he only wanted to give a list of the hundreds of Boeing people who took part in the project. But he did give me one jewel of a quote. "Every time I see one flying over me," he said, "I have to smile at how outrageous it all was, and how much fun it was to build 'em."

Watching one of old Joe's big babies screaming down the runway, hitching up her undercarriage like a dowager lifting her skirts and heading up into the wide blue yonder, I had another, darker memory.

It was just over 10 years ago, three days before Christmas, on a clear, ice-cold night. It was shortly before 6.30pm. I had just left The Independent's offices and was driving down the M4, and, as always, I looked over to my left and saw the great glittering skyline of Heathrow. I watched one 747 after another climbing into the sky. Given the time, one of those planes must have been a Pan Am machine called Maid of the Seas, one of the oldest of the fleet, the third one ever built by Boeing.

Some days later, standing by a huge black hole in the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, I looked down on what was left of the Maid of the Seas. The dedicated ground staff of Heathrow had seen her off safely at 6.25pm, bound for New York with 259 souls on board, including dozens of young students whose lives should have been just beginning. Captain Jim MacQuarrie, one of the most experienced pilots in the world, was at the controls. The big jet might have been 30 years old, but was still flying as beautifully as the day she left Seattle, a credit to Sutter and his team. All was well until three minutes past seven when half a pound of Semtex exploded in her forward hold.

Standing near that same runway the other day, I found myself close to tears - exactly as I had felt that dreadful day in Lockerbie. I looked across at the controlled tumult of the airport, saw the 747s rising majestically over me, and once again I felt the same despairing thought I always have when I consider the overall human balance sheet.

No matter how much skill, care and even love we lavish on our great achievements - and Heathrow and its big jets are truly great human and technical achievements - it can all be wiped away by the two other, more dominant, human characteristics: hatred and violence.

Ian Jack is on holiday