For several days we tracked the progress of St Jude as the storm moved towards England and Northern France. We were away in Canada when he first appeared in the news. We watched with increasing interest as over days, and as if in slow motion, the saint gradually gathered energy and press coverage. The picture soon began to crystallise. From their satellite pictures and computer simulations the forecasters were predicting with some confidence, his precise time of arrival and the levels of disruption he might cause. For us the problem was rather personal. If our plane left as scheduled, then we, and the saint, would reach Heathrow airport at much the same time.
In the event, due to the vagaries of nature, or perhaps to some readjustments of the meteorologists’ computer programmes, St Jude’s predicted arrival was brought forward a little.
It now seemed that on Monday morning and at the time of our touch-down, the worst would have passed with the winds beginning to abate. But it would be a close call.
We arrived early at Toronto airport and as we were sitting in the departure lounge an airport official announced that although our flight would leave on time, it would not be until around two hours before landing that our pilot would decide whether we would land at London, Birmingham or possibly even Manchester. In the event, after a very fast, wind-assisted dash across the Atlantic, our packed plane actually began its descent into Heathrow.
Naturally there was general relief when we learned that we were not to be diverted.
But the relief was short lived. When we neared our destination the mood changed as the plane start to roll, the wings to bend and we were jolted by turbulence. For those last fifteen minutes there was panic around with eyes staring and fists clenched. The descent seemed steeper than usual but in the end the landings went well. Noisy applause, accompanied by some occasional whooping, broke out all around as the plane came to a halt. Furthermore it was 6.15am so we had landed almost exactly on time.
The pilot was in his sound-proof cabin so none of the celebrations would have been heard, but no matter, there was a shared wish to thank the man. But for him, I rather assumed, the landing was nothing exceptional. It would have been something he will have practised hundreds of times both in simulated storms and in reality. And anyway, the authorities at Heathrow would not have allowed us to land if they thought that the manoeuvre might risk the lives of hundreds, incur the millions needed to replace our Jumbo – around £200m each at current prices – and, of course, become endless pages of bad press. Certainly that is how I saw it. So during the flight I got a good five hours sleep, then as we descended I read a book, and finally after we landed, I felt no reason to applaud. And anyhow, at my age it would not have been such a bad way to go!
As it turned out, we were indeed one of the first planes to land that morning, and that many others had been cancelled. But I understand that these vast, long-haul, planes have the wherewithal to weather such storms.
As I left the plane I noticed the pilot in his uniform standing just close to the exit. I said, “That must have been fun,” and in response got a calm wry smile. I imagine that for him, or was it for the on-board computers, it was just another day at the office.