Watching planes, at London City Airport review
I'm in a coffee shop (again)... Costa's at the O2 Arena. I'm psyching myself up for a ride on the cable car. I always hate going on this thing because you're basically 60-seconds from death. Have you seen it? It's just a couple of flimsy-looking pylons poking out of the river with a shoelace strung between them, and you have to sit in a ten-tonne ball of steel as it slowly inches its way across to the other side at about 0 mph, swaying violently in the wind, bouncing up and down and doing loop-the-loops, screeching and crying as the wheels grind each other up. I am telling you... it's a wonder that no one has died on it. If that rope breaks then that's it -- death. You are dead. Down you'll go into the icy cold slab of the sea, trapped inside a glass ball at the bottom of the Thames. They don't tell you any of this beforehand, by the way. There is no mention of dying in the ticket booth, so it's a good job that I am here to warn you about all of this. People think that it's a fun ride, but it's not -- it is terrifying. That is why I am sitting here shaking in the cafe, pouring ten cups of coffee down my neck -- to buzz me up and get the adrenaline pumping.
To be fair to the cable car, once you're actually up there it's not that bad. You soon settle down and enjoy the view. I only opened one eye though. I kept the other one firmly shut in case something bad happened. I'm not sure why, but it made me feel better anyway. You certainly get a good view of the airport from up there. It's like looking down the barrel of a gun. The runway is practically straight on, so the planes are taking off towards you. You can also see the long stretch of water to its side, so you'll get a decent idea about where you've got to walk (it's a long walk). If you spin around the other way then you'll get a bird's eye view of the O2 Arena and the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf.
It's quite a nice little walk up to the airport. Once you get off the cable car you need to hug the edge of the water, past the ExCel Centre, past the big cruise ship hotel, and past all those posh flats that no one can afford to buy. For such a pretty place to live it's almost like a ghost town. There are some nice restaurants and shops dotted around the bank, but none of them have customers. There is literally no one about. There are car parks with no cars in, and bus stops with no buses. All I saw for ten minutes were a few cleaners having a fag break, and two blokes jogging with their dogs. The marinas are all deserted as well -- no boats, no floats. It's a wonder how the restaurants stay in business. As I pass by the windows I can see all the tables and chairs stacked up by the wall, like they've never been used.
Once you get past the ExCel Centre you'll find yourself directly under the flightpath, so when the next plane takes off it will be flying above your head. If you're wearing a wig then hold tight -- grip that wig so it doesn't blow off into the water. The roar of the engines will come first, long before the plane is bigger than a bird. Then the black shadow will come charging across the ground, growing and engulfing you as the plane passes high overhead.
I've just passed the ExCel Centre and it's dawned on me that I've still got another mile to go. This walk looks a lot shorter from the cable car. I have checked the map on my phone and apparently it's a distance of one-and-a-half miles from the cable car to a spot that's opposite the airport. That is a good 30-minutes by foot. So you might want to scrap my cable car idea and just catch the DLR straight to Royal Albert station. That will plonk you down opposite the airport runway. If you stick with the walk then the part past the ExCel Centre turns rapidly glum. It's all litter-strewn paths and concrete wastelands, with big huge roadways lumbering above your head, carrying lorries and trucks out of town. It's not a pretty part of town -- and it's even more of a ghost town than before. This bit hasn't even got ghosts. Even the ghosts have moved out. It's just a lot of distant drilling and traffic noise.
I have reached the viewing spot now, directly opposite the airport runway. I can see the whole thing spread out across the water, about 750-feet away. I can see the planes all parked up and taxiing about, waiting for the passengers. Little trucks are whizzing about the place carrying pallets and pipes, driving up to the planes to offload their stuff. There are four big BA planes waiting at the moment, plus another couple of Italian ones. There are also a few Lear Jet-type things, that probably cost a bazillion quid to run. The control tower is a bit weird -- it doesn't look much taller than two storeys, and is dwarfed by the big chimneys of the Tate & Lyle sugar factory behind.
The take-offs are quite interesting I suppose. First of all the fire truck races up the runway in case something bursts into flames, then the plane ambles up the taxiway from its parking spot, slowing down for a rest at the end. Then it will sit there for a few minutes psyching itself up (like I did, before I got on the cable car). Then it kicks open its engines for take off. The power will really roar for a second and then its all motion as it storms up the runway, like a bullet out of a gun, and lifts off into the sky surprisingly quickly. It's soars up at 45-degrees, and before you know it it's long gone... just a small dot turning in the sky. It seems like quite a violent goodbye when you're standing close. I can picture all of the people inside gripping the sides of the seat, silently praying for their lives whilst the cage rumbles around them, trying not to show any outside emotion. Yeah, they're scared, and we know it! We all are when that engine comes to life.
It's quite therapeutic sitting here watching the planes go back and forth, and all the little trucks and yellow-bibbed workers running around the apron. I wonder what they are doing. Loading up the planes for a foreign jolly, no doubt. Off to Hawaii or the moon... who knows. Maybe it's the south of France today, or a quick ditch in the sea.
The flights aren't very frequent at London City Airport. I was there for an hour and I saw a grand total of six planes -- three coming in to land, plus another three taking off. So we are not talking Heathrow airport here -- it's not very busy. But it's still worth a look though, if you fancy a lazy morning without spending any money. And you get to ride the DLR back to Tower Gateway as well, which is a decent way to pass the time. You will get some good views of The O2 and the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf, before it drops you off by Tower Bridge.
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