So you’re considering taking Qantas’s epic, 17,800-kilometre, 19.5-hour (or so) flight, direct Sydney-London? Or would you rather jab a burnt stick in your eye than travel non-stop long-haul?
Let me tell you, when Qantas starts this service for real, I’m going to be first in line to get on board.
I’m one of the lucky ones that got to experience the airline’s Project Sunrise test run of this “last frontier” of aviation, as the airline’s chief executive Alan Joyce called it at the time, flying London to Sydney on November 15, 2019.
I had a large Hendrick’s martini to settle the nerves the night before but my advice is to not drink alcohol pre-flight and hydrate with the H2O variety.
We had a 2am alarm call for a 4.10am arrival at the airport.
I grabbed a latte at an airport coffee shop – but Professor Corinne Caillaud from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, who was in charge of Project Sunrise’s wellbeing program, warned me against coffee. We’ll be going to sleep soon, she said.
Advice well taken. I binned it.
We boarded at 5.40am, and we pushed back at 5.52am, right on the hour when Heathrow’s curfew lifts. At 6am we were hitting the runway and taking off.
Sure, there weren’t that many of us on board and we were all in business class. A bunch of missions, a few VIPS and a small group of Qantas Frequent Flyers took part in the second of three Project Sunrise research flights (the first, New York – Sydney non-stop was four weeks prior; the third, repeating that route, was the third). This was also the world’s first passenger-carrying direct flight from London to Sydney (Qantas flew a 747 non-stop, without passengers, in 1989).
Throughout the flight, we were subject to special behavioral modifications involving food, movement and sleep/light exposure with researchers monitoring passengers’ mood and wellbeing. The flight crew were tested with brainwave-reading headsets and urine samples to check hormones, with a view to satisfying unions and the guidelines set out by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
Food and sleep were synchronised with that of our destination in order to mitigate jetlag.
On this particular trip, we got to see two sunrises “hence Project Sunrise”. About half an hour in, we saw our first over Berlin.
At 7am London time, we ordered “supper”, rather than breakfast, to trick our circadian rhythms into thinking it was dinner time. On most long-haul flights, first meal times are anchored to the destination they’ve just left. This meal was aligned with Sydney time.
The Neil Perry menu was designed to make us sleepy, featuring dairy, white bread and warming foods, all the comfort stuff. Yum. I had a haloumi, kale and zucchini bowl with poached egg and lemon dressing because it was a bit like breakfast but others opted for the steak sandwich.
Professor Caillaud had us get up and exercise half an hour later, which was easy because we had a nearly empty plane. I’m not sure how this will play out on full commercial flights but my advice is to move as much as you can.
I enjoyed a glass of pinot noir and watched some TV episodes and not long after our meal – and still with 16 hours to go – the lights were dimmed for sleep. I listened to some guided meditations and they helped me drift off. I woke up on and off for the first five hours but put myself back to sleep each time with deep breathing exercises.
At around ten hours in, 3.35am Sydney time, I woke up fully and check the flight path. It seemed a terrible time to be awake, considering the aim was to mitigate jetlag.
I put my eye mask back on, popped in the earplugs, got my breathing strategy going and voila, I was out again.
Lights came on with six and a half hours to go. This hasn’t felt hard but I reminded myself there were no crying babies, no trolleys jestling by and I’d been able to stretch my legs when needed.
I think the key thing I’ll be taking into the commercial version of this is the relaxation technique – and good noise canceling equipment.
Fourteen hours into the flight, we had breakfast, filled with zesty ingredients to wake us up. I watched more television (you could binge an entire series on this on flight if you wanted to) and an hour later we caught the second sunrise over Anbon, Indonesia. Beautiful. And Indonesia! Our neighbor! It felt like the end was in sight.
Around 17 hours in, lunch was served. I ate, did some work and suddenly we were 90 minutes from Sydney.
I changed out of my PJs, put my shoes on and noted some swelling in my ankles, but not huge amounts. It really was the only ill effect I had noticed at that point.
QF7879’s flight path.
Nineteen hours and 20 minutes after leaving Heathrow, we touched down. Unfortunately, a fellow traveler had a cold and I caught it. No jetlag to speak of but I came down with a lurgy.
And this was pre-COVID-19.
So, yes, absolutely I would do this trip again, though the thought of wearing a mask for that length of time now might make me hesitate, although ironically if I had done so on this flight, I might not have fallen ill.
Yes, I would fly it in economy, but in an aisle seat only. But that’s me in economy anyway. I need to get up and move and drink a lot of water on flights.
The advantage of not stopping anywhere though, was the winner for me. And the chance to binge a television series uninterrupted.
Julietta Jameson traveled as a guest of Qantas.
See also: New world’s longest flights: What’s next for ultra long haul routes
See also: My epic trip on board the world’s longest commercial flight