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Mike's Adventures in Korea 1994

Part 1: The Trip Over

It is Friday, July 8, 1994 in upstate New York.

I meet at my friend Jim's house around 7 AM, and he hops in the car and we are on our way to the Syracuse airport.  Then, a few hours later, we are airborne in a Northwest DC-9 on our way to Detroit.

Jim and I had arranged to have leave taken in route.  The military authorizes one day spent en-route to the Far East as an "acclimation day," so that you can adjust to the drastic time change.  Also, our unit authorized us to spend time on leave in conjunction with temporary duty (TDY) for up to 50% of the total time of the TDY.  Since we were going for a week, we could spend 3 days on leave on the way.  So, when the plane landed for refueling halfway there, we could stay for up to three days on our way to Korea.  After all, they were in no big hurry for us to get there, so whether we arrived on Saturday or on Tuesday, they didn't care as long as we arrived.

So, to handle this leave on the way over, we had to figure out where we were going.  Well, since our tickets are up to the military, we had no idea about our itinerary.  So, to be safe, we were authorized leave en route at either Honolulu, Hawaii or Anchorage, Alaska, either of which was most likely to be the refueling place on our trip over.

So, we landed in Detroit, and we quickly made our way over to the International Terminal to trade in our military vouchers for our actual tickets.

They handed me my ticket.  "Detroit - Seoul Kimpo."  Huh?  So, I stopped the ticket agent.

"Where do we stop over?" I asked.

"This plane doesn't stop," he replied.

"Doesn't stop?  You mean we are non-stop for about 12 hours over to Korea?" I asked.

"Actually," he replied, "it's more like around 15 hours.  And yes, it is non-stop."

So, we proceed to the gate.  It is around 11 AM, and our flight is at 2 PM. So, we hang out around the gate.  Then, at around 12:30, they start loading our 747-400 monstrosity.  I start to get in line, and Jim stops me.

"We're going to be sitting there for almost an entire day; let's wait to get on the plane."

Objects are MUCH LARGER than they appear.
The enormous 747-400.  A gigantic airplane.

So, we waited until the last minute and then got on.  We sat on the side.  I had a window seat, and Jim had an aisle.  There was a seat in between us, and a Korean guy was sitting there.  Jim asked to trade with him, so that we could talk through the flight.  He yelled something at us in Korean and refused to move.  So, Jim and I kept talking around him.

At takeoff, the plane used up the entire length of the runway.  It was amazing, but I wasn't sure if we would ever get in the air.  Shortly after takeoff, when the pilot turned off the fasten seatbelt sign, our Korean neighbor got up and disappeared.  We never saw him ever again.

So, Jim and I sat there excited about our trip.  So excited, in fact, that we decided to order some wine and beer to help relax us on the flight over.

About two hours into the flight, they serve dinner and order everyone to pull down their window shades so they can show the movie.  As I start to pull down the window shade, I see the Yukon below.  I don't want to shut my window!

Yukon river from 40,000 feet
A Yukon river from 40-some thousand feet.

The flight attendant orders me to shut my window.  She explains that it will be "night" soon, so we have to have it shut.  She says if I do, she'll bring me another bottle of wine.  I'm a sucker, so I shut my window.  I watched the first in-flight movie - Terminal Velocity, an awful Charlie Sheen movie, while sucking down my small airline sized bottle of wine.

So, a couple of hours later, as it is now "night" in the aircraft, I can see the bright sun blaring through the shade.  So, I open it to sneak a peek.  There are the beautiful Alaskan glaciers.  Although the flight crew would have us believe it is about 3 in the morning inside the plane, I ruin the illusion by opening my window to reveal that it is about 4 PM outside in Alaska.

Objects may be more beautiful than they appear...
A beautiful Alaskan glacier, as seen at 3 AM 747 time.  (Note the dark sky - we were up very, very high.)

Cool glaciers on a hot July day-night...
Another view of Alaskan glaciers taken before the flight attendant slammed my window shade shut.

The flight attendant suggests I walk around to get some exercise, so I do so.  I walk around the coach cabin, and then the flight attendant allowed me to go upstairs so I can see the business class seats in the upper deck.  Then, on my way back, I stopped by a galley to have another beer (hey, why not have 15 hours of open bar?).  While I was there, I met some other GIs on their way to Korea, and one of the women suggests we all drink a celebratory shot of vodka to Korea.  Most of the flight was spent with a good buzz on...

So, seeing as how I had a good buzz going, I decided to try to sleep.  However, it felt like it was only 9 at night according to my body, and despite all my tricks, my mind kept telling me it was perpetually late afternoon outside my window.  No matter what, my mind knew it was sunny outside.  

The second in-flight movie began, which was Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonMr. Smith was actually more interesting when listening to the Korean sound channel, but I decided to walk once again around the airplane.  I saw that all of the flight attendants had changed except for the one who kept telling me to leave my window shut.  So, I started talking with her about the plane.

Turns out the entire crew swapped places with other members half-way through.  The pilots who would be landing the plane in Korea spent the first part of the flight in a special sleep section in the back.  The pilots who took off and flew the first part of the flight would be asleep in the back for the second part.  This is the job I want - I can take off and fly a plane, but it's the landing that is hard.  But, the flight attendants also swap out.  However, our flight attendant, who was Chinese, was going to be visiting family in Hong Kong, so she wanted to stay awake for the entire flight to get acclimated to the time zone change.  So, since she wasn't using her bunk, I asked if I could take it.  She told me "no."  Oh, well, it was worth a shot.

So, I get back to my seat and somewhere around the 11th hour or so, I fall asleep.  Somewhere about an hour later or so, they order everyone to open their window shades.  It's now "morning" on the airplane, although it looks like it is about 5 PM outside the window over the Pacific Ocean. 

They now serve the meals.  Our dinner after we took off was American.  Our "breakfast" is Korean.  More acclimation.  I actually liked it, but Jim hated it.

After breakfast, I took my towel and went to the bathroom and cleaned myself up a bit.  I felt all slimy and nasty.  And now, the hangover was starting.  Jim, who hadn't drank very much and slept, was feeling better than I was, but having spent all this time cooped up in the plane was starting to wear on us.

Then, the plane started descending.  The video showed exercises we could do to get the blood flowing again.  By this time, my hangover was in full effect.  Head pounding and stomach reeling, I was ready for landing.  I tried to exercise, but it was just making my head pound more.  I looked out the window.

Imagine this scene stretching for miles and miles and miles...
Seoul from the air.  That's the Han River in the background.  More on that later.

Seoul is an enormous city.  The picture above doesn't do it justice.  There are around 14 million people in Seoul and the surrounding communities, and they all live in these high rise apartment buildings.  These buildings are all you can see for miles and miles and miles in all directions...  And, as you can see, it is around 7 PM in Seoul on Saturday, July 9, 1994.  Somewhere around hour 10, we crossed the International Date Line, and although the time of day remained constant, an entire day advanced.  It is very mind boggling.

Even more mind boggling is this: consider that we took off at 2 PM in Michigan and landed at 7 PM in Seoul.  So, outside, the sun had only moved 5 hours across the sky.  Yet, about 15 hours had elapsed inside the plane.  So, what essentially happened is that the plane took off, flew 5 hours West while the earth simultaneously rotated underneath us.  It's pretty mind boggling if you think about it - especially if you have had several beers, glasses of wine, and a shot of vodka.  Oh, and no sleep.

So, the pilot, well rested, gently lands our plane down at Seoul's Kimpo airport and announces that we have landed in the Republic of Korea, the Land of the Rising Sun.

Continue on to Part 2: Welcome to Korea