Behind the scenes: What it was like on the 19-hour Project Sunrise flight
“What was it like to be on that Project Sunrise flight?” That's a question I've heard a lot over the past 24 hours.
Now, I’ve been on a lot of interesting flights over the years. There have been delivery flights, demonstration flights, the first passenger flight of the Dreamliner and charters filled by frequent flyers.
But I’ve received more interest on the Qantas “Project Sunrise” flight than any other in recent memory. That flight -- QF 7879 -- landed in Sydney early Sunday morning after completing a 19-hour, 16-minute nonstop journey from New York–JFK.
The flight was the first-ever by a passenger airline to fly nonstop between New York and Sydney, and everyone seems to be curious about it.
Farewell to a queen: What it was like to be on the last revenue flight of a Qantas 747-400
So, what was it like? And was the 10,000-mile journey as grueling as many of you feared it would be?
Here’s how it went:
I arrived to New York–JFK with the media contingent a little before 6 p.m. on Friday. The group was fairly small, but included journalists from outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC News, Bloomberg and Business Insider, among others.
We checked in at a counter devoted specifically to the special Project Sunrise flight. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce arrived shortly after and joined the check-in queue along with other airline executives, researchers and health professionals on the flight.
First, we had to get to the plane. We were escorted through security and into American Airlines’ Flagship Lounge. We had about two hours to kill before it was time to go to the gate ahead of our 9 p.m. departure.
On the plane: The first few hours
I boarded the plane around 8:20 p.m. and was directed to my seat: 10E.
Qantas’ business-class cabin is divided into two sections on its 787-9s. The first eight rows are separated from the last three by a bulkhead. The second section is almost exclusively media, and it’s where I’m seated.
There’s an air of excitement in the cabin about this historic flight. But, there’s also trepidation from some who wonder if 20 hours in a tube will be as bad as it sounds.
For now, excitement wins out -- especially once we push back from the gate and the preflight announcements begin.
Takeoff is at 9:27 p.m. Once the seat belt sign goes off, most people on the plane are up and about –-- chatting about how we all ended up on this flight and how we expect it to go.
Qantas is running experiments on both passengers and crew members that are meant to test the results of long-haul flying. I’m not participating in the test, but it’s interesting to talk to those who are.
Qantas frequent flyer Nick Mole is one of them. He and the other passengers invited on the flight agree to take part in three weeks of testing, covering one week before the flight and two weeks after. They've been given several tasks, which include sleep and nutrition journaling and wearing monitors that measure things like movement and light.
He and the others are also given devices that test alertness, requiring them to touch the screen when given a prompt. It’s meant to measure the reaction time between the prompt and the response.
“It goes on for 10 bloody minutes,” Mole says when showing us how the device works.
He says he’s enjoyed being part of the flight and the experiments, but acknowledged that the tasks can become tedious.
The tests extend to crews, too. Pilots wear EEG monitors to measure brainwaves while in the cockpit and give urine samples throughout the flight to show levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Flight attendants are given wrist monitors like the ones worn by passengers.
QF 7879 Capt. Sean Golding downplays any inconveniences about the tests, saying the data they’ll produce will be necessary to decide whether Qantas will want to push ahead with its Project Sunrise flights.
“That wasn’t distracting for us,” he said during a break in the cabin after showing the EEG device he had been wearing in the cockpit. “I forgot it was on, to be honest.”
Also part of the experiment: Passengers on QF 7879 are asked to stay awake for the first six hours of the flight. The idea is to battle jet lag by putting the cabin on Sydney time right from takeoff. It was 9 p.m. when we left in New York, but that was noon in Sydney.
Cabin lights are bright to help keep folks from falling asleep too soon. It mostly works, though there are some folks who have dozed off. Fortunately, I’m not one of them.
A fun part of the flight was that we got to see some areas of the plane that are normally off-limits. On this flight, Capt. Golding took several of us to see the crew-rest area on this Boeing 787-9, which Qantas took delivery of just last week.
After delivery from Boeing's assembly line near Seattle, it flew to Los Angeles for some post-delivery work before going to New York on Friday ahead of the flight to Sydney.
My first meal comes out just after 11:30 p.m. ET. Even the menus are meant to help reset body clocks. The first meals are spicy and include ingredients meant to stimulate passengers.
I started with spicy tomato and saffron soup and then select “Jiangxi-style white fish” that comes with a bit of a kick. It’s tasty, and -- honestly -- it did perk me up.
After about two hours, the group of frequent flyers emerges from the front section and heads to the back of the plane. They’re accompanied by research teams who lead the group through exercises that will keep them active on the ultra-long-haul flight. It’s also meant to be another hedge against jet lag.
The exercises occur every two hours, except for the period set aside for sleep. One of the exercise sessions includes a "Macarena" dance with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce standing along the sidelines.
Now it's 1 a.m. New York time. I’m getting sleepy, but we’re only about halfway through the window during which we’re supposed to stay awake. I walk around the plane -- the premium economy and economy sections are virtually empty. The exception is the rear galley when it is hosting exercises every other hour.
The "Macarena" performance comes around 1:40 a.m. New York time.
The sleepy middle
The lights are still bright, even thought tiredness has certainly set in for some. A certain camaraderie feels like it has developed among many of those onboard. That’s especially true for our smaller journalists section, which remains much more active than the relatively calmer front section.
I am starting to wonder how much longer I can stay awake.
At 3:30 a.m. New York time (6:30 p.m. Sydney time), flight attendants come around to put the sleeping pads on our seats. It’s not time to sleep yet – the second meal service is about to begin – but it’s getting closer.
The second meal is heavy on carbs and other items, according to the special in-flight menu, to “assist your body clock to be in Iine with your breakfast service and arrival into Sydney.”
My second meal service begins around 4:20 a.m. New York time (7:20 p.m. Sydney time). I have a starter of roast sweet potato soup and half of a chicken and Swiss cheese toasted sandwich. Dessert is a panna cotta trifle with raspberries and toasted almonds.
The meal comes about seven hours into the flight. I’m tired, and so are many of my seatmates. Most of us are ready to sleep.
Finally, about an hour after my second meal, the cabin slips into sleep mode -- meaning the cabin lights go out. I change into my Qantas pajamas handed out by the airline and recline my seat into the lie-flat position. I get a solid three hours of sleep, and then I am in and out of sleep for the next four hours.
I woke up several times, each time thinking I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. At 8:30 a.m. New York time I am up. And again at 10-something. And again at 11:20 a.m. New York time.
But I do manage to fall back asleep each time, at least for a little bit. The dark cabin reinforced the urge to sleep. And it’s quiet now, meaning that I fear waking up my neighbors if I get up and begin rustling around in my belongings. It’s a good incentive to try to get back to sleep.
At 12:23 p.m. New York time (3:23 a.m. Sydney time), I wake up for good. The cabin is still dark, but there’s no more sleep left in me. I put on a movie (Rocketman) and kill some time. We’re about to pass over the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia.
I noticed the exercise schedule has resumed in the rear of the aircraft. Most of the participants still seem engaged, though others appear a bit weary of it.
For me, the sleep has helped, but I don’t feel thoroughly rested. I begin to worry about how rough I’ll feel when it comes time to land, which is still about four hours away.
Around 2 p.m. New York time (5 a.m. Sydney time), breakfast arrives. For me, it’s “healthy” Bircher muesli followed by an egg-white omelet with tomatoes, spinach and roasted portobello mushrooms.
If breakfast is here, landing must be getting close.
Indeed, the cabin lights go to a brighter, orange-ish setting for dawn. Activity is picking up again in the cabin.
I feel awake. Not terrible, but not “fresh” either.
Shortly after 2 p.m. New York time -- just as I was finishing breakfast -- you could start to see the sun rise over the Pacific from the left-hand side of the plane. That came at more than 16.5 hours into the flight -- and it was the first time we had seen sunlight since departure.
It’s 3 p.m. New York time and we’ve been on the plane for about 18 hours. I’m getting antsy; I’m ready to be off the plane. I fetch my jeans and shirt and head to the lav to change back out of my pajamas.
Finally, we start making our descent. My fatigue gives way to adrenaline as the prospect of completing the historic flight sets in.
There’s a buzz in the cabin now, even if there are bags under some of our eyes.
At 4 p.m. New York time (7 a.m. Sydney time), Capt. Golding comes on the PA system from the cockpit. He says we’re about to start our final approach, and that there’ll be great views of downtown from the left side of the plane.
My section of business class empties out. We all go to sit in economy -- one person per row, in the window seat -- so that we can get the view. The flight attendants come back to see where we’ve all gone, then laugh. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” one says about the sight of one person per row in an otherwise empty cabin.
At 4:31 p.m. New York time I get my first glimpse of downtown Sydney. We make a pass over downtown, including the city’s iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House.
About 10 minutes later, we make a pass from the other side of town after turning to land at the airfield. The morning sun glistens off the water, making for a spectacular landing. In this moment, it seems that everyone on board forgets that we’ve now been on a plane for more than 19 hours.
At 4:43 p.m. New York time on Saturday -- or 7:43 a.m. Sunday in Sydney -- QF 7879 lands in Sydney 19 hours and 16 minutes after departing JFK.
We deplane and watch the crew and passengers pose for photos. It’s fun to witness. But, boy, I am tired.
Did the strategy to avoid jet lag work?
The whole idea of trying to put us on Sydney time from the moment of takeoff was to avoid jet lag after arriving in Australia.
I had some more adrenaline after arrival -- I had a press conference to go to and stories to file, after all. But I was beat. I was afraid I’d fall asleep as soon as I got to the hotel.
I arrive to my hotel around 10:30 a.m. Sydney time. I had work to do, but -- if I hadn’t -- I may not have had the discipline to stay up. But I was determined!
To help, I figured out a way to stream the college football game between Penn State (my alma mater) and Michigan, which kicked off right after I arrived to my hotel. The combination of work and football kept me awake.
Then, I heeded the advice of the sleep specialists on board QF 7879: “Go out and walk in the sun after you arrive. It’s one of the best ways to help moderate jet lag.” So I did. I found some coffee, and checked out my immediate surroundings in Sydney, where I’m a first-time visitor.
It’s now 10 p.m. Sunday in Sydney, and I’m still awake! That’s 7 a.m. Sunday in New York. I haven’t slept in a real bed since Thursday night, but -- despite that -- I’ve made it through my entire first day here in Australia.
Did the jet lag strategy work? At least for today. But in 48 hours, I may have a different story.
Featured image by James D. Morgan/Getty Images for Qantas