The Spiral Stairs


March 1, 2023

With the Boeing announcement of the last 747 rolling off the line in Everett Washington this week, I realized that it has been 50 years since this bird first entered the lives of the men in our Projects division. Yes, by the way: ‘men’ is correct. The announcement that women would be permitted to go on mission travel was still three or four years away.

Pan Am 106 wasn’t the first jumbo service to Europe, but it was the first from Washington, meaning Bank travelers could now be part of the modern era without the hassle of going through JFK. But there were mixed feelings in the division about this airplane, as I tried to capture in this sketch from the novel Out of Eden[1].

For anyone who had spent the six-to-seven-hour crossing from Washington to London in the confines of a regular jet, the jumbo was a whole new experience. Bright and spacious, the first-class cabin was more like a well-appointed club room than the inside of a fuselage. The upstairs lounge, with its spiral staircase, might have been a novelty at first but its comfortable furnishings and well-stocked bar soon made it a regular part of the routine for passengers in the front of the airplane. No matter that this luxurious little cocoon was nestled on top of the airframe rather than suspended beneath it; someone on Boeing’s design team had captured the spirit of the Zeppelins for the modern traveler.

The old-timers in the division, however, were less than impressed with the jumbo.

“Most of the passengers are not even close enough to a window to know that they are flying,” Lennard Hendricks said. “They could just as well be sitting in some hotel lobby, Yah? Or in a restaurant.” His accent and the ever-present cigarette were reminders of his previous life as the manager of a tobacco estate in the Dutch East Indies. As far as Lennard was concerned, the last useful change in aviation had been the switch from the old piston-driven DC-7s to the DC-8 jets that cut travel time in half between Djakarta and Amsterdam.

“There’s no feel of flying to the damned thing,” Chris Talbot chimed in. He knew what it meant to feel like you were flying because he had flown Spitfires during the Second World War.

“It’s so heavy,” Gert von Gehrig added, “that it mushes through rough air instead of bouncing crisply.” He had flown bombers for the bad guys during the same conflict. “And it is so long that when it hits turbulence it wags its tail like a dog.”

But Ray Baker put the final nail in the 747’s coffin as far as the old timers were concerned. “The only way to fill all those seats will be to cut prices and turn airports into Greyhound terminals.”

One evening shortly after his Yellow Cover had cleared the review process, David was aboard Flight 106 when it pushed back from the gate at Dulles. Like most long-distance travelers, he looked forward to the feeling of suspended animation that came with the closing of those cabin doors. For the next few hours, life would be on hold. Whatever the balance, the books were temporarily closed. There would be nothing he could do to further a cause or correct an oversight, consolidate a friendship or head off a crisis. It was time out, tarnished only by the folder of reading material in his briefcase.

With the muffled spooling of its enormous turbines, 106 ‘Heavy’ began to taxi, and the thump of its tires counted off segments of taxiway as the gentle giant made its way into the darkness.

PS. The prize goes to the reader who can identify the division from the fictitious names!


* The author previously worked in a sector division and retired as an Advisor in a sector department of the World Bank.

[1]Out of Eden is the third in a series of free-standing historical fictions in the series Two Roads Home by James G. Brown

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  1. Richard Moss

    What a good read. Thank you!

    I imagine you may have worked at that time with Jim Evans. On his retirement from the Bank he joined us at Booker Agriculture. I knew his fine reputation and looked forward to learning from him.

    • James Brown

      Yes, Jim Evans was the Director of the Agriculture Projects Department in those days, before regionalization.

  2. Evalyn Carter

    I’ll take a wild guess and say these guys were in the Agriculture Division of the Projects Department. If that’s too far back, they were in an Agriculture Division of the Asia Region. Although the name Talbot speaks more to Tourism.

    • James Brown

      Close, Evalyn,
      Leslie Helmers was the Chief of the Agroindustries Division and I was its newest staff member.

  3. Richard Bumgarner

    Thanks Jim, Well written and it brought back out of my memory banks lots of images, most pleasant, about trips on that wonderful bird. Hope you are well. I will be adding some of those to my “notes for my kids” about things they didn’t ask about in those years.

  4. Helen Saxenian

    beautifully written, Jim! I bought your Out of Eden book after reading this, and am enjoying it.

  5. Abraham Brandenburg

    Hi Jim,
    Are you the JimBrown who went with me to China when I was with theBank?
    Brian Brandenburg

    • James Brown

      Animal feed, state farms, Korean joint ventures and lean pork. I remember it well.

  6. Thomas O'Brien

    Nicely written Jim, thanks for sharing!

  7. Helen Chin

    Would the mysterious division be East Asia & Pacific Dept/ Agriculture Division?

    • James Brown

      Close, Helen,
      This was just before the Bank was regionalized. It was the Agroindustries Division of the Agriculture Projects Department.

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