Farewell Fokker 70

Founded in 1919, the Dutch flag carrier KLM has the longest history of any airline still operating. For 97 of those 98 years, their history has been interwoven with that of another central protagonist of Dutch aviation: the aircraft manufacturer Fokker. This track record is all the more impressive given that Fokker ceased production over 20 years ago… Inevitably, since then their presence in the fleet has dwindled, with only a handful of Fokker 70s remaining by 2017. These, though, were aircraft fit for royalty – the Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander holds a type rating for them, and for decades has been taking a break from the duties of the throne by trading it for the co-pilot seat on domestic CityHopper flights!

KLM clearly wanted to honour Fokker’s role in its history, taking a number of steps through the year to mark the retirement of the 70s. One frame, PH-KZU (pictured above), was given a custom ‘Thank you’ livery featuring company founder (and Dutch aviation pioneer) Anthony Fokker on the tail. A special film and photography flight to immortalise it in action followed. So too did a history book, Dutch at Heart , was compiled from the archives of both companies, with a special emphasis on the Fokker 70. This year’s Delft blue house – miniature depictions of real Dutch houses filled with gin, given out as gifts to longhaul business class passengers – replicates Anthony Fokker’s childhood home. And, little by little, details were teased for a ‘farewell’ flight on October 28th. (King Willem-Alexander, meanwhile, has learnt how to fly 737s.)

KLM’s very first flight was from London (well, Croydon) to Amsterdam, with a British plane and pilot; whilst the Fokker 70 is powered by Rolls Royce engines. In honour of these links, London (and another English pilot) were chosen for their last Fokker service, with KL1070 LHR-AMS inserted into the schedule for one day only, rather than simply assigning the plane to an existing rotation.

With fond memories of BA’s farewell flight for their 737s, once I spotted the announcement (via LHR:airside) I was keen to secure a spot on board. I’d never flown on a Fokker aircraft, and with no other operators of the 70 in Europe or North America, a trip to London to try one was comparatively little hardship, and meant this would be simultaneously a first and a last.

I also had a compensation voucher from KLM burning a hole in my pocket: set to expire in November, it was good for €350 against flights, but only €250 if redeemed for cash, an outcome too boring to tolerate. Better still, when digging around the schedules I realised that a LHR – AMS – BRS itinerary was possible as an evening’s flying. Not only did that eliminate the cost of an overnight hotel at Schiphol and a return train from Paddington, but ‘London to Bristol, via an exciting detour to Holland’ is a neat summary of the trajectory of my life this year.

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One of the nice features of KLM’s website is their flight guide, which offers information on everything from weather at your destination, to how to decipher cabin crew uniforms. Of course, there’s plenty of airplane trivia too, so here’s a slightly rearranged version of the page I was presented with regarding the Fokker 70:

Seating is in a 2-3 config, with slimline seats and a generous pitch of at least 31″; the front six rows (business and economy comfort) add an extra inch, but even more space can be found on the exit row. So, as I still had plenty of voucher credit left after paying the fare – and no window seats available – that’s what I went for.

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With KL1070 scheduled for an early evening departure, I was able to make my way in leisurely fashion from Bristol to Heathrow’s Terminal 4. By booking significantly in advance I was able to get a first class train through to Paddington for only a couple of pounds more than the same-day price for standard; similarly a ’30 day advance express saver weekend’ fare got me a ticket on the Heathrow Express for a fraction of the usual rate. Having built in plenty of slack, this of course went completely smoothly: the arrival to London was actually early, with just over two and a half hours taking me from Temple Meads to airside. I passed some of the spare time in the equally relaxing surrounds of the Plaza Premium lounge, grabbing an early dinner before attempting to locate a likely gate in advance of the official boarding call.

Despite having never flown out of T4 before, my airport instincts proved good, and having headed up to the high-numbered gates based on the destinations and size of aircraft at others, I reached gate 16 just as gate 17 was declared for our departure. This did not seem a promising outcome from a photography perspective, but located one gate along was something I hadn’t previously known about: the View Heathrow Observation deck. Given the crowds I clearly wasn’t the first to think of it; and based on all the conversations in Dutch, everyone present was hoping for the same sight: the Anthony Fokker livery PH-KZU. Of course, being Dutch they were all much taller than me, which made getting shots difficult…

PH-KZU arriving at LHR T4
PH-KZU arriving at LHR T4

Once our plane had reached the stand I returned to the boarding area, where I quickly discovered that for once I was far from the geekiest passenger in attendance. From the volume of cameras being wielded, travellers on other flights might mistake us for paparazzi waiting to ambush a major celebrity – except many of our number were decked out in ‘Farewell Fokker 70’ tshirts (seemingly hand made, in at least three designs) or otherwise toting aviation memorabilia. I hadn’t found much discussion of this event on Flyertalk or the Dutch InsideFlyer, but clearly there’s a community out there somewhere! Their level of devotion to all things KLM also placed me very much at the bottom of the ladder when it came to status, so I took the time to enjoy the sunset views across the runways whilst almost everyone else joined the SkyPriority line. Despite a scheduled departure time of 18:10, there were still plenty of us boarding then; the process no doubt slowed down by the pair of windows on the jetbridge walkway which offered a better view of our coveted plane than the glare-ridden ones near the gate.

Sunset departures
Boarding at T4

On board, I found my way to 11D. Not only did this offer all the leg room you’d expect from an exit row, but, thanks to the lopsided 2-3 arrangement, the D seats are clear of the luggage bins and thus offer plenty of headroom too. Plus I had a great view down the aisle of proceedings up front, where the captain emerged to make his pre-flight announcements in person; immediately summoning that paparazzi-barrage of camera lenses again…

Captain’s announcements

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Captain Richard Galloway has flown this type of aircraft – and only this type of aircraft – for twenty-five years, and twenty-five days; and thus, as he quipped, he “knows almost where all of the buttons are now”. Given this unusual history (and unlike King Willem-Alexander), he would be retiring alongside the plane after this final flight. Only 45 minutes of flying were expected, but he promised to try and make it a beautiful 45 minutes, and hoped that we would enjoy it as much as he was going to.

Pushback was at 18:23, and ten minutes later, we were aloft! Catering followed soon after – KLM has not moved to buy-on-board yet, and squeezed three trolley runs into our short flight. First pass was for a snack box promising a tasty – albeit tiny – sandwich, plus a stroopkoekje (small caramel cake – like all things stroop-based, highly recommended!) Next along was a drinks run, offering tea/coffee, soft drinks or wine. The third, though, was just for our flight: a gift bag of mementos, with a custom “Farewell Fokker 70” decal. To be found within were a Fokker “remove before flight” tag; a keyring with wooden klompen (clogs); pens from Rolls Royce and Fokker; a second “Farewell” sticker; and a cake. This last item had an expiry date which suggested it was only good for a week, but since it also mentioned the last flight on the packaging, I fear some people will keep them forever! More fool them, though: I ate mine the next day, and it turned out to be another example of gooey caramel excellence. (Much better than e-baying it come the centenary…)

Service with a smile
In-flight catering
Mementos

Despite our advertised 45 minute flight time, the Captain let us know that we would be on a deliberate go-slow, so that we could arrive on the dot of half past for the awaiting media – apparently we were all celebrities now, and passengers in the window seats should fix up their hair for the cameras! Normally I fly with noise-cancelling headphones in and music on, but on this occasion I felt it better to just soak in the atmosphere. And atmospheric it certainly was: cabin lights were dimmed at ten past, and the Fokker turns out to be particularly dark once this is done. For twenty minutes, then, I immersed myself in just the white noise of those rear-mounted engines, glimpses of clouds whipping past the windows and across the wings, and snippets of muted conversation in a language I can only follow fragments of. It was genuinely a pleasure to be on a flight simply for the sake of flying, as our Captain lead the plane through a lazy loop around the city.

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We arrived in Amsterdam with what he described as “literally the worst landing I’ve done this year”, a very definite return to solid ground for which we were all given permission to laugh. (Strangely, the landing on the BA 737 farewell was similarly rough – and received a similar response.)

The taxi to the terminal is notoriously long at Schiphol, but we were slowed down even further by a mass escort of airport ground vehicles, as we paraded through a corridor of lights from others parked alongside, past workers keen for one last glimpse. Despite an open invitation to explore the cockpit, as I had barely half an hour until my onward flight back to the UK, I knew I couldn’t linger long. Nonetheless, once down the steps I and several other passengers still had to be ushered away from the stand and onto the bus to the terminal – a trip, clearly, that none of us was quite ready to make.

Farewell, Fokker 70.