Lunar New Year FlyOver

Around the world in 13 minutes

Footloose over China. Photo: FlyOver Canada

Welcome aboard Air Cupula, the world’s fastest airline (at Mach 461), and also the cheapest (at about ¼ ¢ fare price per passenger mile).

Christened (by me) after one of the balance equilibrating structures of the inner ear, the airline also goes by the more prosaic name of FlyOver Canada, a corporate partnership between tourism entrepreneurs Stephen Geddes and Andrew Strang and the Aquilini Investment Group (owners of the Canucks hockey team).

As a special Lunar New Year promotion, FlyOver offers a two-for-one package ticket that includes a complete circuit of China as well as a transit of Canada from sea to shining sea, a total of more than 13,000 km. All in about 13 minutes of flight time. For less than $20. Round-trip. You take off and land at Vancouver’s own Canada Place, avoiding the agony of airports.

Of course at these prices and velocities, a few standard airline amenities have to go. No welcoming cocktails. In fact no on board comestibles at all, lest passengers foul the 20-meter wide hemispheric screen that displays our in-flight entertainment of vertiginously passing landscape. No airsick bags, either. And the seating is six abreast, like the “steerage” mid-section of a 747.  On the other hand, the seats are as wide as anything in a jumbo jet’s Business Class (though rather less cushy), a bit like a Whistler chairlift.

And what legroom!

As soon as the flight takes off, the bulkhead drops away and we are left with our feet dangling over the crags of China’s Yellow Mountains. From there we swoop up the banks of a canal through what looks like a film-lot recreation of a medieval city. Then on to flowering mustard fields, a mountaintop monastery, assorted lakes and snowfields, the Great Wall, a mosaic of rice terraces, karst pinnacles of Guilin & cie & cie.

Wisely, our zip through the People's Republic's air space omits the China-claimed “province” of Taiwan, which just voted overwhelmingly to hand its presidency and parliamentary super-majority to a pro-independence party. Instead, our itinerary culminates in a fireworks display over the bright lights of Shanghai. And then we zoom out to a screen-filling blow up of the moon; China’s proprietary moon.

Threading us through this whirlwind tour is a computer-animated dragon, now writhing ahead of us, then streaming beneath us, or fanning us with downdrafts from its beating wings, or splashing us with water droplets at a flick of its barbed tail. Once or twice it wheels and turns on us with an unnervingly affectless goat-like face. Far below we see tiny humans frantically waving. Unclear whether it’s to greet our fly-by or to fend off our sky-serpent guide.

No such mythic escort in the Canada portion of our flight, and no such ambiguity about the doings of the human groundlings. They’re just our regular compatriots going about their outdoorsy business as we swing low to buzz them – yachtsmen piloting a schooner off Newfoundland, kayakers on a Quebecois whitewater run, cowboys herding l’il doggies over an Albertan plain, Bella Coola heli-skiers, Okanagan mountain-bikers, Tofino beach paddlers. In between these sporty vignettes, we’re treated to iconic scenes like Niagara Falls, icebergs and fjords, Banff crags, Toronto and Vancouver skylines and a neon-green aurora.

Touching down, it takes a minute to regain our land legs. And no wonder: we’ve been riding on a “Taiwan-made, state-of-the-art flight simulator that's turned on its side,” the same gear that’s used for professional pilot training, according to Lisa Adams, Flyover’s operations director. The simulator can pitch and yaw on three separate axes – “except that we limit it to just about 30 cm’s rotation in any direction, to make for a gentler ride,” she hastens to add.

Still, that’s enough to trigger our inner ear’s balance-sensing vestibular system to ratify the visual signals we get from the streaming, 360˚ movie, creating the illusion of free-fall flight. Add to that the hot and cold air blasts, mists and droplets all raining down on us from overhead spritzers to lend extra realism. Not to mention the aerosol scents – freshwater cascades, ocean spray, forest duff or floral aromas – that intermittently permeate the screening bubble (with occasionally jarring mismatches, viz. a Shanghai smogscape that somehow smells like apple blossoms).

The China leg of the trip, dubbed “Flight of the Dragon,” was originally produced by the Los Angeles-based Super 78 Studios for Shanghai’s Happy Valley theme park. Vancouver’s FlyOver theatre has rented the film January 14 – March 6 for its Lunar New Year show.

Later this year at its Canada Place screening bubble FlyOver will unveil locally its own newest offering:  FlyOver America, which is now in production (at a reported cost of US$ 20 million) for a springtime pemiere in Minnesota. Vancouverites can look forward to an opportunity to experience the U.S.A. in readily digestible micro-doses without even having to undergo the border courtesies of Homeland Security.

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