Four days, three airports, two cities, one country - A flying visit to South Korea.

May 15, 2020

This feature is another in the series of aviation stories originally published in print magazines around the world. There have been some minor adjustments but to all intents it is the same.

 

This story was originally from 2014 and is about my whistle stop tour of South Korea to celebrate the 1,000th delivery of Airbus Sharklets by Korean Aerospace.

I had little time to plan my trip to South Korea – only knowing I would be on Korean Air Flight 908 from London/Heathrow to Seoul/Incheon two day prior to leaving.  This was my first visit to the East Asia country, and so after a ten hour flight and as our aircraft prepared to land, I felt excitement and eagerness as I contemplated the adventures that lay ahead.

 

On the landing roll out we pass the enormous cargo area, dominated by rows of FedEx and UPS types on one side and unsurprisingly Korean Air 747 freighters on the other with the odd airline I have never heard of thrown in.

Just a short taxi later, we arrive at our gate. I was fortunate to fly business class so my exit from the Korean Air B777 is easy and I am soon in the terminal and following the signs for immigration while taking in the aircraft parked on the stands outside the windows. The highlight is the pride of the Korean fleet, an Airbus A380. Inside, displays of Korean heritage appear at random points along the terminal. The signs are in English as well as Korean so I have no problem finding my way.  

 

Inbound efficiency.

Turning into the immigration area I am pleasantly surprised by its décor – reminiscent of the entrance to a classy hotel. Incheon airport certainly is far from typical with little or no queues, welcoming officials and a speedily processed entrance. I even received a stamp in my passport – a lasting souvenir of an overall positive travelling experience. 

The next stage of my journey, to my hotel, sees me encounter the Korean taxi system. My driver, after removing a parking ticket from the windscreen with barely a blink, delivers me safe and sound, just, to my hotel.

 

Once again the high level of Korean service is evident. My luggage is taken from me and I am escorted to the check in desk. Process accomplished, concierge staff collect my belongings and accompany me to my room. 

 

An action packed schedule awaits me. Do I succumb to the comfort of my hotel bed or explore the city?

 

 

City tour

The lure of an inviting, bustling, metropolitan Asian city eager to be investigated wins the day, and I venture forth as a western tourist, map in one hand, camera in the other. 

 

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with a population in excess of 25 million is indeed a city of contrast.  Vibrant, trendy night life and modern commercialism blending with ancient traditions, Buddhist temples, remarkable architecture yet on the outskirts, rows of grey apartment buildings.

 

A perfect example is my modern high rise glass hotel sitting next to an ancient, yet well preserved shrine, I later learn that Seoul has been reconstructed over the years, dating back from the Josean Dynasty when the city became South Korean’s capital and was named Hanseong. During this period most of the country’s notable landmarks were built, including the Five Grand Palaces and Namdaemum. 

 

My map shows a palace to the north and a market to the south, I reckon I can make both and all that lies between before I need to be back at the hotel.

Namdaemum market is the largest traditional market in South Korea. When in unfamiliar regions I always maintain that a street market truly captures the spirit and identity of the area, and this was no different. Over many streets there was colourful clothing, gifts and a wide array of foods. I was pleasantly aware of the lack of market trader hassle and litter. Cleanliness seems a cultural thing. The whole of the city was noticeable for being completely devoid of unwanted waste. 

After wandering through the market, I set off north along the huge ‘Taepeyong no’ road through the city. Samsung’s HQ is situated here together with other global corporates such as Hyundai and Lotte, working in diverse areas from farming to construction as well as the items we associate them with in Europe.

 

Ancient meets modern

I take in wonderful architectural creations old and new. On the east side of the road there is the ultra modern addition to Seoul City Hall, with the 600 year old Deoksu Palace on the west side.

Everything is on a large scale, the huge office blocks, the wide streets, the statues...and the queues! 

I arrive at the newly redesigned but 600 year old 20,000m2 Gwanghwamun Square with the imposing statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin rising high in the sky as if guarding the statue of King Sejong the Great on his throne with the Gwanghwamun gate in the background leading to the Gyeongbok Palace. 

 

Constructed in 1395, then abandoned for almost three centuries, this palace was last reconstructed in 1867 and was the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty.

 

 

I have a quick look around then head back towards my hotel. Although I felt no concerns walking around, the authorities appear to take nothing for granted. I turn a corner and walk down an alleyway and the portacabins running along the length are full of police and propped up outside are scores of riot shields.

 

It is getting dark now which gives the city a new feel. It has been overcast and smoggy so the introduction of neon lights and car headlights brings a new wealth of colour for the last part of my walk back.

I am soon downstairs with five other colleagues and our Airbus and Korean Air hosts waiting for transport to our evening meal. We chat about the state of the airline business while enjoying the many courses of a traditional Korean meal. After which we head back for much-needed sleep. We’re up at 6am for our transport to Seoul’s second airport - Gimpo, situated at the eastern end of Seoul, about 15km from the centre.

 

Seoul’s main airport until Incheon opened in 2001, Gimpo is now mainly for domestic services but still has some international flights. It is very much a product of the sixties with plenty of grey concrete and a psychedelic-looking tower adorned with what appears to be rainbows.

 

 

Second Airport, second check in.

We check in as a group and proceed through the security checks and into the airside part of the terminal. 

Pride of place is a Josean Dynasty Dragon drum, so named because it has a dragon painted on it as well as the Korean national symbol the Taegeuk.

 

I take photos of airlines I didn't even know existed like T’way, Jeju air and Eastar Jet along with a plethora of Korean Air and Asiana. 

 

 

 

All too soon KE1107 is called and I board B737-900 HL7726 for the short trip to Gimhae Airport at Busan, the destination for the Sharklet presentation. Gimhae is a joint civilian and military airfield and I am blown away by the diversity of aircraft.

 

On arrival we get off quickly and just a short walk later I find myself at baggage reclaim. Shortly after my bag shows up and we all congregate landside. 

We exit in our coach and travel passed razor wire topped walls before arriving at a security gate entrance to the Korean Aerospace division. We pass by a Korean 747 freighter with a couple of engines missing and an A300 in an even greater state of undress, completely engineless and missing some flight control surfaces. 

Arriving at the main building we head past display cabinets with models of Korean Air aircraft from days gone by right up to expected future acquisitions. Alongside these are military types that are or have been worked on by the organisation. First stop is the conference room for an introduction to Korean Aerospace as well as a Q&A session followed by lunch which is another multi-course Korean banquet.

After this is the ceremony celebrating the 1000th delivery of Airbus Sharklets attended by hierarchy from Airbus and Korean Air.

 

Following the ceremony a fleet of golf buggies takes us on a tour of the huge facility where we see everything from A350 cargo doors and B787 bulkheads under construction to F4 phantoms, C-130 Hercules and A10 Thunderbolts being rebuilt.

 

 

Second city.

Upon concluding the tour, we are transported into our second city, Busan. Located on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, it is a popular holiday destination for holiday makers. The trip was uneventual apart from the vision of the spectacular Gwangan or Diamond bridge acting as a gateway to the city.  

 

Busan is the second largest city in Korea and in stark contrast to its capital as a result of its coastline of superb beaches, scenic cliffs and extraordinary views. It is a definite tourist location filled with hotels and restaurants catering for the visiting holiday trade.  

Its deep harbour and gentle tides have allowed it to grow into the largest container handling port in the country and the fifth largest in the world.

 

My hotel here incorporates an outdoor spa overlooking the ocean – a breathtaking experience to encounter the climate of 40 degree waters in a minus 2 degree air temperature.

 

Tonight's meal is a thoroughly Korean experience: Barbecued beef cooked in the centre of the table which you then dip in spices and sauces and wrap in leaves resembling lettuce and nettles and put in your mouth whole. The taste is wonderful as was the soup, the rice and the raw steak not to mention the many other courses. Once the meal is over Business cards, which are considered very important by the Koreans, and presents are exchanged and it is time for goodbyes. Rewriting this now reminds me of a goodbye I was unable to say. A good friend made on this trip who is now no longer with us seen here in the middle of a drinking game RIP Ben. 

 

Back at the hotel there is chance for a quick walk on the colourfully floodlit Haeundae beach ringed by neon signed hotels and sculptures.

 

Another day another flight.

The drive back to Gimhae takes us through the back streets of Busan which gives us an insight into city life and the dominating port. 

Split into domestic and international departure terminals I am initially concerned at being brought to the international terminal for our flight to Incheon. However KE1404 to Seoul Incheon is on the departure board so this must be the right place. The airport’s modern look and feel is continued inside with a large and airy check in area and up to date facilities. Check in is a smooth process and I make straight for security and go through the now daily tasks of taking half my clothes off in public and removing electronic items from my hand luggage.

I make my way to the windows overlooking the terminal apron. I am conscious of the military side to this airport and take note of what others are doing and how I am viewed when I take my camera out. No funny looks and plenty of smartphone cameras being used so I decide I am safe to shoot although I do not push my luck if anything military passes by. Again photos are through glass, I have not seen anything resembling a viewing area at all during my trip so I am happy that the majority of traffic which includes such things as Vietnam and Starflyer A320’s, Air Busan and China Airways B737’s, pass by my chosen spot.

 

Flight KE1404 is called and my marathon journey home begins.

 

Final views.

We taxi on time. Funnily enough there is one addition to the same pre flight briefing I have seen for the last three days which informs us that as a shared facility with military aircraft no photos are to be taken out of the windows, I wonder if I had been pushing my luck back in the terminal? I put my camera between my feet and watch what passes by my window.

The view goes from a Republic of Korea HS 748 to one of ROKAF’s B737 AEW&C Peace Eyes and once airborne I see literally dozens of CN235s in separate fenced sections engines running, anti collision lights flashing with what appears to be ground engineers in front of each one ready for taxi. Other military residents visible are ROKAF’s UH60P and C130.

The flight back to Seoul takes longer than the flight down as we seem to be out over water for a considerable time. The landing roll again passes by the cargo area but with many less Korean aircraft, looks like this time they are out earning a crust.

My departure from the international terminal at Busan seems clear now as our stand is right in the middle of the international long haul departure gates and it seems this flight is designed for people transferring onto international flights. In fact we park right next to my ride back to Heathrow.

Unfortunately though I do have to walk away from here to go through the transfer process requiring a further security check. Finally I am through and in the main terminal area and wanting to find my gate and a good vantage point to view visiting aircraft. It’s my first opportunity to find some presents from my trip and I will be lynched if I go home empty handed so I find an outlet selling Korean gifts.

Shopping completed, I make my way to the gate in this ultra modern facility with its high glass roof flooding the area with natural light and scores of Samsung TVs playing a multitude of programmes.

My gate is positioned where I can see arrivals and departures from the active runways and am treated to sights like SAT 737, Air India 787, Jin Air, Jeju Air, various Chinese airlines and, the highlight for me, a Mongolian 767, interspersed with varying types of Korean Air and Asiana.

 

 

 

My flight is called but I hang on while the rest of the plane boards. I don't expect to be back here any time soon – if ever – so I wait until there is nobody left in the waiting area and the gate staff are looking anxious before I finally board Korean flight KE907 a B777-3B5ER HL8274 bound for London Heathrow. 

Push back is again on time and settled into my comfy seat I put the IFE onto the front view camera to see what is coming and have camera in hand ready for anything of interest. On take off I am treated to a fantastic view of the airport and a great final sight of the country.

This is my fifth flight in four days with another to come to get me from Heathrow to Manchester and this fourth day will be a long one as I am travelling east to west. No complaints though, it has been a great four days, three very interesting airports, two very different cities in one country that I thoroughly enjoyed but never thought I would see.