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Stairway to Heaven: A Metaphor for a Transatlantic Flight

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Like many kids in my generation in the United States – I’m an American, aged 25 – I first became aware of Led Zeppelin in middle school thanks to hearing Stairway to Heaven. The last song at our middle school dances, I can distinctly remember the trepidation of asking a girl to dance, and the fear of being stuck without someone to dance with when the song – particularly the guitar solo – rolled around. Regardless, I came to enjoy it as a song. In fact, it has become my favorite song, but it took a long time for me to realize it. This is a long story, but I believe it’s worth reading.

A year or so after my initial discovery, my dad and I decided to make a trip to England. In addition to visiting relatives in Kent and Lancashire, this was to be an exciting trip for me, as it was my first transatlantic flight. I’d always been interested in airplanes and flying, but had developed a particular affinity for international flights. The mystique of an aircraft heading into the over-water abyss with no land in sight was very intriguing to me. Moreover, I would later realize that I had become somewhat of an Anglophile, a trait that I still possess today, and many have joked to me that I was born on the wrong continent!

The First Trip to England

On a Tuesday night, November 9, 2004, we left our house in Maine and drove the 2 hours south to Boston to spend the night, before getting on a British Airways Boeing 777 the next morning bound for London Heathrow. Mind you, these were the odd days between the rampant use of P2P filesharing platforms like LimeWire and Kazaa and the start of the YouTube era, so – unless you had a friend with a particular album or song – you were really out of luck if you didn’t have a given album (I did not have LZIV). Even so, I did have Stairway stuck in my head on the flight over, as it was the most “English” song that I could think of, particularly the beginning section with the acoustic guitar and recorders – it had somewhat of a “Medieval” feel to it that made me think of what I thought the English countryside looked like. We landed that evening, and, after six great days in England, flew back on the 777 once again. Overall the trip was fantastic, but I couldn’t stop from getting Stairway stuck in my head from time to time.

A few months after returning home and first getting a live version of the song, I was eventually able to get the Led Zeppelin IV version of Stairway online a couple of months later, and I remember feeling like I’d discovered a long-lost friend when I heard it for the first time since the last school dance (some prefer live versions – I prefer the album version, particularly for the crisp sound of the opening guitar sequence). For the next 10 years or so, I listened to it on and off, but it was not much more than a passing thought most of the time. At the same time, my interest in transatlantic aviation had taken a backseat to more “normal” teenage interests like sports.

The Best Trip to England

Almost 10 years later, in Spring 2014, I’d just graduated from college (university), had moved to an apartment just outside of Boston, and begun a job in marketing for a tech company. As such, I used Twitter quite often to promote technology trends, brand messaging, and the like.

A few days into my new job, my boss told me to tweet some sort of statistic or nugget of knowledge. I did so, and he jokingly replied “get back to work,” which I found funny, so I retweeted it. Later that week, my dad and I spoke on the phone, and he mentioned having been stressed out because he “saw on Twitter that [my] boss was mad at [me].” Perplexed, I asked what in the world he meant, to which he replied that he’d seen my boss tell me to get back to work. I laughed, saying that it was 100% a joke, and that he had told me to tweet the initial thing. Afterwards, he said “if you don’t use Twitter at work for a year, I’ll send you to England.” I told him that I didn’t want to wait a year, so I’d pay for half the trip if I could go in six months. He said that was fine, so I booked the tickets that summer (my mom later told me it was a gift for doing well in school and not getting in trouble, so I didn’t even have to pay half).

At the same time, after many years of it being dormant, my interest in aviation had re-emerged. I had grown up in Maine, a state with virtually no scheduled transatlantic flights, but I found myself – by chance – living right under one of the major flight paths out of Logan Airport. As such, I was able to see all kinds of aircraft, including my favorite – the British Airways Boeing 747 – from my bedroom. Having never flown on a 747 before this trip, I was sure to book both flights on 747s, and was very excited for the trip.

It seemed like a million miles off at the time, but – in virtually no time at all – November 25, 2014 rolled around. That afternoon, I left my apartment outside Boston for Logan Airport (this drive was much shorter than coming down from Maine). After a few hours of waiting, I boarded the 747, and we took off just after 6 p.m. local time. It was an incredible experience taking off in such a large, powerful machine, and one that went by in a blur.

The sun had long set by the time we took off, so this was the true definition of a “night flight.” Since there wasn’t a ton to see out the window, I pulled out my iPhone, opened iTunes, and put on Stairway. Never have I felt a song was so right for a particular moment: flying through the night, to England, listening to the song that reminded me of England more than anything. Particularly, the breaks following lines in the opening verses made for incredible contrast with the background rumble of the jet engines. In the moment, I was immersed in Stairway, but the breaks reminded me of where I was.

At around 4:30 a.m. local time in London, we broke out of the clouds. It turned out that we were the first flight of that day to land at London Heathrow, at 4:34 a.m., and – after touchdown – we taxied quickly to the terminal.

The trip was excellent – I spent a few days in London, before venturing north to hang in Lancashire for a few days, before returning back to London to fly home, again on a 747. It was easily the most fun vacation I’ve ever had.

The Analogy

It wasn’t until after, though, that I realized that Stairway is the perfect metaphor for a transatlantic flight, particularly one at night from the East Coast of the United States to England. It sounds crazy, but bear with me.

When the song starts, you’re thinking ‘this is never going to end.’ In the back of your mind, you know it’ll end eventually, but it seems so far off that it’s futile to try to discern any signs of progress. This would happen a few minutes after takeoff. Both the opening guitar sequence by Jimmy Page and the recorder by John Paul Jones evoke this feeling.

Once the second section starts, where Robert Plant first sings “It makes me wonder,” you’re thinking ‘well, we’ve moved somewhere since the start, but we’re still so far away from the end.’ This would around the time that the flight has gotten to the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and is about to start its transatlantic crossing.

When Bonzo comes in with the drums, you start to think, ‘OK, we’ve made some serious progress from the beginning…but we’re still far from the end.’ This is around halfway through the flight, so you still have at least 1,500 miles to go.

Finally, the transition prior to the solo starts, and you start to sense that things are getting exciting. Then, the solo itself starts, and you start to see the lights from the cities in Ireland far below. Soon enough, the descent into London (or Manchester, or Birmingham, or wherever else) starts, and things really start “kicking off,” both in the song and on the flight.

As you descend, it builds and builds and builds, getting more exciting by the minute. When the song reaches its peak prior to the final line, that is the moment you’re over the threshold of the runway, and you touch down. The plane’s spoilers go up, the thrust reversers engage, and the aircraft slows. At that moment, you hear “…aaaand she’s buyyyying a Sta-ir-way to Hea-ven,” and you know you’ve arrived.


This past April, I went back to England, flying over on the British Airways Airbus A380 and back, once again, on the 747. A fantastic experience, and I definitely enjoyed listening to Stairway both ways, but I’ll always remember the experience of the way my first 747 flight and that magical trip to England was enhanced by my favorite song.

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