CyberCenturion IV – Winners Trip – Day 1

The time was finally here for the CyberCenturion IV Winners Trip, and it was 3:30 in the morning. That’s an awkward time to get up. Do you go to sleep the night before and wake up at a silly time, or do you not go to bed at all and hope that you’ll stay awake? I opted for the sleep and awkward wake up time so that I could leave my house by 4:30, meaning that I’d be at Birmingham Airport for the right time. While I’m able to drive, the prices are crazily expensive to park there for a few days. Therefore a taxi was the best option, but it still cost £29 for a half hour drive and drop-off parking entrance fee.

The price of the taxi shown totalling £29
Ignore the time shown on the clock and believe my version of events. It really was 5 in the morning!

We were advised to meet at the Costa Coffee in the departures area. However, upon going through the departures entrance, I was faced with only a Caffé Nero. I did think that perhaps we were just told the wrong name, but a student had recently flown from the airport and had confirmed that there was a Costa Coffee there. I walked around the shop just in case there was anyone else already waiting, then went on an explore of the airport. After a bit of walking, the only Costa I could find was nearer to the Arrivals area than Departures, so I hung around to see if anyone else would turn up.

It was 5:00 now, plenty of time before our flight, and a few minutes later the students started to turn up and congregate. They all said that they’d seen the Caffé Nero first, then assumed that wasn’t the right place and had a look around. By half past, all of the students had turned up, but I was the only member of staff there. I phoned the lead teacher and they were waiting at the Caffé Nero wondering where everyone was, and the other member of staff coming on the trip had been waiting at the outside seating area at Costa for the last 30 minutes (which was literally the other side of the arrivals door!). Once everyone was together, a few photos were taken by the parents and we headed towards the check-in desk.

Check-in was very straight forward. We got there early enough that we avoided any queue. In fact, there were so many of us that we were the queue. This was a nice surprise, as there were barriers all around the check-in area crammed full of people queuing up for other airlines. The night before the main teacher had pre-booked our seats, so we knew we’d all be sitting together. We started to get checked in, using two desks to speed us through. Apart from a slight problem with the conveyor belt, which was soon fixed, all of this step went very smoothly indeed.

We then headed up to security screening and the departures lounge. There are barriers that you have to scan with your boarding card before you can go through, to stop anyone who isn’t on a flight being able to access the departures lounge. These barriers also had the unintended security benefit of stopping us passing through too. As our passes had been printed off, everyone had problems scanning them due to the barcodes not being very clear. After numerous attempts all but one of our group of 8 had passed through the barriers. This student had to go to the manual check barrier where a guard validated their ticked and let them through.

The entrance to the departures lounge and security area

I’d assumed that that since security is meant to be quite tight at airports, would be queuing up for those checks soon. Although there were many barriers set out for when there are long queues, which looked like it’d take most of your holiday to get through, we walked through fairly quickly. There was a queue that we had to join, but this was about 10-15 minutes wait at most. We had to take our laptops out of our cabin baggage but everything else could just go through the x-ray machines (which were some fancy ones as the conveyor rollers were all connected to each other and moved when needed, and there was an automated divider for moving suspicious bags onto a different “track” when needed to be searched by officers). As with the barriers, nearly everyone got through without problems, but the main teacher had to go through a body scanner and have her shoes swabbed. I spent most of the time thinking what I would say if I did get stopped and questioned, but luckily that wasn’t needed in the end.

It’s been many years since I’ve flown from Birmingham Airport, and from security you used to just walk into the departures lounge. However, the airport owners seem to have realised that they have a captive audience when passengers come out of the security screening, so there is now a purpose built zigzag path to follow that takes you through a very large duty free shop. Eventually you end up in the departures lounge, which is fairly large but enclosed with even more duty free shops. Our group went to the Wetherspoons seating area and managed to find a table. The students went off to purchase items their parents had asked them to get (thank goodness there were so many shops!), while us staff members ordered a small breakfast and bacon butties. We had around an hour to wait before we would know our gate.

After an hour, the gate was showing on the display screens and we made our way to it. The gate number had only been up for around ten minutes, and while it was a short walk from the departures lounge to the relevant gate, by the time we got there it was already the final call. We had our passports and boarding cards scanned and made our way onto the plane. It was one where you had to walk up steps to board it, which was deceptive as in the terminal building it looked as though we’d be walking down a gangway.

The plane was barely half full! There were three seats either side of the central aisle, and the three opposite me were empty. We departed on time, but during the safety briefing the stewardess stood next to me and caught me slightly with the breathing mask when moving it to show how they will fall from the ceiling, which greatly amused the two students that I was sitting next to. The plane took off and started its climb. After a few minutes the seat belt lights turned off, and five minutes after that the pilot came over the intercom to announce we would be starting our descent! During this time we filled in our customs declaration form that had been handed to us by the check-in staff, which I’m assuming we needed to hand to an official at some point, but this was the last time we used them. This was a good job, since I missed putting the current date when I filled mine in, and one student put their date of birth in that field instead.

In total the journey time was about 50 minutes, but after taxiing to the terminal at Dublin Airport it took about an hour. As the plane had pulled up at an external terminal building, we had to catch a shuttle bus to take us to the main terminal building. This took us on a very long route all around the main terminal building and gates before we arrived at the drop off point. We got off, went up two flights of escalators and walked through the terminal building following the signs for transfer flights.

To confirm that we were actually transfer passengers, we had to produce our boarding passes for the transatlantic flight we would be taking, the one from Dublin to Dulles. This went well, apart from one student who couldn’t find their boarding pass at all, only the one for the flight that we had just come off. When we went through the barriers at Birmingham Airport the teacher had taken all of the passes from the students but handed the wrong one back to this student. Luckily the teacher was able to hand it back over this barrier to the student so that they could get through! There was a passport check next, and pretty much all of the students got interviewed as to why they were travelling. Presumably this was due to their age and them travelling during the start of term time (which involved a lot of the students pointing at us during their questioning), but all staff members passed through without any problems.

On the way through the terminal building we walked past the pre-clearance entrance, but asking the member of staff by the entrance about it, he said for us to go into the departures lounge and we’d be called through to it at the appropriate time. There was approximately another hour wait here, as although our flight was at half twelve, we had to go to pre-clearance by half ten. We waited in the departures lounge and some students went off to get food. Dublin Airport departures’ lounge was nice and large, with lots of light from big windows in the ceiling and over the tarmac and planes. Compared to Birmingham Airport, this departures lounge was lovely to wait in. However, the announcement system was rubbish as you could hardly hear any messages – you know, those important ones about the flight that you’re just about to miss…

The display screens updated to say for us to go to pre-clearance, so we made our way to the relevant area. This was a quick trip from the departures lounge, down a long escalator to near where we came into the terminal. However, there was a long queue for the checks, one which snaked back and forth a number of times. Somehow I became partially separated from our group by an American couple, considering we all started queuing together, but once they saw me talking to everyone they very kindly let me jump past them. There were signs showing the two checks we had to go through: the first is to check your passport and boarding pass (where they just scribble on it), the other one is a x-ray scan of your carry-on baggage and clothing, which you had to take your shoes off for but you didn’t have to go through any metal detectors! Yes, I’m not entirely sure how this worked either.

The welcome sign to the pre-clearance area at Dublin Airport

After finishing the queuing and getting through those checks, it was time to queue up for passport control. This queue took quite a bit of time due to the number of passengers and length of the checks, but it did mean that we wouldn’t be doing this queuing when we landed at Dulles Airport and could just walk out. Eventually we got to the front of the queue, were split into groups of two and told to line up at a counter before being called forward individually when it was our turn. The checks involved handing over your passport and boarding pass, looking at a camera, scanning the fingers and then thumb of one hand, and the same for the other hand. After that, the border officer stamped my new passport (probably the only stamp it’ll ever get!) and let me through. I’d been accepted into America, but one student had to answer more questions. Luckily a member of staff was with them, and after a few minutes they then cleared immigration too. After passing through the immigration and border checks, you’re then given another opportunity to buy some more duty free souvenirs – I’m assuming this is done in case you’d accidentally missed seeing any of the shops in the main terminal building!

A sign saying "Have a great flight" after the American border checks are complete

We waited around in a seating area near the boarding gate until boarding commenced. This wasn’t too long of a wait, as most of the time since leaving the departures lounge was spent queuing for and going through immigration. We made our way to the gate when boarding was announced and went through without any problems. There was a longish queue to get onto the plane, but slowly we moved on. After boarding the plane and waiting for a gap in the queue of people walking down the aisle, we put any items into the overhead lockers and took our seats.

There were complimentary headphones on our seats along with a small pillow. The plane was coincidentally eight seats wide (2 seats, aisle, 4 seats, aisle, 2 seats), so our group took up a whole row. Both of the other staff members sat in the one set of two seats, I was next with three of the “younger” students, and finally the “older” students. As luck would have it, I was next to the stewardess again for the safety briefing, and while the students hoped they I’d get hit again, this time it was without incident. The pilot came over the announcement system to say there was a lot of traffic and there’d be a bit of a delay so we would have to wait for a little bit before takeoff.

Luckily this delay wasn’t too long, and during this time the students kept themselves busy by playing with the entertainment system in the seats. This was mainly with the games, and while they weren’t the latest released 3D-virtual-reality-mega-awesome games, everyone seemed to enjoy them. The most popular one was Battleship, which allowed multiplayer with anyone else on the plane (but luckily the students played between themselves and helped us avoid any potential safeguarding incidents). Oh, and there was a very useful feature of a USB charging port built into the seats too, which everyone made use of.

We were eventually pushed back from the terminal building and slowly made our way to the runway, around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. We then sped up and took off, climbing quickly to altitude height. This took about twenty minutes. The seat belt signs went off and I put on my headphones to watch a film (Ready Player One, if you’re interested. What, you thought that I wanted to make conversation with the students the whole flight?).

About an hour into the flight the complimentary drinks service came around, with alcoholic drinks being charged for, but any other drink being free. Also handed out were sour cream and chive pretzels to snack on while sipping drinks. Around half an hour after that, lunch was delivered. I went with beef and enjoyed it. It was very tender and had a nice tasting sauce. Additionally there was a pasta side salad, bread and chocolate mousse with butterscotch pieces. Tea and coffee came around too after this, then it was finally cleared away by the flight attendants.

The film finished (and despite leaving Birmingham many hours ago it was nice to see it again), so I had a look at the map. We were over Iceland Greenland (damn Vikings for their confusing naming) and still had four hours of travel left! I took this opportunity to pop to the toilet, trying to avoid the many people standing in the aisle (we should demand much larger metal cylinders to fly around in). I then took my seat again after having been able to stretch my legs a little and wrote up to this part of the article on my phone (well, the draft version of this post, anyway).

Don’t you hate it when people recline their seat on aeroplanes?! The person in front of me has just done that, leaving me with less room that most other people. At least there’s room under the seat to stretch my legs, but it’s certainly less space than I had for part of the flight. OK, mini-rant over.

I’ve now been awake for 14 hours, and we’re nearing the edge of Canada, but there’s still three and a half hours remaining. Today I’ve learnt that the world is really big! Did you also know that Labrador Sea is nowhere near Labrador City? Since I don’t just want to watch movies, I’ve had a look to see what other games are on the entertainment system. It turns out that I’m pretty good at an IQ test that was available, even if I’ve been awake for most of a day! (I’ve looked up IQ classification on Wikipedia so I’m now going to class myself as being very superior. Yes, I’m aware that there’s a million factors not used in working out the score displayed. I also think that I’m going to use the Levine and Marks 1928 IQ classification scale from now on, as it uses the terms Idiots, Imbeciles, Morons and Dull, which can probably be attributed to a large number of computer users out there…)

About an hour later the person in front of me has finally moved their seat forward. I didn’t do anything, so why they couldn’t have it upright the whole flight I just don’t know. It’s like I’ve got a whole continental gap between myself and the seat in front now! Additionally, the flight attendants delivered an afternoon tea meal, consisting of a wrap and flapjack. Also, I’ve now been watching Hairspray to pass some more of the time.

The flight map showing us over the border between Canada and the United States of America
We’d hit turbulence at this point, so this is the least-blurriest photo I have (I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know)

Around 25 minutes before landing the captain announced our descent. It’s near enough to 8 o’clock at night at home, but it’s just starting to be the afternoon where we land. Time travel is a weird thing. Since we’d have to remove any headphones for landing, and the film had finished, I decided to play a game of solitaire. I was good at this and won. I then tried my hand at playing a driving game. I wasn’t so good at this so decided to not take any photos.

The plane landed quite smoothly and without any problems, although it was cloudy on our approach so there wasn’t much to see out of the windows, and it had been raining at some point recently due to puddles being visible on the ground. We waited to disembark and queued up to get off the plane, but as we had parked away from the terminal building there was a shuttle bus put on. However, unlike the one that we caught in Dublin, these were clever shuttles as they could raise up their passenger compartment via a scissor lift mechanism so you could just walk straight off the plane and into the vehicle. It would then lower down the passenger compartment again to drive to the terminal building.

Everyone else in our group got onto the shuttle bus, but I was stopped from getting on as it was deemed full. I did say that I’m with that group but the staff wouldn’t let me go on. It’s a weird sensation watching the group of people you’re with looking at you as a door closes between you, in a foreign country, knowing there’s nothing you can do. I had to wait for the next shuttle bus to arrive, which took about 5 minutes, then for the few remaining passengers to get on (about 50 other people) as well as the flight crew. The journey to the terminal building was about 5 minutes, but you did get a good close-up view of the planes on the tarmac.

The shuttle pulled into terminal and I expected everyone to have waited for me, but to my surprise, no-one from our group was there. They’d all abandoned me! I assumed that they had decided to go to baggage reclaim so I followed the other passengers to see if my guess was correct (although I was constantly looking around to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed them). The baggage reclaim was a large area and after walking to our designated carousel I met up with everyone again, facing many comments from the students about my delayed journey. Due to my delayed arrival, our group had already met the contact from the transportation company, and also Diane Miller from Northrop Grumman who was going to be our point of contact for the week. We had met her during the previous times our teams had managed to get into the Cyber Centurion finals, and she had come along today to say hello and welcome us to the United States of America. We waited to collect our cases, and despite me choosing a green case, there was an identical case on the baggage carousel that someone else had, although they had luckily tied a purple ribbon onto the handle to identify it. It took a few minutes to collect our bags, but since my unexpected split from the group a few minutes prior, I was pleased not to be last to collect my case too.

The "Welcome to Washington Dulles International Airport" sign outside baggage reclaim
Due to my… delayed… arrival at baggage reclaim I forgot to take any other photos. This is all you’re going to get here. Sorry. (Hey! Don’t cheer)

We made our way along a short “tunnel” and out of the terminal building. We noted how humid and warm it was considering that it was cloudy, which is different to what it’s like in the United Kingdom. The contact from the transportation company said that the minibus would be with us shortly, but it took a few minutes due to the amount of traffic on the road to meet with other people being picked up. However, being the United States, everything is much bigger. What they consider a minibus was instead to us a minitruck! There was a large boot that the driver could stand up in to lift and put our cases in, with a few steps up to get into the passenger part of the vehicle. It was extremely nice and plush with leather seats and a very smooth ride, something none of us were expecting. We said our goodbyes to Diane for now and started on our journey to the hotel. The hotel was about 20 minutes drive away from the airport, so it didn’t take too long to get there. One thing I took note of from just this short period of time in the US is that, vehicles, roads, building and everything else is big. Bigger than you think big. A “five-lane road is normal” big!

We pulled up to the hotel and went to the check-in desk. The receptionists asked for a card to check everyone in with so that any charges could be applied to it, which resulted in a phone call to Northrop Grumman to sort it out. The hotel was nicely decorated, with a large double-height entrance foyer. However, I think that a number of guests who stay at the hotel didn’t understand the concept of automatic doors, as they were plastered with warning stickers. Everyone was handed their room cards and we headed up to our rooms. Two students were on one of the floors, while everyone else was on the floor above them. There was only one corridor (so much simpler than the hotel we stayed at in London for the finals), although we still couldn’t find one students room. After walking up and down the corridor a few times, we found that it was recessed from the actual corridor and looked like it was a closet next to the lifts (sorry, I mean elevators. We’re in America now). The direction signs had showed the room was further down the corridor which is why we didn’t spot it for quite a while.

I went into my room and was again surprised by how big it was. There was a very large and high bed (it came up to about my hip height, a number of feet off the ground), a walk-in shower, microwave, fridge, coffee maker and large TV. I’m not very good at describing the room that well, so the images below will hopefully give you a better idea!

I started to unpack my case, but as I didn’t want to do it in silence I turned on the TV. This may not have been the best idea as it was displaying big scary warnings of a hurricane coming over where we’re visiting! This was Hurricane Florence, and from the sound of it, it was going to be quite a big one.

We’d agreed to meet up at 7pm to have some food, as the last meal we had was the afternoon snack on the plane. We decided that we would go for a classic North American meal at McDonald’s as it was only around the corner from the hotel. The hotel had a courtesy shuttle to take us there (free anywhere within a two mile radius – this shuttle bus was more the size of minibus vehicles we’re used to), and we scheduled for it to pick us up 20 minutes later. We ordered our meals, but one member of staff had ordered a large meal thinking that was the size that had been ordered by someone else (the medium meals in America are the equivalent of large meals in the UK), but much to the enjoyment of everyone we discovered that an American large is really a super mega deluxe meal (the cup was compared to the size of a barrel). Another thing that we discovered is that ‘E’ numbers don’t seem to be as regulated as they are in the UK either. I had ordered a Fanta to drink, but it was almost a luminous orange colour!

We were taken back to the hotel by the shuttle bus and in a seating area in the foyer of the hotel, went through the itinerary for most of the week. This included discussing some changes that had been made from the version we had before we left, mainly due to some additional places for us to visit had been arranged. One of these would be to head to the British Embassy when we were visiting Washington DC to meet with some members of staff who liaise with the British and American governments. After that, we agreed we would meet at 8 for breakfast, as our day tomorrow started at 9:30. The charges for the breakfast were also due to be put onto the card set up when we checked in.

I’m lying in the super-sized bed in the room trying to find a program to watch in between the adverts and it feels like I’m still on the plane. Additionally, so many adverts are for medical products which fix one specific thing, but cause numerous other medical problems. For example, one was a drug to help with breathing problems, but it said for asthmatics it could potentially be life threatening, and for otherwise healthy people it could cause clots, breathing difficulties, heart failure, etc… oh dear! This bed is super comfy too, as I’ve just fallen asleep for a few minutes without realising. I’ve been up for just over 24 hours straight, so I think it’s time to actually go to bed, ready to start our days full of exploring.

A screenshot showing that I'd been awake for 24 hours
It’s a weird sensation fitting 24 hours into a day that went from 3AM to 10:30PM

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