Lea Lane

Lea Lane
Florida, USA
August 26
author, Travel Tales I Couldn't Put in the Guidebooks, available at Amazon.com and on Kindle
“I’ve discovered the secret of life,” Kay Thompson, the eccentric entertainer and “Eloise” author, once said. “A lot of hard work, a lot of sense of humor, a lot of joy and a lot of tra-la-la!” And that's been my life: As a travel writer for over 30 years, I've been around the block (more like around the world), and I write true stories about interesting people and places. (Check out my travel site, Travels With Lea.) I've lived an unconventional life in conventional trappings. Been a corporate VP, worked with foster kids, acted in an Indie ("Nurse 1"), was on Jeopardy!. I've been managing editor of a travel publication, written for the Times, and authored books. OS is my home, but I also blog on The Huffington Post, and I've contributed (mostly anonymously) to everything from encyclopedias to guidebooks. Married young, divorced late; married late, widowed early, I dated lots in-between -- and survived a scary illness. After being happily, peacefully solo for many years, I'm now happily married again. I founded and still edit www.sololady.com, a lifestyle Website for single women. I'm truly grateful for each precious day, each well-earned wrinkle, my family, my cat. Truth, laughter, friendship, late love. And this blog -- on this wonderful site!

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Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 24, 2011 12:07PM

The Virgin Flight of Virgin Air

Rate: 33 Flag

Rb on steps with celebrities - launch of airline-thumb-450x297-37567

The official photo of the Virgin inaugural flight (flightglobal.com), June, 1984. Invited passengers, with Richard Branson on the far left. Can you spot me  way in the back, at the top of the pyramid?


Sir Richard Branson's estate on his private Caribbean island just burned down from a lightning strike. This shocking event stirred memories of my own surreal experience with the now famed entrepreneur, in and around two of his other homes. Hope you're ready for another travel tale:

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was managing editor of a publication called Travel Smart, I was invited with a few other writers on the first flight of Branson’s new airline, Virgin Atlantic, flying from England to Newark.

The entire Virgin fleet was one used Boeing 747 that Branson dubbed Maiden Voyager.

To get to London, Branson’s company flew me over on Saudi Air from New York. Back then, liquor was not allowed on that carrier and one man’s tiny carry-on bottle was confiscated, a far cry from our flight back on Virgin, where drinks flowed like a mighty stream.

In England, we were hosted by Branson for a couple of days before the inaugural flight back to America. We toured around London in our own bus, stopping often for a pushy MTV crew to film the sights. A ditzy blond veejay in a halter and shorts exclaimed when she saw the iconic Parliament clock, “Look, there’s Big Bob.”

Branson had already amassed a fortune with Virgin Records, and was a genial and generous host. We visited his pad in the trendy canal area in London. He and his blond girlfriend and their toddler daughter Holly hung out in their garden with us, answering questions off-the cuff.

That night, cruising the Thames as guests on his yacht, we discovered that British tabloid writers really know how to party. (Read: drunken stupor.)

For an afternoon press conference the next day we were bussed to Branson’s country estate in Oxfordshire, an ancient stone complex with endless rooms, echoing halls, and a recording studio. Nibbles and drinks were placed about, and we seemed to have the place to ourselves.  Where was Branson? Our host had not arrived at his own event.

We milled around the mansion and grounds, wondering if he would ever show or if the whole thing was a big prank. Suddenly a car came down the seemingly endless gravel driveway, and Branson, scruffy in jeans, emerged from a beat-up looking car.

Then the car’s driver opened the car door, scratching  his head as if had stepped into a dream. Had he picked up a hitchhiker, not knowing the man was Richard Branson? Was it a joke? Branson wasn't telling.

The inaugural flight the next day was just as quirky and surprising. Before takeoff, bands were playing, the sounds of Boy George filled the air, and the spirit was rock and roll. Loads of unrecognizable British celebs milled about: cricket stars, pols, rockers, actors; I quickly recognized television host David Frost.

But the flight was delayed. Rumor was that the used plane, rehabbed from Aereolinas Argentina, had engine problems. A PR nightmare. 

Branson was onboard in a captain’s uniform, and his mom and dad were on the plane, too.  So I calmed myself in my seat, figuring that despite the pressure to take off, he wouldn’t risk his parents’ lives, let alone the rest of us.  

After a couple of hours of impromptu music from some of the Virgin Records crowd, including a cello concert, the engines sputtered on and we winged our way on the virgin flight of Virgin Air.

Years later I read that on that inaugural flight one of the engines had indeed conked out over the Atlantic. But we passengers had imbibed so much of so many substances, none of us seemed to notice.





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What a life you've had. Thanks for sharing your adventures with your faithful readers.
As a former spokesperson for Northwest Airlines (and thus somewhat afflicted with aviation flu), I would have loved to have been on that flight. But your story let me know just how great it might have been to be one of those lucky passengers. Thanks for another great posting.
You have a fascinating life, Lea. And we are so lucky to get to read about it. This is so cool. ~r
A delightful and terrifying memory! This is really amazing - and I think I DID spot you in the photo!
If O'Really? was here, she'd probably say I was on the maiden voyage of the Spirit of St. Louis.
Thanks, all. It was a hoot.
And I could have been on that earlier flight too, John. Or maybe at Kittyhawk. (And we know where O'Really? is hiding.)
Okay, you win.

Amazing story, told with your usual charm and grace and wonderful style. I bow to the master.
I have just one question: Can I spend a month as your special attache and personal valet? Sounds like more fun than one person should have to themselves.

Branson is always intriguing. So is your story. There's one person who made his ADD work for him.
So very cool to read an insider's viewpoint of such an extraordinary event! Made me smile and made my day -- thanks!
Aw, Sally. I've got a few years on you, and even so let's call it a tie.

dunniteowl, the good part of my life is fun. But I've had lots of not so good, which you'd want to skip, for sure.

And Scarlett and Elizabeth and the rest of you who enjoyed this tale, thanks so much for stopping by. Hooray for Branson's ADD!
Thanks for taking us along!
I did indeed spot you immediately at the top of the pyramid. I so enjoy your travel writings. You certainly have done a ton of interesting things. Loved it, especially the Big Bob part.
i *see* you, lea!! ~waving at lea~

i love the story. isn't it amazing how much booze those brits can put away? whew. branson is really quite an amazing guy, isn't he, for all the wacky stuff he's done. great details, terrific read, this one.

@john blumenthal: that's because you were. :)
Where was Branson? Hah! Where was Hunter Thompson. Can you imagine what the Gonzo Guy would have done to the fledgling airline?

Anyway, thanks for the tale, Lea. Love 'em all. Please keep them coming, 'K?
Great tale Lea. I love this vicarious living your travel posts afford.
I love Virgin Even more now that I know you were on the first flight. Great story!
"But we passengers had imbibed so much of so many substances, none of us seemed to notice." [the conked out engine]
That's the way to go! :o)
I don't drink! I'd be the one who would be aware of the malfunction and sit there, bug eyed and sweating and alternating between cussing and praying! Sometimes it's not good to not be an imbiber!
Lea, thanks for sharing this special story! That was quite a wonderful experience you had between the time in England and the flight itself. When I first heard about the airline I wondered how long they would be around. It turned out that they have been in business for a long time since we are now in 2011. I flew the airline back in the '80s a few years after they started and found the flights to be pleasant and there were absolutely no problems which is more than I can say for some other carriers!
Lea, it's time for you to write your memoirs.
Enjoying your comments so much. Thanks all! And Crank, I think you're right.
Used plane from Aerolineas Argentinas! That means it was probably retired from Lufthansa for age before being sold on to Aerolineas Argentinas, they decided it was too beat-up to keep flying. I'm amazed you got off the ground.
can I pretend to be you?
What a good story! When I read your stories I can't help but wonder how your present life compares with your past life....which would be hard to beat!
Great anecdote! I recently had my first flight on Virgin America and loved it -- from the stewardesses in hip t-shirts to the airplane safety cartoons to the TV remote controls.
I'd be white-knuckling with Chrissie Pissie because I don't drink either. For some reason I have always thought I would like Branson. I was so saddened when I learned of the fire. Mother Nature knows no celebrities, does she?

Interesting about the history of the plane. It was after the Falklands War (Brits vs. Argentine), so I thought there might be sabotage as well.

P, my life is still interesting, still a roller coaster.

Again, I enjoy all your comments and always do!
If your job was this lively, whatever did you do on vacation?!
What vacation? I didn't think in those terms. It was more like travel season and ultra-travel season. I was alone for 20 plus years. First husband had summers off. Second had sabbaticals.
Now that I'm married to a man who works full-time I'm beginning to understand the concept more.
Of course I can spot you - Jackie O! and perhaps it was the fumes in the cabin that helped keep that plane aloft.

P.S. There's something to be said for lighten rods, no?
Jealousing, Lea. I wasn't on the virgin flight of Virgin Air, nor was I a virgin when I first flew Virgin, but I was a Virgin virgin when I found myself falling in love with Richard Branson's airline and its easy shoeleather style. Some of my fondest transatlantic flights have been in Virgin pj's. There's a reason why you're a beloved travel writer, and may I take this occasion to wish you the happiest birthday ever, well deserved. May you have many virgin flights ahead.
What a story!!! Great stuff, thanks for sharing! Yes, I did spot you in the picture right away, how cool to have something like that to remember it all by.
What a great flight to have been a part of. And to think, you have personal experience with the tremendous benefit of a four-engine airplane. If one or two engines quits along the way, the passengers never even notice - even if there isn't a free-flowing river of alcohol meandering through the cabin.
I don't feel so virgin any more and I am so glad your adventures here has made me move on and up in the world.
My goodness, woman - your life never ceases to amaze me. But more, you really put us right there in the story, as if it happened to us.

And what a photo! Love it. And see you.
Ah yes, Lea. Now I remember there is a benefit to alcoholic drink...numbing the sounds of failing engines. Great story, as usual!!!
I can see you! I can see you!!

Wonderful story, Lea. My flights on Virgin from LA to the UK were always so full of British manners, I couldn't get a decent night's sleep. "Another pillow? Blanket? Drink?" Now I know why they pushed the drinks. :)

Literally a jet-setter!