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Joining the Crew Files this week is one of our most long-standing crew members, Flight Service Manager Ben Ward.
Ben has been flying with us for almost 20 years so is a perfect candidate to grill about our destinations. He lived in Hong Kong as a teenager and is a keen amateur photographer too, so we've picked his brains about these subjects and shared some of his fab photos...
Ben, you're a Flight Service Manager here at the airline. Could you tell us a bit about what you do?
I’ve been a Flight Service Manager with Virgin Atlantic for just over ten years now and flying with Virgin for nearly 20 years – the time has, well, just flown by! Being an FSM means that I'm responsible for all aspects of the onboard delivery of our award-winning service – once the doors close, everything that happens this side of the flight deck door is my responsibility. It also involves coaching and developing our crew and making sure that they have as fun and rewarding a career as I've been lucky enough to have.
After 20 years, you must have a few tales to tell. Can you share any choice moments with us?
Whilst we take our job very seriously (our primary role is the passengers’ safety) there is also a lot of fun involved; usually playing pranks on new crew.
As for funny tales, well, caring for people in the air can present its own challenges too. I’ve had to hunt through 300 dirty dinner trays after someone left their dentures on them and been asked if we could delay landing for a little bit as their inflight movie hadn’t finished. I've even had to fish an earplug out of someone’s ear with tweezers as they'd jammed it in too far! The list goes on and on and even includes some stories that are not quite suitable for here...which I’ll save for my memoirs!
Which are some of your favourite Virgin Atlantic destinations and what is it about them that you love?
I genuinely love all our destinations for a multitude of reasons, but I do have a couple of favourites. I never get tired of New York and I know it better than London now. Boston is a lovely city – great bars, seafood and lots to see and do (and photograph). I’m always up for a trip to Tokyo too, but over the years, San Francisco has always stood out...
Firstly it’s walkable. Everything in the city can be reached either on foot or by public transport. And it’s beautiful – just stunning views, architecture, the Bay and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. It has wonderful restaurants and I’ve had some amazing meals here, from an Afghan curry, a Vietnamese banquet at La Colonial, to the best pizza I’ve ever tasted. I'd also recommend McCormick & Kuleto's for great views over the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge and Horizons in Sausalito, and I love the Top of the Mark lounge for champagne cocktails and a wraparound view of the city.
There are also great day trips out of the city; the majestic Redwood forests in Muir Woods, the winelands of Napa Valley and Sonoma, Monterey and Carmel just down the coast on the Pacific Coast Highway (one of the best drives in the world!) and just a few short hours away are the fantastic ski resorts of South Lake Tahoe. If you’ve never been and are thinking of planning a holiday, I strongly recommend it.
Tell us how you came to reside in Hong Kong as a teenager?
I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer – I guess you could say it’s in my blood. My dad was a Civil Engineer and spent his career designing and building roads, bridges and so on all over the world. My mum was from New Zealand and both my sister and I were born in Africa and raised in Africa, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Whenever my dad was sent off on a long contract we went along too. It was a great way to see the world and experience loads of different countries and cultures.
As a former resident, could you share some recommendations for ways to discover the 'real' Hong Kong?
It's been many years now since I lived there, and Hong Kong has changed immeasurably in that time, but in the middle of this fast paced city there are beautiful little oases of calm. Hong Kong is surrounded by small outlying islands and they're well worth a trip. There are beautiful country parks, hillwalks and even right in the city you can find places such as Victoria Park or the Botanical Gardens where you can recharge your batteries before heading back into the thick of it.
I always think that one of the best ways to really get to know a city, be it London, Tokyo, New York or Hong Kong, is by watching it “wake up”. Strolling around with your camera at dawn, you're greeted by all the sights and sounds of the city as it comes to life and you never know what great shots you might get. Watching the fishing boats unloading or the market traders setting out their wares – you get treated to a glimpse of life that you might otherwise miss. And that hour just after sunrise (the golden hour) usually has great, strong directional light for bringing your photos to life.
How long have you been interested in photography and has it changed the way you look at the world?
Ever since I started flying I wanted to be able to capture memories to look back on, particularly as my mum passed away from Alzheimers. It strengthened a desire to be able to keep hold of these memories, as I witnessed how our own can eventually fade.
Even though I still look back and love some of those old shots taken on disposable cameras, it was getting a DSLR that encouraged me to go further with photography, improving my creative eye and composition. I now see shots everywhere and really annoy my girlfriend by pulling the car over or wandering off because I've seen something or an angle that would make a great shot – even if sometimes it doesn’t!
What kind of travel photographs do you like to take? Do you have any favourite shots that you'd like to share with us?
I guess that I'm mainly a landscape or cityscape photographer. I like to take photos to remind me of places but with my own twist or slant on them – something different to what you would see on a postcard. I’m also experimenting with film again, using a little LOMO camera and playing around with cross-processing. I love the grain and creaminess that film gives you, that you can’t get with digital. It’s also really helped me think about a shot from a composition point of view because you only take one shot rather than 2-3 of the same thing.
Having said that, my favourite travel photos are this one of a performer at a Junkanoo Carnival in the Bahamas to celebrate their independence - I loved the vibrancy and energy of the celebration and the use of their national flag in their costumes...
... and this which just feels like New York to me. I was zooming down 5th Avenue through Manhattan with this mad cab driver and I just stuck my head out of the window and got this shot. I love the angled slant and the flags in the background and that you can just see the driver in the mirror. It was a very liberating experience too - now I know why dogs love to drive with their head out the window!
As a keen photographer, are there any essential resources or bits of kit that you've found invaluable on your travels?
As I only have a very limited amount of time in each location I like to do some research first. I search for great locations online using Flickr and Getty images and then use Google Earth to find them. One example of this was a particular fountain in Rome that I wanted to photograph. By checking on Google Earth first, I knew that the kind of shots I wanted could only be captured in the late evening sun – in the morning I could see that it would have been totally in shadow.
As for kit, I love my little "nifty fifty" lens at the moment – a 50mm fixed focal length lens. It’s great in low light situations and gives great depth of field.
Where's the place you would most love to photograph?
The list is literally endless; streetlife from the Far East to the Caribbean, landscapes in New Zealand and I’ve been longing to get to Yosemite for years. I do have a holiday to Vietnam planned for next year and I’m particularly looking forward to that!
All the photos in this post were taken by Ben - to view more of his fantastic shots, visit his Flickrstream. If you'd like to learn more about becoming Cabin Crew with Virgin Atlantic, here's the lowdown. And if you enjoyed this post, check out our recent interview with Cabin Crew member Jennifer Jones.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.