AWESOME! Amazing! Unforgettable! These were just some the adjectives used by the three lucky winners of the Heineken Legendary Travellers contest who won a chance of a lifetime to experience space travel in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
I can attest to every word and more because I was there with them enjoying the ride every step of the way.
The Ultimate Voyage contest, held late last year, allowed winners to undergo flight training as well as a space voyage.
This was part of the beer brand’s global Voyage campaign that encouraged individuals to become explorers and travellers instead of tourists, in line with its Man of the World theme.
Heineken believes that there is a legendary traveller waiting to be unearthed within each person, inspiring people to push their boundaries and step out of their comfort zone.
The space voyage included a unique astronaut training mission organised by Space Expedition Corporation (SXC), Amsterdam — the same training real astronauts go through.
“Through our Voyage campaign, we want to inspire people to be resourceful and open to the world.
“We are rewarding a select few to go beyond their borders by taking them on the ultimate voyage – an experience that truly allows them to journey to new frontiers,” said Heineken Malaysia marketing manager Jessie Chuah.
The four of us, including Jerry Siau, Kimberly Lay and Mah Soon Sin, were more than inspired.
We got to don space suits (complete with our names and country flag), co-pilot a plane, and experience a flight simulator of a space craft.
When the winners initially got the call informing them of their prize, some were suspicious.
“I thought someone was playing a mean trick on me,” said Mah a 29-year-old lawyer.
Both Siau, a 34-year-old car salesman and Lay, 33-year-old product manager, dismissed the calls when they were first told the good news.
“I was very sceptical,” Siau said.
Surprisingly, all four of us were Star Trek fans, so it was indeed a bonus to enjoy a holiday and at the same time get to live out our childhood dreams as ‘pilots’ and ‘astronauts’.
We arrived on a cold morning at Schiphol Airport Amsterdam after a 13-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. We were transferred to the NH Amsterdam Centre Hotel, a four-star hotel located in the heart of the city.
Lay was shrieking with excitement when we found out where we were going to stay.
We were located in the centre of the entertainment, fashion and dining district with the best of shopping and nightlife.
It was a short stroll to the city’s top destinations like the Van Gogh Museum, the high-end PC Hooft shopping street, and the Vondelpark.
But the real surprise came when we finally checked into our rooms. There sitting on the bed was a beautiful Heineken backpack. And inside was a stunning astronaut/pilot suit in dark blue with our respective name on it together with the country flag. And it was in my size! It was simply gorgeous.
The suit was an indication of the fun that we were all going to experience and it made me giddy with anticipation.
It took almost two hours to get to Seppe Airport from our hotel in Amsterdam the next day.
All four of us were suited up in our uniforms and could not wait to fly. Yup, you heard me. We were going to fly.
We were ushered into a room and there were given a briefing on the do’s and don’ts of flying.
Captain Clarke Otter spoke about the safety features, emergency and aerobatic manoeuvres like Cuban eight, barrel roll, vertical roll, how to pitch an airplane, yaw, roll and experience zero gravity and 4G.
We were warned that we would be experiencing sensations like being weightless and light-headed.
Imagine being told that we would be allowed to fly and manoeuvre the plane with a trained pilot sitting next to us.
By the end of the briefing, we were each designated a pilot.
I was assigned to a veteran who went by the name Fumes. I deeply regretted not asking his first name later, but Fumes was the best pilot ever.
We proceeded to the airfield as I got prepped up with a parachute that was so heavy that I kept tilting backwards.
As I got unto the Slingsby Firefly, a two-seat aerobatic training aircraft, I felt a momentary pang of panic.
Sensing my tense state, Fumes went on to explain that he was very good at what he does and got my mind diverted to the various functions and dashboard buttons and levers.
Soon after, we took off smoothly from the runway and off we went.
I never realised how wonderful and exhilarating flying was. As I experienced zero gravity, I came really close to blacking out and even vomited several times.
But Fumes kept me focused all that time by talking to me and advising me to keep watching the horizon.
Later, during lunch at the De Cockpit Restaurant, I found out that Siau, Lay and Mah too had enjoyed the experience as much as I.
In fact, I was secretly delighted to know that all of them had also suffered from motion sickness. So it wasn’t just me.
After lunch, we spent the afternoon touring the Vliegend Museum located within the airport.
It houses more than 10 aircraft which even though considered antique, were still airworthy.
Its collection included Tiger Moths, a Piper J3 Cub and Saab 91D as well as several old aircraft engines and even pieces of an old World War II flying machine rebuilt from eight different planes from the same era.
Desdemona flight simulator
Strangely, we all had different experiences inside the Desdemona — a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind motion simulator that is specially designed to train astronauts and pilots.
It is capable of generating all possible G forces, up to 3.3G.
It took us almost one hour to get to the former USAF Airbase in Soesterberg Airport where the Desdemona is located.
When I first saw it (Desdemona) from the outside, it was spinning around and looked pretty scary. But, once inside the cockpit, it was not that bad.
“You get the feel of being inside a spacecraft with a high resolution video simulation of almost 180 degrees wide,’’ said Lay.
Initially, I was so intimidated looking at how it was spinning around at such a high speed. I could not imagine how I would fare in this programme.
After getting into the simulator, it was not as bad as I had thought it was going to be.
However, I still vomited near the end of the Desdemona ride.
“It was worth it. I can’t imagine how astronauts do this for a living.
“I have total respect for them, putting their lives on the line each time they go on a mission, ’’ said Lay.
We dropped by the world- famous Heineken brewery on the way back to our hotel. Still reeling from the Desdemona experience, I could tell that everyone was dying for a drink.
The brewery was established in 1864 and had a vintage look to it. The brand’s rich and successful history was well presented in this old defunct brewery.
Several amusement park attractions added to the exhibit and it has been renamed the Heineken Experience.
From the beer museum to an amusement gallery to a mini pub of sorts, there was something for everyone including a non-beer drinker like me.
Mah and Siau soon found their way to the pub, while Lay was busy getting stuff from the souvenir store.
I enjoyed the museum tour which featured the architecture of the 19th century building, authentic interiors, old photographs and the brass beer tanks.
Party, party, party
We soon realised that when it comes to playing the perfect host, Heineken wins hands down.
Every night, we were treated to endless partying at different watering holes in the City known famously as the Venice of the North.
On the first night we were introduced to the other winners from across the globe who took part in a similar contest at the posh Blinq Restaurant five minutes from our hotel.
There were friends from France, Poland, New Zealand, Bahamas and Egypt.
On the second night we dined at the Hard Rock Cafe, and enjoyed dinner and dancing on our last night at the De Kroon Restaurant.
It was a wonderful chapter in our lives and will forever remain etched in memory. Thank you, Heineken.