Last Updated: Fri May 18, 2012 23:24 pm (KSA) 20:24 pm (GMT)

Olympic flame takes front seat on golden Firefly

British soccer player and London 2012 Olympic Games ambassador David Beckham reacts after lighting the Olympic torch with a cauldron after arriving at RNAS Culdrose base near Helston in Cornwall, south west England. (Reuters)
British soccer player and London 2012 Olympic Games ambassador David Beckham reacts after lighting the Olympic torch with a cauldron after arriving at RNAS Culdrose base near Helston in Cornwall, south west England. (Reuters)

The cabin announcement was polite but firm: “Unless you happen to be the Olympic Flame, I’m afraid there is no smoking allowed.”

The flame, lit from the sun’s rays in the ruins of ancient Olympia and handed over to London Olympic organizers after a week-long torch relay around Greece, flickered in front row seats 1A and 1B.

Nobody on this flight was about to play with fire.

Burning inside four lanterns fastened firmly in pairs in special cradles, the flame left a rain-sodden Athens' airport bound for Britain on Flight 2012 - a British Airways Airbus 319 with the name ‘Firefly’ painted on the golden-liveried fuselage.

Four hours later, a lot slower than a modern Olympic Marathon runner but faster than the ancient Greek Pheidippides, it touched down to whoops, cheers and applause at the Culdrose naval air station in windswept south-west Britain.

In seat 1C sat a ‘minder’, a trained firefighter keeping an eye on what accompanying London mayor Boris Johnson described as the “touch paper of the 70-day fuse that will finally detonate” an Olympic explosion of excitement in his city on July 27.

Princess Anne was across the aisle in 1F.

Former England soccer captain David Beckham, style idol and one of the most photographed men in the world, was three rows behind in a smart grey suit with silver tie-pin and primed for a starring role.

Despite all his years competing at the very top for Manchester United and England, Beckham confessed to feeling the odd butterfly knowing that he would be lighting the first cauldron on arrival.

“No pressure,” the 37-year-old, interviewed by a television crew mid-flight while sitting next to the flame, had grinned earlier in the day. “I hope it lights.”

“To be travelling back with the flame tonight, and to be lighting it, is something very special. Something that I am going to cherish for many years,” he added.

He was not the only one. Captain Dave Thomas, who has flown Queen Elizabeth on state visits, was thrilled with the honor of flying the flame with co-pilot Andy Berryman on what crew jokingly referred to as the ‘Custard Comet.’

“It’s exciting, very exciting. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he told Reuters. “It’s all very new and exciting but we've done a lot of work in order to make sure it (the flame) is nice and safe. It's all locked away in its little miner's lamp.”

With nothing left to chance, a dry run was carried out at the helicopter base in March to put the cradle through a landing simulation on a runway designed for fighter jets rather than commercial airliners.

The flame may travel light but it does not do economy any more than Beckham does, so all passengers were treated to a more refined class of catering.

London will be the only city to have hosted three Summer Games and the flame has flown to Britain once before -- in 2008 as part of a controversial Beijing relay through 20 countries.

Friday’s arrival, broadcast on live television with a BBC helicopter hovering as the plane landed, was a long way from the 1948 Games when the country was in the grip of a post-World War Two austerity drive.

The flame was shipped to the southern port of Dover on the naval destroyer HMS Bicester from Calais after an overland relay from Greece.

Onlookers recalled how, barely a few steps after disembarkation, it was blown out by the wind and had to be re-lit from a backup torch for the first time in its 2,000 mile journey across Europe.

“In fact, there was a sleight of hand involving a cigarette lighter as the torch was handed to the Lord Lieutenant of Kent,” author Janie Hampton wrote in her book ‘The Austerity Olympics.’

The first London Games, in 1908, came only five years after U.S. aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the air for the first time and before the first torch relay in 1936.

Friday’s flight was not even the first for the current flame after travels to Crete and an island off the coast of Turkey.

Its ancestors, also lit by the sun’s rays for previous Games, were more adventurous.

The flame for the 2000 Sydney Games went underwater at the Great Barrier Reef, while the one lit for Beijing in 2008 was carried up Mount Everest. Russia plans to send theirs into space before the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

The London flame, embarking on Saturday on a 70-day relay around Britain, cannot aspire to such giddy heights.

After Friday’s jet-setting, a hot air balloon, cable car, steam train, canal boat and motorcycle sidecar await on the long road to London.

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