Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Three Mike Five


Friends, I have decided to retire Decision Height, but I won't burn the bridge. If some profound thought captures me maybe I'll recall it to active duty. I will keep it published to the web for those who want to read the archives.

I added a list of Decision Height posts to the sidebar showing my personal favorites over the years.  

Thank you for all the comments and e-mail urging me to keep writing. I'm taking your advice. I'm continuing to write on book and story ideas, and I have begun a new blog, entitled, "Three Mike Five (3M5)." Here's the link:

threemikefive.blogspot.com

Come on over. I would be happy to have you follow it.

Alan




So do I, Hunter.

So Long

Monday, October 6, 2014

Such Men

He was one of the most loathsome characters Lance had ever known―the kind of a man you glance askew at and keep your distance from, maybe even to the point of longing for a shower after you part from him. But Lance couldn't avoid him. He was the captain. His name was Porter Mills, and he lived in the hills of West Virginia when he wasn't pushing 737s around.

(If I used his real name I might be at risk of him coming off his porch with his 30-0-6 in hand determined to see me join the long line of critters he has reportedly slain with it.)
Lance had the displeasure of flying numerous trips with Porter, until he simply couldn't stand it anymore and began using his sick leave whenever he saw he was scheduled with him. None-the-less for a while Lance tried to get along with Porter―even considering it a challenge, but succeeding only sparingly.

Porter was overweight, said Lance. He chewed tobacco and picked his teeth after he spat. He practiced the ungainly habit of clipping his nails in public. His uniform shirts were rarely pressed, and sometimes he even stank. When he passed through the terminals, belly wobbling, dragging his bags, he swaggered along with his hat cocked like those WWII bomber guys. Passengers must have watched him with mouths agape and then stared at length at their ticket. 

Porter's flying skills pretty much matched his personal habits. Scared of thunderstorms, he sometimes avoided them by hundreds of miles instead of the standard twenty. He ran the APU from takeoff to level-off and fired it up again at the beginning of descent. When Lance asked him why he engaged in this unconventional (and wasteful) practice, Porter brushed him off, grunting that, he “might need” it.   

Porter talked a lot about himself. He claimed his wife was in her twenties (he was nearing 60), producing a picture of a voluptuous young woman. Lance doubted but nodded. Another hot topic of Porter's was his hunting prowess. He bragged to Lance that he had dispatched many wild animals all over the world.  

One day Lance got fed up with Porter's cock-a-hoop and told him that no woman in her right mind would live with him, especially one in her youth, and added that he should wash his shirts. Porter clammed up the rest of the flight.

A few weeks later Lance, who was on reserve, got a call from crew scheduling. They needed him to deadhead to Denver to pick up a flight. He needed to fill in for a first officer who suddenly fell ill. The connection would be close; the flight was to leave only minutes after Lance's deadhead flight arrived. He told them he would do his best.
 
Arriving in Denver, Lance trotted to his outbound gate and found the customer service agent standing in an empty gate area. “The crew and passengers are all on board,” she said. He hurried down the jet bridge and dragged his bag into the cockpit. There sat Porter Mills in the left seat, cleaning his nails with a toothpick. He looked up and said, "Oh! It's you. Well, hello, Lance. What kept ya?”
 
Lance settled down and looked around the cockpit. Not a switch had been moved, not a knob turned. The IRS units, which take 10 minutes to spool up, were off. The APU was off. The lights were off. The bugs weren't set. The ATIS and clearance had not been requested. The takeoff performance data had not been requested or processed. Nothing had been done.
 
Lance took a deep breath. He went out and did his walk-around inspection, taking his time. He came back in and slowly prepared the cockpit while Porter gummed his tobacco and studied his nails. After they got airborne Porter resumed his crowing as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and Lance just sat and tuned him out.
 
Porter retired shortly after that and Lance never flew with him again. But now Lance cackles at the memory of that poor slob who somehow made it to a world where he didn't belong. A long line of people like Lance baby-sat him through his career, and now Porter sits on his porch, rifle across his lap, spits and tells his dogs about his days as an airline pilot. I suppose he has found a place where he truly belongs.
 
I don't know many other captains simply because I don't fly with them. But now and then I hear stories like Lance's and wonder where we get such men (or women). And of course, I often wonder if I am the subject of such stories told in other cockpits. I don't think I am; I don't have any disgusting habits that I'm aware of, and I like to wear a sharp uniform. But I know of one first officer out there who possibly spreads an unfortunate story about me, and if so, he is justified. Maybe I'll tell about my one time colossal CLRM failure in a future post.
And maybe I won't.


(
CLRM: Cockpit Leadership and Resource Management)
Quote of the post:
I've never seen an airplane yet that can read the type ratings on your pilot's license.
— Chuck Boedecker


Monday, August 25, 2014

New Horizons


My last flight with United happened over a month ago. Why have I waited so long to write about it? Am I too wistful about it to face the blank page? Does it hurt to recall it? Am I reluctant to sever my link with that era in my life?

Nah. I’ve just been too busy. First there was a long family weekend event. (Weekend: I know what that is now.) Then there was a week at AirVenture at Oshkosh. (I flew a nice CJ-6 warbird up there at the invitation of its owner.) And after that I suffered the hellish anxiety of a low and slow Cessna 182 flight from Arizona to Alaska, then hung out in Alaska for 10 days. This retirement thing is tough. But about that last flight…

Nothing profound happened. My wife and two of the three sons (you’ll recall the third one, Rusty, accompanied me to Buenos Aires on my next-to-last flight) went along with reserved coach seats. We had a great 50 hour layover in Frankfurt. We took a Rhine River cruise one day and a train to Heidelberg the next day to see the castle. We also hung out with the crew in the local restaurants and watering holes around the layover hotel. As a bonus, we witnessed the pandemonium in the streets after the Germans won the world cup. That experience alone was unforgettable.

The guys insisted I fly both legs, and so on the return flight to Houston I was at the controls for the last time. Curiously, the arrival and landing seemed more challenging than usual. So very much was happening on the radio and on the weather scene that I was a bit behind the aircraft. Maybe it was because I was so used to arrivals a 5am when nothing much is happening. Maybe I was just tired or had decided to retire before completing the flight.

Thunderstorms were popping up everywhere and the radio with both Houston Center and Approach Control was hopping busy. Our STAR (Standard Arrival Route) was changed three times and our arrival runway also three times. STAR charts and approach charts were flying out of our kit bags, only to be cast aside as quickly as they were gotten set up, and replaced by others. Instructions and clearances flowed in through our headsets at a pace that allowed no day-dreaming or nostalgic reflections. We were simply busy as hell.

When finally we were established on ILS final to runway 27 I tried to relax and just make a good landing. I was ready for it to all be over. As we passed the outer marker and switched to tower we learned that an emergency aircraft was breathing down our tail. The tower wanted us to keep the speed up as long as possible. Great. Now, on my last flight I’m risking a go-around for not getting slowed. The F/O shook his head and said, “Sorry, Boss. With that emergency you’ll probably not get a water salute.” I grunted something to the effect that I was too tired to care.

I wanted the last landing to be a good one, but it was a so-so one—not smooth. I didn’t care; we were down and I could relax. The tower congratulated me on retirement and asked us to exit the runway ASAP.  As we did I saw legions of emergency vehicles sweep past us. We never did find out what the emergency was about.

But the confusion and busywork were not over. The emergency had caused taxi routes to change from normal and we goofed up our instructions. I made a wrong turn and only after making it did I realize that the fire department had left one truck for me! The ground controller, sounding exasperated, re-cleared us to the new way that I had inadvertently chosen, while telling us that the fire truck was expecting us on the other route. I thought, Okay, Klutz, they are trying to honor your retirement and you’re making it difficult for them. I expected that truck to give up its chase for us and join its peers out at the emergency site.

But, low and behold, the truck gunned its engine, wheeled around, reversed its course and raced ahead of us toward gate E-18, our assigned gate. As I made the last turn to line up with the gate I heard the truck chief say on ground control frequency, “Sorry Captain, due to the emergency we can only give you half a salute.” I muttered a thank you. About 50 feet from the stopping point we went IFR in heavy rain and had to use wipers.

I set the brakes and ordered the engines shut down for the last time, got slapped on the back by my two co-pilots, handed my coat and hat and ushered to the door. Did they want me out of there that soon? No, they knew the passengers wanted to congratulate me, and so I let them. I got lots of handshakes, a lot of thank you’s for a great landing (those were polite lies), and even a few hugs. Then it was done.

I stopped by the flight office, turned in my company I-Pad and ID badge, took one sweeping look around the place and headed to the home-bound gate to meet the rest of the family. For the first time in 25 years I had a one-way positive space ticket in my hand to Huntsville, Alabama. This was one commute flight I would not get bumped from.

Decision Height has nearly half million hits since it started. I don’t know how many of those were full reads, or just touch-and-goes, and I don’t know how many people regularly follow it. Over the years I have crossed paths with total strangers who read it and have been privileged to meet with others whom I knew were regular followers. I have judiciously kept the profiteers out of it. If I’ve done anything right, it’s been protecting you, the reader, from the annoyance and indignity of commercial ads.

Thanks and best wishes to all of you. I enjoy hearing from you either by e-mail or the blog’s comment bar. Keep the RSS feed open. I’ll think about whether to continue to post to Decision Height or start something with a new direction and twist. I should finally be getting some time to ponder those things, since I am starting a rather long stretch of days off.

Tailwinds and fair skies.




 
The last crossing


Last Atlantic sunrise from as seen from the front office

Grandson Hayes sees us off

After 42 years suffering me, Eleanor still can make a jumpseat look good

Scott & Brad on the Rhine


Did I bomb this thing once?

The breakdown is: 4800 military, 5000 general aviation, 12,700 airline.


 Planning to add more to the logbook



Monday, July 21, 2014

Nothing by Chance


 

You dedicated devotees of classical aviation literature recognized my title, stolen from Richard Bach. Bach and I diverge on the question of what or who constitutes higher authority. (I’m talking way, way high.) But we agree that what happens to us happens not by chance, but by design. And the events surrounding my last days at the airline validate that belief—at least to me.

I was awarded a line for July, my last month. Such a surprise. Just as I'm making my way to the exit the seniority list is beginning to flow in the right direction. No matter. At least now, though, I will have had some control over how that exit transpired. The company remained cold; there would be no assistance in getting me into a decent retirement trip. It was all up to me. 

My final trip in my schedule would be Sao Paulo—not a good one. It is all-night flying, a relatively short layover, and visas were required of my accompanying family members. I decided that if I had to do that, it would be just a “fade away” trip. No fanfare. The family would stay home. But if only I could trade the Sao Paulo trip for the Frankfurt trip. That would be the ticket—a 50 hour (2 night) layover that returned in the daytime. And no visa required. I set about researching which captains had that trip in their schedules the week I needed the trade.

I took my list to the flight office seeking phone numbers. Verboten! Can’t give them out they said. But the secretary would dial the numbers for me. Okay. She dialed the first number. I got a voice message. I left a humble plea asking the recipient to trade me his Frankfurt trip for my Sao Paulo trip so that I could get my family along on a grand retirement finale.

Then on to the second captain. I got an answer. “Is this Captain XXX?” I asked. There was a hesitation. I thought I had gotten a bogus number. Then a drawn out, “Yeeeeessssss.” It sounded like a line out of a Pink Panther movie, as if the guy thought I was an IRS auditor or something. I gave him my speech. He said July was also his last month and he had all Frankfurt trips and didn’t want to trade any of them away. I bade him a happy retirement and his only response was a click of the phone line going off.

The third call got another voice mail. I had high hopes for the fourth call because I knew the guy personally. He had always been a very likeable person and all the co-pilots loved flying with him. He said he was very happy to hear from me and congratulated me on my retirement. I got pumped up. Frankfurt, here we come! Then surprise and disappointment. “Alan,” he said, “I hate, hate, hate, hate… (there were at least 6-8 ‘hates’)…going to Sao Paulo. I really don’t want to do that unless you can’t find anyone else. Call me back if you can’t.” I thanked him and resolved to not ever call him back. (Besides, Sao Paulo isn’t at all a bad layover.)

The fifth call yielded another voice mail and the sixth got a guy on the golf course, who flat turned me down. He was busy with his game. None of the guys I left voice messages with bothered to call back, except the last one.

I thanked the secretary for letting me use the company phone and went to the lounge to nap and ponder. (I had a late departure for London). Half an hour later my phone rang and it was the last guy I called, Captain Eric Brown. I didn’t know him. His opening remark was, “I would be honored to trade with you for your retirement flight.”

And so Eric and I set in motion the protocol for a private pilot-to-pilot trip trade, done via computer inputs. The result came back: Unable trade: Illegalities. I called the crew desk and asked them why. They didn’t know. I asked them to manually put the trade through. The terse reply: “We can’t do that.” I asked to speak to a supervisor and got the exact same verbiage.

The next day I called the chief pilot’s office. As expected he was not in and I got an underling. The underling scratched his head over my predicament, said from what he could see it was a legal trade, and he would place a call to someone else to see what the problem was. At this point I had abandoned hope and told the family that Frankfurt would probably not materialize.

Two days later I checked my schedule and the Sao Paulo trip was gone. In its place, Frankfurt. I called Eric. He had already found out what happened. One of the first officers scheduled on the Frankfurt trip was over age 60. The computer’s logic rejected the trade because the FAA does not allow two guys over aged 60 in the cockpit together. At least that’s what I, and most everybody else thought. But the head guy in scheduling knew that the FAA’s rule was intended for normal scheduling purposes. In other words, the FAA does not want the airline to routinely schedule two over-sixties together. Last minute adjustments that go contrary to the rule are okay. So the trade went through. I told the family we were going. The secretary that lent me her phone fell to work setting up the arrangements to get my wife and two of the three sons positive space tickets and reserve a second hotel room. She was great.

After all this transpired I asked some first officers if they had ever flown with Eric, and what he was like. Several had. They praised him highly—a great captain, they all said. Eric restored my confidence in my peers. I think there are many more like him than not.

So, was I too critical of the company a couple of posts back when I wrote about its cold-as-steel apathy toward what is regarded as an airline pilot’s most important trip? No. I don’t think so. They do only what is required of them by agrement with the pilot's union, although they do produce a nifty retirement trip brochure telling what they can/can’t do for the trip. The last sentence in the brochure offers a hint that there is at least some human spirit and wit left in the behemoth corporation: “You only get one retirement trip per career.”

Next time, the trip, and parting thoughts.

p.s.: Rusty made it back from Buenos Aires a day after I had to leave him down there.
Sunrise over the Andes. 



Wow, let's take some pictures.

Ouch, get the blast shields out.

video
 From my last 757 trip last month: my last flight over the Rockies