Monday, July 21, 2014

Nothing by Chance


 

You dedicated devotees of classical aviation literature recognized my title, stolen from Richard Bach. Bach I and 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

Monday, July 7, 2014

'neath the Southern Cross





When you see the Southern Cross
For the first time
You understand now
Why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from
Is so small.
But it's as big as the promise
The promise of a comin' day.


The Cross is hard to see except on a clear moonless night, and it's not prominent, like Orion or Cassiopeia or The Big Dipper. The ancient Greeks called it the "Crux," a name it still goes by. But as the millennia went by the Crux sank into the southern hemisphere and became forgotten by the northerners. Today, you've got to go way south to see it.


You won't see much, yet it sits there with a subtle presence staring down at you. Its graces have followed me and watched over me for decades as I've prowled the Southern hemisphere from Antarctica to Brazil. Tonight I bade it so long for the last time.

Mendoza lies ahead. It reminds me of that unforgetabble line from St. Exupery’s Night Flight. It’s where Fabien’s wife looked out their widow as he dressed for a mail flight from which he would never return. “Look,” she said, “your path is paved with stars.”

Meddoza is famous for being the source of the world's best Malbec and last night we partook of it along with some succulent Patagonian grass-fed beef. Rusty declared it the finest meal he has ever eaten.

Rusty is my youngest son. He came along on this, my
Rusty stops by the cockpit while boarding.
next-to-last trip, just to taste for himself of Buenos Aires' culinary delights I've told him about over the years. He was not disappointed. He will likely experience more good Argentine cuisine tonight. I had to leave him behind.

All day long I kept checking the passenger loads for tonight's flight and each check reassured me he would get a seat. Then at the last moment the plane filled and there were no seats left for SA's (space available travelers). The last I saw of him, he was getting into a hotel van.

It was tough leaving Rusty behind. But he is a big boy now and well capable of taking care of himself. I really enjoyed having him along. But the ebony skies over South America seem a little lonelier tonight than usual. The Crux comforts. It will look over him too.

And with him left behind I suddenly became apathetic about passengers. I didn't make a "welcome aboard" speech and my "seatbelt off" announcement was terse and forceful.

Ding. "You are free to get up, but keep your seatbelts fastened at all times when seated." That was it. No niceties about weather, ETA and certainly no "sit back and relax" invitations. Those people bumped my son off the plane.

I don't get it. What do they do? Just sit around until two or three hours before the flight departs and say, "I think I'll go to the United States tonight"?

More likely though it's my company's pathetic IT system. But enough of that. Some of you are accusing me of indulging too much in the art of the whine.

We are heading west tonight out of BA toward the Chilean coast. This is new. By breaking toward the Pacific waters before heading north we avoid the dry cells along the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone over Amazonia. Rumor has it we learned this technique from our competitor, American Airlines.

I harbor no regrets tonight about leaving my final contrail across South America. I'm ready to be done. 

I've been pushing jet aircraft around for 42 years. It started with a T-37 "dollar ride" over northwest Oklahoma. It ends next week with an Atlantic crossing to Frankfurt. The other two sons and the wife will be on that one--with positive space passes (promised, but we shall see). Somebody else takes the bump. 

My last flight in a 757 took place two weeks ago from Chicago to San Diego. The weather was perfect and I got to see the majestic Desert Southwest from the windswept heights (where never lark or even eagle flew, BTW). Memeories unscrolled as we passed West Spanish Peak in Southern Colorado which I scaled with each son on separate climbs, except that weather forced Rusty and me down before reaching the summit.

Then we skirted the Sangre de Christos where my brother Joe and I foolishly climbed an icy Mt. Crestone with hiking sticks and an old rope between us. Without ice axes and crampons the rope only guaranteed we would both fall and likely die if one of us slipped.

Further on we passed over the Arizona highlands where I spent three days pondering whether to leave the active Air Force. While there I tagged along and watched my old friend and fearless hunter Dave skillfully use his elk call to stalk another elk hunter skillfully using his call.

Minutes later I was still glued to my side window looking down at the bombing ranges near Gila Bend where I flung my eager A-7 through footless halls of air--blowing stuff up. And over yonder was Baboquivari Peak which I once thundered over at 450 knots inverted and looked up at hikers looking up at me.

Then came the descent over the resplendent mountains east of San Diego and the transition to the infamous Localizer 27. Visibility was deteriorating in the setting sun and the runway didn't break out until we were about abeam (and about the same height) as the elephants and zebras in the zoo passing off our right wing. I told the F/O I would dip a tiny bit below the glide path (because of the short runway), but I promised him I would not do a touch-and-go on the multi-tiered parking garage off the approach end. The F/O said, "Go ahead and do it. Southwest does it all the time." I laughed so hard I thought I would botch the landing, but it was perfect.

The F/O had kin in town so he split. As I exited the terminal to catch the hotel van three young Marines, fresh out of the USMC boot camp beside the airport, yelled from across the street, "GOOD AFTERNOON SIR!" I wondered if they thought I was a naval officer. No matter. I yelled back, "GOOD AFTERNOON MARINES!" Seeing their smiles and them proudly wearing those uniforms was the perfect end to a perfect day.

So here's hoping for a perfect end next week to a non-so-perfect career, but one with no regrets.

And may the Crux be with you always.


What idiot at city hall would approve this? And what idiot pilot would take this shot and put it on the web? Rest assured, not I. (Pilots have been fired for this.) This is a Google search image.



The walk-away shot from my last 757 flight. It sits in San Diego after a perfect day.