Wednesday, December 31, 2008


This time of year we fly a lot of families, which means a lot of kids. I try to go back, if I have time before the flight starts, to invite kids to see the cockpit. Most of the teenagers shrug and shake their heads. (How can a 757 cockpit compete with X-Box?) But the smaller ones usually jump at the chance. Here's a quick kid story from a couple years ago about a rug rat that tried to destroy us.

The feisty toddler eyed our cockpit as we were doing our pre-flight set-up. We glanced back at him, smiled and asked his name. His mother, standing behind him, told us the name, but I didn't catch it because at once the tyke charged into the cockpit on a mission of madness. He assaulted the center console with a vengeance and started throwing switches. 

The first officer and I looked at him, mouths agape. Saying nothing, he twisted every knob he could reach, threw every switch that beckoned at him, and pushed every tempting button that sat before his lustful eyes. Horrified, his mother grabbed him at the waist and started to pull him away, but I stopped her. “Wait! He’s having a ball. Let’s see how far he’ll go.”

He worked his way to the front of the console, never looking at us, tongue slashing side to side, lips slobbering, reaching farther and farther. But he couldn't quite stretch to the juicy throttles and the enticing flap handle. Undaunted, he began working his way back again clicking, twisting, punching, toggling until his mom could no longer stand it. She pulled him back, apologizing profusely, certain he had doomed our flight to a smoking crater. It took us about five minutes to accomplish damage control. He was too young, probably, to ever remember the day he tried to sabotage a passenger jet.

Not much happened last trip except that I had a grand time in Aruba. It was my first trip there. I believe I'd go back if my arm were appropriately twisted. I looked for Natalie Holloway. I would love nothing more than to bring her home to Alabama. But she wasn't there.

Thanks for the suggestions I asked for in the last post. I have been putting some of them to good use.

Happy New Year!

Here are some pics from the trip (click to enlarge).

Arubian beach

Cool pool

Arubian Sunset

Haitian Coast

Rainy day in San Diego

A 737 angles across us 1,000 feet below

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cookin' With Gas

You line your plane up on the runway. The checklists are done. You’ve got your clearance. All is ready. You push up the throttle and roar off. Right?


Every takeoff in your life is an important event. Lives are at stake; not just your own either. One of my favorite adages goes like this: When a pilot walks out to his plane, he faces one of two possible fates: This will be his last flight, and he knows it. Or, this will be his last flight, and he doesn’t know it.

So that makes every takeoff a profound event. It’s no wonder then why some pilots mark the beginning of the takeoff with some sort of self-assuring verbal utterance. It doesn't seem to matter if their machine is a garage built winged gizmo or the latest behemoth off of Boeing's assembly line, they have this irresistible proclivity to say something as they release the brakes and whip the engines into a mad frenzy.

Some pilots say―with precise professional bearing―“Cleared for takeoff.” Others just say “Here we go!” Some Navy pilots, braced and awaiting the cat shot say, “Lord, please don't let me―“ (You know the rest of that one.)

For no apparent reason, as I got ready to take off a few days ago from Sacramento bound for Denver, I remembered what Hack Cross, one of my old buds of the Mississippi Air Guard, used to say when he let go the brakes and put the spurs to a Starlifter. He said, “HERE WE GO, SINGIN' IN THE KITCHEN!”

I wondered what in the world that meant. Must be a song. Coming from Hack, it sounded cool. And that brought back more memories. I recall how “Flat Land” Moore would release the brakes, push up the throttles and yell, “BOYS, WE'RE COOKIN' WITH GAS NOW!”

Where did that come from?! I think that was a TV commercial, or some sort.

Then there was Mississippi Air Guard icon, George Fondren, the “DOD” (a highly inside acronym that does not mean Department of Defense), who, without fail, announced to his crew as the jet heaved down the runway, “May the force be with us!”

Although I am one of those “Here we go” kind of guys, I decided that morning in Sacramento to honor my old Guard buddies by using one of their takeoff utterances. I chose Hack's. I turned the 757 onto the runway, pushed up the power and said, “HERE WE GO, SINGIN' IN THE KITCHEN!”

But this wasn't the Magnolia Militia anymore. This was the Big Airline world. There are certain things you say at critical times, and you are expected to say nothing else. My first officer blurted, "WHAT?”

“Nothing” I said as I steered the jet down the centerline stripes. I stole a quick glance at him. He was looking at me with this incredible question mark on his face. “Nothing!” I said again.

After we got up higher and our work load dropped off he said, “What did you say when we were taking off?”

I said, “I said, 'Here we go, singing in the kitchen.'”

He looked at me with a blank stare. I grinned and shrugged. I had to admit to myself it didn't sound near as cool as when Hack said it.

I do miss the camaraderie of the Mississippi Guard. Those guys, by the way, are now pushing ultra-modern C-17s and are flying some of the most challenging global missions of our time. I don't know many of them any more, but I sure hope they haven't lost at least a touch of the Southern flying man's tradition for projecting their personality into the task at hand, and making professional flying fun, as well it should be.

I'm tired of saying, “Here we go.” I need a repertoire of co
ol takeoff utterances. Give me some suggestions. Post them to the blog, or e-mail me if you're cyber-shy. As long as it doesn't make a fool of me, I'll use your submittal on an actual 757 or 767 takeoff, and I'll let you know when and where I used it.

Until next time: We're off to see the Wizard.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Greatful Man

Suppose you had an unusual guest at your Thanksgiving table—a refugee from a dangerous and troubled land. One where opinions that run counter to the establishment can be unhealthy if they are found out. One where you will dress as you're told. One where the only thing you get to vote for is what to have for dinner, and that choice may be severely limited. One where the only due process you can expect is a kangaroo court where the government's witness is always truthful and you are always guilty. But you'll be lucky if you get even that because most who are accused go straight to prison or worse.

If you had a person like this at your feast-laden table would you be a bit more thankful of what we have here in our great country? I did. And I am.

Ali (not his real name) is waiting for his wife to arrive in December. After that I can use his real name. She is waiting for the US embassy in a neighboring country to approve her visa. Because we don't have an embassy in her country, she will have to go there first, as Ali did, then fly here. Our home has has been Ali's fourth stop in about a month since he's been here.

The first three were with other friends of his—and mine. We all learned to fly together in USAF pilot training class 73-06 at Vance AFB, Oklahoma. When Ali was training with us, his country was friendly with ours. 
Shortly after he returned it had a revolution. Now its government hates us. Come to think of it, its government hates everybody.

Soon after the revolution Ali became involved in a long, devasting war. He flew Phantom fighters. He saw many friends die. No one won that awful war, and honestly, none of us in 73-06 thought he survived. But after the war he wrote letters to his former classmates and one of them made it through. The recipient forwarded it to all of us. Ali was alive! He had taken a job as a crop duster pilot.

Three years ago 73-06 had a reunion in Las Vegas. Ali applied to the neighboring embassy for a tourist visa. They required him to have letters of sponsorship from 73-06 members. We responded promptly, but by the time the visa was processed the reunion was over. Ali came anyway and visited a few of the classmates. I didn't see him then but spoke with him on the phone.

When he returned to his country a local government official heard of his trip to the US and began badgering and threatening him. One day Ali lost his temper when the man came to his home to pester him. Ali told the man that the country's government was corrupt top to bottom, immoral and idiotic. He knew then he had crossed the line. The man took the matter to higher authority. Prison, or worse, was in the offing.

Ali quickly applied to the US for tourist visas for himself and his wife. His was approved but hers got caught in a red tape screw-up. They promised to correct their mistakes and get her visa done by December. Ali could not afford the risk of waiting for her. He came ahead and was welcomed by his old classmates.

The first family he stayed with sold him a car for one dollar. With that he drove to the home of a second classmate, then a third, staying from a few days to a few weeks at each. Before coming to our house he ventured a trip to California to visit friends from his country who had immigrated here. At each place he has used some of his time to research opportunities to get a permanent work authorization (green card) or seek refugee status and to find leads for a job. With the current financial crises we are in, he has a long hard road ahead.

When he drove up my driveway and got out of his $1 car a lump crawled into my throat. I had not seen him in 35 years. My old friend was back; back to the land of freedom and opportunity he had discovered in his youth. Ali is a man without a home, a man without a job. He has placed his future in God's hands and is at peace. And he's here to stay; can't go back.

One way or another, this is his country now. If you know know of a way to help Ali in getting his green card and/or a job, please contact me. He is an expert crop duster pilot and an experienced flight instructor and flight school manager, but he will work at anything.

We sat for several evenings and listened to Ali tell us about the goodness of his old country—its people. And he told us about the bad. His stories are a revelation. Fascinating too, and maybe I'll relate some of them in a future post.

Ali is Muslim and is an intensely optimistic man. He believes with all his heart that God has prepared a place for him in America. As to Thanksgiving, this is his second one. His first one, 35 years ago, didn't mean too much for him then. But now he told us, “I give thanks to God for all things. All things are good. Nothing is bad in God's great plan. When I breath my last breath, I will still be giving thanks.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

For Them, for Us

This time every year (Veteran’s Day +/- a few days) I do something special, and I enjoy it immensely. After getting full agreement and promise of cooperation from the flight attendants I make an announcement on the PA system during our long climb to our cruising altitude.

I tell all veterans to reach up and push their overhead orange call button. This will make the button light up and a “ding” will sound. I tell them to do it so that their fellow passengers and the flight attendants can recognize and thank them for their service to our country. I don’t tell them yet that we will be treating them, lest liars will ring up.

After that I pause. If the recirculation fans are not too loud I’m usually able to hear a few dings from near the front of the plane. When all the vets have had a chance to chime-in I go back on the PA and tell them the flight attendants will now serve them any drink they wish from the ship’s bar, courtesy the captain and crew. It makes them feel special.

I like making people feel special. Sometimes, before the flight starts and when there are a few first class seats open, I invite military and retired military people to come forward and take them. This is tricky because it takes a few extra minutes to make the announcement and re-seat people. ID cards have to be checked to prevent scumbag imposters from coming up.

I always clear this with the chief flight attendant first. I’ve only had one refuse to cooperate. I could have ordered her to do it but I didn’t because I knew she would not have been pleasant to them. I also get the first class passengers’ approval, because they paid dearly for those seats. I have never heard a single one express disapproval.

The last time I did this, one of the flight attendants came to the cockpit with teary eyes. She said people were applauding as the soldiers and airmen moved to the front. Some even cried. She said it was the most awesome experience she has ever seen at the airline. Yeah, I like to make them feel special, because they are.

Another time I had only one first class seat open but several soldiers of different branches were seated in coach. The chief flight attendant said, “How are you going to handle this?” I got on the PA and asked who the ranking service member was. I saw fingers point to a Marine major. I said, “Major, you choose.” I expected him to get up and come forward, but I saw him look around. He picked a private and sent him forward. That, my friends, is called Leadership.

And one other anecdote needs to be told here. One day while greeting my first class passengers I discovered one elderly man, who was traveling with his wife, was a retired United captain. He had been retired about 10 years. I pulled the forward flight attendant aside and asked her to address him as “Captain” when she served him. She smiled. She knew it would mean something special to him.

It did to me too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cadillac of the Skies

A compelling scene from a non-aviation movie made in 1987, Empire of the Sun, still sends chills down the necks of those of us who love flight and its history. Who can forget the sight of the British lad Jim, played by Christian Bale, standing on the rooftop of his prison barracks, after years of incarceration by the Japanese, seeing a vision of freedom coming? Remember the scene? What form did the freedom take? Click this link and watch: 

For today’s generation, it’s a symbol of the finest aviation can be: a flying machine that guaranteed our right to enjoy the freedom of flight; a machine so beautiful, simply seeing it is like kneeling in front of an altar. And for a blessed few, owning and flying one of the few that are left must be like stepping onto Heaven’s threshold. Okay, maybe that’s a bit over the line, but is it too cheesy to assert that the Mustang is a gift from God to a people who needed a good fighter? 

Personally, I think it’s the apple of His eye, too.

Denny Hickman, of Reform, Alabama is one of those blessed few. Denny worked hard to amass his fortunes and he deserves every cent. He used some of it to buy a Mustang, one that actually saw service with the 8th Air Force in Europe during WWII. And yesterday, during Fayette Alabama’s annual Airport Day, Denny invited me and three other Yak and Nanchang pilots to join up with him.

Denny pulled his throttle way back so that we could catch him, and I eased up along his right side. The others took his left and rear positions. I settled on that stubby wing, about three feet from it, and tried to control my breathing. The sight of the Mustang sitting there, inches away—the same sight countless WWII fighter pilots had seen—made my pulse race. How many pilots had ever done this? Had ever seen what my eyeballs were seeing? Dudes, I was entranced! This was a lifetime experience.

As we clung to Denny while he made a couple of passes down the runway for the crowd, I noticed my visual sense wasn’t the only one enjoying a king’s feast. I was hearing something other than my engine. It was a steady buzz, with a faint undertone of a growl. I took my hand off the throttle and pulled a side of my helmet away from my ear. It got louder. It was the Merlin! All 1,500 horses!

It was horsepower you could see at work. Denny had a bright yellow band painted on the tips of his prop and that huge thing spun so furiously it burned a brilliant yellow circle in the blue sky, a circle so big and bright it looked like Saturn’s rings.

The 15 minutes with Denny passed in a tizzy and we were back on deck, slapping each other’s backs, thanking Denny to the extreme. He wished we would quit thanking him. He took off and headed for home, but made a fly-by first. I saw those immaculate wings swing to the horizontal and that yellow circle pulling that magnificent airframe along behind it, zipping, pulling up in front of us, wings waggling so-long, the Merlin bathing the airport with its song. I wanted to jump up like Jim, and yell, “P-51 MUSTANG—CADILLAC OF THE SKIES!”

What a day it was. If I never fly again, I’ll be content to let that be a crowning culmination of a great life of flight.

I couldn’t take any pics of the Mustang because I was too close to it. But this photo, taken by Blake Mathis of Denny’s plane a week ago in Muscle Shoals, gives you a glimpse of its beauty. I was much closer to it than this.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Short Call-out

I got a short callout activation Monday night for a Deep South trip: Buenos Aries at 1100 Tuesday morning. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our daily BA trip goes out at 9:45 pm and arrives at 7am. The return flight is also an all-nighter. We never see the vast continent of South America. Its towering peaks and endless jungle lands are cloaked in darkness for us. So what was up with this day-time flight?

The trip the night before got cancelled for a maintenance problem. They put the passengers into hotels around Dulles and began to get another jet ready the next morning. The original crew had no time to get a legal rest, so they nabbed me and my two first officers (F/Os). We were keen to see the Andes Mountains and the mighty Amazon River, for the first time.

The “bunkie” is the F/O who is along as a relief pilot on long trips like this one. He doesn’t make a takeoff or landing but performs a lot of other duties like the external inspections. One of those duties is to lay out a rest schedule for the three of us. He does this by subtracting 30 minutes from the planned flying time and dividing by 3. On this trip, that works out to about 3 hours 15 minutes each. Then, 15 minutes after takeoff he goes back for his rest period. The company keeps a first class seat with a curtain around it blocked off for this purpose. I then get the middle period, and the other F/O gets the last period. I immediately thought I might rearrange the schedule so that I would take the first period, then I would be in the cockpit for the good sight-seeing. But I thought the better of it. I knew the other guys were looking forward to that, so I just told them to wake me up if they saw the Amazon and the Andes.

I slept fitfully, peeking out the window every 15 minutes. All was cloudy. When they called me up I saw that our hopes were dashed. The Amazon Valley was totally cloud obscured. But then, just after I got settled-in, a big hole opened under us and there it was: The Amazon. Big. John Wayne big. Brown, muddy and churning, thick mats of green vegetation crowding its banks. Then it was gone.

We enjoyed another great BA layover—it’s one of my favorites—and the following night we resumed the dismal night schedule. On the way back up north, as is the standard practice, the captain gets the last rest period and the F/O flies.

Those first 6 ½ dark hours creep by with increasing agony until at last it’s my turn. I get in there and try to sleep, but feel like I’m not doing any good at it, then suddenly I feel the deck rotate downward, hear the slipstream increasing to a roar by the window, and hear the double “ding” on the cabin chime—a signal from the pilots to the flight attendants that we are descending through 18,000 feet, into what’s called the “sterile cockpit” regime. A flight attendant shakes me. I go up there and find the two lads, in a heated hurry to get home, are pushing the 767 hard. There’s Dulles Airport already in the windshield and getting bigger fast.

The radios are bleating instructions from the controllers and by the time I’ve got my shoulder harness on we are talking to Dulles Approach Control. I barely complete the Descent Checklist when the F/O calls “GEAR DOWN, LANDING CHECKLIST.” I do the checklist and look up between items, seeing that the lad at the controls is rolling in on final like an F-18 to the carrier deck (he used to do that). Things are happening fast for a guy who just a few minutes ago was fast asleep, and suddenly, BLAM. We’re down and rolling out. He slows it and I take over. The gate is right there as we leave the runway, and in one minute we are parked and the engines are spooling down.

The two F/Os grab my hand, say great flight, grab their bags, and are gone in dizzying speed. And me? I slowly head down to the lounge for an additional snooze before going home.

Funny how I will some day miss all, this.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Incurable Madness

What can be said of a man who returns home from his daily toil and throws up the colossal ruse that, in order to relax, he must toil again? Does the surgeon come home and dissect rabbits after dinner? Does the accountant relax before the fire and eagerly immerse himself in the paperback edition of Generally Accepted Accounting Practices? Does a farmer leave the field after a tough day’s work yearning to dig in the vegetable garden? And why would I come home war weary from airline rat races and then head to the nearest airport?

I’ll tell you why—to hear those words crackling through my headset that promise the ultimate form of relaxation is at hand: Yak Flight, check in.

Yak 2
Yak 3

Yak 4

Freedom is Flying, so goes the proverb, but formation flying seems to (excuse me) fly in the face of that proverb. As a wingman, you are not free to maneuver as you please, to go where you will, all those things recreational pilots extol. The wingman is as captive as the slave, the incarcerated criminal, the assembly line worker. For him to stray is calamity. Why, then, do us few eccentrics who seem to enjoy this madness consider it relaxation?

Adrenalin, dude. That’s what it’s about.

At last weekend’s annual Moontown Airport Fly-fest we assembled six Yaks and Nanchangs form around the area and flew from sun up to sun down both days, concocting fly-bys, different formation shapes, opposing passes, smoke passes, and various position changes, taking passengers, delighting onlookers, and having a grand time. Occasionally some of us would break away from the formation routine and do some hard core aerobatics. A million pictures must have been shot, and Jimmy Holt has made about 100 of them available on his Flikr site:

As the weekend flashed by, dozens of people emerged from the crowds and asked to ride our backseats, but most had to be politely turned down because promises of those seats had been out for weeks. But one little boy, about 10, kept nagging us for a ride. Wouldn’t go away. Clung to us like a hungry mutt from the time we climbed down till the next mount-up. 

The little boy’s persistence finally got him his ride late Sunday afternoon. I hope it doesn’t inflict him with this incurable madness that infects some of us, but I suspect he went away plotting a future that would take him soaring into the heights of insanity. I hope he makes it.

If Yak madness inflicts you too, look on the right side menu of the Decision Height home page and click, “Yak Heaven,” Moontown Airport,” and “Just the Way He Dreamed It.” Good luck.
Here are a few of Jimmy's pics

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Outer Whorl

I just finished a fine piece of writing entitled The Outer Whorl, by Neal Schier. The whorl, he refers to, is one of those wispy arced feathery wings of a spiral galaxy. Neal views his job as an airline pilot as if from a whorl, looking in toward the core of the airline galaxy, essentially helpless to do anything but hang on for the ride and drink of the richness of his experiences along the way, despite the daily ration of gloom and doom that comes his (our) way.

He writes about the people with whom he has shared countless hours in the high flight levels, going the spectrum from bad company to good. As to the bad, he recounted his long trip with a paranoid captain named "JW." While JW was outside doing the walk-around inspection, Neal was in the cockpit testing systems. JW returned, seething but kept his silence. He didn't speak for the next two days, making for a nasty time for the both of them. At trip's end, JW turned to Neal and said, "Well, what was wrong?" Neal didn't know what to say. JW said, "When you tested the fire horn, it startled me. I almost dirtied my shirt on the tire." He told Neal he had given the matter long consideration and had almost decided to take the matter up with the chief pilot.

Neal wrote, ...he mentioned again those that seemed to be continually wishing him ill. Had I unknowingly joined this august band of miscreants? Had my inadvertent sounding of the fire test system been a plot to irritate him?...I had no real choice other than to take the ten-minute tounge-lashing--a period of time that seemed sufficient to slake his thirst for going to management.

Later, Neal wrote of a far different captain, an introspective, pensive, seasoned Viet Nam combat veteran, identified as only the "captain." The captain suddenly asked Neal, "What is the definition of leadership?"

Of this, Neal wrote, There was never much of a reason to be sudden in conversation while cruising along for hours, but those were how his questions, commands and requests spilled out. It was as if the thought had been percolating in his mind for a while, and now it needed to be set free.

After a long silence the captain looked at Neal and said, "I cannot tell you what leadership is....What I do know is that I can recognize leadership more by its absence than its presence."

JW was the classic example of the absence of leadership. His was an agenda of selfishness, fear and retribution. The captain led by applying his wisdom, communication, and experience and by imparting it to others who were hungry for it. It's a lesson we can apply to the affairs of the state, the company, and the family.

The Outer Whorl should be required reading for any aspiring airline pilot. To order it click here: The Outer Whorl.

Pic of the trip: Wow! That's a gargantuan flying machine behind me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Surreal Flight

My last flight was quite hectic. We left San Francisco bound for Los Angeles (LAX) in rough weather and had an air conditioning/pressurization pack fail at about 100 knots on the runway. We ignored it—it wasn’t one of the critical failures that you abort a takeoff for in the high speed regime (> 80 knots). Passing through 10,000 feet the first officer went to the checklist and took care of it.

We encountered icing in the clouds and later had to circumnavigate a thunderstorm system north of Los Angeles. Then we received a complicated reroute to re-enter the arrival procedure. That took some pecking at the navigation keyboard and a lot of double checking to make sure we didn’t screw it up.

The visibility at LAX was down to 300 feet, so we briefed up a CAT III ILS autoland. When the vis is below 1200 feet we have to let the jet make its own landing. The rationale is it can “see” ahead of us, whereas we cannot, and it make corrections faster. At 300 feet visibility you’ve got about 5 seconds to make a landing at the point of fog breakout.

Busy flight, huh? Read on.

While we were getting ready for the CAT III a fire broke out in the forward cargo bay. Red lights and warning bells went off like the Fourth of July. But calm and steady aviators we were, we didn’t panic. I followed rule number 1 in an emergency: Fly the plane. Skipping this rule gets more pilots killed than any other. The F/O executed the checklist and fired the forward compartment fire bottle. I knew Palmdale airport was nearby and had relatively good weather so we declared an emergency and headed for it at the speed of heat.

We told the flight attendants to prepare the cabin for evacuation and requested fire fighting and rescue equipment meet us. A small airplane at Palmdale threatened to force us to go-around, which we simply couldn’t do with a fire on board. It didn’t interfere but it was a distraction. On final approach the F/O fired the second bottle, as is required, but the smoke light remained on. We broke out at about a mile and landed. 

I stopped as soon as I could, set the brakes and ordered an evacuation. We executed it flawlessly.

A voice sounded from behind us. “Great job, guys. Let’s get out of here.”

The examiner shut off the simulator and debriefed us. We walked out into a warm Colorado sun and headed home. Another 9-month proficiency check done. Ah, yes. A few days off and back to the real world.

In a previous post I showed you a video of a plane coming straight at us, a bit higher, pulling a contrail. Here's one of a jet ahead and we are flying alongside his contrail. We avoid getting into it because of turbulence. Pretty cool, huh? I do work in a neat office.

Friday, September 5, 2008

No Mere Knob

I began having profound thoughts the other day about...let the bugles flourish...the landing gear knob. What goes through engineers' minds when they design something so simple as a knob? Maybe more than we think. The knob on the end of the landing gear handle is, I kid you not, shaped like a tire complete with treads. Why, we ponder, would the engineers design this thing with such a shape? Some possibilities:

First, the designers might think we pilots are exceedingly stupid, an allegation that is not always defensible. Maybe they're afraid we might forget what the handle is for. In such a case a quick visual affirmation could be helpful. For example, if the captain ordered the gear extended and the co-pilot experienced a brain fart--say, forgetting where the handle is located--the day is saved. There! Oh yes, that must be it, the one with the tire on the end of it.

Second, and the most plausible (but barely) engineers know a plane can loose all electrical power at night. The battery will provide limited lighting for about half an hour, but suppose the battery cashes-in for the night before we land. We have flashlights in case that happens. But based on the old proverb that captains’ flashlights are nothing more than containers for the storage of dead batteries, aircraft designers guessed they needed to give us an extra hedge. Thus they gave the gear handle knob a unique and familiar shape to the touch—a tire with threads. This theory assumes the designers used human engineering considerations—doubtful. But if that’s true then they also did this with the flap handle. Located on the center console between us, it’s shaped like an airfoil—a wing. No problem identifying that in the dark, either.

Then the third possibility for making a tire at the end of the handle is they feared the plane might need to be landed by a non-pilot. Imagine the pilots are dead or unconscious, Joe Passenger at the controls, people behind him screaming and praying, sweat cascading down his chin, the runway getting bigger, fast. He thinks: Wheels? Where? Ahh, the knob shaped like a tire.
But not all gear handles on all planes have tire shapes. The Airbus 320, a French product, has a yo-yo shaped gear knob. Ponder on that.

Now for the winner of the bug contest (see Aug 28 post):

Bob Schneeflock
is runner-up with a guess of 115 knots.
Mike Epsman hit it on the nose at 110 knots but he hedged with a "+/-" therefore I must disqualify him.
Larry Parker is the proud winner at 110 knots.

Pic of the trip:
Massive glaciers east of Anchorage. I interrupted the movie and told the passengers they might want to lift their window shades and take a peek.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Buggin' Out

We lined up on Runway 8 at Denver the other day, bound for Washington-Dulles, first officer flying, me laughing. (Our briefing guide requires that the pilot whose turn it is to fly specifically states who will fly the plane. It usually comes out like, “I’m flying, you’re laughing.”) But I didn’t have too much reason to laugh because Pete Carlson, an ex-Navy pilot, knew his stuff.

I love to get Navy pilots as first officers. When I do, I usually append this statement to my welcome aboard message to the passengers: “Flying our aircraft today, is First Officer Pete Carlson, a former US Navy pilot. But don’t let that concern you. I’m a former USAF pilot and I intend to watch him closely.”

I lined the 757 up on the runway and gave it to Pete (the captain taxis the plane because the ground steering tiller is on his side). As we waited for clearance to roll Pete pointed in front of him. “Look! A stink bug!” Sure enough, a big ugly stink bug sat clinging to the outside of Pete’s windshield. “He’s trying to hitch a ride to Dulles!”

I wasn't happy about him not paying for his passage. We don’t run this airline for charity, you know. I don’t like it when stink bugs and former Board members freeload on my plane. But stink bugs may be dumb, but not stupid. 

Why, I pondered, was the bug so determined to leave Denver. Could it have been the political shenanigans going on there this week? Even stink bugs must have their olfactory limitations. But then, did he know our destination? If he were trying to escape the hype, rhetoric and speechifying he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire. 

I asked Pete how long the bug would last. He said he’d be gone before the airspeed needle comes “alive” at 60 knots. I disagreed, said the bug would come off at 65 knots. Before we could agree on stakes for the bet we got takeoff clearance. 

Pete released the brakes and I set the power. I kept my eyes roving quickly between the engine instruments, the airspeed needle and the bug. When the needle came alive the bug was still there. Through 65 knots, and he was still there. I could almost hear him jeering at us in bug-speak: “You can’t do it, suckers! You can’t. You won’t get me off!” 

So, at what speed did the bug come off? Did the bug come off? Post your guess in the blog comments, or if you're shy about posting you can e-mail me. Remember that we measure airspeed in knots vs. mph. Each knot is about 1.15 mph. I’ll announce the proud winner in the next update. And what do you think of my opinion as to why the bug sought to depart Denver? Does it stink? Feel free to post your own hypothesis of the bug’s motives.

Here’s a visual treat: an opposing 747 crossing 1,000 feet above us. Awesome sight.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Still Chasing the Dream

As we rolled out on runway 25L at Los Angeles, I saw for the first time the new Airbus 380, the world’s biggest plane. There it sat, sporting the colors of the United Arab Emirates. Those are some of the guys, you may recall, who delight in the gas prices we’re paying. It was on a demonstration tour of the U.S. I read in the next day’s paper that it took selected guests on local hops and served them Champaign and caviar. Wonder why I didn’t get an invitation; surely I buy a piece of it every time I fill up my truck.

Along with the sight of the big plane comes big concerns and big fears among us. The mood around the airline is somber. Fuel costs are driving us toward another precipice overlooking the dark abyss of bankruptcy. In the midst of this gloom the labor/management wars are breaking out anew, each side pointing at the other with accusations of ruthlessness, wastefulness, and a lack of vision.

I see both sides of the conflict. It’s folly to think that pilots know better how to run a major corporation, and in the corporation I see an absence of inspirational leadership.

When we emerged from the smoking crater of bankruptcy with enormous chunks of our paychecks cut away and our pensions trashed, our CEO could have shared some of the pain. He had his chance to lead, inspire and motivate by refusing or delaying his $38 million dollar bonus and declaring that as long as United workers had to sacrifice, then so would he. He took the cash.
I try to keep such thoughts stowed when I fly but when I pulled into the gate at Los Angeles and saw this sign I let out a cynical chuckle. Appreciated? That sign must have been put up in happier times, probably back when the much revered Pat Patterson ran United.  

I vowed when I started this blog never to bring company politics into it and now I have sinned. But I guess you might want to know what’s going through our heads these days as we plow the skyscapes.

A sight like this one below pops me back to why I’m here. It looks at first as if we are following another jet ahead and lower. It’s actually the shadow of our own contrails projected ahead of us onto the clouds from a low sun behind us. Our shadow races ahead of us shouting, “Beat you to Dulles!” As the sun gets lower the shadow seems to be winning the race, but then we enter the terminator and, like my confidence in our corporate and union leadership, it fades.
Our CEO’s millions can never buy him this sight.

Friday, August 1, 2008


I've been inviting a lot of kids up to the cockpit lately. I get a kick out of watching their eyes grow big as dinner plates when they see it. The parents are astounded when I invite them to take pictures of their kids sitting in the cockpit seats. They must think our jets are secret. Most people think the cockpit is off limits, but such is not the case as long as the engines are not running and you ask permission or get invited.

On one long ground delay I had lately I shut down the engines, opened the door and invited visitors up. No one came for a while and my co-pilot, Jennifer, and I kicked back and read newspapers while listening for the tower to tell us to "start 'em up." Then six year old 
Stephanie waltzed into our lair.

She made our tight cockpit feel like a ballroom as she twirled and swung on her tiptoes like a ballerina, seemingly practicing her dance lessons, while she chatted with us about subjects far unrelated to planes. Categorically uninterested in the trappings of the cockpit, Stephanie seemed intrigued with us, particularly Jennifer.

She lingered for half an hour chatting, twirling and singing, eventually climbing onto Jennifer’s lap. Earlier Jennifer had told me she and her husband had no children and were leaning toward keeping it that way. 

But I saw a yearning surface when Jennifer started caressing Stephanie’s blond hair and straightening her ribbon. I told her Stephanie looked good on her and she should get one of those. She flashed an agreeable smile.

Then we heard a roar as a big jet in front of us revved its engines and rolled down the runway. Stephanie stretched high in Jennifer’s lap to see the plane. I was reading the newspaper when I heard her yell, “Look! Look! A green one!” Then I realized she was trying to tap my shoulder to get my attention. I looked at her. 

“Driver, driver,” she yelled. “Look at the green one!”

Jennifer’s hand went to her face to hide the snicker.  She looked at Stephanie. “He’s the captain, Stephanie. The captain.”

Stephanie looked at me and I saw her lips form the word captain but no sound came out. Then the tower gave us our five minute warning and we sent 

Stephanie back to her seat, but she insisted on administering big hugs to both of us before scurrying away.

After the engine start Jennifer picked up the checklist card and said, “Are you ready for the checklist…Driver?” The driver word came out low toned with a biting wit. I antticipated it, but I figured 
Stephanie’s charm had momentarily clouded Jennifer's judgment so I decided I would allow this shameful act of insolence pass.

I've got a lot of other kid stories, but later.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Big Earth

No great adventures appeared on my plate this past week, but then no episodes of stark terror grabbed my throat either. I'll slam the door on a deal like that.

I took some interesting pics, though. Take a look at this one (all these should expand if you double click on them):

If you were riding along in the footless halls of air and you happened to get bored with the movie that day—trust me, you would have—you might have looked down on western Nebraska and seen this strange colossal spider web.

Then, being the scientifically savvy individual you are, you would have thought, “Hey I know what that is!” Then you would look up, and see this:

What a sight! The atmosphere was alive with carbon footprints of a colossal nature. In actuality though, contrails are not carbon but water vapor. They form when hot engines pass through a cold humid atmosphere. Some years ago a conspiracy theory surfaced that alleged that contrails were actually caused by military flights spraying a chemical that made people sterile in order to reduce population growth. Ridiculous! But maybe we should keep the idea on the back burner.

I also snapped this photo of Ship Rock Mountain in northern New Mexico. It was so named by early pioneers who thought it looked like a square rigger. The Navajos considered it sacred. Geologically, it’s a volcanic neck, which is basically a volcano that wasn’t. It cooled before ever reaching the surface. Being the scientifically minded person you are, you would immediately know that the softer rocks around it eroded away to leave it sticking up 1,700 feet above the desert basin. The dike-like structures radiating out are exactly that, in geological terms, dikes: volcanic rock that found its way up through cracks caused by the main neck.
A geologist friend of mine, Rusty Ward, said it was a “rod flung through the crankcase of the world.” Perfect description! In addition to being a superb geologist Ward is also a master of the metaphor.

I just finished a mighty good page-turner: Palace Cobra, by Ed Rasimus. Want to know what it’s like to ride a Phantom to Hanoi? Read Rassimus. He won't dazzle you with what a hero he is; he'll just tell an important story that happened on his watch and he will do it with metapohors and color that Rusty Ward would nod approval at.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Canyon Tour

I finished a busy 4-day trip that started Sunday morning. It had a lot of flying packed into it, but I didn’t go anywhere exciting except John Wayne-Orange County Airport, tucked back in the Los Angeles suburbs with a postage stamp masquerading as a runway. You need to make a firm landing to get stopped in less than a mile, and buddy I did. I hope I didn’t send anybody to the dentist to replace lost fillings. Lane (see last post) would have been proud of me. But one remarkable thing happened; I took the folks on a Grand Canyon tour.

We were passing near it and, seeing the weather was clear, I requested a “Canyon Tour” from the LAX Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). They knew what it meant. They cleared us to turn toward the Canyon, maneuver over it as desired, and then proceed direct to Needles. I got on the PA, apologized for pausing the movie, and advised them to grab their cameras.

We turned left and right, again and again the entire length of the canyon—a hundred miles or more. Even flight attendants flattened themselves against their tiny door windows. Tiny white puffy clouds lay scattered between us and the awesome sight that lay below. Even the mighty Colorado River, usually muddy, snaked thought the Canyon glowing and sparkling with a clear green tint. What a sight!

Every time I do the Canyon tour I remember my first one many years ago. Very different. It could have ruined my career—or worse.
It started with a simple radio call: “Buddha, you missed the turn point back there.”

I could see Buddha's jet ahead, but from a mile behind him it was easier to spot its shadow zipping across the flat Kaibab Plateau. “Keep quite and hang tight,” Buddha's voice crackled.

I checked my chart again. I was sure we had reached our northernmost point on the low level navigation training route and needed to head west. Buddha was up to something, and it wasn't like him to deviate from the game plan.

Found outside his hooch in Thailand sitting under a tree with his legs crossed and belly hanging out, somebody laughed and said he looked like Buddha, and so the name stuck. With his jutting jaw, linebacker neck, cocky swagger, and a fresh combat tour under his belt, Buddha was a model fighter pilot. His name was a fixture on the monthly Top Gun board, and his skills as a flight lead were respected across the base.

But his time was approaching for his obligatory desk job. Back then the USAF couldn't help but ground its best pilots; couldn't stand seeing them mature into capable, dependable combat leaders. Buddha was heading for an ROTC unit to become a teacher of college kids, and after that, possibly a return to a flying assignment, but no promises.

Yet Buddha would not leave his cockpit kicking and screaming; he would depart leaving a single colossal mark of disobedience, which would remain known only to himself and a certain wingman who was expected to hang tight and keep his mouth shut.

Clipping along at 475 knots, by the time I figured out Buddha's destination, we were there. We were so low on the flat plateau I couldn't see the gouge in the Earth ahead of us but knew it was there. I thought maybe he planned to fly over the Canyon, perhaps buzz it from rim to rim, maybe zoom up high and roll inverted, looking up at it through the top of his canopy. Yeah, I thought, that's what Buddha planned. That would be a kick. I got ready to pull back on the stick for rocket zoom.

Suddenly, his wings snapped 135 degrees right and Buddha flew down into the Kaibab Plateau—gone in a flash. I swallowed hard, felt my adrenalin pick up to about the pressure of the A-7's hydraulic system, 3,000 psi, and in a few heartbeats I was across the rim looking at the Vishnu Schist a mile below. I snapped my wings almost inverted and followed Buddha into the Earth's butt crack.

The canyon's tight bends forced us up over the rim a few times, but we plunged back into it and followed its sinuous kinks, our senses buzzing, eyeballs dancing left and right, riding rip-roaring sky fighting machines not designed for underground work, fiery death only seconds on each side of us. As suddenly as it came it was over when Buddha pulled back on his stick and left the Canyon shrinking beneath his tail, and somewhere behind him—I'm sure he hoped—a wingman still hanging tight.

Buddha left a mark on the world—a mark in the mind and the memory, the best place for marks, the only appropriate place sometimes. We were among the few who had flown through the Grand Canyon, flew fast and made a hell of a lot of noise doing it. Had our tour become known to the powers-that-be, that would have been our last flight, and if done today it would probably get us into the federal penitentiary.

Buddha hung up his G-suit and helmet and went to his school room to teach frat rats air power doctrine, and after that he quit and got into computers. Now, when I look down at the Canyon from 31,000 feet, it's Buddha I remember—Buddha and his trust in me to keep my mouth shut and hang tight.

When we reached the west end of the Canyon we proceeded direct to Needles and I thanked the ARTCC for their cooperation. I told the passengers the tour was at no extra charge. The movie went back on. Many of them lingered near the cockpit after the flight to tell me what a fantastic view they had. I just smiled and remembered Buddha.

His other call sign is Larry Mills and he’s somewhere in the Dallas area. I hope some day he discovers this post.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lane's Prang

I guy I sat next to on the commute home yesterday asked me about the worst landing I ever had. I dodged the question, telling him I was a product of Vance Air Force Base where bad landings are not tolerated. But, in case you're wondering the same thing, here is a memoir from a couple of years ago:

My First Officer, a kid named Lane—can’t remember his first name—was a tanned, robust-looking lad who wore designer sunglasses and smiled with a chin-jutting aviator’s grin that made him look experienced beyond his years. Lane didn’t have military experience. He had “come up through the ranks,” had earned his way here through commercial aviation’s back alleys. As with most young pilots with that background, I found him highly competent and dependable but still not quite fully savvy to the crazy, unexpected stuff that happens; things not in the books.

Yet he was smooth on the controls. I liked that about Lane. I liked it too much. I got complacent. I was slumped back in my seat yawning that day.

Oh, that day.

We rolled out on final approach for runway 16 Left at Denver. It was a pleasant early summer morning, not too hot. The wind shear that commonly stalks Denver in the summer was off duty. Being the “non-flying pilot” or NFP in United parlance, I slumped in my seat and pondered my lunch selection. We had an hour and a half wait before leaving for San Francisco.

Lane had the ILS needles “wired” and his airspeed was perfect. He handled the controls like he was giving them a well deserved, caressing massage. I had seen Lane perform and was perfectly confident in him.

After the gear was down and the flaps set I read the Final Descent Checklist, then slumped back. I glanced out to the left window and watched farms rushing by, yawned and wondered if I might try a taco salad when we got to the terminal. I saw the radio altimeter click down through 1,000 feet and made my mandatory call-out. “One thousand feet. Instruments cross checked.”

Lane responded as required, “Runway One Six Left in sight. Cleared to land.”

I yawned again and thought the mesquite grilled chicken sandwich might be better. Then I heard a recorded voice come through our speakers. “Fifty feet.” The jet was reminding us, as it always did, that the earth was very, very near. Lane was doing well, over the threshold at 40 feet, just as he should be.

I first noticed the trouble just as the voice said, “Thirty feet.” An empty feeling rushed into my gut, like the bottom of the plane was falling out. My eyes verified it. 

The runway started to leap up at us. It felt as if there was no more air under our wings, like we had suddenly flown into a vacuum. I looked at the throttles. 

Lane should be shoving them forward to give us a burst of thrust and speed, but he wasn’t. I knew we were going to cause serious damage if we let the nose wheel strike the ground at that angle and descent rate. 

So did Lane. He hauled back on the yoke, but with no energy available to complete the flare the Boeing only swapped ends and sank even faster. I stiffened. I was about to be served a generous ration of hell for lunch.

As if being dropped from a crane 20 feet above the ground, the 115,000 pound jet slammed onto the concrete with an impact that shook the airframe like it had been hit with a colossal sledge hammer, accompanied by a vicious booming sound, like the gear struts were being driven through the wings. Before my hands could find the yoke we were airborne again, nose high, stalling. The right wing dipped and Lane cut the yoke left while trying to reduce the pitch. 

The jet sluggishly rolled left, nose high, descending again. I yelled, “THE ENGINE! WATCH THE ENGINE!” 

Lane knew what I meant. The 737’s engines hang so low that a bank angle over nine degrees will cause them to strike the ground. He jerked the yoke right and the wings slugged that direction just before we struck the runway again.

The second impact was as violent as the first. I sat strapped inside a chamber of horrors watching the horizon rock left and right, wheels slamming against concrete shaking the panels, blurring our view of the runway ahead, the noise drowning out our curses.

Again we bounced but only slightly, and finally it was over. Lane steered us onto the high-speed exit ramp and motioned for me to take over. I looked at him. His tan had faded into a ghostly sheen. He breathed heavily through clenched teeth. I took the controls and saw an uncommon sight, my right hand shaking on the throttles.

“Dude,” I said. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

I told him to call the cabin to see if the “rubber jungle” was out. Sometimes a hard landing will cause the passenger oxygen masks to deploy from the ceiling. 
Somebody who once saw that happen likened the dangling masks to jungle vines and so dubbed the bizarre sight. Lane picked up the interphone handset and called back. He asked if the masks were down. 

They weren’t. He asked the forward flight attendant if every one was okay. I heard him say, “I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry.”

At the gate we shut the engines down and sat, staring out the windshield, hearing people shuffle off. “You want to open the door?” Lane finally asked. I did not. I didn’t want to face those people. What would I do? Point at Lane and say, “He did it”?

“No. We’ve got to talk.”

Lane reviewed the terrible twenty seconds but seemed not to remember much. We talked about what we could or should have done. I asked him if he got the empty gut feeling just before the sink started, as I did. 

He said he thought so, but I wondered. I told him, “Next time, Power! Power! Power!” He nodded, his head hanging low, embarrassed and scared.

“Shake it off,” I said. “I’ve seen you fly. You’re a good pilot. It won’t happen again.”

He nodded.

I told him to go out and inspect the engine nacelles to make sure they weren’t damaged, and I called maintenance for an airframe inspection. Thanks to the sturdy designs of the Boeing Aircraft and Storm Door Manufacturing Company, they found no damage.

The next day we were back on final approach to 16L at Denver, Lane at the controls again. It was another good day. I knew Lane would be watching to see if I was close with my hands ready to take the controls. I wanted to do just that, but I decided not to. If I truly believed what I had told him the previous day about my having confidence in him, then I had to show it. I slumped back in my seat.

“Fifty feet,” the jet’s voice told us. “Thirty…ten.” Lane flared nicely. We hovered inches above the runway, the airspeed steadily decaying. We felt a gentle plop behind us, the main wheels touching. He flew the nose down. Another soft plop. He pulled the reversers into idle but didn’t use any reverse thrust. No need. We had plenty of runway and our turn-off was down toward the end. As the Boeing slowed we heard the high-pitched whine of the rotating nosewheels getting softer and softer, as they spun down. Lane took the high speed exit and motioned for me to take over.

I took over and said, “You kissed and made up with that runway, I see.”

He laughed. His tan and his confidence back, Lane became his perky self again, in the days ahead recounting and laughing at his punishing landing. “Take that, Runway! Pow! And that! And That! That’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!”

And that, was the worst landing I ever sat through.