Saturday, April 19, 2008

Into the Deep South

Last Sunday night I headed south—way south. This was the last in a long sequence of qualification rides that occur after 767 transition school. First there was domestic operational evaluation, then the Europe route qual, which qualified me for the Hawaii routes, and now the final one, South America. Now I can take a 767 anywhere United operates them without a check airman to nursmaid me along. It’s a good feeling.
We left Dulles at 9:45pm with about 200 people and 60 tons of fuel, skirted offshore of the Carolinas and lost sight of the U.S. abeam Jacksonville. As night fell we saw Nassau swim out of the dark Caribbean, then Cuba, and Jamaica. By then it was my rest period and I went back to the first class seat they reserved for us and snoozed. Three hours later, Bill, my check airman woke me up and took the rest seat. Coffee in hand, I went up to the flight and got back in the left seat. Stu, our first officer was minding the store in the right seat.

I looked down and saw a few ghostly shadows below us in the Amazon valley but no lights—no sign of life for hundreds of miles. Up ahead on the horizon we saw flashes of lightning. I had been warned about the “dry cell” thunderstorms that occur nightly along the equator. They don’t show up on radar well, so you revert back to the way St. Exupery watched for them. You turn down the cockpit lights and use the moon as your lantern.

As we searched for a gap in the storms, we knew could not deviate west under any circumstances; the Andes lie over there not far, reaching to within 8,000 feet of our flight level. 

No sweat, you say? If we got over them and lost an engine we would drift down into them in a matter of minutes. That would ruin a beautiful airplane.

Then Stu recognized a voice. It was a buddy on United flight 846. They had found their way through the storms. They told us to head east about 100 miles. Stu got permission from Amazonica Control and I cut toward the gap. Stu asked where they had eaten. “CafĂ© El Establo. Great steaks.” That was for us.

As we got closer the squall line treated us to dazzling light show and as we neared the gap we saw the lights of flight 846 coming out of the gap straight at us. I turned on my landing lights and then his appeared. He lit up like a super nova. Then he flashed underneath us heading north to where we left—Washington Dulles. We were flight 847 and we were headed to whence he came—Buenos Aires. Night after tomorrow, we would be flight 846 headed home.

The day broke over northern Argentina and we headed down the Parana River valley crossing hundreds of miles of neat farmlands. Bill came back up and Stu moved to the jump seat. The runway came into sight at Ezeiza airport and after 10 ½ hours I put the ’67 down, doing a fairly good job despite my eyes feeling like they had been polished with sandpaper.

On the way in to town it struck me that for the first time in my career, though I had made many long flights, this was the first time I had traveled so far (5,175 miles) and could have done it in my car. No oceans crossed. This comes into perspective when you consider the same distance west from Washington puts you at Midway Island.

I found BA to be an agreeable city. It was busy with traffic and pedestrians. It was colorful and laced with European architecture. Few of the locals spoke English but all were friendly. It was a pleasant stay and two nights later, with bellies full of Patagonian beef, we headed back north under a beaming moon, threaded the dry cells which were faithfully discharging their duty of guarding the equator, met flight 847 over the Amazon, and watched the dawn appear over the Chesapeake. It was a great trip, made better with the company of a good crew.

The Argentine "Pink House" where Evita Perone threw money down to the masses

Cafe La Bieola, said to be owned by Robert Duvall

Bill comes back up before landing back at Dulles. He signed me off.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cody's Story

Here’s a compelling letter I got from a man who knew Cody Wanken. If you missed that post, have a look at it before you read this. Also read Jenny’s comment on her friendship with Cody.

Mr. Cockrell,

My name is Brian Sutter. I am writing you to say thank you for posting your touching words in your blog that you titled, "Stand Down, Marine." I just read it aloud to my girlfriend and struggled through it, fighting back tears. You see, I knew LCpl Cody Wanken very well.

I was there with Cody's family that cold, drizzly day on the tarmac at Des Moines International Airport. I am also a former United States Marine.
Cody was like a little brother to me. I met him 15 years ago when I began hanging around with his older brother, Andy. Over the years, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Cody and his family. Andy and I became best friends and I got to watch Cody excel in baseball and football in his youth.

Cody was 8 years old when I joined the Marine Corps and went off to boot camp in San Diego, CA. Even back then, all he wanted to be was a Marine. Years later, after I was discharged, he never wavered. Cody could have done anything with his life. He would have been great at anything, but it seems that being a Marine was his destiny, it was his dream.

I never worried about him surviving the rigorous training that is required to join the elite ranks of the U.S. Marine Corps. Cody was tough, confident and strong enough to take on the task. He is exactly what you want out of a Marine. He was also a natural leader, had a huge heart and just had a way with people. He always walked around with a huge smile on his face. He was that way his entire twenty years. Just thinking about him now brings a big smile to my face. He had that effect on everybody and obviously still does to this day.

Cody was very proud of being a Marine and we are all very proud of him. He understood the risks. He had no illusions. Cody was wounded in Iraq last September by an enemy round that did extreme damage to his jaw, ear and eye on his left side. He endured several surgeries and more pain than I can ever imagine, but still he never wavered. He would never allow all of us to see or know how much pain he was in. 

Whether it was talking to him on the phone or in person, he still had that fire and that big smile. He didn't want our pity. He was determined to recover and inspired all of us that knew him. He wanted to rejoin his unit. He wanted to continue serving his country. I had the honor of bringing him home from the airport after that first round of surgeries last fall. Andy and I got to be there when Cody and his father, Rick, came down the escalator near the baggage claim at Des Moines International Airport. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. He got to spend over a month with us here in Iowa while he was recovering. It was great to have him around again, and we thought the worst was behind us.

Cody Wanken died in his sleep on April 2, 2008. Andy had spoken to him the night before on the phone and he said it just sounded like the same old Cody. They laughed and joked around. They made plans for the future, they said their "I love you's" and said goodbye as usual. Words cannot describe what we all felt when we heard the news on the 2nd. I heard it from Andy and just started sobbing. It was and still is so unbelievable.

I had the honor of accompanying Rick, Sue and the rest of his family to the airport again. This time we brought him home for good. His pain is over and he no longer has to fight. He can rest easy now.

Thank you so much for writing those words in your blog. It means so much to us all to help put that day into words. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside looking in to describe something that well. I cannot describe what I felt that day; it is all just a series of images in my mind that I will never forget. You also took the time to pay tribute with your words to someone we all love and miss so much.

I don't know why I gave you all this information. I guess I thought you should know a little bit about LCpl Cody Wanken and what he meant to all of us. It's the least I can do since you took the time to share your thoughts with the world on your blog.

Thank you for honoring Cody.

Semper Fidelis,

Brian Sutter
1997 - 2001
April 13, 2008 8:35 PM