Monday, April 28, 2008

Blue Water Aviators

I got that warm fuzzy feeling when I saw Honolulu show up on my schedule, and with most of the country still in the throws of a waning winter, Hawaii beamed at me. I beamed back.

I'm qualified to fly the Hawaii routes even thought I haven't done it as a working crew member in about 12 years, so I was hoping to get paired with a First Officer (F/O) who was more familiar. My F/O turned out to be an old friend, Brian Olsen, whom I had flown with on the pig jet (the 737). Almost immediately Brian said, “I've never flown to Hawaii, so you'll have to teach me the ropes!” Hooah.

On the way to Los Angeles we studied the manuals and charts like kids cramming for exams, and the next morning we set out west-by-southwest with 220 eager, pale-skinned vacationers and about 18,000 gallons of Exxon’s special reserve kerosene. Taking off out of LAX, you're “feet wet” in about 60 seconds and before you level off there’s nothing but blue water all directions. So there we were heading toward a few rocks in the middle of the Pacific, checking and double-checking to make sure we didn’t screw this up and go swimming. The California-to-Hawaii tracks are considered the world’s most remote over-water routes, meaning there are no en-route alternate airfields to seek refuge on if something of a sobering nature goes amiss. That “something” generally falls into three categories: cargo fire,engine failure, and depressurization.

If you lose an engine the jet will “drift down” to its maximum single engine altitude (the low 20-thousands) where the remaining engine consumes more fuel to reach land than both engines running at economy two-engine altitude. If you make a bad divert decision you could find yourself limping toward shore with fumes in the tanks. A depressurization event will force you even lower, to 10,000 feet, where the engines will guzzle your fuel like a boozer gulping the last of his bottle. All flights are planned with enough fuel to make land under both of these circumstances, but you've got to decide correctly about whether to turn back or keep going. In Ernest Gann’s days (read Fate is the Hunter) they called the decision point the “point of no return.” Sounds troubling. Today we use “equal time point” as the decision point.

We managed to establish ourselves on the proper track, and were encouraged to see that we were following the contrails of a jet ahead of us, a thousand feet higher. We couldn't get lost now, could we? But then we overtook him. Passing him I saw that it was a silver jet with a big red and blue AA logo (Alcoholics Anonymous?) on the tail, and we got worried again; those guys couldn’t possibly know their way outside of Texas.

Soon it was time to play the Halfway-to-Hawaii game. Brian got on the PA and gave the passengers information such as true airspeed, winds, and distance. They figure where the halfway point is, write it down and pass their guess to the flight attendants. Upon reaching the halfway point we announce the winner, who gets a bottle of Champaign. The passengers love the game so much the company put it in the operations manual and now require us to play it.

Five hours after takeoff we saw the big island off the port bow (don’t you love it when I talk Navy?). We knew then we would not miss the rocks, run out of gas and swim this day. Soon after, we saw Oahu, confirmed the Japanese were not attacking, and landed in that legendary island paradise. I was truly glad to be back there again. I love the feel of that air on your skin, and the scent of those warm salty Pacific breezes.  
Hawaii is an elixir. It isolates you from your cares and troubles.

A few years ago, knowing of the elixir’s power and wanting to share it with the family, Ellie and I decided to host a family vacation to Hawaii. We called the boys over for Sunday dinner and announced the plans. Could they go? “Is the Pope Catholic?” was their unanimous acclaim, and then “You payin’?” Scott leaned over to me and asked in a low tone, “Can Kelly go?” Kelly was his girl friend. I saw $$ signs  flashing. But I just couldn't say no.

That trip was a resounding success and we decided to do it again a couple of years later. It was another Sunday dinner, and this time our new daughter-in-law, Kelly was there. After discussing the plans, which this time included the guys paying more of their expenses, Brad leaned over to me with a smirk on his face and whispered in a low voice, “Can Rebecca go?” I was expecting it this time. Another fine trip ensued and we got to know Rebecca well. Both times we stayed in military beach cabins—a great perk fetched by 23 years guarding the Stars and Stripes.

A couple of years after the second trip we were sitting around the Sunday dinner table with Kelly and our newest daughter-in-law, Rebecca, reminiscing about the great Hawaii trips. 

The subject of a third trip came up. I looked at Rusty, wondering if he too would lean toward me for a low-toned question. Rusty was 10 years behind the older two, still in his teens. I suggested we wait a while longer for the next one.
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A great Hawaiian past-time: waiting for a table.