Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Rite of Passage

Nothing of importance happened this last trip, and in this business that’s “mission accomplished.” Unless you regard nothing of importance as getting 200 souls across the continent in 5 hours while they sleep, eat and watch movies. Of course I’m sure some of them bitched about it. For your amusement I took a few pics and a video along the way (below).

This trip, both ways from JFK to LAX, was United’s “Premium Service.” For that they’ve got a few 757s rigged up for mostly first class seats, with only a few coach seats in the back. The cost is high because these flights are built for high dollar travelers, and many times big Hollywood names take it. But none this time.

Big names? Let’s see. Over the years I remember: Neil Armstrong (Wouldn’t speak to us.) Bill Murray (Dressed like a slouch but left 1st Class to go back and clown around with the people in coach.) Barry Bonds (Treated the crew as if they didn’t exist.) Bob Newhart (Came up and asked me to turn on channel 9 for him. Ch. 9 is our air traffic control feed to the passengers. We’re the only airline that does it, but it’s at the captain’s discretion.) Al Gore (It was right after the 2000 election and he wasn’t in the best of moods.) Several rock stars I had never heard of, and a Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz. She was tiny and old, but bubbly and nice. In case you're wondering, the crew usually never asks for autographs. That’s bad form.

I also had Chuck Yeager, and that begs a story. We running very late from Denver to Chicago. So late, I had the power pulled back to save fuel. A flight attendant came up to bring us drinks and said, “Oh, by the way, there’s, like, an astronaut, or something back there.” I looked at the manifest. C. Yeager was listed in first class, seat 1B. My jumpseat pilot said he needed to go back to the lavatory. He would see if that was the Chuck of fame. I wondered if Yeager would live down to his reputation of being a jerk.

Twenty minutes later the jumpseater came back. “It’s him,” he said. “I chatted with him a long time. He’s really concerned about missing his connection to Washington.” When I heard that, I pushed the engines up and accelerated so quickly it pushed us back into our seats. I sent back a business card and a photo of Rusty and me in our Yak. It came back with a nice salutation on it, written with a shaky hand due to either old age or a few shots of mule kick. Both, I concluded.

After we landed the jumpseater opened the cockpit door quickly. Usually the first class people are gone when that door finally gets opened after shut-down checklists. But this time we wanted to know if the Great Yeager would bother to speak to us bottom feeders.

He came up smiling and shook our hands. He looked at me and said, “Alan, you didn’t have to push up the power like that and burn all that fuel just for me!” I said, “Yes we did, sir.”All three of us were ex-USAF pilots. We saluted him and he returned it, grinning.

We had crossed through a Rite of Passage. Chuck had recognized us as his peers. He was the best passenger I ever had.York.

Mecca! Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Cult followers of sport aviation will soon be descending upon it.

End of the road west. The Pacific, just a few blocks from the layover hotel. Remind me to tell you about "The Indian," the hotel's van driver...until the fight.

Redondo Beach. Great layover. The hotel rents bicycles.

Earnest Gann named a book after this awe-inspiring sight: Islands in the Sky. You've read it, right? These are the Big Bear Mountains, east of Los Angeles.

Sandy Hook Beach, on approach to JFK.

Below, First Officer Dean Krupa brings us in to New York.