Friday, December 4, 2009

This Time of Night

Mild hallucination often sets in―this time of night.

You're weary and stiff, butt-sore, and numby. Coffee lost its appeal hours ago. But you force down a last cup of the putrid stuff on the promise of it's poisonous jolt. You blink hard and rub your sandpaper eyelids.

Only an hour left and you strain to see the glow ahead; you'll touch down just as old Big Eye trains his laser at you from the far Atlantic. But for now it's the darkest its been all night, except for stars and passing jets. Some of them flash their lights. They want confirmation that you see them, that you are here with them, feeling crappy with them. A brotherhood, of sorts.

A glance at the clock, the fuel, the guy across the cockpit, him glancing back, with a shrug, a sigh, a cuss. “Livin' the dream, man, livin' the dream,” he mumbles, unlatching his belt and casting it off. “Head Call, for me. I'm goin' to the back."

The door opens and a flight attendant appears, he disappears, she slams the door, hands me more vile black liquid. “Here, this is fresh-brewed,” she says, forcing a tired smile. She wants me to stay awake. For me to sleep is her death. I try to be thankful and pretend to drink. “One hour left,” I blurt, knowing the question is coming, knowing she already knows it, and knows I know that. It's that kind of night.

“What beautiful stars,” she says, trying to make small talk. I nod and turn the lights down so that we can see them better. “Wow, look at that one,” she says, pointing straight ahead. I look. It's big and bright. It flashes at us.

“That's no star,” I say with a chuckle. “No, that's a plane coming at us. Looks to be slightly high to us. He's flashing. See?”

“Oh. How nice,” she says.

I show her the light switch and tell her to flash him. She toggles the switch and giggles.

“Do you always do that?” she asks.

“Not all the time,” I say. “Just sometimes.” Talking gets burdensome this time of night.

“Look! He's still flashing,” she says.

So he is. A persistent guy. I wonder which airline he rides in the nose of. She flashes our lights again.

“Cool!” she cries. "He's got colored lights!"

This girl is hallucinating, I fear. It's that kind of night. But forward, I lean, crusty eyes widening, trying to focus. Damn! He does have colored lights. Flashing amber now, then pale blue. Now orange.

Just as the tone sounds, alerting me that the first officer is ready to come back up, it hits me. I'm glad of the tone. There will be no more discussion with this woman. She disappears and closes the door, to tell to her peers of the marvelous lights.

The first officer sits, sighs, runs his fingers through his hair and leans forward peering ahead. “Wow!” he says. Venus is really booming tonight.”

I nod and smile. Silly girl. She flashed our lights at another planet.

Yeah, mild hallucinations often set in―this time of night.

Here's a lamentation for you intrepid RJ pushers:
The Seat
by Richard L. Barlow

The Seat
It's ugly and worn,
lopsided and torn.
It's lumpy and wet,
from coffee and sweat.
"It reeks so bad!" they'll all say,
from no APU with a nine leg day.
It's too hard when you're too soft,
remember those hours you spent in the LOFT?
But it calls you back, it knows your name,
whispers, "the view from here, it's just not the same."
With all of this, it still can't be beat,
you're PIC now, so strap in the seat!

Friday, November 27, 2009

My Tribe

A legendary writer of aviation literature, and a passionate purveyor of truth, once wrote: 

"Airline pilots are separated into tribes in spite of their common occupation....United pilots are considered colorless and sticklers for regulation. American pilots are thought to be a mixed lot, prone to independent complaint and rebellion. TWA pilots, highly regarded individually, are pitied for the chameleon management of their company. Pan Am pilots, admired and envied for their long-range flying, are thought to be shy and backward in foul-weather work. The tribes are each healthy and strong in their way, but their characteristics, conditioned by their aerial territories, are as different as the Sioux, the Navajos, and the Cherokees. All this is recognized as debatable. Yet the legends had to start somehow." 

The writer, whose identity I'll leave you to guess, regarded the airline pilot "tribes" as noble ones, worthy of esteem and honor, but prone to fickleness and eccentricity. I suppose you could say the same about other persuasions. When I joined my tribe I was stunned by the wide spectrum of behavior and personal conduct of the group, as compared to my military experience. But to be fair, most of them were in the middle of the spectrum—respectable, hard-working, caring people. I was proud to be in their midst. I'm not so sure now.

We're not wearing our hats any more. I'll grant you, it seems trivial at first thought. But we have shed the one physical item that sets us apart and above. Cynics will say, “We don't need hats. Hats don't have anything to do with flying.” True, but the headgear means much to the projection of professionalism among those who trust their lives to us.

Here's what happened. Our union, in preparation to entering a long and contentious period of contract negotiations with a stubborn management, decided that we would show our solidarity by collectively shedding our hats, and then re-donning them at the union's direction. They created a nifty little graphic on the website to tell us what we were supposed to be doing.

The problem with this “solidarity” scheme was that management laughed at it and made a clever counter-move. They put out a new regulation saying the wearing of hats was now optional. That torqued-off a lot of pilots who thought shedding the hats was an act of teaching management a severe lesson about how unified we were. They turned their wrath on their brethren who thought that hat-wearing was a projection of their professionalism, and in particular, a demonstration of the highly exalted concept of “captain's authority.”

Soon, those who wore their hats became the targets of ridicule and slander, sometimes right in front of the passengers. Tensions grew. The pilot group split over the very thing that was supposed to unite them. Then, an incident occurred that made newspapers and broadcasts across the nation. A hatless first officer shouted vulgarities at a hatted captain in a gate room crowded with passengers. His heated tirade included the threat to use a baseball bat on the captain.

The captain became irate and shivered with indignation. The captain's first officer (not the guy who initiated the clash) wisely concluded that the flight could not be safely completed with his emotionally upset captain. He called the operations manager and explained his concerns. The flight was canceled. The incident hit the news.

All bad enough, but it got worse. The guy verbally assaulted a second hatted captain the same day, threatening to use a lead pipe on him. This threat landed the offender before a board-of-inquiry. The captain who was threatened—a friend of mine named Tim—testified on behalf of the company. Who do you think the union backed? Yup.

It's appropriate that the union represented the reprobate pilot, but rather than question Tim about what he said and heard, the lawyer tried to cast Tim as a company man who wanted to use the incident to work his way up into a management position. Thankfully, the miscreant lost and was fired. But Tim, long time a union supporter and consummate professional instructor pilot who wanted nothing more than to train the world's best pilots, felt betrayed by his own kind. He had dreamed of being a part of this tribe of pilots since he was a kid. Now he's dejected.

The hat switch is still off, and the union leadership—in the midst of critical contract negotiations with the company—is bickering and backbiting among itself, appearing more like a soap opera than a professional association. The company is laughing harder than ever at our ineptitude. It didn't used to be this way. Our union leadership were once adults.

The other day I saw Tim wearing his hat in the concourse. He looked confident and professional. He grinned when he saw me wearing mine. We walked side-by-side down the concourse passing legions of unhatted pilots. None of them made a remark. The passengers saw us. They paid no heed to the others.

The writer of those sagacious words at the beginning of this post would reel with disgust if he knew what was going on in his tribes. But then again, maybe he wouldn't. I think he understood our ilk.

If the union strikes, I'll strike. I'm no scab. But in the meantime, I'll just do my job and be professional, taking care of my passengers. This man would tip his hat at that.
Who is he?

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's Wrong?

A good friend sent an e-mail the other day―addressed to the usual gang, all friends―citing the recent rash of airline pilot incidents: a Delta crew landing on the taxiway; a Northwest crew getting distracted by their laptops; and a United pilot arrested for drinking. He ended his messages with this question: "What is going on in the airline business?”

After a quick Google search I replied: “Over 50,000 airline flights with dedicated, professional crews in their cockpits operate each day without incident. That's what's going on in the airline business.”

So often―and with increasing frequency, it seems―we allow ourselves to be drawn to the sensational minutiae, rather than considering the whole picture. This is partially a result of instantaneous communications. News flashes appear on our Blackberries. We can't ignore them. Constituents get outraged, call for hearings. It's all over the news. Ignorant commentators chime-in ad nauseum. We hear. We read. We cringe.

Nothing has changed. These incidents have been happening for generations. What haschanged though, remains unheralded: commercial air transportation continues to be the absolute, unmitigated safest way to travel. And it keeps trending even better.

Okay, now your questions. Did I know any of the people in the news? Yes, I am acquainted with the person who got arrested. He's a nice guy. He'll be removed from flight status and placed in a dry-out program, after which he will return to the line. But he won't get a third chance.

The laptop situation? Gross negligence. It's not the laptops that are at fault; it's the way those guys allowed themselves to become complacent. Still, they didn't run short of fuel, and they didn't cause a mid-air threat because ATC kept tracking them. No one came near being hurt.

Landing on the taxiway? Three sets of eyeballs in that cockpit are guilty, not just the captain. But remember they were coming off of a 10 hour all-nighter. My guess is that if there had been airplanes on that taxiway, that crew would have seen their error and executed a go-around. Thus either way, there was no immediate collision potential. No one came near being hurt.

And, the guy who had the alcohol in his blood―he had two other pilots with him. Even if he had flown, a safety factor was already in place. No one came near being hurt.
Moral: Flying is safe. The vast majority of flights don't make the news―a good thing. For the ones that do, many safety layers are in place to correct errors.

There are always exceptions. The latest one: Colgan Air 3407, Buffalo NY, 12 FEB 2009. You know that story. Here's a good place to focus. Make sure your air carrier hires competent, experienced, professional well-paid pilots! How do you do that? I don't know. Write them. Write congress. Write the DOT. But be ready to pay more for your ticket.

Dang, I was going to tell you abut the message I sent to another planet.
Next time.
Post your captions for this. (BTW, that's not me.
It's a pudgy captain I used to fly with a lot
when I was a happy DC1-0 F/O.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Throwing Darts in the Cockpit

Unless you're living in a snow cave in Antarctica you know about the incident last week in which pilots at another airline didn't respond to radio transmissions and overflew their destination by 168 miles. Now I can hardly pass by a group of passengers without someone asking, “What is it you guys do while the plane is cruising?”

This is not surprising because the "passengers" in the cockpit on the errant flight admitted to being in a heated conversation about company matters for over an hour and completely forgot to do their job. Air Traffic Control finally got their attention just as a flight of F-16s was taxing out to go after them—with live missiles, I suspect.

Autopilots are wonderful inventions that save lives by allowing pilots to multi-task during high workload situations and to relax during long high cruise segments. Programmed correctly, the autopilot and its associated computers (most large jets have three such units) knows when it's time to reduce power and descend. But it won't do that unless a pilot pushes a button to permit it to do so. On the 757/767s I fly, all it will do is put up a tiny message that says, RESET MCP ALTITUDE. That, by far, is not the only way you know it's time to descend, but it's the only cue you get from George (that's what the old timers called the autopilot). Those bums who FUBARed missed all the cues.

So, back to the question. My son Brad, asked a good one, 

“Do you read books, throw darts...what?” Here's the official answer: We mind the store.

Every five minutes or so, the radio barks orders at us to change frequencies and occasionally altitude, course and airspeed. We monitor the fuel burn and keep a log to make sure we don't have excessive consumption that might indicate a leak or other trouble. We monitor the navigation systems to make sure we stay on course. We constantly study the weather along the route and at the destination. If we observe conditions not forecast—a “wind bust” for example—we send in a report. We send maintenance reports on breakages and malfunctions. We download paperwork for the next flight, study it, make amendments if necessary, and send back an acceptance, or (on rare occasions) a refusal.

What else? Crew meals take some time—I'm a slow eater. 

And, sometimes we open a manual and review stuff about the plane or the operation that's gotten fuzzy.

My company regards the airspace below 18,000 feet to be “sterile cockpit” country. Since my company has placed that rule in our operations manual, the FAA considers it theirs also. During sterile cockpit we can only discuss matters relating to the task at hand and perform only actions related to flight. That's why I don't take photos of landings. (One of our pilots did that two years ago and posted it to her website, and was summarily fired.) And, the flight attendants are forbidden to call us below 18,000 unless they have an emergency.

Above 18,000 feet there is no prohibition on conversational topics. The captain usually sets the tone. I allow my first officers to vent, but I discourage lengthy, unending tirades.
They are usually quick to see that I like to talk about airplanes, boats, dogs and certain sports. It would be highly unusual to fly with someone who didn't want to discuss in depth one of those compelling subjects.

So, there you have it. That's what we do. Understand that the newspaper you see tucked in my bag's outer pocket is for the layover. And don't assume the round disc-like bulge in my travel bag is a dart board.

I was going to tell you about the message I sent to another planet, but that'll have to wait. Oh, yeah, I forgot. We send messages to other planets too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Carl was flying the other night on the DEN-LAX leg. He's an ex-naval “aviator.” Never could understand why they don't call them pilots. Carl and I have some things in common; we're about the same age, we both love dogs and we and both flew A-7s. But he had better A-7 stories than I did. He kept my sides hurting from laughing so hard. 

I had given the passengers my standard pre-departure speech when I have navy first officers: “Ladies and gentlemen, your First Officer, Carl _____ will be at the controls tonight. Carl is an ex-Navy pilot. But don't let that concern you. I'm an ex-Air Force pilot and I'll be watching everything he does.” Another pilot came into the cockpit to ask for the jumpseat just as I finished the announcement, saying, “Well skipper, now you've got two squids to watch after."

Carl immediately began extolling his vast powers of Naval airmanship as he climbed us out over the Front Range and made the sun rise again. It was a stunning sight. The evening was clear and peaceful, and the sky colors were so vivid and sweeping that we sat awed for a few minutes―the stories and jokes suspended while the three of us drank in sunset. We were peeking into the studio of the Artist of the Universe. He may have looked over his shoulder at us and winked before turning back to His work.

The western horizon was still crimson aglow when we started down the long straight-in arrival procedure at LAX, well known to airline pilots as the RIVER ONE ARRIVAL. I sat there wondering what river could possibly be below us in that parched basin that would have beckoned the FAA to come up with such a name. The RIVER ONE is usually a benign procedure, albeit a fairly busy one. But that night it turned into a monster when SOCAL Approach pulled the dreaded runway switch on us. They switched us to runway 24R, from the usual 25L.

Our navigation computer, called the FMC, doesn't like it when we put a new runway in it in the final minutes. It punishes us by erasing the current routing. Suddenly you find yourself flying with the autopilot in Heading Select not tracking any course, just descending straight into the beehive of air and radio activity that the LA Basin is. Scary.

The change threw us into a frenzy trying to re-establish the proper route transition into the FMC. Of course at such times nothing happens in series, only in parallel. As Carl started to brief the new runway procedures, as he was required to do, voices on the radio began to demand my attention. “Cleared ILS 24 Right, River One arrival, maintain 250 knots until further assigned.” I read back the clearance and consulted the chart for the next altitude crossing. Carl found it before I did. “Set 14,000,” he said, pointing his finger at the Altitude Set window. I put it in as the voice on the radio demanded my attention again. “There is a heavy Boeing 777 your eleven o'clock descending for runway 24 Left, report that traffic in sight.”

As Carl finished his briefing, I looked ahead and slightly left but there was a layer of scud there. I didn't see the Triple. The voice paused for a second after barking instructions to other aircraft and I told him “No joy on the Triple.”

I reached into the chart bag, pulled out an enormous binder and rifled through it trying to find the Runway 24R approach, as Carl commanded, “Set 12,000 feet.” I set the new altitude, then remembered we had not yet accomplished the Approach Descent Checklist. I quickly double checked to make sure Carl had set the correct ILS frequency and course into the receiver, and heard the voice command me to slow to 210 knots. Carl deployed the speed brakes and we heard the roar of wind over the raised panels far behind us.

I reached for the checklist card and started reading the items on the descent checklist, but the voice interrupted again and told me to slow to 180 knots. Carl slammed the speed brake lever back forward and said, “Flaps 1.” I moved the handle to the “1” position. Now we heard a different wind noise and felt the nose adjust downward. I went back to the checklist and resumed accomplishing the items when the voice asked me again if had the Triple in sight. I looked out ahead and low and saw nothing but the lights of the Los Angles basin, zillions of them. How was I supposed to pick out the lights of an aircraft against the backdrop of that cluster of lights?

Then I remembered the cabin warning. I had not done it yet. I pushed my PA button, “Flight Attendants, prepare for landing.” When I looked back up the runway was straight ahead and getting bigger, fast. I thought, I'm about saturated with all this stuff. Too much to do.

Carl said, “Gear Down!” I reached over and slammed the handle down, then looked back toward the Triple. I saw lights on the ground going out momentarily and coming back on. That was the big jet passing over them. Then I saw his flashing strobes. I punched the mic button and said I had the Triple in sight. “Roger, caution, wake turbulence, maintain visual separation with that traffic.”

I looked at the wind display on my EHSI and saw it was a right quartering crosswind. Good. That would blow the Triple's wake away from our course. Then Carl demanded more flaps. I moved the lever and watched the flap indicator travel to the new position. I looked back at the gear indicators and saw three green lights. I read the Final Descent Checklist just as the voice demanded I switch to the tower frequency. I did that, while wondering what I had forgotten, and as soon as I got a sufficient gap in the constant radio traffic I announced to the tower that were on the ILS 24R.

Carl demanded more flaps. They cleared us to land. I saw 1000 feet on the radio altimeter and announced it. Carl said, “Runway 24 Right in sight, cleared to land.” In a few seconds the radio altimeter read 500 feet. I announced it. 

Carl said, “Final flaps 30.” I checked that they were at 30, the gear was down, and the brake pressure was normal.
Carl set the 757 down expertly and smoothly, despite being a carrier pilot, and I took over for the taxi when he slowed. I slumped and took a deep breath. Carl looked at me, wiping sweat from his brow. “Damn!” he said. “We're getting too old for this!”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I did all the work. You just flew.”

We got to the hotel and ordered cold beers and some cheesy nachos and swapped some more A-7 tales. We both agreed that those were the days when we really had to work. But those were also the days when we were fearless “bullet proof” young turks. (Truth be known I did get scared a time or two.)

We also agreed we were lucky to survive those fighter driver years so that we could come to this slow, boring, challengeless airline job.

Now check this out. A couple of nights earlier, St. Elmo's fire clawing at our windscreens:

Think that's cool? Read what Dr. Edward Wilson wrote about this phenomenon while on an Antarctic voyage of discovery in 1904:

Sat 12 March: This was the most weird and brilliant night I have ever seen at sea. The water was ablaze with phosphorescence. Acres of brilliant light flashed by and the seas that broke over our decks were all ablaze. Ahead and astern were large luminous balls in the water, like gas lamps as far as one could see in every direction. Overhead was pitchy black, with aurora towards the horizon and occasional flashes of sheet lightning. And, to crown it all, St. Elmo's fire settled...on every masthead and on the two ends of all the upper yard arms, just one bright clear star at every point. It was a beautiful sight in the pitchy blackness above, to see these crosses sweeping backwards and forwards as the ship rolled to and fro. The lights were as big and as bright as the Gemini. One is lucky to see this electric phenomenon, for many have spent their lives on the sea without ever coming across it.

Lucky, indeed.

In the next post: The message I sent to another planet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Texas Losem

I looked down with my usual astonishment at the colors, shapes and shadows of the Desert Southwest. Unscrolling from the expanse ahead I began to make out a semi-circular shape, the typical arc of a hogback formed by the erosion of a plunging fold.

I became puzzled when I saw it was bisected by a straight hogback that cut the semi-circular one off and extended far out in a straight line, dying out in a big mountainous conglomerate in the distance. It looked like a colossal cent mark ( ¢ ) of uplifted, tilted sedimentary rocks. Strange.

I studied it closely as it slid by below and to the left, my nose pressed against the side window like a kid looking into a toy store. Then I figured it out. The straight hogback was a fault line. It had emerged and broken up through the older semi-circular hogback. I looked over at the first officer, Eric, wondering if I should describe it.

I didn't. Geology doesn't excite people like it does me and some others I know. Besides, Eric looked pre-occupied with something.

But I did remark to him that whenever I look down at the Desert Southwest it makes want to put a bid in to upgrade to the left seat of an F-250 with a cabin behind it that sleeps two plus a dog.

"What," he asked. "You mean retire? Right now?"

"That's right," I said.

“Then do it!” he said. Retire right now! Just like you said.” He started figuring. “Hmm. Let's see, we have three hours to go in this flight, that means I would get three hours of captain's pay!” His grin widened.

I shook my head in mock disgust. “That's all you guys think about. You would do anything to improve your seniority!”

“Yes, we would!”

I said, “I know. I fear for my life every time I start my truck.”

Eric was in a much better mood than earlier. He had been bellyaching about the money he had spent in Vegas the previous evening. He had met two ladies he knew back home in Virginia and had taken them both out for a bit of gambling and dinner. He lost $300 at the Texas Holdem tables; that was his preferred game. 

One of the chicks put $15 in a slot machine and won $500.\They left and went to an upscale restaurant the ladies suggested to him. He bought the drinks, $17 martinis, but he assumed it was to be “dutch” rules for dinner, since it wasn't an official date.

Expensive wine flowed and the meal came in courses. When the bill came due he plainly saw they did not intend to pay.
They started a chatty conversation between themselves, not displaying any inclination to tap into the gambling winnings, while he eyed the tab. It soon became obvious the “rich” airline pilot was to pay. He ponied up.

While I went back to marveling at the landforms below he examined his credit card receipts, shaking his head. “I wasn't even drunk! How could I let them do this?” I asked to see the receipts. The cocktails were $55. The main tab was over $200.

“But you enjoyed their company,” I suggested, grinning.

"Not That much," he yelled.

I had stayed in the hotel and watched Bama take Ole Miss behind the wood shed while Eric was entertaining the chicks. I got the best deal.

That $600, I thought, would go far buying gas for the fifth-wheel rig—when the time comes, that is. It won't be too soon for Eric.

And I've got a chick and a dog who wants to go along exploring the geological wonders of the lonely American outback. That won't be too soon for me.

Runway 25R at Las Vegas. Lose
an engine on takeoff, plan on turning soon.

Admiring cumlo nimbus from afar

What is this? Give me its scientific
name and its common name.

Aviation trivia question:
The F-100 Super Sabre was manufactured in 4 versions, the A, C, D, and F. What happened to the "B" Model?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Breathing Deep

We were a somber group. Homesick, all. You never get used to it. Sunday mornings are not supposed to be like this―early, dark, foggy and far from home.

The van driver loaded our bags―four crews of pilots, eight of us heading to the airport, nobody saying much. Just civil utterings.

"G' morning"

A nod.

"How's it goin'?"

"Livin' the dream, man. Just livin' the dream." Yawn. A cynical chuckle. 

A cuss. A heavy sigh.

I looked at the starless sky and remembered the line from Days of Future Passed: "Breath deep, the gathering gloom."

This was not the way the "dream" is supposed to be. Sunday mornings are for sleeping-in, for coffee and breakfasts, for church and family, and walking dogs. Sunday is supposed to be a day for rest and regeneration. And yet there I was, dragging bags and breathing the gloom. I long to live a normal life.

How much more of this will I choose to endure? I'm supposed to be retired by now. Defunct pension plans and grizzer bear markets hold me hostage here. But a hostage to what? To fortune? A different kind of fortune, Gann would say. (Of course, you've read A Hostage to Fortune, right?)

Yeah, mornings like that compel me to consider exit options. Pilots on my company seniority list junior to me would applaud that idea.

We got to gate 77 and found it full of droopy-eyed vacationers in Hawaiian garb awaiting the eastbound flight, their second leg to home, already dreading going back to work Monday. You could see it in their faces. Fifty-one weeks of hell pays for a week in Paradise. Now back to the hell. If that’s normal I don’t won’t that life either.

Mike and I woke up the slumbering Pratts and beat all the others to runway 25R. (Why are so many of my first officers named Mike? I'm not making this up.)

We were the first heavy jet out of LAX that gloomy Sabbath, maybe the first of any jet. We burst through the top of the fog in mere seconds, and our eyes breakfasted on a horizon ablaze in stunning crimson and orange. The gloom was banished. Breath deep, now, the rising sun. My spirits lifted and I ceased thinking about retirement, for the time being.

It was a good sail over the Rockies, which were encrusted with carpets of shimmering yellow Aspens. I imagined Del Gue down there yelling, "...and there ain't no churches, ceptin' this right here!"

Toward the end of the flight the head flight attendant came up and showed me an image he had just taken with his Blackberry. It was a dead fly in a passenger's omelet. I sent an ACARS request (That’s like an e-mail) to our destination station: "Please have Customer Service meet passenger in 4F to offer condolences for the dead fly he found in his omelet."

Their response: "Would you like paramedics to meet flight to resuscitate fly?"

I suppose I'll endure "the dream" a bit longer.

What is that glow on top of the fog layer?

Rolling out over foggy Los Angeles to meet the dawn
Leveling off at FL 370 and getting
ready to get the Big Eye in the eye

Two weeks ago, out Livin' the Dream with some buddies:

The humidity is causing the prop streamers
I'm the one vertically confused 

Even our props are in formation. Are we good, or what?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Fire

It was a vivid dream, as dreams go. Holed up there, in the Hyatt–Dulles the night before a mission―make no mistake about it, airline flights are missions―it came on me near morning. At least I think it was near morning. How is it that the moment of impact is when the alarm sounds? 
I was flying the right seat. I haven’t done that in 14 years. Don’t know why I was there. In my military days aircraft commanders often flew the right seat. Maybe that’s how it came about. But in the dream I was the captain―a captain in the right seat.

It was night. A call from the flight attendants came. A fire raged back there. Then putrid smoke broke out where we were, in the cockpit. It started on the floor. The man in the left seat was flying. We got out masks and put our goggles on. Then I saw a brilliant orange flare erupt in the floor near his feet. He screamed and let go the controls. I took over. The orange brilliance climbed up his legs and engulfed his upper body. He screamed more. I turned the jet. I don’t know to what heading. Toward an airport I suppose.

Then I looked over at him. He wasn’t human any more. He was a black sculpture, his limbs frozen in mid-air, as if enroute to his face to cover it from the agony and horror.

The orange glow erupted at my feet. I felt the heat. I looked at the attitude indicator. I was in a right bank. I felt a stabbing, burning pain. I pulled harder. I knew I was in a graveyard spiral. I knew we were losing altitude in the blackness. I wanted to roll out and stop the deadly descent, but the fire hurt. Hurt bad. I couldn’t help myself. I pulled harder.

After I took my eyes off the thing in the left seat that had only seconds before been human, I didn’t think of him. I didn’t think of the passengers. I just thought about the impact and whether it would hurt.

Then the alarm rang and I got up and flew my mission.

If you think such a dream is a harbinger of what’s to come, then we’d all be dead. I never thought that, and don’t. I think maybe our fatalistic dreams―those of us that occasionally have them―are subtle reminders that each day is a precious gift. God never promised us tomorrow.

I know I don’t have to be Charles Lindbergh, Sir Edmund Hillary, Winston Churchill, or Billy Graham to be a real person, a person experiencing the abundance of life. A kiss, a hug, a taste of wine, a dog fetching a stick I threw, or a blue moment, is all I need to say that my life here was a success and well worth it.

None-the-less, thank God for the wake-up call.

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flack and nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
--Randall Jarrell, 1945
"Death of the Ball turret Gunner"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Moon on My Yo-yo String

The Moon was so stunning even the hotel van driver remarked about it on the drive to the airport. Yes, it was a fine night for it, I reckoned. A fine night for a red-eye trans-con.

Indeed it was, and as we pushed back I caught a glimpse of that orange glowing quarter-moon sinking into the Pacific, it
s sharp horn following the rest of it down like a foundering ship. When we swung our nose around on runway 24R at LAX and pushed the two big Pratts up to takeoff thrust, the Moon had fled over the horizon toward Hawaii. But not for long.

Even at over 320,000 pounds the 767 soared effortlessly out over the dark Pacific like a zooming projectile, and suddenly the Moon rose again--rose where it wasn’t supposed to rise, only where it’s suppose to set. Brilliant and orange, the pointy prow reared from the horizon. Then the rest of the arch he
aved up, its glow shimmering in the water. And as it stood, hovering there while we began our big sweeping 180 degree turn back toward the east, it seemed to be saying, “Okay, you’ve had your fun with me, now let me go.”

And we did.

We pilots have the powers to make the Moon and Sun rise and set at our whim. We defy gravity daily. We heft hundreds of souls into the stratosphere and haul them across oceans and continents. It's good that aviation issues us a ration of humility from time to time, lest we start regarding ourselves as god-like creatures.

My first officer, Jose, feels far from god-like tonight. H
e’s praying God takes care of him and his family. He’s being furloughed next month, for the second time in five years. He doesn’t expect to be called back again. He thinks maybe there won’t be anything to come back to.

The financial pundits are predicting we will succumb again to bankruptcy this winter. They doubt there will be financing available to push us through. Liquidation, they say, is the only way. Besides, they add, there are too many airlines. At least one, they say, needs to fall on its sword so the rest can have a be
tter go of it. I’d like to take a sword of my own to some of those contemptible key board peckers who neither risk anything nor produce anything, for their worthless scribblings.

We’ve seen it all and heard it all before. And we survived. I think we survive because we have such damn fine people working their hearts
out to make it happen. People like Jose. Such a loss.

If only I could use some of this power at my fingertips that fetches celestial bodies at will, maybe I could make some sense of this crazy industry that I both love and abhor with equal passion.

Here's a poem I remember from long ago. I saw it in an issue of the USAF's TAC Attack, a magazine for fighter pilots. I'm sorry that I can't remember the author's name.

go on


clouds and race

the moon through

starlit skies, unfettered

free to roam, beyond night’s

faint horizon. Higher, higher, higher

above the flickering firefly lights, high

above the din and cacophony,

I tred along untrodden paths

chasing moonbeams

like a child on a

summer’s evening,

Oh God, but

I didn't mean for this to be blurred,
but I like the way it came out.
What plane is that?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Blue Moment

The alarm clock’s brutal twanging sends a spasm through me. I peer at it as if it were a loathed thing. It is. Oh-four hundred, it says. I roll out of bed mumbling a homage to a deity.

Many years of professional flying have taught me that in order to soar with the eagles you must often get up with the pigeons. But it never gets easier.

Down in the hotel lobby I meet my first officer, Jay Thomas, who also happens to be my fishing buddy. He’s a hopeless optimist--grinning, yelling "Good Morning!" at me from 100 feet away. I look out the door and see an ebony sky, not a hint of morning, yet there he is, coffee in hand, teeth shining, ready to fly.

On the way in to the airport while I yawn and prop my eyelids open he’s jabbering about getting up earlier than this to fish, to hunt. This is nothing, he reassures me. I want to shove him out the door. But I won’t do that; I need him today.

He’s got the 757 ready to fly when I get there with the papers. We release brakes at exactly 0600, a perfectly on time departure, and taxi out as streaks of yellowish beams climb out of the east. We’re one of the first jets to get out today.

Within minutes we’re streaking westward acro
ss the Virginia horse country, gaining speed and altitude in a perfectly smooth atmosphere and finally I am beginning to make some sense of the world, to see purpose in the day. If I didn’t, Jay would most certainly tell me.

The only thing wrong with this otherwise perfect morning is the imposing overcast of thick gray clouds casting a dre
ary shadow across the land. As we climb it swallows us.

Jay turns on the engine anti-ice. We hit bumps. We wonder how long we must fly blindly in this depressing soup of boredom. I yawn and think of the sleep I’ve been cheated out of, while Jay chatters cheerfully and incessantly, yet never misses a single radio call from the center. He stops in mid-sentence, answers the call, changes frequencies, checks in with the new controller, and resumes his discourse precisely where he was interrupted. I yawn again and nod approval of whatever he is saying.

Then, in a heartbeat—BLUE SKY! Big blue. Huge, John Wayne blue. Long delirious burning blue, a poet-pilot once wrote

We rocket away upward, watching the tops

I look over at him and he’s peering out and grin
ning at the vast blue skyscape stretching forever ahead and over us. "What did you call it?" I ask.

"The Blue Moment," Jay responds, with a grin the size of Texas.

He’s right, I thought. This is what makes it all worth it. The Blue Moment is like an epiphany that gets experienced again and again, each time as fresh and as new and as awe-inspiring as the first time.

The Blue Moment is one of the pieces of trea
sure that you file way to remember and savor in the times ahead when your memories fuel your final years through life. Guys like Jay make my treasure file overflow.
Who was the poet-pilot?

A Golden Moment

What book and movie does this sight remind you of?Who wrote the book and who starred in the movie?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Three-holer Legacy

I pranged a 757 onto 24 Right at LAX the other day. Thought I had it wired. Nice day. Little wind. Long runway with a turnoff down toward the end. No hurry to stop. Should have been a greaser.


I grimaced over it as we taxied in. I brooded over it on the van ride to the hotel. I analyzed it over dinner. Why does it bother me like this. No one can make perfect landings every time. But then, I remembered Warren Nelson. Now, there was a man who could do it.

Nelson was a master of the "3-holer," the Boeing 727, so dubbed because it had three engines clustered close together in and on the tail. It was a reliable and versatile aircraft that could fly fast and make up lost time to maintain schedule integrity. Unlike more modern planes, it required a third pilot acting as a flight engineer.

The 727 was highly responsive to control inputs and more of a challenge to fly than later generation passenger jets. Some called it the fighter of the airline world. It was especially difficult to make soft landings in. Many pilots loved the 3-Holer so much they stayed on it their entire careers and mastered it to perfection. Those who only passed through the 727 world on their way up the ladder to bigger and newer planes marveled at how the old heads tamed the cranky jet. As a 727 first officer I flew with many of them, but one that stands out is Captain Warren Nelson.

Nelson was a reserved, gentlemanly sort--pensive, intelligent and articulate. Those qualities drew him into leadership positions with ALPA but he rarely talked unionism. Affable and agreeable though he was, he simply didn’t say much, and when he did say something he commanded attention.

I had never seen Nelson make a bad landing in the 3-Holer. In fact they were all supremely wonderful greasers that I envied and tried in vain to emulate. I was able to do it sometimes, but not with his consistency. Finally, though, the day came when the 3-Holer turned on him.

It was the last landing of a four-day trip back at the mother base, O’Hare. The last landing of the trip is the most important one because it’s the one you’ve got to live with until you get back to work. It you’re going to prang, do it early in the trip while redemptive opportunities are still available. Nelson knew this.

All looked good to me. His airspeed was good, as was his sink rate, crab and power settings. The runway hurdled toward us; the 727’s approach speeds were high. Nelson retarded the throttles and flared, then relaxed back-pressure to allow the main wheels to catch the runway surface on the upswing as the nose lowered. That maneuver, referred to as "check and roll," is unique to long bodied aircraft that sit relatively low to the ground. It's also a hard one to master. 

But it was no problem for a master like Warren Nelson. I watched, expecting our trip to end with yet another of his smooth-as-a-baby’s-butt arrivals.

We hit, and we hit hard. The airframe shuddered as if every nut, bolt, rivet and fastener yelled in unison that they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.

I sat shocked. The master was flawed. I saw him glance quickly aside at me, as if to say, "Keep your tongue." But I needed to say something in spite of my reverence for Nelson.

After turning off the runway I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I had to show this man, whom I admired and wanted to be like, that I approved of him no matter that I had found him to be imperfect. "Warren, I thought you had it wired all the way down," as if my evaluation was worthy of mention. His only response to my deference was a grunt.

As the engines spooled down at the gate he stared straight ahead out the windshield. I had forgotten about the landing and was busy preparing to leave when he uttered to no one in particular, "I’ll go home, pour a Scotch, sit in a dark room and think about that one."

Whoever said airline pilots never take the job home with them never met a pro like Warren Nelson.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

What's the Price?

I’ve had a request to comment on airline “price gouging.”

Asking an airline pilot about ticket pri
ces is like asking a petroleum geologist about gasoline prices. We don’t know. (I'm both.) My concern is the product. The pricing of that product is far above my head. It’s as much a mystery to me as it is to you. My best advice is plan ahead and buy the ticket as early as possible.

I can only look at the worth of the product. Two hundred years ago it took you six months to a year to traverse the continent, and the chances were slim of your making it without freezing, starving or getting your hair lifted. That is, if you could afford the journey. You needed a wagon, mules, supplies and probably a guide.

One hundred years ago it took you a week. You rode at 50 mph, inhaled coal soot with every breath, didn’t shower, and slept little. That is, if you could afford it. They bitched about train ticket prices back then, too.

Seventy-five years ago it took you two to four days, depending on th
e weather. You were now finally airborne, but 30 hours of hearing 36 cylinders pounding away at two three-bladed propellers drove you to the limits of your sanity, and you probably used your life savings to pay that ticket. And you probably knew someone who tried to take a trip like that and ended up in a smoking crater.

Fifty years ago it finally started feeling co
mfortable. You had two jet engines on each side of you purring along while you trekked across the USA, and they even served you a meal. But the ticket price! Forget it. You couldn’t have afforded that flight.

So now, here we are, almost done with the first decade of the 21st century. You cross the continent in four ho
urs. You watch a movie. Have a drink. If you’re up front you get a meal. If you’re in back you bring a sack lunch. You don’t know anybody who ever died doing this, and can’t remember the last time a plane this size went down, at least in the good old USA. You’re probably fuming that the flight is 15 minutes late, but you don’t know that was caused by a shortage of baggage loaders. Someone had their job sacrificed because you insisted your ticket be as cheap as possible.

The real question is, what's the value of your life? Because that's what's at stake when airline professionals start you toward your destination.

BTW: this didn't cost me anything.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I, the Guinea Pig

A guinea pig is a cute little rodent commonly used in lavatory tests. But in the world of commercial aviation a guinea pig is any pilot who first ventures up to test questionable weather before others takeoff. And thus, so are his trusting passengers. But sooner or later somebody has to do it, lest the airport remain at a standstill. Last week at Denver I became the pig, or rat, or whatever the thing is.
  There were a dozen planes lined up behind us. We were number one to takeoff, but I had an uneasy feeling about the threatening weather. A gigantic thunderstorm inched its way eastward south of the airport. Its arms of turbulent cloud weaved overhead like an octopus’s probing tentacles. But the main body of the beast was ten miles away, which gave us plenty of room to turn away from it.

Confident that his ride in the tower cab would be a smooth one, the tower controller cleared us for takeoff. I lined up the 757 on runway 17R, but only for a look/see. Our radar verified the storm was a safe distance away, however the gunmetal clouds billowing and curling overhead boded an atmosphere ripe for windshear.

Suddenly, with the urgency of an air raid klaxon, a voice blared at us: “WINDSHEAR AHEAD! WINDSHEAR AHEAD! WINDSHEAR AHEAD!”
The voice was that of “Bitching Bob,” our own plane shouting to us. I looked down at the electronic horizontal situation indicator. A splotch of bright red marks sat two miles ahead of us. Its unspoken message: Fly through here lads and they'll weep at your wake

I told Mike to inform the tower. The busy tower controller, who was managing operations on three runways said, “Who’s reporting windshear?” He sounded annoyed, as if the news was now severely complicating his life. Or was he agitated that his own windshear detection system had not seen what our plane’s gear saw? 
But seconds later he too got on the bandwagon. “Okay, our equipment sees it now. ATTENTION ALL AIRCRAFT. MICROBURST ALERT! DENVER, RUNWAY 17 RIGHT!”\
Long minutes passed as we sat poised for take-off. I tried to relax but couldn’t. No pilot enjoys sitting on an active runway, unable to check his six. We watched and listened as a 737 approached Runway 8, which was perpendicular to us. “That guy ought to have his head examined,” said Mike, a seasoned Naval aviator. I agreed. As if hearing our comments, the 737 pilots wised up and went around. 
Many jets were waiting behind us. We could see them to our right front on the parallel taxiway. I knew they were watching to see what we would do. Windshear is a fickle thing. It comes. It goes. When would we roll? We waited. They waited.
 “You want to take precautions?” Mike asked.
“Yeah!” I said. “We’ll use maximum thrust. And work me up an increased Vr.”

Mike nodded and calculated a rotation spe
ed based on our maximum runway limit weight. Using the extra momentum of a longer takeoff roll we would slingshot ourselves into the turbulent sky—the theory being if we hit windshear we should have the energy to punch through it. But we still had to wait until the warnings subsided.

I thought about the Pan Am flight at New Orleans in 1982. They took off with a thunderstorm nearby and hit a microburst. They all died. Nobody knew then what a microburst was, mu
ch less how to predict it and prepare for it. A microburst happens when a thunderstorm spits its windy wrath straight down. In the aftermath of the New Orleans disaster the excellent predictive windshear system embedded in the nose of our jet was developed. It uses Doppler radar to detect horizontal wind movement.

Windshear reports began to flow in from other parts of the airport. On the west side the shear was 50 knots. I looked at the windsock bes
ide our runway. It hung limp―not enough to fly a kite. Creepy. Finally the warnings stopped—both ours and the towers. Tower cleared us to takeoff.

At that very moment we heard a “ding,” the forward flight attendant calling. Mike let out a big “Phsew! What now?”
I answered the call. A passenger had to go to the lavatory―couldn’t wait. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The whole airport was waiting for us, and some guy had to tinkle. I said, “No way. He stays down!” But before she hung up her handset I revaluated. “No. Wait! Okay. Tell him to get it done QUICKLY and report back when he’s seated!”

The tower wanted to know why we weren’t rolling. Mike told them. I could almost hear his frustrated sigh, along with the chuckles of the other pilots waiting.

The sky ahead boiled and flowed with menacing tendrils emanating from the storm but the windshear warning stayed silent. I worried our window of opportunity might close.
Finally another DING. He was down. I kicked the parking brake off and shoved the two big Pratts to maximum power. The roar of 75,000 pounds of raw thrust catapulted us forward. We heard a clattering crash of metal in the galley behind us. The flight attendant had not secured the galley drawers and the acceleration emptied them onto the floor. We ignored it and concentrated on the takeoff.

The wind sock kicked out with a direct crosswind as we rolled. I held the yoke into the wind but not too much, less the spoilers, which aid the aileron function deploy and impede our acceleration. The speed picked up fast but hung up at 90 knots for a few troubling seconds, then increased again. I concentrated
on the white stripes racing at us while Mike hunched over staring with shifty, suspicious eyes at the engine instruments watching for a malfunction. I waited for the windshear warning. I was ready. If it came prior to V1 I would abort. 

A high speed runway abort is one of the most dangerous maneuvers airline pilots are called on to do. The decision has to be made instantly, the physical reaction must be instantaneous and it must be done right. A hundred and eighty-five breathing, frightened bodies back there would get slammed forward against their seat belts while hearing the engine reversers belch a hellacious roar. Ever heard the old saying ‘There are no atheists in a fox hole’? I submit to you that there are also none riding out a high speed abort.

The expansion joints in the concrete thumped under our nose wheel like machinegun fire, ever faster and faster. Finally, Mike said, “VEE ONE.” I kept the nose down gathering even more precious speed, far more than we needed under normal circumstances. Then, “ROTATE!” I gingerly raised the nose, not too much—didn’t want to dissipate energy.
The runway fell away and our ride turned smooth. Mike raised the gear, then the flaps. We turned east, away from the storm.

As we climbed out I wondered what the guy who had to pee thought when the engines exploded with a tearing roar, kicking us ahead like a lit afterburner, just as his butt hit his seat.

And another thought: I distinctly remembered hearing a quick transmission during our takeoff that must have come from one of the aircraft waiting behind us. I was sure is sounded like “Oink oink!”

The other planes watched us climb away. One by one they fed onto the runway and followed their guinea pig into the restless sky