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.