Friday, December 31, 2010

The Dawn Aims at Us

Been lazed? Boy, I have. By Mother Nature.

In the summer over the north Atlantic the sun hovers all night just below the northern horizon and slowly swings up in front of you like a surfacing submarine. Your eyes have plenty of time to adjust. But in deep winter it pops out of the east and fires an eye-piercing beam straight at the cockpit. Gotcha!

Eyes accustomed to dark flight painfully squint. Blocking hands go up. Curses issue forth as shade panels―sarcely effective―are pulled from their cubbie holes and attached to the windshields.

Every time I hang those loathed things, I want to track down the engineer who designed them, grab him by the lapels, slam him against the wall and slap his feckless face. One first officer I flew with suggested he was the Seattle town drunk. He was probably the same one who designed the overhead panel.

One of the difficult concepts I had to adjust to, when transitioning from the 737 to the 757/767 was the overhead switching. The 737 has real switches hanging down. Forward is on. Aft is off. Simple and fool proof.

Now I have to contend with buttons instead. Still, Boeing calls the buttons switches. You push it, it's on. Push it again and it's off. A little light in the button―hard to see―tells you which is which. Yeah, it had to be the same engineer. Jerk.

The two engine anti-ice switches (1 inch square buttons) are located just below the two center tank fuel boost pump switches (also 1 inch square buttons). You guessed it. We descended into the cold clouds over Moscow and I turned the boost pump switches on. Or were they off?. Idiot. Not me, them. Effective human engineering requires effective humans to do the engineering. Dorks.

Still, the 767 is a mighty fine machine and despite my switchology shortcomings it got us to Moscow two nights ago right on time and in one very desirable piece. Yes, you read that right―two nights ago. This is a once-a-year 75 hour, 3-night, layover, because of the transition to the new year. I've been here so long I feel like I need to apply for Russian citizenship.

But no. Don't want that. The Russians have an English-speaking television news station that features one commentator after another trashing America. I don't think the Cold War is yet over.

I'm with two pleasant first officers. We've been enjoying Moscow's eateries and snow-covered sights for, how long? Nearly three days now. One is an ex-Marine, a Buddhist, a vegetarian, and a socialist. Strange combination of traits. I told him to go to Red Square and sing a mantra over his buddy, Lenin.

In a few minutes I'll go down and join the entire crew for a round or two and then we'll bundle up and be off for the mile or so walk to Red Square, where we'll mix with the Russian multitudes. I'm looking forward to seeing fireworks―brilliant as a north Atlantic winter sunrise―over St. Basil's Cathedral. I'd rather be home, but there are worse palces to ring in the new year.

Happy and blessed New Year to you.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cockroach Corner

One of the few perks about being on Reserve is occasionally a nice surprise comes down the pike. But most such surprises are of the non-pleasant variety. When I saw Cockroach Corner in the itinerary for this trip I smiled. It's December and I was headed for Miami.

The weather was perfectsunny and 75 degrees. The blue Atlantic lapped against the beach behind our layover hotel. I took a couple of snaps and sent them to my sons toiling away back home. Their replies were contemptuous, but I asked for it.

As I strolled down the boardwalk I thought about how Miami got tagged with a curious moniker known only to the pilots of our company.

Way back in the early 80s we had a hub here with pilots assigned. It was a hugely desirable base and vacancies went exclusively to the most senior pilots in the company. One day the company's CEO, a guy I'll call “Richard the Big Wheel,” came to Miami to speak to the pilots. His opening words were, “It's good to be down here in Cockroach Corner.” Apparently he had seen one of the nasty bugs in his hotel room. The guys laughed.

He came to pitch a new plan he had conjured for our company. The plan was called “Blue Skies.” Under the scheme the employees, especially the pilots, would concede unprecedented concessions in pay and benefits so that Wheel and his lieutenants could use the savings to "grow" the company. When sufficient growth was achieved, he promised restoration and rewards. 

He made the same pitch at each base using what he called a “road show.” He was very persuasive. The pilots voted to approve the new contract, believing that blue skies, indeed, awaited them at the other end of program.

But Mr. Wheel didn't come through. The savings he picked from the employees' pockets went to buying hotels and rental car companies. The core business (the airline) languished and the other businesses got hammered by focused competitors. 

Wheel even tried to destroy the pilot's union. He failed at that too, and thus began the airline industry's most reprehensible pilot/management relationship, which endures today. No succeeding CEO has managed to regain the employees' trust on our property. (I say "property" tongue-in-cheek, because we don't own any property anymore; everything from airplanes to pencils are leased or rented.) But enough whinning. I promised you I wouldn't do that.

The Miami domicile is long closed. The pilots assigned here have moved away with acid tastes in their mouths for the company, or are commuting elsewhere. In fact, our presence here as an airline has diminished to only a few flights a day. Our competitor blew us away.

Now we have yet another new fearless leader who promises to restore respect and move the company forward to make it the world's best. It certainly is the world's biggest. If all our planes were parked nose-to-tail, the total length would be

You guess. I'll say it in the next post.

I'll be out of Cockroach Corner in a couple of hours, climbing into blue skiesGod's blue skies, not Wheel'sand headed back toward winter, hoping the new guy gets it right.

Merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.

Looking west toward Colorado Springs. 
Someone correct me if I'm wrong,
but I think the squiggly lines in the undercast
are heat dissipation from departing and 
arriving aircraft.
You know how I love to watch contrail swings.
Here's another. Watch this guy hit the sun.

Quote of the post: Fly it till the last piece stops moving.


Thursday, November 25, 2010


“It's all about attitude, Boss. Ya know? Attitude is everything.”

Mike calls me “Boss” every time we fly. Normally I'd object, but Mike has a great...ah...attitude. It's his way of rendering respect. He's comfortable with it, and thus so am I.

Today, Mike and I are out flying while most people are home enjoying Thanksgiving with their families. Not us. We've got only a turkey sandwich, courtesy of our company, and we've got each other. Mike says, “Let's don't sweat it. We're doing what we we're meant to do. I'm just glad to be alive today.”

Yeah, attitude. I've got to remember that.

When I strolled back through the cabin prior to departure this morning, trying to look like I was enjoying working today, some of the passengers said,
"Thank you for working today," as if I had a choice. I just smiled.

Others said, "Happy Thanksgiving.” I wanted to say, “Thanksgiving? What's that? Is that one of those holidays I hear people talk about?”

But I didn't. I didn't want to sound sour. I just smiled and wished them a happy one. It's all about attitude, like Mike says.

Mike remarked in his Bronx accent that we can make our lives miserable thinking and talking about how things ought to be, or we can revel in what's been given us. When I see Mike's name on my schedule, I revel.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’ve been given something few people will ever experience. MIke and I sat glued to our cockpit windows this morning on the run down to San Francisco from Portland, and back.

Look at these pix and be thankful with me what we saw this morning.

Tamale Bay northwest of San Francisco. 
(The long narrow inlet.)The San Andreas fault 
runs under the bay and exits out into 
 the Pacific to the lower right. On the left side 
of the bay is the North AmericanContinental plate. 
On the right is the Pacific plate. Makes you feel small.
Sunrise in the Bay area as 
we come in from the north.
Headed back out to Portland over 
an early morning San Francisco.
Looking back at the 
Golden Gate Bridge
 Magnificent Mt. Shasta
A volcano in NorCal
Crater Lake Oregon. A classic caldera. I
must go there some day, on the ground.
The shadow of our contrail moving 
north over the Cascades.
Who but mach rangers 
like ourselves can make such
a mark on the world?
But a fleeting mark, it is. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Another Tradition Gone

I was awed when I saw it. Decades ago when I first started up a USAF A-7D, pushed up the power, heard that big Allison turbofan whine and eased out of the parking spot, I looked down at my crew chief and—to my utter amazement—saw him standing at attention holding a perfect salute. I had not seen this done in pilot training, because back at Vance AFB, civilians worked the ramp.

I wondered who he was saluting, me or his plane. He had a slight smirk on his face and I knew he was thinking: I hope that snot-nosed lieutenant brings my jet back in one piece.

That was my first exposure to a long and rich traditional practice in military aviation: the send-off salute. I liked that. It was a class act. I knew the crew chiefs were proud of their work. I saw that salute every time I flew the A-7. And when I got into the Reserve forces and pushed up the tall throttles of a C-130 or a C-141, I saw it again. Sometimes stripped above the waist to a t-shirt, they stood perfectly rigid, elbow straight-out, forearm angling and flat hand glued smartly to their brow. I always returned it. It was a matter of professional pride and mutual respect.

A drawing from our manual.
I rarely saw one this sharp.
And when I got into the airline world—to my happy surprise—I saw it again. It was standard procedure at my company for the push-back marshaller to salute the captain after the tug disconnected. The salute meant that the push crew was clear of the aircraft and the captain was free to taxi. The protocol required the captain to flash his taxi light to acknowledge the salute and release. Most marshallers saluted only because the rules required it. They were mostly lackadaisical about it.

But some—those I suspected were former military crew chiefs—rendered a a sharp, military-style salute. Those, I returned. Sometimes, after the salute, I would even see a flourishing Navy carrier deck style launch signal, which is an artful whirling of the body down onto the knees, arms stretched forward toward the launch direction. I loved it.

Here's how it's done.
But, as it always does these days, change has come. We have now adopted the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) release procedure. The push marshaller now only holds a thumbs-up. The salute is forever gone.

It's gone the way of many of the old traditions in this industry. No more water cannon salutes for retiring captains. No more pride in uniforms. No more special caring for passengers. It's just a job, now.

Every day it seems a light at the exit door glows brighter for me. It beckons: Come on. Your time is almost done. Count your blessings; you've tasted the golden years. Step on through.

I willin due time. And when I do, I'll render a final proper salute, not the limp-wristed crooked Clinton salute, nor the hacking-arm Obama salute, but the real kind. The snappy, pride in your job, and respect for the person your saluting kind of salute. I'll turn and salute the plane.

One of my favorite places on the planet:
Spanish Peaks, Colorado. I've climbed the
west peak (far one) 4 times.
Quote of the post: There has always been a certain romanticism associated with the airline business. We must avoid its perpetuation at Eastern at all costs.
— Frank Borman

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lord, Don't Let Me Get Stapled

Every line of work has its jargon, its insider talk and funny little mumblings understood only by members of the ilk that created them. I've been a part of three of the foremost such sorts: the arcane and highly profane military; the profoundly esoteric oil business; and now the most exclusive of them all—the airline industry. More specifically, the airline pilot business. Why exclusive? Because nobody else is allowed in the “office.” 
So, as I was making my commute home yesterday sitting on the jumpseat of another airline's packed Boeing 717, I chuckled while listening to the banter between the pilots. I impulsively decided to pretend to myself that I was an outsider watching and listening to these two men spouting jargon and quips that never leave the cockpit environs—not because they're arcanely profane or profoundly esoteric, but simply because no one outside the profession is allowed to sit there and watch and listen. What struck me was the way we refer to our competitors. The predominate topic that morning was Southwest Airlines. 
The two pilots were cautiously excited because Southwest had just announced it was purchasing their company. Now, surely they would get a hefty raise to match the Southwest pilots' monthly haul to the bank—the biggest in the industry—plus a vast improvement in their slave labor contract. Between radio calls and comments about their future in the Southwest deal, one of them would mumble “staple.” The other would say, “click.” Cynical chuckles would follow.

I pondered a long time about the two word
s but resisted asking, and I finally figured it out. But I prefer to let some of my readers explain it in their comments.

When I heard them refer to Southwest as “Southblessed” I knew exactly what they meant. For years now, since Southwest's rise to preferential treatment in the news media, the rest of us have perceived (wrongly, I'm sure) that Southwest also gets sweet deals from Air Traffic Control. Co
mmon examples:

Ground Control tells you, “Hold for Southwest.” You look and see that he's taxing toward you a quarter mile away yet. You could easily go in front.

Approach Control extends your dow
nwind leg 10 miles to get Southwest, coming in on a straight-in, in front of you.

Center vectors you off course so that a South
west jet can cross unimpeded in front of you. When you think about how you are twice the size of the Southwest jet salt seeps into the wound. 

And then there's that legendary (and probably fictional) radio call from the Tower that everyone loves to quote: “Aircraft declaring an emergency, standby. Southwest, go ahead with your request.” 
Southwest is beyond argument a great airline, but the rest of us often get a bum rap because the traveling public's expectations of Southwest are low, and thus easily met. Good for them. They know how to do business. Southblessed, they are with a good management team and a good employee culture. But I hope the AirTran guys don't get stapled.

Speaking of amusing airline nicknames oft
en heard in the cockpit, here are a few more:

Jet Blue- Jet Who
US Air- Useless Air

Value Jet- Valium Jet

Air France- Air Fright
BA- Bloody Awful
Northwest- Northworst
Virgin America- Vermin America

Western Pacific- Western Pathetic

American- Sky Nazis
American Eagle- Hitler Youth Corps

United has suffered only a mild insult with the timeless tag, Untided.

No one, to my knowledge, has came up wi
th a nifty nickname for Delta or Continental. Who wants to get one started?

Finally, the trash-hauling corps hasn't escaped descriptive scorn:


Emery Air- Emergency Air 
Fed Ex- Fed Axe (Will someone else explain that one? I don't have the stomach for it.)

Recent snap shots:
Nice outsourced paint job

Contrail mania over Chicago

On a right downwind to the Maui airport.
At least we don't have to extend for Southblessed
out here in the Pacific―yet.
Quote of the post:
When I returned to earth just at darkness I would shut down the engine and sit for a few minutes without moving. I would pull off my helmet and rub the places where my goggles had pressed too hard....I sat waiting for my spirit to rejoin me on earth, because it always seemed I had left it on some cloud and I would listen to the tinking metal of the engine as it cooled and wondered at my extraordinary good fortune.
―Ernest Gann, upon aliting from an aerobatic flight in his biplane

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Judging Jenny

I admit it. I can't seem to break the propensity to pre-judge folks. Usually I predict their behavior and job performance at first sight. I have a long history of this flaw in my character, having fallen in love the first millisecond I saw Eleanor. I called that one right, but otherwise I'm mostly wrong.

So when I first saw Jenny in Flight Ops, I figured the trip was going to be trying. She looked like she ought to be in a house full of toddlers plying the nanny trade. Middle-aged, she was a bit broad of girth and round-faced with an ashy complexion. Hair style was clearly not a priority with her. Her deep Texas drawl was slow and soft.

She mumbled a lot too. She looked up at me from her examination of the flight plan, probably seeing the question mark on my face. "Don't mind me," she sang. “Just talkin' to my self.” I girted up for a solo flight.

The mumbling continued in the cockpit as she made her nest and began her cockpit set-up. I listened intently, trying to discern when a question or a valid comment that required my response might swim out of her prattle. Then I heard humming. I half expected to look over and see her doing needle-work.

Then she stopped humming. I heard a mild imprecation issue forth. I looked over. She was punching buttons on the pressurization panel over her head. I saw the yellow AUTO INOP light glowing. It shouldn't be. She began snarling. I said, “Better call maintenance.” She suggested she “fiddle with it” a while longer before calling the mechanics. I acquiesced and turned back to my cockpit checks.

When I got all my stuff finished I went back and briefed the flight attendants. As I climbed back into the seat I looked at the light. It was off. She was humming away again while jotting performance numbers on a piece of paper. I said, “How'd you get it to go out?”

She stopped humming and looked up at it. Her forehead wrinkled. Her stare turned menacing. She looked at me and slowly said, “I stared it down!”

One hundred percent certain she was telling the truth, I said, “Ohh...kay.”

I flew the first leg, as captains normally do, while Jenny handled the radio duties. She alternately hummed and mumbled, occasionally evoking a question or a comment from me. Conversation finally warmed up between us and I learned she was a self-proclaimed spinster (not surprising); that she lived on, and took care of her inherited farm in east Texas (commuted through DFW); and absolutely lived for her nieces and nephews. They were, she likened, her own children. She never came back from a trip without presents.

So here was a woman, I discerned, who was happy with her lot in life, not to be pitied because she wasn't feminine, and certainly not―as I quickly learned―because she wasn't capable of handling a 757. When it came her turn to fly she was as capable as any I've ever flown with. Surprised at her adeptness with the stick and rudder, I inquired as to her background, something I ordinarily would have done much earlier with most.

She was a former USAF major, a KC-135 aircraft commander, and an Air Force Academy graduate.

The humming and mumbling continued, along with the cute stories of her “children” and I enjoyed this humble woman's company in the cockpit so much I hoped I would fly with her again.

So much, for pilot stereotypes.

I wonder what her first impression of me was. But then, maybe I don't want to know.

You guys made some great comments on the last post. (BTW, I had to switch to comment moderation to weed out spammers.)

Rolling in hot on the Grand Canyon

Quote of the post:
Every other start-up wants to be another United or Delta or American. We just want to get rich.
— Robert Priddy, ValuJet CEO, 1996

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

He'll take you up; he'll bring you down.

Heard of Michael O'Leary? He's a moron, albeit a very rich and successful one.

He owns an airline. His airline is Ryan Air, of Ireland. It's the premier lost-cost flying cattle car company in Europe. But people ride his planes because his prices are nasty, rotten dirty cheap. They're cheap because he is always looking for ways to cut corners. He has cut employee pay to the bone, and can't do much more damage, so he has come up with another idea: DO AWAY WITH THE CO-PILOT.

Now, you know we don't call the guy or gal who sits across from the captain a “co-pilot” in this industry―the military does that. We call them “First Officers,” or F/O for short. The reason we do that is because they do not merely assist the captain, they are second-in-command. Mr. O'Leary wants a flight attendant to be second-in-command. (I think he still calls them “stewardesses”).

Think I'm making this up? Click here and read: Ryan Air
O'Leary told Bloomberg Business Week, “Why does every plane have two pilots? Really, you only need one pilot.” He likened flying a modern airliner to playing a computer game. “Let's take out the second pilot. Let the bloody computer fly it.” Now let's see how this might work. Hmm. 

Okay, I'm descending through stormy skies toward our destination. I'm tired and very lonely, since I'm the only one on the flight deck. This plane needs to go back to the manufacturer so they can move about a hundred switches, buttons and knobs over so that I can reach them. Suddenly I'm feeling dizzy and ill. Must be that rancid kidney pie they fed me, for which they docked my minimum wage pay. So I “ring the bell” that Mr. O'Leary envisioned, and up comes a voluptuous stewardess, giggling and looking back over her shoulder at her peers. Her fists are balled against her cheeks. “I get to fly the plane!” she squeals. Her co-workers clap. “Good for you, Rose. Go get em', gal!”

I hear the passengers applaud and cheer. They're happy. They didn't have to pay for this innovative new safety initiative, and they're getting their money's-worth.
My vision fades in and out as she squirms into her seat, tugging at her mini-skirt. She exercises her fingers.

“Okay, where is the button,” she asks with coy giggle.

“What button?” I ask, fighting to stay conscious.

“You know, the Sully button!”

“The what?”

“Like that American chap. You remember, Captain Sullen-whoever. He landed the plane in the river when the engines went dead. That button!” She looks at me waiting for me to praise her aeronautical knowledge.

“He used this,” I say, pointing to the control yoke.

“Oh!” she said. “Yes, they told us about that. They said when you push it the houses get bigger. When you pull back they get smaller. Keep pulling back and they get big again ."

"That was a joke," I informed her.

She looked puzzled and shook her head. “I don't get it.”

“How did they come to choose you for the emergency pilot training.”  

She gleamed. I was Miss Ryan Air, 2010. I'm on the cover of the calendar.”

I manage what feels like my last breath. “There's no one button, Lassie. There's lots of buttons. Didn't they teach you that?”

“Yes, but I was really tired that day they taught me. Just, like, totally wiped out, you know. Too much partying, you know. We were very excited about getting accepted to Mr. Ryan's stewardess school.”

I try to refresh her memory on the sequence of events and the procedures to get the plane down, avoiding the thunderstorms, calculating the landing and go-around performance criteria, getting out the proper STAR charts, and approach plates, tuning and identifying the proper frequencies, testing the auto-land system...but she interrupts me, her head shaking, eyebrows furrowed. She sure looks cute when she furrows those brows.

“They went over that stuff right after lunch. I was, like, really drowsy. I don't remember much.

“Have you ever even flown a plane?” I ask.

“Oh, no!” she giggles.

“Simulator?” I press.

She blushes. “Captain!”

“Oh! But this one guy in my class, he, like, had some flying lessons once in a Cessna, or whatever, and he, like, taught us a lot!” Her head is nodding assurance to me. Just before my vision goes away, I manage to say,

“Get him up here!”

“Oh, I can't! He's not here. They promoted him to captain. He's flying another plane.”

She tosses her head up and giggles in glee. “Oh! He was so cute!”

I'm fading now. The last vision is the Level 4 thunder cell straight ahead on the radar weather display. As the world around me melts away, the last I hear is a voice from the open door to the cabin.

“Remember, it's just a big computer game, Rose. Keep pushing buttons until―”

Losing consciousness, I become the luckiest person on the plane.

Click here on this Moody Blues classic and imagine they're saying "Michael O'Leary" when they say "Timothy Leary." You'll get the picture.
Sunset over Newfoundland

Quote of the post:
The appropriation of a concubine, I remembered from a certain night in Peking, was a most delicate business.
-Earnest Gann

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Back on the Vodka Express

Russians don't invest a lot of money in air conditioning. I venture to say many of them have never seen it. But summer has now smitten them with a terrible resolve, and there go I into the furnace.

found Moscow hot in ways other than the thermometer can measure.

The heat was utterly appalling. A Southerner, I'm used to wet heat, but I loathe dry, sauna-like hotness that, as opposed to steaming you, parches you. As I strolled about Red Square and its environs I sweated torrents and watched many Russians walk about in shorts, tees and sandals, a rare sight.

The smoke added more misery. Russia is literally burning up. Great plumes of smoke are hanging across Moscow and the surrounding prairies. You could see it even inside buildings. You could smell it―Russia aflame. The drought is their worst in decades and now a world-wide wheat shortage looms because of it―or at least that's the wheat futures peddlers say.

My two F/Os, Mike and Andy, wisely napped through the parching afternoon and took their walks after we had dinner―which BTW was unremarkable. After three trips there I've decided to abandon my plans to open a fine Russian cuisine restaurant in Alabama.

But their desserts can be appealing to some. Mike and Andy reported great “eye candy” in Red Square on their walk. Much to their delight the Russian ladies had retrieved tiny thin garments from their closets, things they probably hadn't worn for seasons. Andy, a bachelor, described one girl as so gorgeous he could have died at her feet happy and fulfilled.

We were equally happy to get away from that miserable air. The air conditioning aboard the 767 never felt so good. We got there early to make ready for the dreaded first ten minutes out of Moscow. But no matter how hard you prepare for that Byzantine departure, it's never enough. It goes like this:

You let go the brakes and start the 7,000 foot roll. The sun is hot overhead but you can't see the end of the runway for the smoke. You go solid IMC seconds after liftoff, and the gear is hardly in the wells when the radio erupts with a cacophony of croaking, spit-spewing Russian commands. Your arms and hands poke and stroke the panels changing frequencies, course, speed, and altitude.

“WHAT DID HE SAY?” Andy, the pilot at the controls, shouts.

“I DON'T KNOW!” I shout back.

From the jump seat Mike shouts “I THINK HE SAID GO DIRECT WHISKEY TANGO...I think.”

We're shouting at each other. The radio is shouting.

The Russians give us altitudes in meters. Mike and I must consult charts to convert to feet. They give us a climb to flight level 1500. I convert that to meters. Andy yells, “THAT's NOT RIGHT! HE DIDN'T SAY 'FLIGHT LEVEL.' HE SAID 'ALTITUDE'.” (It can make a big difference.)

“NO,” Mike admonished. “HE SAID FLIGHT LEVEL!”

Two to one, “Flight Level” wins.

The distraction causes us to miss another Russian command. The radio blasts a rebuke. We humbly comply.

The radio is a hotbed of shouting Russians. The controllers' accents are so thick and their English so limited you can hardly tell when they switch their attention from their countrymen to you. You expect Vodka and spit to drip from the speakers and headsets.

God forbid you ask them to repeat a clearance. By the time they realize you need clarification you're past the fix, or through the altitude; they've got other customers to shout at. While you're trying to figure it all out, the 767 is moving like a missile across Moscow. Hell, it is a missile. Our job is to keep it from hitting anything. Things are happening so fast your senses go into maximum buzz. You're so far behind the jet, it's towing you. Then suddenly, it's over.

Just like that, the dreaded first ten minutes are done. You wipe sweat and slump back. You take a long pull from the water bottle. You're out of Moscow. Ten hours of listening to calmer, less frequent, and certainly less demanding voices lay ahead.

“What was that temperature in Washington?” I asked Mike as he started to leave for his break. He tossed the ATIS down. “Ninety-seven degrees. But we've got air conditioning.”

Makes one think there's a new kind of cold war going on.

проклятье, он горячий!
Stunning sunrise over the GUICK Gap. The eye of God.

St. Basil's Cathedral. I sat down in a grassy, shady spot
and just gazed at it for a long time.

A smokey Domodedovo Airport (pronounced Domo-de-dev-e-ya)

Like me, Mike couldn't resist snapping shots of a rare, clear Greenland coast.
In his "other job" Mike is an F-16 squadron commander.

Stunning sight. Greenland glaciers forming a cross-flow pattern.

Greenland crossing video

Quote of the post:
Man is not as good as a black box for certain specific things. However he is more flexible and reliable. He is easily maintained and can be manufactured by relatively unskilled labour.
— Wing Commander H. P. Ruffell Smith, RAF, 1949

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Boom Boom

You want your flights to be peaceful and boring, because that means they're safe. But when your lead flight attendant introduces herself as “Boom Boom” you know this flight will likely not be mundane. While she talks you think about the last time you heard that name. You were in a far away land, long ago in a place where cultured fighter pilots with an appreciation for the art of the dance, and attired in their Nomex best, politely applauded a talented Oriental lady named Boom Boom. 
Boom Boom, cooked to well-done in the tanning booth, was undoubtedly a woman in denial, well beyond her youth, pretending she was still in her prime. Bedecked in costume jewelery, this walking monument to the powers of Avon was a loquacious master of suggestive innuendo, dropping risque phrases left and right as she prepared the forward galley. When she discovered it was my birthday she swung her cross hairs my way. She would make my birthday a very happy one, she cooed, if only she were on the same upcoming layover, the ring on my finger not deterring her in the least. My first officer, greatly amused by her proposition to me, stood aside and chuckled. 
As we neared push time Boom Boom brought word that a woman in the far back was having conniptions. I went to the mid-ship boarding door where an agent was conferring with the other flight attendants. The woman was a musician and had brought her cello aboard, for which she had purchased a seat. But Boom Boom correctly informed the woman that the only place the cello could ride was in first class seats 1A or 1D, and those seats were taken. Don't ask me or Boom Boom why, but that's a written rule. Whoever sold the woman her tickets in coach should not have done so. 
No wonder the woman was irate. We offered to put her gargantuan fiddle in a closet, but she vehemently refused, saying it would “bang around in there,” a phrase that made Boom Boom beam with approval. The woman and her cello left the flight, presumably to take a later one, but I doubt we'll see her at our airline again. 
That done, we launched on time. True to premonition the flight continued to be far from peaceful, as we bucked and rolled (words Boom Boom would have gleefully used) for hundreds if not thousands of miles, fighting storms and turbulence. There was no rest for us weary ones, as one cluster of thunder bumpers after another appeared in our windscreen and on our X-band scope. For hours the radio chatter was replete with pilots enjoining ATC to give them course relief from the bulging clouds. Left and right, we deviated, over and over again, picking our way through the towering monsters until we found a relatively quiet stretch where we could make a head call. Because of the minimum 2-person in the cockpit rule, we now each were to face Boom Boom alone in the cockpit while the other went back. 
Yet away from the audience of the rest of the crew Boom Boom shed her polished facade and turned normal. She chatted affably about weather, the passengers and her fatiguing schedule until Joe's return. Joe and I had some fun suggesting possible scenarios in the cockpit during our respective absence.
We finally broke out of the weather over the Utah desert and made an uneventful approach and landing at San Francisco. But one of our company jets wasn't so lucky. Following us by a few hours they hit severe turbulence and a number of people were seriously injured. It made national news.

Thankfully, most flights are boring, but that's when the complacency monster creeps in. You've got to watch for that subtle enemy as surely as you avoid the storms.
But nothing is complacent when Boom Boom's aound. Her place is out there among the booming thunder clouds. May my course steer way clear of them both

And the biscuit?

Quote of the post: “Give your plane a little pat when your walk around it. Show it you love it and it'll take care of you.” —Dave DeRamus

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

God's G

You meet at the field at six, near sundown as the Southern sun starts to cool, and gather round and plan the 30 minutes that will define your week. Maybe your month, or life. Maybe end it, too.

You pick a leader. No one wants it but somebody's got to do it, and so today we volunteer Squatch. He hates to lead but we make him lead because he's due. He sighs, his big shoulders slumping. He leans forward, “Okay. Gordy you're Two, Alan Three.”

Steve's pick-up swerves to a stop and he walks up. “You guys planning somethin'? Why didn't you call me? Don't want me flyin' with you, eh?”

“Sit down!” Squatch commands. “We've been trying to call you. You're Four.”

Squatch proposes a plan. We nod and break for the planes—Yak-52s, all of them. Military trainers all from Soviet Russia, planes that trained pilots that Gordy and I trained to fight against. Sweet revenge. We get the spoils of the Cold War, and splendid spoils they are.

Fifteen minutes later the Yaks go rolling out onto the grass from various hangars. The props turn, blue smoke belches and rolls in the prop wash across the green grass and Squatch checks us in on the radio: “Yak check.”
The check-in is crisp and timely. This could be a good one.

We line up on grass runway 9. Squatch drops his head and releases brakes. Gordy's student, in the front seat, Brandt, drops his heels to the floor and pushes the throttle up. The two Yaks roll like they're riveted together and get smaller as they head down field. Steve and I are making single ship takeoffs. I release brakes and whip all 360 horses into a frenzy. I'm pulling the gear up in seconds and rolling into the rejoin.

The two planes ahead grow bigger, fast, expanding in my canopy. In a minute it's time to rein in the horses and kill the overtake. I'm in, and Steve comes aboard. Four 3,000 pound hunks of steel and aluminum hang in mid-air mere feet from each other, softly bobbling up and down.

Most of the people on our field think we're crazy. Maybe we are.

Squatch takes us out over the Flint River Valley in “Fingertip” formation, turning, climbing. He breaks us up and brings us back together—“pitch-outs and rejoins” it's called. Brandt gets good practice. Steve, too. They're both fast learners. Steve is proficient enough to solo on the wing and not cause us worry. Brandt will be there soon.

Then comes the part we've been waiting for. Steve breaks out and holds high. He's not ready for this. Brandt turns his controls over to Gordy and hangs on. Squatch and I break away and separate from them. And then...


I tell Squatch to go Fighting Wing and I roll in on Gordy. I gun him in a few seconds. He's playing it easy—for now. He's a Fighter Weapons School graduate, a “Top Gun.” Knows this stuff. I did it too, but I'm not his caliber. Squatch hasn't done this before at all.

We separate and do it again, Squatch leading the attack, me on his wing. He nails Gordy in short order. We repeat a number of times, Gordy getting more aggressive on defense as we go. In the last fight he's tough prey.

We're using the “egg,” or “God's G” to gain a turning advantage and get inside of Gordy's turn. “Working the vertical,” it's also called. Yo-yo maneuvers is another name for it. The earth twists and crawls around you, rolls overhead and slips back underneath you, then overhead again, like a big tapestry that is unimportant, not worthy of notice because you're after that target, that's also turning, twisting, trying to keep you away from his vulnerable “six o'clock” position where you will administer an unceremonious coups d'état with your imaginary guns.

So, for a few minutes, the town of Gurley watches a Wednesday afternoon air battle overhead and aircraft working Unicom 122.7 for miles around hear a few curt calls like, “Fight's on!” and “Guns, Guns, Guns!” and “Knock it off,” and wonder what's going on, wondering if we we're insanely suicidal or supremely favored by the God of the Surly Bonds.

Gordy and Brandt call “Bingo fuel.” Squatch takes us down Initial for a pitch-out and we plop the four heavy birds onto the grass. We hangar the Yaks and wipe them down as the sun sinks. Sweaty, tired and grinning, we debrief, drink something cool and smooth, and and leave the grass field to go back to the world.

For me, it'll back to the proverbial “Line.” But I'm more at home here on the grass strip.

Sometimes I get cocky and think that our bunch knows how to pack more living into 30 minutes than most people do in a lifetime. God's G does that for you.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lucky Ones

I hate it when I get to flight operations for a trip and see a table laid out with sandwiches, cookies, drinks and such. That means I'm working on a holiday, which I do a lot of these days. The company puts out free food for pilots, ostensibly to express their thanks for us coming in to work while everyone else celebrates—as if we had a choice. I grabbed a sandwich and printed the flight paperwork

We crossed the continent, landed at San Fran, changed planes and launched for San Diego. “Have a nice holiday,” the LAX controller said, as he handed us off to San Diego Approach.

I shot back with my now standard retort to that enjoinment. “Holiday? What's that? I've heard people talk about that. I need to look that up.”

He laughed and said, “I know what you mean.”

It was Memorial Day weekend, and there I was out plowing contrails across America, the Land of the Free―made that way because of a bunch of soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen, some who never came home.

I knew it would be this way when I took the 767/757 captain vacancy. I was enjoying great seniority and a good QOL (quality of life in airline labor contract-speak) as a Pig Jet (737) captain, but the lure of the big iron, the sheer beauty of the 757, and its attendant pay raise captured me into it.

So, here I am working on those holidays and...those other what-you-call 'em's? Weekends, is it? Isn't that when they play ball games, and families get together, and concerts happen, and people go to church? You know, those times when people do most of their living.

But at least I was in San Diego. Not a bad place to be on Memorial Day weekend, but when the family calls you while you're out walking around and says they are all together, cooking out and chilling out and wishing you were there, it really sucks.

I strolled around the waterfront. The USS Midway was crawling with people. They wanted to see its combat legacy. Its flags were flapping and its colors flying high. Parents chased fleeing kids and bored teenagers loped around the ship with I-Pods plugged in their ears. A few old timers with caps that bore the names of their military units stood to the side staring at the the ship and its planes, remembering, perhaps, somebody they knew who didn't come back.

On the wharf beside the ship people hawked T-shirts, caps and ice cream. An old hippie wearing a Che Guevara shirt strummed a guitar singing Stairway to Heaven, still seemingly pissed about Viet Nam.

I headed back to the room to turn in early. I'd be airborne next morning before sunup. And I'd get home just as everybody else in the family finished up their holiday festivities and headed back to college and work.

On the way back to DC, we stopped in Chicago. While holding short, we beheld a beautiful 757, painted just like ours, slipping past us on a crossing taxiway. My first Officer, Rocky, said, “Look at that big beautiful bird, would ya?”

I knew what he meant. I looked. I smiled.

He said, “Boy, those guys sure are lucky, aren't they?”

“Yep,” I said. “That, they are.”

So, there's a silver lining in that lonesome cloud. At least I get to spend those what-you-call-'em days flying these big beautiful birds—for a little while longer. Then I'll get out my unit cap (355th Tactical Fighter Wing) and spend my Memorial Days watching the parades, and remembering a few airmen I knew that never came back.

When I pulled the curtains back on my hotel room window 
in San Diego on Memorial Day morning 
I saw this very appropriate sight.

Some of you commentators had a bit of fun with me on that last post, coming frightfully close to causing me to get short with you. BTW, I heard it again today: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Huntsville.” (We were still 17 minutes out.)

Quote of the post (I actually heard this one, today): “United 896, Chicago Center, there's an area of continuous occasional light chop 40 miles ahead.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Words I Don't Want to Hear

If I hear that word on the aircraft PA one more time, I think I'll cast off my seat belt, jump up, shake my fist and yell, “I DON'T WANT TO HEAR THAT WORD AGAIN! YOU HEAR ME? NOT AGAIN, OR ELSE...”

The passengers will look at me, stunned, mouths agape. The flight attendant will reach for the handset to call the captain. It'll be a “Level I” incident, maybe a Level II. Security will be waiting at the gate to take me into custody. My name will land on the “No Fly” list. I don't care.

Don't tell me we are going to land “shortly.” Shortly is a stupid word that defies definition. Webster takes a feeble stab at it. They say it means: in a short time. But short can't be quantified. Short to me is five minutes. To you it might be 15. To somebody else, 30. Why say it? Why not just say, “We are about to land.”

But then, why even say that? Everybody on the plane knows we're descending. The houses are getting bigger. Spare me that preposterous word.

And here's an annoying practice I hear on the RJ's—seldom on mainline flights: “Our flight today is under the command of Captain Bob, assisted by First Officer Ted.”

Do those sound like cartoon characters to you? Captain Bob? I've got visions of Sponge Bob sitting up there in the left seat. Jeeze! Include the man's last name, for Bob's sake.

I willfully suffer the safety briefing because I know the FAA requires it. The flight attendants have got to do that. But some of the extraneous stuff they do really gets to me. For example: please don't welcome me to my destination before I even get there. The other day, I was welcomed to Huntsville 50 miles out!

I might be painfully wrong about this, but I've lived all my life under the impression that I get welcomed by someone who is there waiting for me to get there, not someone who is traveling with me. So, how about just shutting up about that, okay?

But now, don't think pilots are immune from silly announcements. Here's the one I detest the most: “Ladies and gentlemen, sit back and relax...”

SAY WHAT? Sit back, you say? I can recline my seat back a whopping 2 degrees. My knees are jammed against the reclined seat in front of me. I'm sandwiched between two guys with the girths of a turbo-fan engine, and you want me to relax?

I'll relax if a damn well please, and I don't need a pilot telling me to, even if I could.

Okay. I got that off my chest. What's on yours? 

The last post had some interesting comments and ideas. My comments on the comments: Build more gates? Not likely. Use portable stairs and buses? Makes sense but not practical at most airports. Take the fight to the source of the problem, fine those nasty thunderstorms? Right on.

 Could be a rough ride up there.
Quote of the post:
"Who was the best pilot I ever saw? You're lookin' at 'im."
— Gordon Cooper in the movie 'The Right Stuff,' 1983