Sunday, November 13, 2011

Loggin' Light Years (Part II)

The two pilots complied with the checklist as the aircraft read it to them, while Bob continued to visually monitor the taxi progress. He saw multiple launches taking place on the runway 18L complex far to his left on the southern horizon and recoveries flowing in from his right into the 18R tiers.  Approaching the entry point he could see the broad downward sloping ramp to the 27LL tunnel. A sub-orbital narrow body was powering up for its break release on the middle tier. On the top runway Bob could barely see the fins of two regional jets accelerating away in formation. 

Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head at the thought.
Innovative ideas had been put into practice to deal with airspace separation limitations, some not so rational, he mused.  Ironically, one solution was to put planes closer together so that in effect they occupied the same piece of airspace for takeoff, breaking away later to their respective destinations. Remarkably there had not been a single formation related accident in the years they had been doing that but the training costs were enormous. He knew that old procedure was finally coming to an end, and just ahead of him was one reason why.

The two pilots carefully checked for obstacles as the 957’s
nose swung onto a yellow line turning off of the main route, much as a railroad engineer didn’t steer but monitored the progress of his locomotive entering a side rail. The upload pad lie ahead where two regional jets waited on each side of the 957’s path. In a few minutes both smaller jets were lifted and securely attached to the wings of Bob’s mothership. Bob and Jennifer complied with all the aircraft’s instructions and confirmed that the parasite crews were ready. Jennifer pushed the ready icon. A clearance flashed on their CRTs from the O’Hare tower. Bob initiated engine start.

He taxied the big ship into the tunnel just as a supersonic transcon flight rolled in the runway above their heads. When the takeoff clearance flashed in their HUD-shields Bob initiated takeoff sequence and Jennifer confirmed.  The ship heaved ahead.

Lights in the runway 60 feet below began to scroll underneath them and soon the lighting in the overhead structure started to race by. Suddenly the cockpit windows changed from clear to tinted as the laser brilliance of daylight burst on them. With his hand hovering near the sidestick controller Bob monitored the rotation and liftoff. The Air-Boeing’s voice recommended gear up. Bob initiated and Jennifer confirmed.

After an intermediate level-off at flight level 180 they released their RJs in sequence, watching them fall slowly away and bank toward their destinations. Then they received clearance for sub-orbital acquisition. 

Bob double-checked that the fasten seat belt sign was on and locked. He remembered the captain who forgot about it ’53 and got a frantic call from his purser that a thousand or so passengers were floating.  Some giggled and glided like Superman through the cabin while others fretted and groped for some solid object to stop the tumbling. After that incident all seatbelts were modified so that they could not be released unless the captain’s switch was out of the locked position.

The nose rotated and the big ship comfortably accelerated. Bob and Jennifer looked through their HUD-shields as blue changed to black and stars appeared by the zillions. They watched as the ship rolled 180 degrees to wings level inverted and saw the green and ochre Yucatan Peninsula drift overhead. Far above their heads, silhouetted against the sapphire Caribbean, they saw the multiple thick contrails of the Trans-American tracks connecting North America with the thriving economies in the South. He remembered flying those routes earlier in his career when he rendezvoused with company tankers to take on a precisely measured amount of fuel to optimize his burn. That was another of the desperate measures airlines contrived to conserve every ounce of fuel. But its efficiency never proved out, and air refueling―long a staple of the military―was short-lived in commercial operations.    

To the south and far below he saw the sun glinting off the
wings of a cargo train inching its way across the stratosphere. The air freight companies had resurrected an old concept, towing. Their widebody freighters towed two and sometimes three pilotless glider-freighters behind them. Pilotless aircraft were not new. The last manned military aircraft had been retired almost a generation ago, and some overwater cargo operations were remotely controlled. Passengers, however, still demanded humans in their cockpits, and a few automation failures over the years had proved that to be wise. 

Now that 20 minutes and half the 10,500 mile trip was behind him, Bob felt the call of mother tummy. He dinged his purser, asked about the crew meals, and was promised receipt of same, soon.  

The few minutes he had now before descent was his only chance to relax and reflect on the waning days of his career. While Jennifer busied herself with re-entry preparations he thought about seeing what he was seeing for the last time. Sure, he would see the curving arc of the Earth’s circumference again―from a passenger window when he and his wife took their trips in retirement. But it would never be the same. 

Already he had reservations for a lunar vacation in two years―the soonest he could get them. But when he heard about the first Wal-Mart store going up in Tycho Crater City, he thought he just might cancel and wait on the Marriot Grand Martian to open. Even if he could somehow afford that trip, it wouldn’t excite him like flying this great sub-orbital cruiser did. 

He had seen much happen in his time. He had watched aircraft engine technology go from the ill-fated experiments with nuclear steam powerplants back in the twenties to the highly successful solid fuel jet engines developed in the forties. 

He remembered scoffing when ESOPS was approved in 2042. He had vowed never to fly a single engine airliner across the ocean, but eventually he logged hundreds of blue water crossings in them. (continued next post)

We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror.  
--Marshal McLuhan

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