Friday, February 25, 2011

Such Men II

I steered the Six-seven onto the runway in Rome and told Hank it was his jet. I let go the tiller. He grabbed the yoke and began whispering. I leaned closer to try and understand what he was whispering. I glanced at Shuan, who was on the jump seat. He was watching Hank, snickering.

Then I made out his whispers. “Lord, don't let me prang it off! Lord, don't let me prang it off.”

I cracked up. I could hardly acknowledge the tower's call clearing us to take off.

Hank was a comedian. The guy looked like Bill Murray. Even talked like him. No kidding. His quips had me holding my sides for three days. He would rip off the ATIS printout, read it, grunt, and shake his head vigorously. “Un uh. Nope. I don't do sidewinds. Can't remember which wing goes down.” (Hank was a former Navy pilot.)

Other than being entertaining, Hank knew Rome very well and led Shaun and I around to the best spots. We saw some marvelous sights and supped supremely. Hank was a self-proclaimed adventurous eater. At lunch he bought a sack of smoked porkatello, which was carved from the pig as we watched. While we strolled among Rome's ruins he stuffed the stringy meat into his mouth like cotton candy. At dinner he ordered squid fettuccine cooked in squid ink. His plate of pasta was pasty black. I gutted up and sampled some. It wasn't bad.

I always get a kick out of the stories I hear about other pilots, and Hank had them aplenty. His favorite subject was “Splash.” Seems Splash lived on a sailboat in Florida. That didn't seem so bad—until he said the sailboat spent nine years in dry dock, with Splash living aboard.

Yes, the boat was under repair for that long, and Splash chose to live aboard. It actually wasn't even in dry dock. The marina went out of business and Splash's boat sat in the abandoned parking lot propped up on jacks. He went up and down on a ladder. His power came from an extension cord stretched to the marina office. Splash climbed down and went to the office bathroom when ever nature called. He once fell off the ladder, broke his arm and was out on sick leave for weeks. When finally he finished the work on the boat, Hank asked him if it was worth it to wait so long. Splash said, “Sure.”

After the boat finally returned to the water he fell overboard while his friends were partying below. He treaded water while they turned the boat around and searched for him. They saw what they thought was a cocoanut bobbling in the water, but it turned out to be the ship's skipper.  After that, he changed his name to “Cocoa.”

Not surprisingly, Cocoa's troubles followed him into the cockpit. He was a very structured person and didn't suffer abnormalities well. Hank said Cocoa's brain exploded whenever something went wrong―a very un-pilotly trait. Long was the list of those who called in sick to avoid flying with him. Hank recalled one night while they were waiting out a long delay in the run-up pad Cocoa told the captain he needed to close his eyes for a few minutes. 

Then Cocoa leaned his seat back and pulled out a black hood with a draw string at the bottom. He pulled it over his head and pulled the draw string tight around his neck. It looked like a hood over the head of a man about to be hanged. Hank and the captain watched in disbelief as the material puffed in and out as Cocoa breathed.

Not to worry. Splash/Cocoa will never captain your plane. He washed out of captain's school—twice. The second try was so bad they sent him back through first officer training.

Thus begs the question made famous by the Bridges of Toko Ri: Where do we get such men?

Lord only knows, and He ain't sayin'.

Unfortunately our union seems to overly protect them. But thankfully there are very few of them. The vast majority of our pilots are super sharp and, like Hank, almost always avoid pranging take-offs.  

Discovery's final flight. 
I took this pic this afternoon. The view is looking east toward Cape Canaveral.
Our timing was perfect. The passengers crowded the right side of the plane.
Such moments as these: we live for them.