Sunday, March 20, 2011

Curt's Bad Day

At various times along the way I've written stories about other captains. Keep in mind that I can only get these second hand since I don't fly with other captains. First Officers like to unload on me about the bad flights they've had with certain captains. I hear their names regularly. “Captain Strange Glove” comes to mind. They call him that because he wears military Nomex flying gloves. That's only one of his many eccentricities. (He just returned from anger management counseling.) But let me tell you a story about another one, one I actually know.

Curt was that captain's first officer that day. Curt had no military experience. He had “come up through the ranks,” as they say, flying small airlines, and finally breaking into the big leagues. He had no—what should I call it?—“aggressive” flying experience. (By that I don't mean stunts and pushing the safety limits, but simply challenging oneself to do the more difficult tasks.) His captain, on the other hand, had plenty of it. A bit of unpleasantness between the two surfaced one fine day in Salt Lake City.

It was the captain's leg. They were on a high left downwind when they were cleared for the visual. The captain looked over his left shoulder and decided to make an “energy efficient” approach. To do this, you chop the power at just the right time, usually close to the runway, and throw the gear out to get some serious drag. Then you begin to slow down rapidly. As you come down and slowdown, you milk the flaps out one step at a time as airspeed allows. The goal is to reach 500 feet above the ground at full flaps, on target airspeed and on descent profile. Too high or too fast and you're out of there.

As the captain began the maneuver, Curt became nervous. He said, “I don't think this is gonna work.”

The captain uttered, “Lets take it on down and see if it works out.”

As the runway came into view Curt said, “I'm not comfortable with this.” (Safety specialists call that kind of statement a “red flag.”) But the captain continued. At 500 feet they were too fast and too high. Sometimes things don't work the way we plan them. The captain correctly initiated a go-around.

The tower cleared them for another left downwind visual. The captain was determined to get it right this time. He ordered the gear down a bit earlier than the first approach, figuring that should do the trick. He chopped the power and rolled in on the runway as if to bomb it. Half way through the turn Curt yelled loudly, “I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS! YOU'RE DOING THIS TO ME AGAIN!”

The captain told him to relax, things would work out all right. Curt fidgeted. They came down like the proverbial rock but met all the necessary parameters (barely) at 500 feet. The captain  spooled-up the engines and they made a normal landing. On the taxi to the gate Curt was visibly distressed, breathing heavily, sweating, shaking his head and mumbling. The captain glanced over at Curt and regarded him as a Nervous Nelly.

When the passengers had disembarked the captain went out onto the loading bridge and overheard Curt telling someone on his phone (wife presumably) about what happened. Curt hung up and said. “I'm considering removing myself from this trip with you.”

The captain knew he had done nothing wrong procedurally, except misjudge his first approach. The go-around decision was correct. But he knew he had violated Curt's trust. He apologized and said he would never put Curt in such a situation again. Curt demonstrated enormous maturity and professionalism—traits the captain lacked that day—and accepted the apology. The rest of the trip went very well, with Curt and the captain even enjoying dinner together on layover. And, they flew again on several other occasions.

I know that captain very well, and I know he learned a valuable lesson that day. He thought he had a good knowledge of what they call Cockpit Leadership and Resource Management. He had even led a seminar on the subject with a large group of military pilots and crew members. But he realized he didn't always walk the talk. He got better after that day.

I wonder what they call him now. “Captain Go Around”? “Captain Watch This!”?

What would you call him?

The "Super Moon" coming up over the Bermuda Triangle
Eye of God?

Above the planet on a wing and a prayer,
My grubby halo, a vapour trail in the empty air,
Across the clouds I see my shadow fly
Out of the corner of my watering eye