Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Monkey Business

More years ago than I wish to recount I was sitting in an auditorium full of USAF officers. A beak-nosed, beady-eyed colonel was lecturing us about the growing problem of military pilot retention. (The airlines were on a hiring frenzy because of expansion and retirees.) 

“Why,” the colonel asked us rhetorically, “would any pilot leave the dignified service of our Air Force and our country to become an airline pilot?” He spat the words airline pilot with resentment and contempt.

He came down from the stage and swaggered into the aisle. “We need our pilots to stay in the service of the country who paid for their training.” He looked around, as if searching for those of us who were pondering treason.

“You can teach a monkey to drive an airliner.”

He paused and paced. Our eyes followed him. “And why do they do it?” he asked, eyebrows arched. He held his hand out and rubbed his fingers together. “Money.” He rotated his body so all could see the rubbing fingers. “They prefer money to serving their country.”

I regretted not asking the bastard which monkey he would prefer to be the pilot of the jet his wife and children next flew in. But I didn’t. I didn’t have the guts.

I had served plenty of years in Uncle Sam's cockpits. The tax-payers had gotten their monies-worth. My thoughts turned to the airline application I had been toting in my satchel. That night I filled it out.

As the years have sailed by the need for the old and noble skills of the stick and rudder persuasion has taken a back seat to the mundane and much less glamorous decision-making process. Have we become, in the colonel's estimation, more monkiefied or less?

Yesterday's events offer a clue. We ran slam up against a long line of viciously building embedded thunderstorms. The sky ahead turned to a soup of swirling gray tendrils and got darker every minute. The preflight weather briefing indicated this system would lay low but Mother Nature had once again suckered us. The X-band displayed a line of behemoth red soldiers marching abreast with no room to slip un-noticed between them.

The frequency buzzed with anxious pilots asking this and that of the man down in Minneapolis sitting in a dark room, his face alit with the green glow of his scope. They went left. They went right. They probed the line.

Our ACARS printer spewed messages from Dispatch. The line ended 150 miles north, they said, but there may be an opening 50 miles south. The X-band offered no encouragement for either suggestion. The soldiers came closer. The man at the console wanted our intentions. We decided to head north, to buy some time.

The air was still smooth. Our first class section was finishing its meal. The movie was about mid-run. They were all happy back there.

But for those of us in the front office the worries mounted. The X-band showed the line of storms marching well beyond its range, into Canada. We began to ponder whether we had the fuel to go that far off course.

Then a hole opened at our ten o-clock. Visually, there was no hint of it, but the X-band wouldn't lie. Would it? We studied it as it slid toward our nine o-clock. It appeared to be 40 miles across. We knew we were required to maintain 20 miles separation. If we took it we would be at the limits. The storms on either side of the hole were intense. They were full of red with only a thin crust of yellow and green. Meteorologists call this a steep gradient―an indication of a strong storm.

We told the man at the console we would take the hole. We told the flight attendants to strap in and I spun the heading select knob to a 270 degree heading.

Spinning that knob is a simple task. A monkey could easily be taught to do it. Then the monkey can sit back and strip off his banana peel oblivious to the maelstrom on either side of him. We weren't.

Our eyes shifted left and right. No visibility either direction. The red giants marched past our wingtips. We braced for the turbulence. We hit only a few ripples, then the gray gloom ahead burst away into a searing blue Montana sky. We were through. Our destination, Seattle, lay straight ahead.

It was time for our bananas.

USAF AWACS crossing over us

Recently, at an airport security checkpoint:
Me: What exactly are you looking for when you point that flashlight-looking thing at my ID badge?
TSA person: I don't know. They just told me to do it. (giggles) Don't tell anyone!