Friday, November 30, 2012

Trouble out of Lima

It was past midnight and we were already running an hour late. With almost seven dark desolate hours ahead the fatigue was already seeping into my body like a cancer. I had not slept since awaking that morning at nine am. Of course it was all my fault that I couldn't force myself to get a bunch of sleep in the middle of the day, or afternoon, so that I would be alert for the night fright.

The delays due to minor problems and complications took a quick toll on us up front, and made the passengers cranky. When Tim, my F/O, tried unsuccessfully to clear a status message about low oil in the left generator drive, I called out a mechanic. He punched the very same buttons we did and could ply no magic on them. He called maintenance central for advice.

The word came back: ignore it. It was only a “status” message and required no maintenance action at that time. I requested the mechanic go down and check the oil level in the drive. He said maintenance central said that was not necessary. That's when yours truly made his big mistake for the night. I shrugged it off and said, “Let's go!”

Tim pushed up the throttles and the 767's N1 blades buzzed. We heaved ahead down Lima's long runway. We were heavy and the roll was long. I worked hard focusing tired eyes on the engine instruments. At 100 knots I made the mandatory call-out: “100 knots.” From then till rotation speed—155 knots—we would abort only for engine failure, fire or predictive windshear warnings.

At 105 knots, I saw the Master Caution come on.

I glanced at the EICAS. The amber light read “L GEN DRIVE.” Concentrating on the takeoff, Tim didn't see it, and I didn't say anything. I wanted him to get us in the air, not do something impulsive like initiate a high speed reject.

After we were safely up and the gear was up, I said, “My friend, we have a problem.” He saw the light. His two-word utterance was a commonly heard homily to the god of excrement.

I got out the checklist, knowing what it required. A big warning note read,


I hovered my finger over the drive disconnect button and looked at Tim for confirmation. He nodded and confirmed. I pushed it. The plane lurched and the cockpit lights flickered as the left engine generator shut down. The right generator picked up the load. I started the APU and let its generator share the load. We would now burn the APU for the next seven hours from Peru to the USA.

If the APU generator had not come on line we would have had to dump some 60,000 pounds of fuel into the Pacific and return to Lima. Too risky to take that kind of a trip, across thousands of miles of water and Latin America, where emergency airfields are few and poor. 

With the jet pointed toward home I leaned back and thought about all the people back there trying to get some shut-eye. They had no inkling that if the light had come on five seconds sooner they would have been treated with the terror of being thrown forward against their belts and lashed with the roar of the big Pratts blasting against the reverser doors. They would have deplaned and drifted back to their homes and hotels, scared and pissed.

And me? I Let fatigue and get-home-itis influence my decision not to call maintenance's bluff. I won't do it again.

Watching the setting sun over the Pacific from my hotel room. Sleepless, of course.

Monday, September 24, 2012

His Choice

Can't get it out of my head. I see it when I close my eyes to try and sleep. I see it when I look at a blue sky. I see it when people are talking to me. I don't hear them.

It's only been 10 days and I've replayed it a thousand times.

Down he went, beyond a distant tree line. He would come back up. Yes! Yes, he would come back up. He's okay. He is. He's okay.

Then the smoke.

I shouted. No. Screamed. No. No. No. No. No. I sank to my knees. Cried. Bawled like a baby

The others didn't see it. Their back was turned to it. They wondered why I cried.

I cried for the best friend I had ever had. A friend I knew better than anyone knew him outside his family. I cried for the man who I shared that wonderful machine with. The machine he loved. Said it had changed his life. Said he had never dreamed he would do what the machine had let him do. He made his choice and knew the risks. Accepted them.

I hardly knew him when we decided to buy it. Violated every rule in the book. No agreement. No contract. No nothing but a hand shake. 

And for fourteen years we worked on it, tinkered with it, fixed it, improved it, caressed it, displayed it to thousands, flew it with untold relish.

And all those years, never a cross word passed between us. Not a single argument.

My friend. My friend.

George “Bud” Myers.

I chose the skies
That few have known
To follow where
The winds have blown.

To battle storms
That none have seen
To find seas of gold
And lands still green.

And if some day
I don't return
Don't cry for me
Don't be concerned

For high above
The clouds will sing
For a world I loved
And silent wings.

The Choice
by Geoffrey H. Tyler

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Brooder

I don't relish flying with brooders. They're among the worst kind to share a cockpit with for three or four days. Not that they're bad people or bad pilots. They generally fly well and are knowledgeable.

But the brooder goes for long periods without talking. You sense he is intensely probing something within his thought world. He's turning stuff over in his mind. He's different from the ponderer, the dreamer, the philosopher—he's got troubles. You know you're in for a long trip.

But then—without warning—the brooder opens up. Ah, now you know what's eating him. He's mad at the company. Maybe. Or, perhaps he just sees something interesting, or hears something funny on the radio. Laughs. Talks furiously for three minutes. You welcome the opportunity to engage him. But its over as quickly as it began. The brood is back.

Another thing you can expect with the brooder is fixation on a subject. He will exhibit little interest in what interests you, but he will assail you with what interests him, and he will revisit the topic at intervals between brooding periods. If he puts forth an opinion that he is passionate about you can count on it being resurrected over and over again.

With brooders, you use your peripheral vision a lot—and I mean a lot. You'll be reading or scanning, or whatever, and out of the corner of your eye, you'll watch him. You cut eyes toward the center console and pretend to be looking at the switches but you're really trying to get a better angle on what the brooder is up to without risking eye contact with him. You don't want him to know he is being watched, because—in his mysterious perspective of things—that could pose a problem for him.

Brooders make unusual sounds. The most common ones are sighs. You may also hear heavy breaths being taken in or let out, lips popping and tongue clicking. These noises are usually not associated with any talk or other actions.

His movements tend to be a bit jerky—almost bird-like. You notice a flash of a hand in your periphery and cut eyes toward him, but you're too late. His hands are at rest again. Sometimes he glances abruptly at you, then quickly turns away.

One particular brooder I recently flew with spent a lot of time on his cell phone, fiddling with it, playing games, reading downloads, or whatever. You learn quickly not to engage the brooder when he is doing something like that. Unless it relates to one of his pet subjects, he will not respond. When you see him put the phone, or other object of his intense interest away, he may exhibit a slight interest in what you say or ask.

On layover the brooder often morphs into a human. When he downs a couple of beers he opens up and talks about his life and even takes an interest in yours. You actually enjoy an evening with him. You think you have established a rapport—a friendship even. But you're wrong. Next day he returns to his curious ways.

After the third day of this you start to get antsy. You keep asking yourself, Does this guy have something that's eating at him or does he have a problem with me? You start evaluating yourself. Every move you make, every thing you say now becomes carefully calculated. You start to take on his traits. Now you've become a brooder as well.

The hours turn into days. The end of the trip is a long time coming and when it does, your home never looked so good. You will watch your schedule in the weeks ahead, wary of the appearance of his name on it once again. Happily the next trip out you are back with one of the many outstanding guys and gals you fly with and the brooder is forgotten, until you see his name on your next trip.

And you will.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Chaos in Paradise

Trouble is often an ephemeral presence that visits you, wreaks some measure of havoc, then pretends to go away. You attribute its apparent demise to your skill and cunning in dealing with it, but it only hides nearby and snickers at your naivete.

And that's precisely what it did when we successfully avoided the embedded thunderstorms north of Aruba. And did so, as you recall, with all our radios succumbed to a bout of mysterious, chaotic static during which we could hear nothing. After dodging the storms we needed to re-establish our course to Aruba. The 180 vacationers on board were eager to get to the beach.

Beatrix Control, on Aruba, had finally broken through the static and saluted our deviation around the storm (it was to be done with or without their approval), but their answer to our next question gave us a hint of what lay ahead. Chris asked for clearance direct to AUA, the Aruba VOR station which is located on the airport. The thickly accented Hispanic voice said, “Roger.

“Roger” is not a clearance to do anything. It only means “I understand you.”

Chris asked again, but the man was busy with planes arriving at Aruba ahead of us. We were headed southwest toward nothing but blue water. After repeated tries to get a clearance resulted only in a string of “Rogers,” I turned south to AUA.

The thunderstorms receded behind us but multiple broken cloud layers partially veiled the island. Then welcome but puzzling news: Beatrix asked if we had the island in sight. We had only a piece of it in sight. The weather, though not below VFR, was unusually bad for Aruba, consequentially you would expect an instrument approach would be in order.

Chis reported that the island was in sight. The only response was—you guessed it—“Roger.” So we continued inbound to AUA.

Aruba usually lands east into the prevailing Trade Winds, but that day the winds were westerly, and the only approach to that runway was a VOR approach. We don't do those often, but we're trained for it. A VOR approach would be okay. As we tracked inbound to AUA we set up for it.

Through thin, misty clouds, I saw the north coast with its string of resort hotels—most of our passengers' destinations—slide underneath our nose. Our course ended only a few miles ahead and we were hanging at 6,000 feet with no further clearance. Chris appealed for a clearance but none came. Logic and experience suggested we would be issued radar vectors to the final approach course at the VOR. But logic does not always prevail in some parts of the planet.

The VOR and the airport upon which it sat slid underneath us. Chris and I looked at each other. He shrugged. I decided to hold the inbound heading. It seemed logical that we would pass overhead the airport and turn east for a left downwind to runway 29. But, there was that silly logic thing again. Shouldn't be thinking that way.

As we headed out south over the water Chris finally got Beatrix's attention. “How far south are you going to take us?” he asked.

Their response was, “Say your radial and DME from Aruba.” He told them. Their answer? You know.  

Not good. Obviously they didn't have us on radar and, worse, they weren't admitting it. They resumed talking to other aircraft, while we cruised southward toward the Venezuelan coast. I got jumpy. This couldn't go on. That was dictator Hugo Chavez's territory ahead and it was getting bigger by the minute. Chris called them again, and again they asked our position.

I knew we could get intercepted if we violated Chavez's airspace. His fighters would force us to follow them to Venezuela, he would make a big media deal of it and Chris and I would spend time as guests in his jail. I weighed the options: Clearance deviation (with small possibility of mid-air collision), or Venezuelan jail (with large probability of abundant misery).

The decision took about a nanosecond. I turned east.

We carefully watched the TCAS scope and kept our eyes searching for conflicting traffic. I saw the island off the left side. Beatrix asked us again for our position. When Chris gave them the information and told them we were eastbound, they told us to report on a 10 mile final for runway 29. FINALLY, A PLAN!

We looped around to the west and tracked inbound on the VOR approach. Just as the airport swam out of the gloom two miles ahead, the tower cleared another aircraft for takeoff. The guy was slow to take the runway. The last thing I wanted was a go-around under the conditions of marginal weather, bad radios, no radar coverage and people controlling us who were only pretending to control us. The guy lifted off just as we touched down. I've never seen it that close even at Chicago.

We turned off, found our gate and shut down. I slumped back. Chris said, “Can you believe those guys? They had a radar outage and didn't even tell anybody!”

Yep. I could believe it. 

Ever heard the old expression, Never stop flying a tail-dragger until you tie it down?

Same goes for a 757—especially in Latin America.

Answer to last post's puzzle: Anonymous nailed it.

How about this for an office window view?

Monday, August 6, 2012


NORDO is not my dog's name, but it would make a clever name for a dog. It's pilot-speak for, “NO RADIO.” How can that happen in a modern airliner? It did.

You Mach Rangers out there know the drill all too well: three hours of boredom is often followed by an hour of chaos. (Notice I said “chaos” not “terror.” Terror is very bad ju ju. Chaos is just annoying stuff. The difference between the two defines the professional.)

And, following the rule precisely, the chaos began as my first officer left for a head call. The pretty young flight attendant, Maria who came to the flight deck to guard the door in his absence, was about to acquire the “acid taste of fear.” (I wish I had invented that phrase, but it belongs to the master—Gann.)

I had just finished informing Maria, in a self-serving, amusing manner, that we were over the much fabled Bermuda Triangle. Her eyebrows went up. She began telling me about a scary TV program she had seen about the Triangle only a few days earlier. Before her story ended the radio receiver speaker (we use the speaker at cruise altitudes) erupted in an ear splitting, screeching, screaming din. Maria saw me turn forward and press my mic switch. “Santo Domingo, United 539 radio check, how copy?”

Nothing but a soup of chaotic noise. I tried again. Nothing still. I went to the previous frequency. Same. I was reaching for radio knobs and switches across the cockpit and making unanswered appeals to the cacophony spewing from the speakers.

The F/O came back up. “Tom, we've lost radio contact!” I said. He heard the speakers spewing their shrilling, buzzing clamor. It sounded like a blend of a piece of chalk screeching on a blackboard and a flying saucer sound from and 1950s sci-fi flick. Maria turned white as a sheet as she stood watching us grabbing charts, dialing-in various frequencies and trying in vain to re-establish contact with the world. We even tried New York on HF. But no joy on any radio. The TV show Maria had seen about the Bermuda Triangle was becoming her personal nightmare.

Marie timidly asked if we were in trouble. We told her we would figure it out. Unbeknownst to us, she went back and told the other flight attendants that we were over the Bermuda Triangle and in serious trouble. They all got alarmed. I learned later that Maria was so frightened she avoided cockpit visits the rest of the day; when a flight attendant's presence was required she sent one of the others.

After 15 minutes of useless attempts, which we figured was caused by our antennas icing over in the clouds (not a common thing), I decided we would declare an emergency when we got to our normal descent point, 80 miles ahead. Without a radio, the only way we could do that was by squawking the emergency code, 7700 in the transponder—but we knew that would not alert the Caribbean controllers of our problem unless we were in radar contact. That close to Aruba, we hoped we would be. That was to be hopeless hope.

So that was the plan—squawk emergency at the planned letdown point and start down for Aruba. Then we would change the squawk to 7600, the standard NORDO code. But then another problem popped up. Weather.

An embedded thunderstorm appeared on our radar dead ahead. We had to turn. “Okay,” I told Tom. “We'll squawk 7700 when we make that turn. At the precise moment when I was about to change the code and turn, Tom got a hard-to-read, garbled response from Beatrix Control, in Aruba. They approved the turn.

I spun the heading select knob 40 degrees right and the 757 tipped. The air got rough and Tom made a PA announcement. “Flight attendants, be seated!” We watched the ugly red splotch on the radar display slide to our left. The air smoothed out and we relaxed. Now, we only needed to get clearance from Beatrix control to turn back toward Aruba.

We relaxed too soon. Our troubles were only beginning.

Stay tuned.

We are fliying at Flight Level 340. What direction
are we going and about what time of the day is it?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Attempted Suicide?

Incredibly, only three days after the medical event you read about in Call Me, it happened again. We were approaching the final hour in the Washington-Seattle flight. I was thumbing through approach and airfield pages to select the ones I would be needing soon.

'Dings' (the little single note bell you hear when a flight attendant calls) come often. The first officer usually answers because chances are it's an air conditioning request and the controls for that are on his side. But I can always tell there's trouble afoot by the way he/she reacts to the call. If he answers and cuts eyes immediately toward me I know something unusual is up.

So, you can imagine what I thought when I heard him say, “What do you mean they are giving her oxygen? Who's 'her'? Who's 'they'?” He listened longer, staring at me. “Wait,” he said, “The boss needs to hear this.”

I punched my service button and asked what was going on. “You don't know?” she said, surprised. “I thought the flight attendants in the back called you.” This riled me. Something serious was happening and they had left us in the cockpit out of the loop.

A 25 year old woman lay unconscious on the aft galley floor. Two doctors and two EMTs, all of whom were passengers, were tending her. The two flight attendants working the aft galley―I later learned―were cut off from their communications panel by the mass of people tending the woman. They could call neither the Lead flight attendant nor me. The fourth flight attendant, standing in the aft aisle, couldn't tell what was happening, but at least she could have went to the mid-ship station and called up front to tell us something unusual was going on. She assumed someone else did. 

The Lead flight attendant, whose station is just behind the cockpit has the responsibility of overall cabin management and keeping the captain informed. She didn't live up to her title. Basically, our situation in the far aft of the plane was a mild chaos

All I knew was we had a medical emergency―again.

I looked at the EHSI. Spokane was coming under the nose. That looked like a good place to go. I sent a “CALL ME” message to dispatch. A response flashed within a few seconds and I made contact on a good frequency. That was a big relief after the fiasco I had endured two days back.

While Dispatch set up a conference call with Medlink the Lead tried to fill me in. The woman's boyfriend had been pouring liquor down her since the beginning of the flight. After she was thoroughly sauced he picked at point 36,000 over Coeur d' Alene, Idaho to inform her he was dumping her. She became hysterical and fled into the aft galley lav where she proceeded to swallow every pill she had, which included asthma medicine and ant-depressants. She came out and collapsed. 

The passengers responded, not the crew. The two doctors and the two EMTs sprang to the aft galley and began tending the woman. The flight attendants stepped back and watched. They became passengers.  

The doctors asked for our onboard emergency medical kit, which can only be used by a credentialed medical professional. They had taken her vitals and were giving her medical oxygen.

Then Medlink came up. I passed on the info I had. The Medlink doc asked more questions. I put him on hold. By now Spokane was receding behind our tail. Decision time was coming. I told the first officer to begin preparing for a Spokane divert but to hold off till I gave word. Medlink held while I returned to the service interphone and asked to speak to one of the doctors in back. A very calm voice came up and gave me the info Medlink requested, plus more. I said, “Doctor we are 15 minutes from Spokane and 30 from Seattle. What do you want me to do?” He said, “Let's take her to Seattle. The care there for this will be better.” I relayed that to Medlink and he concurred.

I resumed control of the plane (it was my leg) and the first officer declared a medical emergency. We then had a free pass to break the sound barrier, if we could have. We pushed the airspeed to the barber pole and got permission to bust the mandatory 250 knot limit below 10,000.

A few minutes later we were rocketing across the foothills west of the Cascades at 350 knots, barely 2000 feet above the terrain. Quickly the airport appeared. The last thing I wanted was a go-around so I started the slow down about 20 miles out. They gave us the inboard runway. I planted it, jumped in to the brakes and reversers and had we were in the gate in about a minute. Red and blue lights greeted our arrival, flashing everywhere.

The passengers obeyed their orders to stay seated while the EMTs took the woman off. As she passed by the cockpit I saw she was conscious but delirious, crying, moaning and saying words I couldn't understand.

I called a crew meeting after everyone had left. It was unacceptable that the pilots did not know about this incident until 15 minutes into it. If the woman's condition had been more serious the extra few minutes at high altitude versus descending toward Spokane could have made a critical difference. I told the two who said they were cut off from their com panel to use their authority as crew members to clear the area and do their job. I explained what “assume” meant to the one who lurked in the aisle and watched.

Another report had to be generated that night. I hate reports.

But I love smoking along at 400 mph close to the ground. Haven't done that in many moons. At latest that part was fun. The guy sitting to my right had never done it.

I wonder if the most persistent memory I'll have of this job when I leave it is that obtrusive little sound that can bear any manner of message from: "Your meals are ready," to "There are four men back here threatening to...."


"I knew, like hearing the faint tingling of a distant bell when the ear really awaits a tolling, that tiny excitation of my fear glands...It teased and became almost a pleasurable sensation."
  Earnest Gann
  Fate is the Hunter

I treat you with a Mt. Shasta crossing--and my lunch in my lap.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


No, Pete, it wasn't a water quantity circuit breaker, wise guy, but you're on the trail.

We were descending through flight level 200 when the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) burst forth with its blaring admonition: TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

The flight manual is clear about this warning. When you get it you will execute the CFIT escape maneuver. It doesn't say check altitude (we did). It doesn't say look out the window to see if there are rocks about to rise up and smite you (we did). It doesn't say discuss whether this could be a false warning. (We didn't, but our facial expressions to each other effectively communicated that idea).

Oh yes, CFIT=Controlled Flight into Terrain, a highly imprudent maneuver.

The escape maneuver? A harrowing max power 20 degree deck angle climb.

So, what goes through my mind as this dire harbinger of our impending gloom pounds our eardrums? TOO LOW! TERRAIN! How can anything go through your mind when you are being shouted at except for the shouts? And, ironically, that's the whole point of designing the GPWS to shout.

I knew our altitude was 20,000 feet. I knew the mountains we were over were less than 10,000 feet, and even if I was wrong about our geographical location, I knew there were no mountains in the Lower 48 states that are over 14,500 feet. Of course I could have been wrong about which continent I was over, and that may have happened once or twice in my career. But one thing was certain, I was not going to execute the escape maneuver and scare the hell out of 185 people as well as put the engines through a torturous spool-up. I deviated from the flight manual. Broke a prime rule. Knew it. I nodded to Chris to just continue our descent. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

As the powerful shouts from our speakers pounded our ears I threw off my belts and got out of the seat. I saw Chris speaking into the microphone. He was shouting to NORCAL Approach Control. “SAY AGAIN, PLEASE!” He couldn't understand their transmissions. I knew the flight attendants sitting on their jumpseats right behind the cockpit could hear the GPWS warnings; knew they were probably expecting to meet the maker at any moment. I knew even the passengers in first class could hear it. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

The warnings were eating at our concentration and causing us to miss radio calls. Even NORCAL and every other aircraft on the frequency could hear the GPWS when Chris keyed the mic. A lot of people perhaps thought they were hearing an aircraft about to crash. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

I groped for the correct circuit breaker. There are a gazillion of them on that overhead panel. I crouched behind the pilot seats and swept my eyes across the vast field of the tiny little knobs that looked like long lines of tiny toy soldiers standing in formation, with some itsy bitsy lettering below each one identifying it. I spotted the radio altimeter breakers. YES! Those must be it! I pulled them, knowing very well I had broken my second prime rule: Thou shalt not pull any circuit breakers unless directed to do so by thy maintenance facility. I pulled them. It didn't work. TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

I glanced out the windshield. There was SFO off in the distance. I heard Chris shout into his mic, “FIELD AND BRIDGE IN SIGHT!” Now I felt like Slim Pickens in that unforgettable scene in Dr. Strangelove where the B-52 copilot yells, “TARGET IN SIGHT. WHERE THE HELL IS MAJOR KONG?” Kong is standing atop a hydrogen bomb fiddling with electrical circuits. “I'll git these bumb bay doors open if it hair-lips everybody on Bear Creek.” TOO LOW! TERRAIN!

I kept searching. Chris shouted back at me. “WE'VE GOT TO CONFIGURE!” He was right. It was time to stop chasing errant circuit breakers, get ready to land and endure the deafening warnings. Then I spotted it—the GPWS circuit breaker. I pulled it. TOO LOW! TERR

Blessed silence. I clammored back into my seat. Chris made a perfect landing, we taxied in and shut down, and tried to calm the nervous people near the cockpit who had braced for their violent demise.

That night I spent much time on my laptop filling out incident reports, including my decision to declare “Captain's Emergency Authority” (CEA) for not executing the escape maneuver and pulling the circuit breakers without permission.

The company must self-report these types of deviations to the FAA . The Feds will review it. CEA will afford me immunity unless they think it was blatantly unwarranted. No news will be good news.

While I wait for the “no news” I'll craft the next Decision Height post to tell you about what happened the very next day. It was deja vu (all over again). But worse.

(Stay tuned, Fatquiver.)

And watch how coolly Major Kong handles these things:

He didn't file his reports.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Call Me

Just a few minutes short of six hours, it was—the Boston-San Francisco transcon. We joked. “Who's takin' the first break?” Chris shook his head. “Man, this is damn near a Boston-London run, without a relief pilot.” He yawned. I looked out across the Great Plains, then at the clock. I yawned. We were about half way. Then came the 'ding' that that turns you on your head.

Captain, one of the flight attendants in the back wants the paramedics to meet her at San Francisco.” My antennas went up. I circled my wagons. This spelled trouble.

She went on to explain. It seems the subject flight attendant had recently been tested for possible heart ailments. Now she was experiencing periodic stabbing back pain. She feared a looming heart attack, but didn't want too much attention. She could sweat it out to destination, she said.

My first thought was, where are we setting down if this turns worse? Denver lie 180 miles ahead and south of our course. That was the obvious place. I asked Chris to set up a conference call between our dispatcher and RadioDoc (made-up name). As he went about that, I thought about the earlier times when our company had its own medical staff. Whenever we called for advice we recognized the doc's voice (there were several of them). Those guys were well versed in aviation medicine—ex-miltary flight surgeons—and often gave us our physicals. Now, no more. The medical department was closed years ago and the staff fired.

Chris sent the ACARS message to Dispatch: “CALL ME.” Within seconds the message popped up. Frequency 129.4. Chris tuned in the frequency and tried to establish contact. But the frequency was full of static and a squeal so loud he could hardly understand the dispatcher. He swapped radios; tried dispatch on VHF-1. No joy. He asked for a different frequency but the dispatcher's reply was garbled. Chris tried to tell him we needed a RadioDoc conference call. More static. More squeals. More garbled voices. 

Then the ACARS printer spewed out a form. It wanted a bunch of information on the “patient.” I called back to the Lead and asked her for the info. With Chris shouting into VHF-2 trying to communicate, the lead flight attendant on the interphone spewing info to me, and me trying to monitor Denver Center on VHF-1, the hand basket slid closer to hell. My blood pressure started to rise, but I reminded myself that we were not in the process of crashing. Life will go on—for now.

Finally I got the info and handed it to Chris. He tried to read it to the person on the other end—we didn't know who that was. RadioDoc is a clinic somewhere that supposedly has contracted with our company to provide in-flight medical advice. The woman we heard through the static and squealing was talking too damn fast. She didn't understand radio-speak and had no idea we couldn't read her. I wondered even if she was a physician. Might she be a physician's assistant? Nurse? Candy-stripper sitting at home with her babies?

Chris, patience stretching thin, literally shouted into his mic: “GIVE US A DIFFERENT FREQUENCY!”

Twenty minutes into this goat rope, I noticed Denver passing abeam us. If we couldn't get the medical opinion we needed to assess this woman's condition, would it not be prudent to play it safe and divert to Denver? What a hell of a costly stop that would be. But suppose we passed up Denver and this woman was indeed in more serious trouble than she herself realized? In times like this I tend to notice the four stripes on my shoulder when I look aside, and they feel heavy

A new ACARS message flashed: “LET'S TRY 131.80.” Chris swiftly switched to the new frequency. It was just as bad as the first one. This was now more serious a problem than our medical situation. Without radio contact with Dispatch we are totally independent and cannot get the info we may need in any emergency situation. Your dispatcher is your link to the world, to safety. He gives you everything from weather and performance data to field conditions and game scores. You feel naked without Dispatch contact.

As Chris tried in vain to make sense of the voices on the other end of VHF-2, I began planning our divert to Denver. I decided I will not risk the woman's life and my career by bypassig a safe harbor in the throes of doubt. I was about to press the mic and tell Denver Center to clear us for diversion to Denver when Chris seemed to start making progress. He had to tell the woman to slow down her talking. After asking more questions she advised us to put the flight attendant on oxygen and continue to San Francisco while keeping an eye on her for changes or worsening.

What a relief. Chris signed off with Dispatch and slumped in his seat. I stared ahead and thought about how close we were forced to come to wasting tens of thousands of dollars and causing 185 people needless hours of delay.

The paramedics met us and examined the flight attendant. They found her fine. She merrily walked with us to the layover hotel.

But that wasn't the end of they day's ills. In only one hour after the RadioDoc fiasco—before we landed—the weight of the four stripes would be felt again when another kind of hell broke loose and I would be exercising “Captain's Emergency Authority.” That means, literally, breaking the rules to stay alive.

Stay tuned.

 Funny virga. Why that one little spot?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


This is the worst part of the all-nighter—an hour and a half to go, just before the horizon ahead begins to glow. We've done well so far in the dark journey from California. A late meal, the day's paper, the daily crossword and some lamentations about the endless management/labor war have all served to keep us alert. But now we begin to feel the fatigue festering behind our eyelids.

I look over and see Andy looking out and down. He's studying something intensely. He looks back and notices I'm watching him. He jerks his head toward his window and smiles. “Columbus.”

I nod. “Yup. Nice town. I hope they're—“ [yawn] “—sleeping well down there.”

Andy seems pensive.

“Funny,” he mumbles. “Every time I fly over Columbus I remember something. Comes back to me as vivid as can be, but it was a long time ago.”

When it happened Andy was just starting out in this profession. He was a pilot for a small freight outfit flying Navajos and Barons. He had just finished a long hard day of flying that included an early get-up and a lot of weather work. He was glad to feel his wheels touch down at the home plate. But the props had hardly stopped when the boss came out and said he must fly a load over to Indianapolis and then come back. Andy told him he was too tired, to get another pilot. The boss said all the others were out on assignment. He was the only one.

When he first hired on the boss had showed him two log books to keep up. He said, “This one is for us. This is how we pay you. This other one is for the FAA. Make sure you don't exceed their duty limits.” Andy was young then. He needed that job to build his time.

Andy gave in. He helped load the Navajo and took off. The night wore on. He couldn't believe how tired he was as he offloaded the stuff at Indy. On the way back home he could hardly fend off the deadly nods. Then came a break in the clouds, and there, on the nose, a cluster of lights, warm and inviting. Columbus. He flew over the university, then saw the airport below. He had landed there many times. He knew the folks at the cargo center. They worked round the clock and they had a nice quiet pilot lounge with magnificent, soft recliners.

He suddenly canceled his IFR clearance and cut the power. He spiraled down and landed. He shut his engines down and went to the lounge. He called his boss and said he couldn't make it any farther, that he would sleep a few hours in Columbus and bring the plane back in first thing in the morning. The recliner sucked him into its safe, peaceful folds and he fell asleep within seconds.

Alas, but the part about landing was a delusion Andy often indulges in. He never did that. He pressed on through the night and took the plane home. Didn't have the courage to do what he wanted to do, needed to do. Yet his many passings over Columbus in the years since and the thoughts of sleeping in the lounge that night continue to be so compelling he practically feels he actually did it. 

And now Columbus is to him a symbol of a safe haven never taken; a paradise out of reach; a salvation not appropriated.

“Oh well,” he mumbles again. “I was young.”

I nod and reflect on my own sins of omission. We were all young once. We all paid our dues in this business. Some paid with their lives.

We all have our own Columbus. 

The magic of the craft has opened for me a world in which I shall confront, within two hours, the black dragons and the crowned crests of a coma of blue lightnings, and when night has fallen I, delivered, shall read my course in the starts.
— Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, 'Wind, Sand, and Stars,' 1939

Monday, June 18, 2012


While I work on my crossword puzzle my first st officer, Chad, chats with our jump-seater, who is a pilot at a small regional airline. They're discussing the future of the profession.

I'm more concerned with 68-across, a four-letter word for “site of many scrapes.”

Their topic turns to the problem of where all the pilots are going to come from to fill the looming “great pilot shortage.” (You long time readers know what I think about that. Go here: The Skies of Wrath.)

They don't seek my opinion, apparently sensing it's neither available nor reliable because of my status as a dinosaur. With two years to go till retirement, I'm FIGMO. (Ask your local Viet Nam vet what that means.)

While they speculate, opine and lament, I notice the horizon beginning to turn milky gray. I switch on the X-band weather radar. Sure enough—just as the route briefing prophesied—a band of embedded thunderstorms blocks our eastbound path across Minnesota, embedded meaning they are shrouded in stratus cloud. The Mark-1 eyeball does no good in evading these types of thunderstorms. You need the trusty X-band.

I thought of the article I had read in AOPA Pilot only the day before. A numb-nuts Bonanza pilot had flown through a thunderstorm. He managed to land the plane but it was so twisted and buckled his insurance company totaled it. He bought another Bonanza and again flew it into a thunderstorm. He took that one to his repair shop with popped rivets and buckled skins, and sheepishly told the mechanics, “I did it again, ha ha.” They repaired it. He went back up with three passengers and attempted another penetration. The third time was not a charm. They found body parts and Bonanza pieces scattered over 15 miles.

I'm certainly not the Bonanza idiot, but I know the thunderstorm ahead is no respecter of the stripes on my shoulder, the magnitude of the metal I ride, or the multitude of hours in my logbook. I interrupt the discussion and ask Chad to get us clearance to deviate left, toward a gap in the cells. We turn the Fasten Seatbelt sign on and order the flight attendants to get seated.

As they resume their discussion of how the old order of aging military jocks-turned airline pilots (that would be me) must inevitably give way to legions of eager pig jet pilots spawned by regional airlines (them), I achieve a profound epiphany, 66-down: one curl or push-up

Yes! R-e-p. Now I have a clue to the last word.

Suddenly Minni Center intrudes on my muse and the guys' bull sesion. A Boeing 737 is approaching in a climb at 12 o'clock. The controller assures us the 737 will level off 1000 feet below us. I lean forward and peer into the gloom. So does my seeing-eye copilot. Nothing but gray tendrils of swirling cloud. I switch the scan down to 40 miles. A little diamond comes at us on the scope, the vertical separation -1700 feet. I look back out. Nothing. I switch the range to 20 miles. Now the diamond approaches us at a quicker pace. Vertical separation -1400 feet. He's climbing fast. Will he miss his level-off? Will he overshoot? Are the guys in that cockpit discussing the future of the profession and not monitoring their altitude?

I switch to the 10 mile range. The diamond shoots at us. Now -1100 feet. Now -1000 feet. Now -900 feet. Is he overshooting his altitude?!?! I grab the control yoke to be ready if the TCAS commands a conflict resolution maneuver. The vertical separation returns to -1000 and stabilizes. We strain our eyes out ahead into the dull gray abyss.

There! Red and orange. The ephemeral form of a 737 swimming from the misty soup below and to my left, flashing by like a specter and vanishing into our six.

I slump and relax.

Chad turns back to the jump-seater and they resume their talk about contracts, routes, and aircraft acquisitions until they exhaust all speculation about their future as airline pilots and descend into private sessions of soul-searching.

I suddenly jolt them from their broods. “GOT IT!” They look at me with arched eyebrows. “Knee!”

I jot in the last word and deep-six the crossword. My day is made.

Theirs is only beginning. I hope they have a nice career.

Was this a good arrival procedure, or what?
Fooled the duty thunderstorm at MCO again.

What can you conceive more silly and extravagant than to suppose a man racking his brains, and studying night and day how to fly?
— William Law, 'A Serious Call to a Devout and Holly Life XI,' 1728.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Smilin' Jack

Last year a guy named Jack and I were enroute from Dulles to O'Hare under a clear and abundantly starry sky. We saw a brilliant object coming out of the west, obviously high overhead. We shook our heads in amazement. It was far too big to be an ordinary satellite, yet had no characteristic flashing strobes a plane would have. And it was in the wrong part of the sky to be Venus, which had hoodwinked me before. (Read This Time of Night.)

As the object sailed overhead, the thought hit me. It had to be the International Space Station. The solar panels on that thing were huge—the size of a football field if memory serves. Jack perked up. “Yeah! That's got to be it!” Jack ought to know; he's been to the edge of space himself.

Months later I was on a longer trip with Jack and got to know him better. He's not the usual F/O. He is a smart dresser, even on layover. No jeans or tennis shoes. His uniform is immaculate. He has let his hair grow out since Uncle Sam employed him, but it stays neat—not a strand out of place. So as to keep it that way, Jack goes hatless.

He articulates softly and clearly, sans profanity, and likes to shake hands with everybody he meets—bartenders, waiters, mechanics, bums on the street. Despite being older than most of the guys I fly with (late 50s) he sports boyish looks, smacking of shyness but hinting of slyness. I suspect he never goes bingo fuel on the tank of on female companionship. He's a retired USAF colonel. A nicer gentleman, you'll never meet.

Oh yeah. Almost forgot. He flew the SR-71 Blackbird.

“How high you been in that thing, Jack?” I asked, adding, “If you can say.”

He smiled. “Over 85,000.”

That was almost twice as high as I had ever been at the controls of an aircraft. I grinned back. “Can you see the earth's curvature up there?”

“Oh yeah!” Another, even wider grin.

“What's it like?”

Jack just shook his head. “Beautiful.”

 “What about the sky color? Blue or black?”

He seemed to meditate, then looked over and smiled. “Very dark blue—directly overhead. Almost black.”

A minute or two later, after I pondered going that high and seeing that, I posed the next, inevitable question. “How fast have you had that puppy?”

I wondered why I had to pull these things out of Jack. He seemed glad to answer but didn’t volunteer much. I eventually realized that Jack's holding back was simply modesty about his achievements. He didn't want to convey the impression he was boasting about piloting the Blackbird.

How fast? The grin re-appeared, bigger than ever, like a teenage boy who had just dated the most train-stopping gorgeous girl in the school, and I was his eager buddy trying to find out what happened.

“Mach 3.3.” Then he added with a loud cackle, “But I wasn't supposed to push it that fast!” 

That was exactly three times as fast as I had ever flown an aircraft.

When we got to the Las Vegas layover, Jack—a professional bachelor—told me how he and his fiance met. They were shortly to be married. It was the stuff of Hollywood. He had dated her for a while back when he was pushin' the Blackbird. She worked for a contractor. Then they drifted apart.

Later years found him buying drinks for some young pilots at a unit reunion when he spotted her across the room. His jaw fell agape amid a Blackbird tale. The group watched him put his drink down and go to her. He said he knew the first ten seconds would decide if they had a future together. (10 seconds = 3.7 miles at mach 3.3.) Jack knew the answer when he saw the sparkle in her eyes. He had soared into space at last.

As to the remainder of his career, he lamented that he will probably never be a captain. He got started in the airline business too late. One of the regrettable downsides of the seniority system is the loss of potential cockpit leaders like Jack. He harbors no regrets, though. He seemed one of the most contented people I've ever flown with. He even whistles while he's making a landing.

Lucky too. The hotel gave us each a $5 credit at the tables. One hand took my five. Jack left with $45 after only one hand. Blackjack/Blackbird. Close enough. Jack was the man.

You've read about many different personality types and backgrounds in this blog of the people I fly with. Not many of them have a logbook like Jack's, but most of them are pilots I'm proud to share my cockpit with. I'll accept that as a suitable substitute to seeing the Earth's curvature.

North Florida: Here's what the X-band showed.

Here's what the Mark-1 Eyeball showed.
Viva la X-band!