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!


Dave W said...

Hello Mr Cockrell,

what a lovely story (and what a lovely blog - I have only just discovered so I have a wealth of back material to work through..)

I never cease to be amazed by peoples' stories, you ask the right questions and they often tell in the manner you describe - my former neighbour (RIP) sailed the Atlantic in the convoys in WWII and after walking his dog I used sit and ask him questions and marvel at the replies - thanks for reminding me of him this day.

On an aviation note - love the dual pics of the weather/radar - really puts the wx display into perspective... Is this the reason you are crawling along at M.59 at FL250?

Apologies for the long comment!

Dave from the UK

Alan Cockrell said...

You are an astute observer of detail, Dave W. We were actually in a step-down descent into Orlando, assigned 250 knots.

Bas said...

Hey Captain Cockrell,

The e-mail I receive when you post something keeps bringing a smile to my face! Thanks!

Most of us can only imagine what the view would be like way up there, yet at 35,000ft the sight can be amazing too right!? :)

Have a great week,


Anonymous said...

Hi Captain,

A great story about a great aviator - no doubt.
Reading things like that always leaves me puzzled, thinking about how no passenger ever thinks about us up front really doing all we can to keep them safe and comfy. We're bus drivers. I obviously am closer to one than Jack is.

It also baffles me how many amazing aviators there are, who flew the most secret, most advanced pieces of metal in the sky, and then are never going to be a Captain in an airline. It's all about the rules though.

Thanks for the great story - I will pass on a link to some friends who fly regularly - I am sure it will make them wonder who's upfront the next time they step through the cabin door.

Best Regards,

capnaux said...

Good stuff, Captain. So many humble "legends" out there! We're fast losing that WWII generation that was full of them. And yes, how ironic that some of the best of the best are sadly stuck in the right seat! Sad times right now for those in our field...

I think there's a typo: "How FAST you been in that thing, Jack?” I asked, adding, “If you can say.”

He smiled. “Over 85,000.”

I'm thinking you meant "How high?" no biggie though, great story!


Alan Cockrell said...

Thanx Aux. Corrected.