Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I like to grab a coffee, stroll back and mingle in the few minutes I have after setting up the cockpit for departure. I want a respite before the turbines spool-up and the electronic voices from my earphones begin spewing their enjoinments.

Since the 757 loads amid-ships (don't you love it when I talk navy?) I get a clear aisle in first class. I chat a bit, answer a few questions. Even grumps get civil when they see a pilot pause take an interest in them. I don't do this to make my company look good; I do it for me.

I also look for kids to invite to the cockpit. But the last several years of doing this has taught me not to bother asking teenagers. You likely won't get the courtesy of a verbal answer. They will only shake their heads, and may not even look up at you from their lightning fast orchestration of thumbs against tiny keyboards.

I've often wondered which of their curious emotional states are responsible for this behavior—overwhelming fixation on their texting tasks, or a reluctance to demonstrate they are interested in anything outside their tiny sphere of reference. Even if they are, it's simply not cool to be inquisitive about things that excite younger children or that adults are interested in.

And so it is to the pre-teens to whom I gravitate with invitations to visit our Jurassic aged Boeing cockpit. Sadly even they have succumbed to the spell of the Google god and the Apple alchemy. 

A few days ago two of them in first class curtly rejected my offer to go forward. So I ventured deeper back into the 757's bowel. It was busy back there—they were still boarding. But I noticed a kid about five rows back who had severe Down syndrome. When his mother noticed me I asked if he would like to visit the cockpit. She hesitated, then nodded. I halted boarding at the door and waited for the aisle to clear.

The boy, whom she called Andy, weighed at least as much as she did. His age was hard to determine. He could have been an adult.

I expected him to get up and accompany her forward, but it became evident he couldn't walk. He winced in pain when she maneuvered him into her arms and stood up. I was stunned to see her carry that boy to the cockpit and carefully place him in my seat.

Again his face became contorted with pain as she sat him down. The first officer, Karl, tried to help her, but she waved him off. She had her method. Then she backed away and raised her camera for a picture.

Andy's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates; his mouth fell agape and a guttural cry came out so loud that I'm sure the kids back in first class heard it. Probably snickered. But it was a cry of fascination and joy—I saw it in his big round eyes. Andy's head bobbled around as he tried to take in all the sights of the cockpit accoutrements. His babbles were gibberish to us but sweet exclamations of delight to the mom.

Then she wrestled him from the seat and heaved him up to her chest, holding him like a big baby with his head looking back over her shoulder. She passed me and said “Thank you.”

“No!” I said. “Thank you.”

She was gone before I could say any more, but what I wanted to add was this: “Thank you for showing all of us what unconditional love looks like.”

I noticed one kid in first class actually looked up from her phone with wide eyes and gaping mouth, watching Andy go by clinging to his mother as she carried her precious burden back to their coach seats.

I stepped back toward the cockpit door and passed by a flight attendant wiping tears out of her eyes. Karl and I just sat for minutes after that, not saying much—just thinking about Andy and his mom, and waiting for the push signal.

The sky was bluer that day. The ride smoother. We didn't complain much.

Never Forget
American flags flies permanently over Boston Logan Gate C-19
where Captain Victor Saracini and First Officer Mike Horrocks
 departed on their final flight, September 11, 2001.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


We got the issue solved with the guy in 23B (see last post) and roared into a brilliant Virginia afternoon. The sleek, beautiful and magnificent creature they blandly and with empty imaginations call the “757” dutifully responded to my every touch, slipping along in the upper flight levels at 475 True. After a quick stop in New Orleans we pointed the Boeing toward Los Angeles and chased the setting sun. I sat mesmerized by the colors out ahead of us, the star-studded blackness overhead pushing the orange glow into a diminishing horizon.

Then Mike's comment gave me a minor jolt. “Look at that fuel imbalance.”

I looked up at the overhead panel. The left tank had fallen a thousand pounds lower than the right. I checked that the crossfeed valves were closed. They were. I stared a while at it and looked at Mike. He shrugged. I looked back at the sunset, now bothered.

I looked back at it. Now 1,100 pounds lower. “Leak?” Mike said.

Possibly. A slow one maybe; yet any leak in the engine nacelle could be serious—if that's where it is. I yawned. “Let's keep an eye on it.” The book says we don't have to get out checklists and start praying until the imbalance reaches 2,000 pounds.

With a few more miles of Texas behind us I noticed Mike's eyebrows lift toward the gauges. Mine followed suit. Now 1,400 pounds. Mike peered across at me. “Want to start balancing?”

"Yeah." I reached for the pump switches. Then I saw it.

“AAAUUUGGGGHHH!” Big dummy! “Look at that!”

I pointed at a green light that read APU ON. I had forgotten to shut the APU down after engine start. It had sat back there in the tail running contentedly for two hours, sucking fuel from the left tank and wondering what the heck we wanted it to do. I shut it off. Mike chuckled.

Then a ding—a call from the back. They've got no water. “None?” I bark into the handset. None, she said. We had no water pressure in any of the ship's galley and lavatory water faucets—seven of them. I asked what the quantity gauge read. She told me 44 galons. I didn't know if that was normal or not. Mike affirmed it was.

What to do? We had four hours of flying ahead of us and 184 people who needed water. And we didn't have a checklist to cover that situation.

We sent a message to our maintenance center. They asked the quantity. We told them. For the next 30 minutes messages went back and forth between us and them, punctuated with calls back to the flight attendants asking them for this and that and to do this and that. Nothing worked. 

Then the maintenance guy asked me to recycle the water quantity gage circuit breaker—but they added that I will have to use “captain's authority” to do it because it is not a standard procedure. I sent a message back to them that I would not touch that circuit breaker with a 39 ½ foot pole. We would have to do without water.

Recently one of our captains recycled a breaker, for a minor problem, at maintenance's request—a seemingly simple and proper thing to do. But when the FAA found out about it they filed deviation against him for not making an emergency landing at the nearest airport. That's what must be done when ever “captain's emergency authority” is evoked.

I resolved not to fall into that trap for the sake of some running water. Then in the midst of all this busy-work I heard Mike say, “Uh oh!”

I saw him point at a warning light that read, LT HYD QTY. We looked at our hydraulic quantity gauges. The left was rapidly falling toward zero. Now, we were looking at a genuine emergency landing. I immediately thought about where we would go. Houston was off our left wing, 90 miles. Houston, it would be. Mike reached for the emergency checklist.

I was about to ask for a clearance direct to Houston when the quantity returned to normal and the warning light went out. We looked at each other with the raised eyebrows of puzzled men. Oh well. Gage problem, obviously.

Another ding from then back; another message from maintenance. The water problem was beginning to annoy me. I issued a decree. We would worry with it no more. I told them to put water bottles and Handiwipes in the bathrooms.

The message printer stopped. The dings from the back stopped. The hydraulic quantity never moved a whisker the rest of the night. The fuel stayed in balance and the man in 23B was another hemisphere away.

We began looking froward to the long layover ahead and upon getting there entering into a discussion of a great American patriot: Samuel Adams.

This guy was our problem.

Beak to Beak