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.