Monday, July 7, 2014

'neath the Southern Cross

When you see the Southern Cross
For the first time
You understand now
Why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from
Is so small.
But it's as big as the promise
The promise of a comin' day.

The Cross is hard to see except on a clear moonless night, and it's not prominent, like Orion or Cassiopeia or The Big Dipper. The ancient Greeks called it the "Crux," a name it still goes by. But as the millennia went by the Crux sank into the southern hemisphere and became forgotten by the northerners. Today, you've got to go way south to see it.

You won't see much, yet it sits there with a subtle presence staring down at you. Its graces have followed me and watched over me for decades as I've prowled the Southern hemisphere from Antarctica to Brazil. Tonight I bade it so long for the last time.

Mendoza lies ahead. It reminds me of that unforgetabble line from St. Exupery’s Night Flight. It’s where Fabien’s wife looked out their widow as he dressed for a mail flight from which he would never return. “Look,” she said, “your path is paved with stars.”

Meddoza is famous for being the source of the world's best Malbec and last night we partook of it along with some succulent Patagonian grass-fed beef. Rusty declared it the finest meal he has ever eaten.

Rusty is my youngest son. He came along on this, my
Rusty stops by the cockpit while boarding.
next-to-last trip, just to taste for himself of Buenos Aires' culinary delights I've told him about over the years. He was not disappointed. He will likely experience more good Argentine cuisine tonight. I had to leave him behind.

All day long I kept checking the passenger loads for tonight's flight and each check reassured me he would get a seat. Then at the last moment the plane filled and there were no seats left for SA's (space available travelers). The last I saw of him, he was getting into a hotel van.

It was tough leaving Rusty behind. But he is a big boy now and well capable of taking care of himself. I really enjoyed having him along. But the ebony skies over South America seem a little lonelier tonight than usual. The Crux comforts. It will look over him too.

And with him left behind I suddenly became apathetic about passengers. I didn't make a "welcome aboard" speech and my "seatbelt off" announcement was terse and forceful.

Ding. "You are free to get up, but keep your seatbelts fastened at all times when seated." That was it. No niceties about weather, ETA and certainly no "sit back and relax" invitations. Those people bumped my son off the plane.

I don't get it. What do they do? Just sit around until two or three hours before the flight departs and say, "I think I'll go to the United States tonight"?

More likely though it's my company's pathetic IT system. But enough of that. Some of you are accusing me of indulging too much in the art of the whine.

We are heading west tonight out of BA toward the Chilean coast. This is new. By breaking toward the Pacific waters before heading north we avoid the dry cells along the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone over Amazonia. Rumor has it we learned this technique from our competitor, American Airlines.

I harbor no regrets tonight about leaving my final contrail across South America. I'm ready to be done. 

I've been pushing jet aircraft around for 42 years. It started with a T-37 "dollar ride" over northwest Oklahoma. It ends next week with an Atlantic crossing to Frankfurt. The other two sons and the wife will be on that one--with positive space passes (promised, but we shall see). Somebody else takes the bump. 

My last flight in a 757 took place two weeks ago from Chicago to San Diego. The weather was perfect and I got to see the majestic Desert Southwest from the windswept heights (where never lark or even eagle flew, BTW). Memories unscrolled as we passed West Spanish Peak in Southern Colorado which I scaled with each son on separate climbs, except that weather forced Rusty and me down before reaching the summit.

Then we skirted the Sangre de Christos where my brother Joe and I foolishly climbed an icy Mt. Crestone with hiking sticks and an old rope between us. Without ice axes and crampons the rope only guaranteed we would both fall and likely die if one of us slipped.

Further on we passed over the Arizona highlands where I spent three days pondering whether to leave the active Air Force. While there I tagged along and watched my old friend and fearless hunter Dave skillfully use his elk call to stalk another elk hunter skillfully using his call.

Minutes later I was still glued to my side window looking down at the bombing ranges near Gila Bend where I flung my eager A-7 through footless halls of air--blowing stuff up. And over yonder was Baboquivari Peak which I once thundered over at 450 knots inverted and looked up at hikers looking up at me.

Then came the descent over the resplendent mountains east of San Diego and the transition to the infamous Localizer 27. Visibility was deteriorating in the setting sun and the runway didn't break out until we were about abeam (and about the same height) as the elephants and zebras in the zoo passing off our right wing. I told the F/O I would dip a tiny bit below the glide path (because of the short runway), but I promised him I would not do a touch-and-go on the multi-tiered parking garage off the approach end. The F/O said, "Go ahead and do it. Southwest does it all the time." I laughed so hard I thought I would botch the landing, but it was perfect.

The F/O had kin in town so he split. As I exited the terminal to catch the hotel van three young Marines, fresh out of the USMC boot camp beside the airport, yelled from across the street, "GOOD AFTERNOON SIR!" I wondered if they thought I was a naval officer. No matter. I yelled back, "GOOD AFTERNOON MARINES!" Seeing their smiles and them proudly wearing those uniforms was the perfect end to a perfect day.

So here's hoping for a perfect end next week to a non-so-perfect career, but one with no regrets.

And may the Crux be with you always.

What idiot at city hall would approve this? And what idiot pilot would take this shot and put it on the web? Rest assured, not I. (Pilots have been fired for this.) This is a Google search image.

The walk-away shot from my last 757 flight. It sits in San Diego after a perfect day.


AA278 said...

I'm guessing that Crosby Stills and Nash only saw the Southern Cross while eating some very potent brownies! I've looked for the 'Cross on my Santiago flights but couldn't pick it out from the multitude of other stars. Maybe it was getting too light before we got far enough south.
I mean this in the nicest way but to some degree you ARE sounding a little like a bride two weeks before the wedding. :-) I, too did a lot of looking out the window my last couple weeks...

Alan Cockrell said...

I don't always see the cross even when it is up but I clearly saw it the last flight. The company just announced Houston Santiago service beginning in December. Sorry I will miss that.

Anonymous said...

A few more words will take a day or two. For now, Well Said and heck yes, your son, Rusty will be just fine. An extra day or two in BA won't damage anything. Thanks for telling it like it IS. -C.
P.S. With a little squint, The Cross easily appears.

Anonymous said...

I have really enjoyed reading your blog. Will miss it, but I know you and Eleanor will enjoy your retirement. Congratulations on birthday and retirement coming up soon!

Anonymous said...

you have many wonderful memories of your career, but life is NOT over when you retire, it just changes the things you do!

wayne in louisiana

Bradley Smith said...

As a pass rider for over 20 years on your carrier, I can feel your pain. You wonder how 20 empty seats disappear in a matter of hours. Still for someone without access to the res system back when, it's much easier these days with the intranet availablity, except when all those seats disappear at the last minute. ;-)

Alan Cockrell said...

Amen to that.

lowflybye said...

1 down and 1 more to go Captain...looking forward to doing more flying with you when we have no schedule or immediate destination.

lowflybye said...

1 down and 1 more to go Captain...looking forward to doing more flying with you when we have no schedule to keep and no immediate destination in mind.

Anonymous said...

Best wishes for a great 'final,' Alan. I too wonder about those vanishing seats, but the drivers never know those details. I hope you are making some notes about your feelings in the days leading up to your last commercial trip, to be shared afterward with the trip report itself. Was happy to learn that the trip worked out and with ++space for your family. I'll just assume that the 'stranded' son has returned from B.A. God, in all his many forms, looks out for those who have given so much. Thank you for your many years of USAF service and yes, your regular readers hope for a series of post-scheduled flying comments from The Master. Best wishes, Captain, -Craig

Anonymous said...

Alan, I wish you the best of luck as you transition from the airlines. I have been reading your blog for years, and, along with your book, I have thoroughly enjoyed finding how your experiences aren't really all that different from mine and many other aviators. From the con dorms at AMC scheduling untethered fun in an extremely maneuverable and taxpayer funded platform (A-7s for you...C-17s and T-6 II's for me) seeing the world over only to realize that home is home and there we must go after the last engine winds down.

Enjoy the NATS those last few times. Forget the ACARS and give Gander and Shanwick a few extra SELCAL checks/HF reports for old time's sake.

A final salute and tip of the hat on a great career. Well done sir!