“Get Off My Plane!”

Humans basically suck. Wait, that’s not exactly my opinion about such. I love people, I simply think humanity sucks. Why would I say that?  One has to simply read the news (and only as it pertains to airline travel) to come to the same conclusion. What’s that you say? Passengers acting like jack-asses on airplanes? Say it isn’t so! But I’m afraid it is so. I’m afraid it’s been part of “the deal” of commercial aviation since Orville and Wilbur were cruising around with an extra body on the machine with them.  So what’s changed in the last 100 years? In my opinion, the following sums it up perfectly. I once heard a flight attendant, you know the folks that have to put up with 99% of this nonsense, describe it to me like this: “Neiman Marcus taste on a Walmart budget.”

How do I feel about a “passenger Bill of Rights”? You really have to ask? Here’s the basic deal. For the fee you are paying my airline (and hence to me) I promise to: fly you from point A to point B without a scratch…period, end of sentence. Are you paying for split-second on-time service? Are you paying for a “fine dining experience”? Are you paying for more electronic gadgetry than your average teenage gamer owns? I truly wish ALL of these things on your next experience with air travel, but for the same amount of money for airfare as decades ago (adjusted for inflation), if you get NONE of those things (other than the Point A to Point B thing), then you are still way ahead of the game.

Case in point; years ago I had a lady in my face, screaming at me (yep, the spittle was flying) because I wouldn’t launch my little Beechcraft 99 and fly her through a line of thunderstorms. I calmly spoke to her about the limitations of bad weather flying, etc., but she was having none of it, and the spittle-bath continued.  I offered her an alternative. “Mam, I mean no disrespect (well, maybe just a wee bit), but if you would like to travel from here (Knoxville, TN) through the length of Tennessee and most of Arkansas to Ft. Smith like they did in the last century, then be my guest.” She had the “huh?” look staring back at me; so I was forced to feed her a small dose of history. “You know Mam, bouncing along for a month in a Conestoga wagon, being chased by savages and cholera?” She neither got my point, nor appreciated my sense of humor. Mattered not, ol’ “Mr. Cumulonimbus” prevailed that evening and we rolled into Ft. Smith after midnight.

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(A Scheduled Skyways Beechcraft Model 99 on the ramp at Tulsa, Oklahoma circa 1980.  Good old N5SS, I spent many an hour in her loving arms. Photograph courtesy of Ellis M. Chernoff.)

The human experience of riding on airplanes can be worse than riding the bus nowadays; trust me, I get that. As us “boomers” will tell you, it didn’t used to be like that (even when I began as a professional pilot way back in 1979).  Back then, the planes were usually about ½ full, thus allowing one to spread out and not be smashed into a jet cabin like sardines. Truthfully though, people just seemed to just be more civil toward each other back then. Although air travel “for the masses” is obviously a great thing economically, it can be a huge challenge when you put hundreds of humans in a tight tubular beer can, and make them behave for several hours on end (while serving them liquor no less…lol).

As recent news media coverage shows, taking an airplane trip can sometimes become nightmarish. Are the airlines sometimes at fault? Of course they are! But in their defense, very few people have the slightest concept of the complexities of keeping the whole parade marching in the right direction! Try not to forget, when the airliner parade gets wonky in New York, it WILL affect your jet coming to LAX take you to Tampa. Remember the toy named “Slinky”? What happens at one end of the “snake”, eventually makes its way to the other end. And no (contrary to popular belief), the airlines do not have “spare airplanes” sitting around waiting to be used. Do restaurants cook “spare T-bones” to just sit around in case someone needs one? Of course not…that would be amazingly stupid. In the airline biz, if it’s not in the air, it’s not making money…in fact, it’s costing you money. Trust me, everyone from the CEO to the lowly ticket agent scanning your boarding pass, wants your jet out of the gate on time!

The bottom line is this: if you fly enough times, things WILL get pear-shaped! It’s just a fact of life. O.K., genius, with that amazing piece of “wisdom” spewed forth for all of humanity to marvel at, what would your worldy advice be after 40 years in this madness? Learn to relax, learn to breathe, chant your mantra, think of puppies and balloons…hell, I don’t know. Whatever lets you stay in your “happy place”…99.9% of the time, there is just no reason to act like a jack-ass.

Second case in point; one evening I was at the gate podium (looking regal, like my job dictates), and a nicely dressed passenger (obviously a businessman) was tearing the poor ticket agent a new orifice because she would not upgrade him from the cabin with the “unwashed masses” up to First Class. She had calmly explained to him (more than once) that First Class was full, that there simply wasn’t a seat available. He wasn’t hearing it, and was being a class-A knucklehead…time to use the “Captain’s voice” and step in. I put down the flight plan, stepped in front of him and asked if there was a problem, and could I help? He did his tirade at me for a moment, and then stopped as he saw that my “I don’t give a sh*te” expression had not changed. I offered this, “Sir, have you not heard this nice lady explain to you that there simply are no chairs available in First Class? I suggest that you accept that fact, and sit in the seat this lady assigns to you. Or…the other option is for you to NOT go for an airplane ride tonight. Do I make myself clear?” He replied, “Yes”, and wandered off to crawl back under the rock in which he came from. Apparently, he was far more “deserving” of the big seat in the front of the jet, than the person that he wanted the agent to pull out of said seat. Narcissism (and it’s evil twin sister “entitlement”) has been perfected to a fine art form nowadays. To quote someone that had a bit of an issue several years ago: “Can’t we all just get along?

I penned this piece several years ago, but since then I’ve had a few more “episodes” that I thought needed to be added. I titled it “Get Off My Plane” to share a few yarns about some of the times that I’ve had to throw someone off my airplane (or been a part of this act). The level of stupidity that some folks show on airplanes (and at the airport) is legendary. Thankfully, when things do go awry in the world of wing-transport, the vast majority of us do indeed act like humans and not morons…and for that I give a huge “thank you”.

 

                        “Get Off My Plane!”

 

A locally famous news story told of an elderly woman in her vehicle about the time of the morning rush hour. As she was speeding down the freeway on-ramp, a disgruntled driver cut her off, swerved toward her, and forced her over to the grassy shoulder. He approached her open window, proceeded to reach in, and pummeled her with his fists! Isn’t it just lovely what humanity is capable of doing? To make a horrible incident even worse, this person turned out to be a (wait for it) physician on his way to work! Makes me wonder what happened to “First, do no harm.”? Shortly after his episode of violence, he boarded an airplane and fled the country. Justice was served however, for when he returned to the United States, he was immediately brought up on criminal charges. He is now doing some sort of community service for his little “indiscretion”, thus paying his debt to society. Needless to say, it stands to reason that his poor victim will be scared by this until her end of days. One question…I wonder if his mal-practice insurance covers this type of event?

The Psychiatrists call it “road rage”. We’ve all heard of it, some of us may even have been a victim (or perpetrator) in this collective insanity. Where did it start? It matters not. What’s causes such behavior? Who the hell knows? How about just being a member of the human (rat) race. For decades, this sort of anti-social behavior used to be mainly confined to the earth-bound sect, but things have changed for those of us that do our life’s work in orbit. We in aviation are privileged enough to have our own version of this nonsense; we call it “air rage” (I’m certain some highly paid bureaucrat came up with that one). Recent events got my juices flowing recalling the incidents of “mis-behavior” that I’ve witnessed over the years on my aircraft. The following will be a (short) compilation of some of the ones that stand out. As the title suggests, many of these individuals were either pitched off the jet before launch, or arrested upon landing.

I grew up in the era when airline travel was something special. We dressed for the event, were on our best behavior, and felt like it was something to be enjoyed and cherished (not simply endured like nowadays). My first airline flight of memory was New York to Frankfurt in a TWA Constellation in the mid-1960s. My father was being transferred from Fort Lewis, Washington to whatever “kaserne” was used at the time by the U.S. Army in Nuremburg, (West) Germany. He was to pilot his helicopters around Europe (thus protecting us from the red horde poised to come pouring through the Fulda Gap), and my dear mother, four siblings and I were enroute to join him. Once seated on that beautiful red and white airliner, I was amazed at the world I had just entered. I distinctly remember the red cloth seats, folded curtains on the windows, friendly stewardesses dressed in their tailored uniforms, and the sounds (and rumbles) of the four big Wright 3350 engines as they came to life that evening on the ramp in La Guardia. It was all so magnificent, and we were bathed in a feeling of departing on some grand adventure.

Lockheed_L-049_Constellation,_Trans_World_Airlines_(TWA)_JP7293287

(The TWA L-1049 Constellation…grace and power in one package. Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor.)

The story changes there, for an hour or so into the journey, the cabin crew settled into their routines and served us a meal in the little plastic cafeteria-type food trays. Being your average nine year old, I wolfed it down without pausing to taste what I was actually eating. I then guzzled my carton of milk, and settled back to listen to the engines drone, all the while straining in an attempt to eves drop on the adults having their post-supper cigarettes and cocktails. The twilight had given way to ink black darkness, and somewhere in the vicinity of our “coast out” point over Newfoundland, we entered a weather system. At this point, the flight became a night-long ride on the State Fair roller-coaster. We were enjoying a version of the ugly weather that the north Atlantic can dish up for ship and plane alike. Cruising at our massive altitude of 20,000’ or so, did not allow the Captain to climb above the turbulence. Nowadays, in the big Boeings, I routinely saunter up to FL390 and watch the lightning dance its duel below me, casually sipping a cup of hot coffee in smooth air. But that would not happen on this night, and we paid the price.  I spent the next few hours in the cabin of the big metal bird, bouncing along back and forth, all the while watching (and hearing, and smelling) the chubby kid to my left loudly depositing his dinner into a conga-line of sick sacks.

Obviously, things are a bit different these days. My first encounter with “air rage” was totally unexpected. I was a year into my commuter airline career, and as a brand new Captain was sitting in the left seat of the venerable Swearingen Metroliner boring holes in the skies over the southern USA. At 24 years old that “fourth stripe” was weighing pretty heavy on the ol’ shoulders. The realization that now “the buck REALLY does stop here” was somewhat of a shock, but I was getting used to it. In terms of folks acting like idiots on flying machines, simply stated, I expected all adults to act as such while in and around airplanes. Boy was the next 30+ years going to prove me wrong. Remember if you will that this sort of incident was a pretty rare occurrence way back in 1980.

On this particular day, the First Officer and I found ourselves in the midst of a lengthy delay at our home airport in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a typical Spring thunderstorm-encrusted morning, but we had managed to fly a round trip to Tulsa and back, and were now mired in a lengthy delay for our departure to Little Rock. The weather had “unleashed the dogs of war”, and was playing havoc with any attempt at running our intended schedule on time. The obvious answer was to kick back in the baggage room behind the ticket counter, and get some R & R before our next bout with the cumulus monsters. That’s when we heard the shouting begin.

METROLINER

(The venerable Swearengin SA226TC Metroliner. We liked to call it; the “trauma tube”.)

We looked at each other with the requisite “wtf” look on our faces, and immediately headed through the doorway toward the ticket counter. Planted at the opposite side of the counter, stood the biggest, ugliest, wild-eyed looking red-neck character I’ve ever seen. He was one of those guys that have two names…you know, like “Billy Bob”, or “Bubba Fred”…we all know the type (he could have been cast in the movie “Deliverance”, and NOT to play Ned Beatty’s character). His tattered overalls, huge beer gut, and 3 day old stubble were actually not that out of place in this neck of the woods, but it was his demeanor that stood him apart from the rest of us in the human race. He was as big as a house, and he was boiling mad; never a good combination.

The young ticket agent trying to solve his scheduling problem was a friend of mine (it was a small airline, and we all knew each other), and she was one of my lines best agents. The fact that she was attractive and very polite always served her well in these types of situations. On several occasions, I had witnessed her defuse an angry passenger with her bright smile and charming Southern self. But today, that wasn’t going to work. “Bubba Fred” wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, and things were beginning to escalate. She was very calmly attempting to explain the complexities of what a mass of thunderstorms can do to her departures, but her calm demeanor simply wasn’t rubbing off on him. What he did next surprised the hell out of the F/O and me (and her too).

In the middle of her sentence, he started to physically come over the ticket counter! She recoiled with a look of disbelief and the First Officer and I stepped in. Being firm believers in chivalry and all that rot, he and I quickly positioned ourselves between the two in question. The fire in “Bubba Fred’s” eyes was unmistakable, and when he suddenly focused on two uniformed males positioned in front of him, he slowed his pace to a halt. But that begs the question… what was his next maneuver going to entail? We had no idea; we just braced ourselves for the expected assault, and accepted our fate. He suddenly snapped out of his fit of rage, and tried to compose himself. I’m sure that our shouts of: “wait a minute there mister!” (Or something like that, MAYBE mixed with a bit of profanity), might have helped him come back to reality. At this point, the agent became very pale, and quickly excused herself to the back room. I can’t say as I blamed her; I was probably a bit pale myself. Just what “Bubba Fred” had in mind is anyone’s guess, but there’s no question he could’ve snapped her in two without much effort (us too for that matter).

NEW CAPTAIN

(Sporting my brand-new Scheduled Skyways Captain stripes waaay back in 1980.)

If I recall correctly, “Deliverance Boy” didn’t make ANY schedule that day. For as we were doing the stare-down routine, another agent called the security folks and they quickly whisked his big (redneck) ass out of the terminal, and off to a local lock-up. I spent the remainder of that day trying to sort out what had happened. We, of course, had seen our share of pissed off customers while flying at this little airline, but none that had gone from zero to homicide in the snap of a finger! Would he have actually committed bodily harm? I guess I’ll never know, but that was indeed a first for me. I subsequently never heard what became of him. I sometimes wonder if he’s still tied to a stump somewhere in northwest Arkansas. Shudder.

The next is one of my favorites, for it has all the makings of a good “Funniest Home Videos” type story. This buffoon was a classic, and each time I recall his little display, I can’t help but chuckle a bit. The year was 1988, I had made it to “the show” and was flying as a Second Officer (or Flight Engineer if you will) on the magnificent Boeing 747 for Northwest Airlines. Although the job as the third pilot was mostly very boring, there were times when it was anything but. This was one of those times.

It was late August, and we were scheduled for a night departure from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport southwest bound for a short stop in Okinawa, then on to Manila for our layover. Our flight was under the command of Bob H., and he was truly one of my favorite “Whale” Captains to work with. He was rather short in stature, a bit rotund, looked a little like Capt. Kangaroo, and had the quiet, calm make-up of Mr. Rogers. He was definitely one of the nicest, most even-tempered gentlemen that I ever logged time with in a cockpit. On this night however, all that was about to change.

As we were nearing our departure time (roughly inside the 30 minute window), the Lead Flight Attendant came into the cockpit to speak to us about a passenger that she was having an issue with. The person in question had just climbed the boarding stairs, entered the jet, and proceeded to become a pain her posterior (we were parked at a hard stand away from the terminal, so the passengers were bussed to the aircraft, and climbed up a covered set of boarding stairs…just like in the old days). He was a younger man, dressed in enlisted U.S. Navy “whites”, and was totally, completely “knee-walking, pie-eyed” drunk…I’m talking “God’s own drunk”. Apparently he stumbled through the boarding door, disregarded his assigned seat, found the nearest chair that suited him, and plopped his big ass squarely into it. She was more than a little miffed that he was boarded in this condition (a violation of U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations), and was truly upset that he wouldn’t take his assigned seat. She was on the flight deck to enlist our assistance. Being the good-natured “fatherly” type, Capt. Bob informed her that he would come downstairs, and “have a little talk with him”. I expected him to completely diffuse the situation with his laid-back temper and impeccable manners, so I turned back to my Flight Engineers panel and continued with my pre-flight duties.

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(A Northwest Boeing 747-200 taxiing for launch at London’s Gatwick Airport. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Colbran.)

Within a few short minutes, Bob stormed back into the cockpit, slammed the door, looked at me red-faced and growled, “Get Operations on the horn, and have them send Security to the airplane! I want that ass-hole off this jet now!” Eh…Bob…it must not have gone too well, am I right? As he was climbing back into his seat, he began to explain to the startled First Officer what had just transpired.  Apparently, as Bob approached him, the guy drunkenly looked up and asked “Who the hell are you… God?”  With that brilliant utterance complete, he promptly leaned over and vomited in the seat next to him! As if that wasn’t enough, he then calmly pulled the seat cushion up and turned it over so (apparently) no one would notice. (This would’ve earned him a ticket on the “GET OFF MY PLANE EXPRESS” with me nowadays, but Bob tried a bit more diplomacy). He asked the young man if he possibly had a bit too much to drink, and maybe he wouldn’t mind going back into the terminal and “resting” a little before the next departure (he was obviously bound for the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines). His reply was too lean over, get very close to Bob’s face, and shout a rather terse, “F*ck you, you asshole!” Hehe; that sealed it…a one-way ticket on the “G.O.M.P. EXPRESS”.

As I was trying desperately to get the Japanese NWA Operations agents to understand that we wanted the actual “security forces” to come to the jet (“ah roger, Northwest 003, we send ticket agent to the airplane.” “Negative, negative, we are requesting the security forces to the jet immediately!” “Ah roger, we send ticket agent to the airplane”), and realizing that I wasn’t having much luck with it, Capt. Bob decided to take measures into his own hands. He called the Lead F/A on the interphone, and gave her the following instructions. “Tell that S.O.B. that someone on the boarding stairs wants to talk to him, and when he stumbles off the jet to see who it might be….close the door behind him!” It worked like a charm.

The moment he found himself outside of the airplane all by himself, he went rather nuts. He began to pound on the boarding door (we could actually hear it from upstairs in the cockpit), but he apparently couldn’t figure out how to actually open it. The Lead F/A came upstairs to ask Bob what she should do if he got it open, and he replied with, “Point him toward the cockpit and get the hell out of his way”. His next statement was to me, “Bill, get the crash axe out of the holder and position yourself behind the door. If he makes it in here, you crack him on the head with that thing!” Cool!

Within a few minutes he stopped pounding on the door, and began a new tactic. He started to run around the outside of the jet, looking up at us in the cockpit and shooting us the finger! Needless to say, we were watching him VERY closely, and I must admit, we (occasionally) shot it right back at him. By now it was beginning to rain very hard, and he took this as the signal to rip his shirt off and do the Tarzan thing (why do ALL pissed-off drunks end up shirtless?). We had just gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be very concerned, or maybe both. One of the funniest aspects to all of this is that he looked remarkably like the late actor Chris Farley (no disrespect Chris)! His blubbery, shirtless, drenched body, running around our aircraft, coupled with the sheer strangeness of it all, was more than a little surreal and unnerving. I continued my quest to get someone to the airplane other than a gate agent.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity with this madman loose under the jet, the REAL security forces showed up. They bounded out of their little pickup truck and began to chase him around the airplane! (I promise you this happened; you can’t make this stuff up) We watched like spectators at a rugby match (of course cheering for the guys with the billy-clubs), and within a few minutes they chased him up the covered boarding stairs. With three heads pressed to the left side cockpit window, we watched the stairs begin to rock back and forth rather violently (they must’ve been “disgruntled doctors” too, for I think they were pulling some Jackie Chan marshal arts moves on him). Eventually, with one on each leg and arm, they dragged him down the stairs unconscious, pitched him into the bed of their pickup truck, and off they drove. Japanese Security forces = 1, drunken Navy “Chris Farley” dude = 0.

whale-so-2

(Before doing my preflight walk-around in Tokyo. It ALWAYS amazed me just how monstrous this machine actually was!)

The only addendum to this story concerns a bit of mischief on my part. An hour or so later, as we were winging our way toward Okinawa, Bob was busy filling out his report on all of this. I thought maybe a bit of fun was called for, so I pretended to be on the number two Comm radio with the NWA Tokyo personnel. I was playing it up well, with more than a few lines like, “Oh, oh. You gotta be kidding me. Really? That’s not good…not good at all! Of course I’ll inform the Captain. Roger Flt 003, out.” It was more than Bob could stand, so he turned and asked whom I was talking to. I couldn’t resist, “Well Bob, you know that moron we just had pitched UNDER the jail in Tokyo? Well, that was Operations saying they have a message from the State Department and that we screwed up big-time…seems he is the SON of the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines!” You should’ve seen the look on Bob’s face. I probably took a couple of years off his life…sorry Bob, just kidding.

When, in 1994, I upgraded to my first command of a jetliner, I tried to emulate the manners and patience of the gentlemen like Bob that I had flown with over the years…but it wasn’t easy. My first experience with calling the authorities to meet the aircraft came one day as we were inbound to Miami in the Boeing 727. The Lead Cabin Attendant informed me somewhere around the halfway point of the journey that she had to “cut off” (stop serving liquor to) a passenger in the First Class cabin. Apparently, he was getting more than just a bit buzzed, and was becoming a first-class asshole. My reply was “Great, do what you have to do, and if he gives you any grief, you tell him it was MY decision to cut him off”. She left, and I turned back around to busy myself with the business of flying the jet.

As fate would have it, at our arrival time into the Miami area, a thunderstorm was directly overhead the airport. Since I have a distinct “no landings in the middle of thunderstorms” policy, we entered a holding pattern to let it move out of the approach corridor. I made the requisite announcement over the P.A. system informing everyone of our small delay. I also added that it was due to the fact that a thunderstorm was over the field, and that in about 15 minutes (or less) it would move out of our way, and we would proceed inbound to land without any problems. I hung up the P.A. mic, and settled back to watch the offending cumulonimbus with my usual awe and amazement.

Very shortly after my announcement, the cockpit door opened, and in came the (now pretty upset) Lead F/A. She informed me that the disgruntled passenger had informed her that: A) he was a Doctor, was extermely afraid to fly into thunderstorms,  and was going to prescribe himself alcohol for his “condition”, and B) would SUE ME if she refused to comply with his “prescription”. Good heavens, now I’ve seen it all! I calmly turned to address her (thinking of how Bob would’ve handled it I’m sure). I remember telling her to say something like this, “The Captain wanted me to tell you that you are the SECOND most afraid person to fly into thunderstorms on this airplane…no one gets to be more afraid than him. He also wants you to provide him with your name, your address, and your “Dr. License number” (I didn’t know if they actually were issued one or not…but thought the bluff wouldn’t hurt), so he can have them available when he gets in touch with the American Medical Association. He says that he’s sure that the AMA will be VERY interested in a doctor that is prescribing alcohol to himself to cure his fear of flying.” I will have to admit that I gave him a high grade for being creative with the booze-prescription thing…lol.

After he relayed my message to “Herr Doktor”, he became even more adamant about his “prescription”. He now began to call the Lead F/A and myself a few choice names and the threats continued…sorry, still no booze. With this, I directed the Second Officer to call Miami Operations, and have them stand by to meet the jet with the security folks. He seemed to by highly pissed-off when we reached the gate (I remember he wouldn’t look me in the eye), and when the big guys with the “badges” met him upon deplaning, life changed for the good doctor. The authorities weren’t going to buy his “prescription” excuse for interfering with a crewmember in the performance of their duties (a federal offense); they just thought that he was being a prized asshole. They promptly arrested him, and escorted him off to the “cross-bar motel”. Later I began to think, “Hey wait a minute, I’ve used alcohol to cure lots of “problems” in my life, maybe he was on to something there”….just kidding of course.

Boeing_727-51C,_Northwest_Orient_Airlines_JP6399046

(A rare sighting…a Boeing 727-100…when I was a new hire at Northwest Orient we referred to them as “the Stubby”.  Within a few years of my joining the line, they were all sold. Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor.)

Redeyes…oh gross! I’m not talking about what my baby-blue peepers tend to look like at the end of an all-night flight-sim/beer drinking binge…nope, I’m talking about those airline flights that leave at midnight, and arrive at roughly the time the sun is peeking over the eastern horizon. One might ask, “Who in their right mind would want to go to the jet-port at that un-Godly hour and sit next to a fat guy snoring for five hours?” You’d be surprised; these flights are almost always full to the gunnels (I would guess it has something to do with cheaper fares). And since my jet is the “super-star du jour” for hauling lots of bodies out of metropolitan airports (relatively) quietly at midnight, then I get to enjoy these types of missions during the majority of my domestic trips.

One night a few years ago, we launched out of “Sin City” (Las Vegas) long after sunset, with our destination being my home domicile of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  This leg would be the end of our four day 757 trip, and except for the “night owl” thing at the end, it had been a very enjoyable time spent on the road (read, little or no hassles during the trip).  Needless to say, many times leaving Vegas, customer issues on the jet seem to come as fast and furious as the bells ringing on the slot machines! Inbound you have happy drunks, outbound you have broke/tired/dehydrated/(at times) pissed-off drunks….I prefer the happy ones. I’ve thrown lots of folks off the jet in KLAS, and needless to say, it’s not one of my favorite destinations in our domestic system.

On this night however, all things seemed to be in harmony.  We boarded the folks without incident, taxied for a runway 25R RNAV departure, and with a very quiet ATC shift in progress, we began to feel like we were the only jet in the sky. McCarren Departure Control handed us off to L.A. Center, and without asking for it, the nice lady at the big, glowing “Pong” screen, cleared us direct to KMSP!  For all the bitching about redeye flying, sometimes the middle of the night is the best time for flying. [This coming from an ex-teenage paperboy that delivered the news at 0400 every morning, and a former night-freight hauler that would launch my Piper Navajo over the Scandia Mountains east of Albuquerque at midnight every night bound for Lubbock, Texas.]

NAVAJO

(A PA-31 Piper Navajo. It was my first actual pilot job after college. Single pilot, night freight over the mountains was “interesting” to say the least.)

When things at 2 a.m. are working with my karma, the weather is smooth and clear (with the ground lights and stars like two blazing fields of diamonds), the ATC folks are silent and loving it half as much as I am, the customers are all a slumber, the steady purring of the two big Pratt and Whitneys is music to this old pelican’s ears, and the required cup of “Joe” is like something from the porcelain vase of the nectar of the Gods. In other words, all is right with the world.

That is exactly how this night would begin, but not how it would end. Somewhere over the sleeping plains of Nebraska, the chime in the cockpit announced that one of the cabin attendants wanted to speak to us. I naturally assumed it was something to the order of…”Captain, a passenger wants to know what the name of that little town is…” (like I would know? And, like I would care? Lol). This time, it was a bit different. After answering the interphone, one of the young men (cabin attendants) requested to come onto the flight deck to talk to me. Sure…come on up.  He came into the cockpit, quickly took a seat in the jumpseat immediately behind my “throne”, and began to regale me with his tale of woe.

jumpseat

(The Boeing 757 jumpseat. Definitely NOT the most comfortable seat in the house.)

It seems that not all was right in his world, for on this flight there was on particular passenger that did not like him. My answer was something like, “OooooKay, and how is that playing out with the service you guys are doing, etc?” He informed me that the service was finished, but this man didn’t like him, and he knew this because of all of the dirty, hateful looks this person was sending toward him. By now, of course, the First Officer was giving me the proverbial “side-long” glances coupled with a smirk or three. I knew exactly what was going through his 71/4 hat size…”Well, oh exalted great Captain, my Captain! Just how are you going to deal with this little “emergency”? He hates me Captain…boo hoo!” I shot him a dirty/hateful look, and turned back to “Billy” (not his real name) and continued with the “counseling session”. “And how does this make you FEEL Billy?”

“Well Billy, I’m sorry the guy in 15D doesn’t like you…but we ALL can’t be liked by EVERYONE, right? I know it makes your job uncomfortable, but how about this…how about you just stay away from the guy, get one of the other guys on the crew to serve him, you just “play in your corner of the playground”, and he can play in his “corner”. How does that sound?” I asked him to describe his nemesis, and as it turned out, I distinctly remember seeing this person as he boarded the jet. He was one of the last folks to board, and (in my humble opinion) he was very distinctive looking for many reasons.

To begin with, he was wearing dark sunglasses (and it was indeed midnight when he walked onto the jet). Now I know that means you are one super cool, bad-ass vaquero. And I also know that my personal uber-bright personality means I get to “wear my sunglasses at night” (they should make a song about that…lol), but I’m not sure his did. Also, he was sporting some of the coolest looking fingerless, leather driving gloves I’ve ever seen! O.K., again, I get to wear those in the cockpit because I’m actually “driving” this big-bad mama-jamma at 500 knots and cool enough to own it…I’m just not sure he was. I will say, the awesome gloves did match his black leather pants…word up dude. And lastly, to round out his ensemble, over his thug T-shirt, he was proudly displaying the requisite “Mr. T. Starter Set” gaggle of gold chains! There truly must’ve been at least 50 chains on that young dude’s neck! Made my own neck sore just looking at him! So, needless to say, the guy was feathered out in his best “gangsta wannabe” regalia, but for some reason, he and “Billy” just were not groovin’ on the same cosmic plain. Just lovely. I really need to chat to whoever is in charge of dishing out MY karma…

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(The current queen of “grace and power”…the Boeing 757. The jet I’ve called home for the last 20 years [with her big sister, the 767]…thank you Mr. Boeing. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Colbran.)

Things seemed to be “all quiet on the western front” for the next hour or so, but shortly after the end of their last service, and about 15 minutes from us beginning our re-entry maneuver, I once again get the “Bing-bong” (and blue light) on the overhead Alert Panel telling me that (most probably) “Billy” and “Mr. T” were not sharing recipes over a cup of chamomile tea. Sure enough it was “Billy”, and upon letting him into the cockpit, I noticed that his uniform had taken on a strange new color. It seems that square in the middle of his white shirt, a very large, very dark, very wet brown spot had suddenly appeared. “Billy” was almost in tears, and through the anger (and some sobs) I finally gleaned what had transpired.  Apparently he had approached “Mr. T” to talk peace terms (or something), and had been rewarded with a full cup of coffee (NOT from the porcelain vase of the nectar of the God’s mind you) smack dab “on time/on target” into the middle of “Billy’s” starched white shirt! “SHACK!”

“Billy” of course wanted him arrested upon landing, and truth be told, I was beginning to lean in that direction myself. Its one thing to interfere with a crewmember in the performance of their duty (again, a federal offense), but this was not the “he won’t turn off his cell phone” type of issue. This fell under the actual “assault” of a crewmember category, and we had now squarely escalated to “DEF-CON 2” territory. Of course, dousing “Billy” with Folgers is hardly the same as coming at him with a battle-axe, but it’s still assault, and the die had been cast. This moronic “gangsta wannabe”, with his butt in MY seat 15D, was about to feel some love courtesy of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport Police Department! I’ve seen them in action, and when it gets to “DEF-CON 1” with these guys, it can get ugly in a heartbeat. Their sense of humor gauge does not exist.

Of course, protocol has changed since 9-11, and I won’t go into all of our procedures (for obvious reasons), but one thing hasn’t changed…getting in touch with the “Mother Ship” and getting them in the loop is still an important step in the process.  Within a few minutes, I was on the horn with our Dispatch Office, giving them the scoop (incident, name, seat number, etc.), and the “scales of Justice” were about to begin their tilt toward our beloved “Billy”.  A few minutes later, Dispatch hailed us on the radio with a juicy little tid-bit of information concerning our perp. It seems that “Mr. T” was the 20-something son of one of the airlines employees! He was a “pass rider” as it were, and the only reason he was on the jet was because the dear lady that gave birth to his worthless behind had (as part of her compensation package) pass travel benefits. Needless to say, when you travel as an employee of the airline (or as a dependent of an employee), your behavior is closely scrutinized. Our company employee handbook lists all the things you CANNOT (read DARE NOT) do while riding on a pass, and while throwing a full cup of steaming hot java on one of the flight attendants isn’t listed…it’s damn sure implied!!!

LMAO! Oh my God! The moron is the child of an employee? I requested two things from the Dispatcher. First, to indeed have the airport security forces ready to meet the jet, but secondly, to please give his dear mother a phone call (I never met the woman, but I’ll lovingly refer to her as “Big Momma”) and inform her of the antics of the “pride of her ovaries”. Also, please ask her if she’d be interested in driving to the airport to meet us at Gate 2 in roughly 45 minutes. He told me to stand by, and within about 3 minutes came back with an “affirmative” on both accounts. It seems that “Big Momma” was an early riser, and would LOVE to be standing by at sunrise when we dock.

SUNRISE

(If I had a dollar for every sunrise these old eyes have seen from altitude, I’d make Bill Gates look like he lived under an overpass.)

The Lead Flight Attendant informed the genius in seat 15D that the Captain required him to remain in his seat until all of the other passengers have deplaned, and only then would he be allowed to depart the jet (I wanted to be sure and not miss the “festivities” that were sure to take place in the gate…lol). We began our descent as the smooth air and faint glow on the horizon gave way to an “accidental” giggle or two from the two aviators up in the pointy end. Lots of shaking of the heads, and comments like “what the hell was he thinking…his Mother could be fired, or at the very least lose her pass benefits over this!” With calm winds, clear skies and no traffic, MSP TRACON cleared us for a straight-in visual approach to Runway 12R, and with long practiced effort, we gracefully landed and exited the runway.

More giggles on the way to Gate 2, and when parked and all of the checklist complete, the F/O and I hurried the task of gathering our wares for a hasty exit to witness the show! As I stepped from the jetway into the (now mostly deserted) gate area, the first thing I saw were the two officers of “Minneapolis’ Finest” dispatched to the gate. They were standing against the wall, arms folded and grinning from ear to ear. Apparently their special skills were not to be needed this fine morning. That’s when I saw her; she, of the “Big Momma” clan.  Standing about 5 feet tall, roughly 200 “on the hoof”, and with legs, torso and arms that would make Dick Butkus jealous.  She had her “baby” pinned up against the wall, with one massive mitt around his neck, and was giving him a profanity-laced version of the “what for” that made my little virgin ears burn! All I could think of was: gloves, pants, Ray-Bans, gold chains and attitude…$2000! Look of shock and terror on an idiots face as his Momma whoops his ass….priceless!

As I strolled away with thoughts of another trip firmly in the books, and the pending days in the loving world of my wife and children, she stopped her “attitude adjustment” long enough to glance at me. We shared a moment, a look, a hint of a grin, and a knowing that only those that have “righted a wrong” can know. I quietly muttered, “You GO Big Momma…you GO!” And then I thought of how my karma was indeed back in its happy place. But what of HIS karma, and “Billys”….oh well, one out of three ain’t bad…right?

 

So those are some of the “best of the best”, but just for grins I’ll throw a couple more at you before I’m finished.

We had a guy bounce his “hockey-puck” airline sandwich off the back of a Flight Attendant’s head the other day while yelling, “We got better food than this IN PRISON!”  The worst thing about it is he was probably right. As mentioned above, nowhere on the ticket does it say “fine dining experience”…does it?

I had to pitch a lady off the jet going to L.A. the other night (“pie-eyed” drunk), and she literally threw herself down to the jet-way floor immediately outside the boarding door. She then proceeded to kick, scream, and call me every “mofo” name in the book. Funny, I thought I knew all of those fancy curse words! I guess now I have a few new ones…lol.

One final snippet of airborne nastiness.

A passenger boarded the jet in LAX the other morning at 1 a.m. (another “redeye” bound for Minneapolis/ St. Paul), and promptly shoved a passenger that wasn’t getting down the aisle fast enough for him. The Flight Attendant informed me of his behavior; I called the gate agent, and guess what?  A “GOMP” award for you, ass-hat…off the jet you go! Within a few minutes the gate agent came into the cockpit to ask if I was too busy to come out in the gate and talk to the buffoon that did the shoving. I told him that A) I was actually quite busy loading data into the Flight Management Computer, and B) to tell the guy that he knew the “rules of the playground”, and if he couldn’t play by the rules, then he doesn’t get to go for an airplane ride…simple as that. A few minutes later, the agent came back into the cockpit to hand me the close-out paperwork, and to inform me that he relayed my message to the dude that I threw off the jet. And what was his response? “He called you an a**-hole”. Funny, even after heaping such worthy praise on me, he still didn’t get an airplane ride that night.

I guess my reasoning behind illuminating some of humanities “darker” moments around airplanes is to say one thing. The next time you march onto an aircraft, don’t feel like the rules have changed…they haven’t. I was told many times growing up to “act as if your Mother were watching”. In fact I’ve dearly wanted to ask some of these people over the years (I would’ve LOVED to have said it to the doctor that beat the snot out of the old lady on the freeway), “what would your mother say, if she saw you doing that?” I’d be willing to bet that for most of them, having a flashback to their version of “Big Momma” kicking their butt for mis-behaving, would’ve resolved the incident post haste.

 

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Time Machine

Seems like it’s been a few days since my last entry…actually it has been.  As of today (22 February), that gap can be measured by exactly 262 sunrises and sunsets. Time has a way of slipping away from all of us, and if you ask anyone (up to and including old “Al Einstein” himself), they would offer that time is a commodity; a very precious one in fact.  We get scant little of it on our journey from cradle to grave, and when that fateful day comes as your personal hour glass runs out of sand, a King’s ransom will make no difference.

This entry is about time, but not the moments that you and I are spending now, or those that we are sure to pilfer away tomorrow or next month. This story is about days that have come and gone. We humans call it “history” (wonder what dogs call it…), and for a bloke like me, it’s as fascinating as it gets. If I were ever to construct a Time Machine, I would care not about traveling into the future, but I would ache to go backwards. Imagine being on/at the likes of: Calvary Hill, Hastings in 1066, Plymouth Rock, Independence Hall, Waterloo, Ford’s Theater, Kitty Hawk, Promontory Peak, the Little Big Horn, Times Square on V.J. Day…the list is almost endless.

On my last trip a few days ago, the F/O and I began to muse about things historical, and I relayed a story about a magical afternoon that I was allowed to spend many years ago. I give you the following piece penned originally in 1998 concerning that day…

“When Time Stood Still”

The agent at gate D2 looked more than just a little pissed-off, “what time does your ACARS read now?” She was referring to our datalink screen on the center pedestal; this is our version of a “dog leash” to all things that are company related. It would show that Northwest flight # 845 was already past the point of an on-time departure toward Anchorage this evening. We were being held at the gate as a “weight critical” flight, and I (by FAA law) could not release the brakes until I received the datalink message from our Load Control folks in Memphis. It would tell me if we were going to be heavier than our 228,500 pound maximum ramp weight.

b757-ramp-saipan

(Boeing 757-251 on the ramp in Saipan)

I knew it was going to be very close, and we weren’t going anywhere until this particular message came across our screen (we usually receive it about five minutes after departing the gate while we are taxiing for departure). She didn’t seem to care about all the technical reasons, she just wanted to shut the main cabin door and be done with us, but for a variety of reasons I wasn’t letting her do that. Not least of which was the fact that after she closed the cabin door (and as we sat stationary next to the jet-way awaiting our uplink) she would be rendering that exit useless in an emergency evacuation…not good in my opinion. Now with “her gate” showing a late door closing, and the resulting tardy departure, she was going to look bad to her supervisors (who have a habit of making the lives of those like her miserable). On this evening, “Old Man Time” was not her ally, and her demeanor was less than amiable.

So this begs the questions, why does time control our lives? We are able to firmly grasp most everything around us, but not the one thing that ultimately matters most. We spend so much of our youth wishing things would happen at a faster pace. Remember those school days sitting in class watching the clock tick toward the 3:00 bell that spelled freedom? Those minutes were mired in molasses. We often mused that we couldn’t wait until we were a “big kid”, for our lives would change, and all for the better. And maybe it did somehow, it’s been so long ago I don’t recall. Now as we get older, time doesn’t crawl by, but moves with the speed of a heartbeat. On that day that we are all racing toward (no matter how much we resist), our time will come to an end here on Mother Earth and we will fade into history, alive only in the memories of friends and loved ones.

A few years ago, I was offered the unbelievable gift of stopping time for one afternoon. In fact I was even allowed to step back fifty plus years, to a place none of us will ever see…and it was magnificent. I had the privilege to speak at length with a person that was an aviator from a time gone by, an age long gone, and an age that I have only read about. I was fabulously lucky, for he took me with him on a journey with his tales of wonder, amazement and some pain; a journey that fills me to this day. His name was Bertram Ritchie, and on that day he was ninety-two years young.

My family and I were new to the Twin Cities area that summer of 1996, but we were fortunate in the fact that my mother-in-law was a long time resident, so she helped with the period of adjustment. One steamy July day, she called from the nursing home where she was employed part-time, and told me that someone had just checked in that I may want to meet. She explained that he was an ex-Northwest Airlines pilot, and when she informed him that I too flew for that logo, he asked her if I would like to get together.  I couldn’t believe what she was asking me!  Who wouldn’t want to meet and spend time with this gentleman? I set a time for the next day, and counted the hours filled with much anticipation.

I knew from my historical readings the origin of my line, and it boils down to one word…airmail (in fact my uniform wings haven’t changed since their design in 1929. A globe inscribed with the words “U.S. Air Mail” with wings sprouting from either side). In 1925 Congress passed a law called “The Contract Airmail Act”, and the race between some very competitive aviation visionaries had begun. A hard charging Minnesota businessman convinced several members of the Detroit financial elite to contribute enough capital to form a small line to serve the Chicago-Twin Cities route, and with that decision my airline was born. They barely beat the October 1, 1926 deadline to have service flying by two weeks, with a grand total of two rented open-cockpit biplanes and three pilots.

nwa-wings-2a

(My uniform wings for 27 years…nowadays, the wings on my chest proudly display the Delta Airlines “widget”)

The business goal was to fly people, but in those infant days of commercial aviation, they all knew where the “real” money lay… in the airmail contracts. For my airline it all started on a sultry day in July (not at all unlike the one on my drive to the nursing home that summer morning). Northwest Airways would begin as a passenger airline with one passenger, one pilot, and a Stinson Detroiter flying machine. The year was 1927, barely 24 years removed from the miracle at Kitty Hawk, and flying was outrageously new to your average citizen.

They would depart St. Paul, Minnesota, their destination being Chicago, Illinois. This would be accomplished several hours later after stops in La Crosse, Madison, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At precisely 2 p.m., Charles “Speed” Holman (winner of many stunt flying and race competitions, and the number one pilot on NWA’s seniority list of three), and St. Paul businessman Byron Webster lifted off the brown grass runway. They were bound for La Crosse, Wisconsin, but they would fail to make it, their first stop being barely 50 miles southeast of where their journey began. Roughly thirty minutes into the flight, the 220 hp, Wright “Whirlwind” engine of the Detroiter suddenly sputtered and quit. This was nothing new to “Speed”, for all pilots of that generation had suffered this fate many times. He simply picked a suitable farmer’s field, and gently set the Detroiter down.

Unruffled, he climbed out, and after some wrench turning (with “maybe” an expletive or three), he felt that he had the engine problem solved. Unfortunately, the field wasn’t big enough for the biplane to lift off with the all-important mail sacks AND the one passenger, so Holman used the farmer’s phone to call St. Paul and have them dispatch a truck for the mail and Mr. Webster. He then flew the plane north to where they had started two hours before, and waited for the lorry to arrive. After an hour and a half spent bumping (and sweating) along a series of dirt roads, the truck arrived and Holman approached Mr. Webster with a fateful question. He asked, “Shall we try it again?”  “Sure” was the businessman’s answer, and with that one word, history was made.

stinson-detroter

(Stinson Detroiter)

They lifted off once again, and this time made La Crosse without an issue, consequently proceeding on to Madison. It was past sunset by now, and the dozens of “well-wishers” in the crowd had long since gone home. They had impatiently waited for the event through the long afternoon, but the evening thunderstorms and the late hour had taken their toll. Holman loaded more mail sacks, and after placing a phone call to Milwaukee (and learning that a thunderstorm was now over the field), he decided to delay. At exactly midnight, they touched down in Milwaukee, again to a mostly empty ramp. A few hours later, at roughly two-thirty in the morning, the first commercial passenger flight from the Twin Cities landed in Chicago. The almost four hundred miles had taken its toll on the clock… twelve and a half hours. It had also taken a heaping amount of other things: vision, courage, determination, skill and a bit of luck. It was a fascinating story, and now I was to meet one of those men; those incredible airmen that pioneered my beloved world of aviation.

Walking through the door, I was faced with a not totally unexpected sight. A gentleman in his ninth decade of life was lying in a bed, and looking to be asleep. He was tall in frame, but a bit slight in stature, and had a full head of ghost white hair. He possessed something else. My mother-in-law awakened him, and as the moment of disorientation gave way, and he began to realize who I was, a very wide grin spread across his time-worn face. His handshake was that of a bear (albeit, an old bear), and the clouded blue eyes shone like the thousand sunsets they had witnessed aloft. It was then, that the “something else” I spoke of came alive. For lack of a better description, he had the “air” about him. An air of a man from a different world, a world that had been gone for a very long time. He was from days long past, days alive only in his memories (and in the volumes of history), and he was about to welcome me in.

I didn’t know where to start, but thankfully he did. He asked if it was true that I flew for Northwest, and said that he had “put in a few years there too”. He told me that he had retired in 1963 on the Lockheed Electra L-188 turboprop, after flying nearly everything that had sat on a Northwest tarmac. When I asked if he had ever “checked out” in the jets, he said that the company knew he was close to retirement, and had offered him (leaning close so as to foil prying ears) “10,000 dollars to stay on the Electra”. Not that this is entirely unheard of; today it is quite common for an airline to save the cost of upgrading a “grey-beard”, by just offering them the money difference and keeping them on the same jet until retirement. But $10,000 in 1963! A king’s fortune to be sure.

lockheed-l-188-electra

(Lockheed L-188 “Electra”)

Now it was my turn to ask a question, but little did I know that his answer would unravel throughout the entire afternoon. I asked about his beginnings in aviation, and here he began his story. He was a young man back in the 1920’s, and in him the spark of flying burned deep. He had somehow managed to save enough money to log time in the rag-tag machines of that era, and was very close to becoming an actual “licensed” pilot. As we know from our history books, times took a turn for the worse that last year in the second decade, and flying and he parted company. The best he could manage was obtaining a job working as a “hangar boy” for a new company in the Twin Cities (side note; I too, was a hangar boy at my aviation college roughly half a century later). Northwest Airways was not an everyday company name, but he was fascinated by all things “airplane”, so he took the job. Their first few years were a struggle, and although the depression was closing business’ doors from coast to coast, they were somehow managing to barely hang on.

Then came the day that would change his life forever. It seems that the reigning “Chief Pilot” for Northwest Airways, Captain Holman (yep, the same “Speed” Holman from the inaugural flight) was in the midst of a dilemma.  The regular co-pilot for one of the “behemoth” Ford Tri-motors had called in sick that night for the Duluth run, and “Speed” needed a pilot, and needed one now. He knew that the young man on the business end of the broom sweeping the hangar floor had some time in a cockpit, and that made the decision for Captain Holman a bit easier.

He approach Ritchie and casually spoke the words “the co-pilot is sick for the Duluth flight tonight, drop that broom and go get in that Tri-motor…you’re now a co-pilot.” Just that simple. From “broom-pilot” to co-pilot in one sentence. Sadly, he would be the last pilot that “Speed” Holman would hire, for this amazing, world class aviator and pioneer would perish in a stunt flying accident within the year. Wow… I knew that my flying world was different from his, but I truly had no idea how great that chasm would be.

He told me of days flying as a new co-pilot when his job was to load the baggage and the mail, then sit in the cockpit and “shut-up and don’t touch nothing!” One of his first jobs was to sort the mail during his spare time. He told stories of some lines tossing old engine parts in the mail bags to build up the weight, and thus the fare charged to the U.S. Postal Service. These were days when competition with the rail system (which also transported the mail) meant everything, but on occasion they would become allies. A not uncommon event in those early winter days was to “find yourself in a blizzard and be forced to land. The common procedure was to find a railroad track, land in the field next to it and wait.” When the next train would appear, they would flag it down, load the mail and any passengers (the single engine Hamilton Metalplane held six), and wait for the weather to break. In casual conversation recently, I told this to one of our Flight Attendants, and she actually thought I was making it up! I assured her I was not. This was aviation in its infancy. This was the heritage of not only her company, but also of her country. Sad that so few of us know from whence we come.

hamilton-metalplane

(The Hamilton Metalplane)

As the battle for Northwest Airways to expand westward was at a zenith, the government again stepped in and drove a stake through the heart of many a small feeder line (thankfully, not mine). Fearing widespread corruption in the mail contracts, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order canceling all air-mail contracts with the airlines. He ordered the Army Air Corps to begin flying the mail, and received widespread outrage from aviators nationwide. For ten days the nation was without air-mail service, and when the Air Corps did begin the service in old obsolete machines, the fatality rate was horrendous (famed WWI ace and founder of Eastern Airlines Eddie Rickenbacker called it “legalized murder”). He told me that after a third of the NWA employees were laid off, he and the other co-pilots continued to fly their schedules, but their pay was the paltry sum of $112 per month. After a few months of this debacle, government officials again opened the air-mail routes up for bidding by the airlines, but at a cost of a complete restructuring of said airlines. When the dust had cleared, a new company was formed by the present name of Northwest Airlines, Inc.

The fancy new machine was called the Lockheed 14-H, but to the slick airline ad execs, it was known as the “Sky Zephyr”. It would be bigger and faster than the Lockheed 10-A Electra it was replacing, but the pilots didn’t want it, it simply wasn’t safe. As he began to tell me of their disdain for this new machine, his eyes began to see old, long departed faces of friends. “We told them not to buy it. We lost Mamer in one at Bozeman, one at Miles City, and Whittemore hit that canyon wall. It was dangerous, and we told them. We had one almost go down taking off from Billings, and the only thing that saved them was being up on that bluff.” (I’ve flown in and out of Billings, Montana many times, and the airport does indeed sit high on a bluff overlooking the town.) “One of the big-wig chief pilots was in the co-pilots seat, and shortly after that one almost went down…..we got rid of them all”. Some things never change. Why listen to the line pilots, what do we know? Shortly thereafter, NWA placed orders for the “huge” 21 passenger Douglas DC-3.

lockheed-14-h

(Lockheed 14-H “Sky Zephyr”)

I was curious about his war-time experiences, so I asked what it was like during the forties. Most (if not all) of the bigger lines lost many of their planes and pilots to the Air Corps for transport duty overseas, but not NWA…guess we just weren’t a big enough “player”. He said that most of his duty was to help ferry new B-17s from the factory in Seattle up to Alaska. The Army Air Corps crews that were taking these north, were very young, very inexperienced flyers, so Boeing asked NWA if they would send an experienced Captain along with them. Times being what they were, Northwest said yes.

He told me of one such flight where he had met up with four crews to fly four of the big “Flying Fortresses” up to Fairbanks (they would ultimately continue to the Pacific to join the war). He was the lone airline Captain with these young men, and during the several day trip, he got to know them rather well. “They were nice young men, all of them. Very new flyers, only a couple of hundred hours logged by their most senior pilot. I sat between them in the cockpit as we flew north, and we got to know each other pretty well. They were pretty scared about what was in store for them, but wanted to do their patriotic duty. I remember we made it into Fairbanks, and within a few minutes they called and said we had to get to Anchorage fast. We flew down there after little or no rest. The next day all four of the airplanes took off for some place west, and you know what? They were never seen or heard from again. Forty young men…boys really…all gone. What a waste.” His beautiful blue eyes again were seeing a sky that was from fifty some-odd years ago. Deeply sad, they were…like he could still hear their voices, and see their young faces.

As the day wore on, he told me of many adventures. His mind was sharp with the details, and I was transfixed by his recollections. They included names, dates, places, etc. When he told me of a flight in the DC-3 “Gooney Bird” were he was caught in the fog and had to land blind; I swear I could feel the twinge of anxiety tamping down the fear. I could hear the throb of the Pratt and Whitneys, smell the stale tobacco smoke and dried sweat. I could sense the vibrating metal under my boots, and the lumpy leather seat that’s been glued to my rear-end for many an hour. I could picture his hair a little less gray, the blue eyes a little less clouded, and the old “wireless” headphones covering the cap with the trademark “fifty mission crush”.  I swear I was there with him in that cockpit, in that fog storm. (I’ve been where he was mentally…all pilots have…not scared really, just very, very concerned.)

It must be mentioned that they were doing this without the aid of our present day navigation aids. Helpers like GPS, INS, ILS, VOR, were merely figments in an inventors brain. They indeed had NDBs (non-directional beacons), but instead of a full instrument approach, they were using something  called a Radio Range approach. Basically you listened to the radio beacon while it transmitted two letters in Morse code: an A and an N. Once you heard one of the letters, you would know that you were on one of the four spokes of the radio range. The problems with this procedure were many. It didn’t give you any distance (ala DME) info, it didn’t tell you which quadrant of the four section pie you were in (you just had to know based on your direction of approach), and static from heavy rain or lightening discharges played havoc with the reception (so when you needed it most, it may be the most inaccurate). These men were aviation pioneers in every sense of the word. One can’t say that flying back then was dangerous, just maybe not very safe.

northwest-dc-3

(Northwest DC-3 “Gooney Bird”)

Late in the day, I could tell that he was tiring from all the talking, so he began to ask me questions about my world as it exists now. As I began to offer what being an airline Captain is like in the last decade of this century, his face became puzzled. “But wait a minute, you have to go through some sort of x-ray contraption to see if you have a gun or a bomb? You’re the pilot, why would you want to hi-jack your own airplane?” And, “you have to do what? Pee in a cup to see if you have drugs in you? You’re the Captain for God’s sake, just tell them NO!” But Captain Ritchie, you don’t understand, I can’t just say no, the FAA would ground me. “What do you mean you can’t tell jokes in the cockpit anymore?” Well, we can tell jokes, BUT we are sent to school to learn “sensitivity training”, so as to not offend anyone.” (Let me say that at best we just shut up when a Flight Attendant enters the cockpit…there have been plenty of “sexual harassment” lawsuits in the last several years.) At his bewilderment about the lunacy of these things, I could offer no explanation.

He had a look of shock and a little sadness when he began to comprehend what I was telling him. His beloved profession was not where he had left it. A pilot for the airlines used to be someone very highly respected; unfortunately, at times now we are treated like any other “Joe” that works at the airport.  I’m sad about that too, and not a day goes by at work that I don’t attempt to wear my stripes with pride, and dignity. I try to never forget that people like Captain Ritchie and his comrades, have (in a way) “paid” for my stripes many years ago with a currency that I barely comprehend.

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(Landing in Tokyo in the Boeing 757)

Many times when I’m at work, and confronted with a problem or an obstacle (such as a mechanical delay), I have been known to utter, “but you know, when they write the history books a hundred years from now, this won’t even be mentioned”. It may sound a bit flippant, but I honestly don’t mean it like that, and I feel that it is in fact a very true statement. Most often I use it around the gate agents, etc to highlight the fact that what we are doing is not particularly ground-breaking, and certainly not historic. It’s simply another airline flight flown in a very safe jet, by a group of very skilled people. But the man that I was blessed to spend a summer day with, in the nursing home in Minneapolis, was one of the few who could never say that. They wrote aviation history every single flight, every single day as they flew it.

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(One of my current “mounts”…the Boeing 767-300ER)

A rather sad addendum. It seems that Captain Ritchie was to have a son, and that young man too was to grow up and dream of a life in the clouds. He learned to fly, and after many years of hard work, was hired on to the same line that his father pioneered. He was to rise to the rank of Boeing 727 Captain for Northwest Orient Airlines, but sadly, he would perish in an automobile accident the year I graduated from high school (1974). I could see his heart breaking again as he told me the wrenching tale, but I also felt like I was somehow now holding the baton that he and his son had both held.  I could only hope that I was up to the task.

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(The livery…and airline when I was hired in 1983. A “Northwest Orient” Boeing 727-51. It was the small version of the 727, seating roughly 125 passengers…we fondly called her “the Stubby”)

Northwest Airlines Captain Bertram Ritchie was to pass away later that fall, and upon hearing this I couldn’t help but feel that a chapter in aviation was coming to a close. These men had done what no others had done before them, and (most) of them survived to tell about it. I was one of the lucky few who got to listen in person.

From an unknown author:

“Fly west my friend, on a journey we all must take…”

Tailwinds to you Captain Ritchie…tailwinds my friend and colleague. And one more thing. Thank you for taking me with you in your Time Machine…thank you.

Till next time,

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Passing the Torch

My life’s work as an aviator has been lots of things. It has been concurrently exciting and exhilarating, and (at times) excruciatingly tedious and boring.  For the last thirty plus years, I have had the good fortune to inhabit a job that has filled me with wonder and amazement, for I’ve visited places and witnessed things that few could experience in five full lifetimes. And, I’m sad to say, it has (again, at times) been tremendously lonely and heartbreaking. Days, and weeks spent on the road when heart and family beckons can be painful, and this will bruise even the stoutest of souls. I’ve been thousands of miles removed when death and pain have visited my loved ones, and that is a heavy burden to bear. With that said, it’s been nearly a four decade journey that is slowly nearing its last port of call.  Me thinks that will cause all but the most mundane to pause and reflect.

transitting TRWs SIN to NRT2

(Paralleling a line of thunderstorms just SW of Manila…Singapore to Tokyo.)

Without question, one of the pinnacles of a life spent in airline aviation, is that golden day when you are handed the keys to the jet. When you get to sew on that coveted “fourth stripe” assuming the role as Commander, and begin your work as the person in charge of the operation. As I grow longer in the tooth (in the world of airline parlance, we are referred to as “Senior Captains”), so do my First Officers, many of whom I’ve shared a cockpit with for countless hours. More than a few of them are now leaving the proverbial nest and moving on to write the story of their own Captaincy’s. This phenomenon has begun to accelerate in the last couple of years, and as I hear that they are leaving my world, it’s left me with a mixture of emotions.

An interesting side note. As these old-head First Officers are moving up the food chain, they are now being replaced by brand spanking new “kids” at the bottom of the seniority list. I flew an Anchorage trip with just such a young man a few weeks ago. After inquiring as to the year I was a new-hire (like he), I responded that I was hired as a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer at Northwest Orient Airlines in 1983. His retort was, “Really? What month? “November” was my response. His next question; “What DAY in November of 1983?”  From me; “November 14th”. The look on his young face was of shock and a bit of amazement. It seems I was in my second week of new-hire orientation THE DAY HE WAS BORN! LOL!  I think it’s fair to say that he felt he was now sharing a cockpit with Methuselah himself (and I must admit that I was unsure if he was indeed old enough to purchase a beer). It seems that “old Man Time” keeps plodding right along…the bastard.

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(My new hire class 14 November 1983. I recently flew a trip with a young “new hire” First Officer that casually asked what year I was hired…then what month…then what day. You guess it! He was born roughly two weeks after this picture was taken! LOL…)

A good First Officer.

What makes a good (or excellent) First Officer? The book defines this person as the “Second in Command” of the vessel, which of course means that if I choke on a chicken bone from the crew meal (assuming I will eat that mostly horrid food) and expire on the flight deck, they will now assume command, and steer the ship to a safe landing. The trick as said F/O having been “field promoted” to Captain is to NOT smile too broadly as they haul my carcass off the jet, for they have now “moved up a number” on that coveted System Seniority List. Just kidding of course…none of my F/O’s would do such a thing (maybe).

I was fortunate enough to spend several years crewing different jets from the right seat as an F/O (and from the third seat as an F/E), and they were almost always with men that I trusted, admired, and truly loved to work with (and for). I flew the Boeing 747 (or as we call it…”the Whale”) with exceptional Captains the likes of Harry B., Jim N., Terry M, and George K. I flew the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 with superb Commanders like Al T., Sherman C., Gene E., and Bob F. (the father of the young lady that inspired this piece). These men were very good at their job, they knew the machine well, could fly it through the eye of a needle, but they had more than just “pilot skills”…they knew how to be a great Captain. One can be a good pilot and a bad Captain (leader), but a good Captain has to be both…a true leader and an accomplished aviator.

BTW, the perennial joke about F/Os is that their world consists of: “gear up, shut up, clear right and I’ll take the chicken…” Lol. Obviously, becoming an accomplished “Number 1” can be a mixture of aviating skills, technical aplomb, and tactical prowess. Plus, a dash of psychiatric expertise (to deal with some of those “Captain’s egos”) is a great tool in any right-seater’s bag of tricks.

Needless to say, on very few occasions, I would be paired with a “bad Captain”, and that was most assuredly not fun. They could be demeaning, authoritative, brash, and petty (yes, some were even prone to yelling…lovely, right?). One guy was so bad that he would tell you how to fold your map, where to put your pencil, what to say on the radio, and a myriad of other such nonsensical things. His level of “control” was such that he was smothering the rest of us in the cockpit (not ashamed to say that I truly did not like flying with this gentleman). He went so far as to deem himself the “Captain of the layover”, and one rainy afternoon in Amsterdam as we were riding the trolley for dinner, he would become hellbent on making that point.

He and the F/E were comfortably seated on the tram, and I elected to stand. He told me (ordered me actually) to sit down, pointing to an open seat. I offered that it actually felt rather good to stand (we sit for a living, don’t we?)…but he was having none of it. He said, “Sit down Bill.” I replied, “Nah, I think I’ll just stand.” (Hercules himself couldn’t get me to sit at that point.) His next statement was, “I TOLD YOU to sit down!” I kind of lost it… “Look Dan, on the jet, you ARE the man! The Captain, el Hefe, “the Dude”, and I’ll do whatever you tell me to do! But we AREN’T on the jet are we? You are NOT the Captain of the layover!” I promptly exited the trolley at the next stop and left the poor Flight Engineer to eat with him alone (fairly sure I suggested he do something with his “guy parts” that is anatomically impossible). I vaguely remember the wonderful Dutch folks on the trolley car, slowly lowering their newspapers to get a glimpse of the Americans that were about to kill each other….lol.

Fortunately, Commanders like he were very few and far between. The longs days of such a trip would inch by like the drip of molasses, and when our time was through, a sigh of relief would sweep over me as I left the employee parking lot. Whether I realized it or not, as I was working with these two types of bosses, I was learning from both of them. I don’t remember actually saying something to the effect of, “I want to be like Captain ABC”, but I distinctly recall the times when I would think, “I will never be like Captain XYZ.” I guess we actually do learn as much from the failures as we do from successes.

NWA Whale

(A Northwest Airlines “Whale”. Notice how this pilot has just “cracked the engine thrust reversers” even before the nose gear has touched down. This guy was good.)

Whale SO 2

(Yours truly as a Boeing 747 Second Officer…circa 1987 or so. It always amazed me doing the walk-around on this beast, just how friggin big it truly is! Yeah, that was indeed 30 pounds and lots of hair ago…lol. )

I worked hard and endeavored to be very good at my job as their First Officer…Robin to their Batman, Tonto to their Lone Ranger, Chewbacca to their Han Solo, McCartney to their Lennon, Ernie to their Bert,  (I could go on forever… but I won’t). I tried to do my job to the best of my abilities (meaning both when I was flying the machine, and when I wasn’t…when I was “flying the radios”.  Nothing worse that sounding like an idiot on the ATC airwaves). I always tried to be ready with a suggestions and/or idea when the big vise began to tighten on their Captain’s brain (weather, mechanical, ATC, crew or passenger issues), and generally to have their backs under any circumstance. I think I did a good job, for at the end of the trip, the majority of them would shake my hand and thank me. A few even intoned that it was “nice to work with someone that knows what they’re doing”. I always felt like they meant it.

dd1 (8)

(A scene you never want to see walking onto the jet. This is what the start of the big vise tightening onto the Captain’s brain looks like. We were Tokyo headed to Guam one morning last summer…IIRC, it turned into a very long day.)

A good Captain.

So why am I writing this now? Here’s why. As I met up with Pam, my F/O for this 12 day trip (we are on day 12 as I begin to write this, and FINALLY head home this morning), she informed me that it was her last trip as a First Officer, for she was heading down to Atlanta to begin training as an MD-88 Captain next month. My first reaction was nothing short of “Wow…way cool! Congratulations!  You’ll make a great Captain!” (I sincerely meant every word). Her and I have crewed the big Boeing many times together over the last dozen years (and like I mentioned, she comes from good “airline stock”…her father and I flew the DC-10 together many times), and she’s always been a great person to work with. She will indeed make a fine Aircraft Commander.

But what does that mean? What makes a good Captain? Do they all run their “ship” in the same manner? Fly the jet the same, tell the same jokes, treat the cabin crews the same? Obviously not, but IMHO, there are certain traits and blood lines that are endemic to being a good cockpit leader. I grew up in the household of one such person, was fortunate enough to fly as a new airline pilot with many of them, and when they threw me the keys to the Boeing 727 that fateful day in June ’94 as a sparkling new “Four Striper”, I had them ALL (proverbially) sitting on my shoulder with me as I climbed into that coveted left cockpit seat. (I penned a blog entry about that day…it’s entitled: “Firsts” from a January 2015 entry.)

NWA 757

(My mount for the last 19 years…to include the B767 since the merger with Delta in 2008.)

Here are some of the traits that I gleaned from those that I flew under, and greatly respected. Most times they never enumerated such things, but after observing them, it was quite obvious it was part of their “Captain repertory”:

  • Never ask a member of your crew to do something you won’t do. If that means climbing up into a landing gear well to inspect (or nowadays, get a phone video of) a suspected hydraulic leak…then do it. Get your fat butt out of that “golden seat”, go down on the ramp, and see what’s going on. If you get some grease on that white “hero shirt” of yours, not to worry. They sell airline uniforms at the Crew Store…a little dirt won’t kill you.
  • Never, ever put your needs ahead of your crews. Case in point; midnight arrival at the layover hotel, not enough rooms for whatever reason (usually something idiotic like the guy behind the counter has yet to get the “magic fax” from the bean counters at Company Headquarters authorizing payment), and now the dance of musical rooms begins. Always be the person at the end of the line. I’ve sat for an hour in the lobby waiting for that last room…but that’s the bane of being the Commander. The cavalry soldiers of old always fed, groomed and bedded down their horses first, then looked to their own needs. Your crew care comes first…you, a distant second. I saw my Captains do it…I’ve done it myself.
  • Trust your crew to do their job (and do it well). I learned from many a great Whale (and “Diesel 10”) Captain to “empower” those people during your briefing. They MUST know that you will support them in a pinch, that you will “have their back Jack”, and then let them get on with their work. I’ve found that over the years, if you do this for them, they will make your life up in the pointy end far easier. Rather than involve you in EVERY little issue within their cabin, they will take some initiative, work it out, and you’ll hear about it later in the flight (or sometimes, on the crew bus hours removed from the event). Trust them to know their job, and do it professionally. You are in command, but that doesn’t mean you have to be (like Captain Dan) the King of Micro-managing.
  • If the cabin crew can’t do their job in terms of their service to the passengers, then you’re not doing your job very well. You are tasked with finding them smooth air…period…on every flight. This may fall more into the “pilot” job description, but do let them know that when the ride has become like your F-150 has a wheel in the ditch, that you ARE being proactive, and you ARE trying to find them smooth air. All pilots know that there will simply be days when that air is absent (I’ve spent many a long, bumpy night over the North Pacific bouncing along for hours). But they have to know that you are truly trying to “do some of that pilot sh*t Mav” and get them a better ride. We in the business end forget that just walking the aisles during ugly turbulence can be a challenge…not to mention doing it with scalding hot liquids. As long as they know you’re trying to make their life better, you MAY NOT get a squeeze of Visine in your next cup of coffee…just kidding…that’s “old school” stuff. 99% of the new flight attendants don’t even know what that means anymore…lol.
  • When the going gets tough, the Commander should probably be the one hanging onto the yoke. Not always, but most of the times. It certainly depends on lots of things. Your F/O (your previous experience with them, their experience in the machine and in the situation, etc), the weather, the airport, etc. I’m not speaking of those times when your “Captain-ness” is down around your ankles (like in the simulator LOEs, when you have an engine shut down, the blizzard is getting worse, and they’re delivering a baby in the cabin). I’m talking about “normal” times when it sucks. Late night, tired as hell, funky airport, raining sideways…you now, “normal suckiness”. This may be one of the more difficult decisions a new Commander will be faced with.

As 99% of my flying occurs on the other side of the planet, there sits but one destination whereby I prefer to be the dude driving the machine as opposed to the person flying the radios. It’s a tropical paradise known as Palau, and I love going there (the wonderful Mrs. BBall has been there many times with me…she loves it too). It’s a funny little airport, sitting on VERY dark island in the middle of the mid-Pacific. We arrive at midnight local time, and most times amidst the scattered showers that live there 365 nights a year. They have but one coral runway that’s “quasi short”, it’s almost always wet (meaning slipperier than snot), and quite often the landing is done with a bit of a tailwind. There is no “real” glidepath information other than our VNAV display and/or the VASI at the end of the runway. Oh, and the last piece of the “ugly puzzle” is that this typically happens early into our 12 day rotation into the Pacific, so our bodies haven’t switched over to Japan time yet. This means we’ve skipped a night’s sleep going from the West Coast to Japan, most probably have had a rather crappy night’s sleep that first layover in “Dai Nippon” (not uncommon for me to be wide awake at 0400 Japan time on that first night), and now we’re executing this little maneuver 20 hours later at midnight feeling like you’ve been hit on the back of the head with a shovel. To quote one of my favorite F/Os (Lionel “Digger” R.), “What could possibly go wrong?” LOL….

I’ve landed there two dozen times in the last several years, and every single time it gets me sitting up a bit straighter, and working really hard to be on my A game. I never try for a grease-job landing, I just plop the big jet onto the slippery runway, let the Auto-Brakes do their thing, use lots of Reverse Engine thrust, and let the Flight Attendants bitch to me about that “hard” landing at the de-planing door. As we’re kissing the passengers “Good bye”, they’ll usually offer a quip like, “That wasn’t a very smooth landing..ha, ha.”. My answer is usually something a bit flippant like…”Well, here you either get a “plop” of a landing, or you get to go swimming off the end of the runway…I always choose the firm landing…”

Again, this is a tough call for any Commander. I have indeed sat through the landing in Palau with the F/O as the pilot flying. Doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen with those other than the ones that I have flown many trips with, and I know that they can do it correctly (meaning of course, safely).

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(Looking through the jetway fence in Palau. It’s 0430 and we launch for Tokyo in less than an hour.)

Palau Xmas 2015

(Sunset in Palau Christmas day 2015. I still can’t believe that they “make me” layover in this hell-hole for 96 hours! It kind of reminds me of the hotel pool in Grand Rapids…but not really. Did I mention that we layover here for almost FOUR DAYS?!)

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(The beautiful “Mrs. Captain BBall” suffering through a Palau layover with me…misery does indeed love company…right?)

  • My last bit of advice comes from my dear Father. Although he never captained an airliner with hundreds of trusting souls, he did command air machines (in combat) with those perched behind his seat trusting him with their lives. He told me countless times that I should attempt to be the first one onto the machine, and the last one off. This is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine for various reasons. There are indeed times when the cockpit crew will HAVE to bolt off of the jet early in the deplaning process, to hurry to the next airplane that’s perched 100 gates away, and with the next push time literally minutes hence. When I’m tasked with that brand of “fun”, I always try to (rather loudly) exclaim to the F/As that I hate to rush off, but we have to get to the next flying machine post haste (hoping of course, that the passengers have heard me and don’t think we’re just a couple of douche bags that can’t wait to get home and crack that first beer!). I think it simply looks awful to be sitting in the cabin and witness the cockpit crew bowling down old ladies in their rush to get off the jet….well, not really, but you know what I mean. Not what professionalism looks like.

When that’s not the case, I will always try to be literally the last body to walk off the machine. As my Dad would tell me, “You signed for that machine, and that means that you signed to be responsible for EVERYONE’S safety…yours, your crews and your passengers.” I have no problem at the end of the day, suggesting to the F/O to head toward the airline crew bus (and probably getting a 15-30 jump on getting home), but I will stay until the last passenger, and the last crew member have stepped off the machine. On many occasions, I’ve had a Flight Attendant ask if I’d like for them to move their suitcases out of the way so I could deplane, and my answer is always the same…”no thanks, I’ll be the last one off of the jet tonight.” This is (almost always) met with rather strange looks, but I’m ALWAYS left with a “thank you…you’re one of the few Captains that do that”. I never fail to give credit to my Father, and explain that I was raised by a professional pilot, and that I’m a “throwback to the old days”.

My rationale has always been this. So I bound off the jet and make the earlier crew bus. The machine is sitting at the gate “almost” empty of people, and the APU decides to erupt into flames. What now? Hopefully, it auto-shuts down, or a mechanic saves the day….but what if that doesn’t happen? What if someone is injured (or worse) because I wanted to make that early bus? How could I reconcile that with myself as the person that pledged to do my best to NOT let something like this happen? So I’ll stand there with my best “airline look”, say goodbye (or goodnight) to everyone as they gather their junk and walk off, then I’ll make one last trip to the cockpit and look around, and finally, after everyone is off, I’ll get my bags and head toward the door.

Oh, and one more thing that this “last man standing” attitude allows me. It gives me a few precious seconds to soothe this “big horse” before she goes to bed for the night. I usually give her a nice pat on the cold, firm metal of the fuselage as I step off, and a gentle “thank you” never seems out of place. Told you I was a throw-back…

So now I find that the last 22 years sitting in the “God Seat” on the jet wasn’t all about just looking regal, looking “stately”, and acting like you’re a super hybrid version of “Maverick/Goose”, Steve Canyon, and Buzz Lightyear, all rolled into one. Whether or not you’ve noticed (or cared to notice), Captain Ball, you’re been watched all these years. (wait…that sounds kinda creepy) I’m even guessing some of those young folks were taking mental notes.

Being a good Captain isn’t about airplane system schematics, figuring fuel loads, digesting weather reports and forecasts, knowing ATC lingo, understanding the hieroglyphics known as the FARS, being able to fly a “sierra hotel” ILS with an engine shut down, etc….well, it IS of course…but it’s just as much about something else. It’s about people. YOUR people. Your crew and your passengers. They trust you…they should trust you…but you have to EARN that trust. It’s not like putting a coin into a gum-ball machine…and “plop”…out comes their faith (and trust) in you. Doesn’t work that way. It’s a rare privilege to sit where you’re sitting. Earn that privilege.

In the golden years of my career, I can look back and say that I’ve met (and had the pleasure to work with) some of the most wonderful people imaginable. They are stellar aviators (of course…they should be at this stage in their flying lives), but along with that, they are just damned fine people. They’ve made my job as Captain a million times easier, and for that I owe them all a debt of gratitude and a huge “Thank You”.

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(What we look like going across the Pacific “tracks” headed for Japan. Well, if the jet were painted differently, and we didn’t speak Japanese on the flight deck.)

So now, when these new Commanders are (regally) sitting comfortably up at FL350, sipping a cup of our line’s best java (sans the Visine of course), I hope that when they begin to pontificate about the “old days”, and the “old head” Captains they flew with way back in the day….a certain name either IS or ISN’T used in the conversation….

LOL…your call “Captain”… you’re in charge now.

Oh, and to new Captains the likes of “Pam F.”, “Norm L.”, “Terry P.”, and “Tom L.”, etc, it was a joy to fly with you all these years, and it was my distinct honor to be your Captain. You will all make fine Commanders…oh and do me a favor, will you?  Say “howdy” to the gang for me down at Big Bob’s Bowling Alley in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (one of the more exotic destinations for the “Mad Dog”…MD-88).   The “baby pilots” and I will hold down the fort out West (and I’ll keep your bar stool warm in Palau for you)!

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(Yours truly and [soon to be] Captain Pam. She will indeed make a great Captain… “see you on the jet airways Captain Pam!” Good luck and God speed.)

 

Some random glimpses from my journey:

MSP to ANC

(Minneapolis to Anchorage…more mountains than the good Lord has green apples.)

Dawn South China Sea SIN to NRT

(Dawn breaking at FL350 over the South China Sea…Singapore to Tokyo.)

HNL Pearl Harbor

(Descending into Honolulu…Pearl Harbor with Ford Island is middle frame.)

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(Rainy departure from Portland to Tokyo. Since they were smaller…and armed with AIM-120s missiles…I thought I would be nice and let them go first.)

Mt Fuji

(Probably the MOST photographed hill in the world…Mount Fuji. We were inbound to Tokyo from Guam.)

Lightning 1 SIN to NRT

(South of a line of thunderstorms…again over the South China Sea. Screeshot from a video I took of all the cool lightning.)

not always sunny HKG

(Not every day is clear and bright in BBall-world. Departing Hong Kong for Tokyo in the midst of some “liquid sunshine”.)

BF Mongolia

(Somewhere over the vast expanse of Siberia…Seattle to Seoul.

Night Landing HKG

(Night landing in Hong Kong.)

two ANAs NRT

(Twin All Nippon Airways jets in Narita…Boeings as far as the eye can see!)

St Elmos Fire 4

(Another screenshot. From a video of some “St. Elmo’s Fire” on the windshield. Night flight Tokyo to Portland.)

Sacred Ground Iwo Jima

(Sacred, hallowed ground… Iwo Jima. I never pass by without thinking of the thousands of brave Marines [and IJA] that gave their lives here. As was said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” God bless you young men. May you all forever rest in peace.)

I love HELOs

(Can you tell I love helicopters? In the restoration hangar on Ford Island, Hawaii.)

 

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(Speaking of the love of rotary winged flight. A shot of my Surface Tablet’s navigation page showing Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I was transfixed knowing that five decades ago, my dear Father was flying directly below me in these war-torn skies, fearing for his life, doing his job, and thinking of me, my siblings and my dear Mother. I miss them both greatly…)

Tom and Huey love

(More “helo pics”. My F/O on this trip [Tom…superb guy] once Crew-chiefed on Hueys. It was very apparent that the love for this bird was still beating in his pilot heart.)

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(Not exactly sure what this “guard” was keeping safe here on the streets of Bangkok…but he seems to have things well in hand.)

And finally…

Pam and Roy SIN2

(From my last trip. Myself, F/Os Pam and Roy atop the Marina Sands Hotel in Singapore.)

The journey continues…

’till the next time.

 

 

 

 

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The Sundance Kid

 

There are few things in life that are as pleasant as awakening to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and frying bacon. (For my vegan friends, you can ignore the last part of that sentence, but it doesn’t change the fact…sorry.) Smells are time machines, for they, almost better than anything else, have the ability to transport us back to long ago places. To this very day, I can’t smell Old Spice after shave without feeling the strength of my father’s hug, and when a pot roast is cooking in the oven, I’m back in the loving arms of my dear mother. Ah, “thank you” olfactory nerves…you’re the best.

This story begins before dawn on a Texas summer day with the smell of bacon and coffee. The year is 1969, and I’m  enjoying my 13th year of life. Obviously, drinking steaming hot “Joe” was not a part of my daily routine, for I would not adopt that habit for another two decades, and then only to stave off fatigue over the long, dark Pacific as a Boeing 747 Flight Engineer. Saying that international pilots cannot fly without that heavenly bean, would be a gross understatement indeed. But the bacon? That was another matter altogether. I think it’s fair to say that your average teenage male can consume his body weight in fried pork without too much effort. I have no doubt that on this particular morning, that theory was alive and well.

The destination for this day, and the reason behind an excited teenager bounding out of bed at 0400, were part and parcel of an adventure that few (if any) present day teens can say they’ve been a part of. My dear Dad and I quickly devoured the forlorn pig (plus an egg or two), washed it down with several cups of “mud” (me having milk), and mechanically (and stealthily I might add) began the process of gearing up for our one hour drive westward. We were outbound for a small, “one horse town” on the ragged, scrub-brushed plains of North Texas. After loading into the Chrysler Town & Country wagon, my Dad would begin his routine of pouring another cup of coffee from his green thermos, lighting up a Salem, and finding some George Jones on the AM radio. He would reverse out of our slanted driveway on Westfield Drive in south Ft. Worth, turn west, and off we would motor. The eastern sky would be sporting a dim, faint glow, the cicadas would be singing their nocturnal summer tune, and life simply could not be better.

town and country

(The “mini-van” of the 60s and 70s…the family station wagon.)

Mineral Wells, Texas lies just east of the Brazos River, squarely astride the demarcation line for Palo Pinto and Parker counties. Its fame lies not only in its mineral springs, but also in the fact that in the year 1919, it was the spring training location for the Chicago White Sox (the year of their infamous “Black Sox” scandal). One other small fact about this hardscrabble little village, is that in 1925 an outfit by the name of the United States Army opened its gate to Camp Wolters just a few miles down the road. It would soon become one of the largest infantry training facilities during the Second World War, and two famous people (for vastly different reasons) would darken its doors. Two Army privates…one named Audie Murphy and the other Eddie Slovik…take a moment to look them up on Al Gore’s internet. Shortly after the war, the Air Force held the keys to the facility, but it wasn’t truly again on the BIG map until the year 1956. Two incredible things happened in that pivotal year; yours truly was born and spanked into life in an Army hospital in Schwabisch Gmund, West Germany, and the United States Army’s fledgling rotary-winged world opened its Primary Helicopter School on the sun-bleached plains just outside of town.

At this time in my young life, my father had recently ended his active duty career, had “separated” from the Army, and our family had moved from Germany to north Texas (our second tour in Deutschland…counting of course, my “birth tour”). A few years earlier, he had spent his time in the skies over war-torn Vietnam, and after surviving that, had taken a cushy overseas assignment in the cockpit of the CH-34 Choctaw with the 7th Army just outside of Munich. Toward the end of his Germany rotation, he received orders to report for training to fly the CH-47 Chinook (his dream machine), with the ugly caveat that his next assignment would be in that lovely machine, but back in the hell of Vietnam. By now he had served far more than his required 20 years (for a full pension), and decided to simply retire and let the young bucks win the war (it was, after all, his second war…his first as a combat medic in Korea).

The question then became…what next? As any pilot knows, if you can cop an easy gig, that pays good scratch, AND remain in a cockpit, then take it! He found one, it did, and he did. As the 1960s waned, the demand for young men to fly the Army’s newest marvel of aerial warfare (the helicopter) was skyrocketing, but there was a rather large problem. The big hurdle wasn’t finding the needed volunteers to pilot these things, but finding those that could teach their precarious trade to said volunteers. The Army, of course, supplied qualified active duty pilots (most with time logged in Vietnam), but that simply wasn’t enough to meet the ever increasing demand for cockpit crewmembers. An enterprising outfit by the name of Southern Airways stepped in and offered a solution. They would not only provide the lion’s share of the maintenance on the hundreds of helicopters at the blossoming facility at Ft. Wolters, and be responsible for many of the support duties on base, but they would also hire hundreds of retired Army aviators, make them Instructor Pilots, and blend them into the Army Aviation Primary Helicopter curriculum where needed. It was truly a win/win/win for everyone (Southern Airways/the Army/AND the retired pilots). With that “marriage of convenience”, Army aviation history was made.

ch-34

(My Dad’s ride in Germany, the CH-34 Choctaw.)

Where and how my father found out about this gravy train is beyond me, but I’m guessing it was from within his network of Army pilot buddies. He began his second career in aviation in the last days of the 60’s, and within a short period of time, found out that he took to it like a duck to water…and so did his youngest son (me). From his comments to my dear Mother, I surmised the following; he loved the fact that he no longer had to wear a myriad of uniforms (his “work clothes” consisted of a zipper-infested flight suit, his old Army combat boots, and a baseball cap), he didn’t mind not having to salute folks anymore, he had little or no paperwork involved other than the usual student forms, and he simply didn’t have to deal with 99% of the crap that came with many of his active duty flying stints. He was in heaven…albeit a strangely scheduled one. It seems that the Southern Airways “I.P.s” worked an “early week”, then transitioned to a “late week”, on and off ad nauseam. The students would fly in the mornings, do school-house work in the afternoons, and then swap that rotation the next week. Strange to be sure, but so are many of the ways of the Army…hence our pre-dawn launch.

Roughly 30 minutes after leaving my slumbering siblings, we would pull off the massive I-20 superhighway onto the old “Ft. Worth Highway” (legally known as Texas State Highway 180).  At this point, we would be just a few miles east of Weatherford, about 20 minutes from our destination, and the flavor of our drive would begin to change. My dad would begin to lose his usual air of nonchalant conversation about such earth-shattering topics as the upcoming season of the Dallas Cowboys, or my last performance on the baseball diamond or the football turf (he was the coach of my baseball team and suffered through MANY a Saturday morning watching me play Gray Y football). His mind began its time-honored process of switching between the happy-go-lucky groundling to a serious Instructor Pilot (I notice I tend to do it myself as I pull into the airline employee parking lot). I however, would typically become more excited, knowing what lay in store for me that day, but would try my best to let him sink into his thoughts. After all, pilots have a “game face”, and he needed to slip into his.

North Texas Mineral Wells2

As we would make the right turn onto Washington Avenue, under that iconic main gate sign, I would be spellbound under those magic words; “Primary Helicopter Center” with the two beautiful rotary-wing machines, each standing guard on its respective side (the OH-23D on the left and the TH-55A to the right).  Adorning the apex sat a replica of the wings that I grew up seeing proudly displayed on my own father’s chest…those beautiful silver wings of an Army Aviator.  That one shiny symbol always represented to me such enviable qualities as: courage, honor, integrity, and that AMAZING ability to hover! We would pass underneath this metal and mortar gate, but we would also be crossing an actual, no kidding, Rubicon of sorts…we had now crossed from the world of those that know nothing about helicopters, to those that knew everything about them. I was in heaven, and I knew it. It was much like walking into a major league ball park before a big game; these folks were “different” then the rest of us…not a point of judgement, just a simple fact.

gate 3

(Main gate circa 1969.)

gate 4

(Main gate as it looks today.)

By now, the sun would be low in the morning sky, portending another scorching, sweat soaked Texas summer day, and as we drove toward one of the 3 big heliports; my Dad would be lost in his thoughts of that day’s lesson plan with his three students. The civilian (Southern Airways) I.P.s would take the WOCs (Warrant Officer Candidates…they also had Commissioned Officers coming through, but I don’t remember if he had any of those type students), and get them from Day 1 (the nickel ride as it were) through solo and on to some magic “stage check”, where they would disappear off to an actual Army I.P. for the rest of their “Primary” training. After graduation, they would be sent off to “Mother Rucker” down in the red clay world of Enterprise, Alabama for the rest of their journey into the world of Army Aviation. From there, almost all of his students had but one destination…Vietnam. This meant he got them brand spanking new to the world of rotorcraft flight, and all it entailed. I’m convinced that it was not only some of the best flying he ever did, but also some of the most challenging.

fw28

(What else is there to say?)

The Briefing.

Pulling into the parking lot adjacent to the old, paint-peeled building where this would all begin, was tantamount to entering a quasi-world of the military (mixed with us civilian and –ex active duty types). The smell of diesel exhaust, lots of loud olive-drab vehicles, groups of men all moving purposefully, the iconic checkered control tower looming over us, and of course, the requisite HUGE ramp where hundreds of little orange/white flying machines sat inertly squatting in anticipation of flight. The crunch of the gravel under my tennis shoes was drowned out by the dozens of “size 10 combat boots” that my Dad and the other I.P.s wore. They would greet each other with the time-honored banter of all aviators, and although most of the conversation centered around how each of them were in fact THE best damned pilot the Army ever constructed…at times the conversation would become hushed, and snippets of “by the way, I flew with your boy Jones last week, and….”. At this turn, their faces would adopt a deadly serious expression, and I knew that I was seeing them deep within their element…and they were indeed the best.

 

fw27

(One of the three main heliports.)

My father would hustle me into the big room, get me seated at his briefing table, fire up a smoke while pouring another steaming cup of coffee, and start paging through the folder of each of the three WOCs he would be flying with this fine day. Many times, I would be in their world at a “post solo” stage for these young guys, so their first HUGE hurdle (in a long line of hurdles) had been successfully jumped. This meant that a tiny part of the mountain of pressure that they were living with had been relieved, and this translated into relaxation and fun for BOTH the student and the I.P. Presently, the hissing of the air brakes from the Army buses would announce the arrival of said students, and the bright morning sun would invade the cool room as the door flew open, and in would pour a couple of dozen boisterous, smiling, young men. I’m not sure what they thought of me being there, and since I never saw any other dependents hanging out with their old man, maybe they thought I was some sort of “junior, junior ROTC” type kid. Not sure, but they were always really friendly, and essentially just accepted me being there.

briefing tables

(A typical briefing room.)

This is where the rubber would meet the proverbial road for them (and me in some ways), for now the imparting of knowledge would begin. My Dad had an easy way about him, with a smile that could disarm most anyone, and this seemed to lend itself to a relaxed air of learning. Growing up in this world, I had added a strange mix of vocabulary to the normal lexicon of most young men.  At this time in history, most teenage American boys would speak in the language of things like: the wishbone formation, a double play ball or the infield fly rule, a Ruger .22 rifle, a Honda mini-bike, and the Cowboys verses Packers… (All the way to the mysterious) “Bra hook…what the hell is that?” But because of my dear ol’ Dad, you could add to my conversational English terms such as: translational lift, retreating blade stall, vortex ring state, pedal turns, auto-rotations, and about a million other little snippets from the world of Army Aviation. I must admit it…I was a rather weird 13 year old kid.

With the formal briefing now underway, I became a fly on the wall. These conversations were all about some rather cool things like approaches, landings, auto-rotations, and mastering that all important art of the hover. I noticed that my Dad always had a big blank pad of paper on the briefing table, and in later years when ALL of his students were young Vietnamese pilots (Google Richard Nixon and “Vietnamization”), he would end each and every instructional dissertation with “Do you understand?” This was (almost always) met with vigorous nodding of three heads, and a resounding “Yes!” He would then push the blank pad toward them with the comment…”OK, you draw for me what I just taught you.” This was (many times) countered with a blank look and a resounding, “I no understand!”…lol.  I can hardly imagine a more difficult task than to teach something as complicated as rotary winged flight to someone from a third world country with a (mostly) agrarian society. God bless the I.P.s and the ARVN pilots that teamed up to get the job done.

 

The Stage Field.

One of the ingenious ideas that the Ft. Wolters brain trust developed, was the concept of dozens of relatively small training heliports scattered throughout the local area. These little training facilities became known as Stage Fields, and they allowed this huge facility to train literally hundreds of pilots simultaneously. Originally, they were given really cool “cowboy” names like Pinto, Mustang, Bronco and Ramrod. Later in the decade, as the war in Vietnam ramped up to its horrific climax (thus requiring thousands of additional chopper pilots), more Stage Fields were built and given monikers of actual in theatre airfields. These were christened with names like Hue, Chu Lai, Danang, An Khe, Bien Hoa, Soc Trang, and several others. And here’s an interesting tidbit concerning these little airfields; they were positioned in the same relative position as their real world counterparts, thus allowing the newbie pilots to have a slight modicum of familiarity with the names and locations before they shipped overseas. Cool idea…right?

 

Stage fields map

(Map of the Stage Fields.)

With the lesson plans and briefings complete, my Dad and his three students departed for the massive ramp to begin their pre-flight duties on the venerable little Hughes TH-55 (the I.P.s dubbed it “the Mattel Messerschmitt”). With the morning heat and humidity building by now, yours truly would be bouncing across the plateaus of North Texas in a (very) used Ford pickup truck. For each shift, one member of the staff in each flight would be tasked with driving out to the assigned Stage Field, operate the “Unicom type” radio, and generally just run the compact little airfield. It was considered rather cushy duty, for rather than spend hours in a hot, sweaty, cramped little cockpit, he simply hung out, drank coffee, and provided information to the pilots such as the wind, temperature, altimeter setting, etc..

FW_north_takeoff

(Traffic pattern cheat sheet.)

 

pinto

(Stage Field Pinto.)

When I was lucky enough to accompany my father on one of these amazing adventures, I would be allowed to ride shotgun with this man out to the Stage Field. After thirty or so minutes of dusty gravel roads, several cattle gates, lots of hot Texas wind (and several good pilot stories), we would arrive at roughly the same time as the inbound swarm of small helicopters that was darkening the horizon. Our exciting destination for this particular day? A magical place by the name of Stage Field Sundance. The protocol would be that one of the students would fly out to the training airfield with the instructor, while the other two would fly solo to that facility, then spending several hours doing the day’s syllabus while my Dad would rotate between students in their respective machines.

Stagefield Sundance

(Stage Field Sundance)

Once at the Stage Field, I adopted the guise of defacto mascot for the Instructor Pilots. These men were all ex-active duty pilots, they had all been to Vietnam, and several of them had been decorated for their bravery and valor. In my eyes, they all stood 7 feet tall, had the Wisdom of Solomon, and the strength of Hercules. They generally made John Wayne seem like a 98 pound weakling, and they all seemed to have a twinkle in their eye and spark in their soul that few people possess. In short, they were heroes of the finest order, and I felt honored to be allowed into their world. What were my duties as said mascot you might wonder? I was to keep the coffee pot percolating (yeah, this was way back when coffee pots didn’t have fancy names/buttons/etc. ….you put in the water, the coffee, and basically boiled it to within an inch of its life), the snack machine had to be up and going, and just generally whatever else they needed me to go “fetch”, grab or procure for them. I personally felt like my major job description was to stare at them, wide-eyed and speechless, and simply listen to their stories… of which there were plenty.

Within a few minutes of heading into the building at Sundance, it quickly became evident that I was in the midst of a maelstrom of aviation activity. The radio frequency was alive with position reports, requests for landing instructions, and lots of other stuff that my neophyte ears could not discern. Nowadays, I routinely converse with air traffic controllers from nations all over the world. Russian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and yes, even those that are the most difficult to understand…the Atlanta ATC folks…lol. Back then however, I was four plus decades removed from my current expertise, so I could make out the occasional word, but most of it sounded like a confused jumble of nonsense. By now I could hear the whine of dozens of little Lycoming engines and the steady beat of hundreds of rotor blades slapping the hot morning air. Looking out the aged window, I witnessed the stream of many small orange and white TH-55s forming a daisy chain headed inbound to the Stage Field. Stepping out of the building, ignoring the glaring sun, my gaze was drawn skyward in an attempt to see them all…knowing that my Dad was occupying one of those small works of wonder.

The next several hours would be spent in a mix of excitement, exhilaration, and joy. I was in a world I barely understood, in the presence of men steeped in a society so closed that few (other than their own) had ever seen, and I was tolerated, accepted, and somehow even made to feel like I belonged in that strange place. I would sit transfixed by the constant noise of engines, the rhythmic beat of rotor blades, and the endless parade of little helicopters making their way around the traffic pattern.  Auto rotations were as exciting for me to watch, as they were for the I.P.s and students to perform (maybe not, but they were fun to watch). At times, one of the machines would make its way past me, close enough for me to feel the rotor wash of hot Texas wind, settle to a landing and out would bound the instructor. Up the machine would rise into a wobbly hover, make its way back to the conga line of machines in the pattern, and the dance would begin again in earnest.

728px-TH-55_Osage

(The TH-55 “Mattel Messerschmitt”.)

 

T55 checklist

(I still have my Dad’s TH-55 Manual…I wouldn’t trade it for a king’s ransom.)

 

The art of the hover.

One of the common traits of the Stage Fields was always a huge concrete area that was used for parking the helos, but more importantly it was for learning that ONE thing that a helicopter pilot can do that no other pilot can…and that’s hover. A TH-55 would amble over to the middle of the area (always steady as a rock…obviously the I.P. would be at the controls), it would settle gently to the pavement, then there would be a few minutes of the imparting of a brain trust (I.P. to student) in the sacred art of acting like a hummingbird. Upon completion of the unveiling of the most sacred of secrets to this un-enlightened soul, the fun (or torture as it were) would begin!

The little machine would rise and begin a rock and roll dance LITERALLY ALL OVER the football field sized area! The nose would dip, it would rear back up, drift left, drift right, the little machine would shoot up, drop back down…and all the while myself and the Instructors that were standing around (their students were in the traffic pattern doing solo work), would be laughing our asses off! As a 13 year old (and one that had never tried this myself), I was afforded only a small amount of guffaw, but these men in their zippered “hero costumes” would laugh, point, slap each other on the back, and generally have far too much fun watching some poor I.P. out in the “rodeo arena” trying to teach what must’ve been surely the un-teachable. At regular intervals, the machine would cease its spasmodic spectacle, would remain in place as if frozen there (with the I.P. flying it), then presently, the student would be in control again, and the spasms would start all over. The delight we took in watching was almost sinful.

Stagefield Bien Hoa

(Stage Field Bien Hoa)

Eventually, the instructor would somehow solve the riddle of the student and his inability to grasp this golden chalice, and things would indeed improve. To quote my Dad, it was like trying to teach someone to rub their stomach while patting their head, while walking up and down a staircase, all the while chewing bubblegum…and at a critical moment, the I.P. would yell “SWITCH” and it would all be reversed with surgical precision and correctness! Eventually, the “light bulb” would come on over the student’s head, it would “click” somewhere in the deep recesses of their grey matter, the little bird would hover over the same patch of ground (well almost) for the required amount of time, and the fun would be over…

…until the next little orange and white machine would taxi into the “rodeo arena”.

“NOW…out of chute number 7….being ridden by WOC Jones…..WIDOW MAKER!”

It was a type of fun that few (if any) other young teenage boys can say they were ever a part of. Apparently, these “square-jawed”, “steely-eyed” Instructor Aviator types had all completely forgotten about their time in the proverbial barrel, and how retarded they looked trying to hover when they were a bottom-feeding newbie. I’m sure they were no more adept at this dance than “WOC Jones” and his embarrassing maneuvering. My Dad used to say that if you could detect movement in the controls while hovering, then you were completely over controlling the machine…it was more of “thinking” yourself into the maneuver. I’ve often wondered (and have put these thoughts to paper a few times) what my father would think about the current state of flight simulations. Hovering the UH-1H “Huey” in DCS can be challenging, but would he think it even close to the real deal? My guess is that he would love it, spend my inheritance on a new PC rig, and I would never hear the end of it from my dear Mother.

Huey Formation

(Yours truly flying the UH-1H “Huey” in the flight simulation DCS World)

All too soon the day would begin to wind down, and though it was but lunch time to my young body, I would have already put in a full day. I would be riding high on adrenalin for hours, flush with the stories of the heroes, and the sights, sounds, and yes, the smells of my time in their world. Funny, but it always seemed that when they told their flying yarns, they would speak with a sense of awe about the OTHER pilots (and their Crew Chiefs and door gunners), and they did it with a love and admiration that reminds me very much like how I speak of my beloved family. These men loved their craft, their machines, and their fellow airman. When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, and I inquired about his medals, the question was always met with a “no big deal…they asked for volunteers, I simply raised my hand” type response. I would find out later that he had stepped up to fly into danger to pick up downed friends. I know ALL of them would have done it for him without skipping a beat. Such are the men (and women) of the Armed Forces.

 

One sad note.

Very often, my Dads students would take a huge liking to him (like he to them). Many a time he would return home from Ft. Wolters (after a class had graduated) with a symbol of that bond. It was usually in the form of a brand new coffee mug with three names emblazoned on the side (and the time honored bottle of Jim Beam whiskey…lol). It was their way of saying “thank you” to a man that they had come to know, trust and admire. They knew that his knowledge was borne from thousands of hours spent in the sky, they knew that it was true and (most importantly) they knew that it just might save their life someday.  I’m sorry to say that on far too many occasions in those sunset days of his flying life, I would see him arrive back to our humble home with sad eyes and a heavy soul. He would speak in hushed tones to my Mother, and they would stare at each other… knowing a thing that only they could know. Later I would hear (from her) that he had been given the news that one of his students had perished in the crucible of combat in Vietnam. I KNOW from within my heart, that he would spend the remaining hours of that day searching HIS heart to once again see that young man’s face, to hear his excited “I have the controls” when my Dad would give him the machine, and I know that he would find that face, and a small piece of my dear father would perish along with that young man.

Ft.Wolters 1

(My Dad as an I.P. with three of “his” guys…can you tell they kinda liked him? My God they look young…)

Flying for a vocation takes as much as it gives. There are times in every aviator’s life that it takes a toll that is borderline too much.  But sometimes, every so often, as in my days spent as “the Sundance Kid”, it gives more than you can ever imagine. Those unbelievable, magical hours spent with my Dad (and his contemporaries) on those funny little “airports”, across the hot, humid, Texas plains will live with me until the end of my days. I gain comfort from the thought that someday I will get to sit with him again, in the clouds of Salvation, and speak of those times. We’ll laugh and we’ll smile, and I’ll be sure and remind him of his days spent teaching the “art of the hover” to those eager young men just beginning their journey as an Army Aviator. Some would not survive that journey, but thankfully most would. I hope they all remember the man that launched them into the sky…I would hazard a guess that they do. He spent those days shaping them from just past teenagers, into pilots of war-time helicopters. He may not have realized it, but he was also doing some shaping of one rather weird 13 year old boy.

a2a

(You can’t hover the B757…but if you could…if you only could.)

‘till next time.

 

 

 

Standard

“Dear Dad”

The sun remains an hour below the eastern horizon, and I should be sound asleep, but I’m not. I’m wide awake, and in front of this lousy keyboard.

That’s actually quite a statement from me, for one of the better traits that the good Lord has bestowed upon this body, is (was) the ability to sleep soundly in almost any time zone. Unfortunately, that seems to have changed in recent times, and it’s less than great. So the question becomes why? Why the insomnia of the last few months? Truly, it’s been a puzzle that was as troubling as it was annoying; however, a few hours ago (lying in the dark), the answer finally came. You see I, my soul, my heart, my “humanity” is in mourning. I have the feeling of being in the long, dark hallway that we’ve all seen in our childhood nightmares, but worse than that, I know that I’ve been here before, and I know not where it will end.

The following piece I penned shortly after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. It was in the form of a letter to my most trusted advisor, my mentor and a dear departed friend. I’m speaking, of course, of my father (hence the title “Dear Dad”). Like most of the world, I was still in a state of shock by the recent events, and I felt like I had to talk to him. It was as if I had to get the words out or I would burst. He and I shared a lifetime of love and joy with our flying machines, and these monsters had used their graceful beauty to kill and maim innocent people on a scale previously unheard of.

I now find myself at that same place. My soul and the very essence of what it is to be a human being, is greatly troubled…sickened really. Not for me, but for my children, their children and what lies ahead for my wonderful country (and the world). Birds must fly, fish must swim, and writers must write. Hence my insomnia coupled to a keyboard.

The world has seen Islamic terror for years, but recently on a scale of horror that’s almost unimaginable. A few weeks ago, it spread death on the streets of Paris, and less than forty-eight hours ago, it once again came to the shores of America, and it came hard. In Paris, it left several hundred dead and maimed, and in California a dozen innocent people dead, almost two dozen wounded, and truth be told, we were lucky. The demons (in this case, a radicalized man and his equally demented wife), were of the “sleeper” category, and only their ineptitude with explosive devices kept the carnage from being much worse.

At the risk of being labeled a political piece, I offer you the following thought. These innocent Americans were killed as much by the current culture in my homeland, as they were by Islamic jihadist. There exists a faction of the population of my country that simply cannot (WILL NOT is more accurate) acknowledge that true evil exits. This segment of our citizenry shares a view of the world that is so out of touch with reality, so “childlike” in their view of the world, that they actually live in a bubble that is not only foolish, but also very dangerous. The true evil that I speak of is, of course, Islamic terror, and its wish to kill those of us that don’t believe as they do. Part of America simply refuses to see this, and pools of blood run cold because of it.

The simple fact that days after the attack here, with EVERY shred of evidence pointing to Islamic terror, many in our government (and media) simply refuse to call this heinous act by its true name. This fact is shameful beyond words, for it cheapens the bravery and heroism of the men and women that killed this evil. It’s like watching Edward R. Murrow sheltering in the London subway during the Blitz of 1940, and hearing him say, “Well, we can see and feel the bombs falling, and Herr Hitler has indeed declared war on England, but since its dark, we can’t FOR CERTAIN tell if it’s the Luftwaffe doing the bombing.” What in the world has become of journalistic integrity? Has truth and honor given way to agenda and politics? Wake up America! The wolf is at the door, and it’s OK to call it a wolf, just as it was OK to call them Nazis and Fascists.

What makes YOU so smart? How do YOU have all the answers you must wonder? Simply put, I don’t. I will offer however, that even though six decades of heartbeats has taken its toll on this body, it has also given me (and many of my age) one thing in return…and that is clarity. Clarity in thought and deed. That we may no longer be young is offset by the fact that we are blessed with the knowing of certain things. We know that the majority of the world wants peace, prosperity, and to be simply left alone to live and love our children as God intended us to. But we know something else. We know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, real evil lives and walks among us. We know that there exits an evil so horrible that we shudder at its thought…and it takes many forms. The form it took a few days ago cannot be ignored, cannot be wished away, and no form of “political correctness” will stop it from coming back.

Just as important as this knowledge, is this difficult truth; we know that we must face it, that we must fight it, and that we must prevail. This simple thought is the ideological crossroads where the aforementioned segment of my culture and I diverge. They are simply wrong, and the consequences of their folly are dire. Their most erroneous (read dangerous) construct is the following: since they refuse to face TRUE evil, they manufacture their own version of a boogey man… a “straw man of evil” if you will. This begs the question…why do they do this? It’s actually very simple, and it’s where history will paint them with a cruel brush. If they acknowledge evil, then by their own human sense of morality, they are obliged to fight against it.

But this cannot be for them, for they believe that ANY type of fighting or war is worse than a war to vanquish evil. They believe that global warming (or “climate change”…or whatever the “nom du jour” currently might be for this) is THE BIGGEST THREAT to humanity. I have offered to those of this ilk, the following question. What do you think our climate would look like if these demons detonate a nuclear device in New York, London and Tel Aviv simultaneously? In my opinion, that monumental change in the atmospherics of this planet, would do far more harm than the carbon footprint of my F-150. Strangely, they never seem to have an answer to this query.

They also believe that second-hand smoke is evil, that sugared “big gulp” soft drinks pose a threat, that income and gender “inequality” is evil, and that legally owning a firearm is worse than wrong. But most damaging of all, they believe that I, myself must be somehow horrible, bad, even evil, because I don’t believe that these things are. Remember the word “clarity”? The collective conscious of the free world had it 70 plus years ago on the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of New Guinea, and on the streets of America, but unfortunately, many of us seem to have lost it. I fear that Islamic terror will force us to pay for our lack of this clarity…and that scares the hell out of me.

A certain leader of this country had it in spades a few years ago, but I was in my 20s/30s and mostly ignored him (and politics in general), to my shame. He once spoke these insightful words:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

His name was Reagan, and he was beyond right. EVERY generation is tested. My parents generation was tested in the fields of Europe, and on the seas (and islands) of the Pacific. Mine in the jungles of Vietnam and the sands of the Middle East. My children now find themselves in the midst of their test, and it will be in the cities and towns of America (and Paris, and London, and Sydney), and on every street corner where freedom and liberty call home.

A certain group of people have been fighting this evil monster for years…long before they were an actual country. The people that surround them, that hate them, and wish their demise have slogans such as, “We love death more than the Jews love life.” They live with this horror daily, and have for generations. So now we must do the same. My heart weeps for them, it weeps for us, and it weeps for the world.

In a few days, my wonderful wife (my dearest friend and confidant) and I will take that next step in this war against actual evil. We will engage in weapons training (I’ve had many hours of formal weapons training, this will be her first time), and enter the world of the “sheepdog”. After becoming licensed, we will be legally armed while in public (truth be told, at home, I’m never more than just a few feet from a weapon). The circumstances that now have us thinking, acting and LIVING tactically sadden me, but the thought that evil Islamic terror lives in my beloved (free) America angers me past that sadness. America is at war…in the streets, the workplaces, the malls, the playgrounds, and yes, even our houses of worship. Regardless of the fact that the leaders of this country (and a certain segment of the population) can’t see it, simply doesn’t change the truth. I once had a person in my cockpit from the “other side” of the political isle than myself, speak these troubling words, “the truth is relative”. I recoiled at the comment, but he believed it to his soul. The blood of history has left this gory message; the truth is most certainly NOT relative. The unsettling truth is that we are in a fight for our very lives.

Several years ago, while in training to carry a firearm in the cockpit, my training class and I were subjected to a talk from a gentleman that lived his life amongst this evil. His former job was in the service of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), and he was currently acting as an advisor to our group. He told us that America must suffer two more 9-11’s “before you will wake up to the kind of evil you are facing”. We all were a bit shocked, but his words ring true. Was the most recent attack by Islamic radical monsters our second “9-11”? I honestly don’t know. Do we need to “wake up” as a country, look this monster squarely in its bloodshot eyes, and send it back to the hell it most surely came from? The answer is obvious…at least to me. Maybe a few days ago, on a bright sunny day in California stained with the blood of innocent people, was the day everyone in America became an IDF fighter.

Do I love life (and liberty) more than the Islamic terrorists love death? Ask that question to the Jewish nation, then ask me again. I fear the next few decades will test America and the free world. I only hope and pray we have the clarity, courage and faith of our brothers and sisters across the globe from us. God bless them, and God bless the free people of the world

With that, I give you, “Dear Dad”:


(originally penned in October, 2011)

Dear Dad,

I know it’s been several years since I’ve written, but surely know that I think about you every day. How are you doing? I have many, many questions to ask you. Someday I hope that we can meander some distant golf course together under sunny skies, and just chat like we used to. How are Mom and Teresa? Please tell them that I am doing O.K., and that I love and miss them very much.

You must be wondering why I’m writing. I know that you received word about my health experiences of the last couple of years. Yeah, at times it was pretty rough. I was subjected to some rather ugly stuff, but through it all, I somehow knew that I would be strong enough to weather it. I watched you very closely as a young man, and when times got tough in your life, you did just what I hoped I could do. You toughed it out, and you shifted the focus away from you and directed it toward others. Last winter, I lay awake many nights and “talked” to you (and the Big Guy) while times were at their worst, and it helped immensely. Just the thought that you might be listening really eased my mind…you were right, there are truly no atheists in a foxhole.

The reason that I’m writing is to open my heart to you. You see, a cancer has returned, and I need your help. Please don’t be shocked, for you’ve seen it before, and you showed me how to handle it then, as I’m sure you will now. There is but one cure for this type of disease, and I’m not sure that I won’t see the cure without many, many days of pain and suffering.

Right now my heart is heavy, and I get by with thinking of the wonderful things in my life. I’ve been truly blessed with a loving wife and family. They are my pillars of strength, and my anchors in every storm. Plus, I’ve also been given the gift of many really wonderful people that I can call “friend”, and they too are what keeps me going. They’ve seen me through many bad times in my life, and I know they will be there for me again. And then, of course I have my airplanes.

I’ll never forget the morning that I made that momentous decision (as momentous as any 17 year old can make) that I wished to become a professional pilot like you. We were working on one of the many cars in our life at the time, and when I broached you with the subject, your response was, “you better go talk to your Mom about that” (I’m pretty sure I could see you grin as I walked into the house). Her answer was a roll of the eyes, and something on the order of, “oh great, another pilot”.

You and I began that wonderful journey together many years before that day, when you would take me with you out to the Army airfields. You were planting the seeds then, and now those seeds are towering oaks. I remember the time I asked you about taking the night freight job flying the Piper Navajo out of Albuquerque. This was to be my first “real” flying job out of college, and I needed your expert guidance. Your response was, “it’ll be great experience if you live through it, and if you don’t, it won’t matter will it?” (hehe, I loved the pragmatism) It was the perfect answer. Since that first “command”, I’ve had many wonderful experiences. The last 18 years with Northwest have given me so many wonderful aviating memories, that sometimes I feel a bit guilty. The flying machine in my life now is truly an incredible combination of grace, beauty, and raw power. I wish you could feel her in your grasp just once…you’d fall in love in an instant…just like I did.

But Dad, something terrible has happened. Something so incredibly bad that I can hardly understand it even now, many days later. I know you don’t get the news where you are, but you’d better sit down, this is truly a sad story. It’s almost impossible for me to understand this, but unspeakable evil has seeped into our daily lives. Evil that almost none of us can comprehend. The mongers of this curse, just a few days ago, unleashed death on such an unspeakable scale that it tears my soul just to think about it….and Dad, they used our beautiful, peaceful flying machines to do it. I know you’ve seen death on the battlefield, honorable death. But that was not this. This was no Gettysburg, no Normandy, no Dien Bien Phu…it was in the skies, and on the streets of America.

An armed group of terrorists hijacked four airliners (I can’t even use the word hijacked, for that speaks of commandeering an airplane to go to a different destination…what they did was murder the crews and take command of the jets), and then plunged three of them into prominent structures in New York and Washington D.C. In the process, they took many, many innocent civilian lives. Apparently, on the fourth jet, the passengers knew their fate and fought back. They died in their attempt to re-capture the machine, but they did what I know you (and I) would have done…they fought the bastards. They fought like their lives depended on it, as well they did. No matter what the outcome, they won…just by fighting back, they won.

I cringe when I imagine what happened on those jets…I just can’t understand it. I will NEVER be able to look to the skies, at one of those lovely machines again, and not think of those brave people. In a very real sense, something died in all of us that fateful day. Was it our sense of security in our respective worlds? I don’t know, but I do know that humanity lost something; something very precious. I remember writing in my journal about how, after losing you and Mom, I now viewed the world as if through a veil of tears. Maybe we all do now.

This is my new cancer Dad, and it’s spread throughout the world. ALL of humanity has it, and ALL of us will have to find a way to fight it. It’s a disease of hate, death and destruction. We are in for a very long fight, one that I’m afraid will take some of the best of us from this world, but I know what you would say to that. You would say, “Anything in life that’s worth having, is worth fighting for”, and you would be very, very right. Our peace and freedom most certainly fit into that category, right?

I know that you would tell me that this kind of scum has risen its ugly head before, and descent, peace-loving people of the world have fought it back to the hell it surely comes from. They fought it from the shelters of London, the streets of Stalingrad, and the caves of Okinawa, and they won. They won with the cost of much blood, pain and heartache…but in the end they prevailed. I know that you understand why we must do what will be done, and not just as Americans, but as a collective group of people sharing the same rock in space. We want only to live our lives and raise our families, in a world that doesn’t include indiscriminant killing of innocent men, women and children in the name of (religion, government, land, etc) ___________ (fill in the blank). The cancer of hate and vileness that these people spread, just simply can’t be stronger than our love for peace and freedom. It can’t be, it WON’T be.

I know you understand where my heart is now. The pain, the confusion, and the anguish I’m feeling…I’m sure you would be feeling it too. You are in a place that knows not of such things…and for this I am truly thankful. You live in a world were peace and love are the only things that prosper, where cancer under any name is unheard of. Someday, maybe we can have that here too.

Please take care of Mom, Teresa, yourself, and all of our loved ones. Also, please know that we here are trying our best day in and day out to be what you (and the other wonderful parents) have taught us to be. When you feel the gentle wind blow, and feel the warm sun on your face, please send some of that peace our way. Oh, and Dad, you’ve probably seen a lot of new faces about since a few days ago. Give them a hug, hold their hands, show them around, and realize that they’ve been through a very, very tough time.

Your loving son,

Bill

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“Driving the Bus”

Greetings from sunny Tokyo!

Actually, not sunny at all (rather dark and dreary).

In a few days, we in America will celebrate another “eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month” event. It was the final bell of the “war to end all wars”; a span of four years so devastating that it claimed an entire generation of European youth, not to mention many from Down Under. We know it as “Veterans Day”, and it proudly holds a special place in my heart.

Why is that you ask? For essentially one simple reason. Each year on this one day, I ponder my adult life, and I’m left with the same conclusion each time. I feel that a very important part of it has been an abject failure. I know, harsh words to be sure, but none the less brutally honest.

I look back and reflect on the fact that I was raised in the family of a veteran, groomed to love my country (and the liberties and freedoms she represents), and wanted nothing more than to enter military service and do my duty. This would never come to pass, and in that regard, I’ve failed in my quest to repay the wonderful “idea” known as America with time spent “on watch”. My failure to serve would change my life in ways I’ll never be able to fully comprehend.

I wanted to fly. It was my calling and I heard it loud and clear. I yearned to be in the spot where I’ve been fortunate enough to call my “workplace” for almost 40 years…the cockpit of an air machine. Fate would intervene and steer me down a path far different from the one I dreamed of, and wished for, as a young man. This was to be a path that started with the rigors of military service, and ended with the cushy life of the airlines. I worked hard as a teen, kept (mostly) good grades in school, stayed in shape, and was pointed toward a scholarship that ended with a jet that had the initials USAF painted on its fuselage. It was to be, and my Dad and I couldn’t have been more excited. Then it happened… I failed.

To be exact, I failed the vision test of the entrance physical of the Air Force ROTC program that I was to attend (Texas A & M University). Way back in the days we call “the 70’s”, part of the physical exam included a thing called the “near vision acuity” test. This consisted of an Air Force enlisted person placing a ruler on the bridge of your nose, and you reading the letters on the little slide sheet that worked up and back on said ruler. The issue with my vision was inherited from my dear father himself…it was exceptional far vision. I swear my Dad could see a gnat on the ass of mule at 500 yards, and I could too it seemed! Since my ocular muscles were born of him, I was tested at an amazing far vision of 20/15 (meaning that I could see at 20’ what most folks could see at 15’), but unfortunately this meant that my near vision muscles were weaker, and the best I could do was 20/30 (what you see at 30’, I have to be at 20’ to see). The United States Air Force required no less than a rock solid 20/20 for pilots, and I simply couldn’t hack it.

My dream of serving was over. We were both upset, disheartened, and (yes) disappointed greatly. I somehow felt like I had not only let my country down, but that I had let him down too. However, he (being the beautiful man that he was) would hear none of that, and devised a plan to get me to a cockpit sans the help of the American taxpayers. I would attend an “Aviation University”, graduate with a four year bachelor’s degree (the airlines require such), and have a life amongst the clouds after all.

Those that know me, know that’s essentially the story of my life, and interestingly enough, when I was interviewing for the position at Northwest Orient Airlines roughly 10 years (to the day) from my failed USAF physical, my near vision muscles had gotten stronger, my far vision muscles had grown weaker, and my vision was a perfect “20/20”. Such was the plan laid down for my journey by a higher power, and it’s been nothing short of an incredible life.

But on that one day each year, I give thanks to those that have served, admire those that are serving, and feel a tinge of pain that I was never fortunate enough to be a part of that group of most honorable men and women. They deserve nothing less than our undying “thanks” for their sacrifices, what they’ve done for each and everyone of us.

“thank you”

The following piece I penned over 10 years ago regarding a military charter I had recently flown. Part of the addendum that would be the “current one” (not the one at the end of the piece), is that my son grew up to enter the United States Army (through the ROTC system), has deployed to a war zone twice, and is currently serving wearing the twin silver bars of a Captain. The father’s “grip of fear” that I mention in this piece has lived in this Dad’ heart, and it’s a dark place indeed. With all that said, his Mother and I could not be more proud of him. I will add his two sisters to that list…the older no less, married to an Army officer herself…he too, an exemplary young man.

With that, I give you “Driving the Bus”…

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“You’re just an overpaid bus driver”

I’ve heard that little quip from passengers, neighbors and yes, even friends and family. Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours trying to explain my world as a professional pilot to those that have no idea what it’s like. I’ve told of the many long years of training for all the sundry licenses and ratings, the crappy (and sometimes dangerous) jobs taken to build precious flight time, the frustration of yearning to work for a major airline and (through no fault of one’s own) not being able to land the job. Then after the grueling interviews and actually getting the nod, being faced with many, many hours of training and check rides, all under the jaundiced eyes of the FAA and company check-airmen. Also, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the “endless journeys” on the treadmill (and in the weight room) to stay in shape for that semi-annual trip under the medical microscope. Getting the job is one thing, keeping it can be an entirely different battle.

Strangely enough, even the folks that should (almost) understand what my world is like (the cabin attendants) simply don’t. They see us sequestered into our little closet with windows, but they’re only allowed in when things are at the most dull point in the flight…the cruise segment. I’ve actually heard them say after a long duty day, “But why are you so tired? You just sit there all day?” It can be very frustrating; for it seems the hours I’ve spent trying to let earthbound folks peek into my world, has all been for naught when I hear that “bus driver” comment. But the truth be told, sometimes that is exactly how I feel when at work in the cockpit.

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My closet with windows, a Boeing 757-300. Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

I received my Commercial Pilots License while attending an aviation college in the summer of 1976, and my very first passenger for hire flight was what we called a “Lake Texhoma tour”. I was tasked with loading a couple of locals into one of the university’s mighty Cessna 172s, and then spending the next hour flying them on a sightseeing tour over the expanse of that huge lake. It wasn’t anything on the order of a Grand Canyon tour, but this rather large body of water on the Oklahoma/Texas border offered some cool viewing. These were inevitably sweaty, bumpy days, and the barf bags were known to return filled to overflowing, but it was “professional flying”, and I loved it. I had FINALLY turned the corner in my aviation career, and when I handed the Cessna keys back to the flight school person, there wasn’t a wad of MY dollars attached to them…cool. It was all pretty neat to actually be getting PAID for flying an airplane, and a bit heady for this shy 20 year old.

Nowadays, my “tours” take me from one end of this planet to the next. The jet that I call home flies to several continents, and dozens of cities. I’ve seem most of them…many, many times. I can tell you lots of little tidbits about them. For instance; Milwaukee has the best airport bookstore in the system, runway 33L in Baltimore is so humped that when you’re on one end of it… you can’t see the other end, ATC will ALWAYS keep you “high and hot” on the arrival to the south runways at Orlando…so you better configure early. There’s a good chance you’ll get moderate turbulence below 300′ AGL landing on runway 06R in Anchorage when the wind is out of the south…but 06L will be smooth. Don’t ever..ever…believe the Bejing Approach Controller when they assign you a runway, for it WILL change (usually at least twice)! The hotel in Tokyo can be as noisy as the Super Bowl at halftime, and for God’s sake don’t get the chili at the Bangkok airport…your spouse will regret it. Does this sound like the rantings of a person that’s been to these airports/towns over and over again hundreds of times? Yep, I’m afraid it does. Sometimes I literally have to roll over and pick up the phone book to see which city/country I just woke up in.

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A 747 heading the other way.

A few weeks ago I was able to fly a trip that would put an end to all that for a few days. It was advertised as a charter, but not just any charter flight. We fly all sorts of “off line” flights in the airline business, and I’ve done my share of them. Most have been sports charters, and I can honestly say that picking up a load of “20-something NFL millionaires”, and kissing their (at times) prima dona asses all the way across the country isn’t my idea of fun. Some guys love it…. I don’t. These superstars can be a bit less than nice at times, but I guess that’s O.K. when you feel (and are constantly told) that your feces has no odor. This charter however would be something different, for it was to be a CRAF flight. CRAF stands for Civil Reserve Aviation Fleet, and it’s basically working for the MAC (Military Airlift Command) folks shuttling their personnel across the USA and around the world. One of my first MAC flights was back in 1987 when I was a Second Officer on the 747, and I remembered it as being truly “different”…but in a good way.

What makes these trips so different? First of all, there are the destinations. Mostly places I’ve never been to before. On this particular junket, we left at 0600 on day one ferrying the aircraft from KMSP down to Grey Army Airfield on the Ft. Hood Army reservation just outside of Kileen, Texas. Ever been to the sprawling metropolis of Kileen? Me neither. I spent my formative years growing up on U.S. Army bases all over the world, and my teen years on the plains of north central Texas, but I’ve never had the pleasure of logging quality time in Kileen. After an hour on the ground, we were to deliver the troops to Victorville, California, then ferry back to Ft. Hood. A two day layover was scheduled, then off to take more troops back to Victorville. Following that mission, the F/O and I would ferry the aircraft through the night out to Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington, D.C., arriving at approximately 0430. After a short nap at the hotel, we would be tasked with dead-heading home later that day. So, with the prospect of flying to several new airports, and ferrying the aircraft three out of the five scheduled legs, I was really excited about releasing the brakes on this one.

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The aviation flight line at Grey Army Airfield. I logged many an hour on flight lines like this with my Dad when I was a kid.

Ferrying is weird. Maybe it’s the word “ferry”, but I would hope that I’m not that -phobic. I guess I would prefer these legs be called “repositioning” flights. 🙂 I would champion a cause that would require all new hire flight attendants to ride at least one leg in the cockpit during one of these ferry flights, for this would allow them (many of whom have never been around a small airplane, much less an airliner) to gain lots of insight into what running a cockpit can entail. It would show them important things like… when we are busy, how we are busy, why they can’t ring us as the gear is coming up, and why we always seem to be doing nothing when they come into the cockpit at FL350. Plus, it’s always fun to have someone sitting on the jump-seat that isn’t sporting a badge with F.A.A. printed all over, or some sweaty, bad-breathed pilot-type.

With all that said, there’s one other VERY important thing that makes these flights special to me. This “thing” makes these trips super …and it’s actually not a thing at all…it’s the people that I’m fortunate enough to serve. I’m talking of course about the young men and women that serve in our armed forces…in this case, the U.S. ARMY. I feel truly blessed to have been raised in this “family of honor”, and I deem it a distinct privilege to chauffeur these wonderful folks from point A to B.

What makes them so special you might ask? I can’t really put my finger on it, but I’ll give it a try. It’s a look, a walk, and an air about them that most civilians don’t have. My Dad had it, my uncle Wade had it (he wasn’t really my uncle, but he and my Dad were best friends from their early Army chopper days), and these “kids” sure as hell had it. It’s almost as if they know that they’re carrying the history of freedom’s long forgotten battles on their young shoulders. They look you square in the eye when they talk to you, and they aren’t afraid to let loose with a “yes sir, or yes maam” when it’s appropriate. They seem to have a purpose to their existence, and that purpose is wrapped in honor and integrity.

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My special charges for the day.

One of the curious by-products of being raised on Army bases is that I can recognize and decipher that bizarre collection of symbols and insignias that every soldier lives by; I’m talking unit patches and rank. I grew up knowing that the beautiful gold shield with the black stripe and horse silhouette is the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) of Vietnam fame. The four green stars linked within the tilted square can only be the deadly 4th Infantry Division, and I know that 2nd Armored Division sports the “Hell on Wheels” patch. And who can forget the “Big Red One”, the “All American” 82nd, or the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne? Most all ARMY units have histories bathed in blood and bravery, and I was teethed on their stories.

As far as the maze of confusion known as rank, I can tell the difference between a Staff Sergeant and his boss the Master Sergeant with the “three up and three down”, a “butter bar” Second Lieutenant from a Chief Warrant Officer, a gold-leafed Major from a silver-leafed Lieutenant (or “Light”) Colonel, and I know that nobody loves seeing a “full Bird” Colonel headed their way. But of course, history has shown us that the most important of all ranks is the “dog face” PFC, or Private First Class, for he/she is the backbone of the infantry. Throughout time, in the heat of battle, it’s been the NCOs and the “dogfaces” that have carried the day, and vanquished the enemy. The generals will always get the glory, while the grunts get the Purple Hearts.

I was also schooled at an early age about tradition and respect, and in the military, one of the primary forms of respect is the salute. I was told that you salute the rank and not the person, and that EVERYONE salutes a Congressional Medal of Honor wearer, no matter their rank or stature. I watched my Dad salute lots of higher ranks, and he always seemed to mean it, but it was truly special when someone snapped off a crisp salute his way, for the respect and reverence that it intoned always made me walk a bit taller next to him. He taught me that serving a cause higher than “self” (one’s country) is the most noble and honorable thing a young person can do, and I’ve never wavered in that belief. I loved growing up in the Army with my Dad, and a few months ago (when we were all glued to our television sets) I had many thoughts of just how proud he would have been to see “his” Army, and how they were fairing in battle.

The last days of my father’s active service were many years ago, and all the soldiers in my life then were much older than me. Now I wear the face of four (plus) decades, and all of the troops on this trip seemed to be young…. very young. Hell, most of them seemed like just kids. Both times we landed in Victorville, I stood at the cockpit door to say goodbye to each of them, and I swear that I saw my 16-year-old son’s face under many of those helmets. As a father, it was scary as hell, but I’m sure their fathers feel more than I the grip of that fear. It has been said many times that “war is a young man’s game”, and I guess it’s a true statement. However, that doesn’t make it any easier for the young widow or the grieving family. These young men and women serve a dangerous profession.

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Descending inbound to KVCV. If it looks hot, it’s only because it was.

Even “the brass” sitting in first class seemed young. Heck the Captains looked 20, the Majors 25, and the “full bird” looked all of 30 years old. I’m actually not joking at all…they really seemed (to me) to be that young. With the current events in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, there is very good possibility that these folks will be deployed to a combat zone sometime during their time in uniform. If they do deploy, there’s always a chance that some of those young, fresh faced, Harry Potter reading, “I was carrying a Gameboy last year, and now I’m toting an M-16″ kids…. won’t…. well…. you know…. make it back…. and that breaks my heart.

My Father once told me…”son, the Army took me out of the slums of Dallas, got me my High School G.E.D. (my Dad had dropped out of high school), sent me to night school to gain a college degree, taught me a trade, and showed me the world. All my country EVER asked in return was to twice go fight her battles. Once, as a medic in Korea, and once as a pilot in Vietnam…. I think that was a pretty fair trade-off on my part.” I’ve swear that I’ve never forgotten those words.

Many of the kids I flew around have grown up in “soft” America, where they’ve had everything from MTV, Windows XP, and “soccer moms” to make their lives easier, but all that has ended for them now. They are being shown the “hard” world, where bad guys fly airplanes into buildings, where RPGs take off arms and legs, and where your buddy’s life can sometimes mean more to you than your own.

In the last few years, I’ve had my doubts about the “youth” of today. I’ve wondered if they could stand up to the inevitable challenges that evil will throw at folks that live in free, honest, hardworking, and descent societies. History tests each generation, but could these youngsters step up to the plate, like the “20 somethings” that braved the trenches of the Argonne, the beaches of Normandy, the icy hell of Chosin and the jungles of the Ia Drang? I can honestly say that after what I’ve seen from Iraq in the last many months, and my CRAF trip a few weeks ago, I no longer have those doubts. These kids can handle it.

6
Off-loading in Victorville, California.

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So, when someday a grandchild is sitting on my knee and he or she asks,

“Granddad, what did you do in the war on terrorism?”

“Oh, I flew my airliners around the country and the world, always working hard to fly safe, and protect my passengers from the bad guys.”

“But Granddad…what did you DO during the war against the terrorists”

The real answer will be:

“Oh honey, that’s easy….

I drove the bus that the heroes rode on…. I proudly drove the bus.”

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The hero’s bus.

One final note:

God bless all the coalition troops, and special prayers to my two nephews that are serving. Recruit Jason Hobbs just beginning his journey of service, and Specialist Nicholas Stewart, 2/3rd ACR, 7th Infantry Division (Light), United States Army deployed in Iraq. We love you Jason and Nick, and we’re very proud of you and your comrades. Do your duty well gentlemen, and return home safe.

till next time,

BBall

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“Requalification Part III” (Final Installment)

So Mike and I now find ourselves in the Briefing Room poised to do the actual checkride itself, and we’re feeling pretty good about the whole thing. That would change within the next few hours. Day 2 of this extravaganza was best when it was over.

The evening before the event, we met for a nice dinner of good ‘ol southern Bar B-que, headed back to our respective hotel rooms, and after a last minute skull –session reviewing junk that I would be required to regurgitate on the morrow, I instituted “Reveille”, and got a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

As any professional aviator knows, the annual trip under the “instructor pilot microscope” is something that (early in our careers) is filled with dread and foreboding. However, after about a thousand times down that rabbit hole, you learn to relax, do your thing without feeling intimidated, and (many times) actually learn something new about your jet. It’s not a bad thing, can be a good thing…but is mostly a pain in the ass thing.

After arriving at the “schoolhouse”, our I.P. (“Bennie”), started the checkride as most all of them do…a scant amount of small talk, and then a look at our Airmen, Medical, and FCC Certificates. With those little pleasantries taken care of, we divide into teams (his and ours), choose which goal to defend, and the actual checkride kicked off. This normally consists of a “round-robin” volley of questions concerning the Boeing Limitations and performance issues, a waltz through lots of pictures showing various parts of the exterior of the airplanes, whereby you simply explain to the I.P. what you would be checking and/or observing whilst doing an exterior walk-around. This “oral exam” typically ends with some in depth discussions (and questions) concerning new procedures that are the “hot topics du Jour” for that time frame. This can be very informative, even fun, but it can also be ugly.

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(Roughly two years into my career on the 757…circa 1999.)

But with that said, one thing that EVERY instructor knows deep down in their shriveled little rock-hard hearts, the hearts that beat blacker than the depths of Mordor itself (speaking as an ex-CFI-AI-MEI and B727 I.P.): no one is perfect. No one person sitting in a checkride “oral” exam will know everything about everything…period. If you simply ask questions long enough, you’ll eventually find something that even the sharpest of pencils will not know. We call it playing “stump the monkey” (or “stump the dummy”), and it’s a dick move by an I.P. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it up close and personal.

Usually, at this point, the I.P. briefings begin. He/She basically breaks down each maneuver we will be required to perform. If you have any question about such…now is the time to raise your hand. Rest assured, 99% of us have “chair flown” these many times in the proceeding weeks (days), and they SHOULD feel pretty ingrained by now.

For whatever reason this bright sunny afternoon (except in the windowless basement of the schoolhouse where all the simulators and/or briefing rooms reside), our “Herr Bennie” decided it was time to play STM with yours truly. Not a big deal, I’ve been yelled at and berated by the best of them. I remember being a brand spanking new-hire at my former airline, on about ride 5 of my initial training to be a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer, and the I.P. literally screaming at me and saying that I was “the worst student he had ever seen”! I was devastated…until I talked to my roommate and (you guessed it) “Mr. Warm And Fuzzy” screamed at him during his entire lesson also informing him that HE was indeed “the worst student he had ever seen”. Wait a dang minute there Hoss! I thought I was #1 on his Hit Parade…always the bride’s maid and never the bride.

So now we have the dude that’s giving us this rather important checkride, trying to show us (me) that he’s uber cool, and knows everything about everything when it comes to the collection of metal that Mr. Boeing’s wunderkind bolted together up in Everett, Washington those many years ago. He’s off into some rant about VNAV ad nauseum, and he hits me with some obscure question about…”well Bill, if it’s Tuesday in Canada, and the distal constellation is in the house of Mars, and Elvis walks into the building…what will the FMA say when you…..” la, la, la…. I gave him the doe in the headlights look, and he pulls out the big gun of all I.P.’s the world over…”wait a minute Bill….how many years you been flying this?” “Uhhh….18.” “And how many hours do you have in the B757?” “Uhhhh…about 10 or 12,000.” (wait for it)…”AND YOU DON’T KNOW?” “Uhhh….I don’t even understand the question Bennie…”

I get the eye roll, he asks Mike, and gets the same response, and OFF TO THE RACES HE GOES to show us that he’s way cooler than we are. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t get that upset, I didn’t even want to smash the QRH checklist into his face. I’ve seen this too many times, and in too many places. He’s just a guy playing “my penis is bigger than your penis”, and if that makes him feel better about his deal, then so be it. I did however, many years ago, basically tell an F.A.A. check airman to go “f*ck himself” after a simulator check ride. It’s a long story, from a galaxy far, far away, and rest assured, I was right, he was wrong, he walked out of the briefing room (as he should have) and we passed our ride. A yarn for another day.

Back to Bennie and our little jaunt to get blessed to go back to the line and do what we do. It’ll be a two-act play: the MV (Maneuvers Validation), and the LOE (Line Oriented Evaluation).

He eventually has his fix of making us feel like morons, asked a few more (relevant) question…which we answer correctly, and all seemed to be well in “Bennie World”, so we head down to the actual flight simulator itself. Mike and I have been in this cockpit so many times over the years that it literally feels like putting on a pair of old shoes…plus we were in this exact “box” the day before, and did a very credible job rattling the dust out of our collective craniums. THAT however was a “warm up”, and THIS is the real deal…for “the win” as it were.

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(The “office” at FL350 ANC to MSP.)

ACT 1: The Maneuvers Validation.

Mike and I strap in, we do our preflight duties, load the jets FMC, load up our Surface Tablets, and start briefing. This is essentially going to be the twin sister from yesterday; operating out of KSFO with all sorts of different weather, different approaches, different “issues” with the jet, and we’ve briefed it all before, in fact less than 24 hours before to be exact! But not in front of Bennie, and that’s huge. Mike knows the game and how it’s played, Bennie knows the game and how it’s played, and yours truly DAMN SURE knows the game and how it’s played. As a transport-category, heavy jet, airline aviator you know (and your experience tells you) one sure thing. Half of the issue is controlling the machine (the PF or “pilot flying” duties), and the other half (and sometimes the much more complex…read harder…half) is the dude NOT controlling the machine. The ring master is always the Captain, but the PM (or “pilot monitoring”) is many times the make it or break it guy in the equation of keeping the dance grooving along like it needs to be. It’s a choreography, and when it’s done right it’s a thing of beauty…when done wrong…well recollections of my disco dancing in college come to mind…uggh.

We brief it ALL again. Start Up, Taxi (single engine to start the remaining engine on taxi out), the Weather, Aborts, Abnormals, Runway to expect, SID for said runway, Terrain issues, Transition Altitude and any “Special” things to consider at this airport. I’ve done it a thousand times, and Mike played the part and attentively listened while I bloviated.

My notes from the actual ride (I’ll only put up the notes I have on my turn “in the barrel”):

– Normal Takeoff = “good here”

– VOR Approach RWY 19L = “I.P. hammered me on the briefing. Mike selects “PPOS HOLD” coming out of the holding pattern, doesn’t take it out and we blow through the LNAV final approach course. We get a GPWS warning and do a CFIT escape.”

*** As Bennie was rushing us to get set up for the VOR RWY 19L approach, I told him that we needed more time and requested a holding pattern. He, acting as ATC, gave us some funky clearance to an obscure point, and I had Mike set it up for an entry into the hold. We got in, I briefed the approach (we actually use our VNAV function on non-precision approaches as a pseudo “glideslope” as it were…works great, but takes longer to brief for you have to use a different manual on your Surface Tablet to brief it…AND…keep the Jeppesen approach page displayed at the same time. Remember, Mike and I had never used the Surface do-dad on the line yet, and some of its “magic”… like showing two pages at the same time… was still a bit of a mystery for us). We eventually feel like we’re good to go, Bennie gives us a quick clearance for the approach, I arm “LNAV” to intercept the final approach course, but Mike gets a bit behind the program, and doesn’t make the FAF our active waypoint…hence the autopilot doesn’t capture the LNAV track and we head through the final approach course. Within about 15 seconds of “what the fkk is it doing now?” from Mike, and me saying we need a clearance to turn back toward the course and for him to “clean up” the FMC…we get a …you guessed it…Ground Proximity Warning System…”whoop, whoop, terrain, terrain.”

F*cking lovely! In the goo, at night, heading toward some hills east of Oakland (and I don’t even have my Crips or Bloods colors proudly displayed), and we get this crap. Oh well, one thing to do (just as we would in the jet), the old “CFIT Escape Maneuver”. Basically, FULL THRUST (not climb thrust…I mean turn off the auto-throttles and push those funny little levers as far forward as you can), stand her on her ass (about 20 plus degrees nose up), and climb like a homesick angel! Funny thing…we were tasked with having to demo one of these later in the ride, so we just got a tad bit ahead of ourselves…lol.

We recover, Bennie bitches a bit, but can’t really say anything, for even though we dicked up the intercept on the VOR approach, we did the right thing by NOT merging metal with dirt. He gave us a vector back to the course, Mike and I pulled our collective heads out of our asses (remember, I had been off for about six months, and Mike for almost an entire year), and executed a beautiful VOR approach, culminating in a nice landing on 19L.***

VOR RWY !(L

(the VOR 19L SFO)

– Engine Failure After V1, RWY 28R = “nailed it”

– Engine out CAT 1 ILS RWY 28R, Engine out Missed Approach = “nailed it”

***On the engine out go-around, Mike was a bit late on getting the rudder trim dialed in, and I did a small amount of weaving on the SFO 295 radial out through the hills. It’s a bitch to have zero thrust on one side, and 37000 lbs of “push” on the other. Thank God, Mr. Boeing puts big-assed rudders on his jets! (and thank God for my Bowflex leg exercise contraption!)***

– Engine out CAT 1 ILS to a landing RWY 28R.

***The F.A.A. (in their infinite wisdom) require that on every other checkride, we actually HAND FLY this monster down the ILS to a landing in “CAT 1” weather (basically 100’ overcast and 1800’ RVR…or just under ½ mile visibility) with an engine out. This is utter stupidity, for in the real world, if I had one motor in the bag, and the weather sucked balls, I would let Mr. Sperry’s incredible autopilot (3 autopilots to be exact) smoothly, gently and no-plussed, ride me down the glideslope and on the localizer until I once again glimpsed the world, then I would click them off, and hand fly the thing the last 30 seconds to a graceful (and light as a feather) touchdown and rollout. Nope….the F.A.A. (meaning Bennie in our case) wants to see if you can “do some of that pilot sh*t Maverick”, and watch us sweat keeping a broken jet flying right side up using our amazingly razor sharp instrument skillz (and a great Flight Director), and all the while whistling Dixie (the last part I made up). It’s stupid, but it’s their bat and their ball, and they can play the game anyway they want. I just show up to sing bass… I did a good job here, although still thinking it’s a stupid thing to have to demo.***

– Inadvertant Windshear Encounter After Liftoff = “really ugly windshear…do well.”

– CAT 3 ILS RWY 28R to a landing = “nailed it”

– Approach to Stall During Departure RWY 28R = “nailed it…lots of trim”

– Upset Recovery = “good”

– Approach to Stall in Clean Configuration = “good”

– Controlled Flight Into Terrain GPWS Warning = “did already…lol”

– Approach to Stall in Landing Configuration RWY 28R = “good”

– Holding = “good”

– RNAV (RNP) Y Approach RWY 28R to a Missed Approach = “Mike briefs the wrong page… we figure it out, do the approach to a G/A…good”

End of my MV checkride. Mike does essentially the same stuff (with a few differences), and after about three hours in the box, we take a break and get ready for the LOE.

Final Act: Day 3, the LOE.

As luck would have it, we draw “Bennie” again…wonderful…lol.

First a bit of background on the LOE. It’s a different animal altogether from the M.V., and was pioneered way back in the infancy of airline flight simulators (by my old line I’m proud to say). It used to be called a “LOFT” (Line Oriented Flight Training), was filmed with old (wait for it) VCR tapes, and it would be fun as hell replaying the “brain fart” moments to everyone during the debriefs.

We don’t watch movies at the end of these things nowdays, but some of the old films were great! I distinctly remember watching one (in black and white…hehe…lets you know how long ago that happened), whereby Capt. “Bob” and his intrepid crew of Boeing 727 airman were in the throes of some sort of sim problem, and about every five seconds “Bob” would turn around to Flight Engineer “Bill” and task him with something to do. Within seconds, poor “Bill” was utterly and completely tasked saturated, and it went something like this:

– Captain Bob, “say Bill, would you begin the fuel dump…take us down to 5000 across…and give me a time to dump.”
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob.”
– Captain Bob, “oh, and Bill, would you pull up the latest MKE weather?
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob.”
– Captain Bob, “And Bill, let’s start that engine shutdown checklist right now…OK?”
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob.”
– Captain Bob, “Oh and Bill, call Suzie in the back and give her the briefing on the emergency…she needs to be in the loop on this.”
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob”
– Captain Bob, “One more thing Bill, why don’t you give the company a call, and let them know we’re headed back.”

***Now Ray Charles can see what’s happening here, poor Bill is busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest, Bob is doing nothing but barking orders, and First Officer “Ned” is looking out the window basically doing nothing! You can see the frustration start to build in “Bill” and his “if looks could kill” program is starting to rear its ugly head…crew continuity has completely broken down. Bill can’t get anything done, and he finally just loses it!***

– Captain Bob, “Say Bill, have you got the fuel dump time for me? I thought we were going to start that checklist? How about that MKE weather? How’s Suzie doing in the back? Did you call the company yet and let them know we’re RTB-ing?”
– F/E Bill, without saying a thing, literally throws his hands into the air, and (BEHIND THE CAPTAIN’S BACK) begins to shoot him the “middle finger salute” with BOTH HANDS! Over, and over, and over….

 

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LMAO. We call it CRM (Crew Resource Management), and the above example is NOT the way it’s supposed to work. It’s hard to believe, but when this idea hit the airline world many years ago, it wasn’t very popular. Certain commanders with a little “Captain Queeg” in them saw it as usurping their (God given) authority, and they didn’t like it…not one bit. But it wasn’t that at all. It was the concept of using ALL of your available resources to get the job done…and in a way that you didn’t have a “Bob” and “Bill” show. Many other industries have since adopted this attitude (medical E.R.s and/or Operating Rooms), and it seems to be working well.

So the premise is to give Mike and I an actual “line flight”. Fly from point A to point B with “normal” things that might happen on any given flight. Weather issues, mechanical problems, passenger things to deal with, ATC headaches….you know, just a normal day at the office. The I.P. wears all sorts of hats…basically whatever you need him to be. Find an issue during preflight…call out the “mechanic Fred” (I.P.), “Barry” the Purser has an issue in the cabing…call out the catering dude (I.P.), Dispatch wants to talk to you…guess what…it’s our very own “Bennie” playing the Dispatcher. You get the jist…he’s here to “help” you, but not break character and instruct you. You’re on your own, and it can actually be kinda fun.

Two funny LOE stories.

#1. I was a seasoned First Officer in the DC-10 doing an LOE from Milwaukee (non-stop) to Minneapolis one snowy morning (actually, it was June outside and the sun was shining brightly). We launched toward KMSP, and shortly thereafter, the Flight Engineer (don’t remember his name) leaned forward with a small note that the I.P. had obviously given to him to read to the Captain (Jerry). “Captain…I don’t feel very well, I’m going to be sick.” Jerry looked at me (I was the PF), looked at the F/E and said this, “Don’t you die on me! Don’t you dare die on me! You croak, you do it right there at your desk! Don’t you move!” (I was laughing my ass off). Sure enough, within a few minutes, the F/E “died”, and the two I.P.s (one for us pilots, and one for the F/E) had him get out of his seat and take a seat in the back of the simulator! We were now on our own….

Of course in the next :30, we had to shut down an engine, declare an emergency, dump fuel, and do the LOC only approach to RWY 12L at KMSP in a blinding snowstorm! Jerry got out of the Captain’s seat, worked the F/E panel like a pro, and I basically just flew the jet, talked on the radios, and answered the checklists as he read them. Worked like a charm. Of course….at the debriefing…the (dead) Flight Engineer who was getting his “LOE checkride” also (and did basically nothing), quipped…”Wow, I learned soooo much just sitting in the back observing you two! That was cool!” (We told him he sucked as a human being and that he was buying all the beer that night…)

 

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(That beautiful lady…the DC-10. I spent five wonderful years in the front right window seat.)

#2. As a new B727 Captain, I was doing my first LOE checkride with a very experienced F/O and F/E. Good guys, I had flown with them on the line, and they knew their sh*t. We departed KDTW inbound for KMSP when about ½ way across Lake Michigan we get a call from “Suzie” in the back that there is water leaking out all over the aft restroom. “Could the F/E come back and shut off the water handle for us?
Again, Ray Charles could see this coming…F/E goes back, gets in a fight with a drunk passenger, gets the snot beaten out of him (simulated), and I’m stuck where Jerry was in that DC-10 scenario!

I looked at the F/O and asked him if he knew where the water shutoff handle was…he sheepishly said “no” (playing the game for the I.P.s….they wanted an “important” member of the crew….the F/E to get whacked). I said to the F/E….”you I need”….to the F/O…”you I don’t need….get your ass back there and find that handle and shut it off” (not playing the I.P.’s game….lol). He gets up from the F/O seat goes to the back of the simulator for a few minutes, comes back and tells me he can’t find it. I do what any good commander would do, I send him BACK to look again! (I REALLY didn’t want to lose the F/E…..). Back he comes a few minutes later with the same story…can’t find it….lol. I FINALLY cave and send back the Flight Engineer and (you guessed it), he gets assaulted by a drunk Navy pilot (just made that up), and he’s out cold.

OK…so me and “numb-nuts I can’t find the handle” F/O are going to have to work out any small issues just by our lonesome. Guess what #2? Yep, we experience a catastrophic engine failure, and part of the collateral damage is that the “A” system hydraulics begin to bleed out. OK…time to do some of that pilot sh*t. We have to secure the engine, dump fuel, electrically extend the flaps/slats, and last but most assuredly not least, we have to manually crank down the landing gear….and WHO…do you think will be doing all of that? Not this cowboy…lol. About this time, me thinks that our intrepid F/O was dearly wishing he would’ve found the handle, had his brains beaten out, and could sit in the back of the simulator and watch the two up front flail away like “Bonzo and Bobo” the pair of trained seals!

Needless to say, we got it all done. He was cussing just a bit as he was lowering that last main gear (if you’ve ever cranked the gear down in the Boeing 727, then you know of what I speak…it’s like monkeys fornicating with footballs), but we got it all finished in time to shoot the ILS to 30L in KMSP, land and be towed to the gate like two conquering Roman Gods! (well, maybe not, but it’s a cool visual)

Naturally, “numb-nuts #3” who did his entire checkride from the observers seat in the back of the simulator hit us with the usual…”Wow, I learned soooo much just sitting in the back and observing you two! That was cool!” Dickhead….he bought the beer that night also.

Our LOE.

This won’t take long for I don’t actually remember too many details from this little “flight of the damned”. We launched with crappy weather (requiring a take-off alternate), headed up the west coast for our :30 flight to KSEA, and somewhere enroute we had a “CARGO FIRE” warning light come on! Lovely!

I ALWAYS elect to have the F/O be the PF on an LOE, for all the obvious reasons. I will be the “ringmaster”, directing ATC, Dispatch, Cabin Crew, Checklists, and most importantly, be the “keeper of the time bucket”. It’s all about time management…slow down to assess and plan, or as in this case, speed up and keep the fire from doing its thing.

You can see which one this became quickly. I had Mike get on the radios, declare an emergency and have ATC inform Dispatch of our predicament, we ran the checklist, talked to “Bruce” the Purser, made the appropriate cabin P.A.s, and about a million other things all while watching Mike fly the jet like a bat outta hell. We were approaching from the south, KSEA was landing south, but ATC offered us a straight-in landing north on RWY34R. Mike, how do you feel about that? Mike was “performance peaking” about now, had it wired, felt good about a “fast” approach (the weather was great), and I cut him loose. “Bruce” was calling with sitreps in the cabin…floor is hot….smoke in the aft of the cabin…have moved passengers to front…etc. Good man. I now had enough info to make the big decisions….we WILL BE EVACUATING THE JET ON THE RUNWAY. Bruce knew it, ATC knew it, Mike knew it, Dispatch knew it….pretty sure even the Kardashians knew it by this time.

We kept up with the checklists, Mike elected to use “MAX AUTO” on the autobrakes (good thing, ‘cause we were going to us them regardless of what Mike wanted…it’s good to be King), and I directed him to slow when he felt comfortable, but stay fast as long as he could (we were well past the 250 kts below 10,000’ rule by now). Checklists done, Bruce ready in the cabin, Mike flying like a big dog…all that was left was to plop it on the pavement, get ‘er stopped, and get everyone off.

He did, we did, and they did. ATC said it looked like a fire when we were on short final, and Mike performed flawlessly. He planted the big jet on the runway, we screeched to a halt (MAX AUTO works like a charm), and we began the EMERGENCY EVACUATION CHECKLIST. When that was done, I did my “Sully” routine…took my flashlight, cleared the cabin, and exited from the farthest aft (useable) exit. We then headed for the nearest “virtual lounge”….

evac

(These things are NEVER without injuries…ugly to be sure.)

LOE complete.
MV complete.

Mike and I were now OFFICIALLY back in the game. He and I shook hands, I thanked him for being a terrific partner, and wished him luck on the line (with the promise to buy him a cold beer next time our paths crossed). He left to drive back home (he lived in the next state over), and I nestled into seat 22B (lodged between two fat guys…what else?), and winged my way back toward the Northland.

It had been a very long five + months away from my world in the cockpit…but it wasn’t the first time I had ridden that rollercoaster. I LOVED the parts about being with my lovely wife and youngest daughter every day, sleeping in my own bed EVERY night (weird to be sure), having the ability to eat and workout on MY daily schedule and not the airline’s (my waistline approved), and just generally feeling “better” physically and/or mentally. It’s a hard job kicking your body’s ass all over the world each month. Lots of strange times, strange meals, strange beds, and just when you start to feel “normal” again, it’s time to pack the trusty suitcase, kiss the loved ones goodbye and head toward the setting sun.

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(from one of my favorite destinations…Palau)

Someday (in the not so distant future) the merry-go-round will turn its last turn, the music will stop, and yours truly will step off for the very last time. Will I miss it? Of course I will. Will I miss MVs and LOEs? LMAO…what do you think?

It’s good to be back.

me ckpt 1

’till next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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