Captain Al

 

I quit my job. I’m no longer an airline pilot. I’ll never again button on the four striped epilates of my uniform and fly a winged marvel through the heavens, and I couldn’t be more excited. Let me explain.

Nearing my 64th year on this planet, I find my brain full of many thoughts. Most of them inconsequential, like; “What pair of shorts do I wear today?”.  And strangely (or not), some even fall into the realm of the nonsensical, like; “Do I look like an idiot floating in my pool on a 6-foot yellow duck?” (Don’t answer that.) Some, however are far more serious and far reaching, like: “Should I take the early retirement package that my airline is offering?”

As we all know, the world has become pear-shaped, and the airline industry finds itself in a quandary (like it seems to do every few decades even without worldwide pandemics). A mere 6 months ago, we were setting records in passenger counts, and profit-sharing checks. Pilot hiring was going like gang-busters; but now, all that has changed. Jets are parked in the desert by the hundreds, and the ones flying are essentially empty. The human cost for pilots is that we (all airlines) now find ourselves with a glut of aviators. Where we were hiring pilots as fast as they were being born (almost), we now have thousands more than we can use. The airlines (mine included) know they have to do something, and one option is to furlough the young new-hire pilots. The downside (other than the obvious for the young pilots) is  an ugly uptick in training costs, for the amount of money required to essentially re-train the majority of your pilot force is monumental. As pilots drop off the bottom of the seniority list, the rest are forced to fly smaller machines and possibly forfeit their Captain position to become a First Officer. Again, you’re talking about adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the “bleeding red ink” airline balance sheets, and that’s not a good thing…ever.

Another, far less expensive avenue, is to offer the “grey beards” (like yours truly) an attractive enough package to voluntarily wave good-bye and head out to pasture. At my line, the top third of our pilot list is roughly my age, and (trust me) we have all been looking toward the horizon and the day when we can list “retired” as our occupation.

So, they did it, my airline offered an “early retirement” package (Deb and I were mostly concerned about the medical insurance part of the offer), and we sensed that the horizon was closer than we thought. Since I only have a year and a few days until the FAA requires that I hang up my spurs, we thought long and hard about it (and spoke with our financial team), and came to a decision. We decided that it was time.

I’m fairly sure that over 40 years spent in the cockpits of airliners, and several years prior to that in the business end of civilian machines, can be considered a “full flying career”. Right? How does it effect me emotionally? So far its all been good…no great. Will I miss being a pilot? Will I miss flying a massive, very powerful, supremely beautiful jet through the sky? Yes, and yes…but that’s not a bad thing. Some day I’ll pen more, but suffice to say that “it’s all good” in my world.

Will my retirement bring about an end to this blog? Of course not! I have literally dozens of pieces written over the years, now safely stored in the “hermetically sealed”, secret vault that houses the vast treasures of the BBall Empire…whatever that would be…lol. They can be pulled out, polished a bit, and published up in a heartbeat. That, plus I have a few unwritten yarns rattling around in this old noggin.

I’ll continue to write of my past journeys in the sky, with an occasional word-vomit geared toward current events (not too political I hope). Our plans include (virus withstanding) travel to spend long overdue time with dear friends and loved ones. We also very much look forward to experiencing parts of this unbelievable country that we’ve never seen before (the historian in me is giddy). Hopefully, this will include a few overseas jaunts.  And of course, we plan on spending lots of time with our amazing children and grandchildren.

This newly found proverbial “freedom from the suitcase” might also include a bit of golf, some quality time logged at the various shooting ranges in the area, lots of “flying” on the ol’ computer, and of course, our required daily 3:00 “pool time” here in the sunny climes of Arizona.

There’s even the rumor of an attempt to publish my yarns into a hard-bound book of “Logbooks” as it were…we shall see.

 

One thing is for sure…the journey continues.


 

On with the piece at hand.

I originally penned this over 20 years ago, and it holds a very special place in my list of Logbooks. Several months after I put it up on the old (now defunct) flight simulation website, the wife of the subject called and told me she was running an internet search and my piece showed up. She relayed how much she loved reading it…this of course, made it even more special to this old pelican.

I titled it simply…


 

“Captain Al”

 

As a professional airline crewmember, I’m tasked with working in a very demanding and stressful environment, sitting barely four feet from another individual for days on end. This leads to all types of experiences within the realm of human psychology. However, given the fact that most pilots are basically cut out of the same mold (personality speaking), it’s most often a very enjoyable experience. Over the last many decades of piloting, I’ve flown with folks that were complete strangers, and are now close friends. They came from vastly different walks of life and all manner of life’s experiences, but they all have one thing in common (other than being a professional aviator). They are all generally happy individuals, and are truly interesting human beings. I flown with ex-: doctors, musicians, scientist, economists, cops, housewives, psychologists, teachers, military types, day laborers. I’ve flown with Jews, Gentiles, men and women, black, white and everything in between…and 99.9% of them have been wonderful. Truly, I’ve met some of the most interesting people on the planet, and spent days on end with them in a small “closet with windows” in the pointed end of the airplane…and enjoyed every minute of it. With that said, every so often, there are times when we as crewmembers simply do not “mesh” well. This personality friction can be the result of all manner of things; ideological differences, differences in experiences (former military versus civilian flying), personality quirks, or as basic as the difference between oil and water…we just simply don’t mix well. On those rare occasions, the job of piloting a several hundred-thousand-pound piece of machinery through the heavens becomes more like work than not.

Again, the vast majority of the time I’m very much at ease with my cockpit companions, but those “other times”, are well, just a “this person is a pain in the ass, let’s get through the trip, and get on with our lives” type experience. But even in those rare circumstances, due to stringent operational procedures (and years of training and check-rides in the simulators), personalities take a back seat to flying the jet, and the job gets done with an astounding level of safely…it’s just not nearly as much fun. To make up for this particular type of person (that invariably elicits a groan when you see their name on the crew sign-in page as you begin the trip), there exists a type of crewmember that is such a delight to work with, that they deserve a special category of their own. The person I’m about to mention, should head up that division of super-awesome-type pilots, for he was one in a million. Honestly, I can count a dozen or so folks that I’ve had the pleasure (and the honor) to fly with over the last 40+ years, that would automatically fall into that category, and he most certainly is one of them.

 

8 727 4

(Cockpit of the Boeing 727…I flew her from all three seats…and loved every minute of it. An amazing machine.)

 

Captain Al Thompson was really great to fly with. Wait a tic, that’s a horribly gross understatement, and I’d like to try it again. He was without a doubt, one of my favorite Captains to work with over the last two and a half decades of flying for Northwest Orient Airlines. I was fortunate enough to share a cockpit with him as a new-hire Boeing 727 Flight Engineer in the early 1980s, and several years later, as his First Officer crewing DC-10s over warm Hawaiian waters and the icy North Atlantic.

 

1A

(A Northwest Orient McDonnel Douglass DC-10. I flew for 5 years in the First Officer position on this wonderful bird. The cockpit was quiet, spacious, had HUGE windows…it was a very classy machine, and a joy to fly.)

 

Al was always quick with a smile, fast with a joke and/or a smart-ass remark. This type of personality seems to mesh well with mine…maybe because I tend to have a rather impertinent way of looking at life. More than anything else, Al was supremely easy to fly with. As simple as that sounds, as the commander of a crew of 3 pilots (and a dozen or so cabin attendants), it can be a very difficult thing to accomplish.  Cruising at 8 miles a minute, seven miles above the Earth, with hundreds of trusting souls sitting behind the cockpit door, being “easy” to work for is (for some) low on the list of what’s important as an airline captain, but not for Al. Maybe the best way to explain his laid-back work environment would be to say that it was borne of the marriage of his personality and his confidence to command. The job of being the boss of a vehicle in low Earth orbit, definitely does not lend itself to being a popularity contest. Side note: I’ve found over the many years that I’ve been that commander in low Earth orbit, one thing is clear: a relaxed cockpit is a happy cockpit. On those rare occasions, when things get pear-shaped and turn deadly serious, it quickly becomes time to put on the pilot mask, and leave the jocularity behind. In those moments the relaxed atmosphere can become rather tense, rather quickly, but that’s really not an issue. Even though the job can go from (relatively speaking) “easy” to very difficult in an instant, we’re used to that. We climb that ladder with confidence, and we’re very good at it. It’s what we do, it’s what we love, it’s what we get paid for.

Not every airline flight deck has this brand of atmosphere, but every GOOD airline captain strives to achieve it. They’re a bit like the circus ringmaster effortlessly working several “shows” at one time, and being detachedly involved with each as they unfold. This comes from a combination of being comfortable with their knowledge of the machine, comfortable with the talent of their supporting crewmembers, and the confidence that they can master any situation that might arise. Great Captains also seem to have an uncanny ability to command the crew in such a way that the plethora of small problems that occur on every flight, are solved without him (or her) being bothered for their approval. Micro-managing all the issues of a typical airline flight is never a good idea, and I learned years ago (from Captains like Al) to trust your crewmembers to be good at their jobs, empower them to do that job, and make sure they know that you will support them if an issue arises. Again, all captains work for this type of cockpit atmosphere, but very few achieve it on the level that Captain Thompson did.

I was curious as to the first time I had the pleasure to fly with Al, so I dug up one of my logbooks to refresh the ol’ memory bank. Here’s the entry for that first day that involved two legs:

Date: 10 March 1984 (*side note* I had been hired by the airline the previous November, spent two months in training before being “released” to fly the line…hence, I had been flying for Northwest Orient Airlines a grand total of just over a month!)

Flights: NW206 KMSP-KLGA NW225 KLGA-KMKE

Aircraft Type: Boeing 727-251/ Boeing 727-100

Ships: N252US/ N460US

Flight time breakdown:

4.5 hours Multi-engine Land

4.5 Turbojet

3.2 Day

1.3 Night

4.5 As Flight Engineer

4.5 Total Duration of Flight

Under the “Remarks and Endorsements” section of that entry, I wrote: “Capt. Al Thompson… super/ KLGA a real pit.” So, I guess that neatly sums it up, doesn’t it? Actually, no, not really. One word simply doesn’t do Captain Thompson true justice. To attempt that feat, allow me to tell you about a day we flew together several weeks after the above logbook entry. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, simply calling New York’s LaGuardia Airport “a real pit” doesn’t exactly do that place any justice either…lol.

Here’s the story of a very special day on that first journey with Captain Al.

 

It was day 3 of a 4-day trip, and was proceeding nicely. The day had started before sunrise at what was then called National Airport in Washington, D.C., and after an uneventful flight up the coast to Boston, we found ourselves headed toward THE world’s busiest airport. This major airline hub, surrounded by an iconic city that sits on the windswept banks of Lake Michigan, can be such a “zoo” that to an in-experienced pilot, the mere mention of its name can strike fear into the most stout-hearted aviator. It’s named for one of the heroes of the WWII Battle of Midway (Navy Lt.Cmdr. Edward “Butch” O’Hare), and is a dizzying mix of crisscrossing and parallel runways that can be quite a challenge for someone that’s not previously piloted an airplane into that mess. The air traffic control folks are unquestionably some of the best in the country (and probably the world), and their staccato rhythm of non-stop clearances over the radio is something that has to be heard to be believed. Intimidating hardly describes it…you bring your “A game” into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport…or you just don’t go.

 

2

(Chicago’s “O’Hare International Airport”…arguably one of the busiest airfields on the planet.)

 

Starting a few hundred miles from O’Hare (airline code ORD), the ATC enroute controllers start to talk a bit faster, be a bit more reserved in their “friendliness” (or lack thereof), and the atmosphere they build exudes a no-nonsense approach to choreographing this never-ending queue of inbound airliners. All this leads to a general feeling of anxiety in ANY cockpit inbound to O’Hare, and it all builds to a crescendo about the time you line up for the runway they’ve assigned to you. On a crappy weather day, it can be a nightmare, on a sunny day like this, it can actually be a bit of fun. Again, you know it’s going to be a challenge, but you just hike up your “big-boy” (or big-girl) britches, and do your job.

According to my logbook, I had been party to this “O’Hare pressure cooker” a grand total of 10 times before this particular day (including once on the day previous to this little adventure). But for me; all trips in and out of this monstrosity had been “flown” from the back seat of the 727 cockpit (the Flight Engineer station), for I was barely three months removed from my new hire training at Northwest Orient Airlines. Needless to say, I was pretty darned happy that I was the F/E and NOT the one holding onto the yoke and thrust levers of the big Boeing “3-holer” (our name for the Boeing 727). However, I was even more relieved to not be the guy talking on the radio to the air traffic controllers. From my limited experiences into massively busy airports (LAX, DFW, ATL, etc.), this was infinitely more stressful than actually flying the jet. Dealing with the rapid-fire instructions and clearances from the O’Hare TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), O’Hare Control Tower or Ground controllers can be super intimidating, and being slow, confused or (heaven forbid) asking an ATC guy to repeat his or her last transmission can stain one with the worst type of shame…that of sounding like an amateur in front of dozens of other airline pilots.

None of this happened on that beautiful clear morning as we found ourselves maneuvering to line up for runway 14R. Wayne (the First Officer) was at the controls and Al was doing his usual excellent job of “flying the radios” as we say. All was going great, in fact, Al seemed very relaxed as he calmly responded to the vectors for the final approach from ATC, configured the flaps and gear as Wayne requested, and then acknowledged my “Approach” and “Landing” checklist inquiries with the appropriate responses. He was calm, cool and collected on the radio, and hence we were all branded as such.

His body language showed that he was alert, but at ease with our situation, and all was well in our little world… until Wayne did what everyone that’s ever flown the Boeing 727 has done. He made the perfect approach and landing flare, and then when rounding out for the touchdown…WHAM, we hit the runway like a ton of bricks! We bounced back into the air a few feet, and he, in an attempt to recover, slammed the landing gear onto the pavement with the force of the hammer of Thor himself! From what I could tell, he did everything perfectly from his First Officers seat, but he got screwed on the (hoped-for) smooth touchdown. The design of the 727, with its main landing gear so far aft, was famous for turning a great approach into a very ugly landing. In most machines, when you “flare” for landing the main gear slow their downward trend, and you gently touch down. In the 727, when you bring the nose up into the flare, the main landing gear actually travel downward several feet. If done incorrectly (or as in Wayne’s case, you get unlucky), you can be left with a supremely ugly landing, and a red face. This is what happened to Wayne. He had bruised the runway, and he now had to take it like a man.

 

5

(A gorgeous machine to be sure…but if you flared to much, or not at the right time, you could drive those big main gear into the pavement so hard the O2 masks would fall from their little hiding places over the passenger seats. We called it getting “the rubber jungle”, and it was not good. Did I ever get the masks to drop? That’s for another tale…lol.)

 

As we slowed to an appropriate taxi speed, Al and Wayne swapped duties (due to the fact that only the left seat had a “tiller wheel” to steer the jet on the ground). As Al controlled the machine on the taxiways, Wayne became the dude on the radio. He was one busy caballero talking to the O’Hare tower, retracting the flaps on Al’s command, switching the radio frequency to “Ground Control”, and responding to their taxi route clearance. I too was very busy, for after clearing the runway I was tasked with starting the Auxiliary Power Unit, calling the NWA Operations folks to announce our arrival (this is done electronically nowadays with a datalink marvel known as ACARS), making sure the cabin was depressurizing as scheduled, running several checklists and about a zillion other things that I can’t remember.

As we taxied toward the gate, Al made the following statement. It shocked me ALMOST as much as it shocked Wayne.

“Well that was truly a shitty landing (big smile at Wayne). Bill, you think you can do any better than that?” I was shocked as hell! Being busy talking on the radio, I wasn’t 100% sure I had heard him correctly, so I asked him to repeat what he had just said. He did, and I mumbled something pretty unintelligible (all the while thinking…WTF?). “Well good then…you fly us up to Madison on the next leg, and Wayne you sit at Bill’s panel and run the systems.” HOLY SH*T! I was going to “get a leg”, and I didn’t know what to say.

“Getting a leg” in airline lingo means that I was going to fly the jet! It was a weird thing, for even though I was rated as an Airline Transport Pilot (and had thousands of hours flying many other machines), I was not specifically trained to fly in the First Officer’s seat on the Boeing 727. Each year after doing our simulator check ride at the F/E’s panel, we Second Officers were required by the FAA to spend some time flying the 727 simulator from the First Officer’s seat…in other words, just getting some stick time. We were not officially trained, checked out, certified and thus ordained as F/Os, but we all practiced flying the big Boeing to keep our piloting skills from getting too rusty. Could we fly the jet? Hell yeah we could! Was it totally legal? Hell no it wasn’t.

I was pretty excited to say the least, for save some time flying in the right seat of a Learjet model 23 a few years earlier; I had no actual flight time piloting a jet powered machine. My total experience thus far amounted to roughly 5000 hours of flight time, with time spent in everything from small, single engine trainers, to rather large twin turboprop aircraft…but essentially no time in jets. Wayne however, was less than enthused about moving back to the Flight Engineer’s seat for the short leg up to Madison. Although he had spent several years in that chair, and was comfortable with all the systems and/or checklists, I think he saw this as a supreme “no confidence vote” from his boss, and he was a bit embarrassed by it all. It was the first trip I had flown with Wayne, and I’d have to say that he was not the most personable guy on the planet. He seemed to be a rather unhappy bloke, and I think his general sour disposition didn’t go very far to endear him to Al. Did this play into Al’s offer? Not sure and didn’t care.

 

pilot simming 5

(Grace, beauty and power…that was the Boeing 727.)

 

After an hour or so at the gate doing our preflight tasks, I strapped myself into the First Officer’s seat, and made sure Al knew that I had never actually touched the controls of the 727 in the real world, but only in that make-believe world of the simulator. Al just laughed and said something to the effect of “don’t worry; I’ll talk you through it.” I was nervous, a bit apprehensive, and quite frankly, a bit scared. Again, this unwritten “policy” of giving a leg to an un-FAA certified crewmember was not only technically illegal, it was frowned upon by the higher ups in the Chief Pilots Office. A huge part of the story (and the epicenter of my anxiety) is the exposure to being fired from this coveted job. I was in my first few months at the airline, and while on my year-long “probationary period”, I had no union protection in the event I screwed something up. I could be summarily fired with no recourse. Bending a big, beautiful Northwest Orient Boeing 727 would most certainly fall into the category of “screwing” something up. Did I for a millisecond contemplate turning down Al’s offer? Not on your life.

Al said he was going to “talk me through it” …and did he ever! I distinctly remember that on the take-off, when I pulled back on the yoke, it felt like the big jet actually LEAPT into the sky (remember, we were only going a hundred or so miles …we were extremely light). It flew like a dream, and was far more responsive on the controls than I remembered the simulator being. I was pretty busy responding to Al’s instructions, but within a few minutes, I settled in and got comfortable flying this marvel.  At some point, I began to steal lots of glances out the window to see the magnificent Wisconsin countryside go whizzing by. Being a Flight Engineer is like being a glorified secretary to the folks up in the front of the cockpit, you’re more of a spectator than a participant. I was now back in the world of being an actual PILOT again, and it was wonderful!

Within minutes, my joyride began to get serious as we started our approach into Madison. With Al’s help, I got the big jet slowed down, extended the slats and flaps when he advised, asked for the gear down as we turned onto our base leg, and before I knew it, we were rolling out on final approach for runway 36. I tried very hard to concentrate and do EXACTLY as Al instructed, attempting to maintain the proper approach speed, pitch angle and glidepath. As we crossed the runway threshold, I began to flare precisely when and how he told me to, and VIOLA! I absolutely squeaked the jet onto the runway…a damn near perfect “grease job” landing! Al started laughing as the aircraft slowed below 80kts and he again took control. Needless to say, I was grinning from ear to ear, but I could feel Wayne’s evil-eye stare boring a hole into the back of my (now inflated) head.

 

2

(I took this on a cold, sleet filled day in MSP. We’re holding short of RWY 30R as another “three-holer” prepares to launch.)

 

As we were taxiing into the gate at Madison, the lead Flight Attendant poked her head into the cockpit to ask the Flight Engineer (me) to order more soft drinks to be catered for the flight back to Chicago. She looked a bit puzzled to see Wayne in my seat, and me in his, but she shrugged it off, got the message delivered to whoever was in the F/E seat, and closed the door.

I would love to say that the story ends here, but that would not be true. Al set the brakes at the gate in Madison, and he and I responded to the “Shutdown” and “Parking” checklist from the pissed off guy sitting behind us. He then did something that floored me (and Wayne) AGAIN! He uttered these infamous words (at least for Wayne), “well hotshot, you did such a good job of flying us up from Chicago, why don’t you fly us back!” HOLY SH*T #2!

To make a long story short, Wayne was MORE pissed off now than he was just a few short minutes before, and I was beginning to feel like the kid that always gets picked first for the football team. Al just took it all in stride and talked me through the flight back into that melee’ called O’Hare Airport. The one major difference to the previous flight, is that my landing back in Chicago was a bit harder than Wayne’s landing several hours earlier. In fact, it truly sucked. Instead of another “grease job”, I now landed the jet more like a Navy plane making a bone-jarring landing on the aircraft carrier! I didn’t let it bother me, for I (again) did just as Al instructed, but the “God’s of the good landings” just would not/could not smile on me twice in one day. Ah well…back to being a lowly Flight Engineer.

A funny side note to this story concerns the aforementioned Lead Flight Attendant. It seems that she had quite the sense of humor, and when informed by Al that I would be flying us back from Madison, she planned a little surprise of her own for me. As we taxied toward the gate in O’Hare following my “firm” landing, she stepped into the cockpit and exclaimed rather loudly…”WHO THE HELL MADE THAT LANDING!?” I turned around to see a woman who had altered her appearance “slightly” to make her point. Her hair was a huge mess, she had lipstick smeared down the side of her mouth, her blouse was rumpled and mostly un-tucked from her skirt, her panty hose were around her ankles and to top it off… she had a “demo” oxygen mask and hose wrapped around her neck!!!

I laughed until my sides began to hurt. God bless her.

Later that evening, sitting in a bar back where we had started that long fateful day (Washington D.C.), I turned to the waitress and muttered, “You see this distinguished gentleman I’m sitting with? (Meaning of course, Al) Well, today is his birthday, and he’s feeling a bit down, and pretty far from home.” She proceeded to gather the other young ladies serving in this establishment, and within minutes, they produced a cupcake complete with a single burning candle. As they all gathered around Al and sweetly sang him “Happy Birthday”, he glanced at me and with a sly grin and said softly…”you know I can have your job for this…” I just said, “sure Al, sure”.

 

me ckpt 1

(Taken a few years ago in the left seat of the Boeing 757…my last ride in the rarefied world of airliners.)

 

My story ends here. Captain Al Thompson flew his last flight for Northwest Airlines several years ago, and sadly, he “flew West” a few months ago after a brave battle with cancer. I wasn’t with him during his illness, but after reading about his passing the other day in our Flight Operations office; I’ve been with him spiritually. Seeing his name brought back many good memories of those days we shared a cockpit, and I felt that this little part of his story should be told.

My logbook entry for that day up to Madison and back reads: “**First two legs in right seat of N251US! Flies like a dream! Beautiful night in DCA.”

“Thank you, Al,”, for those first legs flying that magical machine so many years ago, also thank you for allowing me to serve as your First Officer on many more flights in other magical machines to far destinations. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was using you to form a “template” for the type of aircraft commander I would someday strive to become. I only hope I’ve done you proud. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

I wish you nothing but calm seas, starry nights, and following winds my friend…

 

’till next time…

 

Standard

BBall, Buddy Holly and the Bonanza

 

A few days ago, nearing the end of a ten day “escape from the virus lock-down” vacation to visit family in Montana, Deb and I were on the downhill slide of the 2-day drive when one of “those” songs came on the radio. For anyone over the age of, say 50, the ageless notes and haunting lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie” will conjure up memories, and inevitably force one to sing along with the tag lines of…” the day, the music died. And we were singing, bye, bye Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy and the levy was dry…”

For those not privy to the meaning of the song, it was a lament to the untimely death of Buddy Holly, a young rock and roll star that was rising like a proverbial meteor, and literally taking the musical soul of teenage America by storm (his song, “That’ll Be the Day” was #1 on the music charts). The story of the plane crash that took his life, is both fascinating and very sad.

The band of rockers had been on the road for a few weeks, in the middle of a “winter tour” through the upper Midwest during a typical bone-jarring cold stretch in early 1959. Their tour traveling machines were old, “re-conditioned”, UN-heated school buses, known for stranding the band frequently, and on the night of the crash, Holly and a few band members decided they would miss the long, cold ride (from the small town of Clear Lake, Iowa, to the next night’s gig in Fargo, North Dakota), by chartering a small plane and flying the few hundred miles. The decision would cost them and the music world dearly.

 

HollyStage

(Rock and Roll star Buddy Holly. I highly recommend the movie “The Buddy Holly Story” with THE Gary Busey in the lead role. Gary sings all the tunes himself, and it’s a truly great movie, about a truly great rock and roller. Strangely, the movie was made the same year that this yarn took place…1978.)

 

Holly had it all set. He made arrangements through Dwyer Flying Service, to have a young pilot by the name of Roger Peterson whisk them out of the brewing blizzard, to Fargo hours ahead of the buses. The price for the flight would be a grand total of $108.00 (roughly $400 in today’s monetary world). Bassist Waylon Jennings (who would become known as an “outlaw” country and western star) and guitarist Tommy Allsup were set to accompany Holly on the flight. At the last minute, J.P. Richardson (known as “the Big Bopper” and singer of the popular song “Chantilly Lace”) asked Jennings for his seat. Richardson was ill and feeling terrible. His flu symptoms were getting worse, and the thought of several hours on an un-heated bus, in the middle of the night was simply too much to bear. Jennings protested, but finally agreed, thus relieving J.P.  from the torturous bus ride through the dark, snowy night.

Guitarist Tommy Allsup was also slated to take the flight, but newly minted star Richie Valens (of tune “La Bamba” fame) was also suffering from days spent on the freezing busses, and was now becoming ill with the flu. For several minutes, he badgered Allsup for his seat, and they finally agreed to let a coin toss decide. Allsup flipped the 50-cent piece into the air, Valens called “heads” and it indeed landed face up. The manifest for the ill-fated flight was set.

After the crash, Jennings would spend many years racked with guilt about the events. Although he and Holly were widely known to give each other a dubious amount of “chin music”, their last conversation would haunt him without reprieve. As they were leaving for the airport, Holly quipped to Jennings, “I hope your damn bus freezes up again.” To which Jennings tragically fateful reply was, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Fate can be truly wicked.

They departed the Mason City Airport at roughly 1 a.m., climbed into snow flakes swirling in a strong southerly wind, and turned to the northwest. Witnesses saw the white tail light of the small plane slowly descend until it vanished from sight. The Civil Aeronautics Board (it would later become the FAA) stated that the Beechcraft V35 Bonanza, N3794N, was developing normal engine power, gear/flaps retracted, and impacted a snow-covered field at approximately 170 knots, right wing low. The machine cartwheeled and came to rest against a barb-wired fence. All four perished on impact. The three musicians were thrown from the machine, while the pilot remained tangled in the wreck. The causal findings of the CAB mentioned that the low flight time pilot was too in-experienced to handle the worsening weather. Peterson had been flying for four years and had amassed 711 total flying hours.

The world was shocked and saddened by their deaths. The press would refer to it as, “The Day the Music Died”.

One of the first times I was treated to this haunting ballad, I was a high school student in Mrs. Chadwick’s 11th grade English class. She was one of those cool teachers that wasn’t afraid to chuck the textbooks, and free-wheel stuff. We broke down previously confusing works like “Beowulf” and were now exploring this amazing song line by line. It seemed really cool to this awkward, long-haired, pimply-faced, teenager, and each and every time I hear this tune, I’m transported back to the year 1973, the hallowed halls of Southwest High School in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the vortex of puberty.

Reminiscing aside, the death of Buddy Holly (and Richie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and their pilot) indeed had “touched me deep inside” (a line from “American Pie”) for the circumstances of their demise hit a bit close to home. You see, they were flying in one of the most iconic single-engine airplanes ever constructed…the venerable Beechcraft V35 Bonanza. I too, had an “episode” in a Bonanza as a fledgling aviator, and wrote the following piece about that event.

I give you a rerun of one of my “BBall’s Logbook” entries (this one from the year 2002):

 


 

“BBall, Buddy Holly and the Bonanza”

 

The year was 1978, and most things were right with the world. Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat would share the Nobel Peace prize for their work at Camp David, Prime Minister P.W. Botha was beginning work to dismantle the culture of apartheid in South Africa, the disease smallpox was eradicated from the planet, and two of my all-time favorite movies were filling the theaters …”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House”. That, plus the BIG news of the year; the Dallas Cowboys had won Super Bowl XII, defeating the Denver Broncos 27-10. As I remember it though, there were only two things that really, REALLY sucked about that year. Disco music was in full swing (“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees was the #1 song), and I almost died flying a Beechcraft Bonanza.

The first sucky part I won’t talk about, for if you were alive during those horrid, dark days of disco, then you know just how cruel those times actually were. Imagine being a 20-something year old male, hormones raging, adorned in your best bell-bottom jeans, and “attempting” to dance to the audio-vomit known as disco. All this simply to garner the attention of the opposite sex….it was a cruelty that I dare not describe. The second part was quite an adventure, except of course for the almost perishing in a crumpled heap of aluminum and body parts thing. I’ll explain in a minute.

I was enjoying my senior year at college, and the prospect of graduating and finding a “real” flying job was starting to look more like a reality then some far off event. I had been flying for a grand total of five years, and held most every rating and license short of the pinnacle of all professional aviators: the coveted Airline Transport Pilot’s License. I had earned my Commercial Pilot’s License, an Instrument Rating, my Certified Flight Instructor-Airplane/Instrument License, a Multi-engine rating, my Multi-engine Flight Instructor License, and had a grand total of just over 700 hours of flight time. The last year or so had seen me working as a Staff Flight Instructor for the college I was attending, flying the occasional charter flight, and riding along with my ex-roommate Rick on his nightly freight runs to build my multi-engine time. There never seemed to be a dull moment in those worn cockpits, steering long since used-up airplanes (full of cancelled checks), to small towns and insignificant destinations in the middle of the night. To be sure, it was a young man’s game, and we had more than our share of excitement, but I’ll save those yarns for another time.

 

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(The iconic Beechcraft V35)

The Beechcraft V35 Bonanza has always been a huge favorite among general aviation pilots; in fact, my friend Rick (now a B767 Captain for American Airlines) is the proud owner of a V35 Bonanza. Aircraft maker Beechcraft first conceived this V-tail marvel back in 1945, with the birth of the first aircraft in February of 1947. It would later be morphed into the straight-tail C33 Debonair version in 1959, but it was a huge success from the moment it hit the ramp. It’s widely known for its ruggedness, it’s speed, it’s “Breechcraft pedigree” of superior quality and craftsmanship, it’s VERY distinctive V-tail, and one rather ignominiously foreboding nick-name….”the fork-ed tail doctor killer”.

That’s what the old heads called the Bonanza, and it seemed to have more than earned that moniker. In fact, most people aren’t aware of it, but famous rock and rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (alias The Big Bopper) tragically perished in an Iowa corn field, one cold, snowy night, in February 1959…in a V35 Bonanza. It was an accident that would shake the rock and roll world to its core, and it conjures up memories of my own. I distinctly remember a field trip that my college class took to the FAA Aeromedical Academy in Oklahoma City that left an indelible mark on my pilot psyche. One of the highlights was a trip through what they called the “Gallery of Death”, which was a large room with hundreds of graphic pictures of small plane crashes (a lovely thing to show to a group of aspiring airline pilots).

They were all very grizzly in detail, and we noticed one weird coincidence. It seemed, an inordinate amount of them were Beechcraft V35 Bonanzas. The FAA folks also felt compelled to treat us to a macabre event. It was a recording of air traffic conversation between an ATC controller and a Bonanza pilot. He had gotten trapped trying to navigate through some thunderstorms, had experienced severe turbulence, and the massive up and down drafts caused the engine to break free from its mounts in the nacelle and shift forward. The center of gravity was now far outside the forward limits, and the plane was headed for earth with the aerodynamic properties of a greased man-hole cover. The ATC Center controller was talking to this doomed pilot and the shock of his terrified voice becoming more and more shrill, sent horrific chills down our spines. I could never figure out if they wanted all of us to become the safest pilots we could possibly become, or just have the crap scared out of us and quit flying altogether.

 

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(The twisted wreckage of N3794N…the machine where “the music died”.)

 

With all that said, here’s my Bonanza tale.

I had taken several days off from college classes to fly a few nights with Rick on his freight run, but more importantly, to help him with a charter flight he had agreed to, but due to other commitments couldn’t take. It seems that two of his friends (of the female persuasion) needed to get from Dallas, Texas to Columbia, Missouri to attend a wedding. Rick agreed to fly them, but when he realized he couldn’t do it, he called the next best pilot he knew. Actually, that guy didn’t answer his phone so Rick called me, and I accepted the challenge…lol. Of my astounding 7oo+ hours of flight time, very little had been logged in a V35 Bonanza. Yes, I had done my Flight Instructor training in a C33 Debonair (again, basically a straight-tailed version of the Bonanza), and had flown some night freight runs with Rick in his company’s V35, but I had basically no Pilot in Command time in one of these whiz-banged “fork-ed tailed Messerschmitts”. Could I handle it? Hell yes I could! For after all, I was an instrument rated, commercially licensed 22-year-old, “steely eyed” aviator, and I was the man for the job. That, plus I really fancied the idea of flying two VERY lovely young ladies around and not having to pay for it (I’m talking about the airplane of course).

Rick and I flew a freight run to Baton Rouge the night before the big event, landed at dawn, and spent the day trying to grab some sleep. Later that evening, we headed out to Love Field for him to give yours truly some training in the Bonanza. This was a sweet little machine, and the attorney that owned it had really treated it with kid gloves. Crushed velour seats, very nice cockpit, great Nav/Comm radios, hell, it even had an auto-pilot (not quite the ilk of the B757, but it was cool nonetheless). We pre-flighted the machine, and spent just under an hour or so doing touch and go’s in the traffic pattern so I could get acquainted with this little wonder. About the time we taxied up to the FBO, my passengers were arriving, and the sun was starting to set. Rick met the girls, and advised me to head into the office to file my IFR flight plan while he loaded my suitcase, and got the ladies settled. One small note about this particular FBO at Love Field in the year 1978 has to be mentioned. Most of the line crew-MEN weren’t…men that is. They were VERY nice-looking young ladies, adorned in the shortest shorts and halters tops that any guy (without aspirations for interior design) could dream up. This was most probably the reason that Rick used this facility, and on that important matter, I deferred to his expertise.

I had us refueled, pre-flighted the Bonanza once again, and the three of us launched with the westward horizon fading from pink to black. Within a few minutes, we settled into what portended to be a very boring few hours on our Missouri-bound journey. I was alone in the front seat, while the girls sat in the back chatting, and doing what girls do on their way to a wedding; mainly, pontificate about how big a mistake the bride is about to make. Flying at night in a single engine airplane isn’t something you might catch me doing nowadays, but back then, it seemed like a no-brainer…the weather was benign, the machine was functioning well, and the “scenery” was great. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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(All Beechcraft machines are very well made, beautiful and are known as the “Mercedes” of the small plane world.)

I began to hearken back to the days when I was first learning to fly. I’ll never forget that first night flight way back in 1973. My instructor, John, and I were aloft in the little Cessna 150, and were droning along headed back to Meacham Field to do some take-offs and landings. Suddenly, John reached over and pulled the throttle all the way back (meaning to the “OFF” position) …he announced, “we’ve just had an engine failure”. Holy crap! This we had practiced over and over again during our daylight flights, but at night? I set up the proper glide speed, and began to search for a suitable “off airport” place to put this thing down…but it was dark out there. He then hit me with some of the more prophetic words I’ve heard during the last 29 years of flying…”pick a dark spot…a field…. glide down doing your emergency checks…when you’re about to touch down, turn on the “Landing Light”…. if you don’t like what you see…TURN IT OFF…” I was mortified…he was laughing his ass off (he was to perish in a light twin crash within the year).

As the girls and I droned along at 7000’, the time had come to switch the fuel tanks, but being the consummate professional, I let the engine “cough” first gaining every last drop from that tank before switching it to the next one. From “R Main” to “L Aux” done with all the panache that any high-time (experienced) aviator would use.  The two passengers didn’t particularly like the part where the engine sputtered, but I assuaged their fears with my clear, calm, words of confidence. The weather was becoming IFR (cloudy) as we neared the Arkansas border, so I asked for a higher altitude from ATC, and this did the trick. We were now “on top” of the under-cast below, and life was back to being grand. A bit later in the now boring flight, it was time to switch fuel tanks again…yep, let it “cough”, move the lever to “R Aux” and viola!…masterfully done once more. This was a breeze, and the girls were feeling so much at home in this little “airliner” that they displayed their ultimate vote of confidence…they lit up a joint. Oh crap, not good…. but I had the fresh air vent on me blowing all the smoke back toward them, and what the hell, if they wanted to get stoned, how could it possibly affect me?

OK, just about to Missouri, and it’s time to switch fuel tanks one last time. It would be the last piece in the fuel puzzle, and that tank would be more than enough to allow us to breeze on into Columbia, and call it a night. O.K., fuel boost pump “on”, let it cough, then move the lever to “L Main”, and we’re all done with the fuel gymnastics. Unfortunately, this is the part in the movie where one “small problem” reared its ugly head.

When I switched the lever over to “L Main” (and the only tank that had any Avgas left in it) the engine abruptly protested with great authority. It continued to “cough” and the RPM dropped to just under 1000…. in other words, the engine wasn’t responding. After switching the fuel lever back to all the other tanks THAT I HAD PREVIOUSLY RUN DRY, I found myself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I quickly put the fuel lever back to “L Main”, left the boost pump on, and watched the airspeed start to decay. I had enough forethought to trim the airplane for the best glide speed, and start into the emergency checklist. The only problem (of course) was that the fuel emergency checklist assumed you had something to burn in the other tanks…which I didn’t. I read it anyway, and it listed everything I had already tried. Time to land, but where?

 

4

(Cockpit of a Beechcraft Bonanza.)

I “fessed up” to Ft. Worth Center ATC, told them we were having a “slight engine problem” (as we descended into the under-cast), and would need vectors to the nearest airport (I flashed back to the dudes shill voice on the FAA Academy audio tape…and tried not to let mine gain any octaves). The girls were coming out of the fog and asking what was happening….”uh, well, we’re going to be landing soon to check something out…nothing to worry about.”…talk about a buzz kill. The Center controller told me that there was an airport directly below me in this area of northwest Arkansas, and to “state the nature of your problem”. I didn’t want to declare an emergency (a hugely dumb move, but common for someone with limited experience), so I told him that the engine was running “a bit rough” and that we’d be landing to have it looked at. I asked for some 360 spirals to stay within gliding distance of whatever airport we were above, and tried to keep myself together and my instrument scan going. We broke out of the clouds at about 4000’ and I spotted the airport rotating beacon almost directly below us! The engine was giving me about 800 RPM and keeping the electrics and vacuum pumps goings, so all I had to do was semi-dead stick this thing into whatever field we were circling.  Piece of cake…John…are you watching?

The runway was oriented north to south, looked to be at least 5000’ long, and had several lighted buildings on the west side, so it didn’t look to be some “po-dunk” farmer’s field type operation. I somehow managed to judge it correctly, plopped the thing on the runway, gently tapped the brakes, and slowed to a taxi speed to exit (in this instance, when I got to 500′ I turned on the landing light, liked what I saw and left it on…lol). As we turned off the runway, I noticed one of the lighted buildings was a big hangar with an airline logo above the door, and lo and behold it looked like several folks were inside working on various airplanes! Again, I was getting enough RPM to keep us moving, so we taxied over to it, shut down and I went in to see if we could get some help. I vividly remember looking around after I got out of the airplane and seeing the dark shadows of many large hills circling the airport. If I recall correctly, the gravity of the situation caught up with me right about now, and strangely enough, my knees became a bit rubbery.

As it turned out, we had landed at Drake Field in Fayetteville, Arkansas. During the day, this was a very busy airport, and the home base of a commuter (or as we call them now “Regional”) airline by the name of Scheduled Skyways, Inc. In one of my life’s stranger coincidences, this would be the commuter airline that I would fly for not two years down the road. I would be based in Fayetteville (our other pilot base being Little Rock), and I would become very familiar with the nuances of this little field tucked into the “mountains” of northwest Arkansas.

As luck would have it, one of the Skyways mechanics wasn’t busy, towed the airplane into the hangar, and checked it out for us. Within a few minutes, he informed me that one of the fuel lines was almost completely clogged (guess which one…yep, the Left Main). He was kind enough to blow the line clean, help us gas the machine back up, and sent us on our way. I don’t remember paying him anything for his effort, but I’m sure we did…maybe the girls offered him some “wacky weed”. Funny, but I also don’t remember having any reservations about climbing into that thing, firing it up, and launching back into that cold black night. Nowadays, after an adventure like that, you’d find me comfortably ensconced on a bar stool for about a year.

 

5

(I was to cut my “airline teeth” at the controls of the SA-226 Swearingen Metroliner in the skies over the southern U.S. The day they took this picture, I was busy inside doing paperwork for my upcoming day in the sky. Most all of these folks became good friends of mine…lots of stories here…lol.)

 

That trip turned out to be a milestone in this young aviator’s career. No, not the night dead-stick landing from IFR weather part, but the weekend in Missouri part. Remember me mentioning that the FBO in Dallas was employing lots of VERY attractive young ladies? It seems that when Rick was supposed to be loading the Bonanza with my overnight gear, he was doing the “hey, I’m a pilot, how do you like me so far?” routine with one of the line-crew girls. You guessed it, I had just the clothes on my back and nothing more! Apparently, he was preoccupied and forgot to load my suitcase in the airplane. Of course, I didn’t realize this until we were unloading the bags on the ramp in Columbia.

We were met by several friends of my passengers (all girls) late that night, and I was whisked away to spend the next three days at the home of the bridesmaid of honor…this all seemed quite innocent, until I found out that her parents WERE IN EUROPE on vacation. I vaguely remember attending a wedding that weekend dressed in the bridesmaid’s father’s suit (including his shoes), and being the object of lots of attention. I must’ve answered those girls questions about how I “saved their friends lives” a hundred times. I’ll admit that I conveniently left out the part where the almost crash was my fault, that I had run the gas in the other tanks dry , and how much of an idiot I was. One thing I will say about those Missouri girls, well, …I’m just not gonna say.

So somewhere over Arkansas, on a cold October night in 1978, I met the ghosts of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and their 21-year-old pilot Roger Peters (he had almost the exact total amount of flight hours as yours truly). He had taken off in a veritable blizzard, and either lost control due to buildup of ice on the wings of his Bonanza, or possibly became a victim of vertigo and spiraled into the ground from such. Either way, four young lives were cut tragically short that night.  As I thought about his doomed flight and my “incident”, I felt like he and I had shared a dark cockpit, spiraling down through the clouds with a plane load of terrified passengers. In my case, I had an engine that would run at somewhere around idle RPM, but fortunately, I had generally “good enough” weather. In his case, the engine was fine, but the weather was far worse, and thus, the ending was far different. I am completely certain however, that we both experienced one common thing; an overpowering sense of things not turning out well. I (maybe with the help of his…and my instructor John’s spirit) pulled off an (almost) dead stick landing, at night, from some pretty crappy circumstances, and in the process scared the hell out of one fledgling pilot.

It was a cruel twist of fate that took Buddy Holly. his friends, and one young pilot from us 19 years earlier; for it was far too early in their lives…it was in fact, “the day the music died”. However, the fickle purveyor of fortune let me be…gave me a proverbial “pass” as it were. I lived to continue my sufferings during those salad days of disco, but I must say, the three days spent in a house in Missouri with a half a dozen partying girls truly helped ease the pain.

Oh, and I learned to never run a fuel tank dry…ever.

 

“It’s destiny, Peggy Sue…everything’s destiny.” – Buddy Holly

 

till next time,

 

 

 

 

Standard

Stop the Roller Coaster…I Want to Get Off!

 

Life is like a huge Zen roller coaster; it’s designed to be that way. At times its fun and exciting, just like the ride at the amusement park, but occasionally it becomes a sledge-hammer serious affair. At the park, we get on and off at our choosing, we laugh to our hearts content, and the experience becomes a warm memory brimming with joy. Although the past few months can certainly be described as an emotional roller coaster, it has been anything but joyous. Rather than a fun-filled, heart pounding dash around a set of twisting tracks, it’s been more of a confusing whirling dervish of heartbreaking tales mixed with stories of love/compassion and yes, even heroism. It seems, the big cosmic “PAUSE BUTTON” was pushed for the entire planet, and the effects have touched every facet of human existence. Raise your hand if you’ve personally felt the effects. I’m guessing most of the 7.8 billion humans on this big rock in space are forlornly raising their hands as we speak.

 

a1rc

 

In the world of aviation, there has been but one event that would be remotely similar to the past few months. On a sky-blue September morning, 19 years ago, a horrid, evil-driven, slaughter of innocents took place. It was heinous to its core, but it was not a dreaded nuclear device, or an invisible invasion of microbes that did the killing. It was a culture of malevolent, evil intent, and it used four shining, graceful airliners to inflict death and destruction. While the smoke was still billowing, and humanity was recoiling in shock, an unprecedented thing happened; the airspace over North America was switched off completely, as if some gentle giant had moved a lever and the atmosphere would no longer support flying machines. We were all struck numb, and horrified emotions swept across the world, however, a big difference between then and now exists. While the 9-11 “black swan” event was centered over one locale, this vortex covers the entire planet like a huge blanket of pain and suffering. The terrorist attacks were shattering to be sure, and the effects on my world of air machines was nothing short of devastating. Thousands of employee layoffs occurred, pay-cuts came in droves, airplanes by the hundreds were moth-balled, and untold numbers of lives were turned upside down.

 

a2rc

Being passed over the Pacific by a Boeing 787. They are 1000′ above us (Seattle to Tokyo).

 

But then something happened. When the shock began to subside, we found to our relief, that we were left with an air travel system that was mostly intact. People were fearful, and the world of aviation had changed, but we hitched up our big boy/girl panties and fought back. We hardened our machines (ex.; installing bomb-proof cockpit doors), we hardened our procedures (with x-ray machines galore, the birth of the TSA, and pilots armed on the flight deck [see my blog concerning being an FFDO]), and we hardened our hearts (the battle cry of “Let’s Roll” became our mantra). Airline travel slowly returned, and although the storm of evil still existed, we now had several tools to deal with it. One uniquely human by-product of the entire experience has become an integral part of the current experience of air travel. The wonderful folks that sit behind me, are now as physically and emotionally invested in the safety of the flight as the flight crews have always been. The massive ripples from that day swept throughout my industry, and it took a huge paradigm shift for us to fly airliners again (and for people to want to be on an airliner again), but we prevailed, and eventually prosperity returned.

 

So why mention the attacks of 9-11 in a piece about a viral pandemic? Because there is good news to be gleaned from these “nightmare-like” days we find ourselves mired within. Please hear me; we WILL prevail once again. Across the spectrum of life, the human race will adapt and overcome. We will fight for our lives, and we will fight for our families and friends. In the process, we will fight for our values, our societies, and our collective sanities. I am profoundly convinced we will come out of this “Twilight Zone tunnel” as the next version of a “Brave New World”. Let’s call it “World 2.0”.

Aviation will be no different. It’s bad, but it’s been bad before.

So the question is: how am I (personally) doing during this world-wide “flat spin”?

Conflicted actually.

 

a3rc

Sunrise abeam Midway Island in the mid-Pacific (Nagoya to Honolulu).

 

The conglomeration of cells, synapsis and soul that differentiate me from other species is truly hurting…grieving actually. I’m torn between the pain of the unfathomable amount of suffering the world is living through, and the pain of the death of my “normal”. Our world is not like it was barely a few months ago, and it’s nothing short of shocking. We’ve seen the ugly rise of government control (both federal and local) beyond our wildest imaginations. My country’s founding tri-gospel of; “Liberty”, “In God We Trust”, and “E-pluibus unum”, is being put to the test daily. We’ve had dire mortality predictions that would frighten the stoutest of warriors. We’re now living with restricted gatherings at venues like malls, parks and restaurants, and every man will attest to the vast numbers of the female world anguishing over the lockdown of their coveted salons (with the “COVID 19 hairdo” becoming the topic of many a conversation). It’s enough to make one jump in the ‘ol time machine and set the dial for a different year…almost ANY year. On a serious note, the cost in human lives had been staggering, both in the horror of broadcasted daily body counts (decidedly NOT good for the psyche IMHO), and in the devastation of the financial world. Thousands of family (and many corporate) businesses closed, never again to see the light of day. Jobs lost, and careers ruined (in the case of some college folks, before they ever began). Things we celebrated mere weeks ago as bedrocks of our lives (sporting events, weddings, graduations, family reunions, etc.), are all part of the tsunami-like “PAUSE BUTTON” effect. It sometimes feels like we were all standing on a street corner, minding our own business, and “BAM!”, we were struck by an errant dump truck!

 

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The errant dump truck just flashed by.

 

However (and at the cost of sounding uncaring; I promise you, I am not), when my left-brain speaks to its counterpart on the right, it says… “so what?” Not to the suffering, but to the shift in our collective “reality”. Our world has been irrevocably changed, and our “normal” is no longer that…normal. But again, so what? The historian in me says that we need to be intellectually honest with ourselves. This has happened throughout the span of time. Mostly, not with the “it affects ME, right here, right NOW” type occurrence, but its’ simply a part of what happens on this planet named Earth. The day Copernicus first looked to the stars, or Madame Currie first peered into a microscope, the world changed forever. It was permanently altered on a deserted backstreet in Sarajevo in 1914, and on a midnight Polish border twenty-five years later. The planet reset itself the day a quiet Minnesotan put the cockpit compass on “E”, flew solo through an ink-black night, and somehow found Ireland shortly after sunrise. The world was violently changed on a lonely swath of desert in 1945 known as Trinity Site, and human life was (again) redefined when two brave men planted a flag on an even lonelier stretch of dust by the name of Tranquility Base. Many times, in our collective history as people, we have forever changed the planet due to our efforts, and just as many times, the planet changed without consulting us. This happens to be one of those times.

 

a5rc

I was but a young lad of 13 when I witnessed my first real world changing event…the entire planet watched with me.

 

Were all of these world events good news for humanity? Of course not, but they were world changing nonetheless. The Earth morphs constantly, and we as practitioners of the art of being human, change with it…we must. I weep, and am profoundly sad for the human cost of this ugly monster of disease. Side note: I’m finishing an amazing book titled “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl…holocaust survivor and physiatrist (  https://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl-ebook/dp/B009U9S6FI ). One cannot read such a book and not be left with the following thoughts.

Sadness and grief have been a part of the human experience since the dawn of time. We risk it ALL, every day of our lives, and we do this by simply getting out of bed in the morning. Does this mean I believe this nightmare isn’t real and deadly serious? Of course not, I most certainly do. But I understand that as humans we all have an “expiration date”, it’s just part of the deal. We’re born, we live a certain number of days, and then we die. The big question that this event has forced most of us to consider (myself included) is this: what if I can last longer by living less (i.e., locking myself in isolation)? Is that a deal I’m willing to make? We all must make this decision. It is my fervent belief that government does not have the moral authority to make this call for us. Do I think that a lock-down during the initial “banzai charge” by the disease was the correct move (and an air travel ban thus grievously wounding the travel industry)? Yes, I believe it was. We were gobsmacked by disease and mis-information (not to mention LACK of critical information), and we were forced to take drastic measures. Do I agree that this sequestering remains warranted? That my friend, is a subject for another piece.

With that said, let me add that I am not depressed, I’m not down-hearted, and I am most assuredly not afraid. I know humans are ingenious (and at least as devious as a virus), and I know that we will marshal our intellect to craft medical miracles, and couple that with amazing skills within the world of entrepreneurship. This will inevitably lead to solutions yet to be dreamed of. It’s simply what we do.

 

a6rc

I took this on a layover in Reykjavik, Iceland. Is this a scene we will see again anytime in the future?

 

Now, the pilot part.

I will not lie, a part of me is enjoying this break from the daily pressure-packed world of professional flying, while another part feels the loss of my world above the clouds. In a weird turn of events, this personal break from reality is actually due in part to two different events. The first is the virus that’s worldwide, the other is an extended sick call from the airline. It seems that a rather strange malady popped up beginning last summer (trust me, getting older is not for the faint of heart). One of the by-products of a life of international travel, is the varied (and “interesting”) dietary offerings within the overseas borders I routinely visit. A few years ago, I had been blessed with a stomach bacteria contracted in South Korea, and I assumed that the mysterious weight loss I was now experiencing was the return of this old gastro-intestinal friend.

After several months of routinely tightening the notch in the belt buckle, and regardless the fact that my appetite was still quite normal, I was continuing to drop pounds as fast as Hollywood types dropping complaints about the White House at a dinner party. My ability to eat more than a few bites during any meal was non-existent, and I found myself on the losing end of a rather serious battle. I was slowly getting smaller, slowly getting weaker and by the end of February, I deemed that I was no longer able to safely do my job. I took myself off of flying status.

 

a7rc

The last time I flew the big Boeing. February, Guatemala City to Los Angeles (picture taken by our jumpseat rider).

 

I was mistaken about the bacteria, and after some medical head-scratching (and an upper G.I. endoscopy), the doctor types eventually diagnosed the issue as Achalasia. We were in the midst of formulating a plan for my return to good health, when things changed. Unfortunately, this is the part in the movie where the “errant dump truck” meets the pedestrian, and the sick pilot finds himself now part of an entire planet that had been diagnosed with a serious illness. So, I found myself in a personal tail-spin as I watched my world begin the slow nose-up attitude that all pilots know will lead to wing buffet, and the eventual loss of precious lift (my/our “normal” was about to stall). Clearly, I was not quite “ready for prime time” physically, but was I emotionally ready for all of this? As in commanding a passenger laden jet during an emergency, I had no choice, I had to be ready.

Yes, I could put on my “Captain’s face”, compartmentalize my emotions, “work the problem”, keep my spiritual and physical wings level, and see myself (and my dear loved ones) through this. The last forty something years in my profession was superb training for what I was now facing. I needed a plan to get my body better, so I could keep my brain in good shape, so I could keep my sanity humming along on all cylinders. Though they had no real idea what caused this condition (much like my thymoma tumor in 1999), they informed me it was fully treatable. There were several options, but the fix Deb and I chose would involve anesthesia, scalpels and a one-night slumber party at the local hospital.

 

a8rc

In EVERY life a little rain must fall…it’s just a by-product of living. My medical issue and the resultant surgery was what we in aviation term a “squall line”. I’ve seen many of them (both medical and real), and this was just one more to deal with.

 

This is where the deadly virus almost derailed my entire little apple cart. My surgery was scheduled with the caveat that the medical governing body may not allow it due to the crisis that our health care industry was facing. I was informed that if they nixed my procedure, I was looking at a delay of up to 6 (and possibly 8) more weeks! Doing the math (considering the continued loss of weight), and considering my general worsening lack of stamina, it was looking like I would land short of the proverbial runway (with the resultant causality list). The bureaucrats relented (apparently our local health care facilities were NOT being overwhelmed), and we were “fight’s on”!

The morning of my surgery (16 April) I was, for lack of a better description, a mere shell of myself. The pre-bout weigh-in had me at 141 pounds (my normal “fighting weight” is 175-180), but I felt more than ready. The bathroom mirror had been cruelly lying to me for several months, for my reflection showed not ME, but what appeared to be an abused, starved P.O.W. from an enemy internment camp. The good news is that the procedure went swimmingly, and the better news is that I now can eat anything that’s not nailed down! I have since gained just shy of 20 pounds, and am feeling like $12 (that’s a million, adjusted for inflation and the virus effect on the market). OK, “Mysterious Weight Loss Emergency checklist complete Captain”. My plan is another month off the line to build my weight back, get my immune system back in the green band, and then spend the last 12 (sunset) months of my career flying the big jetliner hither and yon.

 

a9rc

Another jaw-dropping sunset “suffered” on the beach in Palau.

 

Will I have an airline to go back to? Yes, I will. Will the airline be the same as when I last flew four months ago? Of course not. If you know anything about aviation in general, and airline flying in particular, you know it (like the world) changes constantly. Airframes are added, airframes are parked, cities are added only to be dis-continued a few months down the road. The only thing truly “constant” in the airline business is change. Will our procedural world be different? Yes it will, but again, that stuff changes all the time also. Before each trip I’m required to wade though the pile of (virtual) bulletins on my flight operations website…it can easily take an hour or so. From things like FAA airspace changes, or how I’ll conduct a night visual approach into a mountainous airport, to even the most mundane things like which “holiday ties” are acceptable while wearing the uniform. Will face-masks, hand sanitizer, and “social distance” verbiage now be part and parcel to the language of aviation? Probably, but again, so what? A few decades ago, I had never heard of things with the alphabet soup names like TCAS, CRM, RNAV(RNP), PBE, RVSM, and the list goes on and on. Pilots learn to change, adapt and prevail every day and on EVERY SINGLE flight. It’s part of the challenge (and excitement) of the job. This medical paradigm will be no different in terms of the result.

 

a10rc

Haunting to each and every pilot. Most will see the clouds again…some will not.

 

There will be many questions, and untold challenges ahead for me and my world of airliners. But with adversity, we rise to the occasion. There exist certain absolutes in the world of flying, and even a world-wide pandemic cannot alter them. It will always take fast air moving over the wings to get my 250,000-pound collection of metal and humans into low Earth orbit, and no invisible virus will ever change that. It will take smart, creative, and very brave folks to run my incredible world of aviation (like it has since that long night the man stared at his fuel gauges, nibbled on cheese sandwiches and prayed to find the coast of Ireland). Oh, and a couple more things that I’m 100% convinced of…it will take this old airline pelican several more weeks (and roughly 20 more pounds) before I’m fully ready to strap on the jet again. And when I do, it will take a Herculean effort to wipe the smile off my face as I board the beautiful machine, turn left and enter my personal “Brave New World” 2.0

 

a11rc

Courage was a value we seemed to have intrinsically in days past… I’m not so sure now (we are bound for Japan…passing the island whose very name invokes the word”courage”… Iwo Jima).

 

a12rc

A not so brave man, with the bravest person I’ve ever met…my love, my rock, my Debora.

 

So I say…stay on the roller coaster, you’ll be glad you did. To quote my amazing bride, “I’m not afraid to die, but I’m terrified to not live.” Please be smart and remain safe.

(“Smart and be safe”…. honestly, what the heck does that even mean these days? The goal post is being moved constantly, so “smart” and “safe” are also being re-defined every day. Don’t hang out in huge groups of people, wash your hands like you’re a germaphobe, get plenty of sleep, get your fat-ass off the couch and exercise, eat right, spend time in the sun, seek medical attention if you get sick, and for God’s sake, stop licking those toilet seats! Wait! Aren’t all these the very same things your Mother hammered you to do every day as a kid?)

But most importantly, know that suffering is a byproduct of being human. Our Maker gives us love and joy to go with the pain, it’s just part of the big roller coaster we call life.

 

a13rc

Sunset on a Guam to Tokyo flight. Every moment of every day sees the sun set somewhere…but realize it is also rising at that very same moment.

 

a14rc

(What our route looked like on the tablet we use.)

Lastly, I urge you to contemplate these simple things:

Be brave and be kind…for they are both contagious. Live each and every day as a gift (for it truly is)…and don’t forget to be human.

‘till next time.

 

 

 

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“Hello…My name is Bill and I’m…”

 

Prologue: As we all know, in the first few months of this year, the world found itself in the midst of a viral nightmare. Some might think that the following piece about “playing video games” might be thoughtless, even silly given the scope of suffering that humanity is experiencing. I offer the opposite. In the darkest hours of my life, I’ve found that limiting my exposure to anxiety and worry, and attempting to replace it with joy and fun is truly powerful therapy. In the year 2000, I spent months living in a blur of surgeons, chemo and radiology doctors, and waiting rooms populated with sad faces and anxious looks. I lived through many bleak days (and nights) filled with questions regarding my health, my family, my career and pretty much everything in between.

I survived that year with the love of my family and friends, the medical heroes that brought me through that horrific tunnel, and the “therapy” of doing things that gave me joy. Loving my wife and children, staying in touch with siblings and friends, and (yes) logging time in front of my computer were the suave for my wounds. I could be in a world devoid of needles and cancer cells, twisting and turning through the clouds, and losing myself for hours at a time flying…albeit in a make-believe world, but flying nonetheless. When I exited that dark tunnel of personal nightmare, I penned an article titled “Take Two Sims and Call Me in the Morning”, and it was about just that. Using a beloved hobby to keep my mind from drifting where it had no business living. I know that now, as I spend days on end in my home, I’m staying sane using the same “therapy” I used two decades past. Love of my wife, children, siblings and friends. Lots of reading, writing, movies…and yes…my “addiction” to cyber flying.

The following is my promised entry about flight simulations.

 

“Hello…My Name is Bill, and I’m…”

…a flight sim addict.”

 

 

There, I said it. I’m essentially addicted to flying cyber aircraft around in a cyber world. Do I have other “addictions “and hobbies? Of course, I do. For instance, I’m dangerously drawn to a computer keyboard (obviously).  Also, in my teen years, I was consumed with two early loves (three counting flying machines). They being an attraction to motorcycles, and sports (both as a participant, and a voyeur). To this day, I find football season to be my favorite time of year, and I’m drawn to watching the four “major” golf tournaments like a fat kid to cake.  Concerning the two-wheeled wonders, I find it impossible to resist stopping to admire a gleaming, shining, motorcycle whenever the opportunity presents itself. My last addiction concerns the past. I love most everything history related, with my most compelling interest centered around modern (read 20th century) military events. Ask me the differences between Passchendaele, and Pelelui, the significance of Haiphong, and Helmund, Incheon and the Ia Drang…such is the byproduct of being a history nerd. This fascination of military history nicely dovetails into my love of flight simulations, which will be explained a bit more later. I’m compelled to say that I lay this last addiction squarely into the laps of two people. My dear father, and Adolph Hitler (seems that might also need some further explanation).

At the tender age of nine (circa 1965), our family packed up its worldly possessions, (lock, stock and barrel like many times before), and moved to a different military base. This particular move however was radically different than the others. Where we had crossed an ocean before when moving from Washington State to Hawaii, we had never actually relocated to a foreign country. We were now bound for the historic Bavarian city of Nuremburg, (West) Germany. I had no idea that it was to reveal undreamt of sights, sounds, tastes and a host of other things that my feeble young brain had never before contemplated. We began our two-year journey (to include a move to Munich the following year) by living, not on the Army base, but “on the economy” (meaning, in a neighborhood with the natives). I was gob-smacked to say the least, but the adventure was exhilarating. Lacking information to reflect on the momentous, world-shattering events that had taken place in this country a mere 20 years before, I had no idea that the scars (both physical and emotional) of World War II, were still very much a part of daily life here. My introduction to the fascinating world we call “History” was about to begin.

My parents were amazing people. First of all, because they were smart enough to have a kid like me (lol), and secondly because they never wasted an opportunity to throw us five “kinder” into the trusty old family station wagon and traipse us out into the German countryside. We traveled to castles, we visited museums, we drove to other Deutsche cities and towns, we even took a day to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I was but a mere lad of 10, but that day is seared into my memory, and the things I saw, and the feelings that I experienced will haunt me to my grave. It was a very confusing and upsetting day. Many days, and conversations later, my young brain started to faintly absorb it all. It was all so frightening, but I was drawn to the story of what had taken place HERE, where I was living, a mere two decades before. I wanted to know more, and the more places I visited (especially those that involved famous [and infamous] World War II locales), the more I started to feel the “tug” of the past.

 

1 tank pic

(My brother John and I standing on an M4 Sherman tank somewhere around the Munich airfield that my father flew from, circa 1966-67. Apparently, it was used as an Me-262 jet base by the Luftwaffe at the end of the war.)

 

I vividly remember standing on the concrete and marble podium where Adolph Hitler addressed the masses at the rallies of the 1930s, and I was enraptured by the enormity of it all. My father schooled me of him and his evil ideals (my Dad was roughly the same age as myself during those dark days of the Second World War). I remember there were forested areas with signs reading “Verboten” alerting folks that these woods had not been cleared of dangerous ordnance left from the war, and thus, they were closed to the public. I watched films and TV shows (a favorite of my generation was Vic Morrow’s “Combat!”), and I began to understand that what we call “history” isn’t just black words on a white page. I concluded that It was a living thing…past our spot in time…but living nonetheless. Real people, with real lives (and hopes and dreams and loves) stood where I was now standing, and I could almost feel them. Be it at historical places in 1965 Germany, or almost 50 years later, seeing the caves of Saipan, flying past Iwo Jima at 35,000’, or walking the invasion beaches of Normandy, it’s as if I could easily imagine myself in that place, at that moment in time. I loved it then, and I love it to this day.

 

Nürnberg, Reichsparteitag, RAD-Parade

Reichsparteitag 1937. Der große Aufmarsch der 38 000 Arbeitsdienstmänner vor dem Führer. a[uf].d[em]. Zeppelinfeld

3 Iwo Jima

4 Omaha Beach

(The Nuremburg podium, the island of Iwo Jima, and the “Dog Green” landing beach at Omaha .)

 

So back to the “addiction”.

Flash forward to the year 1995, I was living in Dallas/Ft. Worth and traveling the highways and by-ways on my “Honda-Davidson”. My shiny red VT1100 Shadow was an awesome bike, and it fully stoked my love of motorcycles. It didn’t offer one thing however; and that was any protection from the thousands of dumbasses that I was sharing those highways and by-ways with. Having lived through some scary moments when I was a teen delivering my paper route on my little Suzuki 125, I was pretty up to speed on keeping an eye on the cars and trucks that were all bent on my destruction. But on one particular warm, sunny Texas morning, on a very busy super highway in downtown Dallas, all that changed. Suffice to say that at my speed of 80+ mph (just to stay with the traffic), had the divine hand of the good Lord (or whatever else might have been looking out for me), not stepped in when they did, I would’ve been but an ink spot (and an obituary) chalked up to “those damned donor-cycles”. A rapid lane change caused one car to hit another in front of me, and I was merely going to be collateral damage in this event, but dead is dead and blame be damned where I was concerned. The next day I found myself at the Honda dealership selling this beautiful machine (a sad day to be sure).

 

5 Rick and Hondas

(My 1988 Honda VT1100 on a road trip in 1994 with my ex-college roommate Rick. He has recently retired as a Boeing 777 Captain at American Airlines.)

 

Shortly after closing the motorcycle chapter in my life, I entered an entirely new world for me. I bought a computer and began a journey through the cyber-world. That old Gateway 2000 was a monumental mystery to me, and I was a COMPLETE moron when it came to this contraption. I was such an idiot, and was on the phone to the Gateway Help Desk so often I think I knew them all personally (“Oh, hi Bill.” “Hi Jason.” “What did you need help with today Bill?”). Slowly but surely my knowledge base began to grow, and I found that even though the beast known as the internet wasn’t a daily thing back then, one could still have fun without it (and the dail-up connection it required). I also found among the stack of software discs that came in the box (you know, the ones explaining how to use your printer, and your “AOL email”, etc), there was one stack with the intriguing name of “Aces Over Europe”. Huh? The Gateway package also came with a little thing that had suction cups on the bottom, a few red buttons on the base, and one on the top of what looked to be a small joystick. WTF was this?

 

6 Aces Over Europe (1)

(Literally my “Gateway drug” into my world of flight simulations.)

 

OK, I had to try it out. Being an intrepid aviator in R/L, I couldn’t pass this up. AND, if it truly did portray some sort of what it was like yanking and banking in a P-51 Mustang (or Bf109) over the Normandy fields and the forests of Belgium in 1944…then I simply could not let this pass. It was surprisingly fun, and (much to my liking) the missions, campaigns and pilots listed was uncannily accurate. Although by today’s standards, the graphical representations looked completely cartoonish, and downright silly, it was quite entertaining being totally new to the scene (and having no idea what the future would bring).  As I beat back the resurging Wehrmacht in the Ardennes, and battled Goring’s Luftwaffe in the European skies, I was seeing something intriguing for the first time. My love of history was playing out before my very eyes…and I was a player in this strange little CRT world.  Again, the flying aspect of it was very cool, but I was totally surprised that the folks that made this thing seemed to be history buffs also. To quote an iconic American television character…” fascinating”.

Within a short period of time, my neophyte “flight simulation” library gave birth to a new addition by the name of “Red Baron 3D”.  I was now indeed THE famous Albert Ball flinging my wood and wire Se5 through the skies over the blood-soaked trenches of the First World War. Wow! With the passing of four years, and the leaps in computer technology, the visuals concerning everything from the terrain to the machines themselves really started to improve. I wondered…do they make jet and or helicopter versions of this stuff? Next came a title by the name of “Hind” (showcasing the Russian Mi-24 helicopter in their war in Afghanistan), and I was in the heavenly world of military choppers that I had grown up in as that kid way back in 1960s Germany (see my piece titled “Going To Work With Dad”). Shortly after that, I discovered my first “fast jet” title by the name of “Hornet Korea” …and that little gem led me smack dab into the brave new world of the internet and online flying.

 

 

(Box covers of the early sims “Red Baron 3D”, “Hind” and “Hornet Korea”.)

 

In the next installment, I’ll tell about my first foray into the online world of flight simulations.

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“My name is Bill” Part 2

 

Flying online with my mates.

 

10 Falcon 4.0

(The “granddaddy” of them all, and our MSP LAN groups first serious “study” type flight simulation…Microprose’s “Falcon 4.0”)

 

Fast forward a few more years, and I’m now living in the sprawling suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota. By now, I’ve summoned enough courage to delve into the swamp known as the internet (not flying mind you, just lurking on the flying forums). I was new to all of this, and learned that this collection of pages whereby folks discuss aspects of the hobby, ask/answer questions (very helpful for us “noobs”), and sometimes just bitch about stuff (and each other) was a totally foreign universe for this new citizen of the cyberworld. I learned tons of stuff about the flight sims that I was enjoying (and that helped keep the frustration level down about a jillion notches), and when asked, I answered questions about real-world flying. So, for the most part, I generally enjoyed my time with my new “cyber” mates. On one occasion, I noticed that the forum poster was from my neck of the woods…literally. He was a scant few miles north of me, so I sent him a PM. Terry and I chatted a bit, and decided to meet for lunch (the year was 1997, and to this day we fly online often, we text, we phone, and I consider him and my other LAN mates some of my close, “go-to” friends). We did indeed meet for lunch, and he brought along his neighbor Dale (another flight sim junkie). We had tons of fun, and began to explore the idea of meeting online to do some flying. Apparently, he had done it before, convinced me how much fun it happened to be, so I consented. I was going to be the proverbial online virgin…” all I ask is that you please be gentle”.

Terry was (before recently retiring) an important management “mucky-muck “at a large, nationally known dairy conglomerate in the upper mid-west, and like pretty much everyone else in the hobby, has a fascination for aviation. We set up a time for a call, he rang up “the virgin” (me), talked me through the online hookup (dial-up no less, and off we went. Note: our inflight “COMMS” being holding the telephone in the crook of the neck with your head bent over like Quasimodo at a head bashing concert)! He walked me through finding each other online in the simulation he had chosen (“Hornet Korea”), and briefed me that our “mission” was to depart our airfield, fly to a certain point, merge and dogfight with two “bad guy” Hornets frown by two dudes in Florida (apparently he had flown online with them before). We were to “do some of that Pilot sh*t Mav!”, send them to “bad guy” hell, and return to base (RTB) as two victorious warriors, awaiting laurels and medals (and bragging rights) beyond our wildest dreams.

 

11 Hornet Korea in game

(This is what it looked like that fateful day when my online virginity was lost. I was flying number 2 on Terry’s wing, and about to be embarrassed…several times.)

 

This is most assuredly NOT how the mission played out. I found myself in the cockpit of this F/A-18C Hornet, mentally going through how I was to set up all the “Air to Air” weapons and sensors that would be needed, and how I was to program the “countermeasures” (chaff and flare dispensers and jammers). I then tried to figure out our routing, and fuel requirements before we released the brakes, but time was running out, so I just decided to follow Terry. We taxied to the duty runway, lined up on the pavement and departed as a “two ship” of battle hardened (at least one of us) jet-borne killers. I figured that all I would have to do is keep him in sight, hang on to his wing (meaning DO NOT RUN INTO HIM), stay off the COMMS, call out threats, protect him when I could, and become cannon fodder when the situation called for it. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

We raced down the runway in afterburner, rotated, sucked the landing gear up, flaps up, all the while me being so proud of my ability to stick on Terry’s wing like glue when….WTF?….he snapped rolled to the left, dove for the deck, rolled inverted and FLEW UNDER A BRIDGE just off the airfield boundary! Holy guacamole…I was in way over my head! All the while he’s yammering in my ear about how good these two guys were that we were fighting against, and how he was picking them up on his radar (I couldn’t detect a thing), how he had them on his RWR (Radar Warning Receiver…I barely knew what it was), and we were going to be displacing the right (or did he say left?). I was back about “row 10” in my struggle to stay ahead of the jet, barely holding onto his wing, not sure which Air to Air Mode I was in, which missile I had selected, and where the bad-guys were! It was all happening too fast, and was a complete mystery to me! BTW…WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT FUNNY WARNING IN MY COCKPIT? WHAM! Suddenly, I’m a roman candle, and I have no idea where it came from…that was fun! Less than five minutes flying to find out that I’m the online equivalent of Pee Wee Herman, and I’m flying around, at 400kts, hair on fire, in a very sophisticated war machine, looking like (to quote the movie “Dodgeball”) …” a retard humping a doorknob”!  We reset the flight (thank God dead is NOT dead), tried it again several times, and guess what? Same result each time. Lovely…they were not gentle at all. I think I needed about fifty puppies AND a balloon.

This was quite the eye opener. I had spent some quality time flying/fighting against the A/I (artificial intelligence) bad-guys that each flight simulation had written into its code, and I felt I could hold my own. Granted these aerial duels were in the “Single Player” world, against the A/I and since I was in a “pre-radar” Sopwith Camel, or P-51 Mustang, I could always see the antagonist…not this BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missile stuff. I had dabbled into the fast jet thing, but CLEARLY had not spent the required amount of time to be proficient in that 4-D chess world of 400kt death. The folks that have a handle on this type of stuff have spent years learning it (some are actual ex-Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps types). They know exactly how to use the different radar guided missiles from very long distances. In that world, you can’t see the victim that you’re about to turn into a flaming ball of (virtual) teeth, hair and eyeballs (read ME). They know how to get in close and use the “heat seeking” Sidewinders that were made famous over the skies of Vietnam. And when that “Maverick moment” arrives (“…too close for missiles, switching to guns!”), they know the proclivities associated with that type of knife fight in a phone booth. PLUS…they can air to air fight their way into a target, bomb or rocket said target into the next dimension, then escape unscathed back to the airbase or aircraft carrier (OH…and can hook up to the re-fueling tanker on the way home for a sip of jet fuel). I had a HUGE amount to learn about how this online world worked, and I had a HUGE amount to learn about how flying a modern warplane with its spider-web of systems and weapons worked. I also had volumes to ingest about air to air tactics and the procedures for attacking a ground target.  And lastly, I had a large amount to decipher about how a person goes from being the “bumbling uber-noob/here I am, come kill me” boat-anchor, to being able to survive in the online skies for more than the time required to film a Tony Romo fumble. It was going to be an uphill battle, but I if I could fly as the Commander in the left seat of a Boeing 757, then I could certainly figure out how to not be a COMPLETE idiot in the virtual skies. (I hoped)

 

Our LAN Group.

My savior(s) came in the form of a group of like-minded individuals, and the large 700-page manuals you USED to receive with these hard-core, up-scale “Study” type flight sims (nowadays you get PDF files…. oh, and tons of YouTube videos…quite helpful actually). By the way, many of these “hard-core, study type” flight simulation software programs originated in the actual military aviation world as training aids, then are purchased by the simulation folks, re-worked to remove the “sensitive” stuff, re-cleared through the aircraft makers and the govt/military types, and then released to the public. A particular A-10 flight simulation for instance, was born in the world of transitioning real world National Guard A-10A pilots into flying the “C” model of the Warthog. It’s accurate to a gnat’s ass (except for, of course, the parts that can’t be part of the public domain). After the debacle known as my first foray into the world of online flying, Terry (and his neighbor Dale) brought up the idea of a “LAN” (local area network) get together. I had no idea what they were talking about. Essentially, your homies show up at someone’s house (or other venue), hook all of your computers onto one network, and fly the piss out of them not having to fret about things like how fast the internet is working, or having to use a telephone for COMMS, etc. Plus, you get the added benefit of lots, and lots (did I say lots) of “chin music” back and forth to each other. I would be remis if I didn’t mention also, that learning a hobby in close proximity to others that are more advanced in that endeavor is a real plus. Remember Terry flying under the bridge INVERTED on my first online sortie? Yeah, these guys were damned good flying in the virtual world (but I’m not sure I’d hand them the keys to the big Boeing…lol.)

 

(Two pics of the 700 plus page manual for the flight simulation “Falcon 4.0”. One of the design team members was an ex-Air Force F-16 pilot.)

 

(Pics from our our very early LAN days. LOVE those 25 pound CRT monitors!)

 

14 LAN group

15 Terry LAN

(Top: most of the original LAN mates. Some really ugly mugs to be sure. Bottom: my original online partner, “TBob”… “Mr. inverted, under the bridge” himself!)

 

16 Frug Fleming Field (2)

(August of 2002. L to R: Son, Daughter, the one and only Mark “Frugal” Bush, yours truly, and my second LAN mate, “Olieman” at an airshow at Fleming Field, St. Paul.)

 

Our LANS grew more frequent, and we had more and more dudes showing up (many from out of state). Within a year, our core group consisted of myself, Terry (business exec.), Dale (painter), Chad (State I.T. expert), Roger (also State I.T. guru), Tom (engineer), Bert (world renown research physician/scientist), Chad (Police officer), and Dusty (United States Army, Ret.). Soon we were holding at least one LAN per year (sometimes more), and had welcomed lots of “cameo appearances” from those famous in the flight simulation world (Mark “Frugal” Bush), those famous in the REAL world of combat aviation (Lloyd “Bozo” Abel), and a host of others from around the country. Add to this blessing, the fact that my wonderful bride loved these get-togethers (pretty sure some wives would not), for she got to show off her world-class hospitality skills. Being an incredible hostess is a crown she has worn proudly since the dawn of our marriage, and the food, drink, and general “welcome to our home” type atmosphere made the events special to be sure. Her white chicken chili, lasagna, and bar-b-que ribs are legendary among the group…oh did I mention she’s also a world-class bartender? Trust me, that didn’t go unnoticed. Oh, and one last tid-bit concerning our LANs. Once Debie and I had relocated to the back woods of Wisconsin, we routinely carved out one of the afternoons (the LANs usually lasted 3 days), to spend at our personal shooting range. We turned old milk jugs, beer cans, stuffed toys, and whatever else needed blasting into about a zillion little pieces. The local guys brought their own shootin’-irons, and the out-of-towners were welcome to pick from my arsenal. Food, flying, shooting and “libations” …not sure if it CAN get any better than that…right?

 

 

(“Dusty” and “Griff” kicking virtual butt in the A-10C, and “Cat”, “Griff” and “Olieman” turning stuff into junk.)

 

Somewhere out of the blue the television and print media heard of our little computer flying “coffee-klatches” and decided to interview us. The next thing we knew, we were in the print media, and the subject of one the evening news “fluff” stories. IIRC, the day the newspaper lady showed up to interview us, she had her teenage son in tow. During the span of the interview, we (of course) sat her down behind one of the CRTs, briefly explained the use of the joystick and throttle, and turned her loose in the F-16. She didn’t last very long, and it was not a pretty sight. We (again, of course) asked her son if he’d like a turn in the barrel, and he jumped at the chance! The kid was a natural! He could fly quite nicely, and seemed to be enjoying himself (not like his mother). I’m fairly sure all those hours spent on the X-box were a bit of an “in your face Mom” type moment for him. Lol.

At one point she asked the obvious question, “Why would you want to fly around in little “make believe” airplanes when you fly REAL airplanes for a living?” Fair enough question. The answer seemed pretty obvious to me, but clearly not to her. I offered this, “Well, that’s a good question. I guess the big reason is that at work (at the airline), I don’t get to fly inverted under bridges, and lock onto the tail of the United or American or Delta jet in front of me and launch a missile up their tailpipe!” (big grin on this ugly mug, versus the “huh?” look on her face) …me thinks she neither understood nor appreciated my flippant remark…oh well.

 

21 old LAN

(TV news dude intently concentrating on NOT ending up “D-E-D” dead in the cyber world of “Falcon 4.0”…”Cat” is in the foreground. I’m giving him a few “priceless” tips…which I’m sure didn’t help at all…lol. Photo circa 1998-1999.)

 

We met regularly for many years, and though our professional paths were all quite different, we happily shared the bonds of aviation, and the fellowship of those times. Sadly, many of us have moved, some have lost the ability to attend the LANs (kid commitments, etc), and some have simply lost their passion for the hobby. I still adamantly hold at least one LAN per year, our last being about a month ago at the new digs here in the sunbaked world of Arizona. One guy drove in from the Reno area, one dude flew in from MSP, and “TBob” flew with us online from back in Minnesota. We had tons of fun, like always. Good friends, good food, good “adult beverages”, good cyber flying, and good (to great) “chin music” (seems the older we get, the better the insults get). Oh, this year we did not load up the truck with a gaggle of firearms and proceed to the local range to kill paper bad-guys, but it WILL be on the agenda for the next little “clam bake”.

The next (and final) installment will focus on a few of the simulations themselves…including the principle sim that we’re flying online at this time. Screenshots and videos included.)

Standard

“My name is Bill…” Part 3

“1’s and O’s”, (and lions, and tigers and bears) …oh my!

 

So, exactly WHAT is a flight simulation? It’s obviously a software program you run on your computer that allows you to fly around in a world created by that program. Cool. Can any computer run them? For the most part, your average run of the mill, home computer would not run them very well. Those of us in the hobby tend to build our own rigs, tailor them to our software needs and regularly upgrade them as the simulations themselves get more and more complex. The basic needs for a machine to run one of the current programs consists of a pretty robust computer chip, but it must (and I mean MUST) have a powerful video card, lots of memory (not only in the form of “storage” type, but also in the family of RAM…or random access memory), add in a good 4K monitor, and you get a gorgeous, very real looking environment. It is, after all, a visual medium, so the stuff that makes the program run and LOOK good is vitally important (I’ll address the advent of VR…virtual reality… in a bit).

 

22 Huey

 

23 P51 Mustang

(Above, in an online mission [with a dude from Australia no less] flying the iconic UH-1 Huey escorting some CH-47s Chinooks, and below, in a single-player [meaning flying against the A/I] mission in the P-51D Mustang escorting a formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses. Again, it’s a VISUAL medium…that chip and video card have to make literally millions of calculations very, very quickly.)

 

Is all that junk fairly expensive? It can be, yes. The latest and greatest video card will set you back about one large (not in 100 large, it’s big brother with one more “0”), the motherboard, the chip, the RAM, the hard drive(s), the cooling system (these babies will run very hot as you ask them to do all that fancy math), the computer case, the monitor, the “peripherals” (joystick, throttle, pedals, etc), and you can be looking at a rather spendy “hobby”. More than say, collecting sportscars, airplanes or ex-wives? Good God no, but it does help to have an understanding banker, and far more importantly, an understanding spouse. Luckily for me I have both…lol.

Back to the programs themselves. BTW, I will be addressing military flight simulations only, there are civilian versions of these thing (Microsoft X being the most famous), but they aren’t really my thing. First of all, when speaking of military flight simulations, there are two basic types…  they are either a “Survey” sim, or a “Study” Sim. A Survey sim means just that. A veritable smorgasbord of stuff to choose from (some Study sims offer a bit of that too), but THE major difference is the complexity of the program, and this is most evident when you’re sitting in the cockpit. They are both visually stunning (and I mean jaw-dropping gorgeous), but the big difference is what is called a “mouse clickable cockpit”.  In the Study simulations, the folks that code them work extremely hard to make it as close to being EXACTLY like the real deal as they can. Every switch, every knob, every dial, every lever is movable, and MUST be moved with a mouse click (or mouse wheel rotation) to operate the machine correctly. In a Survey simulation, all of the stuff is there, but the cockpit is not “mouse clickable”. You simply “map” all of the things you might need to move (flap lever, gear handle, gun/rocket/bomb arming switches, etc.) to either a keyboard press, or a button push on your joystick/throttle setup. You can do that too in the study sims, but sometimes it’s just way too much fun to flip the switches, move the levers, and push the buttons…lol.

 

24 non clickable cockpit

(Screenshot of a “non-clickable” cockpit. It’s the P-38J from the sim “IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Bodenplatte”  https://il2sturmovik.com/  )

 

25 clickable cockpit 2

(Screenshot of a VERY “clickable” cockpit. It’s the F/A-18C from the sim “DCS World” (or Digital Combat Simulator”  https://www.digitalcombatsimulator.com/en/ )

 

So, the major Survey sim is called “IL-2:Sturmovik” with its different add-on “battles” (it also offers an outstanding WWI add-on called “Flying Circus”).  “IL-2: Sturmovik” only covers the Second World War (again, except for “Flying Circus”), and it offers a plethora of different machines to fly; from Spads and Halberstadts in WWI, to Stukas, Heinkels, Mustangs, Spitfires and Messerschmitt’s (even the late war jet powered -262) in WWII.  Note: I’ve listed probably a third of the machines you can fly…they even have the good ol’ “Tante Ju” (Auntie Ju), the venerable Junkers Ju-52 tri-motor! Sound a bit weird …what the hell do you do in a Luftwaffe transport airplane on the Eastern Front? How about dropping paratroopers into battle? Plus, in all the bigger machines that have multiple crewmembers, you can switch around to any of the crew positions as you fly…tired of being the pilot, a few keyboard presses and you’re now the tail gunner! LOL! In the online world, you can jump in a machine AS the gunner with a human pilot…fun as hell. Again, it’s a “Survey” simulation, no button pushing, flip switching, etc., but a hoot to be sure. Like the other one I’ll talk about, it offers LOTS of different ways to get into the virtual skies. It has: Quick Missions, Single Missions, a “Career Mode” (you select the theater, a machine, create a pilot and follow them through with each day generating different objectives), a Mission Editor (where you get to build your own missions), and of course, the online option so you can fly not only against (and in cooperation with) the A/I, but against (and in coop with) other homo-sapiens from around the globe. They’re continually upgrading things (like a plan to add a Pacific Theater with carrier operations), and they’re quite good at “thinking outside the box”. They recently added a tank version whereby you can operate armor in the different crew positions in the battles of WWII.

And last but not least (and the principle sim I fly online), is a gem by the name of “DCS World”. It’s the premier Study Sim at the moment, and covers from World War II to the present day. Here’s a kicker…it’s actually FREE to download! It comes with two “modules” to fly…the Su-25 “Frogfoot” (basically, a Russian version of the USA’s A-10 “Warthog”), and the civilian version of the P-51 Mustang (the TF-51). From there, you’re free to purchase a dizzying number of props, jets, and helicopters. It comes with the map of the Caucasus, but you can purchase the Persian Gulf, the Nevada Test Range [basically Nellis Air Force Base and surrounding areas], and the Normandy area for your WWII flying (plans are to soon release a Mariana Islands map). It has a very robust Mission Editor, and our online flying is usually done is either missions I (or one of the LAN mates have) concocted, or something we’re downloaded from Al Gore’s internet. Since it’s a Study sim, it can be a bit intimidating (read complicated); hence the same “Study” sim. But with some honest effort to learn the machines from the PDF manuals included with each one, and liberal use of the “how to” videos on the internet (God bless the folks that take the time make these things), I find the challenge quite enjoyable. Like “IL-2” these folks are nothing short of magicians. Here’s a video of their newest marvel to be released in a few days. It’s a modern-day aircraft carrier going through “launch” operations with artificial intelligence animated crew members. Here’s the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ztrv_ZML8w

 

A few screenshots from the two mentioned above:

 

26 P38J

(the P-38J from “IL-2:Sturmovik  Battle of Bodenplatte”)

 

27 Pfalz III 2

(the Pfalz III from “IL-2:Sturmovik  Flying Circus”)

 

28 3 on a match

(from “DCS World” at the end of an online flight…Myself, Roger “Falkan” M., and Terry “TBob” K.)

 

29 Huey on a train

(messing around in “DCS World” in the UH-1H module)

 

30 Dusty Hornet

(James “Dusty” R. in an online flight about to trap aboard the carrier U.S.S. Stennis)

 

So those are the two simulations that occupy my “addiction hours” (and they can be many). One I fly principally in the Single Player world (“IL-2”), and the other entirely online (“DCS World”). We’ve come to the last thing to mention in the world of flight simulations. The advent of Virtual Reality, or VR. It came out a few years ago, and has gone through a couple of upgrades in both the hardware and software. These days, most every flight simulation supports VR, and it’s truly a game changer. Does it look as gorgeous as the 2D world showing the miracle of flight? Not exactly, but don’t get me wrong… it’s beautiful to be sure, but the clarity is not quite the same. It’s getting better, and it’s still amazing, but it’s not quite the same.

But what is it like to fly something in a “virtual reality” world? First of all, it’s REALLY freaky at first, and it takes a little time to get used to it. Here’s the best way I can describe it: in the 2D world, you SEE yourself in the monitor flying around in the world, and it translates into a “pseudo feeling” of what you’re doing. Of course, you don’t get any actual feelings like g-forces, air-sickness, vertigo, etc., but in the VR world, things are different, vastly different. Once you put on the headgear, it becomes your world. You DO feel things…hard to believe, but it’s true. Obviously, no g-forces, and even though I’ve never felt air-sickness, I’ve had friends try my Oculus VR setup and after a bit of time, some of them got a bit nauseous. In the 2D world, it starts with your eyes, then it travels to your brain, and that translates to (again) pseudo- “feelings” that build your simulation reality. But in the VR world, IMHO, it starts in your brain, works into feelings, and then you confirm that by what you’re seeing with those big baby-blues. Here’s a good example, everyone, and I mean everyone that I’ve ever watched wearing the VR headset while flying a flight simulation, has (usually several times) REACHED OUT TO GRAB something in the virtual cockpit! The landing gear handle, the flap handle, and any of the various knobs and switches. It happens every single time. Your brain “buys into” the idea that you’re sitting in an actual cockpit very quickly. It’s fun to watch…and usually elicits a giggle or two from the person trying to grab something and ending up groping in thin air. I find it much easier to do “feel” things (like hovering a helicopter, or hooking up to a refueling boom, etc.) in the VR world than in the 2D world. Strange, but true.

It does come with some downsides (there’s always a downside). First is the lack of total clarity. The center of the what you’re seeing is crystal clear, but the stuff on the peripheral of the view is not quite as sharp. Not horrible, in fact still very good, just not as clear as the center. Secondly, if you need to see the keyboard for whatever reason (like to take a super cool screenshot of you doing something very heroic), you have to tilt your head back and look “under” the visor itself, or simply lift it up, push the appropriate key, then put it back on (they’ve also developed a “voice command” software so you can simply speak what key you want pressed and it does it for you). Next is that fact that I find the headset to not be the most comfortable thing in the world. It’s not awful by any means, but it could be better. So if you’re doing a longer mission (say over an hour or so…and that’s not at all uncommon), it can get rather warm under the visor. The last actual “ding” I offer against the VR type flying concerns the price of one of these whiz-bang contraptions. They’re pretty expensive, again, not yacht and ski chalet “Kardashian” expensive, but not for the “VISA faint of heart”.

 

So, there you have it.

I stumbled into the flight simulation world about 25 years ago, and I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in terms of advances in software, hardware and Mr. Gore’s internet. The hardware keeps getting better to keep up with the software, and it promises to just keep getting more amazing all the time. Did you watch the video of the “animated” folks on the aircraft carrier? Was that unbelievable or what? The advent of a fast internet has revolutionized the online flying part of simulations, as I routinely fly with folks from Europe and as far away as Australia with no “lag” at all! Where my connection speed in the backwoods of Wisconsin was (for the most part) fine, the fiber optic setup in my new house is …well, I tear up just thinking about it. So all in all, I would have to say that, in my opinion, it’s a great hobby no matter the time period you choose to fly (or the genre being represented…military or civilian). You are offered literally an entire world of great people to fly with, and insanely cool hardware and software to do it with. I love the flying, I love the people, I love tinkering with the hardware and software, I love the “historical feeling” of the sims I choose to fly, and I dearly (dearly) love the fact that my wife understands (and supports) my “addiction”.

 

Below you’ll find a video compilation of many of the “movies” I’ve made over the years (and some random clips I made just for this vid). It showcases some of the machines in the two flight simulations mentioned above. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

(be sure and hit the little HD thing in the lower right hand corner…and TURN UP THE VOLUME! LOL!)

 

‘till next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

Dear (younger) BBall

 

“Time flies never to be recalled…”

We are all born with a finite number of sand pebbles in that big hourglass of time. They drop relentlessly, and no matter what our thoughts or feelings, they continue their eternal trip from the top to the bottom. Our last day on this planet begins its march to meets us at the fateful moment the doctor slaps our bum, and we struggle to take that first sweet breath of air.

Wasting a single tick from the clock, wishing for days gone by, is a waste of a precious moment never to return. However, if those moments are spent recalling fond memories of people and places, then I offer that the minutes spent are certainly not in vain, but are added to our “Zen bank account of joy”…and that’s a very good thing.  But wishing to be “back in the good old days” seems pointless, for chances are very high that they were not as good as we remember them to be. The evil twin sister to this “pining away for the past” program, the insidious and sometimes worse trickster labelled “yearning for days yet to be lived”, can be just as damaging to the psyche. Plus, it’s as much of a waste of those beloved ticks of the clock as the former, for the folly is a fool’s wish to be certain. That my friends, is the subject of this Logbook entry.

Newsflash. We are all guilty of it. I recall early childhood days, wishing for the end of summer vacation knowing that the money from all those hours spent mowing the neighbors lawns, will finally end in the purchase of that glorious little blue Bonanza mini-bike. Flash forward to later in life, dreaming of that wonderful day when the company president hands you the golden watch, shakes your hand one last time, and hustles you out the door. Every human is guilty of the crime, for we all have at times in our lives “wished” for a future that pleases us, when we should be pleased with the current tick of the clock known as “the now”.

 

Bonanza Mini Bike

(The object of many a 7th grade dream…the Bonanza mini-bike. The beginning of my love of the two-wheeled wonders.)

 

last flight 2

(The traditional way an old airline Pelican is greeted after his/her final landing.)

 

Nowadays I find myself often sharing the cockpit with men and women who are younger than myself. And by younger, I mean somewhere in the “half my age” mode of younger. Side note; I recently had a new First Officer, during some idle chit-chat on our flight to Anchorage, query me about the year I had been hired at Northwest Orient Airlines. I offered, “1983.” He countered with “What month?”, my retort “November”. (I could tell where this was going…maybe his smirk was a tip-off…lol) And his final question, “What DAY?” Oh, no…here we go. After my reply of “the 14th…”, he thought for a moment, and dropped the bomb. “You had been in new-hire ground school for two weeks WHEN I WAS BORN.” We laughed, and I “counter-bombed” him. “Oh yeah, well I was going to buy you a beer in Alaska, but CLEARLY you’re not of legal drinking age (he was), so I’ll spring for a glass of reindeer milk for you!”

So, it seems that these young folks are benefiting from a pilot shortage that I first heard about way back during the 1970s as I began the early days of my college career. You know “THE PILOT SHORTAGE” due to the Vietnam War, and its voracious appetite for aircrew members. Those gentlemen were now too old for the airlines, and that would benefit us young bucks greatly. In those days, there were three big “career killers” when applying for an airline job. No four-year college degree you say? Come back in four years with that new sheepskin in your hand. You lack 20/20 vision you say? See ya “four eyes”! Ever thought of becoming a librarian? And the one that killed many a prospective career; OVER THE AGE OF 30! Sorry Gramps, once you stop drooling on your chin, we have nice rocking chair on the porch out back for you. Oh, and we have a cuddly warm blanket for your lap too.

If you fell into any of those categories, you need not apply…period.  But unfortunately for my generation, that shortage never happened. They are called “black swan” events; man-made or a freak of nature, they can hit the airline industry harder than Mike Tyson hitting Holyfied. We most certainly had one during the 1970s, it was called the “oil crisis”, and it hit the world like a proverbial maximum magnitude quake.

 

Tyson Holyfield 2

(Tyson v Holyfield)

 

Gas prices skyrocketed, and supply was way down. You couldn’t just drop into your trusty Shell station and top off your Ford Pinto. No, you had “even and odd days” (based on your license plate number) when you could fill your vehicles gas tank. When that magical day rolled around, you’d better not try it during your lunch hour, for the lines of cars at your gas station would literally wind around the block! Airport tarmacs were lined with parked Boeings, Lockheeds and McDonald Douglas products, and pilots were “hitting the bricks” (furloughed). My old college roomie Rick K. , within a year of leaving our campus, was hired by American Airlines to be an entry-level Flight Engineer on the Boeing 727. However, due to the jet fuel prices (and some very questionable management decisions), less than twelve months later he found himself hanging storm doors (among other things) for the next 3+ years.

 

1970s-car-gas-station-lines_credit-AP-photo_do-not-reuse

(Gas lines at the Texaco. My Dad’s red Ford Pinto is in there somewhere.)

 

boeing 707s 2

(Beautiful Boeing 707s to be put out to pasture.)

 

Shortage? Hell, the only real shortage back then was in the form of a gallon of “Jet A” kerosene that wasn’t being held ransom by the powers that be in the Middle East. Need a pilot?  The dude bagging your groceries probably had an ATP and several thousand hours in the cockpit. Clearly, the forecast of a huge “pilot shortage” way back then was in error, but this time it actually seems to be accurate. I’m glad for the young pilots that are profiting from it…good on them, timing is everything in this industry.

As the crisis began to abate, and the carriers were recalling furloughs and hiring new pilots, where did that leave me back in the early years of my 20’s? It left me wishing that my training days would come to a quick ending, and I could get on with my plan of working for the major airlines. Somehow, with them over, I would be a slight bit older, far more “qualified” with a spanking new Bachelor’s degree, a laundry-list of ratings and licenses, and a few hundred more precious flight hours. The next vision in my “can’t wait for the future” fantasy, had me strolling onto a gleaming new jet airliner. Picture say, Leonardo Dicaprio. Tall, coiffed, adorned in perfectly tailored pilot garb, and worn to within an inch of its life. Yep, life would be good…no actually, life would be awesome! All my troubles would be over, I could sit back, bask in my glory, and spend the next 40 year career trying to figure out those deep, “Rubix Cube” type riddles. You know the ones… like…red Porsche or black? What a ignoramus I was…

With that said, I decided to write myself a letter. A note as it were, from “the now” person with four additional decades of aviation wisdom, to the impetuous, impatient, young man back “then”.

 

========================================

14 March 2020

Dear (younger, circa 1977) BBall,

You’re a moron. There, I got it out of the way early in the blather, and now we can get down to the reason for this letter (btw…[that means “by the way” in my time world]…the postage for this letter was more than the gross national income of Paraguay).

Give Mom, Dad and your sister Teriesa my love. Sadly, you will lose her less than six years hence, and both of them a scant ten years later. Fortunately, you won’t remember any of this paragraph, save the “give them my love” part. Selective amnesia is a good thing…just wait until you’re married…it’ll make more sense then.

I know your flight training is going well, for those memories may fade a bit with time, but they never leave. Your instructors are smarter than you (trust me), they’re better aviators than you (trust me), and they will teach you many things. Do your best to listen to them …actually LISTEN to them, for their yarns of personal success and failure will serve you well.

Remember the day of your first “real” emergency in a flying machine? I’m sure you do, for it was early in your college flying life. You were in the infant stages of obtaining your Commercial License, and most of the required 250 hours would be spent “solo” working alone on your Chandelles, Lazy 8s, Turns About a Point, Stalls, and the myriad other maneuvers you would be tested on at the regular “Phase Checks” with the instructor cadre.

You and your roommate, Dan F., launched into a bright-blue, clear Oklahoma morning headed toward the “practice area” located west over the confines of Lake Texoma. Unbeknownst to your instructors (back at the Eaker Field home base), you and he had hatched a plan to meet over the Texoma dam and do a little “dog-fighting” in your little Cessna 150s.  (The non-aerobatic rated version…the 150K “Aerobat” version is rated at +6 to -3 Gs…these were definitely not rated for that) What could possibly go wrong?

 

c150

(Cessna 150K Aerobat.)

 

You flew out in a “loose” formation, extended away from each other, did the “merge and the fight’s on” thing, and off to the races you went! Twisting, turning, pulling Gs (not many mind you), and it was all such a tremendous amount of fun! You were Manfred von Richthofen and Albert Ball, over Flanders fields, vying to send the other down in flames. You were Richard Bong and Saburo Saki, battling over the warm blue waters of the Pacific, each with respectful malice in their hearts. You were doing what those gladiators of the sky did, and it was amazing. You were their brethren, and you loved every second of it.

 

albatros-dva-3

(Albatross DV, circa 1917 during “the Great War”…seems like the ultimate oxymoron.)

 

Then it happened. The loud “BANG!” and your heart skipped a beat. Did you snap a wing spar? Did you lose an engine mount? Your immediate thought of “maybe we better knock this stuff off, and get these little birds back to their nest” was the smartest idea you had all day. You moved the yoke to recover to a wings-level attitude and you found the issue. The cable in the wing had popped off of the pulley system and you had no aileron control! Elevators and rudder were fine, but with no roll control, this might be a bit tricky. OK, jam on a rudder pedal to level the wings, push forward on the yoke to get the nose down and let Dan know what’s happening. A terse “roger” was all you got on the discreet radio frequency you and he had agreed to communicate on earlier.

 

eaker field

(Home base. Eaker Field, Oklahoma.)

 

Make a gentle skidding turn toward the field, start a slow descent and try not to panic (or cry, or wet thyself). Thank God the air was like glass, and after a very long final approach, you touched down on runway 35, and began the process of breathing again. After taxiing to the university maintenance hangar, and painting an “I have no idea what happened, I was just doing my maneuvers, and bang…it just happened…” picture to Denny, the mechanic, he told me to tell one of the instructors, and thanks for getting the machine home in one-piece. I don’t remember my instructor’s reaction, but I’d guess that he knew the story was B.S. (heck, I’m sure he did the same stupid crap when he was a young bird-man).

 

SOSU Hangar

(Maintenance hangar at Eaker Field, Durant, Oklahoma. The “straight-tailed, tuna-tanked” Cessna 310A to the left was the machine that I did my multi-engine training in.)

 

Dan and I went back to the apartment, ate lunch, went to a bar, drank beer and played Foosball the rest of the afternoon. We didn’t speak of it (ever), for I think we both realized that things might have gone very badly over the lake.  It looks like one of us dodged a bank of questions at an FAA inquiry, and the other probably dodged a grave marker. (Note; of the three famous pilots mentioned above, Saburo Saki is the lone person NOT destined to die in the cockpit of a warplane.)

You learned…thank God you learned. Fear is a great teacher, and it’s a good thing that you weren’t so stupid/ignorant/cocky that you felt immortal around those beautiful flying machines. You needed that day, you needed that lesson, and you needed the hundreds more that would come during the next 3 years of training in the skies over Oklahoma and North Texas. You were good back then (the awards on your office wall will someday attest to that), but you were most assuredly not “seasoned”. That would come in the ink black nights flying freight over the Sandia mountain range, and in the years spent moving turboprop “commuter airliners” across the Southern U.S. You would get that precious thing called experience (just a fancy way of saying “wisdom”) the hard way…you would earn it. I’m sorry to say this my young friend, but you will lose friends and colleagues along the way. The sky can be as cruel as it can be beautiful.

 

metroliner

(SA-226TC Swearingin Metroliner flown by my first “airline”, Scheduled Skyways of Fayetteville, Arkansas.)

 

NEW CAPTAIN

(A newly minted “baby Captain”. My first command came in 1980…maybe juuust a few years ago…lol.)

 

You will work very hard in the next few years, the studying, the testing, the “sweaty-palmed” flights with a University Staff Instructor critiquing your every move (you will become one of those instructors your last year of school), and then the pay off. Spending an entire afternoon with the dude sporting a badge reading “(insert name here), FAA Inspector”. They grilled you in the room, they grilled you in the cockpit, and your handling of the machine had better be AT LEAST as good as the “spot on” correct answers to their questions. You can “talk the talk” in the briefing room, but if you can’t “walk the walk” in front of all of those dials and gauges, in the high stress world of the clouds…then go home and maybe check into becoming that librarian we mentioned earlier.

As the ratings got more advanced (like the Instrument Rating, the Multi-engine Rating, the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate, the CFI-Instrument Certificate, the Multi-engine Flight Instructor Certificate), things got harder…really harder. More studying, and more stress. Thank God you lived/ate/drank and breathed this stuff. You saw classmates fade; their dream of the gleaming airlines simply wasn’t like yours. They wanted the prize; they just didn’t have “the fire in the belly” to get them through. You would see that later in your training when you moved to the right seat of the cockpit and became the Instructor Pilot. You saw those that were there because their Moms/Dads/Uncles, etc. worked for the airlines, and they were expected to also. They had loves and passions to be sure, it’s just that their dreams didn’t come with wings.

As the Instructor, you were now “the dude”. You will never (I’ll say it again, you will NEVER) learn something as well as when you have to teach it to others. You know your stuff pretty well, but this is not that. You have to truly know it, not just the answer, but the “why” of the answer. You learn the most grievous sin is to bull*hit the student. If you don’t know the answer, TELL THEM THAT, and that you’ll do some research and get back to them. No one likes a “poser”.

You will learn to become a resident “aviation expert”, a mentor, a friend, an antagonist, a psychologist, and a pseudo “life coach”…all rolled into one. You will praise, you will scold, and you too will sweat their first solo flight being anchored to the Earth (portable radio in hand) as they do their “3 circuits and a full stop landing”. You will sit by the phone after sundown anxiously waiting to hear if they’ve made it home from their first solo “cross-country” flight. Somehow when you did these things as a student, you never once thought that the Instructor might be WAY more nervous than you.

ALL of this journey you need, for you will not be the aviator you wish to be without it. Just as importantly, you must learn to APPRECIATE the walk through those days, it paints the picture of “perspective” that you will need to survive the next phase of your pilot pilgrimage.

One last thing…and this will fade from your memory (like the second paragraph) the moment you close this letter.

You will be blessed with an adventure through the skies that many in your shoes will never have. You will visit exotic places of beauty that God himself still marvels at, you will fly machines that you will love, and ones that you will most certainly not love. Your rewards will come monetarily to be sure, but the greatest gifts that your life in the sky will bestow upon you is the people you will meet. They will come in the shape of roommates, Instructors, students, First Officers, mechanics, Captains, doctors (don’t forget your journey includes the FAA medical folks…they have a BIG say in this story), passengers, and just the everyday folks you’ll spend a brief moment with on this passage of the next forty years.

 

DC10

(A couple of my all-time favorite machines that I’ve flown during my airline career. The McDonnel Douglas DC-10.)

 

Boeing 767-300ER

(And the Boeing 767-300ER. I’ll have you know that I DID NOT taxi this thing into the gate that far off the centerline! We were towed in and the Tokyo tug driver porked it up…seriously!)

 

They will capture your heart, and they will add fun, spice, knowledge and joy to your life. Some will become life-long “brothers” (and “sisters”), and some will occupy but a scant moment in your life. I know you’re thinking, “Hell, I’ve been on this rock 23 years! Flying for 7 of the them, so don’t speak to me like I’m a total idiot old man!” I most sincerely am not. Just know that you have an almost indescribably wonderful life awaiting you (yes, you will have pain and heartache, but that’s all part of the package). This is a path that you are now just beginning, and it will be long, winding, and arduous at times. It will give you joy and stress, and it will most certainly try your commitment to your dream. Never let the dream of the prize get in the way of the love of the walk. You’ll get there. It takes time, it’s supposed to.

Love your life. Make it worth loving. It’s a long journey, enjoy every step.

Love,

BBall (from the future)

 

========================================

A scant few of the thousands of amazing sights I’ve seen along my journey:

SEA to SEL 17 August 2019 (4)a

(Some of the hundreds of active volcanoes along the Aleutian chain of islands.)

 

Mount Fuji (2a

(Mount Fuji, Japan.)

 

SEA to SEL 29 August ovr S China Sea 2

(Over the South China Sea, following an Airbus 380 into SEL.)

 

Sunset SEL

(Sunset over Inchon, South Korea.)

 

Checkpoint Charlie

(Circa 1989; Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin “West Germany”. This was a few months after Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech and the demise of a divided Berlin. The Second Officer and I, flew up from Frankfurt on a 50 hour layover and crossed here into the old “East Berlin”. Very surrealistic to be sure.)

 

ANC MSP

(The end of a long night. Sunrise through the cloud layers nearing the end of an Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul “red-eye” flight.)

 

And finally…

(A short video of departing Guatemala City bound for Los Angeles.)

 

Till next time…

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“Ship 51”

 

(note: my last entry alluded to this next one as being a chronicle of my journey into the world of flight simulations…that one is pending…this one just couldn’t wait.)

In everyone’s journey through this thing we call life, we all develop relationships that please us. Normally, we think of another person when we use the word “relationship”, but in some cases that’s not completely accurate. Like other homo sapiens, we find ourselves getting that warm and fuzzy feeling over things that don’t necessarily involve a heartbeat, but nonetheless elicit emotion. From personal things like places, smells, and music to the more social entities of the spectrum like sports teams and politicians. If we like these things, we quite often refer to them as our “favorite”.

This is a piece about one of my favorites.

I know my youngest child will attest to (regarding her years spent in the saddle) the fact that she can easily look back and recall a favorite horse.  This seems to be the norm in the equine world, and for obvious reasons. Although not a rider myself, over the years I’ve listened to many a conversation between those that are, and there always seems to be an emotional connection between horse and rider…mostly good, sometimes not so good. Currently I’m reading a fascinating book about the origin of what became known in America as “the Pony Express”, and it alluded to that very thing. All of those young, courageous men were expert horsemen, and although they came from different backgrounds and histories, they seemed to have one common theme. To a man, they sang the praises of their favorite steeds. These magnificent, strong, steadfast creatures would carry them through countless miles fraught with incredible danger. From extreme weather, to wild, untamed country, to savage warriors all bent on their failure.

 

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(An actual add for the Pony Express…lol)

 

I too, have had a favorite steed for many of my airline years, and we met up again last night. I was tasked with safely delivering over 2oo souls to a destination that lies on one of the last frontiers in America. The state of Alaska sits many miles removed from the “lower 48”, and in a lot of ways the mindset of this amazing place is as far removed as the land itself. I’ve been flying to Anchorage since the late 80’s when I was a (lowly) Flight Engineer on our massive 747s, and I’ve always been enamored with its beauty, its challenging environments, and yes, even that mindset.  On my current jet (the Boeing 757/767), in the Minneapolis/St. Paul pilot domicile, an Alaska layover is a prized trip.

I first met this favorite early in my career as a Boeing 757 pilot. Northwest Airlines was a convert to this amazing machine in the early 1980s, looking to replace our aging fleet of 727s. This new Boeing took the industry by storm for many reasons. It was big (not “wide body 747″ big, but much bigger than the 727), and it was VERY powerful with its two high-bypass turbofan  Pratt and Whitney PW2037 engines. It could haul almost 200 passengers, any and all freight that you wished to stow in its two large cargo bins, and would launch, climb unrestricted to almost 40,000’, fly non-stop to a destination five hours distant (with ample fuel reserves), land on a short runway (relatively speaking…short for a Transport Category airplane), and then stop almost on a dime. In other words, it excelled in pretty much every category that mattered. I’ve often said that Boeing did what rarely ever happens in the airliner industry…they matched the perfect airfoil to the perfect engine combination (you will see 757s with Rolls Royce engines also). Plus, they somehow managed to do this and produce a stunningly beautiful machine.

 

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(IMHO, you can just “feel” the beauty, power and grace. Photo courtesy of Kevin Whitehead.)

 

Like a magnificent race horse, a superb driving machine, or a timeless work of art, the lines of the Boeing 757 please each and every pilot I’ve ever met.

 

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(Lifting off from Anchorage…Delta “ship” number 551NW. Photo courtesy Ashley Askew.)

 

So, you have to ask, “what makes this particular 757 so special?” Fair question.

The carrier that I began my “major airline” career with back in 1983, Northwest Orient Airlines, was aptly named. We were one of the first airlines to serve a myriad of destinations in Asia immediately following the Second World War. Simply speaking, they became one of THE dominant carriers in the Far East, so much so that they began serving many “smaller” destinations from their Tokyo Narita airport hub. They even had a small pilot base in Guam for a few years flying Boeing 727s. In those days, we did a rather large amount of “south” flying from Tokyo Narita, to include Saipan, Guam, Palau, Taipei, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila and a host of other cities. Shortly after the 757 became part of our fleet, they realized that it was the perfect aircraft to do this type of Asia “short to medium haul” flights. Their idea was to essentially put a certain number of 757s in Tokyo permanently, fly them on the “south” trips and rotate the pilots through on a monthly 12-day trip.

We would dead-head from the USA (usually Minneapolis/St. Paul) to Tokyo, spend the next week and a half flying to all those wonderful destinations with every other night in Tokyo, then dead-head home at the end of our trip. Work a mere 12 days a month you say? Spend many of your layovers on the beaches of Guam/Saipan/Palau or in the exotic worlds of Hong Kong or Bangkok you say? What’s the problem…sign me up!

Back then, Northwest had two versions of the Boeing 757. The “55 series”, and the newer “56 series”, which was the pool of jets that they pulled the “Asia birds” from. And that’s where we first flew together. The date was over 2 decades ago, an we’ve crossed paths many times. Her airline name (or FAA registration as it were) is “N5651NW” (or “ship” 551NW). (Pause to say, “Sorry to all you “social justice warriors”, but sometimes actual guys refer to boats, cars, and yes, even airplanes in the feminine vernacular…if you’re offended…email me your address, and I’ll send you a balloon…or a coloring book…your choice.”)

 

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(When I first met N5651NW, or “ship 51”, this is how she looked…we at NWA called it the “bowling shoe” paint job. Photo courtesy of Bruce Leibowski.)

 

Over the last 22 years, sitting in the left seat of the 757, I’ve seen them all. From the jet that just won’t seem to stay in “trim” for best fuel efficiency (aileron, elevator and rudder…yes….we DO actually hand fly these jets, and the smart aviator makes sure it’s trimmed correctly before engaging the autopilot), to the jet that ALWAYS seems to have some sort of niggling “issue”. Things the likes of a lavatory that doesn’t work right…comm radios that always seem full of static, fuel imbalances that need constant attention, and all the way down to the ones that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t make a smooth landing. (Did Boeing make that one landing gear an inch longer than the other one? Just kidding…that would never happen.)

 

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(“51” just touching down. How can I tell? The wing spoilers have deployed, and the engines have begun the process of “reversing”…not really the best of techniques to do that with the nose off the ground…a tail strike is a HUGE no-no in the airliner world. Photo courtesy of Joey Collura.)

 

Not “my” jet. She’s perfect. Really. I’ve flown this particular jet on many, many flights over the last two decades, and I’ve NEVER…not once…NEVER had an issue with her.

Side note: I’ve heard over the years to NEVER buy a car/truck, etc. that was built on a Friday or a Monday. The Friday worker can’t wait to be done with their shift anticipating the freedom of the weekend, and the Monday employee is maybe a wee bit “bruised” from said weekend of freedom. I would offer that if I took the time to research it, I would find that “51” was finished on a Wednesday. A day that the sun shone brightly high in a clear blue Everett, Washington sky. A day when the air was sweet, the robins sang, the daffodils bloomed, and all was right with the world. I’ll stop there….my “unicorns and Skittles” metaphor would’ve been a bit much.

A bit over a decade ago, Northwest merged with Delta airlines, and all of our birds now sport new paint. She may not have the famous “red rudder” of NWA, but to me she’s just as beautiful.

 

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(These days, “51” looks gorgeous with the new paint scheme, and her new fuel efficient blended winglets. Photo courtesy of Tamas Kolos-Lakatos)

 

So, I flew her again last night from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Anchorage. More accurately, John R. (the First Officer) flew her, and I assumed the role of “PM” (or what we call Pilot Monitoring). Basically, that means that I do pretty much EVERYTHING other than fly the jet, and on the next leg, we switch and I do the flying. This is standard protocol at most all airlines.

On this leg though I was to do the enroute paperwork, keep track of the destination/alternate weather, also keep track of the enroute weather (finding smooth air is paramount), talk on the radios (although over the vastness of western Canada there isn’t much talking taking place…New York’s Kennedy it’s not), continually check fuel and navigation accuracy, and tons of other things that are required to get a 250,000 pound hunk of metal and fuel to 38,000 feet and 2500 miles down the road. Also, as the Captain, I’m tasked with keeping track of any maintenance issues we have with the jet. Once again, as “51” has been for the last 22 years, she was flawless.

We took off at very close to our maximum allowable take-off gross weight, on a snowy, frigid Minnesota night, and climbed immediately to FL340 (or 34,000’…best initial altitude for speed/fuel burn/and turbulence).  Over our first checkpoint of Fargo, ND, we were already 4 minutes ahead of the flight plan ETA numbers and had more fuel than anticipated. She clearly had her head, was breathing strong, and galloping like the amazing mount that I had seen many times before. She knew I was going to need her again this night, and she was ready.

 

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(“51” at the moment of liftoff.  20,000 pounds of thrust per engine at full power. Photo courtesy of Matthew Wallman.)

 

The ride became a bit bumpy over Regina, so I asked her to take us higher, and she easily complied. She was still early on the time and up on the fuel over the next checkpoint, but I wasn’t surprised. She was feeling her oats, and I was once again trusting her from my cockpit “saddle”. It was as if she was saying to me, “I got this Captain, you relax…we’ve done this before. Remember that night over Siapan in the typhoon? I didn’t let you down then, and I won’t let you down now.”

Edmonton slipped by, and I could see the glow of it’s lights below the white, snowy overcast…on she purred. Later, when Fort St. Johns was behind us, we were still ahead on our flight plan time, and up on the fuel. After another hour over the black vastness of the Canadian territories, Whitehorse, Yukon appeared at our 1 o’clock position. Whitehorse is an approved “Alternate Airport” in case things go bad for us, and tonight it would’ve been a challenge with low clouds, gusty winds and blowing snow…I was ready if we had to “pull the plug” and land there (due to things like a medical emergency, etc.…those things do happen on long flights), and I knew she was as ready to tackle Whitehorse as I was.

Passing Juneau, back in United States airspace and just over an hour to go before Anchorage. We’re now over the largest of the countless mountain ranges on our route (up to 19,000’ peaks…not to be taken lightly), but if one of our engines decides it’s had enough, could she keep us above the jagged tops? The books say she can, and in my heart, I know she would…it would be a struggle, and we would have to be at our best, but John, I and “51” are confident. I’m always on “high alert” over this potentially dangerous terrain, but in a Boeing product, and in this bird particularly, I sit comfortable feeling the rhythmic rumble of her strength and listen to her run her race with practiced ears.

 

7

(Inside of an hour from Anchorage, those dots are peaks, and the numbers are the elevations…not for the faint of heart)

 

We glide into Anchorage through some rather ugly turbulence, but she’s taken this kind of abuse before, shakes it off, and continues her gallop inbound. The bumpy air smooths out at five thousand feet, we locate the company 737 inbound from Seattle that we are to follow on a “visual approach”, and turn a 10-mile final approach for runway 07R. The lights of Anchorage are on the nose, the full moon is bathing the surrounding mountains and the calm waters of Cook Inlet in its soft glow, and the view is almost dreamlike. I know that she now “smells the barn” and we are as good as home for the night. John does an outstanding job on the visual approach (NOT his first rodeo), and flies us to an ultra-smooth touchdown. I compliment him on his landing as we clear the runway, but I’m smiling because in the back of my mind, I’m thinking (actually KNOWING) that “she” has had a hand in it.

 

8a

(On final approach looking at the end of runway 07R in Anchorage with the mountains in the background. The cloud layer is obscuring the far end of the runway…the funny cloud you see sticking up is left over from a departing flight.)

 

Thirty minutes later, I’ve secured “51” for the two hour nap she’ll get before she’s asked to repeat the journey in the opposite direction, and I’m patiently waiting for the cabin crew to follow our passengers off the machine. Normally, I do this for one reason; but tonight, I have two. One, I was told many years ago from my principal aviation mentor (my Dad) that I was to be the first one on the jet and the last one off…period. As he would say, I had signed for the machine, and am ultimately responsible for it (and the safety of the crew and passengers), until everyone is off the jet. But tonight, I have my number two reason. I want a moment alone with her as I step through the 2L door onto the jetway. I want a moment to pat her on the cold metal skin, feel her now still, quiet strength and give a silent “thank you old friend” to an inanimate object that has been something far more than that for many years.

“Thank you 51. The day we both go out to pasture, will be a grand day indeed. We’ve both more than earned it. I hope we cross trails again before that days comes. Good night old friend…sleep well, for your journey is not quite done.”

 

9

(Photo courtesy Josh Frizzell.)

’till next time…

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Getting Off the X

 

Move! Just Move…

Interesting fact. More people are injured and killed in disasters like earthquakes, fires, floods, and yes, even catastrophic aircraft evacuations, not because they did the wrong thing, but because they did nothing. The military calls it “getting off the X”, and my lovely wife Debie and I very recently did just that. Not that packing up and moving 1700 miles across the heartland of America solves all of life’s problems, but in our case, it was the right thing to do at the right time in our lives.

Deb’s health issues (of which, she’s kicking major assage, and to the amazement of her doctors, is markedly improving), and our general disdain of all things winter, helped us immensely in our decision. We found that the cold (nee frigid) climes of the Wisconsin winters were a huge detriment to our physical, and mental well-beings. Funny thing, when you’re younger (20s-30s) and you slip and bust your arse on the ice, you laugh, but more importantly, you hope that your buddy didn’t get it on video thus making you the next idiot gone viral on Al Gore’s internet. However, the longer in the tooth you find yourself, the worse that kind of thing becomes. You slip, crack your head (or worse), and the next thing you know, you’re in the E.R., or prone waiting for a hip to heal. Add infection to age, and you can find yourself on a cloud, in front of a pearly gate talking to a dude named Peter. Suffice to say, it took us more than two decades to have it, but our epiphany was that we are simply NOT fans of the long, dark, cold winters above the Mason/Dixon line.

 

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(Our farm during the dog days of winter…as taken from my friend Pat’s J-3 Cub)

 

a1

(Pat and I at “work” a few weeks ago. MSP bound for Anchorage.)

 

So, we “got off the X”. More accurately, we left the backwoods of Wisconsin, for the sun-drenched city of Phoenix, Arizona. Needless to say, it was not an easy thing to accomplish for many reasons. Leaving friends and family was difficult, and getting a 20-acre horse, hobby farm “strack”, packed, marketed, sold, and in your rear-view mirror was nothing short of a monumental feat! Rest assured, Debie deserves ALL of the credit…the woman is simply amazing. I’m sure that had old “Ike” Eisenhower (and his brain trust of WWII generals) been privy to all the logistics involved in our move, they would’ve been wishing for something as easy as “Overlord” and the invasion of “Festung Europa”. I was happy to do my part (OK, I bitched and whined a lot, but nevertheless), I logged quality time on the mower/weed eater, in the dirt of the landscaping, behind the power washer, and in the ugly realm of heaving the refuse of 12 years of life into one of the THREE roll-off dumpsters we had delivered…and I won’t sugar coat it…it sucked. Mix in probably the busiest flying summer of my life (read me being out of town a lot), and it made for quite the crap-laden last many months.

 

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(Pretty sure these fellas were NOT singing my praises when moving my BIG gun safe.)

 

a9

(A few hours away from the actual launch for Phoenix. The end of MONTHS of effort)

 

But all that has changed now.

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a7

(Out walking Carson one morning, looked up to see this…ANOTHER bright blue sky, and some folks enjoying life. Hehe…and it was snowing back in Wisconsin…sorry, just saying.)

 

We moved into our new crib about three weeks past, and are loving every minute of it. We revel in the SINGLE LEVEL floor plan, love all the windows showcasing the (soul lifting) bright sunshine, and even have a huge hole in the backyard that will soon house a beautiful pool/spa. My plan calls for yours truly to float around in it like an old, pale, piece of sea-going jetsam (I have my eye on a unicorn floaty that was seen at Walmart as my main vessel of choice…the “U.S.S. BBall” as it were). Couple all of this with the excitement of exploring and learning about one of the most intriguing States in our Union, and we’re firmly in our happy place.

 

a11

(My new favorite dude…the guy making my “cement pond”.)

 

However, all of this paradise is not free. As the old saying goes, “if you’re going to dance, you gotta pay the fiddler”, and two of the small prices to pay, can be broken down into two distinctly different categories. Time and people.

I will indeed find myself back on the roller-coaster ride of “commuting” to my career. Long ago, in the first decade of my airline life, I chose to live in a city that was not one of the pilot domiciles chosen by Northwest Airlines. A pilot base in Little Rock, Arkansas (and later, when I moved to Dallas/Ft. Worth) were not part of their global business strategy, so I would have to find a way to show up in my base (first Minneapolis, then Boston and later Detroit) on the right day, at the right time. I would often leave a day early on many of my trips, ride the cockpit jumpseat (or “First Observers” seat as the FAA calls it…some really hilarious yarns about that someday), or if I was lucky, get a seat back in the cabin with the real folks. Going to work a day early sucked, but far worse was not being able to get home on the last day of your trip (or “Rotation” as Delta calls it). Another night in a hotel room, when heart and mind are miles away with loved ones, is not an optimal reading on the happy meter. However now, sensing I have but a mere 18 months before retirement, I’m pretty sure I can gut it out, and take whining about more airplane rides over shoveling snow quite easily.

 

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(NOT the most comfortable seat in the house…but sometimes the view is rather awesome.)

 

The other price to pony up comes in a single word…humanity. Deb and I have been living away from the hustle and bustle of the city for many years now, and moving headlong back into a neighborhood, and a city of almost 2 million people, will take a bit of getting used to. So far, we’ve found that we truly LOVE the convenience of it all, but things like traffic (and moronic things like Homeowners Associations…don’t get me started), can tax even the most mild-mannered of “seniors” like myself. We’ll see how it goes. I do miss the quiet and solitude of the woods, but each yearly trip around the sun, when the many months of snow falling from a lead grey sky would begin, I would quickly find myself ready to trade peace and serenity for just about ANYWHERE warm. Our only real option, was for me to bid “beach destinations” (like Palau) for my monthly trip, and have Deb accompany me to work.

 

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(Some shots suffering from another horrible Palau layover. Sadly, those days are gone, for my airline no longer serves this heavenly place. For us line pilots, the term “code share” make us see red.)

 

One final thought about “here” as opposed to “there”. The internet.

When we lived in the backwoods of Paul Bunyon and Babe, we had an “OK” internet hook up…not bad, but certainly not great. But here in civilization, we have this wonderful invention called a “fiber optic” connection (did Al Gore invent that too?). It now literally takes minutes, to download things that used to take hours. So what you say? Well, it’s actually quite a big deal (and one that’s truly vital) for a particular thing on my list of hobbies.

 

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(The “backwoods” during the NOT cold days…of which, there were not enough.)

 

Those that suffer with my acquaintance, know that I dearly love to spend time with my lovely wife, and incredible children (and now two beautiful grandchildren). They know I  love to play golf (badly I might add), love to shoot lots of different types of weapons from my collection (WAY not politically correct nowadays), love to read about the human history of this amazing planet, , and have been enamored for years with one more thing.

 

Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m a “flight simulations” junkie…there, I said it.

 

Screen_191102_170659

(Here’s a picture of me landing an F-16C at Creech AFB, NV…well, in my virtual world, I’m landing a Viper in Nevada…lol)

 

Screen_191102_170603

(The HUD view from within the machine. On localizer, on glideslope, on speed I might add…lol.)

 

I love to fly virtual flying machines, in virtual times/places, against and with virtual (and non-virtual) friends and foes, on the not virtual computer, on Al Gore’s internet. And have for the last 20+ years.

(and thus, the subject of my next “Logbook”)…

 

‘till next time…

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“Night Warriors…or My Life as A Freight Dog”

 

 

“Airwing 103, Lubbock Approach, radar contact two-two miles southeast of the Plainview VOR, descend to five thousand one hundred, expect the ILS 17R, altimeter 29.83.”

“Airwing 103 is out of eight for 5.1…Approach, can you confirm the latest ATIS?”

“Airwing 103, Lubbock Preston Smith 0754Z weather: 300 overcast, 1/4 mile in fog, temperature 59, dewpoint 59, wind 210 at 11, altimeter 29.83…runway 17R RVRs: touchdown 1800, mid 1200, rollout 1200.”

“Roger…Airwing 103.”

“Airwing 103, turn left heading two one zero degrees, 2 miles east of the localizer, you’re cleared for the ILS 17R approach, contact tower 120.5 approaching KEEVE.”

“Understand, cleared for the ILS 17R… Airwing 103.”

“Lubbock tower, Airwing 103 is over KEEVE for 17R…”

“Airwing 103, Lubbock tower, you’re cleared to land 17R, latest RVR…touchdown 1200, mid1200, rollout 1000…previous company reported seeing the lights right at minimums. Runway lights are at the highest setting…”

“Airwing 103…understand, cleared to land.”

“Airwing 103, Lubbock tower, I show you 1/4 mile east of the centerline…

Airwing 103, did you copy?

Airwing 103?

Airwing 103…Lubbock tower…do you read?”

“Fire Rescue.”

“Fire, this is tower, we’ve lost contact with an Airwing flight 103 two minutes ago. He was on short final, and his company flight taxiing to the ramp said he saw a bright flash off the end of 17R. He’s a Cessna 310 inbound from Love, two souls on board, 3 hours of fuel.”

“Roger tower…we’re rolling…”

 


 

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(Runway 17R ILS approach plate LBB)

 

 

Four minutes after their last transmission to the Lubbock tower controller, my college friend John (and his “ride along” passenger”) were dead.

 

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(Cessna Model 310)

 

At approximately 2:30 on Saturday morning the 13th of November, 1978, he and his young protege died in a bright ball of fire. The NTSB report would state:

DATE: 78/11/13    LOCATION: LUBBOCK, TX    TIME: 0235

AIRCRAFT DATA: CESSNA 310J   N310BJ     DAMAGE: DESTROYED

INJURIES: FATAL – CREW 1, PX – 1

DEPARTURE POINT: DALLAS, TX      INTENDED DESTINATION: LUBBOCK, TX

PHASE OF OPERATION: LANDING: FINAL APPROACH

TYPE OF ACCIDENT: COLLISION WITH GROUND/WATER: CONTROLLED

PROBABLE CAUSE(S): IMPROPER IFR OPERATION

FACTOR(S): WEATHER – LOW CEILING/FOG

PILOT DATA: FL. INSTR., AGE 22, 1420 TOTAL HOURS, 110 IN TYPE, INSTRUMENT RATED.

 

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(the NTSB Report for Airwing 103)

 

The world would never know why Astrowing Airlines Flight 103 crashed. Small aircraft like the Cessna 310J have never been equipped with cockpit voice or data recorders, so any conclusions on my part are conjecture born of 40 years (and almost 40,000 hours) spent in various cockpits. Within a few months, I would find myself as “Airwing 105” on the very same instrument approach (inbound from Roswell, NM), in the dead of the night, in identical weather conditions… and on that night, I scared the proverbial shite out of myself. You learn later in your IFR life, when you find yourself nearing the end of a low overcast, fog shrouded ILS, and you reach your DH (“decision height”), that when you glance up …if you see the “runway environment” and are safe to continue the approach…you IMMEDIATELY go back on instruments (you at the very least split your scan enough to keep the flight and NAV gauges as part of the equation).

Why? Because your senses can kill you. On the night mentioned, I arrived at that very same DH of 200′ AGL (3482′ MSL), looked up, had the approach lights in sight (at least flashing through the murky fog), and felt like I had enough visual cues to continue safely. The fog blurred everything horribly, and with the “lights on the highest setting”, the flashes were blinding. My inner ears told me I was in a slight right bank…but I wasn’t. I instinctively went back on instruments, fought the overpowering urge to bank back to the left, and somehow got the machine on the runway. As I rolled out in the fog, I was cussing myself for ALMOST doing something hugely stupid; something that could easily have been fatal.

My thoughts flashed back to my college training, and I gave a silent “thank you” to my friend and mentor Gordon Shattles. He was the flight instructor that fate matched me with during my training for the coveted Instrument Rating, but sadly he would perish a few years later in a mid-air collision. He continually hammered me on the DH “stay inside on the instruments” thing, and even had me fly the little blue and white Cessna 172 to a touchdown WHILE WEARING THE IFR HOOD…thus seeing only the instruments. He taught me volumes about instrument flying, but he also taught me something more. He taught me what a professional aviator acted like. He showed me that being a “professional” is as much an attitude as it is an aptitude. He may very well have saved my life on that dark, stormy night.

In my humble opinion, John may have become a bit disoriented (as mentioned earlier, the fog and the bright lights do not play well together), somehow allowed the little twin Cessna to drift off of the centerline, and impacted short of the runway. Couple spatial disorientation with this fact about the Cessna 310 (I received my Multi-engine training in an “A” model -310 a few years earlier). While in my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful and graceful light twins ever made, it has a horrible trait of wing rocking when the wingtip fuel tanks are not emptied. Again, this is just an informed opinion, but I feel that this MAY have contributed to John’s inability to stay on the center-line.

 

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(Cessna 310J…truly a beautiful machine.)

 

In the end, only the Good Lord knows what happened on that fateful night. The rest of us are left with questions and sadness.

God bless you John and Gordon…aviation is a fickle paramour.

 


 

(My journey as “freight dog”…er, night freight pilot)

 

A few weeks ago, after positioning my RV trailer in Phoenix for the winter, I found myself on a solo drive back toward the frozen tundra of western Wisconsin. I was inbound to my horse farm to RON before beginning an airline trip to Seoul, so I was using the two-day drive to relax, listen to some tunes, catch up on the news (and NFL games), and generally just chill in the left seat of my new Ram 3500.

 

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(Leaving my farm in Wisconsin on a cold November day…temperature 11 degrees Fahrenheit…wind chill a lovely 04 degrees! So I swapped THIS…)

 

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(…for THIS! My new “winter home” in Phoenix…temperature…a horrible 65 degrees!)

 

Having left “the valley of the sun” well before dawn, and turning East-bound at snow-covered Flagstaff still in the nocturnal hours, I was treated to a spectacular sunrise as only the high desert of the USA southwest can offer. Next on the Interstate 40 East hit parade would be the wind-swept towns of Winslow and Tucumcari, and a scant few hours later, a lunch break in my old stomping grounds of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

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(A gorgeous sunrise…matched only by amazing sunsets.)

 

I was first introduced to this beautiful little city, gently nestled between the Rio Grande River and the Sandia Mountains, long ago in the last year of the decade known as “the disco 70s”. This 10-year span gave us classics the likes of: Apple Inc., the AMC Gremlin, Watergate, The Grateful Dead, the movie “The Godfather”, and who can forget Billie Jean King spanking Bobby Riggs (don’t forget the “Thrilla in Manila”)? But more importantly (?), the final year of the “me decade”, gave the world a neophyte 22-year-old pilot, replete with college degree, spanking new flight Master Logbook, and an unlimited wheel-barrel full of optimism.

 

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(Cresting the hill just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Sandia Mountains frame the eastern city limits.)

 

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(Southeaster Oklahoma State University Aviation ramp, circa 1977.)

I was newly graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from an aviation university in Oklahoma, and was a freshly minted Commercial/Instrument, Multi-engine rated pilot (and Flight Instructor), and the proud owner of just over 1000 hours of flight time. In other words, I was “God’s gift to aviation”. I was about the best thing to hit the airways since the “Lone Eagle” himself, and could fly anything with wings on it, through the eye of needle in the midst of a Kansas tornado! Granted, I had scared myself enough times to pepper my flying skills with just enough humility (and respect for the Aviation Gods) to NOT actually think I was the best. But trust me when I tell you this; if you ever meet a pilot that doesn’t have just a “bit” of swagger in their gait, pass him/her by. I’m dead serious. It’s actually a very valuable tool in your pilot survival bag of tricks. You not only have to believe you can do it (engine fires, “hard IFR’ approaches, check rides, medical exams, etc.), you have to KNOW YOU CAN DO IT.

Also, in my case, consider this: I was raised by a decorated combat helicopter pilot whose motto was something to the effect of, “I may not be THE BEST rotary-winged aviator in the world…but I’ll just have to do until that person is born!” Lol…growing up, I heard him spout that line many times (with his movie star smile), and to say that I loved that man’s flying persona is an understatement.

 

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(The man…)

 

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(…his world in combat, circa Southeast Asia 1963-64.)

 

I had accepted my college degree on a cold, wet December evening in 1978, then promptly relocated to take a job as a staff flight instructor for Fort Worth School of Aviation (coincidentally, I had obtained my PPL at the same flight school in 1974). It was a (mostly) OK job, but my crop of students included doctors, lawyers, accountants and generally a mish-mash of other “professional” types that had neither the time, nor the inclination to actually study and put in the time to LEARN the material before the next day’s lesson. This was in stark contrast to my days as an instructor for the university where all my students were highly motivated, dreamt of nothing but one day wearing those coveted airline stripes and piloting “heavy iron” to far-away destinations (like yours truly did). They showed up prepared, eager and more than ready to tackle the lesson. They were a joy to teach…these older, “professional” types…not so much.

 

 

 

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(Yours truly as a newly minted Private Pilot graduate of Ft. Worth School of Aviation, summer of 1974.)

 

After several weeks of frustration spent in the skies over north Texas, I was beginning to feel the pangs of a dead-end position staring me in the face. So, when approached by my long-time friend (and college roommate) Rick to consider a job flying my own machine on a scheduled route (and kissing the life of being an underappreciated CFI “adieu”), I jumped at the chance. The job would entail single-pilot freight runs, winging packages in small twin-engine aircraft, to small (and large) destinations, all in the dead of the night. I had flown with Rick on his freight run for this outfit on many occasions in the past, and was fairly familiar with how it all worked. He had since graduated to the big leagues to crew the majestic silver “luxury liners” of American Airlines, so I surely felt that the life of a freight dog just might be a great way to earn a ticket to “the show”.

 

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(Top: the Aero Commander 680V that my buddy Rick flew Dallas-Little Rock-Columbus, OH, Little Rock-Dallas every night…awesome machine. Bottom: Back of his head at FL 190 somewhere over middle America in the dead of the night.)

 

Unfortunately, the outfit running this operation was known as less than awesome, and truth be told, had a pretty horrible reputation in and around the Love Field area. I “interviewed” with one of the owners, and as I recall, had a whopping two questions to answer. Question 1: had I ever flown a Piper Navajo (the steed in which I would be assigned), my answer was a truthful, “no”. Question 2: “OK, well have you ever flown a Piper Aztec?”. My answer was an unequivocally NOT-truthful, “yes”. He seemed to be fine with that (without looking at the logbooks provided to prove such a statement I might add), so off to the PA-31-350 Navajo Chieftain sitting on the Love Field tarmac we went. The following FAR Part 135 checkride would determine my fate for the next several months.

 

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(A Piper Navajo PA31-350…WAY nicer than my mount, N9066Y.)

 

As I recall, it went generally pretty well. Again, the total amount of flight time I had logged in a Piper Navajo could be counted on NO fingers, so he talked me through the pre-flight, the engine starts, etc. With his help (and the judicious use of the checklists), off we launched into the sunny, blue sky. A few touch and go’s, an engine out ILS, and some “air work” later, we turned back toward Love Field for an ILS (Backcourse) approach to RWY 31L. I was flying under the IFR hood, and after completely screwing up the approach (anyone that’s ever flown a back-course approach will appreciate that statement), he took the hood off my sweat-drenched head, and treated me to an ugly sight. I could see that I had pooched up bracketing the localizer back course so badly that we were essentially pointing about 30 degrees offset to the left of the 31L centerline. Coincidentally, this lined us up with the rather LARGE buildings of downtown Dallas…probably not good. He asked if I knew what I did wrong…a feeble “yes” was offered, and he ended the checkride with the following statement…”OK, never do that again, you’re hired…be in Albuquerque in 3 days to take over the Roswell/Lubbock run.”

Simple as that. From village idiot to “airline pilot” in one sentence.

(Side not to the above job offer.)

Placing a phone call to my dear parents to give them the big news (“Mom, Dad, I’m an Astrowing Airlines pilot!”), I was nervously anticipating hearing the thoughts of another aviator whose opinion I highly respected (my Dad). He asked the appropriate questions regarding the company, the route, and the machine. My answers were as follows: “The company is shady at best, the route is Albuquerque/Roswell/Lubbock/Roswell/Albuquerque every night, and the airplane is a worn-out, Exxon Valdez oil leaking, “50 missions over Schweinfurt”, rag-tag Piper Navajo that probably should be collecting spiders in a junk yard somewhere. Well Dad…what do you think…should I take the job or not?”

After a rather pregnant pause, he offered me this…and it was the perfect answer to my query:

“Well, it’ll be good experience if you live through it….and if you don’t… it won’t matter will it?” (rolling out in the fog after scaring the crap out of myself on that low, foggy ILS mentioned above comes to mind…”and if you don’t…it won’t matter will it?” This man knew that I had just enough experience to kill myself…)

The next several months are a bit of a blur. Fortunately, during the early years of my career, I was blessed with the compulsion to keep detailed records of my flights, hoping that one day I would find myself at a REAL airline, interviewing for a REAL job, and having to prove the answers provided on said airlines job application. Later that year, I would be called to offer my logbooks at a job interview for, (what was known in those days as) a commuter airline (Scheduled Skyways of Fayetteville, Arkansas flying turboprop SA226 Metroliners). I would take that job, and spend the next five years plowing the skies over the southern USA in a “trauma-tube” (our nickname for the Metroliner). I would move on from the world of night-freight, thus going from the proverbial “sand lot” world of airlines, to the “minor league” world, hoping someday to work my way to the “big league” world. It would come several years (and a volume of Logbook yarns) later.

I will add though. When asked if I’ve ever flown night freight…I’m proud to say…”yep, I was a freight dog for a while.”

The following are snippets from my days as an “Airwing” pilot:

 


 

I would routinely show up a few hours before my scheduled nightly launch of 2230 hours. This was due to two personality flaws of mine…my total lack of a social life in Albuquerque, and my love of flying machines. The first I can write off as a cost of living the “my days are my nights, and my nights are my days” lifestyle, and the second…well, I can only blame my Dad. He took me through the magic portal into the world of aviation (see previous Logbook entries about such), and began a life-long love affair with flying machines. As a youngster I would instinctively follow his lead and look up whenever an airplane (or helicopter) would pass over. I learned this habit from him, and to this day, I simply cannot resist the urge to look skyward and identify the object of my passion. (I remember seeing the legendary golfer…and jet-rated pilot…Arnold Palmer doing the very same thing in the midst of a golf match. A pilot, is a pilot, is a pilot…)

On this particular day, I found myself at the tarmac fence outside the FBO (fixed base operator…basically the folks that run the General Aviation side of the airport) watching the busy comings and goings of the late afternoon/evening. The Albuquerque airport is one of a handful of unique flying fields, for it is not only the home for hundreds of daily commercial and general aviation flights, but it’s also the location of Kirtland Air Force Base. On any given day, the cornucopia of flying machines for one to behold is nothing short of awesome; everything from (in those days) “giant” Boeing 707s, to smoke belching, ear shattering F4 Phantoms, to mosquito like little Cessna 150s and Piper Cubs. For an aviation voyeur, it’s heaven.

 

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(TWA Boeing 707 taxiing to the gate in ABQ on a Spring afternoon in 1979…sadly, that iconic airline would cease to exist shortly after I made it to the “major airlines” a few years hence. I was extremely privileged to occupy their cockpit jumpseats a few times, and it was a true honor. In fact, I may have a yarn or two about that…)

 

Shortly after being treated to a gorgeous, late winter sunset, I noticed the general “pace of life” at the FBO had ratcheted up to about DEFCON 2. It seems that a “VIP” flight was inbound and they were all running around like headless chickens anticipating its arrival. Shortly thereafter, I was treated to the arrival of a bird the likes of which I had never seen before. A few minutes earlier, I began to see bright  landing lights shining down a long final approach to RWY 8. Within minutes, a four-engine turbo-prop machine gracefully touched down and majestically taxied to the ramp. She was mostly silver (with a strange “penguin” looking logo on the tail), had the lines and air of a stately “lady of royalty” about her, and when the four Rolls-Royce engines ceased their high-pitched whine, out stepped a line of folks that were swiftly whisked away in a convoy of limousines.

 

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(A machine with sleek, graceful lines…the Vickers Viscount.)

 

Shortly thereafter, a rather scruffy looking dude wandered up to the fence and we casually began a conversation. He had a full beard, long wind-swept mop of brown hair, faded jeans, t-shirt, and a totally cool, black leather jacket with the same logo on the back. When asked who was on the jet, he offered, “Oh, that’s Fleetwood Mac.” I was gob-smacked, for I had sat in row 4 of the Dallas Convention Center not two years earlier, rocked to their epic music, and totally fell in love with Stevie Nicks (she felt the same about me by the way). I have been a huge fan of their work for many years (to include the PRE- Nicks & Buckingham days of Bob Welch and company). Wow, I thought…Fleetwood Mac…how cool.

 

He didn’t seem to be as impressed as I was, and our conversation continued. I found out from this dude (I just assumed he was a “roadie” for the band), that they were inbound from Los Angeles, and that the machine sitting quietly before us was an immaculate version of a British Vickers Viscount. He DID seemed to be as awe struck and impressed with this flying piece of British history as I was. He was quite friendly, and in a few minutes asked about yours truly; where I was from, if I was a pilot, why I was at the airport this time of the evening, etc.  After offering my story, I made the off-handed comment that it must be fascinating to be the pilot winging famous people around the world in a beautiful, glamorous flying machine such as this one. With that utterance, he turned to me, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself as THE CHIEF PILOT FOR THIS OPERATION! He handed me his business card and told me to send him a resume after I had built up a few hundreds more flying hours! He calmly turned and walked away, leaving a surprised and stunned (and gob-smacked for the second time that evening) young pilot watching him climb the stairs to that marvelous aircraft, and enter a world that I couldn’t begin to imagine.

(Me? Stevie? Together forever? [she KNEW I would “never break the chain] We BOTH also knew it would never work…)

**********

The following are a few quotes from my Logbook:

DATE: 3/7-8/1979   A/C MAKE AND MODEL: PA-31   A/C IDENT MARK: N9066Y   FROM: ABQ

TO: ROW/LBB/ROW/ABQ   FLT NO.: AWG 105/106

REMARKS: “DIODE BURNED-OUT / SHORTED AGAINST BULKHEAD…LOST “ELECTRICALS” (THANK GOD FOR FLASHLIGHTS).

A few nights later:

DATE: 3/13-14/1979 (SAME OTHER STUFF)

REMARKS: “0” VISIBILITY (BLOWING DUST) / PUROLATOR COURIER :45 LATE DUE LATE EL PASO PLANE / “0” VIS (BLOWING DUST) ABQ, 35 KT GUSTS.

The following night:

DATE: 3/14-15/1979

REMARKS: RIDER “ERNIE” / :45 DELAY THUNDERSTORMS / BAD SHIMMY NOSEWHEEL / IFR ROW: WX:500′ OVC, 2 NM VIS RAIN AND FOG / IFR LBB: WX: 200′ BKN 500′ OVC 2 NM VIS LIGHT RAIN AND FOG / IFR TO ABQ / 1/4″ OF NOSEWHEEL RIM BROKEN OFF ON LANDING / LOTS OF SPARKS.

And the very next night after that:

I distinctly remember the next evening’s flight (after the nosewheel was changed while I did my day beauty-sleep thing). The crappy weather system had moved out of the ABQ area (it was clear), but east of the Sandia Mountains, it was low ceilings and fog all the way to the east coast. I launched, proceeded to Roswell, and held for about 1/2 an hour while a Texas International DC-9 was conducting its ILS approach. After they reported to Ft. Worth Center that they were clear of the runway, it was my turn. Again, it’s the middle of night…. God only knows why T.I. was running so late…the Roswell ATC facility had long since closed up shop for the day, and we were now in a “no radar” environment. It basically means you do everything through Ft. Worth Center…and since they can’t see you on radar on the ground in ROW, you have to let them know you’re down so they clear the next victim for their approach. I shot the ILS (my Logbook says the weather was 300′ OVC, 1-mile VIS in light rain and fog), and taxied to the ramp to meet the courier, and off-load/up-load my next load of packages.

The weather in LBB was (for lack of a better aviation term) “horse-shite”. When I got my briefing from the weather weenies at the Flight Service Station in Ft. Worth, they said the report from the last hour at Lubbock was: 100′ sky obscured, 1/4-mile VIS in rain and fog. Since this was below my landing minimums, I called the “boss” at Love Field to discuss our next move, and commenced to get a 1st class, “Texas sized” ass chewing. He wanted to know why I was even on the phone with him! He expected me to load up, fuel up, launch for LBB, hold until the weather improved, and if it didn’t, then return to ROS. Great idea…one big problem. Roswell’s weather didn’t meet legal weather minimums to file it as “Alternate” for my IFR flight plan (and the next closest place that did was ATLANTA, GEORGIA…roughly 1200 miles east!). He was hearing none of it. I protested, he yelled louder, I protested more (and offered that maybe we should just wait it out on the ground), and he blew a gasket. I told him that I was exercising my “Pilot in Command” authority to delay, and he promptly fired me on the spot!

(“Mom, Dad…guess what? I’m moving home and living on your couch until I’m 40! I heard Wal-Mart is hiring cart boys!”)

In the end, we were both snake-bitten. For me the weather improved enough to launch toward Lubbock (see above concerning the ILS to RWY 17R I shot that night…thanks again Gordon!), and for him…he was forced to re-hire me, and realize that he was saddled with a head-strong, smart-assed, wet-behind-the-ears, young pilot that was either too smart (or too scared…) to be bullied into an FAA violation. I prefer to think it was the former, but I admit it was most probably the latter. It wouldn’t be the last time I was to be fired (and promptly re-hired) during my early flying career…but that’s a tale for some other time.

**********

We routinely carried “riders”. These were usually kids far younger than ourselves (“kids”…hell, I was barely shaving), and they were usually building flight time toward their Commercial Pilot License. As stated above, I spent many nights as a “rider” with my friend Rick on his various Airwing freight runs.

Many of the “freight dog” flights with Rick stand out in my memory banks…here’s one of them.

One night well past nightfall, he was tasked with a little “milk-run” hop from Dallas’s Love Field over to Abilene; a mere 150 some odd nautical miles as the crow flies west. We would be flying a rather worn out (see a trend here?) V35 Beechcraft Bonanza for this mission, and after loading it up with about a zillion little packages, Rick took the left seat and I was tasked with plopping my young ass into the right seat and closing the ONE passenger door on the machine. As Rick brought the Continental engine to life and began the time-honored tradition of calling Clearance/Ground/Tower to get us airborne, I fumbled with the door…not being able to get it closed. He finally reached across me, mumbling something about the door being retarded (or maybe it was me he was mumbling about), and slammed Mr. Beechcraft’s hatch hard enough to secure it for take-off.

Roughly an hour later we arrived to a “zombie-dead” Abilene Reginal (“Interplanetary”) Airport, taxied to the deserted ramp, and shut down to wait on the courier so we could swap loads and head home. When I reached for the door handle, remembering his forceful movement to close it, I turned the lever and gave it a huge push to free us from this cramped little world. Nothing. Tried it again…same result. Rick (mumbling about either my heritage or the airplanes) reached across me, grabbed the handle and instead of pushing it, he pulled it (a little trick to release the locking pin). He gave a big grunt and SUCCESS! Well, not actual success, but the handle did move…it came off in his hand!

We were trapped! We both tried putting the handle back on to the spindle to engage the locking mechanism…nothing! After several attempts, we did the only thing two steely-eyed, square-jawed, night freight heroes could do…we started yelling “HELP” like two little French school girls! We opened the “storm window” (it’s a little tea-pot sized window next to the pilot that folds in so you can get some ventilation into the cockpit), and began yelling for all we were worth. Nothing…it was after all, the middle of a warm Texas summer night, and all NOT-crazy pilots were at home counting sheep…or Boeings.

We were eventually released from our self-induced imprisonment, when a sound asleep kid in the “line shack” heard us, and wandered over to see what all the racket was about. He was there to gas up the nocturnal freight runs, and must’ve gotten quite a giggle out of the little blue and white Bonanza sitting on the ramp, with two future airline line professionals in it squealing like a couple of stuck hogs!

I don’t remember how we got the door to function on the return flight to Love Field…maybe when we parked on the Love Field ramp we simply did a “reunion tour” of our wildly popular, “a Capella: ballad that featured one word….” HELP!”

**********

 

As I steered the big truck east out of downtown ABQ a few weeks ago, I glanced up to see if it was still there. I glanced repeatedly toward the area that was so prominently a focus of attention almost forty years ago, but Father Time had done what Father Time does, and it was as if it had never happened.

 

A last snippet from my days (or more accurately, my nights) living in Albuquerque as a fledgling aviator…

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(My trusty “steed” on those many nights spent in the skies over Texas and NM as a noob pilot. Yep, “Bob” (the mechanic charged with keeping N9066Y out of the scrap heap) is working on the right engine…again. It leaked oil like a sieve, I would carry a case of engine oil, and after most stops, would add a quart (or 3), wipe down the cowling, climb back in and launch into low Earth orbit. A great life to be sure…)

 

One evening while conversing with “Bob”, he filled me with a tale that still sends chills down my spine. I had seen it every day as I drove to the airport, and had wondered many times what it was. It had been a year and a half since the night it took place, but it was still there. The angry ugly, black slash of a wound on the western slope of the Sandia Range. “Bob” casually mentioned something about it, and having wondered about it since day 1, I naturally had to know the story. He told me that, on that horrible Wednesday night, he had been “partying hard” with a gaggle of folks at a residence on the mountain, and the flash, noise, and shock of the event had them soiling their panties, and completely freaked out. To quote my esteemed aircraft doctor, “We just knew that the eggheads at Sandia Laboratories had screwed up and somehow detonated a nuclear device!”

 

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(Words fail me.)

 

At approximately 11:30 on a wind-swept mid-week night, the aircraft commander of the big, grey Boeing EC-135K (AF Serial # 62-3536) released the brakes and began the long taxi to RWY 08 at Albuquerque-Kirtland Air Force Base. His jet that night was bound for the bright lights of Las Vegas and Nellis AFB, a mere 450 NM to the northwest. His compliment of 19 other Tactical Air Command crewmembers on this HHD (Higher Headquarters Directed) mission were feeling much like he was. They were bone tired, and they could see the end of a very long duty day was finally in sight. It would be just a short “hop, skip and a jump” flight away.

In the cockpit they recited their long-familiar checklists, and moved levers and switches in a way that had become like driving their own cars. Back in the cabin the rest of the crew relaxed, and began making their plans for the “O Club” (or NCO Club as the case may be), with the smiles and excited conversations being born of visons of a hot steak and a cold beer.

Within a few minutes, the big Boeing made the gentle 90-degree left turn to put the centerline of Runway 08 under the nose tires, and the four powerful Pratt and Whitneys spooled up to their throaty roar. Black smoke gushed out of the four tailpipes with the force of a hurricane, and the familiar rumblings gave way to quick, rhythmic vibrations as the pilot in the right seat gave his required call-outs:

“Eighty knots- thrust normal”

“100”

“120”

“V1”

(And a few seconds later)

“Vr- rotate”

(As the big jet lifted into the black night and showed a positive rate of climb…)

The Aircraft Commander called:

“Gear up”

And the Co-pilot responded with a practiced movement of his left arm and his response:

“Gear up”

 

Barely 30 movements of the second hand later, they were all dead.

 

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(USAF Boeing EC-135K.)

 

On this night, for unknown reasons, the four screaming Pratt and Whitney TF33 engines simply did not produce enough thrust to keep twenty lives from being erased. Did they not set the engine EPR (thrust) numbers correctly in the cockpit? Did the TF33s need the water-injection for more power, and it simply did not actuate? Were the gusty southeast winds a factor, producing deadly wind shear? The powerful, graceful, gleaming Boeing ALMOST cleared the terrain, but it was not to be…impacting a mere 30′ below the summit.

Aviation is a fickle lover, for “almost” will kill you just as dead as “for sure” will.

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(The accident report. What it DOESN’T say could fill volumes.)

 

**********

As he finished his story, I stared at the black scar and felt a wave of shock and sadness. Later that night, I launched for Roswell in a warm, purring N9066Y, and couldn’t help but look left at the mountain, its dark wound, and the exact spot where twenty futures came to an abrupt halt.

As I drove past the point forty years later, I looked again, and that same sadness returned.

“Airwing 103?”

“Airwing 103…Lubbock tower…do you read?”

**********

 

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(A Boeing 767-300ER shortly after we arrived at the gate at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Yep, we do fly freight in the cargo holds of this beauty…and at night…but that’s where the similarities end.)

 

until next time…

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