“Night Owls”, or “In The Tube In Low Earth Orbit”

Hey folks,

Buckle your seatbelts…here we go.

In my “First Post”, I failed to mention the fact that I was previously “employed” by a dear friend of mine to write about my flying experiences on his website. Sadly, his site closed a few years ago, and it left me with lots of “old” tales collecting virtual dust on the ol’ hard drive…some written up to ten years in the past. After wrestling with what piece to start this literary journey with, I settled on this one. It was written shortly after returning “to the line” after being grounded for almost a year back in 2000. I “re-published” it a few years later…hence the intro.

I hope you enjoy it.

“Night owls”

December 16, 2002, at 01:28

Good evening folks,

It’s long past midnight and sleep fails me. Don’t ask why; seems the brain just refuses to slide into neutral. OK, it was probably that grande, low-fat latte that I slammed down at 7 o’clock last night….but sometimes you just gotta do whatever gets you through the day, right? Well, it seems I’m paying for it now.

By nature, I’m a night person; probably a by-product of being a newspaper delivery boy throughout my high school years. Every morning for five long years, at 0400 hrs., I’d find myself walking (later biking and even later driving) my paper route observing yet another beautiful Texas sunrise. Darkness was an early companion in my work life, and it has carried over into my world of flying machines. My early days in aviation (post and occasionally during my college days) were spent hauling freight in the ink blackness of the night over north Texas and New Mexico. Currently, when I have an early morning departure, I spend most of the previous night waking up, glancing at the clock (“oh, it’s an hour past the last time I checked…lovely.”), and going back to sleep. True REM sleep never happens, and it makes for a very long day. So if a choice between a dawn-patrol launch and an “all-nighter” is offered on my monthly schedule, I’ll take the night flight 100% of the time. Generally speaking, I prefer flying at night more than during daylight hours for many reasons; the weather is usually far more benign, the air is smoother, the incessant chatter across the ATC radio channels has been put to bed, the flow of air traffic itself is far better, and when it’s a clear, star-filled night…well you REALLY can see forever.

That brings me to this column. I was paging back through some old stuff I had written, and I came upon this ramble about such flights. I penned it about a year and a half ago, shortly after I had returned to the line. I had been grounded for almost a year regarding some medical stuff, and I guess I had forgotten the “joys” of flying the all-nighters. I absolutely love my job, but like other humans, I can be prone to bitch a little when I’m tired.

Here it is…

“In The Tube In Low Earth Orbit”

Flying Mr. Boeing’s incredible model 757 entitles one to a huge number of thrills and perks. You get to see the closest thing to a perfect match of an airfoil to an engine, (and 21st-century technology to hard iron) that the commercial aircraft industry has to offer. One can strap a rump in every seat, fill the cargo holds to the brim, pump on five hours of petrol, launch from just over 4500′ feet of pavement, and climb unrestricted to almost eight miles above mother Earth…. try doing that in a tired old 727 (lovely machine for its day, but most assuredly NOT a 757). The downside, however, is that the “suits” in the airline ivory towers know all that, and they tend to put their star players in where the others can’t do the job…which means the middle of the night. Communities don’t enjoy the roar of older Pratt and Whitney JT8s over their roofs at midnight, and I can’t blame them for that (lol, Eastern Airlines used to call their 727s “WhisperJets”). So the end result is that we in the 757 community enjoy a bit of the “vampire” lifestyle…we sleep during the day, and fly at night.


(On the ramp in Saipan looking back at the sleek lines of the Boeing 757.)

As I was stepping into the hotel elevator late last night in LAX, on my way to a midnight departure for Detroit, a woman got on and (obviously noticing my uniform) stated, “You sure have an interesting job.” I, a bit glibly, stated, “Yeah, I get to go to work at midnight a lot.” What a jack-ass I was! Thinking back on it now, she (and my profession) deserved a much nicer, much more humble response. My only excuse is that I was off on yet another “all-nighter”, and was not very pleased about it. Before the night was over, I was to regret those words tenfold.

We were scheduled to launch from Los Angeles just before midnight, with an ETA of 0553 into KDTW (Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport). After a 3 hour nap in the middle of the day (THANK YOU “Lord of the Motel Maids” for keeping them away from my door!), I felt physically pretty damn good about the coming nocturnal journey. We had a total count of 170 SOBs (not, as we say in Texas, “sumbitches”…but “souls on board”), which consisted of myself, the First Officer, four of my line’s cabin attendants, and 164 customers. Fate would bind us together for the next several hours, whether we liked it or not.

We pushed back from gate 24 on time, taxied expeditiously to runway 24L, launched, and settled down at our cruise altitude of 37000’, all without the slightest bit of hassle from ATC (again, a huge benefit associated with flying late at night). The weather was the picture of a calm, stable air mass (read smooth) for the first couple of hours; the cabin crew did their beverage service, and most everyone on board began their slides toward slumber. As we passed the front range of the Rockie Mountains at Denver, the stable air mass was to change, morphing into anything but. Several hours earlier in the hotel room in LAX, I had pulled up the “Radar Summary” page from the airline Dispatch site on my trusty laptop, and it showed that South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa were forecast to be pummeled by marauding hordes of giant thunderstorms this night. Somewhere over the dark plains of Middle America, some little person was climbing into Mommy and Daddy’s bed to escape the terror of the booming onslaught. We had no such refuge, for we were destined to meet and do battle with these monsters. One hundred miles east of Denver we began to see lightning on the distant horizon, the rhythmic flashes were a prelude to what was awaiting us. No problem, we were riding the best mount that those amazing people at Boeing could offer, and both the dispatcher and I had planned the route to take us around the northern edge of the line. This promised to be a no-brainer, but as in life, almost nothing is assured.

If you’ve never seen a roiling, boiling mass of Mother Nature’s hell from 37000’ in the middle of a gorgeous moonlit night, then (my friend) you’ve never lived. I’m the world’s biggest fan of flying AROUND thunderstorms, I only start to get a bit verklempt when someone asks me to fly THROUGH them…as my man (the “elder” President George Bush) said, “ain’t gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.” We altered our course a few degrees to port and informed the cabin crew to stow the beverage carts and pack away the galleys (most of the customers were deep into the REM thing about now). We sat up straight, gulped down the last of the latest cup of airline “joe”, got our “radar fingers” all nimbled up, and pressed on around the northern edge of the combat. It was a glorious sight to behold. The moon shining on the towering cumulus clouds, and the lightning flashing violently as it played tag in the buildups. It would occasionally strike toward the ground and send a menacing finger into space looking for a random victim. We kept our distance (1 nm for every knot of wind at our altitude is our airline’s mantra…and ALWAYS upwind…my mantra), and the green, yellow and red of the weather radar, the glow of the cockpit lights, and the low hum of the jet was our entire world for the next many minutes. Around it all, we flew on a (mostly) smooth course peering like two silent voyeurs. I fought the urge to get on the P.A. and announce, “Wake up you sleepy-heads and look out the window! You may not get a chance to see something like this again in three lifetimes!” Needless to say, I left them to their oblivious slumber. It was a magnificent hour spent watching this incredible display, and when we passed the moving mass of terror just north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I was a bit sad it was over.

radar 1

(View of an area of thunderstorms as it’s depicted in the cockpit.)

The air mass ahead of the front was smooth and uncharacteristically clear. The visibility from our lofty perch was many hundreds of miles, and the lights of sleeping America stretched out before us. With the lower screen on the 757 instrument panel, one can easily see not only the planned course but also (with the push of a button) the towns and cities (these are represented by blue circles showing airports with a runway greater than 5000′). It now became a matter of matching the group of lights seen out of the windshield to the airports depicted on the navigation CRT. I could tell by our route that we were to pass just south of my home of Minneapolis/St. Paul and I knew that I would be peering down on my own sleeping family of wife and three beautiful children. All the little group of lights meant so much more now. They represented real people, with real lives, and they were all loved by someone, somewhere on this big blue ball in space. Their stories were now indelibly mixed with my own.


(A view of the 757 cockpit from just behind my seat. On this flight, we were bound for Minneapolis/St. Paul from Anchorage.)

It is said that on every passenger machine, 10 % of the people are traveling to attend some joyous function, 10 % are en route to some painfully sad reunion, and the other 80 % fall somewhere in the middle. As I pondered this, I began to wonder about the 160 plus “stories” sitting behind my cockpit door. How many were still awake (at 0330 local time) flush with the anticipation of meeting a family member/loved one at the other end…their excitement must be great indeed. And how many were suffering insomnia due to worry, grief, and other things not very pleasant to think about? Their sadness and sense of loss I’ve felt far too many times in my own life; it’s not a pleasant emotional journey. As I glanced out the left window, I could see we were passing directly overhead Rochester, Minnesota. My thoughts began to drift back a scant six months to my own life-changing experiences. I could plainly see the group of lights that were my loved ones in the Twin Cities, and I could barely make out the ribbon of pavement we call State Highway 52. I had traveled that stretch each day for six weeks to receive my radiation and chemotherapy treatments at the Mayo Clinic. Driving down that long stretch of highway, I had oceans of time to wonder if fate was to someday return me to a cockpit. It quite obviously had.

I often can’t help but wonder: is my journey down that road mostly over? I honestly don’t know. I offer myself to the Minneapolis doctors the day after this trip ends for my semi-annual CT scan. After that, I’ll once again head down that highway with films and reports in hand to the 12th floor of the Mayo Building. I’ll walk past the chemotherapy cubicles where I had logged many an hour last winter, and again find myself in a consultation room waiting to hear if my own private hell has returned. Quite frankly, I’ll take a dozen trips through the line of thunderstorms we had just passed, rather than the one I’ll be taking down to the Mayo Clinic in the coming weeks. Am I afraid of what their news might be? Consider this for my answer; not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and what it could mean for my wonderful family and myself. Yes, I’m scared…give me wind shear or thunderstorms any day.


(Another incredible sunrise. One of the thousands I’ve had the pleasure to witness from my lofty perch.)

Approaching Lake Michigan, the horizon that was just beginning to glow faintly over Minnesota has now turned an incredible shade of yellows and reds. “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning”, I think as we cross over the lake, but this morning all is well in my little world, and we begin our gradual descent into Motown. The ATC system has been quiet and very accommodating after our encounter with the storms, and thankfully this was not to change. We were not subjected to any of the turns, descents, or airspeed changes that are the norm for daylight flying through the busy ARTCCs (air route traffic control centers) of Minneapolis, Chicago, and finally Cleveland Centers. During a typical afternoon, that last 500 miles would’ve been flush with ATC chatter, radio frequency changes, clearances, and the like, all leading to a VERY busy (read blood pressure elevated) atmosphere. But not this morning…lots of silence and smooth air.

The weather was clear this dawn in Detroit…albeit a bit chilly at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. We were cleared for the visual approach to runway 3L, and after a left-hand circling approach, I managed to make a very nice “roll on” landing (God knows how after being up all night). Upon clearing the runway we were told by the DTW tower controller, “Northwest 324, turn right at Kilo 15 and taxi to the gate with me.” The terminal was jammed with all the overnight NWA “Red Tails” getting ready to do their version of the Dawn Patrol, but not us. We smoothly glided N5518US into gate Foxtrot 9 with nary a hassle. We shut down the two massive engines, did our securing checklists, packed up the tools of our trade, and headed for the hotel and another attempt at a daytime nap (please, “Lord of the Motel Maids”, be kind once more).

It had been a bit of a long night, but a good one. We had seen the best of the best from the Boeing Aircraft Company and had seen some of the worst that Mother Nature can conjure up. We had witnessed a spectacular sunrise and delivered our 170-something SOBs to their collective fates. Oh, and one more thing…a certain Captain was “delivered” also. For he was shown again just how special his job of driving around in “low Earth orbit” can be…

The next time I get a statement like the one from the woman in the elevator, my response will be on the order of:

“You’re right Mam, I have THE best-dammed job you can have on the entire planet.”

(a postscript….again, this was penned in August of 2001, and after many CT scans, my tumor has shown no interest in returning. The Dr.s at Mayo are happy, and I echo their thoughts…well, maybe with a bit more emotion and enthusiasm.)

’till next time…


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