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

Hey folks,

Well, here we go.

I failed to mention in my first post the fact that I was previously “employed” by a dear friend of mine to write about my flying experiences. His site closed a few years ago, and it left me with lots of “old” tales, written up to ten years past. After wrestling with what to start this literary journey with, I settled on this piece. It was written shortly after returning to “the line” after being grounded for almost a year waaay back in 2000. I “re-published” it a few years later…hence the intro.

I hope you enjoy it.

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“Night owls”

December 16, 2002 at 01:28

Good evening folks,

It’s long past midnight and I can’t sleep. Don’t ask me why, I just can’t….ok, it was probably that “grande”, low-fat Caribou Latte I slammed down at 7 o’clock last night….but sometimes you just gotta do whatever gets you through the day, right? Well, I’m paying for it now.

By nature I’m a night person. When I have to fly 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 looked over there…lovely), and going back to sleep. REM never truly happens, and it makes for a very long day. With that said, if I had to choose between a dawn-patrol launch and an “all nighter”, give me the night flight 100% of the time. Generally speaking, I prefer flying at night more than during daylight hours, and maybe that comes from my early days in aviation hauling the night freight. The weather is (usually) more benign, the ride is smoother, the incessant ATC chatter has been put to bed, air traffic flow is better, and when it’s a clear 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 half ago shorty 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 definitely love my job, but like all other humans, I can be prone to bitch when I’m tired.

Here it is….

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“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 airfoil to 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, 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 it’s 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…these days that usually 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. 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.

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As I was stepping into the hotel elevator late last night in LAX, 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 ten fold.

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 plus hour nap in the middle of the day (THANK YOU “lord of the motel maids” for keeping them away from my door!), I felt 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 the First Officer, four of my line’s finest cabin attendants, 164 customers, and myself. We were to be bound together for the next several hours whether we liked it or not.

We pushed back from the gate on time, quickly taxied to runway 24L, launched and settled down at our cruise altitude of 37000’, all without the slightest bit of hassle (a huge benefit associated with flying late at night). The weather was very calm (read smooth) for the first couple of hours, but when we reached the front range of the Rockie Mountains at Denver, all that was to change. I had pulled up the Radar Summary page from the company Dispatch site on the trusty laptop in the LAX Hilton, and it showed that South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa were forecast to get pummeled by hordes of large 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. But we had no such refuge, we were destined to meet and do battle with these monsters, and after passing just to the east of Denver we began to see lightning on the horizon. No problem, we were riding the best mount that those incredible people in Seattle could offer, and both the dispatcher and myself had planned the route to take us around the northern edge of the line. This should be a no-brainer.

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 biggest fan in the world of flying AROUND thunderstorms, I only start to get a bit peeved when someone asks me to fly THROUGH them…as my man (the 1st President George Bush) said, “ain’t gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.” So we altered course a few degrees to port, informed the cabin crew to stow the galleys (most all of the customers were deep into the REM thing about now), got our “radar fingers” all nimbled up, and pressed on around the northern edge of the combat. It was a sight to behold. The moon shining on the towering cumulus buildups, the lightning flashing violently as it played tag in the clouds, the green, yellow and red of the weather radar, the glow of the cockpit lights, the low hum of the jet; and 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 slumber. It was a magnificent hour spent watching this incredible display, and when we had passed this moving mass of terror just north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I was a bit sad it was over.

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 of the EHSI on the 757 instrument panel, one can easily see not only the planned course, but (with the push of a button) the towns and cities also (these are represented by airport symbols). It now became a matter of matching the group of lights seen out of the windshield to the airports depicted on the nav CRT. I knew we were going to pass just south of my home of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I of course, knew that I would be peering down on my own sleeping family of wife and three beautiful children. Suddenly all the little group of lights meant so much more, they were now real people, with real lives, and all of them loved by someone somewhere on this big blue ball in space.

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It is said that on every passenger machine, 10 % of the people are traveling to attend some joyous function, 10 % are enroute to some painfully sad reunion, and the other 80 % fall somewhere in the middle. As I thought about all this, I began to wonder about the 160 plus “stories” sitting behind the door to my cockpit. How many were still awake (at 0330 local time) flush with the anticipation of meeting a lover/friend/sibling at the other end…their excitement must be great indeed. And then there were those that 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 too many times in my life, and it’s not a pleasant emotional journey. We were now just passing overhead Rochester, Minnesota and my thoughts began to drift back to my own experiences just six short months ago. I could still plainly see the group of lights that were my loved ones in the Twin Cities, and I could barely make out State Highway 52. I had traveled that stretch each day for six weeks for my radiation (and monthly chemotherapy) treatments at the Mayo Clinic now passing beneath us. Driving down that long stretch of highway, I had lots of time to wonder if fate was to someday return me to a cockpit. It obviously had.

Is my journey down that road mostly over? I honestly don’t know. I offer myself to the doctors the day after this trip ends for my semi-annual CT scan. I then head down that highway once more with films and reports in hand to sit in the waiting room on the 12th floor of the Mayo Building. I’ll pass the chemotherapy cubicles where I had logged many an hour last winter, and 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 an answer; not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and what it could mean for my wonderful family and myself. Yeah, I’m scared…give me windshear or thunderstorms any day.

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Approaching Lake Michigan, the horizon that was just beginning to show a faint glow 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 quite 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 and left-hand circling approach, I made a very nice “roll on” landing (God knows how after being up all night). Upon clearning 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 glided N5518US into gate Foxtrot 9 with nary a hassle, shut down, did our securing checklists, and packed up the tools of our trade.

It had been a bit of a long night, but a good one. We had seen the best of the best from Boeing, seen some of the worst that Mother Nature can conjure up, witnessed a beautiful sunrise, and delivered our 170 something SOBs to their collective fates. Oh, and one more thing…a certain Captain was “delivered” too. 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… and not be naked!” (Well, maybe something like that)

(a postscript….again, this was penned August of ’01, 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.)

till next time,

BBall

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