My life’s work as an aviator has been lots of things. It has been concurrently exciting and exhilarating, and (at times) excruciatingly tedious and boring. For the last thirty plus years, I have had the good fortune to inhabit a job that has filled me with wonder and amazement, for I’ve visited places and witnessed things that few could experience in five full lifetimes. And, I’m sad to say, it has (again, at times) been tremendously lonely and heartbreaking. Days, and weeks spent on the road when heart and family beckons can be painful, and this will bruise even the stoutest of souls. I’ve been thousands of miles removed when death and pain have visited my loved ones, and that is a heavy burden to bear. With that said, it’s been nearly a four decade journey that is slowly nearing its last port of call. Me thinks that will cause all but the most mundane to pause and reflect.
(Paralleling a line of thunderstorms just SW of Manila…Singapore to Tokyo.)
Without question, one of the pinnacles of a life spent in airline aviation, is that golden day when you are handed the keys to the jet. When you get to sew on that coveted “fourth stripe” assuming the role as Commander, and begin your work as the person in charge of the operation. As I grow longer in the tooth (in the world of airline parlance, we are referred to as “Senior Captains”), so do my First Officers, many of whom I’ve shared a cockpit with for countless hours. More than a few of them are now leaving the proverbial nest and moving on to write the story of their own Captaincy’s. This phenomenon has begun to accelerate in the last couple of years, and as I hear that they are leaving my world, it’s left me with a mixture of emotions.
An interesting side note. As these old-head First Officers are moving up the food chain, they are now being replaced by brand spanking new “kids” at the bottom of the seniority list. I flew an Anchorage trip with just such a young man a few weeks ago. After inquiring as to the year I was a new-hire (like he), I responded that I was hired as a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer at Northwest Orient Airlines in 1983. His retort was, “Really? What month? “November” was my response. His next question; “What DAY in November of 1983?” From me; “November 14th”. The look on his young face was of shock and a bit of amazement. It seems I was in my second week of new-hire orientation THE DAY HE WAS BORN! LOL! I think it’s fair to say that he felt he was now sharing a cockpit with Methuselah himself (and I must admit that I was unsure if he was indeed old enough to purchase a beer). It seems that “old Man Time” keeps plodding right along…the bastard.
(My new hire class 14 November 1983. I recently flew a trip with a young “new hire” First Officer that casually asked what year I was hired…then what month…then what day. You guess it! He was born roughly two weeks after this picture was taken! LOL…)
A good First Officer.
What makes a good (or excellent) First Officer? The book defines this person as the “Second in Command” of the vessel, which of course means that if I choke on a chicken bone from the crew meal (assuming I will eat that mostly horrid food) and expire on the flight deck, they will now assume command, and steer the ship to a safe landing. The trick as said F/O having been “field promoted” to Captain is to NOT smile too broadly as they haul my carcass off the jet, for they have now “moved up a number” on that coveted System Seniority List. Just kidding of course…none of my F/O’s would do such a thing (maybe).
I was fortunate enough to spend several years crewing different jets from the right seat as an F/O (and from the third seat as an F/E), and they were almost always with men that I trusted, admired, and truly loved to work with (and for). I flew the Boeing 747 (or as we call it…”the Whale”) with exceptional Captains the likes of Harry B., Jim N., Terry M, and George K. I flew the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 with superb Commanders like Al T., Sherman C., Gene E., and Bob F. (the father of the young lady that inspired this piece). These men were very good at their job, they knew the machine well, could fly it through the eye of a needle, but they had more than just “pilot skills”…they knew how to be a great Captain. One can be a good pilot and a bad Captain (leader), but a good Captain has to be both…a true leader and an accomplished aviator.
BTW, the perennial joke about F/Os is that their world consists of: “gear up, shut up, clear right and I’ll take the chicken…” Lol. Obviously, becoming an accomplished “Number 1” can be a mixture of aviating skills, technical aplomb, and tactical prowess. Plus, a dash of psychiatric expertise (to deal with some of those “Captain’s egos”) is a great tool in any right-seater’s bag of tricks.
Needless to say, on very few occasions, I would be paired with a “bad Captain”, and that was most assuredly not fun. They could be demeaning, authoritative, brash, and petty (yes, some were even prone to yelling…lovely, right?). One guy was so bad that he would tell you how to fold your map, where to put your pencil, what to say on the radio, and a myriad of other such nonsensical things. His level of “control” was such that he was smothering the rest of us in the cockpit (not ashamed to say that I truly did not like flying with this gentleman). He went so far as to deem himself the “Captain of the layover”, and one rainy afternoon in Amsterdam as we were riding the trolley for dinner, he would become hellbent on making that point.
He and the F/E were comfortably seated on the tram, and I elected to stand. He told me (ordered me actually) to sit down, pointing to an open seat. I offered that it actually felt rather good to stand (we sit for a living, don’t we?)…but he was having none of it. He said, “Sit down Bill.” I replied, “Nah, I think I’ll just stand.” (Hercules himself couldn’t get me to sit at that point.) His next statement was, “I TOLD YOU to sit down!” I kind of lost it… “Look Dan, on the jet, you ARE the man! The Captain, el Hefe, “the Dude”, and I’ll do whatever you tell me to do! But we AREN’T on the jet are we? You are NOT the Captain of the layover!” I promptly exited the trolley at the next stop and left the poor Flight Engineer to eat with him alone (fairly sure I suggested he do something with his “guy parts” that is anatomically impossible). I vaguely remember the wonderful Dutch folks on the trolley car, slowly lowering their newspapers to get a glimpse of the Americans that were about to kill each other….lol.
Fortunately, Commanders like he were very few and far between. The longs days of such a trip would inch by like the drip of molasses, and when our time was through, a sigh of relief would sweep over me as I left the employee parking lot. Whether I realized it or not, as I was working with these two types of bosses, I was learning from both of them. I don’t remember actually saying something to the effect of, “I want to be like Captain ABC”, but I distinctly recall the times when I would think, “I will never be like Captain XYZ.” I guess we actually do learn as much from the failures as we do from successes.
(A Northwest Airlines “Whale”. Notice how this pilot has just “cracked the engine thrust reversers” even before the nose gear has touched down. This guy was good.)
(Yours truly as a Boeing 747 Second Officer…circa 1987 or so. It always amazed me doing the walk-around on this beast, just how friggin big it truly is! Yeah, that was indeed 30 pounds and lots of hair ago…lol. )
I worked hard and endeavored to be very good at my job as their First Officer…Robin to their Batman, Tonto to their Lone Ranger, Chewbacca to their Han Solo, McCartney to their Lennon, Ernie to their Bert, (I could go on forever… but I won’t). I tried to do my job to the best of my abilities (meaning both when I was flying the machine, and when I wasn’t…when I was “flying the radios”. Nothing worse that sounding like an idiot on the ATC airwaves). I always tried to be ready with a suggestions and/or idea when the big vise began to tighten on their Captain’s brain (weather, mechanical, ATC, crew or passenger issues), and generally to have their backs under any circumstance. I think I did a good job, for at the end of the trip, the majority of them would shake my hand and thank me. A few even intoned that it was “nice to work with someone that knows what they’re doing”. I always felt like they meant it.
(A scene you never want to see walking onto the jet. This is what the start of the big vise tightening onto the Captain’s brain looks like. We were Tokyo headed to Guam one morning last summer…IIRC, it turned into a very long day.)
A good Captain.
So why am I writing this now? Here’s why. As I met up with Pam, my F/O for this 12 day trip (we are on day 12 as I begin to write this, and FINALLY head home this morning), she informed me that it was her last trip as a First Officer, for she was heading down to Atlanta to begin training as an MD-88 Captain next month. My first reaction was nothing short of “Wow…way cool! Congratulations! You’ll make a great Captain!” (I sincerely meant every word). Her and I have crewed the big Boeing many times together over the last dozen years (and like I mentioned, she comes from good “airline stock”…her father and I flew the DC-10 together many times), and she’s always been a great person to work with. She will indeed make a fine Aircraft Commander.
But what does that mean? What makes a good Captain? Do they all run their “ship” in the same manner? Fly the jet the same, tell the same jokes, treat the cabin crews the same? Obviously not, but IMHO, there are certain traits and blood lines that are endemic to being a good cockpit leader. I grew up in the household of one such person, was fortunate enough to fly as a new airline pilot with many of them, and when they threw me the keys to the Boeing 727 that fateful day in June ’94 as a sparkling new “Four Striper”, I had them ALL (proverbially) sitting on my shoulder with me as I climbed into that coveted left cockpit seat. (I penned a blog entry about that day…it’s entitled: “Firsts” from a January 2015 entry.)
(My mount for the last 19 years…to include the B767 since the merger with Delta in 2008.)
Here are some of the traits that I gleaned from those that I flew under, and greatly respected. Most times they never enumerated such things, but after observing them, it was quite obvious it was part of their “Captain repertory”:
- Never ask a member of your crew to do something you won’t do. If that means climbing up into a landing gear well to inspect (or nowadays, get a phone video of) a suspected hydraulic leak…then do it. Get your fat butt out of that “golden seat”, go down on the ramp, and see what’s going on. If you get some grease on that white “hero shirt” of yours, not to worry. They sell airline uniforms at the Crew Store…a little dirt won’t kill you.
- Never, ever put your needs ahead of your crews. Case in point; midnight arrival at the layover hotel, not enough rooms for whatever reason (usually something idiotic like the guy behind the counter has yet to get the “magic fax” from the bean counters at Company Headquarters authorizing payment), and now the dance of musical rooms begins. Always be the person at the end of the line. I’ve sat for an hour in the lobby waiting for that last room…but that’s the bane of being the Commander. The cavalry soldiers of old always fed, groomed and bedded down their horses first, then looked to their own needs. Your crew care comes first…you, a distant second. I saw my Captains do it…I’ve done it myself.
- Trust your crew to do their job (and do it well). I learned from many a great Whale (and “Diesel 10”) Captain to “empower” those people during your briefing. They MUST know that you will support them in a pinch, that you will “have their back Jack”, and then let them get on with their work. I’ve found that over the years, if you do this for them, they will make your life up in the pointy end far easier. Rather than involve you in EVERY little issue within their cabin, they will take some initiative, work it out, and you’ll hear about it later in the flight (or sometimes, on the crew bus hours removed from the event). Trust them to know their job, and do it professionally. You are in command, but that doesn’t mean you have to be (like Captain Dan) the King of Micro-managing.
- If the cabin crew can’t do their job in terms of their service to the passengers, then you’re not doing your job very well. You are tasked with finding them smooth air…period…on every flight. This may fall more into the “pilot” job description, but do let them know that when the ride has become like your F-150 has a wheel in the ditch, that you ARE being proactive, and you ARE trying to find them smooth air. All pilots know that there will simply be days when that air is absent (I’ve spent many a long, bumpy night over the North Pacific bouncing along for hours). But they have to know that you are truly trying to “do some of that pilot sh*t Mav” and get them a better ride. We in the business end forget that just walking the aisles during ugly turbulence can be a challenge…not to mention doing it with scalding hot liquids. As long as they know you’re trying to make their life better, you MAY NOT get a squeeze of Visine in your next cup of coffee…just kidding…that’s “old school” stuff. 99% of the new flight attendants don’t even know what that means anymore…lol.
- When the going gets tough, the Commander should probably be the one hanging onto the yoke. Not always, but most of the times. It certainly depends on lots of things. Your F/O (your previous experience with them, their experience in the machine and in the situation, etc), the weather, the airport, etc. I’m not speaking of those times when your “Captain-ness” is down around your ankles (like in the simulator LOEs, when you have an engine shut down, the blizzard is getting worse, and they’re delivering a baby in the cabin). I’m talking about “normal” times when it sucks. Late night, tired as hell, funky airport, raining sideways…you now, “normal suckiness”. This may be one of the more difficult decisions a new Commander will be faced with.
As 99% of my flying occurs on the other side of the planet, there sits but one destination whereby I prefer to be the dude driving the machine as opposed to the person flying the radios. It’s a tropical paradise known as Palau, and I love going there (the wonderful Mrs. BBall has been there many times with me…she loves it too). It’s a funny little airport, sitting on VERY dark island in the middle of the mid-Pacific. We arrive at midnight local time, and most times amidst the scattered showers that live there 365 nights a year. They have but one coral runway that’s “quasi short”, it’s almost always wet (meaning slipperier than snot), and quite often the landing is done with a bit of a tailwind. There is no “real” glidepath information other than our VNAV display and/or the VASI at the end of the runway. Oh, and the last piece of the “ugly puzzle” is that this typically happens early into our 12 day rotation into the Pacific, so our bodies haven’t switched over to Japan time yet. This means we’ve skipped a night’s sleep going from the West Coast to Japan, most probably have had a rather crappy night’s sleep that first layover in “Dai Nippon” (not uncommon for me to be wide awake at 0400 Japan time on that first night), and now we’re executing this little maneuver 20 hours later at midnight feeling like you’ve been hit on the back of the head with a shovel. To quote one of my favorite F/Os (Lionel “Digger” R.), “What could possibly go wrong?” LOL….
I’ve landed there two dozen times in the last several years, and every single time it gets me sitting up a bit straighter, and working really hard to be on my A game. I never try for a grease-job landing, I just plop the big jet onto the slippery runway, let the Auto-Brakes do their thing, use lots of Reverse Engine thrust, and let the Flight Attendants bitch to me about that “hard” landing at the de-planing door. As we’re kissing the passengers “Good bye”, they’ll usually offer a quip like, “That wasn’t a very smooth landing..ha, ha.”. My answer is usually something a bit flippant like…”Well, here you either get a “plop” of a landing, or you get to go swimming off the end of the runway…I always choose the firm landing…”
Again, this is a tough call for any Commander. I have indeed sat through the landing in Palau with the F/O as the pilot flying. Doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen with those other than the ones that I have flown many trips with, and I know that they can do it correctly (meaning of course, safely).
(Looking through the jetway fence in Palau. It’s 0430 and we launch for Tokyo in less than an hour.)
(Sunset in Palau Christmas day 2015. I still can’t believe that they “make me” layover in this hell-hole for 96 hours! It kind of reminds me of the hotel pool in Grand Rapids…but not really. Did I mention that we layover here for almost FOUR DAYS?!)
(The beautiful “Mrs. Captain BBall” suffering through a Palau layover with me…misery does indeed love company…right?)
- My last bit of advice comes from my dear Father. Although he never captained an airliner with hundreds of trusting souls, he did command air machines (in combat) with those perched behind his seat trusting him with their lives. He told me countless times that I should attempt to be the first one onto the machine, and the last one off. This is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine for various reasons. There are indeed times when the cockpit crew will HAVE to bolt off of the jet early in the deplaning process, to hurry to the next airplane that’s perched 100 gates away, and with the next push time literally minutes hence. When I’m tasked with that brand of “fun”, I always try to (rather loudly) exclaim to the F/As that I hate to rush off, but we have to get to the next flying machine post haste (hoping of course, that the passengers have heard me and don’t think we’re just a couple of douche bags that can’t wait to get home and crack that first beer!). I think it simply looks awful to be sitting in the cabin and witness the cockpit crew bowling down old ladies in their rush to get off the jet….well, not really, but you know what I mean. Not what professionalism looks like.
When that’s not the case, I will always try to be literally the last body to walk off the machine. As my Dad would tell me, “You signed for that machine, and that means that you signed to be responsible for EVERYONE’S safety…yours, your crews and your passengers.” I have no problem at the end of the day, suggesting to the F/O to head toward the airline crew bus (and probably getting a 15-30 jump on getting home), but I will stay until the last passenger, and the last crew member have stepped off the machine. On many occasions, I’ve had a Flight Attendant ask if I’d like for them to move their suitcases out of the way so I could deplane, and my answer is always the same…”no thanks, I’ll be the last one off of the jet tonight.” This is (almost always) met with rather strange looks, but I’m ALWAYS left with a “thank you…you’re one of the few Captains that do that”. I never fail to give credit to my Father, and explain that I was raised by a professional pilot, and that I’m a “throwback to the old days”.
My rationale has always been this. So I bound off the jet and make the earlier crew bus. The machine is sitting at the gate “almost” empty of people, and the APU decides to erupt into flames. What now? Hopefully, it auto-shuts down, or a mechanic saves the day….but what if that doesn’t happen? What if someone is injured (or worse) because I wanted to make that early bus? How could I reconcile that with myself as the person that pledged to do my best to NOT let something like this happen? So I’ll stand there with my best “airline look”, say goodbye (or goodnight) to everyone as they gather their junk and walk off, then I’ll make one last trip to the cockpit and look around, and finally, after everyone is off, I’ll get my bags and head toward the door.
Oh, and one more thing that this “last man standing” attitude allows me. It gives me a few precious seconds to soothe this “big horse” before she goes to bed for the night. I usually give her a nice pat on the cold, firm metal of the fuselage as I step off, and a gentle “thank you” never seems out of place. Told you I was a throw-back…
So now I find that the last 22 years sitting in the “God Seat” on the jet wasn’t all about just looking regal, looking “stately”, and acting like you’re a super hybrid version of “Maverick/Goose”, Steve Canyon, and Buzz Lightyear, all rolled into one. Whether or not you’ve noticed (or cared to notice), Captain Ball, you’re been watched all these years. (wait…that sounds kinda creepy) I’m even guessing some of those young folks were taking mental notes.
Being a good Captain isn’t about airplane system schematics, figuring fuel loads, digesting weather reports and forecasts, knowing ATC lingo, understanding the hieroglyphics known as the FARS, being able to fly a “sierra hotel” ILS with an engine shut down, etc….well, it IS of course…but it’s just as much about something else. It’s about people. YOUR people. Your crew and your passengers. They trust you…they should trust you…but you have to EARN that trust. It’s not like putting a coin into a gum-ball machine…and “plop”…out comes their faith (and trust) in you. Doesn’t work that way. It’s a rare privilege to sit where you’re sitting. Earn that privilege.
In the golden years of my career, I can look back and say that I’ve met (and had the pleasure to work with) some of the most wonderful people imaginable. They are stellar aviators (of course…they should be at this stage in their flying lives), but along with that, they are just damned fine people. They’ve made my job as Captain a million times easier, and for that I owe them all a debt of gratitude and a huge “Thank You”.
(What we look like going across the Pacific “tracks” headed for Japan. Well, if the jet were painted differently, and we didn’t speak Japanese on the flight deck.)
So now, when these new Commanders are (regally) sitting comfortably up at FL350, sipping a cup of our line’s best java (sans the Visine of course), I hope that when they begin to pontificate about the “old days”, and the “old head” Captains they flew with way back in the day….a certain name either IS or ISN’T used in the conversation….
LOL…your call “Captain”… you’re in charge now.
Oh, and to new Captains the likes of “Pam F.”, “Norm L.”, “Terry P.”, and “Tom L.”, etc, it was a joy to fly with you all these years, and it was my distinct honor to be your Captain. You will all make fine Commanders…oh and do me a favor, will you? Say “howdy” to the gang for me down at Big Bob’s Bowling Alley in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (one of the more exotic destinations for the “Mad Dog”…MD-88). The “baby pilots” and I will hold down the fort out West (and I’ll keep your bar stool warm in Palau for you)!
(Yours truly and [soon to be] Captain Pam. She will indeed make a great Captain… “see you on the jet airways Captain Pam!” Good luck and God speed.)
Some random glimpses from my journey:
(Minneapolis to Anchorage…more mountains than the good Lord has green apples.)
(Dawn breaking at FL350 over the South China Sea…Singapore to Tokyo.)
(Descending into Honolulu…Pearl Harbor with Ford Island is middle frame.)
(Rainy departure from Portland to Tokyo. Since they were smaller…and armed with AIM-120s missiles…I thought I would be nice and let them go first.)
(Probably the MOST photographed hill in the world…Mount Fuji. We were inbound to Tokyo from Guam.)
(South of a line of thunderstorms…again over the South China Sea. Screeshot from a video I took of all the cool lightning.)
(Not every day is clear and bright in BBall-world. Departing Hong Kong for Tokyo in the midst of some “liquid sunshine”.)
(Somewhere over the vast expanse of Siberia…Seattle to Seoul.
(Night landing in Hong Kong.)
(Twin All Nippon Airways jets in Narita…Boeings as far as the eye can see!)
(Another screenshot. From a video of some “St. Elmo’s Fire” on the windshield. Night flight Tokyo to Portland.)
(Sacred, hallowed ground… Iwo Jima. I never pass by without thinking of the thousands of brave Marines [and IJA] that gave their lives here. As was said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” God bless you young men. May you all forever rest in peace.)
(Can you tell I love helicopters? In the restoration hangar on Ford Island, Hawaii.)
(Speaking of the love of rotary winged flight. A shot of my Surface Tablet’s navigation page showing Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I was transfixed knowing that five decades ago, my dear Father was flying directly below me in these war-torn skies, fearing for his life, doing his job, and thinking of me, my siblings and my dear Mother. I miss them both greatly…)
(More “helo pics”. My F/O on this trip [Tom…superb guy] once Crew-chiefed on Hueys. It was very apparent that the love for this bird was still beating in his pilot heart.)
(Not exactly sure what this “guard” was keeping safe here on the streets of Bangkok…but he seems to have things well in hand.)
(From my last trip. Myself, F/Os Pam and Roy atop the Marina Sands Hotel in Singapore.)
The journey continues…
’till the next time.