(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.”)
(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.)
(“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.
(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.
(“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.
(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.
(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.”
(Photo courtesy Josh Frizzell.)