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, and the assembly lines at Boeing and Airbus looked like beehives; 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 the FAA will require that I hang up my spurs for good in about 13 months, we thought long and hard about actually taking their offer (and spoke with our financial team), and came to a decision. We decided that it was time. Spurs off…check. Uniform packed away…check. Licenses and Ratings relegated to their place of honor on the “airline bookcase” within the office inner-sanctum…check. Pilot brain switch to the “O-F-F” position…well…that one might take a few months.

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 look forward to experiencing parts of this unbelievable country that we’ve yet to see (the historian in me is giddy), and hopefully, this will include a few overseas jaunts.  And of course, we plan on spending lots of quality 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 shooting range, lots of “flying” on the ol’ computer, a few hundreds books on the “to be read” list, 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. It involved flying 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 (Minneapolis to New York’s LaGuardia then on to Milwaukee)

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 that amazing day spent flying with Captain Al.

We were on the third day of a 4-day trip, and it was proceeding nicely. The day had started with the faint glow of sunrise at what was then called National Airport in Washington, D.C.. We proceeded up the east coast to Boston,  and now found ourselves headed toward THE busiest airport on the planet. This major airline hub, surrounded by an iconic city that sits on the windswept shore of Lake Michigan, can be such a proverbial “zoo” that to a neophyte 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 a huge 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 barely describes it…you bring your “A game” into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport…or you just don’t go.

 

2

(“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 slight feeling of anxiety in ANY cockpit inbound to O’Hare, and it all builds to a crescendo about the time you line up for your assigned runway. 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, pay attention, concentrate, 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 a couple of 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), and 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 professional 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 like the hammer of Thor! 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 had happened to poor 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 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 (unexpected) statement. It shocked me ALMOST as much as it shocked Wayne.

“Well that was truly a shitty landing there Wayne (big smile at Wayne). Bill, you think you can do any better than that?” I was gob-smacked and a bit confused! 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, back where we started in D.C., sitting in the lounge at a “gentelmen’s club” minus Wayne (me thinks he elected to stay in his room and study his Boeing manual), I turned to the waitress and muttered the following: “You see this distinguished gentleman I’m sitting with? (Meaning of course, Al) Well, today is his birthday (it wasn’t), and he’s feeling a bit down (he wasn’t), and pretty far from home. Is there anything you guys can do to maybe lift his spirits?” She proceeded to gather the other young ladies 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 to him “Happy Birthday”, he glanced at me 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 thinking a lot about him, and been with him spiritually. Seeing his name brought back many great memories of those days when 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! And thank you for allowing me to serve as your First Officer on many more flights in other magical machines to far away 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…

 

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