Dear (younger) BBall

“Time flies never to be recalled…”

We are all born with a finite number of sand pebbles in that big hourglass of time. They drop relentlessly, and no matter what our thoughts or feelings, they continue their eternal trip from the top to the bottom. Our last day on this planet begins its march to meets us at the fateful moment the doctor slaps our bum, and we struggle to take that first sweet breath of air.

Wasting a single tick from the clock, wishing for days gone by, is a waste of a precious moment never to return. However, if those moments are spent recalling fond memories of people and places, then I offer that the minutes spent are certainly not in vain, but are added to our “Zen bank account of joy”…and that’s a very good thing.  But wishing to be “back in the good old days” seems pointless, for chances are very high that they were not as good as we remember them to be. The evil twin sister to this “pining away for the past” program, the insidious and sometimes worse trickster labelled “yearning for days yet to be lived”, can be just as damaging to the psyche. Plus, it’s as much of a waste of those beloved ticks of the clock as the former, for the folly is a fool’s wish to be certain. That my friends, is the subject of this Logbook entry.

Newsflash. We are all guilty of it. I recall early childhood days, wishing for the end of summer vacation knowing that the money from all those hours spent mowing the neighbors lawns, will finally end in the purchase of that glorious little blue Bonanza mini-bike. Flash forward to later in life, dreaming of that wonderful day when the company president hands you the golden watch, shakes your hand one last time, and hustles you out the door. Every human is guilty of the crime, for we all have at times in our lives “wished” for a future that pleases us, when we should be pleased with the current tick of the clock known as “the now”.

Bonanza Mini Bike

(The object of many a 7th grade dream…the Bonanza mini-bike. The beginning of my love of the two-wheeled wonders.)

last flight 2

(The traditional way an old airline Pelican is greeted after his/her final landing.)

Nowadays I find myself often sharing the cockpit with men and women who are younger than myself. And by younger, I mean somewhere in the “half my age” mode of younger. Side note; I recently had a new First Officer, during some idle chit-chat on our flight to Anchorage, query me about the year I had been hired at Northwest Orient Airlines. I offered, “1983.” He countered with “What month?”, my retort “November”. (I could tell where this was going…maybe his smirk was a tip-off…lol) And his final question, “What DAY?” Oh, no…here we go. After my reply of “the 14th…”, he thought for a moment, and dropped the bomb. “You had been in new-hire ground school for two weeks WHEN I WAS BORN.” We laughed, and I “counter-bombed” him. “Oh yeah, well I was going to buy you a beer in Alaska, but CLEARLY you’re not of legal drinking age (he was), so I’ll spring for a glass of reindeer milk for you!”

So, it seems that these young folks are benefiting from a pilot shortage that I first heard about way back during the 1970s as I began the early days of my college career. You know “THE PILOT SHORTAGE” due to the Vietnam War, and its voracious appetite for aircrew members. Those gentlemen were now too old for the airlines, and that would benefit us young bucks greatly. In those days, there were three big “career killers” when applying for an airline job. No four-year college degree you say? Come back in four years with that new sheepskin in your hand. You lack 20/20 vision you say? See ya “four eyes”! Ever thought of becoming a librarian? And the one that killed many a prospective career; OVER THE AGE OF 30! Sorry Gramps, once you stop drooling on your chin, we have nice rocking chair on the porch out back for you. Oh, and we have a cuddly warm blanket for your lap too.

If you fell into any of those categories, you need not apply…period.  But unfortunately for my generation, that shortage never happened. They are called “black swan” events; man-made or a freak of nature, they can hit the airline industry harder than Mike Tyson hitting Holyfied. We most certainly had one during the 1970s, it was called the “oil crisis”, and it hit the world like a proverbial maximum magnitude quake.

Tyson Holyfield 2

(Tyson v Holyfield)

Gas prices skyrocketed, and supply was way down. You couldn’t just drop into your trusty Shell station and top off your Ford Pinto. No, you had “even and odd days” (based on your license plate number) when you could fill your vehicles gas tank. When that magical day rolled around, you’d better not try it during your lunch hour, for the lines of cars at your gas station would literally wind around the block! Airport tarmacs were lined with parked Boeings, Lockheeds and McDonald Douglas products, and pilots were “hitting the bricks” (furloughed). My old college roomie Rick K. , within a year of leaving our campus, was hired by American Airlines to be an entry-level Flight Engineer on the Boeing 727. However, due to the jet fuel prices (and some very questionable management decisions), less than twelve months later he found himself hanging storm doors (among other things) for the next 3+ years.

1970s-car-gas-station-lines_credit-AP-photo_do-not-reuse

(Gas lines at the Texaco. My Dad’s red Ford Pinto is in there somewhere.)

boeing 707s 2

(Beautiful Boeing 707s to be put out to pasture.)

Shortage? Hell, the only real shortage back then was in the form of a gallon of “Jet A” kerosene that wasn’t being held ransom by the powers that be in the Middle East. Need a pilot?  The dude bagging your groceries probably had an ATP and several thousand hours in the cockpit. Clearly, the forecast of a huge “pilot shortage” way back then was in error, but this time it actually seems to be accurate. I’m glad for the young pilots that are profiting from it…good on them, timing is everything in this industry.

As the crisis began to abate, and the carriers were recalling furloughs and hiring new pilots, where did that leave me back in the early years of my 20’s? It left me wishing that my training days would come to a quick ending, and I could get on with my plan of working for the major airlines. Somehow, with them over, I would be a slight bit older, far more “qualified” with a spanking new Bachelor’s degree, a laundry-list of ratings and licenses, and a few hundred more precious flight hours. The next vision in my “can’t wait for the future” fantasy, had me strolling onto a gleaming new jet airliner. Picture say, Leonardo Dicaprio. Tall, coiffed, adorned in perfectly tailored pilot garb, and worn to within an inch of its life. Yep, life would be good…no actually, life would be awesome! All my troubles would be over, I could sit back, bask in my glory, and spend the next 40 year career trying to figure out those deep, “Rubix Cube” type riddles. You know the ones… like…red Porsche or black? What a ignoramus I was…

With that said, I decided to write myself a letter. A note as it were, from “the now” person with four additional decades of aviation wisdom, to the impetuous, impatient, young man back “then”.

 

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14 March 2020

Dear (younger, circa 1977) BBall,

You’re a moron. There, I got it out of the way early in the blather, and now we can get down to the reason for this letter (btw…[that means “by the way” in my time world]…the postage for this letter was more than the gross national income of Paraguay).

Give Mom, Dad and your sister Teriesa my love. Sadly, you will lose her less than six years hence, and both of them a scant ten years later. Fortunately, you won’t remember any of this paragraph, save the “give them my love” part. Selective amnesia is a good thing…just wait until you’re married…it’ll make more sense then.

I know your flight training is going well, for those memories may fade a bit with time, but they never leave. Your instructors are smarter than you (trust me), they’re better aviators than you (trust me), and they will teach you many things. Do your best to listen to them …actually LISTEN to them, for their yarns of personal success and failure will serve you well.

Remember the day of your first “real” emergency in a flying machine? I’m sure you do, for it was early in your college flying life. You were in the infant stages of obtaining your Commercial License, and most of the required 250 hours would be spent “solo” working alone on your Chandelles, Lazy 8s, Turns About a Point, Stalls, and the myriad other maneuvers you would be tested on at the regular “Phase Checks” with the instructor cadre.

You and your roommate, Dan F., launched into a bright-blue, clear Oklahoma morning headed toward the “practice area” located west over the confines of Lake Texoma. Unbeknownst to your instructors (back at the Eaker Field home base), you and he had hatched a plan to meet over the Texoma dam and do a little “dog-fighting” in your little Cessna 150s.  (The non-aerobatic rated version…the 150K “Aerobat” version is rated at +6 to -3 Gs…these were definitely not rated for that) What could possibly go wrong?

c150

(Cessna 150K Aerobat.)

You flew out in a “loose” formation, extended away from each other, did the “merge and the fight’s on” thing, and off to the races you went! Twisting, turning, pulling Gs (not many mind you), and it was all such a tremendous amount of fun! You were Manfred von Richthofen and Albert Ball, over Flanders fields, vying to send the other down in flames. You were Richard Bong and Saburo Saki, battling over the warm blue waters of the Pacific, each with respectful malice in their hearts. You were doing what those gladiators of the sky did, and it was amazing. You were their brethren, and you loved every second of it.

albatros-dva-3

(Albatross DV, circa 1917 during “the Great War”…seems like the ultimate oxymoron.)

Then it happened. The loud “BANG!” and your heart skipped a beat. Did you snap a wing spar? Did you lose an engine mount? Your immediate thought of “maybe we better knock this stuff off, and get these little birds back to their nest” was the smartest idea you had all day. You moved the yoke to recover to a wings-level attitude and you found the issue. The cable in the wing had popped off of the pulley system and you had no aileron control! Elevators and rudder were fine, but with no roll control, this might be a bit tricky. OK, jam on a rudder pedal to level the wings, push forward on the yoke to get the nose down and let Dan know what’s happening. A terse “roger” was all you got on the discreet radio frequency you and he had agreed to communicate on earlier.

eaker field

(Home base. Eaker Field, Oklahoma.)

Make a gentle skidding turn toward the field, start a slow descent and try not to panic (or cry, or wet thyself). Thank God the air was like glass, and after a very long final approach, you touched down on runway 35, and began the process of breathing again. After taxiing to the university maintenance hangar, and painting an “I have no idea what happened, I was just doing my maneuvers, and bang…it just happened…” picture to Denny, the mechanic, he told me to tell one of the instructors, and thanks for getting the machine home in one-piece. I don’t remember my instructor’s reaction, but I’d guess that he knew the story was B.S. (heck, I’m sure he did the same stupid crap when he was a young bird-man).

SOSU Hangar

(Maintenance hangar at Eaker Field, Durant, Oklahoma. The “straight-tailed, tuna-tanked” Cessna 310A to the left was the machine that I did my multi-engine training in.)

Dan and I went back to the apartment, ate lunch, went to a bar, drank beer and played Foosball the rest of the afternoon. We didn’t speak of it (ever), for I think we both realized that things might have gone very badly over the lake.  It looks like one of us dodged a bank of questions at an FAA inquiry, and the other probably dodged a grave marker. (Note; of the three famous pilots mentioned above, Saburo Saki is the lone person NOT destined to die in the cockpit of a warplane.)

You learned…thank God you learned. Fear is a great teacher, and it’s a good thing that you weren’t so stupid/ignorant/cocky that you felt immortal around those beautiful flying machines. You needed that day, you needed that lesson, and you needed the hundreds more that would come during the next 3 years of training in the skies over Oklahoma and North Texas. You were good back then (the awards on your office wall will someday attest to that), but you were most assuredly not “seasoned”. That would come in the ink black nights flying freight over the Sandia mountain range, and in the years spent moving turboprop “commuter airliners” across the Southern U.S. You would get that precious thing called experience (just a fancy way of saying “wisdom”) the hard way…you would earn it. I’m sorry to say this my young friend, but you will lose friends and colleagues along the way. The sky can be as cruel as it can be beautiful.

metroliner

(SA-226TC Swearingin Metroliner flown by my first “airline”, Scheduled Skyways of Fayetteville, Arkansas.)

NEW CAPTAIN

(A newly minted “baby Captain”. My first command came in 1980…maybe juuust a few years ago…lol.)

You will work very hard in the next few years, the studying, the testing, the “sweaty-palmed” flights with a University Staff Instructor critiquing your every move (you will become one of those instructors your last year of school), and then the pay off. Spending an entire afternoon with the dude sporting a badge reading “(insert name here), FAA Inspector”. They grilled you in the room, they grilled you in the cockpit, and your handling of the machine had better be AT LEAST as good as the “spot on” correct answers to their questions. You can “talk the talk” in the briefing room, but if you can’t “walk the walk” in front of all of those dials and gauges, in the high stress world of the clouds…then go home and maybe check into becoming that librarian we mentioned earlier.

As the ratings got more advanced (like the Instrument Rating, the Multi-engine Rating, the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate, the CFI-Instrument Certificate, the Multi-engine Flight Instructor Certificate), things got harder…really harder. More studying, and more stress. Thank God you lived/ate/drank and breathed this stuff. You saw classmates fade; their dream of the gleaming airlines simply wasn’t like yours. They wanted the prize; they just didn’t have “the fire in the belly” to get them through. You would see that later in your training when you moved to the right seat of the cockpit and became the Instructor Pilot. You saw those that were there because their Moms/Dads/Uncles, etc. worked for the airlines, and they were expected to also. They had loves and passions to be sure, it’s just that their dreams didn’t come with wings.

As the Instructor, you were now “the dude”. You will never (I’ll say it again, you will NEVER) learn something as well as when you have to teach it to others. You know your stuff pretty well, but this is not that. You have to truly know it, not just the answer, but the “why” of the answer. You learn the most grievous sin is to bull*hit the student. If you don’t know the answer, TELL THEM THAT, and that you’ll do some research and get back to them. No one likes a “poser”.

You will learn to become a resident “aviation expert”, a mentor, a friend, an antagonist, a psychologist, and a pseudo “life coach”…all rolled into one. You will praise, you will scold, and you too will sweat their first solo flight being anchored to the Earth (portable radio in hand) as they do their “3 circuits and a full stop landing”. You will sit by the phone after sundown anxiously waiting to hear if they’ve made it home from their first solo “cross-country” flight. Somehow when you did these things as a student, you never once thought that the Instructor might be WAY more nervous than you.

ALL of this journey you need, for you will not be the aviator you wish to be without it. Just as importantly, you must learn to APPRECIATE the walk through those days, it paints the picture of “perspective” that you will need to survive the next phase of your pilot pilgrimage.

One last thing…and this will fade from your memory (like the second paragraph) the moment you close this letter.

You will be blessed with an adventure through the skies that many in your shoes will never have. You will visit exotic places of beauty that God himself still marvels at, you will fly machines that you will love, and ones that you will most certainly not love. Your rewards will come monetarily to be sure, but the greatest gifts that your life in the sky will bestow upon you is the people you will meet. They will come in the shape of roommates, Instructors, students, First Officers, mechanics, Captains, doctors (don’t forget your journey includes the FAA medical folks…they have a BIG say in this story), passengers, and just the everyday folks you’ll spend a brief moment with on this passage of the next forty years.

 

DC10

(A couple of my all-time favorite machines that I’ve flown during my airline career. The McDonnel Douglas DC-10.)

Boeing 767-300ER

(And the Boeing 767-300ER. I’ll have you know that I DID NOT taxi this thing into the gate that far off the centerline! We were towed in and the Tokyo tug driver porked it up…seriously!)

They will capture your heart, and they will add fun, spice, knowledge and joy to your life. Some will become life-long “brothers” (and “sisters”), and some will occupy but a scant moment in your life. I know you’re thinking, “Hell, I’ve been on this rock 23 years! Flying for 7 of the them, so don’t speak to me like I’m a total idiot old man!” I most sincerely am not. Just know that you have an almost indescribably wonderful life awaiting you (yes, you will have pain and heartache, but that’s all part of the package). This is a path that you are now just beginning, and it will be long, winding, and arduous at times. It will give you joy and stress, and it will most certainly try your commitment to your dream. Never let the dream of the prize get in the way of the love of the walk. You’ll get there. It takes time, it’s supposed to.

Love your life. Make it worth loving. It’s a long journey, enjoy every step.

Love,

BBall (from the future)

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A scant few of the thousands of amazing sights I’ve seen along my journey:

SEA to SEL 17 August 2019 (4)a

(Some of the hundreds of active volcanoes along the Aleutian chain of islands.)

 

Mount Fuji (2a

(Mount Fuji, Japan.)

 

SEA to SEL 29 August ovr S China Sea 2

(Over the South China Sea, following an Airbus 380 into SEL.)

 

Sunset SEL

(Sunset over Inchon, South Korea.)

 

Checkpoint Charlie

(Circa 1989; Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin “West Germany”. This was a few months after Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech and the demise of a divided Berlin. The Second Officer and I, flew up from Frankfurt on a 50 hour layover and crossed here into the old “East Berlin”. Very surrealistic to be sure.)

 

ANC MSP

(The end of a long night. Sunrise through the cloud layers nearing the end of an Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul “red-eye” flight.)

 

And finally…

(A short video of departing Guatemala City bound for Los Angeles.)

Till next time…

Standard

“Ship 51”

(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.

1

(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.

1a

(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.

2

(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.”)

3

(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.)

4

(“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.

5

(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.

6

(“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.

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(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.

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(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.”

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(Photo courtesy Josh Frizzell.)

 

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Getting Off the X

Move! Just Move…

Interesting fact. More people are injured and killed in disasters like earthquakes, fires, floods, and yes, even catastrophic aircraft evacuations, not because they did the wrong thing, but because they did nothing. The military calls it “getting off the X”, and my lovely wife Debie and I very recently did just that. Not that packing up and moving 1700 miles across the heartland of America solves all of life’s problems, but in our case, it was the right thing to do at the right time in our lives.

Deb’s health issues (of which, she’s kicking major assage, and to the amazement of her doctors, is markedly improving), and our general disdain of all things winter, helped us immensely in our decision. We found that the cold (nee frigid) climes of the Wisconsin winters were a huge detriment to our physical, and mental well-beings. Funny thing, when you’re younger (20s-30s) and you slip and bust your arse on the ice, you laugh, but more importantly, you hope that your buddy didn’t get it on video thus making you the next idiot gone viral on Al Gore’s internet. However, the longer in the tooth you find yourself, the worse that kind of thing becomes. You slip, crack your head (or worse), and the next thing you know, you’re in the E.R., or prone waiting for a hip to heal. Add infection to age, and you can find yourself on a cloud, in front of a pearly gate talking to a dude named Peter. Suffice to say, it took us more than two decades to have it, but our epiphany was that we are simply NOT fans of the long, dark, cold winters above the Mason/Dixon line.

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(Our farm during the dog days of winter…as taken from my friend Pat’s J-3 Cub)

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(Pat and I at “work” a few weeks ago. MSP bound for Anchorage.)

So, we “got off the X”. More accurately, we left the backwoods of Wisconsin, for the sun-drenched city of Phoenix, Arizona. Needless to say, it was not an easy thing to accomplish for many reasons. Leaving friends and family was difficult, and getting a 20-acre horse, hobby farm “strack”, packed, marketed, sold, and in your rear-view mirror was nothing short of a monumental feat! Rest assured, Debie deserves ALL of the credit…the woman is simply amazing. I’m sure that had old “Ike” Eisenhower (and his brain trust of WWII generals) been privy to all the logistics involved in our move, they would’ve been wishing for something as easy as “Overlord” and the invasion of “Festung Europa”. I was happy to do my part (OK, I bitched and whined a lot, but nevertheless), I logged quality time on the mower/weed eater, in the dirt of the landscaping, behind the power washer, and in the ugly realm of heaving the refuse of 12 years of life into one of the THREE roll-off dumpsters we had delivered…and I won’t sugar coat it…it sucked. Mix in probably the busiest flying summer of my life (read me being out of town a lot), and it made for quite the crap-laden last many months.

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(Pretty sure these fellas were NOT singing my praises when moving my BIG gun safe.)

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(A few hours away from the actual launch for Phoenix. The end of MONTHS of effort)

But all that has changed now.

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(Out walking Carson one morning, looked up to see this…ANOTHER bright blue sky, and some folks enjoying life. Hehe…and it was snowing back in Wisconsin…sorry, just saying.)

We moved into our new crib about three weeks past, and are loving every minute of it. We revel in the SINGLE LEVEL floor plan, love all the windows showcasing the (soul lifting) bright sunshine, and even have a huge hole in the backyard that will soon house a beautiful pool/spa. My plan calls for yours truly to float around in it like an old, pale, piece of sea-going jetsam (I have my eye on a unicorn floaty that was seen at Walmart as my main vessel of choice…the “U.S.S. BBall” as it were). Couple all of this with the excitement of exploring and learning about one of the most intriguing States in our Union, and we’re firmly in our happy place.

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(My new favorite dude…the guy making my “cement pond”.)

However, all of this paradise is not free. As the old saying goes, “if you’re going to dance, you gotta pay the fiddler”, and two of the small prices to pay, can be broken down into two distinctly different categories. Time and people.

I will indeed find myself back on the roller-coaster ride of “commuting” to my career. Long ago, in the first decade of my airline life, I chose to live in a city that was not one of the pilot domiciles chosen by Northwest Airlines. A pilot base in Little Rock, Arkansas (and later, when I moved to Dallas/Ft. Worth) were not part of their global business strategy, so I would have to find a way to show up in my base (first Minneapolis, then Boston and later Detroit) on the right day, at the right time. I would often leave a day early on many of my trips, ride the cockpit jumpseat (or “First Observers” seat as the FAA calls it…some really hilarious yarns about that someday), or if I was lucky, get a seat back in the cabin with the real folks. Going to work a day early sucked, but far worse was not being able to get home on the last day of your trip (or “Rotation” as Delta calls it). Another night in a hotel room, when heart and mind are miles away with loved ones, is not an optimal reading on the happy meter. However now, sensing I have but a mere 18 months before retirement, I’m pretty sure I can gut it out, and take whining about more airplane rides over shoveling snow quite easily.

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(NOT the most comfortable seat in the house…but sometimes the view is rather awesome.)

The other price to pony up comes in a single word…humanity. Deb and I have been living away from the hustle and bustle of the city for many years now, and moving headlong back into a neighborhood, and a city of almost 2 million people, will take a bit of getting used to. So far, we’ve found that we truly LOVE the convenience of it all, but things like traffic (and moronic things like Homeowners Associations…don’t get me started), can tax even the most mild-mannered of “seniors” like myself. We’ll see how it goes. I do miss the quiet and solitude of the woods, but each yearly trip around the sun, when the many months of snow falling from a lead grey sky would begin, I would quickly find myself ready to trade peace and serenity for just about ANYWHERE warm. Our only real option, was for me to bid “beach destinations” (like Palau) for my monthly trip, and have Deb accompany me to work.

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(Some shots suffering from another horrible Palau layover. Sadly, those days are gone, for my airline no longer serves this heavenly place. For us line pilots, the term “code share” make us see red.)

One final thought about “here” as opposed to “there”. The internet.

When we lived in the backwoods of Paul Bunyon and Babe, we had an “OK” internet hook up…not bad, but certainly not great. But here in civilization, we have this wonderful invention called a “fiber optic” connection (did Al Gore invent that too?). It now literally takes minutes, to download things that used to take hours. So what you say? Well, it’s actually quite a big deal (and one that’s truly vital) for a particular thing on my list of hobbies.

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(The “backwoods” during the NOT cold days…of which, there were not enough.)

Those that suffer with my acquaintance, know that I dearly love to spend time with my lovely wife, and incredible children (and now two beautiful grandchildren). They know I  love to play golf (badly I might add), love to shoot lots of different types of weapons from my collection (WAY not politically correct nowadays), love to read about the human history of this amazing planet, , and have been enamored for years with one more thing.

Hello, my name is Bill, and I’m a “flight simulations” junkie…there, I said it.

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(Here’s a picture of me landing an F-16C at Creech AFB, NV…well, in my virtual world, I’m landing a Viper in Nevada…lol)

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(The HUD view from within the machine. On localizer, on glideslope, on speed I might add…lol.)

I love to fly virtual flying machines, in virtual times/places, against and with virtual (and non-virtual) friends and foes, on the not virtual computer, on Al Gore’s internet. And have for the last 20+ years.

(and thus, the subject of my next “Logbook”)…

 

‘till then.

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“Night Warriors…or My Life as A Freight Dog”

 

 

“Airwing 103, Lubbock Approach, radar contact two-two miles southeast of the Plainview VOR, descend to five thousand one hundred, expect the ILS 17R, altimeter 29.83.”

“Airwing 103 is out of eight for 5.1…Approach, can you confirm the latest ATIS?”

“Airwing 103, Lubbock Preston Smith 0754Z weather: 300 overcast, 1/4 mile in fog, temperature 59, dewpoint 59, wind 210 at 11, altimeter 29.83…runway 17R RVRs: touchdown 1800, mid 1200, rollout 1200.”

“Roger…Airwing 103.”

“Airwing 103, turn left heading two one zero degrees, 2 miles east of the localizer, you’re cleared for the ILS 17R approach, contact tower 120.5 approaching KEEVE.”

“Understand, cleared for the ILS 17R… Airwing 103.”

“Lubbock tower, Airwing 103 is over KEEVE for 17R…”

“Airwing 103, Lubbock tower, you’re cleared to land 17R, latest RVR…touchdown 1200, mid1200, rollout 1000…previous company reported seeing the lights right at minimums. Runway lights are at the highest setting…”

“Airwing 103…understand, cleared to land.”

“Airwing 103, Lubbock tower, I show you 1/4 mile east of the centerline…

Airwing 103, did you copy?

Airwing 103?

Airwing 103…Lubbock tower…do you read?”

“Fire Rescue.”

“Fire, this is tower, we’ve lost contact with an Airwing flight 103 two minutes ago. He was on short final, and his company flight taxiing to the ramp said he saw a bright flash off the end of 17R. He’s a Cessna 310 inbound from Love, two souls on board, 3 hours of fuel.”

“Roger tower…we’re rolling…”

**********

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(Runway 17R ILS approach plate LBB)

 

 

Four minutes after their last transmission to the Lubbock tower controller, my college friend John (and his “ride along” passenger”) were dead.

 

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(Cessna Model 310)

At approximately 2:30 on Saturday morning the 13th of November, 1978, he and his young protege died in a bright ball of fire. The NTSB report would state:

DATE: 78/11/13    LOCATION: LUBBOCK, TX    TIME: 0235

AIRCRAFT DATA: CESSNA 310J   N310BJ     DAMAGE: DESTROYED

INJURIES: FATAL – CREW 1, PX – 1

DEPARTURE POINT: DALLAS, TX      INTENDED DESTINATION: LUBBOCK, TX

PHASE OF OPERATION: LANDING: FINAL APPROACH

TYPE OF ACCIDENT: COLLISION WITH GROUND/WATER: CONTROLLED

PROBABLE CAUSE(S): IMPROPER IFR OPERATION

FACTOR(S): WEATHER – LOW CEILING/FOG

PILOT DATA: FL. INSTR., AGE 22, 1420 TOTAL HOURS, 110 IN TYPE, INSTRUMENT RATED.

 

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(the NTSB Report for Airwing 103)

The world would never know why Astrowing Airlines Flight 103 crashed. Small aircraft like the Cessna 310J have never been equipped with cockpit voice or data recorders, so any conclusions on my part are conjecture born of 40 years (and almost 40,000 hours) spent in various cockpits. Within a few months, I would find myself as “Airwing 105” on the very same instrument approach (inbound from Roswell, NM), in the dead of the night, in identical weather conditions… and on that night, I scared the proverbial shite out of myself. You learn later in your IFR life, when you find yourself nearing the end of a low overcast, fog shrouded ILS, and you reach your DH (“decision height”), that when you glance up …if you see the “runway environment” and are safe to continue the approach…you IMMEDIATELY go back on instruments (you at the very least split your scan enough to keep the flight and NAV gauges as part of the equation).

Why? Because your senses can kill you. On the night mentioned, I arrived at that very same DH of 200′ AGL (3482′ MSL), looked up, had the approach lights in sight (at least flashing through the murky fog), and felt like I had enough visual cues to continue safely. The fog blurred everything horribly, and with the “lights on the highest setting”, the flashes were blinding. My inner ears told me I was in a slight right bank…but I wasn’t. I instinctively went back on instruments, fought the overpowering urge to bank back to the left, and somehow got the machine on the runway. As I rolled out in the fog, I was cussing myself for ALMOST doing something hugely stupid; something that could easily have been fatal.

My thoughts flashed back to my college training, and I gave a silent “thank you” to my friend and mentor Gordon Shattles. He was the flight instructor that fate matched me with during my training for the coveted Instrument Rating, but sadly he would perish a few years later in a mid-air collision. He continually hammered me on the DH “stay inside on the instruments” thing, and even had me fly the little blue and white Cessna 172 to a touchdown WHILE WEARING THE IFR HOOD…thus seeing only the instruments. He taught me volumes about instrument flying, but he also taught me something more. He taught me what a professional aviator acted like. He showed me that being a “professional” is as much an attitude as it is an aptitude. He may very well have saved my life on that dark, stormy night.

In my humble opinion, John may have become a bit disoriented (as mentioned earlier, the fog and the bright lights do not play well together), somehow allowed the little twin Cessna to drift off of the centerline, and impacted short of the runway. Couple spatial disorientation with this fact about the Cessna 310 (I received my Multi-engine training in an “A” model -310 a few years earlier). While in my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful and graceful light twins ever made, it has a horrible trait of wing rocking when the wingtip fuel tanks are not emptied. Again, this is just an informed opinion, but I feel that this MAY have contributed to John’s inability to stay on the centerline.

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(Cessna 310J…truly a beautiful machine.)

In the end, only the Good Lord knows what happened on that fateful night. The rest of us are left with questions and sadness.

God bless you John and Gordon…aviation is a fickle paramour.

**********

(My journey as “freight dog”…er, night freight pilot)

 

A few weeks ago, after positioning my RV trailer in Phoenix for the winter, I found myself on a solo drive back toward the frozen tundra of western Wisconsin. I was inbound to my horse farm to RON before beginning an airline trip to Seoul, so I was using the two-day drive to relax, listen to some tunes, catch up on the news (and NFL games), and generally just chill in the left seat of my new Ram 3500.

 

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(Leaving my farm in Wisconsin on a cold November day…temperature 11 degrees Fahrenheit…wind chill a lovely 04 degrees! So I swapped THIS…)

 

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(…for THIS! My new “winter home” in Phoenix…temperature…a horrible 65 degrees!)

 

Having left “the valley of the sun” well before dawn, and turning East-bound at snow-covered Flagstaff still in the nocturnal hours, I was treated to a spectacular sunrise as only the high desert of the USA southwest can offer. Next on the Interstate 40 East hit parade would be the wind-swept towns of Winslow and Tucumcari, and a scant few hours later, a lunch break in my old stomping grounds of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

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(A gorgeous sunrise…matched only by amazing sunsets.)

 

I was first introduced to this beautiful little city, gently nestled between the Rio Grande River and the Sandia Mountains, long ago in the last year of the decade known as “the disco 70s”. This 10-year span gave us classics the likes of: Apple Inc., the AMC Gremlin, Watergate, The Grateful Dead, the movie “The Godfather”, and who can forget Billie Jean King spanking Bobby Riggs (don’t forget the “Thrilla in Manila”)? But more importantly (?), the final year of the “me decade”, gave the world a neophyte 22-year-old pilot, replete with college degree, spanking new flight Master Logbook, and an unlimited wheel-barrel full of optimism.

 

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(Cresting the hill just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Sandia Mountains frame the eastern city limits.)

 

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(Southeaster Oklahoma State University Aviation ramp, circa 1977.)

I was newly graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from an aviation university in Oklahoma, and was a freshly minted Commercial/Instrument, Multi-engine rated pilot (and Flight Instructor), and the proud owner of just over 1000 hours of flight time. In other words, I was “God’s gift to aviation”. I was about the best thing to hit the airways since the “Lone Eagle” himself, and could fly anything with wings on it, through the eye of needle in the midst of a Kansas tornado! Granted, I had scared myself enough times to pepper my flying skills with just enough humility (and respect for the Aviation Gods) to NOT actually think I was the best. But trust me when I tell you this; if you ever meet a pilot that doesn’t have just a “bit” of swagger in their gait, pass him/her by. I’m dead serious. It’s actually a very valuable tool in your pilot survival bag of tricks. You not only have to believe you can do it (engine fires, “hard IFR’ approaches, check rides, medical exams, etc.), you have to KNOW YOU CAN DO IT.

Also, in my case, consider this: I was raised by a decorated combat helicopter pilot whose motto was something to the effect of, “I may not be THE BEST rotary-winged aviator in the world…but I’ll just have to do until that person is born!” Lol…growing up, I heard him spout that line many times (with his movie star smile), and to say that I loved that man’s flying persona is an understatement.

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(The man…)

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(…his world in combat, circa Southeast Asia 1963-64.)

I had accepted my college degree on a cold, wet December evening in 1978, then promptly relocated to take a job as a staff flight instructor for Fort Worth School of Aviation (coincidentally, I had obtained my PPL at the same flight school in 1974). It was a (mostly) OK job, but my crop of students included doctors, lawyers, accountants and generally a mish-mash of other “professional” types that had neither the time, nor the inclination to actually study and put in the time to LEARN the material before the next day’s lesson. This was in stark contrast to my days as an instructor for the university where all my students were highly motivated, dreamt of nothing but one day wearing those coveted airline stripes and piloting “heavy iron” to far-away destinations (like yours truly did). They showed up prepared, eager and more than ready to tackle the lesson. They were a joy to teach…these older, “professional” types…not so much.

 

 

 

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(Yours truly as a pre-PPL student. Ft. Worth School of Aviation, summer of 1974.)

 

After several weeks of frustration spent in the skies over north Texas, I was beginning to feel the pangs of a dead-end position staring me in the face. So, when approached by my long-time friend (and college roommate) Rick to consider a job flying my own machine on a scheduled route (and kissing the life of being an underappreciated CFI “adieu”), I jumped at the chance. The job would entail single-pilot freight runs, winging packages in small twin-engine aircraft, to small (and large) destinations, all in the dead of the night. I had flown with Rick on his freight run for this outfit on many occasions in the past, and was fairly familiar with how it all worked. He had since graduated to the big leagues to crew the majestic silver “luxury liners” of American Airlines, so I surely felt that the life of a freight dog just might be a great way to earn a ticket to “the show”.

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(Top: the Aero Commander 680V that my buddy Rick flew Dallas-Little Rock-Columbus, OH, Little Rock-Dallas every night…awesome machine. Bottom: Back of his head at FL 190 somewhere over middle America in the dead of the night.)

Unfortunately, the outfit running this operation was known as less than awesome, and truth be told, had a pretty horrible reputation in and around the Love Field area. I “interviewed” with one of the owners, and as I recall, had a whopping two questions to answer. Question 1: had I ever flown a Piper Navajo (the steed in which I would be assigned), my answer was a truthful, “no”. Question 2: “OK, well have you ever flown a Piper Aztec?”. My answer was an unequivocally NOT-truthful, “yes”. He seemed to be fine with that (without looking at the logbooks provided to prove such a statement I might add), so off to the PA-31-350 Navajo Chieftain sitting on the Love Field tarmac we went. The following FAR Part 135 checkride would determine my fate for the next several months.

 

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(A Piper Navajo PA31-350…WAY nicer than my mount, N9066Y.)

 

As I recall, it went generally pretty well. Again, the total amount of flight time I had logged in a Piper Navajo could be counted on NO fingers, so he talked me through the pre-flight, the engine starts, etc. With his help (and the judicious use of the checklists), off we launched into the sunny, blue sky. A few touch and go’s, an engine out ILS, and some “air work” later, we turned back toward Love Field for an ILS (Backcourse) approach to RWY 31L. I was flying under the IFR hood, and after completely screwing up the approach (anyone that’s ever flown a back-course approach will appreciate that statement), he took the hood off my sweat-drenched head, and treated me to an ugly sight. I could see that I had pooched up bracketing the localizer back course so badly that we were essentially pointing about 30 degrees offset to the left of the 31L centerline. Coincidentally, this lined us up with the rather LARGE buildings of downtown Dallas…probably not good. He asked if I knew what I did wrong…a feeble “yes” was offered, and he ended the checkride with the following statement…”OK, never do that again, you’re hired…be in Albuquerque in 3 days to take over the Roswell/Lubbock run.”

Simple as that. From village idiot to “airline pilot” in one sentence.

(Side not to the above job offer.)

Placing a phone call to my dear parents to give them the big news (“Mom, Dad, I’m an Astrowing Airlines pilot!”), I was nervously anticipating hearing the thoughts of another aviator whose opinion I highly respected (my Dad). He asked the appropriate questions regarding the company, the route, and the machine. My answers were as follows: “The company is shady at best, the route is Albuquerque/Roswell/Lubbock/Roswell/Albuquerque every night, and the airplane is a worn-out, Exxon Valdez oil leaking, “50 missions over Schweinfurt”, rag-tag Piper Navajo that probably should be collecting spiders in a junk yard somewhere. Well Dad…what do you think…should I take the job or not?”

After a rather pregnant pause, he offered me this…and it was the perfect answer to my query:

“Well, it’ll be good experience if you live through it….and if you don’t… it won’t matter will it?” (rolling out in the fog after scaring the crap out of myself on that low, foggy ILS mentioned above comes to mind…”and if you don’t…it won’t matter will it?” This man knew that I had just enough experience to kill myself…)

The next several months are a bit of a blur. Fortunately, during the early years of my career, I was blessed with the compulsion to keep detailed records of my flights, hoping that one day I would find myself at a REAL airline, interviewing for a REAL job, and having to prove the answers provided on said airlines job application. Later that year, I would be called to offer my logbooks at a job interview for, (what was known in those days as) a commuter airline (Scheduled Skyways of Fayetteville, Arkansas flying turboprop SA226 Metroliners). I would take that job, and spend the next five years plowing the skies over the southern USA in a “trauma-tube” (our nickname for the Metroliner). I would move on from the world of night-freight, thus going from the proverbial “sand lot” world of airlines, to the “minor league” world, hoping someday to work my way to the “big league” world. It would come several years (and a volume of Logbook yarns) later.

I will add though. When asked if I’ve ever flown night freight…I’m proud to say…”yep, I was a freight dog for a while.”

The following are snippets from my days as an “Airwing” pilot:

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I would routinely show up a few hours before my scheduled nightly launch of 2230 hours. This was due to two personality flaws of mine…my total lack of a social life in Albuquerque, and my love of flying machines. The first I can write off as a cost of living the “my days are my nights, and my nights are my days” lifestyle, and the second…well, I can only blame my Dad. He took me through the magic portal into the world of aviation (see previous Logbook entries about such), and began a life-long love affair with flying machines. As a youngster I would instinctively follow his lead and look up whenever an airplane (or helicopter) would pass over. I learned this habit from him, and to this day, I simply cannot resist the urge to look skyward and identify the object of my passion. (I remember seeing the legendary golfer…and jet-rated pilot…Arnold Palmer doing the very same thing in the midst of a golf match. A pilot, is a pilot, is a pilot…)

On this particular day, I found myself at the tarmac fence outside the FBO (fixed base operator…basically the folks that run the General Aviation side of the airport) watching the busy comings and goings of the late afternoon/evening. The Albuquerque airport is one of a handful of unique flying fields, for it is not only the home for hundreds of daily commercial and general aviation flights, but it’s also the location of Kirtland Air Force Base. On any given day, the cornucopia of flying machines for one to behold is nothing short of awesome; everything from (in those days) “giant” Boeing 707s, to smoke belching, ear shattering F4 Phantoms, to mosquito like little Cessna 150s and Piper Cubs. For an aviation voyeur, it’s heaven.

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(TWA Boeing 707 taxiing to the gate in ABQ on a Spring afternoon in 1979…sadly, that iconic airline would cease to exist shortly after I made it to the “major airlines” a few years hence. I was extremely privileged to occupy their cockpit jumpseats a few times, and it was a true honor. In fact, I may have a yarn or two about that…)

Shortly after being treated to a gorgeous, late winter sunset, I noticed the general “pace of life” at the FBO had ratcheted up to about DEFCON 2. It seems that a “VIP” flight was inbound and they were all running around like headless chickens anticipating its arrival. Shortly thereafter, I was treated to the arrival of a bird the likes of which I had never seen before. A few minutes earlier, I began to see bright  landing lights shining down a long final approach to RWY 8. Within minutes, a four-engine turbo-prop machine gracefully touched down and majestically taxied to the ramp. She was mostly silver (with a strange “penguin” looking logo on the tail), had the lines and air of a stately “lady of royalty” about her, and when the four Rolls-Royce engines ceased their high-pitched whine, out stepped a line of folks that were swiftly whisked away in a convoy of limousines.

 

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(A machine with sleek, graceful lines…the Vickers Viscount.)

 

Shortly thereafter, a rather scruffy looking dude wandered up to the fence and we casually began a conversation. He had a full beard, long wind-swept mop of brown hair, faded jeans, t-shirt, and a totally cool, black leather jacket with the same logo on the back. When asked who was on the jet, he offered, “Oh, that’s Fleetwood Mac.” I was gob-smacked, for I had sat in row 4 of the Dallas Convention Center not two years earlier, rocked to their epic music, and totally fell in love with Stevie Nicks (she felt the same about me by the way). I have been a huge fan of their work for many years (to include the PRE- Nicks & Buckingham days of Bob Welch and company). Wow, I thought…Fleetwood Mac…how cool.

 

He didn’t seem to be as impressed as I was, and our conversation continued. I found out from this dude (I just assumed he was a “roadie” for the band), that they were inbound from Los Angeles, and that the machine sitting quietly before us was an immaculate version of a British Vickers Viscount. He DID seemed to be as awe struck and impressed with this flying piece of British history as I was. He was quite friendly, and in a few minutes asked about yours truly; where I was from, if I was a pilot, why I was at the airport this time of the evening, etc.  After offering my story, I made the off-handed comment that it must be fascinating to be the pilot winging famous people around the world in a beautiful, glamorous flying machine such as this one. With that utterance, he turned to me, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself as THE CHIEF PILOT FOR THIS OPERATION! He handed me his business card and told me to send him a resume after I had built up a few hundreds more flying hours! He calmly turned and walked away, leaving a surprised and stunned (and gob-smacked for the second time that evening) young pilot watching him climb the stairs to that marvelous aircraft, and enter a world that I couldn’t begin to imagine.

(Me? Stevie? Together forever? [she KNEW I would “never break the chain] We BOTH also knew it would never work…)

**********

The following are a few quotes from my Logbook:

DATE: 3/7-8/1979   A/C MAKE AND MODEL: PA-31   A/C IDENT MARK: N9066Y   FROM: ABQ

TO: ROW/LBB/ROW/ABQ   FLT NO.: AWG 105/106

REMARKS: “DIODE BURNED-OUT / SHORTED AGAINST BULKHEAD…LOST “ELECTRICALS” (THANK GOD FOR FLASHLIGHTS).

A few nights later:

DATE: 3/13-14/1979 (SAME OTHER STUFF)

REMARKS: “0” VISIBILITY (BLOWING DUST) / PUROLATOR COURIER :45 LATE DUE LATE EL PASO PLANE / “0” VIS (BLOWING DUST) ABQ, 35 KT GUSTS.

The following night:

DATE: 3/14-15/1979

REMARKS: RIDER “ERNIE” / :45 DELAY THUNDERSTORMS / BAD SHIMMY NOSEWHEEL / IFR ROW: WX:500′ OVC, 2 NM VIS RAIN AND FOG / IFR LBB: WX: 200′ BKN 500′ OVC 2 NM VIS LIGHT RAIN AND FOG / IFR TO ABQ / 1/4″ OF NOSEWHEEL RIM BROKEN OFF ON LANDING / LOTS OF SPARKS.

And the very next night after that:

I distinctly remember the next evening’s flight (after the nosewheel was changed while I did my day beauty-sleep thing). The crappy weather system had moved out of the ABQ area (it was clear), but east of the Sandia Mountains, it was low ceilings and fog all the way to the east coast. I launched, proceeded to Roswell, and held for about 1/2 an hour while a Texas International DC-9 was conducting its ILS approach. After they reported to Ft. Worth Center that they were clear of the runway, it was my turn. Again, it’s the middle of night…. God only knows why T.I. was running so late…the Roswell ATC facility had long since closed up shop for the day, and we were now in a “no radar” environment. It basically means you do everything through Ft. Worth Center…and since they can’t see you on radar on the ground in ROW, you have to let them know you’re down so they clear the next victim for their approach. I shot the ILS (my Logbook says the weather was 300′ OVC, 1-mile VIS in light rain and fog), and taxied to the ramp to meet the courier, and off-load/up-load my next load of packages.

The weather in LBB was (for lack of a better aviation term) “horse-shite”. When I got my briefing from the weather weenies at the Flight Service Station in Ft. Worth, they said the report from the last hour at Lubbock was: 100′ sky obscured, 1/4-mile VIS in rain and fog. Since this was below my landing minimums, I called the “boss” at Love Field to discuss our next move, and commenced to get a 1st class, “Texas sized” ass chewing. He wanted to know why I was even on the phone with him! He expected me to load up, fuel up, launch for LBB, hold until the weather improved, and if it didn’t, then return to ROS. Great idea…one big problem. Roswell’s weather didn’t meet legal weather minimums to file it as “Alternate” for my IFR flight plan (and the next closest place that did was ATLANTA, GEORGIA…roughly 1200 miles east!). He was hearing none of it. I protested, he yelled louder, I protested more (and offered that maybe we should just wait it out on the ground), and he blew a gasket. I told him that I was exercising my “Pilot in Command” authority to delay, and he promptly fired me on the spot!

(“Mom, Dad…guess what? I’m moving home and living on your couch until I’m 40! I heard Wal-Mart is hiring cart boys!”)

In the end, we were both snake-bitten. For me the weather improved enough to launch toward Lubbock (see above concerning the ILS to RWY 17R I shot that night…thanks again Gordon!), and for him…he was forced to re-hire me, and realize that he was saddled with a head-strong, smart-assed, wet-behind-the-ears, young pilot that was either too smart (or too scared…) to be bullied into an FAA violation. I prefer to think it was the former, but I admit it was most probably the latter. It wouldn’t be the last time I was to be fired (and promptly re-hired) during my early flying career…but that’s a tale for some other time.

**********

We routinely carried “riders”. These were usually kids far younger than ourselves (“kids”…hell, I was barely shaving), and they were usually building flight time toward their Commercial Pilot License. As stated above, I spent many nights as a “rider” with my friend Rick on his various Airwing freight runs.

Many of the “freight dog” flights with Rick stand out in my memory banks…here’s one of them.

One night well past nightfall, he was tasked with a little “milk-run” hop from Dallas’s Love Field over to Abilene; a mere 150 some odd nautical miles as the crow flies west. We would be flying a rather worn out (see a trend here?) V35 Beechcraft Bonanza for this mission, and after loading it up with about a zillion little packages, Rick took the left seat and I was tasked with plopping my young ass into the right seat and closing the ONE passenger door on the machine. As Rick brought the Continental engine to life and began the time-honored tradition of calling Clearance/Ground/Tower to get us airborne, I fumbled with the door…not being able to get it closed. He finally reached across me, mumbling something about the door being retarded (or maybe it was me he was mumbling about), and slammed Mr. Beechcraft’s hatch hard enough to secure it for take-off.

Roughly an hour later we arrived to a “zombie-dead” Abilene Reginal (“Interplanetary”) Airport, taxied to the deserted ramp, and shut down to wait on the courier so we could swap loads and head home. When I reached for the door handle, remembering his forceful movement to close it, I turned the lever and gave it a huge push to free us from this cramped little world. Nothing. Tried it again…same result. Rick (mumbling about either my heritage or the airplanes) reached across me, grabbed the handle and instead of pushing it, he pulled it (a little trick to release the locking pin). He gave a big grunt and SUCCESS! Well, not actual success, but the handle did move…it came off in his hand!

We were trapped! We both tried putting the handle back on to the spindle to engage the locking mechanism…nothing! After several attempts, we did the only thing two steely-eyed, square-jawed, night freight heroes could do…we started yelling “HELP” like two little French school girls! We opened the “storm window” (it’s a little tea-pot sized window next to the pilot that folds in so you can get some ventilation into the cockpit), and began yelling for all we were worth. Nothing…it was after all, the middle of a warm Texas summer night, and all NOT-crazy pilots were at home counting sheep…or Boeings.

We were eventually released from our self-induced imprisonment, when a sound asleep kid in the “line shack” heard us, and wandered over to see what all the racket was about. He was there to gas up the nocturnal freight runs, and must’ve gotten quite a giggle out of the little blue and white Bonanza sitting on the ramp, with two future airline line professionals in it squealing like a couple of stuck hogs!

I don’t remember how we got the door to function on the return flight to Love Field…maybe when we parked on the Love Field ramp we simply did a “reunion tour” of our wildly popular, “a Capella: ballad that featured one word….” HELP!”

**********

 

As I steered the big truck east out of downtown ABQ a few weeks ago, I glanced up to see if it was still there. I glanced repeatedly toward the area that was so prominently a focus of attention almost forty years ago, but Father Time had done what Father Time does, and it was as if it had never happened.

 

A last snippet from my days (or more accurately, my nights) living in Albuquerque as a fledgling aviator…

image (6)a

(My trusty “steed” on those many nights spent in the skies over Texas and NM as a noob pilot. Yep, “Bob” (the mechanic charged with keeping N9066Y out of the scrap heap) is working on the right engine…again. It leaked oil like a sieve, I would carry a case of engine oil, and after most stops, would add a quart (or 3), wipe down the cowling, climb back in and launch into low Earth orbit. A great life to be sure…)

One evening while conversing with “Bob”, he filled me with a tale that still sends chills down my spine. I had seen it every day as I drove to the airport, and had wondered many times what it was. It had been a year and a half since the night it took place, but it was still there. The angry ugly, black slash of a wound on the western slope of the Sandia Range. “Bob” casually mentioned something about it, and having wondered about it since day 1, I naturally had to know the story. He told me that, on that horrible Wednesday night, he had been “partying hard” with a gaggle of folks at a residence on the mountain, and the flash, noise, and shock of the event had them soiling their panties, and completely freaked out. To quote my esteemed aircraft doctor, “We just knew that the eggheads at Sandia Laboratories had screwed up and somehow detonated a nuclear device!”

 

pic 15

(Words fail me.)

At approximately 11:30 on a wind-swept mid-week night, the aircraft commander of the big, grey Boeing EC-135K (AF Serial # 62-3536) released the brakes and began the long taxi to RWY 08 at Albuquerque-Kirtland Air Force Base. His jet that night was bound for the bright lights of Las Vegas and Nellis AFB, a mere 450 NM to the northwest. His compliment of 19 other Tactical Air Command crewmembers on this HHD (Higher Headquarters Directed) mission were feeling much like he was. They were bone tired, and they could see the end of a very long duty day was finally in sight. It would be just a short “hop, skip and a jump” flight away.

In the cockpit they recited their long-familiar checklists, and moved levers and switches in a way that had become like driving their own cars. Back in the cabin the rest of the crew relaxed, and began making their plans for the “O Club” (or NCO Club as the case may be), with the smiles and excited conversations being born of visons of a hot steak and a cold beer.

Within a few minutes, the big Boeing made the gentle 90-degree left turn to put the centerline of Runway 08 under the nose tires, and the four powerful Pratt and Whitneys spooled up to their throaty roar. Black smoke gushed out of the four tailpipes with the force of a hurricane, and the familiar rumblings gave way to quick, rhythmic vibrations as the pilot in the right seat gave his required call-outs:

“Eighty knots- thrust normal”

“100”

“120”

“V1”

(And a few seconds later)

“Vr- rotate”

(As the big jet lifted into the black night and showed a positive rate of climb…)

The Aircraft Commander called:

“Gear up”

And the Co-pilot responded with a practiced movement of his left arm and his response:

“Gear up”

 

Barely 30 movements of the second hand later, they were all dead.

 

pic 16

(USAF Boeing EC-135K.)

 

On this night, for unknown reasons, the four screaming Pratt and Whitney TF33 engines simply did not produce enough thrust to keep twenty lives from being erased. Did they not set the engine EPR (thrust) numbers correctly in the cockpit? Did the TF33s need the water-injection for more power, and it simply did not actuate? Were the gusty southeast winds a factor, producing deadly wind shear? The powerful, graceful, gleaming Boeing ALMOST cleared the terrain, but it was not to be…impacting a mere 30′ below the summit.

Aviation is a fickle lover, for “almost” will kill you just as dead as “for sure” will.

pic 17

(The accident report. What it DOESN’T say could fill volumes.)

**********

As he finished his story, I stared at the black scar and felt a wave of shock and sadness. Later that night, I launched for Roswell in a warm, purring N9066Y, and couldn’t help but look left at the mountain, its dark wound, and the exact spot where twenty futures came to an abrupt halt.

As I drove past the point forty years later, I looked again, and that same sadness returned.

“Airwing 103?”

“Airwing 103…Lubbock tower…do you read?”

**********

 

pic 18

(A Boeing 767-300ER shortly after arriving at the gate at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Yep, we do fly freight in the cargo holds of this beauty…and at night…but that’s where the similarities end.)

 

until next time…

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Life’s “Jet Upset”

I find myself in a position that every pilot hates…and by hate, I mean vehemently despises. I have no options to consider, no decisions to make, and I am NOT the arbiter of my own (or my loved ones) fate. It’s impossible for me to express how uncomfortable I am in this position, and I can’t begin to convey how much I loathe it. I have spent my adult life making difficult decisions, and I have not only (hopefully) excelled at it…truth be told…I’ve loved it.

 

A6

(The mighty Boeing 757 readying for the 0430 launch from Palau to Tokyo.)
My life’s work has been an infinite que of tough decisions. Do I accept the broken airplane with the promise of repair, or do I refuse the machine, cancel the flight, and disrupt hundreds of lives? Do I add precious fuel to compensate for the anticipated bad weather, or is the flight plan amount going to safely be enough? (side note; I have occasionally “discussed” the fuel load with our dispatchers over the years, and I’m glad to say that the term “Pilot in Command” is still very much alive and well.) Do I deviate 200 miles to the north of the squall line or 300 miles to the south? Should I ask Air Traffic Control for a climb to escape the dreadful turbulence, or a descent ? Do I have the upset, rowdy passenger removed, or counsel less drastic actions? I have spent a career laying my head on the pillow and critiquing the decisions I’ve proffered for that day, and for the most part I have been satisfied. But like all humans, occasionally I’ve had second thoughts. The good news, however, is that I have (mostly) learned valuable lessons from those days filled with “less than perfect” flights.

 

A5

(Sunrise over the Pacific. Singapore bound  for Tokyo.)

I’ve made an untold number of those decisions spanning the last 4 1/2 decades, and have gladly accepted it as an integral part of the job description. But now I’m facing a new issue, a paradigm of control as it were, where I would love to be at the helm, but hence, I simply am not. I find myself in the infant stages of comprehending the ramifications of all of this, and just how incredibly difficult it will be. What this mostly means, is that I have no idea what to do, or if I can impact this issue enough to make the nightmare better. As stated before, I feel like I’m devoid of options whereby control is most certainly not mine, for I am merely reacting, without the option to be proactive. At the risk of sounding like a “male chauvinist pig”, here goes: as a man, as a husband, and as a close confidant and dear friend, I don’t like it… I don’t like it one single bit. I’m not even sure if what little I’m doing is the right thing. As a professional aviator, I’m not used to occupying this confusing role…the role of being the scared passenger on the flight that is my life.
You see, the dearest, most special, most sacred person in my life is sick…really sick. Her diagnosis was unexpected and as of yet, has been unexplained. It was like the crash of Thor’s hammer against our collective lives. I’m not sure if she can prevail against this foe, but if anyone can, it’s most assuredly her. She’s small in frame and stature, but towers far above me in strength and fortitude. Her level of courage, coupled with her tenacity and shear will to “get it done” have left me in awe for the last 2 1/2 decades. I’ve told her many times over the years, that had things been different in her life, I could easily see her carrying the shield of a law enforcement hero, or even wearing the honored trident of a Navy SEAL…a tougher person I’ve never met. She has no understanding of the phrase “I quit”, or it’s homely cousin, “I can’t”. She’s rock solid in her mental toughness, and until very recently, was the same in physical being.

 

A3

(One of the many glorious sunsets she and I have marveled at looking west from Palau.)

 
Will she be able to conquer and live out her days with this medical issue? Every fiber of my being says that she will, but I fear it could be a tough battle, and a long journey. True to her nature (and upbringing), she has not complained, not whined, and definitely NOT adopted the “victim” moniker; and I know she never will. Could one say the same of this old, road-worn “four-striper”? Nope. I’ve bitched, I’ve whined, I’ve questioned, and I’ve had more than a few angry conversations with my Maker. But I’ve also bent knee to pray and thank that same magnificent God for Him gracing my life with her love and companionship. I’ve promised Him that I will do everything in my power to help in my role as her care-giver. She was there for me 18 years ago in the hell of the Mayo Clinic Chemotherapy Ward. She kept me going, kept our family going, and generally held my proverbial hand through that dark, lost year. The majority of my memories of that black tunnel void of time, are full of needles, X-ray machines, stone-face doctors, smiling nurses and her…my angel, my rock.

I now find myself as the trusted “right-seater” in the cockpit of life. The by-gone years I logged in the First Officer’s seat of the venerable Boeing 727 and the graceful McDonnel-Douglas DC10 taught me a vast number of important lessons. Those years taught me humility, honesty, integrity, loyalty, and most of all, how to just be there…be in the moment…and to be as much help for the person riding next to me as I can possibly be. I’m there again. I only hope that I’m up to the task.

My dear Dad once told me that there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole, and to the depths of my soul I know he was right. I know that courage comes in a million versions and flavors. It was there shivering at the campfires of Valley Forge, the Chosin Reservoir and the battered hamlet of Bastogne. It was blinded by the powder flashes at Little Round Top and in the parapets of New Orleans. It was trembling in the dark forests of the Argonne and the Hurtgen. It was bone tired and sweating on Mt. Suribachi and in the trenches of Khe Sanh, and it was surely standing tall in the urban hell of Fallujah and the vortex of the Helmond Province. But in my six decades, I’ve also seen that unbelievable courage in the mere “combat” we call our daily lives.

In the last several months, I’ve seen it in spades in the beautiful faces of the warriors in the Heart Failure waiting room of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. I promise my dear Debie to give her my all, “in sickness and in health”, and I promise you…my readers…to keep you in the loop.

 

A2

(Myself, my amazing wife Debora, and “Digger”…one of my all time favorite First Officers sharing a great layover in Tokyo [he’s now a Captain in our New York domicile].)

 
The journey continues…please never forget…prayers are always welcome.

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“Get Off My Plane!”

Humans basically suck. But wait, that’s not exactly my opinion about such. I actually like people, I simply think humanity sucks. Why would I say such a thing?  One has to simply read the news (as it pertains to airline travel) to come to the same conclusion. What’s that you say, passengers acting like jack-asses on airplanes? Say it isn’t so! Sorry Alice, but I’m afraid it IS so. I’m afraid it’s been part of “the deal” of commercial aviation since Orville and Wilbur were cruising around with an extra body on the machine with them.  So what’s changed in the last 100 years? In my opinion, the following statement sums it up perfectly. I once heard a flight attendant (you know the people that have to put up with 99% of this nonsense) describe it to me like this: “Neiman Marcus taste on a Walmart budget.”

So how do I feel about a “passenger Bill of Rights”? You really have to ask? Here’s the basic deal according to my understanding of commercial air travel. For the fee you are paying my airline (and hence to me) I promise to: attempt to fly you from point A to point B without a scratch…period, end of sentence.  Does that mean you have a right to expect split-second, on-time service? Does that mean you are paying for a “fine dining experience”? Should you expect to enjoy more electronic gadgetry than your average teenage gamer owns? Truth be told, I wish ALL of these things on your next flight, but for the same airfare as decades ago (adjusted for inflation), if you get NONE of those things (other than the Point A to Point B thing), then you are still way ahead of the game.

Case in point; many years ago I had a lady in my face, screaming at me (yep, the spittle was flying) because I wouldn’t fly my little Beechcraft 99 (with her in it) through a line of thunderstorms. I calmly spoke to her about the limitations of bad weather flying, etc., but she was having none of it, and the spittle-bath continued.  I offered her the following alternative. “Mam, I mean no disrespect (well, maybe just a wee bit), but if you would like to travel from here (Knoxville, TN) through the length of Tennessee and most of Arkansas to Ft. Smith like they did in the last century, then be my guest.” She had the “huh?” look staring back at me; so I was forced to feed her a small dose of history. “You know Mam, bouncing along for a month in a Conestoga wagon, being chased by wild savages and cholera?” She neither got my point, nor appreciated my sense of humor. Mattered not, for on this evening, ol’ “Mr. Cumulonimbus” prevailed, and we rolled into Ft. Smith after midnight.

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(A Scheduled Skyways Beechcraft Model 99 on the ramp at Tulsa, Oklahoma circa 1980.  Good old N5SS, I spent many an hour in her loving arms. Photograph courtesy of Ellis M. Chernoff.)

Trust me when I say that I’m fully aware that the experience of riding on airplanes can be worse than riding the bus. As us “baby boomers” will tell you, it didn’t used to be like that (even when I began as a professional pilot way back in 1979).  Back during those golden days of flying, the planes were usually about ½ full, thus allowing one to spread out and not be smashed into a jet cabin like sardines. Couple that with the fact that people seemed to simply act more civil toward each other back then, and you get a recipe for an enjoyable adventure. Although air travel for the masses is obviously a great thing economically, it can be a huge challenge when you jam hundreds of humans in a tight tubular beer can, and make them behave for several hours on end (all the while serving them liquor…lol).

As recent media coverage reveals, taking an airplane trip can sometimes become nightmarish. Are the airlines sometimes at fault? Of course they are! But in their defense, very few people have the slightest concept of the complexities of keeping the whole parade marching in the right direction! Try not to forget that when the airliner parade gets wonky in New York, it WILL affect your jet coming to LAX to whisk you off to Tampa. Remember the toy by the name of “Slinky”? What happens at one end of the snake, eventually makes its way to the other end. And no Belinda (contrary to popular belief), the airlines do not have “spare airplanes” just sitting around waiting to be used. Do restaurants cook “spare” T-bones to just sit around in case someone needs one? Of course not…that would be amazingly stupid. In the airline biz, if it’s not in the air, it’s not making money…in fact, it’s costing you money. Trust me, everyone from the CEO to the lowly ticket agent scanning your boarding pass, wants your jet out of the gate on time!

The bottom line is this: if you fly enough times, things WILL get pear-shaped! It’s just a fact of life. O.K., genius, with that amazing butt-load of wisdom spewed forth for all of humanity to marvel at, what would your sagely advice be after 40 years sitting at the pointy-end of this madness? How about…learn to relax, learn to breathe, chant your mantra, think of puppies and balloons…hell, I don’t know. Whatever lets you stay in your “happy place”, do that. 99.9% of the time, there is just no reason to act like a jack-ass.

Second case in point; one evening I was at the gate podium (looking regal, like my job dictates), and a nicely dressed passenger (obviously a businessman) was tearing the poor ticket agent a new orifice because she would not upgrade him from the cabin with the unwashed masses up to First Class. She had calmly explained to him (more than once) that First Class was full, that there simply wasn’t a seat available. He wasn’t hearing it, and was being a class-A knucklehead, I deemed it was time to use the “Captain’s voice” and step in. I put down the flight plan, stepped in front of him and asked if there was a problem, and could I help? He did his tirade at me for a moment, and then stopped as he saw that my “I don’t give a sh*te” expression had not changed. I offered this to Mr. Wonderful, “Sir, have you not heard this nice lady explain to you that there simply are no seats available in First Class? I suggest that you accept that fact, and sit in the seat this lady assigns to you. Or…the other option is for you to NOT go for an airplane ride tonight. Do I make myself clear?” He replied, “Yes”, and wandered off to crawl back under the rock in which he came from. Apparently he was far more deserving of the big seat in the front of the jet, than the person that he wanted the agent to pull out of said seat. Narcissism (and it’s evil twin bastard “entitlement”) has been perfected to a fine art form it seems these days. To quote someone that had a bit of an issue several years ago: “Can’t we all just get along?

I penned this piece several years ago, but since then I’ve had a few more “episodes” that I thought needed to be added. I titled it “Get Off My Plane” to share a few yarns about a few of the times that I’ve had to throw someone off my airplane (or been a part of this act). The level of stupidity that humanity can show on airplanes (and at the airport) is legendary. Thankfully, when things do go awry in the world of winged-transport, the vast majority of us do indeed act like normal people and NOT like morons…and for that I give a huge “thank you” to those that do. But there are times…

                        “Get Off My Plane!”

A locally famous news story told of an elderly woman in her vehicle about the time of the morning rush hour. As she was speeding down the freeway on-ramp, a disgruntled driver cut her off, swerved toward her, and forced her over to the grassy shoulder. He approached her open window, proceeded to reach in, and pummeled this poor old woman with his fists! Isn’t it just lovely what humanity is capable of doing? To make a horrible incident even worse, this person turned out to be a (wait for it)… physician on his way to work! Makes me wonder what happened to the oath of, “First, do no harm.”? Shortly after his episode of violence, he boarded an airplane and fled the country. Justice was served however, for when he returned to the United States, he was immediately brought up on criminal charges. He is now doing some sort of community service for his little “indiscretion”, thus paying his debt to society. Needless to say, it stands to reason that his poor victim will be scared by this until her end of days. One question…I wonder if his Mal-practice insurance covers this type of event?

The Psychiatrists call it “road rage”. We’ve all heard of it, some of us may even have been a victim (or perpetrator) in this collective insanity. Where did it start? It matters not. What’s causes such behavior? Who the hell knows? How about just being a member of the human (rat) race. For decades, this sort of anti-social behavior used to be confined to the earth-bound sect, but things have changed for those of us that do our life’s work in the sky. We seem to be privileged enough to have our own version of this nonsense; we call it “air rage” (I’m certain some highly paid bureaucrat came up with that one). Recent events got my juices flowing recalling the incidents of this flavor of “mis-behavior” that I’ve witnessed over the years on my aircraft. The following will be a (short) compilation of some of the ones that stand out. As the title suggests, many of these individuals were either pitched off the jet before launch, or arrested upon landing.

I grew up in the era when airline travel was something special. We dressed for the event, were on our best behavior, and felt like it was something to be enjoyed and cherished (not simply endured like nowadays). My first airline flight of memory was New York to Frankfurt in a TWA Constellation in the mid-1960s. My father was being transferred from Fort Lewis, Washington to whatever “kaserne” was used at the time by the U.S. Army in Nuremburg, (West) Germany. He was to pilot his helicopters around Europe (thus protecting us from the red horde poised to come pouring through the Fulda Gap), and my dear mother, four siblings and I were enroute to join him. Once seated on that beautiful red and white airliner, I was amazed at the world I had just entered. I distinctly remember the cushy red cloth seats, folded curtains on the windows, friendly stewardesses dressed in their tailored uniforms, and the sounds (and rumbles) of the four big Wright 3350 engines as they came to life that evening on the ramp in La Guardia. It was all so magnificent, and I was bathed in a sense of departing on some grand adventure.

Lockheed_L-049_Constellation,_Trans_World_Airlines_(TWA)_JP7293287

(The TWA L-1049 Constellation…grace and power in one package. Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor.)

The story changes there, for an hour or so into the journey, the cabin crew settled into their routines and served us a meal in the little plastic cafeteria-type food trays. Being your average nine year old, I wolfed it down without pausing to taste what I was actually eating. I then guzzled my carton of milk, and settled back to listen to the engines drone, all the while straining in an attempt to eves drop on the adults having their post-supper cigarettes and cocktails. The twilight had given way to ink black darkness, and somewhere in the vicinity of our “coast out” point over Newfoundland, we entered a weather system. At this point, the flight became a night-long ride on the State Fair roller-coaster. We were enjoying a version of the ugly weather that the north Atlantic can dish up for ship and plane alike. Cruising at our (massive) altitude of 20,000’ or so, did not allow the Captain the option to climb above the turbulence. Nowadays, in the big Boeings, I routinely saunter up to FL390 (39000′) and watch the lightning dance its duel below me, all the while casually sipping a cup of hot coffee in smooth air. But that would not happen on this night, and we paid the price.  I spent the next few hours in the cabin of the big metal bird, bouncing along back and forth, all the while watching (and hearing, and smelling) the chubby kid to my left loudly depositing his dinner into a conga-line of sick sacks.

Obviously, things are a bit different these days. My first encounter with “air rage” was totally unexpected. I was a year into my commuter airline career, and as a brand new Captain was sitting in the left seat of the venerable Swearingen Metroliner boring holes in the skies over the southern USA. At 24 years old that “fourth stripe” was weighing pretty heavy on the ol’ shoulders with the realization that now “the buck REALLY does stop here” was somewhat of a shock, but I was getting used to it. In terms of folks acting like idiots on flying machines, simply stated, my naivety had me expecting all adults to act as such while in and around airplanes. Boy was the next 30+ years going to prove me wrong! Remember if you will, this sort of incident was a rare occurrence way back in 1980.

On this particular day, the First Officer and I found ourselves in the midst of a lengthy delay at our home airport in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a typical thunderstorm-encrusted Spring morning, but we had managed to fly a round trip to Tulsa and back. We now found ourselves mired in a lengthy delay for our departure to Little Rock. The weather had “unleashed the dogs of war”, and was playing havoc with any attempt at running our intended schedule on time. The obvious answer was to kick back in the baggage room behind the ticket counter, and get some R & R before our next bout with the cumulus monsters. That’s precisely when we heard the shouting begin.

METROLINER

(The venerable Swearengin SA226TC Metroliner. We liked to call it; the “trauma tube”.)

We looked at each other with the requisite “wtf” look on our faces, and immediately headed through the doorway toward the ticket counter. Planted at the opposite side of the counter, stood the biggest, ugliest, wild-eyed looking red-neck character I’ve ever seen. He was one of those guys that have two names…you know, like “Billy Bob”, or “Bubba Fred”…we all know the type. He could have easily been cast in the movie “Deliverance”, and NOT to play Ned Beatty’s character. His tattered overalls, huge beer gut, and 3 day old stubble were actually not that out of place in this neck of the woods, but it was his demeanor that stood him apart from the rest of us in the human race. He was as big as a house, and he was as mad as a hornet; never a good combination.

The young ticket agent trying to solve his scheduling problem was a friend of mine (it was a small airline, and we all knew each other), and she was one of my lines very best agents. The fact that she was attractive and very polite always served her well in these types of situations, and on a few occasions, I had witnessed her defuse an angry passenger with her bright smile and charming Southern self. But today, that wasn’t going to work. “Bobby Joe” wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, and things were beginning to escalate. She was calmly attempting to explain the complexities of what a mass of thunderstorms can do to her departures, but her smooth, soft demeanor simply wasn’t rubbing off on him. What he did next surprised the hell out of the F/O and me (and her too I might add).

In the mid-sentence, he snapped and started to physically come over the ticket counter! She recoiled with a look of shock and disbelief and the First Officer and I quickly stepped in. Being firm believers in chivalry (and all that rot), he and I quickly positioned ourselves between her and the angry Goliath. The fire in “Hayseed Harry’s” eyes was unmistakable, and when he suddenly focused on two uniformed males positioned in front of him, he rapidly slowed his pace to a halt. But that begs the question… what was his next maneuver going to entail? We had no idea; we braced ourselves for the expected assault, and accepted our fate. He suddenly snapped out of his fit of rage, and tried to compose himself. I’m sure that our shouts of: “wait a minute there mister!” (Or something like that, MAYBE mixed with a bit of profanity), might have helped him come back to reality. At this point, the agent became pale, and quickly excused herself to the back room. I can’t say as I blamed her; I was probably a bit pale myself. Just what “Booger Dan” had in mind is anyone’s guess, but there’s no question he could’ve snapped her in two without much effort (us too for that matter).

NEW CAPTAIN

(Sporting my brand-new Scheduled Skyways Captain stripes waaay back in 1980.)

If I recall correctly, “Deliverance Boy” didn’t make ANY schedule that day. For as we were doing the stare-down routine, another agent called the security folks and they quickly whisked his big (redneck) ass out of the terminal, and off to a local lock-up. I spent the remainder of that day trying to sort out what had happened. We, of course, had seen our share of pissed off customers while flying at this little airline, but none that had gone from zero to homicide in the snap of a finger! Would he have actually committed bodily harm? I guess I’ll never know, but that was indeed a first for me. I subsequently never heard what became of him. I sometimes wonder if he’s still tied to a stump somewhere in northwest Arkansas. Shudder.

The next is one of my favorites, for it has all the makings of a good “Funniest Home Videos” type story. This buffoon was a classic, and each time I recall his little display, I can’t help but chuckle a bit. The year was 1988, I had made it to “the show” and was flying for Northwest Orient Airlines as a Second Officer (or Flight Engineer if you will) on the magnificent time machine known as the Boeing 747. Although the job as the third pilot was mostly very boring, there were times when it was anything but. This was one of those times.

It was late August, and we were scheduled for a night departure from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport southwest bound for a short stop in Okinawa, then on to Manila for our layover. Our flight was under the command of Bob H., and he was one of my favorite “Whale” Captains to work with. He was rather short in stature, a bit rotund, looked a little like Capt. Kangaroo, and had the quiet, calm make-up of Mr. Rogers. He was definitely one of the nicest, most even-tempered gentlemen that I ever logged time with in a cockpit. On this night however, all that was about to change.

As we were nearing our departure time (roughly inside the 30 minute window), the Lead Flight Attendant came into the cockpit to speak to us about a passenger that she was having an issue with. The person in question had just climbed the boarding stairs, entered the jet, and proceeded to become a pain her posterior (we were parked at a hard stand away from the terminal, so the passengers were bussed to the aircraft, and climbed up a covered set of boarding stairs…just like in the old days). He was a younger man, dressed in enlisted U.S. Navy “whites”, and was totally, completely “knee-walking, pie-eyed” drunk…I’m talking, “driving the porcelain bus, God’s own drunk”. Apparently he stumbled through the boarding door, disregarded his assigned seat, found the nearest chair that suited him, and plopped his big ass squarely into it. She was more than a little miffed that he was boarded in this condition (a violation of U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations), and was more than a bit upset that he wouldn’t take his assigned seat. Hence, she was now on the flight deck to enlist our assistance. Being the good-natured “fatherly” type, Capt. Bob informed her that he would come downstairs, and “have a little talk with him”. I expected him to completely diffuse the situation with his laid-back temper and impeccable manners, so I turned back to my Flight Engineers panel and continued with my pre-flight duties.

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(A Northwest Boeing 747-200 taxiing for launch at London’s Gatwick Airport. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Colbran.)

Within a few short minutes, Bob stormed back into the cockpit, slammed the door, looked at me red-faced and growled, “Get Operations on the horn, and have them send Security to the airplane! I want that ass-hole off this jet now!” Eh…Bob…it must not have gone too well, am I right? As he was climbing back into his seat, he began to explain to the startled First Officer what had just transpired.  Apparently, as Bob approached him, the guy drunkenly looked up and asked “Who the hell are you… God?”  With that brilliant utterance complete, he promptly leaned over and vomited in the seat next to him! As if that wasn’t enough, he then calmly pulled the seat cushion up and turned it over so (apparently) no one would notice. (This would’ve earned him a ticket on the “GET OFF MY PLANE EXPRESS” with me nowadays, but Bob tried a bit more diplomacy). He asked the young man if he possibly had a bit too much to drink, and maybe he wouldn’t mind going back into the terminal and “resting” a little before the next departure (he was obviously bound for the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines). His reply was too lean over, get very close to Bob’s face, and shout a rather terse, “F*ck you, you asshole!” Hehe; that sealed it…a one-way ticket on the “G.O.M.P. EXPRESS”.

As I was trying desperately to get the Japanese NWA Operations agents to understand that we wanted the actual “security forces” to come to the jet (“ah roger, Northwest 003, we send ticket agent to the airplane.” “Negative, negative, we are requesting the security forces to the jet immediately!” “Ah roger, we send ticket agent to the airplane”), and realizing that I wasn’t having much luck with it, Capt. Bob decided to take measures into his own hands. He called the Lead F/A on the interphone, and gave her the following instructions. “Tell that S.O.B. that someone on the boarding stairs wants to talk to him, and when he stumbles off the jet to see who it might be….close the door behind him!” It worked like a charm.

The moment he found himself outside of the airplane all by himself, he went rather nuts. He began to pound on the boarding door (we could actually hear it from upstairs in the cockpit), but he apparently couldn’t figure out how to actually open it. The Lead F/A came upstairs to ask Bob what she should do if he got it open, and he replied with, “Point him toward the cockpit and get the hell out of his way”. His next statement was to me, “Bill, get the crash axe out of the holder and position yourself behind the door. If he makes it in here, you crack him on the head with that thing!” Cool!

Within a few minutes he stopped pounding on the door, and began a new tactic. He started to run around the outside of the jet, looking up at us in the cockpit and shooting us the finger! Needless to say, we were watching him VERY closely, and I must admit, we (occasionally) shot it right back at him. By now it was beginning to rain very hard, and he took this as the signal to rip his shirt off and do the Tarzan thing (why do ALL pissed-off drunks end up shirtless?). We had just gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be very concerned, or maybe both. One of the funniest aspects to all of this is that he looked remarkably like the late actor Chris Farley (no disrespect Chris)! His blubbery, shirtless, drenched body, running around our aircraft, coupled with the sheer strangeness of it all, was more than a little surreal and unnerving. I continued my quest to get someone to the airplane other than a gate agent.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity with this madman loose under the jet, the REAL security forces showed up. They bounded out of their little pickup truck and began to chase him around the airplane! (I promise you this happened; you can’t make this stuff up) We watched like spectators at a rugby match (of course cheering for the guys with the billy-clubs), and within a few minutes they chased him up the covered boarding stairs. With three heads pressed to the left side cockpit window, we watched the stairs begin to rock back and forth rather violently (they must’ve been “disgruntled doctors” too, for I think they were pulling some Jackie Chan marshal arts moves on him). Eventually, with one on each leg and arm, they dragged him down the stairs unconscious, pitched him into the bed of their pickup truck, and off they drove. Japanese Security forces = 1, drunken Navy “Chris Farley” dude = 0.

whale-so-2

(Before doing my preflight walk-around in Tokyo. It ALWAYS amazed me just how monstrous this machine actually was!)

The only addendum to this story concerns a bit of mischief on my part. An hour or so later, as we were winging our way toward Okinawa, Bob was busy filling out his report on all of this. I thought maybe a bit of fun was called for, so I pretended to be on the number two Comm radio with the NWA Tokyo personnel. I was playing it up well, with more than a few lines like, “Oh, oh. You gotta be kidding me. Really? That’s not good…not good at all! Of course I’ll inform the Captain. Roger Flt 003, out.” It was more than Bob could stand, so he turned and asked whom I was talking to. I couldn’t resist, “Well Bob, you know that moron we just had pitched UNDER the jail in Tokyo? Well, that was Operations saying they have a message from the State Department and that we screwed up big-time…seems he is the SON of the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines!” You should’ve seen the look on Bob’s face. I probably took a couple of years off his life…sorry Bob, just kidding.

When, in 1994, I upgraded to my first command of a jetliner, I tried to emulate the manners and patience of the gentlemen like Bob that I had flown with over the years…but it wasn’t easy. My first experience with calling the authorities to meet the aircraft came one day as we were inbound to Miami in the Boeing 727. The Lead Cabin Attendant informed me somewhere around the halfway point of the journey that she had to “cut off” (stop serving liquor to) a passenger in the First Class cabin. Apparently, he was getting more than just a bit buzzed, and was becoming a first-class asshole. My reply was “Great, do what you have to do, and if he gives you any grief, you tell him it was MY decision to cut him off”. She left, and I turned back around to busy myself with the business of flying the jet.

As fate would have it, at our arrival time into the Miami area, a thunderstorm was directly overhead the airport. Since I have a distinct “no landings in the middle of thunderstorms” policy, we entered a holding pattern to let it move out of the approach corridor. I made the requisite announcement over the P.A. system informing everyone of our small delay. I also added that it was due to the fact that a thunderstorm was over the field, and that in about 15 minutes (or less) it would move out of our way, and we would proceed inbound to land without any problems. I hung up the P.A. mic, and settled back to watch the offending cumulonimbus with my usual awe and amazement.

Very shortly after my announcement, the cockpit door opened, and in came the (now pretty upset) Lead F/A. She informed me that the disgruntled passenger had informed her that: A) he was a Doctor, was extermely afraid to fly into thunderstorms,  and was going to prescribe himself alcohol for his “condition”, and B) would SUE ME if she refused to comply with his “prescription”. Good heavens, now I’ve seen it all! I calmly turned to address her (thinking of how Bob would’ve handled it I’m sure). I remember telling her to say something like this, “The Captain wanted me to tell you that you are the SECOND most afraid person to fly into thunderstorms on this airplane…no one gets to be more afraid than him. He also wants you to provide him with your name, your address, and your “Dr. License number” (I didn’t know if they actually were issued one or not…but thought the bluff wouldn’t hurt), so he can have them available when he gets in touch with the American Medical Association. He says that he’s sure that the AMA will be VERY interested in a doctor that is prescribing alcohol to himself to cure his fear of flying.” I will have to admit that I gave him a high grade for being creative with the booze-prescription thing…lol.

After he relayed my message to “Herr Doktor”, he became even more adamant about his “prescription”. He now began to call the Lead F/A and myself a few choice names and the threats continued…sorry, still no booze. With this, I directed the Second Officer to call Miami Operations, and have them stand by to meet the jet with the security folks. He seemed to by highly pissed-off when we reached the gate (I remember he wouldn’t look me in the eye), and when the big guys with the “badges” met him upon deplaning, life changed for the good doctor. The authorities weren’t going to buy his “prescription” excuse for interfering with a crewmember in the performance of their duties (a federal offense); they just thought that he was being a prized asshole. They promptly arrested him, and escorted him off to the “cross-bar motel”. Later I began to think, “Hey wait a minute, I’ve used alcohol to cure lots of “problems” in my life, maybe he was on to something there”….just kidding of course.

Boeing_727-51C,_Northwest_Orient_Airlines_JP6399046

(A rare sighting…a Boeing 727-100…when I was a new hire at Northwest Orient we referred to them as “the Stubby”.  Within a few years of my joining the line, they were all sold. Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor.)

Redeyes…oh gross! I’m not talking about what my baby-blue peepers tend to look like at the end of an all-night flight-sim/beer drinking binge…nope, I’m talking about those airline flights that leave at midnight, and arrive at roughly the time the sun is peeking over the eastern horizon. One might ask, “Who in their right mind would want to go to the jet-port at that un-Godly hour and sit next to a fat guy snoring for five hours?” You’d be surprised; these flights are almost always full to the gunnels (I would guess it has something to do with cheaper fares). And since my jet is the “super-star du jour” for hauling lots of bodies out of metropolitan airports (relatively) quietly at midnight, then I get to enjoy these types of missions during the majority of my domestic trips.

One night a few years ago, we launched out of “Sin City” (Las Vegas) long after sunset, with our destination being my home domicile of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  This leg would be the end of our four day 757 trip, and except for the “night owl” thing at the end, it had been a very enjoyable time spent on the road (read, little or no hassles during the trip).  Needless to say, many times leaving Vegas, customer issues on the jet seem to come as fast and furious as the bells ringing on the slot machines! Inbound you have happy drunks, outbound you have broke/tired/dehydrated/(at times) pissed-off drunks….I prefer the happy ones. I’ve thrown lots of folks off the jet in KLAS, and needless to say, it’s not one of my favorite destinations in our domestic system.

On this night however, all things seemed to be in harmony.  We boarded the folks without incident, taxied for a runway 25R RNAV departure, and with a very quiet ATC shift in progress, we began to feel like we were the only jet in the sky. McCarren Departure Control handed us off to L.A. Center, and without asking for it, the nice lady at the big, glowing “Pong” screen, cleared us direct to KMSP!  For all the bitching about redeye flying, sometimes the middle of the night is the best time for flying. [This coming from an ex-teenage paperboy that delivered the news at 0400 every morning, and a former night-freight hauler that would launch my Piper Navajo over the Scandia Mountains east of Albuquerque at midnight every night bound for Lubbock, Texas.]

NAVAJO

(A PA-31 Piper Navajo. It was my first actual pilot job after college. Single pilot, night freight over the mountains was “interesting” to say the least.)

When things at 2 a.m. are working with my karma, the weather is smooth and clear (with the ground lights and stars like two blazing fields of diamonds), the ATC folks are silent and loving it half as much as I am, the customers are all a slumber, the steady purring of the two big Pratt and Whitneys is music to this old pelican’s ears, and the required cup of “Joe” is like something from the porcelain vase of the nectar of the Gods. In other words, all is right with the world.

That is exactly how this night would begin, but not how it would end. Somewhere over the sleeping plains of Nebraska, the chime in the cockpit announced that one of the cabin attendants wanted to speak to us. I naturally assumed it was something to the order of…”Captain, a passenger wants to know what the name of that little town is…” (like I would know? And, like I would care? Lol). This time, it was a bit different. After answering the interphone, one of the young men (cabin attendants) requested to come onto the flight deck to talk to me. Sure…come on up.  He came into the cockpit, quickly took a seat in the jumpseat immediately behind my “throne”, and began to regale me with his tale of woe.

jumpseat

(The Boeing 757 jumpseat. Definitely NOT the most comfortable seat in the house.)

It seems that not all was right in his world, for on this flight there was on particular passenger that did not like him. My answer was something like, “OooooKay, and how is that playing out with the service you guys are doing, etc?” He informed me that the service was finished, but this man didn’t like him, and he knew this because of all of the dirty, hateful looks this person was sending toward him. By now, of course, the First Officer was giving me the proverbial “side-long” glances coupled with a smirk or three. I knew exactly what was going through his 71/4 hat size…”Well, oh exalted great Captain, my Captain! Just how are you going to deal with this little “emergency”? He hates me Captain…boo hoo!” I shot him a dirty/hateful look, and turned back to “Billy” (not his real name) and continued with the “counseling session”. “And how does this make you FEEL Billy?”

“Well Billy, I’m sorry the guy in 15D doesn’t like you…but we ALL can’t be liked by EVERYONE, right? I know it makes your job uncomfortable, but how about this…how about you just stay away from the guy, get one of the other guys on the crew to serve him, you just “play in your corner of the playground”, and he can play in his “corner”. How does that sound?” I asked him to describe his nemesis, and as it turned out, I distinctly remember seeing this person as he boarded the jet. He was one of the last folks to board, and (in my humble opinion) he was very distinctive looking for many reasons.

To begin with, he was wearing dark sunglasses (and it was indeed midnight when he walked onto the jet). Now I know that means you are one super cool, bad-ass vaquero. And I also know that my personal uber-bright personality means I get to “wear my sunglasses at night” (they should make a song about that…lol), but I’m not sure his did. Also, he was sporting some of the coolest looking fingerless, leather driving gloves I’ve ever seen! O.K., again, I get to wear those in the cockpit because I’m actually “driving” this big-bad mama-jamma at 500 knots and cool enough to own it…I’m just not sure he was. I will say, the awesome gloves did match his black leather pants…word up dude. And lastly, to round out his ensemble, over his thug T-shirt, he was proudly displaying the requisite “Mr. T. Starter Set” gaggle of gold chains! There truly must’ve been at least 50 chains on that young dude’s neck! Made my own neck sore just looking at him! So, needless to say, the guy was feathered out in his best “gangsta wannabe” regalia, but for some reason, he and “Billy” just were not groovin’ on the same cosmic plain. Just lovely. I really need to chat to whoever is in charge of dishing out MY karma…

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(The current queen of “grace and power”…the Boeing 757. The jet I’ve called home for the last 20 years [with her big sister, the 767]…thank you Mr. Boeing. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Colbran.)

Things seemed to be “all quiet on the western front” for the next hour or so, but shortly after the end of their last service, and about 15 minutes from us beginning our re-entry maneuver, I once again get the “Bing-bong” (and blue light) on the overhead Alert Panel telling me that (most probably) “Billy” and “Mr. T” were not sharing recipes over a cup of chamomile tea. Sure enough it was “Billy”, and upon letting him into the cockpit, I noticed that his uniform had taken on a strange new color. It seems that square in the middle of his white shirt, a very large, very dark, very wet brown spot had suddenly appeared. “Billy” was almost in tears, and through the anger (and some sobs) I finally gleaned what had transpired.  Apparently he had approached “Mr. T” to talk peace terms (or something), and had been rewarded with a full cup of coffee (NOT from the porcelain vase of the nectar of the God’s mind you) smack dab “on time/on target” into the middle of “Billy’s” starched white shirt! “SHACK!”

“Billy” of course wanted him arrested upon landing, and truth be told, I was beginning to lean in that direction myself. Its one thing to interfere with a crewmember in the performance of their duty (again, a federal offense), but this was not the “he won’t turn off his cell phone” type of issue. This fell under the actual “assault” of a crewmember category, and we had now squarely escalated to “DEF-CON 2” territory. Of course, dousing “Billy” with Folgers is hardly the same as coming at him with a battle-axe, but it’s still assault, and the die had been cast. This moronic “gangsta wannabe”, with his butt in MY seat 15D, was about to feel some love courtesy of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport Police Department! I’ve seen them in action, and when it gets to “DEF-CON 1” with these guys, it can get ugly in a heartbeat. Their sense of humor gauge does not exist.

Of course, protocol has changed since 9-11, and I won’t go into all of our procedures (for obvious reasons), but one thing hasn’t changed…getting in touch with the “Mother Ship” and getting them in the loop is still an important step in the process.  Within a few minutes, I was on the horn with our Dispatch Office, giving them the scoop (incident, name, seat number, etc.), and the “scales of Justice” were about to begin their tilt toward our beloved “Billy”.  A few minutes later, Dispatch hailed us on the radio with a juicy little tid-bit of information concerning our perp. It seems that “Mr. T” was the 20-something son of one of the airlines employees! He was a “pass rider” as it were, and the only reason he was on the jet was because the dear lady that gave birth to his worthless behind had (as part of her compensation package) pass travel benefits. Needless to say, when you travel as an employee of the airline (or as a dependent of an employee), your behavior is closely scrutinized. Our company employee handbook lists all the things you CANNOT (read DARE NOT) do while riding on a pass, and while throwing a full cup of steaming hot java on one of the flight attendants isn’t listed…it’s damn sure implied!!!

LMAO! Oh my God! The moron is the child of an employee? I requested two things from the Dispatcher. First, to indeed have the airport security forces ready to meet the jet, but secondly, to please give his dear mother a phone call (I never met the woman, but I’ll lovingly refer to her as “Big Momma”) and inform her of the antics of the “pride of her ovaries”. Also, please ask her if she’d be interested in driving to the airport to meet us at Gate 2 in roughly 45 minutes. He told me to stand by, and within about 3 minutes came back with an “affirmative” on both accounts. It seems that “Big Momma” was an early riser, and would LOVE to be standing by at sunrise when we dock.

SUNRISE

(If I had a dollar for every sunrise these old eyes have seen from altitude, I’d make Bill Gates look like he lived under an overpass.)

The Lead Flight Attendant informed the genius in seat 15D that the Captain required him to remain in his seat until all of the other passengers have deplaned, and only then would he be allowed to depart the jet (I wanted to be sure and not miss the “festivities” that were sure to take place in the gate…lol). We began our descent as the smooth air and faint glow on the horizon gave way to an “accidental” giggle or two from the two aviators up in the pointy end. Lots of shaking of the heads, and comments like “what the hell was he thinking…his Mother could be fired, or at the very least lose her pass benefits over this!” With calm winds, clear skies and no traffic, MSP TRACON cleared us for a straight-in visual approach to Runway 12R, and with long practiced effort, we gracefully landed and exited the runway.

More giggles on the way to Gate 2, and when parked and all of the checklist complete, the F/O and I hurried the task of gathering our wares for a hasty exit to witness the show! As I stepped from the jetway into the (now mostly deserted) gate area, the first thing I saw were the two officers of “Minneapolis’ Finest” dispatched to the gate. They were standing against the wall, arms folded and grinning from ear to ear. Apparently their special skills were not to be needed this fine morning. That’s when I saw her; she, of the “Big Momma” clan.  Standing about 5 feet tall, roughly 200 “on the hoof”, and with legs, torso and arms that would make Dick Butkus jealous.  She had her “baby” pinned up against the wall, with one massive mitt around his neck, and was giving him a profanity-laced version of the “what for” that made my little virgin ears burn! All I could think of was: gloves, pants, Ray-Bans, gold chains and attitude…$2000! Look of shock and terror on an idiots face as his Momma whoops his ass….priceless!

As I strolled away with thoughts of another trip firmly in the books, and the pending days in the loving world of my wife and children, she stopped her “attitude adjustment” long enough to glance at me. We shared a moment, a look, a hint of a grin, and a knowing that only those that have “righted a wrong” can know. I quietly muttered, “You GO Big Momma…you GO!” And then I thought of how my karma was indeed back in its happy place. But what of HIS karma, and “Billys”….oh well, one out of three ain’t bad…right?

 

So those are some of the “best of the best”, but just for grins I’ll throw a couple more at you before I’m finished.

We had a guy bounce his “hockey-puck” airline sandwich off the back of a Flight Attendant’s head the other day while yelling, “We got better food than this IN PRISON!”  The worst thing about it is he was probably right. As mentioned above, nowhere on the ticket does it say “fine dining experience”…does it?

I had to pitch a lady off the jet going to L.A. the other night (“pie-eyed” drunk), and she literally threw herself down to the jet-way floor immediately outside the boarding door. She then proceeded to kick, scream, and call me every “mofo” name in the book. Funny, I thought I knew all of those fancy curse words! I guess now I have a few new ones…lol.

One final snippet of airborne nastiness.

A passenger boarded the jet in LAX the other morning at 1 a.m. (another “redeye” bound for Minneapolis/ St. Paul), and promptly shoved a passenger that wasn’t getting down the aisle fast enough for him. The Flight Attendant informed me of his behavior; I called the gate agent, and guess what?  A “GOMP” award for you, ass-hat…off the jet you go! Within a few minutes the gate agent came into the cockpit to ask if I was too busy to come out in the gate and talk to the buffoon that did the shoving. I told him that A) I was actually quite busy loading data into the Flight Management Computer, and B) to tell the guy that he knew the “rules of the playground”, and if he couldn’t play by the rules, then he doesn’t get to go for an airplane ride…simple as that. A few minutes later, the agent came back into the cockpit to hand me the close-out paperwork, and to inform me that he relayed my message to the dude that I threw off the jet. And what was his response? “He called you an a**-hole”. Funny, even after heaping such worthy praise on me, he still didn’t get an airplane ride that night.

I guess my reasoning behind illuminating some of humanities “darker” moments around airplanes is to say one thing. The next time you march onto an aircraft, don’t feel like the rules have changed…they haven’t. I was told many times growing up to “act as if your Mother were watching”. In fact I’ve dearly wanted to ask some of these people over the years (I would’ve LOVED to have said it to the doctor that beat the snot out of the old lady on the freeway), “what would your mother say, if she saw you doing that?” I’d be willing to bet that for most of them, having a flashback to their version of “Big Momma” kicking their butt for mis-behaving, would’ve resolved the incident post haste.

 

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Time Machine

Seems like it’s been a few days since my last entry…actually it has been.  As of today (22 February), that gap can be measured by exactly 262 sunrises and sunsets. Time has a way of slipping away from all of us, and if you ask anyone (up to and including old “Al Einstein” himself), they would offer that time is a commodity; a very precious one in fact.  We get scant little of it on our journey from cradle to grave, and when that fateful day comes as your personal hour glass runs out of sand, a King’s ransom will make no difference.

This entry is about time, but not the moments that you and I are spending now, or those that we are sure to pilfer away tomorrow or next month. This story is about days that have come and gone. We humans call it “history” (wonder what dogs call it…), and for a bloke like me, it’s as fascinating as it gets. If I were ever to construct a Time Machine, I would care not about traveling into the future, but I would ache to go backwards. Imagine being on/at the likes of: Calvary Hill, Hastings in 1066, Plymouth Rock, Independence Hall, Waterloo, Ford’s Theater, Kitty Hawk, Promontory Peak, the Little Big Horn, Times Square on V.J. Day…the list is almost endless.

On my last trip a few days ago, the F/O and I began to muse about things historical, and I relayed a story about a magical afternoon that I was allowed to spend many years ago. I give you the following piece penned originally in 1998 concerning that day…

“When Time Stood Still”

The agent at gate D2 looked more than just a little pissed-off, “what time does your ACARS read now?” She was referring to our datalink screen on the center pedestal; this is our version of a “dog leash” to all things that are company related. It would show that Northwest flight # 845 was already past the point of an on-time departure toward Anchorage this evening. We were being held at the gate as a “weight critical” flight, and I (by FAA law) could not release the brakes until I received the datalink message from our Load Control folks in Memphis. It would tell me if we were going to be heavier than our 228,500 pound maximum ramp weight.

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(Boeing 757-251 on the ramp in Saipan)

I knew it was going to be very close, and we weren’t going anywhere until this particular message came across our screen (we usually receive it about five minutes after departing the gate while we are taxiing for departure). She didn’t seem to care about all the technical reasons, she just wanted to shut the main cabin door and be done with us, but for a variety of reasons I wasn’t letting her do that. Not least of which was the fact that after she closed the cabin door (and as we sat stationary next to the jet-way awaiting our uplink) she would be rendering that exit useless in an emergency evacuation…not good in my opinion. Now with “her gate” showing a late door closing, and the resulting tardy departure, she was going to look bad to her supervisors (who have a habit of making the lives of those like her miserable). On this evening, “Old Man Time” was not her ally, and her demeanor was less than amiable.

So this begs the questions, why does time control our lives? We are able to firmly grasp most everything around us, but not the one thing that ultimately matters most. We spend so much of our youth wishing things would happen at a faster pace. Remember those school days sitting in class watching the clock tick toward the 3:00 bell that spelled freedom? Those minutes were mired in molasses. We often mused that we couldn’t wait until we were a “big kid”, for our lives would change, and all for the better. And maybe it did somehow, it’s been so long ago I don’t recall. Now as we get older, time doesn’t crawl by, but moves with the speed of a heartbeat. On that day that we are all racing toward (no matter how much we resist), our time will come to an end here on Mother Earth and we will fade into history, alive only in the memories of friends and loved ones.

A few years ago, I was offered the unbelievable gift of stopping time for one afternoon. In fact I was even allowed to step back fifty plus years, to a place none of us will ever see…and it was magnificent. I had the privilege to speak at length with a person that was an aviator from a time gone by, an age long gone, and an age that I have only read about. I was fabulously lucky, for he took me with him on a journey with his tales of wonder, amazement and some pain; a journey that fills me to this day. His name was Bertram Ritchie, and on that day he was ninety-two years young.

My family and I were new to the Twin Cities area that summer of 1996, but we were fortunate in the fact that my mother-in-law was a long time resident, so she helped with the period of adjustment. One steamy July day, she called from the nursing home where she was employed part-time, and told me that someone had just checked in that I may want to meet. She explained that he was an ex-Northwest Airlines pilot, and when she informed him that I too flew for that logo, he asked her if I would like to get together.  I couldn’t believe what she was asking me!  Who wouldn’t want to meet and spend time with this gentleman? I set a time for the next day, and counted the hours filled with much anticipation.

I knew from my historical readings the origin of my line, and it boils down to one word…airmail (in fact my uniform wings haven’t changed since their design in 1929. A globe inscribed with the words “U.S. Air Mail” with wings sprouting from either side). In 1925 Congress passed a law called “The Contract Airmail Act”, and the race between some very competitive aviation visionaries had begun. A hard charging Minnesota businessman convinced several members of the Detroit financial elite to contribute enough capital to form a small line to serve the Chicago-Twin Cities route, and with that decision my airline was born. They barely beat the October 1, 1926 deadline to have service flying by two weeks, with a grand total of two rented open-cockpit biplanes and three pilots.

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(My uniform wings for 27 years…nowadays, the wings on my chest proudly display the Delta Airlines “widget”)

The business goal was to fly people, but in those infant days of commercial aviation, they all knew where the “real” money lay… in the airmail contracts. For my airline it all started on a sultry day in July (not at all unlike the one on my drive to the nursing home that summer morning). Northwest Airways would begin as a passenger airline with one passenger, one pilot, and a Stinson Detroiter flying machine. The year was 1927, barely 24 years removed from the miracle at Kitty Hawk, and flying was outrageously new to your average citizen.

They would depart St. Paul, Minnesota, their destination being Chicago, Illinois. This would be accomplished several hours later after stops in La Crosse, Madison, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At precisely 2 p.m., Charles “Speed” Holman (winner of many stunt flying and race competitions, and the number one pilot on NWA’s seniority list of three), and St. Paul businessman Byron Webster lifted off the brown grass runway. They were bound for La Crosse, Wisconsin, but they would fail to make it, their first stop being barely 50 miles southeast of where their journey began. Roughly thirty minutes into the flight, the 220 hp, Wright “Whirlwind” engine of the Detroiter suddenly sputtered and quit. This was nothing new to “Speed”, for all pilots of that generation had suffered this fate many times. He simply picked a suitable farmer’s field, and gently set the Detroiter down.

Unruffled, he climbed out, and after some wrench turning (with “maybe” an expletive or three), he felt that he had the engine problem solved. Unfortunately, the field wasn’t big enough for the biplane to lift off with the all-important mail sacks AND the one passenger, so Holman used the farmer’s phone to call St. Paul and have them dispatch a truck for the mail and Mr. Webster. He then flew the plane north to where they had started two hours before, and waited for the lorry to arrive. After an hour and a half spent bumping (and sweating) along a series of dirt roads, the truck arrived and Holman approached Mr. Webster with a fateful question. He asked, “Shall we try it again?”  “Sure” was the businessman’s answer, and with that one word, history was made.

stinson-detroter

(Stinson Detroiter)

They lifted off once again, and this time made La Crosse without an issue, consequently proceeding on to Madison. It was past sunset by now, and the dozens of “well-wishers” in the crowd had long since gone home. They had impatiently waited for the event through the long afternoon, but the evening thunderstorms and the late hour had taken their toll. Holman loaded more mail sacks, and after placing a phone call to Milwaukee (and learning that a thunderstorm was now over the field), he decided to delay. At exactly midnight, they touched down in Milwaukee, again to a mostly empty ramp. A few hours later, at roughly two-thirty in the morning, the first commercial passenger flight from the Twin Cities landed in Chicago. The almost four hundred miles had taken its toll on the clock… twelve and a half hours. It had also taken a heaping amount of other things: vision, courage, determination, skill and a bit of luck. It was a fascinating story, and now I was to meet one of those men; those incredible airmen that pioneered my beloved world of aviation.

Walking through the door, I was faced with a not totally unexpected sight. A gentleman in his ninth decade of life was lying in a bed, and looking to be asleep. He was tall in frame, but a bit slight in stature, and had a full head of ghost white hair. He possessed something else. My mother-in-law awakened him, and as the moment of disorientation gave way, and he began to realize who I was, a very wide grin spread across his time-worn face. His handshake was that of a bear (albeit, an old bear), and the clouded blue eyes shone like the thousand sunsets they had witnessed aloft. It was then, that the “something else” I spoke of came alive. For lack of a better description, he had the “air” about him. An air of a man from a different world, a world that had been gone for a very long time. He was from days long past, days alive only in his memories (and in the volumes of history), and he was about to welcome me in.

I didn’t know where to start, but thankfully he did. He asked if it was true that I flew for Northwest, and said that he had “put in a few years there too”. He told me that he had retired in 1963 on the Lockheed Electra L-188 turboprop, after flying nearly everything that had sat on a Northwest tarmac. When I asked if he had ever “checked out” in the jets, he said that the company knew he was close to retirement, and had offered him (leaning close so as to foil prying ears) “10,000 dollars to stay on the Electra”. Not that this is entirely unheard of; today it is quite common for an airline to save the cost of upgrading a “grey-beard”, by just offering them the money difference and keeping them on the same jet until retirement. But $10,000 in 1963! A king’s fortune to be sure.

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(Lockheed L-188 “Electra”)

Now it was my turn to ask a question, but little did I know that his answer would unravel throughout the entire afternoon. I asked about his beginnings in aviation, and here he began his story. He was a young man back in the 1920’s, and in him the spark of flying burned deep. He had somehow managed to save enough money to log time in the rag-tag machines of that era, and was very close to becoming an actual “licensed” pilot. As we know from our history books, times took a turn for the worse that last year in the second decade, and flying and he parted company. The best he could manage was obtaining a job working as a “hangar boy” for a new company in the Twin Cities (side note; I too, was a hangar boy at my aviation college roughly half a century later). Northwest Airways was not an everyday company name, but he was fascinated by all things “airplane”, so he took the job. Their first few years were a struggle, and although the depression was closing business’ doors from coast to coast, they were somehow managing to barely hang on.

Then came the day that would change his life forever. It seems that the reigning “Chief Pilot” for Northwest Airways, Captain Holman (yep, the same “Speed” Holman from the inaugural flight) was in the midst of a dilemma.  The regular co-pilot for one of the “behemoth” Ford Tri-motors had called in sick that night for the Duluth run, and “Speed” needed a pilot, and needed one now. He knew that the young man on the business end of the broom sweeping the hangar floor had some time in a cockpit, and that made the decision for Captain Holman a bit easier.

He approach Ritchie and casually spoke the words “the co-pilot is sick for the Duluth flight tonight, drop that broom and go get in that Tri-motor…you’re now a co-pilot.” Just that simple. From “broom-pilot” to co-pilot in one sentence. Sadly, he would be the last pilot that “Speed” Holman would hire, for this amazing, world class aviator and pioneer would perish in a stunt flying accident within the year. Wow… I knew that my flying world was different from his, but I truly had no idea how great that chasm would be.

He told me of days flying as a new co-pilot when his job was to load the baggage and the mail, then sit in the cockpit and “shut-up and don’t touch nothing!” One of his first jobs was to sort the mail during his spare time. He told stories of some lines tossing old engine parts in the mail bags to build up the weight, and thus the fare charged to the U.S. Postal Service. These were days when competition with the rail system (which also transported the mail) meant everything, but on occasion they would become allies. A not uncommon event in those early winter days was to “find yourself in a blizzard and be forced to land. The common procedure was to find a railroad track, land in the field next to it and wait.” When the next train would appear, they would flag it down, load the mail and any passengers (the single engine Hamilton Metalplane held six), and wait for the weather to break. In casual conversation recently, I told this to one of our Flight Attendants, and she actually thought I was making it up! I assured her I was not. This was aviation in its infancy. This was the heritage of not only her company, but also of her country. Sad that so few of us know from whence we come.

hamilton-metalplane

(The Hamilton Metalplane)

As the battle for Northwest Airways to expand westward was at a zenith, the government again stepped in and drove a stake through the heart of many a small feeder line (thankfully, not mine). Fearing widespread corruption in the mail contracts, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order canceling all air-mail contracts with the airlines. He ordered the Army Air Corps to begin flying the mail, and received widespread outrage from aviators nationwide. For ten days the nation was without air-mail service, and when the Air Corps did begin the service in old obsolete machines, the fatality rate was horrendous (famed WWI ace and founder of Eastern Airlines Eddie Rickenbacker called it “legalized murder”). He told me that after a third of the NWA employees were laid off, he and the other co-pilots continued to fly their schedules, but their pay was the paltry sum of $112 per month. After a few months of this debacle, government officials again opened the air-mail routes up for bidding by the airlines, but at a cost of a complete restructuring of said airlines. When the dust had cleared, a new company was formed by the present name of Northwest Airlines, Inc.

The fancy new machine was called the Lockheed 14-H, but to the slick airline ad execs, it was known as the “Sky Zephyr”. It would be bigger and faster than the Lockheed 10-A Electra it was replacing, but the pilots didn’t want it, it simply wasn’t safe. As he began to tell me of their disdain for this new machine, his eyes began to see old, long departed faces of friends. “We told them not to buy it. We lost Mamer in one at Bozeman, one at Miles City, and Whittemore hit that canyon wall. It was dangerous, and we told them. We had one almost go down taking off from Billings, and the only thing that saved them was being up on that bluff.” (I’ve flown in and out of Billings, Montana many times, and the airport does indeed sit high on a bluff overlooking the town.) “One of the big-wig chief pilots was in the co-pilots seat, and shortly after that one almost went down…..we got rid of them all”. Some things never change. Why listen to the line pilots, what do we know? Shortly thereafter, NWA placed orders for the “huge” 21 passenger Douglas DC-3.

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(Lockheed 14-H “Sky Zephyr”)

I was curious about his war-time experiences, so I asked what it was like during the forties. Most (if not all) of the bigger lines lost many of their planes and pilots to the Air Corps for transport duty overseas, but not NWA…guess we just weren’t a big enough “player”. He said that most of his duty was to help ferry new B-17s from the factory in Seattle up to Alaska. The Army Air Corps crews that were taking these north, were very young, very inexperienced flyers, so Boeing asked NWA if they would send an experienced Captain along with them. Times being what they were, Northwest said yes.

He told me of one such flight where he had met up with four crews to fly four of the big “Flying Fortresses” up to Fairbanks (they would ultimately continue to the Pacific to join the war). He was the lone airline Captain with these young men, and during the several day trip, he got to know them rather well. “They were nice young men, all of them. Very new flyers, only a couple of hundred hours logged by their most senior pilot. I sat between them in the cockpit as we flew north, and we got to know each other pretty well. They were pretty scared about what was in store for them, but wanted to do their patriotic duty. I remember we made it into Fairbanks, and within a few minutes they called and said we had to get to Anchorage fast. We flew down there after little or no rest. The next day all four of the airplanes took off for some place west, and you know what? They were never seen or heard from again. Forty young men…boys really…all gone. What a waste.” His beautiful blue eyes again were seeing a sky that was from fifty some-odd years ago. Deeply sad, they were…like he could still hear their voices, and see their young faces.

As the day wore on, he told me of many adventures. His mind was sharp with the details, and I was transfixed by his recollections. They included names, dates, places, etc. When he told me of a flight in the DC-3 “Gooney Bird” were he was caught in the fog and had to land blind; I swear I could feel the twinge of anxiety tamping down the fear. I could hear the throb of the Pratt and Whitneys, smell the stale tobacco smoke and dried sweat. I could sense the vibrating metal under my boots, and the lumpy leather seat that’s been glued to my rear-end for many an hour. I could picture his hair a little less gray, the blue eyes a little less clouded, and the old “wireless” headphones covering the cap with the trademark “fifty mission crush”.  I swear I was there with him in that cockpit, in that fog storm. (I’ve been where he was mentally…all pilots have…not scared really, just very, very concerned.)

It must be mentioned that they were doing this without the aid of our present day navigation aids. Helpers like GPS, INS, ILS, VOR, were merely figments in an inventors brain. They indeed had NDBs (non-directional beacons), but instead of a full instrument approach, they were using something  called a Radio Range approach. Basically you listened to the radio beacon while it transmitted two letters in Morse code: an A and an N. Once you heard one of the letters, you would know that you were on one of the four spokes of the radio range. The problems with this procedure were many. It didn’t give you any distance (ala DME) info, it didn’t tell you which quadrant of the four section pie you were in (you just had to know based on your direction of approach), and static from heavy rain or lightening discharges played havoc with the reception (so when you needed it most, it may be the most inaccurate). These men were aviation pioneers in every sense of the word. One can’t say that flying back then was dangerous, just maybe not very safe.

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(Northwest DC-3 “Gooney Bird”)

Late in the day, I could tell that he was tiring from all the talking, so he began to ask me questions about my world as it exists now. As I began to offer what being an airline Captain is like in the last decade of this century, his face became puzzled. “But wait a minute, you have to go through some sort of x-ray contraption to see if you have a gun or a bomb? You’re the pilot, why would you want to hi-jack your own airplane?” And, “you have to do what? Pee in a cup to see if you have drugs in you? You’re the Captain for God’s sake, just tell them NO!” But Captain Ritchie, you don’t understand, I can’t just say no, the FAA would ground me. “What do you mean you can’t tell jokes in the cockpit anymore?” Well, we can tell jokes, BUT we are sent to school to learn “sensitivity training”, so as to not offend anyone.” (Let me say that at best we just shut up when a Flight Attendant enters the cockpit…there have been plenty of “sexual harassment” lawsuits in the last several years.) At his bewilderment about the lunacy of these things, I could offer no explanation.

He had a look of shock and a little sadness when he began to comprehend what I was telling him. His beloved profession was not where he had left it. A pilot for the airlines used to be someone very highly respected; unfortunately, at times now we are treated like any other “Joe” that works at the airport.  I’m sad about that too, and not a day goes by at work that I don’t attempt to wear my stripes with pride, and dignity. I try to never forget that people like Captain Ritchie and his comrades, have (in a way) “paid” for my stripes many years ago with a currency that I barely comprehend.

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(Landing in Tokyo in the Boeing 757)

Many times when I’m at work, and confronted with a problem or an obstacle (such as a mechanical delay), I have been known to utter, “but you know, when they write the history books a hundred years from now, this won’t even be mentioned”. It may sound a bit flippant, but I honestly don’t mean it like that, and I feel that it is in fact a very true statement. Most often I use it around the gate agents, etc to highlight the fact that what we are doing is not particularly ground-breaking, and certainly not historic. It’s simply another airline flight flown in a very safe jet, by a group of very skilled people. But the man that I was blessed to spend a summer day with, in the nursing home in Minneapolis, was one of the few who could never say that. They wrote aviation history every single flight, every single day as they flew it.

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(One of my current “mounts”…the Boeing 767-300ER)

A rather sad addendum. It seems that Captain Ritchie was to have a son, and that young man too was to grow up and dream of a life in the clouds. He learned to fly, and after many years of hard work, was hired on to the same line that his father pioneered. He was to rise to the rank of Boeing 727 Captain for Northwest Orient Airlines, but sadly, he would perish in an automobile accident the year I graduated from high school (1974). I could see his heart breaking again as he told me the wrenching tale, but I also felt like I was somehow now holding the baton that he and his son had both held.  I could only hope that I was up to the task.

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(The livery…and airline when I was hired in 1983. A “Northwest Orient” Boeing 727-51. It was the small version of the 727, seating roughly 125 passengers…we fondly called her “the Stubby”)

Northwest Airlines Captain Bertram Ritchie was to pass away later that fall, and upon hearing this I couldn’t help but feel that a chapter in aviation was coming to a close. These men had done what no others had done before them, and (most) of them survived to tell about it. I was one of the lucky few who got to listen in person.

From an unknown author:

“Fly west my friend, on a journey we all must take…”

Tailwinds to you Captain Ritchie…tailwinds my friend and colleague. And one more thing. Thank you for taking me with you in your Time Machine…thank you.

Till next time,

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