“Re-qualification Part II”

 

In the last installment, we saw that “Mike” and I met “Larry” (our I.P. for Day1), and we eased into the scheduled “3 fun filled days in the box from hell”. Larry was actually quite cool, and put us at ease rather quickly. So after our little hour of remedial Surface tablet instruction, Larry began the briefing concerning all the maneuvers he had planned for us this day (the list is at the end of Part 1). But one must ask the question, had we both NOT done all of these things in the simulator many times before? Yes we had. Had we forgotten how to do them in the last five months off (or in Mike’s case, eight months)? No, BUT….much like a pro athlete, time away from the game can be brutal to your skill sets. For the next hour or so, Larry broke most of them down, and we “chalk board flew” them step by step. It helped.

Many of the things we would be doing this day were things that most ANY instrument, multi-engine rated pilot could do in their respective machines, but we are not just “any” pilots. It sounds a bit narcissistic, but we represent the very pinnacle of our profession. We are Airline Transport Rated, Boeing or Airbus type rated, wide-body international qualified aviators, employed by a giant, world-renown airline, and by-God we better be up to the task.

 

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The briefing went well, some dust was blown off of our collective brains, and after a few questions, we departed for the simulator itself. Strangely enough, after climbing into these funny little “rooms on stilts” for most of my adult life, I’m still amazed at how cool they really are. In the old days, the crews (from DC-3s to Boeing 707s) had to find a jet that was not being used in line operations; which usually meant in the middle of the night, and spend hours cutting holes in the sky in holding patterns, doing countless approaches (and missed approaches), and heaven knows how many touch and goes. This of course, was not only incredibly cost prohibitive to the airline, but was actually rather dangerous. More than one line lost entire crews in training accidents.

Along came the early simulators, and with them, the associated big-assed map-boards. These things were usually mounted vertically within some massive room, and had many tiny little towns, villages, trees, roads, airports, etc., all arranged as in real life. One of my first tours through the American Airlines pilot training academy way back in the late 70s (while attending college), brought our tour group into the big room where this giant map was held. It sounds crazy, but a camera “flew” around this map, and this was the “visual” that you would see while in the simulator cockpit. Not kidding here, it really worked that way. I often wondered what happened when you “crashed”. Did the tiny little car/village/tree/cow have to be re-glued back onto the map? I would guess the answer was yes…lol.

 

787 Simulator - Exterior ViewK65021

787 Simulator – Exterior View K65021

(These things are truly marvels…fun if your career were not on the line.)

 

Firmly in the seat now, tablet all set up, seat belt on (yes, we do wear the belt/harnesses…these things have been known to come down hard off the jacks, and a back injury can stop a career quickly), and it was time to “let the games begin”. Larry had us positioned at a gate in SFO, so we could begin with our respective “flow patterns” associated with each pilot position’s Pre-Flight duties…a great way to get back up on that (simulated) horse as it were. Obviously, we don’t just plop our big butts down, stick the keys in the ignition, crank her up, and away we go! Nope, just doesn’t work that way. We have a VERY specific choreography of where we begin in our pre-flight duties, and where we end. When the myriad of things to check and set are finished, the talking begins in earnest.

We converse liberally, and this is the meat of the check-ride…any check-ride (or any good line flight truth be told). Good, effective communications is a must in my profession. We brief the rest of the cockpit crew on lots of very specific things. I’m usually briefing just one other brain, but ocean crossings require we have at least one “relief” pilot depending on the duration of the flight, so sometimes it’s one or two more included into this verbal huddle. I won’t go into ALL of the things we discuss, rest assured we cover pretty much everything…ordinary or not. In real life, I also spend some quality time briefing the cabin crew. They too need to know about things that will affect their lives for the next several hours…weather (turbulence/delays, etc.), mechanical issues, security concerns, and the like. We talk a lot, and we talk often.

The day in question then became a bit of blur, but, as luck would have it, I kept notes for just this occasion. We pushed back, started one of the engines, taxied to RWY 01, and about ½ way there, the F/O started the second motor. This doesn’t wad my panties into a bunch, for it’s more of an exercise to assess the F/O’s ability to perform a cross-bleed start (and use the correct flow pattern and checklist). I basically taxi the big machine, let him (or her) do all the work, and sit there looking regal and handsome. As it should be.

We launched off of 01R, and shortly after that, we were instructed that we would be diverting back into SFO (don’t remember why…out of Colombian coffee maybe?). “ATC” slowed us down below flap extension speed, and guess what? When attempting to extend the flaps, we experienced a trailing-edge flap malfunction. We proceeded to do the checklists involved, briefed and accomplished a visual approach to RWY 28L, all without incident.

Larry then pushed a button and we were “snap-shotted” back into take-off position on RWY 28R for an IFR take-off. Weather was now at 100’ overcast, RVR of 1600’ with a 10KT left crosswind…just a lovely day in the “city by the Bay”. We made sure all the boxes were checked when doing something like this (engine anti-ice on, take-off alternate, etc), and off we went. Larry then gave us vectors to accomplish the VOR RWY 19L approach. We (again) went through all the checklists and briefings, configured the machine correctly, flew the approach, and landed (again) without incident.

Back into position on RWY 28R, WX now 100’ overcast, 500’ RVR and that same pesky 10 KT left crosswind. Another “yawner” of a take-off…but…when in the box (and in real life), professional pilots live by the following credo: “every take-off will end in an abort, and every approach will end in a go-around”. What? It’s all about mental preparedness. Be mentally ready on EVERY take-off to perform an abort at a whisker under V1, and you’ll never be caught napping on the take-off roll. Also, be prepared (and brief) to do a go-around at 50’ on every landing and (again) you won’t be caught with your pilot skills around your ankles when you need them most. I’ve done more go-arounds in the last 30 years on clear, beautiful days while flying a visual approach, then I’ve ever done in IFR weather.

 

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(A rainy day in Narita, Japan. I had just stepped out of this machine, and was headed toward the Customs/Immigration line…)

 

Speaking of IFR. Larry now gave us vectors around to do the “ILS RWY 28R, Glideslope Inop” approach. Not much of an event nowadays with the advent of VNAV. It’s fairly simple to set up the machine to fly a faux glideslope down to your MDA, but you DO need an understanding of how/what/where/why. A certain B777 carrier boned this up a couple of years ago into this very airport, with disastrous consequences. Oh, and speaking of go-arounds, Larry (acting as ATC) told us to go-around at approximately 50’ AGL on this approach (too bad too, for I had it wired…or so I thought). Bastard…lol…but I was ready for him!

Back around for another “ILS RWY 28R”, with the big difference being that the glideslope was now magically fixed, and the WX had deteriorated whereby we would be working under Category II minimums. The worse the weather gets, the better the big Boeing likes it (I know, she told me). CAT II ILS approaches have much lower minimums than your normal CAT I ILS, and that means you MUST have certain equipment (airborne and ground based) working, and the crew must be CAT II qualified (and that young Jedi, is why we do these on every checkride…it helps keep us “current” in the eyes of the FAA in regards to these type approaches).

The other big difference is that we let the jet do the lion’s share of the work…meaning we use all 3 autopilots, and let Mr.s Boeing and Sperry do their magic and the jet lands itself. It’s a tad bit weird the first time or two you do it in real life, but it does all the MANY things it’s supposed to do (when it’s supposed to do them…which is nice), you watch all that taking place (it’s mostly annunciated) with your hands lightly on the controls (to take over and go-around if necessary), and “VIOLA!” you land in the touchdown zone on the center-line as if put there by the good Lord himself. The auto-brakes begin doing their thing, you add a touch of engine reverse, and to leave the runway, you must physically turn the autopilot off so it will stop tracking the localizer beam. Does it always work so perfectly? Well, most of the time it does. We are required to do a certain number of “autolands” on a regular basis (usually in VFR weather) to keep the machine (and our skills) tweaked. We log each one in the aircraft maintenance logbook, and if it was ugly (I had one bounce back up into the sky about 20’ once in Denver many years ago), we let the maintenance wizards know and they get it back into shape post haste.

So we do our CAT II approach to a landing, and Larry once again, re-positions us back into take-off position for RWY 28R. Right about now, I’m starting to wonder…”when is it going to go to hell with engines failing and stuff?” Guess what #2? Yep, ol’ Lare was back at the I.P. console brewing up some “fun” for this retread pilot at the exact same time I was doing my wondering. WX now 600’ overcast, 2 SM vis and that buggered 10 Kt left crosswind mocking me. Usually, when the WX starts to get just a “schoshie” better, it’s time to play “V1 cut” and let’s see if BBall’s reputed strong leg muscles are what he says they are (honestly, hours on the elliptical and BowFlex doing those horrid leg exercises weren’t just for looks…I hope).

Mr. Boeing’s amazing 757 (and the 767) are modern marvels…well, OLD, but marvels nonetheless. In the 80’s the geniuses up in Seattle had abandoned the old concept of “build it like a tank, use plenty of steel, slap tons of engines on it, and send it flying”, to the more economical, and eco-friendly way of building a jet. They used fancy things like computers, composite materials, and new whiz-bang avionics. The brilliant folks at Pratt and Whitney, G.E. and Rolls Royce got on the band wagon and gave birth to the high by-pass fan engines that flew sipping Jet-A like it was made out of gold (and if you remember the uber long lines at the gas pumps in the 1970s, then you know why). These machines became the closest things to a perfectly matched airfoil and engine that aviation had seen in a long time. The two monstrous Pratt and Whitney PW2037s that hang below that 757 wing are bigger than my first apartment after college (not quite as loud though…lol). Rest assured, when one of these babies is at take-off thrust and the other gives up the ghost, it can turn into a wrestling match quicker than a Kardashian can take a selfie!

 

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Larry gave us some generic clearance…”Fly the SFO 8 Departure, maintain 5000’, cleared for take-off 28R”. Away we went….and “boom” just about the time I was lifting the nose, the right engine became useless. Whoopeee! I did my thing, kept on the correct heading (LOTS of left rudder pressure…”come on BowFlex…don’t fail me now!”), managed to keep the airspeed within the limits just north of V2, called for the gear up, called for all the correct mode control panel inputs from “Mike”, and after getting her cleaned up and settled down, called for an autopilot and the appropriate checklist. I had mentally “chair flown” this maneuver a zillion times back when the realization started to sink in that I would indeed be going back onto the line. I knew that this is one of those “make it or break it” maneuvers that one MUST perform well before moving on to the next phase of getting back into the cockpit for real. Much like the Navy pilots that can’t put the jet back on the boat, or the USAF guys that simply can’t hook up to the re-fueling boom, if you can’t fly an engine-out take-off (and landing) in a transport category jet, then the airline doesn’t need (or want) you. Find employment elsewhere…

Now the problem becomes getting the thing back on the ground. Larry has now raised the weather to be 250’ overcast, with an RVR of 1800’ (just barely above CAT I ILS minimums). In the real world, a smart pilot would engage an autopilot and let “George” do the work (assuming the jet is trimmed correctly), but in this little scenario, the FAA requires that I hand fly the machine on the ILS down to minimums. Is this a big deal? Not really, but it DOES require an instrument scan that is sharp, and it also requires knowing the machine and its trim proclivities. Once you know the thrust/flap settings, and can keep your scan going, it’s a matter of VERY small adjustments, and the next thing you know, you’re at 250’ looking at the approach lights, and making ready to land the beast on one engine. One important thing to remember is to STAY on the gauges even after you acquire the runway visually, for in the simulator (at night), the tendency to “duck under” and go low on the glideslope is always there. Stay cool, stay focused, stay on the gauges, and it’ll work out fine. One other thing, be prepared to “go around” on that one remaining engine. We get that regularly in the simulator, but this time Larry was kind and we met the runway in a timely manner.

Down, stopped on the center-line, and again Larry chats to us what he wants (in terms of flap settings, stab trim settings, airspeed numbers, etc.) while he re-positions us back into take-off position for another jaunt into the wild blue. He also utters…”Oh, and Mike, this will be your take-off.” My brain is working overtime now….”let’s see, several IFR approaches, IFR take-offs, engine failure at V1…what’s left?” Remember, the old “every take-off ends in an abort”? Plus…and this comes from the brain of an ex-sim instructor… if you’re sitting in the left seat (meaning, YOU make all the “go/no-go” decisions on take-off, and YOU perform the abort maneuver), then I know that 99% of all “first take-offs” for the F/O will end in an abort for the Captain. They need to see how the “hand off” of control of the jet during a hugely critical maneuver will be accomplished. Remember when I mentioned the briefings we do while sitting at the gate all warm and fuzzy? Needless to say, this event (and how we will handle it) is one of the most important briefings we do.

Yep…me thinks good ol’ libertine Larry is cooking up something to make the next take-off a bit more interesting than usual. Sure enough, at about Vr minus a few knots, a lovely little bell announces that we have a cargo fire. I kick into gear, announce “Abort! I have the aircraft!”, take control of the jet from Mike, and safely get the hurtling mass of metal and flesh stopped before the pavement gives way to dirt. Larry seems to be satisfied, so he asks for me to set the brakes, and “badda boom, badda bing”, he magically puts us back into take-off position.

We then took a well deserved break, and for the next two hours, Mike did essentially everything that I just did, with slight variations of course (sans the Aborted Take-off). This means that I have to mentally change hats and switch over to the “PM” (pilot monitoring) mode. Not a big deal, but I now would be responsible for all the radio traffic, the checklists, setting up the FMS computer, and just generally being the “manager” of the projectile. Oh, and like any good commander (or F/O), I would be tasked with adding suggestions and/or differing opinions toward Mike when I deemed it necessary. Not much of that was needed, for Mike did an outstanding job.

The only thing left to do was some windshear stuff. On departure and during a visual approach. Sounds ominous, right? It essentially calls for managing pitch and thrust (the difference between full thrust and fire-walled thrust levers), and flying out of the shear. Obviously in real life, the best way to recover from windshear is to avoid it like a Far East rash, but Larry wasn’t going to play that game, so we had to fly into it, recover, and fly out of it. Just like in life, if you don’t die, then you win. We did the deed (both of us did both types), and the entire day culminated with yours truly doing a gratis visual approach to a landing on RWY 28R, taxiing to the gate, and performing our Shutdown flows and checklist. Of course, Larry being the dedicated person that he seemed to be, asked if there was anything…ANYTHING…we wanted to do again, or practice more.

“NO THANKS LARRY….but thanks for asking!” (which is pilot-speak for “Are you kidding me? Let my ass outta here!”)

The following were my notes regarding my performance:
– (First take-off): Pitch limit is V2 + 15-25 knots…right at limit… a bit too high.
– (TE FLAP DISAGREE): went well
– (landing with flap/slat malfunction): good
– (instrument take-off): better rotation rate this time, V2 + 15
– (ILS GS out): “LAVS” on go-around pitch got a bit too high
– (CAT II): went well
– (V1 cut): nailed it
– (engine out ILS CAT I): hand flown, went well
– (rejected take-off): did well, pulled APU fire handle (oops)
– (windshear): both went well

So, all in all, Day 1 of the scheduled three round “thrilla in the simulata” went well all things considered. It had been over a year since my last time in the box, and after about 30 minutes, I felt like I was back to about 80% of my fighting form. By the end of the day, I think both Mike and myself felt like we were ready for Days 2 and 3, the actual “real deal” Maneuvers Validation Checkride and the LOE.

Part 3 coming soon…

 

Oh, and just a small “spoiler alert”. Both Mike and I did indeed make it back to flying the line. In fact, here are a few shots from the last few months:

 

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(Yours truly sitting in a restaurant in Bangkok a few months ago. I seem to be excited by the beer menu…go figure.)

 

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(Headed back to Tokyo from Bangkok. We are looking down on DaNang, Vietnam.)

 

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(Sunrise on a leg from Japan back to the USA.)

 

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(Sunset on a leg Guam back to Tokyo. This is the (in)famous Surface tablet we now use for ALL of our charts/manuals, etc. The little pink waypoint I added on the right side of the screen is a typhoon that we’re routed around. IIRC, this was a rather bumpy 3+ hour flight back north…lol.)

 

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(How can ANYONE ever tire of seeing things like this from FL390? Sunset over the western Pacific.)

 
And finally…

 

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(Climbing out of Honolulu on my last trip, headed back to KLAX…”say goodbye to paradise Junior!”)

 

‘till next time…

 

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“Re-qualification”

 

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Greetings all! Things have been moving pretty fast around here for the last six weeks or so. My medical roller coaster ride seems to have finally ended. The mind-numbing, excruciatingly slow exercise (in dealing with idiots) to get all of the paperwork to the appropriate FAA (and airline) authorities, finally ended, and with that I was O.K. to return to work. But…and there’s usally a rather large “but”…before I could actually fly again, I would have to take a spin through my airlines Boeing simulator to prove to the world (and myself) that I still had enough of “it” to fly the big jet.

With that said, here’s Part 1 of that three day adventure.


 

“Re-qualification”

(Or How to Go From Village Idiot to Ace of the Base in “XXX” Easy Lessons…)

 

So you work in one of the most highly technical, regulated, observed, (and sometimes) intense jobs on the planet, and you suddenly find yourself sitting at home for six months nursing a medical anomaly. The question then becomes…when the “gods of the FAA Medical Certificate” smile down on you and all is well, how do you go from standing still to Mach 1, thus getting back up to speed enough to go back to work? You simply have to be equal (or better) to a set of very lofty standards, before they will throw you the keys to the jet, let you load up 200 plus unsuspecting souls, and launch you into low Earth orbit? Its called being “Requal-ed”, and the airlines do it constantly.

In the normal scheme of things, to simply to keep the job, we are required to show up at “Star Fleet Command”, and dazzle the army of the un-dead (the simulator instructor pilots/check airmen) with our immense aviating skills once every year (every 9 months to be exact). Add to that fun, the semi-annual stroll in front of your friendly F.A.A. AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) for a “full Monty” look under your proverbial medical hood, and the everyday normal stress of drunk passengers, bad weather, and ATC delays seems like nothing to your average airline pilot.

But this time it’s different. You’ve been AWOL for many months, and like rust, the world of aviation never sleeps (nor does the associated “technology creep” of your world in the cockpit remain static). What has changed you might ask? Rules, regulations, procedures, destinations, aircraft tech, and yes Virginia, even the way we read our maps. In the mere 180+ days that I was off flying status, my airline morphed from the old fashion way of opening a book, pulling out a map (or approach chart, etc.), and simply reading such, to the “new age way” of powering up your Surface Tablet, “syncing” it to the rest of humanity, and doing the “tap, pinch, slide” dance to see what we need to be seeing. And this means EVERYTHING we might be looking for. For example, to simply read our Company Bulletins, not to mention our maps/charts/etc., we have to bow to the God of the computer tablet, speak its native tongue, and hopefully be rewarded with the information of which we seek! Lovely, right?. Good thing I’m a bit of a computer geek, or I might be feeling like a hemophiliac in a razor blade factory.

Thank God for the company minions that kept me supplied with the requisite bulletins, update emails, training dics, and other assorted paraphernalia during my time spent away. As the notion dawned on me that I might indeed be going back to work, I began the attempt at getting back into “pilot mode”, and it started by gathering all the things I would need to get back in the saddle. But where does one start in this journey of regaining all of the needed knowledge? In a fairly short period of time, I would be tasked with going from a dim-witted, slack-jawed yokel, (that’s been sitting for the last 6 months, on a bean bag chair in my underwear, eating Cheetos and watching re-runs of “Bay Watch”), to a by-God, senior (read know it all) wide body “four striper”, working at one of the world’s premier international airlines. I attempted to channel my inner “Yoda”…but he didn’t answer (must be in the Bahamas on vacation).

The journey actually began over 40 years ago. That first check-ride in the little blue/white Cessna 150, on that scorching hot, July day, with the examiner (80+ yr. old Mr. Robinson), bouncing over the North Texas countryside. The oral exam consisted of me belching forward all the accumulated facts/figures from the paper thin Cessna owner’s manual, and strangely enough, all the worry and anxiety would vanish once my skinny, teenage butt was strapped into the cramped two-place cockpit. Pilots have this funny ability to relax and turn on their “pilot brain” once firmly seated in front of all those funny (yet oddly comfortable) clocks. I’ve gotten to the point in my flying career where I don’t mind the Boeing simulator at all, in fact, it feels quite comfortable. I have no problem relaxing, joking a bit, and each and every time, I seem to learn something new (my wonderful Dad once told me that the day I stop learning in aviation is the day I should quit flying…amazingly smart man). I wondered if I’d have that feeling on this little “spin/dry adventure” through the machine…

So the template for studying all things airplane was forged in the crucible of my Private Pilot training more than a four decades ago. Two things about airplanes that will never change. 1: you gotta move an airfoil through an air mass rather quickly to get it to do it’s magic, and 2: you WILL have to know certain hard facts about your machine, (and perform certain maneuvers) or you will not pass an airline simulator check ride. We call these facts, the “Limitations” (as in FAA/Boeing/Airbus limits), the “Memory Items” (as in emergency checklist steps), and finally the hundreds of items you check on the jet during every outside walk around before flight. I’ve used my lovely bride to quiz me on these things so many times during my career, that I’m fairly sure that she could pass the oral part of the Boeing 757/767 check-ride. Maybe someday I’ll send her in my place…lol.

 

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(It’s a gorgeous machine, but you better have your shite together or it’ll eat your lunch.)

 

The first step was to visit the company website, and download the syllabus for the 3 joy-filled days in the simulator. Day 1 would technically be a “no jeopardy” day. Reason being the fact that you’ve been on forced vacation for many months, and they’re simply giving you a chance to get your sea legs back. We call it a “warm up”, and it’s just that. Mess things up, look like a boob, and no one really cares (well, except you). Nary a pilot has lived, that doesn’t get upset if they dork something up in the simulator. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, and even on a “warm up”, it eats away at that most fragile of things…your pilot ego.

Day 2 is an (almost) repeat of the Day 1 maneuvers, but now they count. In the old days, if you messed things up, you would get a “down” for that checkride, be off payroll status, be given a second “proficiency check” (fancy name for a check-ride), and if you didn’t get MUCHO better, then you would be handed your walking papers. “Canned,  “fini”, “thank you for playing”, “we have a nice parting gift for you behind door #2”… I’ve seen it happen when I was a 727 instructor, and it’s not a pretty sight (remind me to tell of the time I flunked a guy on a check-ride, and later that day HIS WIFE called me crying on the phone…sometimes being the I.P. sucks too…lol). Nowadays, the industry is much more “warm and fuzzy”, but you still have to do things right, or you’re put under a VERY hot spot light, re-tested and watched like a hawk.

Day 3 would be the culmination of this journey with what we call an “L.O.E.”, or Line Oriented Evaluation. The day would start with that dreaded oral exam (to include looking at .jpgs of the exterior of the jet …757 or 767, the I.P.’s choice), then the ride in the box would resemble an actual day on the line. You’re given a flight plan, some MEL items (broken things on the jet that you’re allowed to dispatch with…like galley ovens, APUs, etc. MEL stands for Minimum Equipment List, or the Bible for all things broken), some weather/NOTAMS info, and away you go. Needless to say, lots of things get pear-shaped on this little mission, and it’s up to you and your F/O (and the Check Airman acting as ATC, Dispatch, Mechanic, Flight Attendant, etc) to act like a well-oiled team, solve these issues, and safely get the jet from point A to point B. Sounds like fun…right?

 

My Day 1.

After meeting “Mike” (not his real name… my F/O for this little adventure) in the elevator of the hotel, we decided to have dinner and plot our strategy. He had been off line for about eight months due to a shoulder injury, but was back in fighting form and ready to rock. He’s based at our big southern domicile, but like 99% of all pilots, we quickly hit it off, and it looked like we’d work well as a team.

We showed up early at the huge training facility (they almost all look like big-assed hospitals, with a bit of a sterile feeling ….no matter how many cool pictures of big jets they have hanging on the walls), mostly ready for the day. After following Mike through the maze of hallways and staircases (thank God he’s been coming to this monstrosity for years, seems like every time I come down here, I get lost), we found our assigned “Briefing Room” and awaited our I.P. Within minutes, in walked “Larry” (not his real name); our tour guide for today’s little adventure. He proceeded to put us at ease by asking about our reasons for the “Special Re-Qual”, and like any good instructor, gave us a good little “war story” about something similar that he experienced during his career (many of the Instructor/Check Airmen are retired from the airline, and work part time at the Training Center for whatever reason: extra money, bored, wife wants them gone like the last 30 years…lots of reasons.)

 

IMG_0859a

(doesn’t this look like a place where LOTS of fun things happen?)

 

The day’s work began when Larry asked us how comfortable we felt with our Surface Tablets, for we would be tasked with using them in the simulator for the next 3 days. This was met with two “doe in the headlights” looks coming from the two morons sitting across the table from him…and the sounds of crickets chirping. We had both watched the “training disc” sent to our respective homes, but as far as feeling good about using the device…”well, I know how to…ummm….push the O-N button…and that’s about it.” Larry laughed this off, for he felt our pain, and proceeded to spend the next hour getting us up to speed on this little grey box from hell. (side note: after using it for the last six weeks…to include a 12 day trip to Asia…I actually like it. It has some “quirks”, but for the most part is pretty cool)

At the termination of our “remedial tablet” training, Larry’s face lost a little of its jovial-ness, and we got down to brass tacks. He launched into the briefing on what we would be doing that day, and here’s the laundry list of what our next four hours would look like:

– Before Start Operations

– Pushback/ Start Operations

– Taxi/Before Takeoff Operations

– Instrument Takeoff Operations

– Engine Failure After V1 Operations

– Rejected Takeoff Operations

– Visual Approach Operations

– Non-Precision Approach Operations (one each pilot)

– CAT II ILS Precision Approach – Missed Approach Operations (each pilot one from below)

o Engine Out Go-Around

o Manual Go-Around

o Rejected Landing

– Landing Operations

– Landing With Engine-out Operations

– Landing with Slat/Flap Malfunction Operations (one each pilot)

– Inadvertent Windshear Encounter Operations (one each pilot)

o Windshear After Liftoff

o Windshear encounter during Approach Procedures

End of Briefing.

 

Piece of cake…right? 🙂

Next…part 2.

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“Little Max”

 

Good news on the medical front! Looks like I may be going back to being a “working stiff” soon. The mysterious eye affliction has cleared itself, the Ophthalmologist has cleared me, my FAA doctor has cleared me, and now it’s just a matter of HIS bosses in the Regional FAA Office doing their paperwork dance and issuing me my “1st Class Medical Certificate”. It seems like years since I was in a cockpit (only four and half months to be exact), but I must confess I grow tired of the doctor’s offices, the hoops that require jumping through, and all the hard work that my lovely bride has asked of me!

Actually, that last one is a lie. If there’s been any silver lining to all of this, it’s the fact that I’ve had the joy of spending more time with my wonderful wife (and youngest daughter) than I have in years. From a person that’s traveled non-stop for the last 35 years, it’s been a bit weird being in the same time zone for so long. What’s this about sleeping through the night? Eating at the same body-clock time every day? The hell you say! I have enjoyed being on a REGULAR work-out schedule (and my waistline has shown the results…lol)…but…

…it’s time to get back to work and let the journey continue.

I’ll keep you in the loop.

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote several years ago. His name is “Max”, and I can still picture his face.


 

“Little Max”

 
Over the years, as I’ve piloted my airliner through the heavens , I’ve spent time thinking about the lives I have in my hands. Technically though, that statement is something of a misnomer. My hands only control the physical operation of the aircraft on any given flight, it’s actually my brain that holds my charges well-being in the balance. Most of the time, the only contact I have with the folks that sit on the other side of the cockpit door is at the end of the flight as they exit the machine. If at all possible, I try to finish my shutdown duties quickly enough to stand in the cockpit door and wish my customers a heartfelt “thank you” and “goodbye”. Occasionally I have an experience like the day I will describe below, for on those rare flights, I have the chance to meet some of the people that put their trust, their faith, and their lives in my hands for safe keeping. When that happens, it invariably leaves me with a feeling of awe and respect for the awesome magnitude that my life’s work holds.

 

Gate LGA

(Parked at Gate 5 in KLGA)

 

It was a clear and warm this particular evening in New York and we found ourselves moored at gate 5 at arguably the ugly step-sister of the 3 airports serving the “city that never sleeps”. We were preparing to leave La Guardia airport for a short milk-run trip over to Detroit, and the preliminary look at all the paperwork showed that this should be a ho-hum event. That would change quickly, for as our departure time grew near, three very special, very different people would come into my life and interrupt my happy little world in the cockpit.

I had finished my preflight duties early, and found that I had little to do but watch the clock tick down to our scheduled launch time, so I took the opportunity to enjoy a brief respite from the harried world of aviation in the New York area, and simply sit back to enjoy a fresh cup of my airlines best java. From behind me in the boarding door I heard a woman saying to her little someone, “see, that’s were the pilots sit”. As I turned to greet them, I found myself face to face with a young lad of about four or five years of age. His smile met mine and I immediately waved him up into the cockpit. With two cobalt blue eyes as wide as saucer plates, he cautiously came forward and we talked for a few minutes.

He was an adorable little boy. Standing about three foot nothing, he was dressed like many of his age…adorned in a mini version of a football jersey with little rumpled blue jeans, all complete with the (required) untied tennis shoes. In other words, he was the picture of a rough and tumble little tike his age; truly from within a Normal Rockwell painting. He shouldered a backpack full of little boy treasures, was beside himself with many questions, and judging by their smiles, he was the pride and joy of the two people standing in the cockpit doorway. We greeted each other, I gave him some plastic aviator wings, a Boeing 757 “baseball” card, and we conversed as only a fifty year difference in ages would allow.

He told me his name was Max, and that he was going to be a football star when he grew up. The F/O and I introduced ourselves, and we talked for a bit. I showed him some of the cool flashing red and green lights we have on our instrument panels, and even tested some warning systems that have “voices” associated with them. His big eyes grew bigger and his bright smiled suggested that he was having almost as much fun as I was. Within a few minutes he was gone and I turned around in my seat to smile and reflect about my three wonderful children, and how very lucky I am to have them in my life.

 

Me cockpit MSP

(Yours truly at the gate in Minneapolis several years ago. I know what my daughters would say…”Hey that’s back when you HAD HAIR!” Lol…women.)

 

The next person to interrupt my cockpit tranquility, was someone I never actually met, for I was merely informed of his presence by the Lead Flight Attendant. He boarded with two agents of the Secret Service, and was immediately rushed to his First Class seat to be guarded and sequestered from the other passengers as much as possible. This man held the esteemed position of the Secretary of the United States Treasury, and with his hands on the purse strings of one of the most powerful nations in the world; he would indeed fit the definition of a V.I.P. In a few hours we would taxi into the gate in Detroit and be met by a dozen or more very stern looking government agents, both in the jet-way and on the ramp next to their vehicles. Their job of making sure this man would have the luxury of his next breath (in an age where too many people believe that murder is a fine means to a political end), was neither to be envied nor taken lightly. At the termination of this evening’s flight, he would be rushed off to whatever destination his duties required.

And that brings me to the last person that carved a place in my psyche on this flight. She was at first glance a very ordinary looking woman in every respect. Average height, average build, mid-thirties, and seemed to be very un-remarkable except for one small detail; she was utterly and completely terrified to be on my aircraft. She came forward into the cockpit, sat down behind me on the jump-seat, and with a large dose of trepidation, began to explain to us her problem. It seems that she suffered from severe bouts of claustrophobia…not a good thing to have in a metal tube crammed with hundreds of human beings.

I could immediately tell that the look in her eyes was born from the terror of two demons, the known, and the equally horrid unknown. The known of course, were her familiar feelings of being trapped in this cramped vessel seven miles above terra firma, with the unknown being exactly what her reaction to those feelings would be. She nervously questioned me about how long we would be taxiing for take-off, how long the flight would take, and if we would be delayed on the taxi into the gate after landing in Detroit. The expressions on her face were a mixture of fear, dread and anxiety, softened slightly with a glimmer of hope based on my answers to her questions.

Naturally, as her Captain I’m responsible for not only her well-being, but in this case, to a certain extent her sanity. She would expect me to “have all the answers” for her, and I was not sure I was up to the task. Of course I had absolutely no idea how long we would wait at both ends of this journey, for that can depend on literally hundreds of things beyond my control. I’ve pushed back from the gate here at La Guardia during what seemed to be a non rush-hour, only to find myself in a line of jets two dozen deep. This little airport is nothing more than the cross of two short stretches of concrete, squeezed between cramped neighborhoods, on a sand bar in the Flushing Bay off of Long Island. It was popular (and very busy) back in the 1940s bathed in the sounds of DC3s and Constellations, and today with that popularity intact, it can define the word “gridlock” on the taxiways.

 

LGA taxiway

(The view rounding the corner in LGA headed for RWY 04. As mentioned, I’ve sat on these stretches of pavement for HOURS waiting to take-off…frustrating to be sure.)

 

In addition, I’ve had to sit in the “penalty box” taxiway area in Detroit waiting for our gate to free up many times. The choreography of moving a hundred jets off the gates as the next hundred are landing can obviously be challenging on its best day. With as much compassion as I could muster, I explained those two unknowns to her (being sure to leave out the part about the possibilities for long delays…the last thing she needed from this Captain was a reason to borrow more worries than she already had). My last statement to her was that if we indeed experienced a delay at the other end and she was severely feeling the effects, she was to inform the Lead Flight Attendant, and I would do whatever I could to get my jet to the gate as quickly as possible…up to and including chewing some ass on the “gate radio” frequency. Yelling is not my style, but if this would get us an open gate sooner and keep her from an attack, then I was prepared to do it and suffer the consequences.

As luck would have it, the flight was very routine, which was obviously a good thing for all of us. We rounded the corner on the taxiway for runway 04 in La Guardia and unbelievably, we were number one for departure! We lifted off without delay, climbed quickly to our flight level, and settled down for the hour and a half journey. The evening air was very smooth, the ride superb, and we were treated to a spectacular sunset shortly before landing (any pilot that tires of seeing this type of display from 35000 feet should possibly find employment elsewhere). With no hint of delays from the air traffic controllers inbound over Lake Erie, it began to look like Lady Luck was indeed riding comfortably with us on this flight.

 

 

Sunset Mt. Fuji

(Sunset looking west at Mount Fuji. On this flight last summer, we were inbound to Tokyo’s Narita Airport from Guam.)

 

I purposely pulled all the tricks out of my “pilot skills” bag, made a smooth approach to runway 03R in Detroit, and a better than average landing. Truth be told, I was trying especially hard for a gentle touchdown for the lady with the health issues. Rare is the pilot that will say he doesn’t wear the shame of a bounced landing long after the fact, I know I do. Being a few minutes early, I was concerned about arrival gate availability, but low and behold, our gate was open. I’m certain it was due to the Secret Service needs for expeditious handling of their charge. Whatever the reason, I was pleased that there would be no “penalty box” for us tonight, and we taxied to the gate rather quickly. In no time, I was setting the brakes, and asking the First Officer for the Parking Checklist. With this “milk run” over and everyone safely deplaned, I now had time to think about the people who had just given me their ultimate trust…their very lives to safeguard. In particular, I found myself thinking of those three very different, but important people, and the ramifications of my decisions during the last few hours.

How would I have changed countless histories had I NOT safely gotten these three to their intended destination this night? For instance, would one of the richest economies in the world have been affected with the loss of this cabinet level Secretary? Would his successor have the wisdom required for the job, or would he/she have steered the country and its economic engine in the wrong direction. And if America’s economy failed, how would this effect millions of lives across the globe? His demise might well lead to economic chaos and heartache on a massive scale.

Would the woman with the claustrophobia have been just another statistic in a news flash or a number on an accident report? Would the media learn of her story and the nightmarish battles she fought with her affliction? Would the hell that any simple flight might hold become her legacy, or would her problems die with her? With no personal experience regarding her medical condition, I could but guess how she must have felt for those couple of hours trapped in that metal prison. I shuddered at the thought.

Truth be told though, my overpowering thoughts this evening were of little Max, with his cherubic smiling little face. He almost certainly has a long life to live, little boy things to accomplish, and when manhood is reached, a family to have and to love. I couldn’t help but follow farther down the path with my thinking. Would he grow up to lead an industry? Paint the next Mona Lisa? Maybe cure some hideous disease? How about the possibility of becoming the mighty football hero that lives in his dreams? Someday his grandchildren will sit on his lap and listen to stories of when he was a child, and how different things were “way back when”…and this made me smile. Had I not fulfilled my part of the bargain that night, his future and the family genealogy he would supply, would have perished with us, and the ramifications of that were more than I cared to think about.

He of course, will forget his encounter with me on that warm November evening in New York, but I doubt that I will soon forget him. Maybe it was his sweet little “childlike innocence” that made his trust in me more real, more special than usual. I’m convinced that he didn’t understand that the funny man he was talking to in that room (with all the cool lights and funny sounds) could alter his future, or even destroy it if he’s negligent in his duties, but rest assured my little friend, “that man” understood it.

It goes without saying, but all professional aviators feel that every one of our passengers are very important people; as well we should. However, maybe on this night, that little angel with the excited voice, the glowing eyes, and the big smile seemed just a little more important, maybe just a little more special than the rest. Have a wonderful life my little friend Max, and come fly with me again anytime.

’till next time…

Standard

“Did He Say Bomb?”

 

Two days before Thanksgiving, 1994 dawned cold, misting rain and generally just plain crappy. That’s the only way to describe the weather as we left the gate in that sprawling city on the banks of the “Big Muddy”. I swear if only Elvis were still alive there in Memphis…he would have done something about it. “Bill, do you want the engine heat on?” “Yeah Terry, it’s below 10 degrees C, let’s turn it on…Ken, would you make the EPR corrections on the take-off data card?” (Exhaust Pressure Ratio…essentially, the gauges we use to set the thrust.) As we taxied for departure that grey morning, First Officer Terry and Second Officer Ken were busying themselves with their respective “before take-off” duties. I, on the other hand, simply concentrated on taxiing the aircraft without swapping paint with any of the other jets jammed back in the alley with us. After a layover in Little Rock the night before, we had flown the 20 minute flight to Memphis, and were now Northwest Airlines Flight 632, destination: New York’s La Gaurdia Airport. The aircraft was a Boeing 727-251, ship number N298US, and except for the garbage weather, life was good. All this was to change in the next few moments.

As mentioned before, in aviation one experiences many firsts. Most of these are wonderful occasions: your first solo, your first time in command of a multi-engine aircraft, your first time solo-ing a student as a new Flight Instructor, etc. However, some of these little events aren’t so full of joy: things like your first FAA check-ride, or maybe your first in-flight emergency come to mind quickly. I’ve heard it said on more than a few occasions, that during your career as a professional pilot “you’ll get one of everything”, and that seems to be true. Before this day was done, I would be able to put a check in the box marked “Bomb Threat”; and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Just about the time I had called for Terry to set the flaps to their normal take-off position of 15 degrees, we received a “ding dong” chime from the Lead Flight Attendant. S/O Ken answered it, and by the tone of his voice I could tell that it was something important (not the usual issues like we’re out of Colombian coffee, lol.). Needless to say, my ears began to perk up. “OK, I’ll tell him, and why don’t you come on up” was Ken’s response. He hung up the inter-phone mic, and turned to face me. What he was to say, would affect the lives of 146 strangers and my crew of six for the next several hours. It came out as, “Bill, you’re gonna love this, we’ve got a bomb threat.” My “steely-eyed, squared-jawed, Captain-like” response came out as, “Huh?”

Before we go any farther, I’m going to take a break from the telling of this tale, and introduce you to the cast of characters in this little melodrama .

 

Playing the part of Captain and aircraft commander was yours truly. At the time, a 38 yr. old, rather brand new “four striper”, with about nine months experience in the left seat of the Boeing 727. I was feeling fairly comfortable, for coming back from the right seat of the DC-10 to fly the “7-2”, was like meeting up with an old friend. I had crewed her as a Second Officer, been a simulator instructor and Check Airman on it, and had flown it as a First Officer for about a year in the mid-80’s. It’s a tremendous machine (albeit old technology), built like a tank, and when the “going gets tough, put me in a Boeing every time”.

Sitting to my right, was my trusted First Officer Terry. A tall, handsome, gregarious fellow Texan from the bright lights of Houston. At the time, he was in his early thirties and in another life and time, there’s no doubt he would have been a riverboat gambler. His gold chains and Rolex watch were evidence that he did pretty well within the world of wagering, but his mood would change as did his fortunes. This is not to say that Terry had a problem with gambling, but at each and every stop during our trips that month, he would be on the phone to his bookie. They may have been your friendly “how’s the wife and kids?” type calls, but I got the impression that he and this person were maybe a BIT closer than he and his bride back in Houston. A terrific pilot, full of opinions (what pilot isn’t), and generally fun to share the cockpit with.

Ken was even more of a hoot then Terry.. In his early fifties, head full of grey hair, retired from the Navy at the rank of Captain (isn’t Admiral next?), and was playing the part of the Flight Engineer (or “switch flipping fool” as we called them), just to get out of the house and have some fun. He had done it all, seen it all. From flying fighters from the rolling decks of carriers, to serving in the Pentagon, to sitting behind me at the Second Officer’s panel on a twenty year old airplane. His wit and sense of humor were sharp as a blade, and the fact that he had two “young pups” driving him around the system, was a constant source of jocularity for him. He stayed planted rather firmly in Terry’s face (good naturedly, of course), and kept “the kid” riled up almost constantly. (It didn’t help that they went out gambling on the layover the week before in New Orleans, and he kicked Terry’s ass on the craps table… not having any idea what he was doing!  He spent the entire next day counting out his $2400 winnings on his Second Officer’s table over and over again, while asking Terry “how much did you win last night?”…I loved it).

The last member of the troupe to get an honorable mention is Rose, the Lead Flight Attendant. Wonderful lady, and a true source of help during all that was to transpire. She was from the “old school”, always made sure her hair and makeup were perfect, was hired back in the days when all “good” things started with N…Nixon, Napalm, Namath and Nicotine. She was in her mid-fifties, still loved her job, and had logged many an hour flying for Braniff, and following their demise, had hired on with NWA. There was no doubt who was in charge in the back of the jet, and I was lucky to have her there during all of this.

 

b727

(A Northwest Boeing 727. When we first switched to this livery, we called it “the bowling shoe” paint job. Most of us didn’t much care for it at first, but it grew on us.)

 

With that said, the cockpit door opened and in stepped Rose with a magazine in her hand. “Bill, I think you’re going to want to take a look at this” Well, since I can’t taxi and read at the same time (at least not in the confined alley we had found ourselves in), and since the F/O has no “tiller wheel” to taxi from his side, I stopped the jet, set the brakes and took the magazine from her. It was our version of the complimentary in-flight magazine that all carriers have. You know the one; it’s full of interviews with people you couldn’t give a rat’s ass about, junk you would never buy if you weren’t so friggen bored (do you REALLY need a heated litter box for your cat to take a dump in?), and a crossword puzzle that Albert Einstein couldn’t figure out. On the page adjacent to our “Welcome Aboard” message from the CEO, some moron wrote; “I have placed a bomb on board this aircraft. If you choose to ignore this, it could be FATAL. You choose.” Lovely.

After reading it to myself a couple of times, I decided to share it with the other two heads trying to read over my shoulder. Terry’s eyes began to take on the “doe in the headlights” look, and Ken just started to smile and shake his head. Rose looked at me like, “O.K. new Captain, now what are you going to do?” I had three heads peering at me for some guidance, and I was desperately trying to figure out how I felt about all of this. This is, of course, “the rub” with wearing that fourth stripe. When the excrement begins to strike the proverbial fan, all eyes look to you, and you have to make a plan, and it HAS to be right. Even though this was my first time with someone making a threat against my aircraft, I was determined to do it by the book.

Since we were off the gate, the last place that ATC and law enforcement authorities wanted us, was back at the terminal. We were committed to doing this out on the tarmac. As most of you might well imagine, the moment you mention the “B” word over any ATC frequency, telephones start to ring in offices all over America (from the local FBI, to the airline, to the aircraft manufacturer, to the FAA folks in D.C….it gets serious in a hurry). We are briefed, trained and practiced at the art of what to do when this starts to happen, but it’s a bit like getting pregnant… it’s no big deal until it happens to you! We fessed up on the ATC Ground Control frequency, and they hit the big red button (I don’t think they actually have one, but it’s a cool imagine, right?). The first thing that they had us do was to get the hell out of the crowded alleyway (for obvious reasons). Unbeknownst to most laymen, every commercial airport has a “ground zero” area designated for just such an aircraft (be it a bomb threat, or a hijacking, etc), and we were instructed to taxi to it. This area affords the best access to your aircraft, and just as importantly, it will keep you well away from anything important in the case of any collateral event (nice way to say big explosion, eh?). We began our taxi to just that spot on the Memphis airport, while I had Terry suggest to ATC to have the other folks on the taxiway keep a safe distance from us.

I know it’s hard to believe, but now the questions began to race around in my head. Is this a “for real” bomb threat where something explosive actually is on the jet? What will we do if we find said explosive device? Should we evacuate the aircraft? What the hell am I going to tell the 146 customers that think we’re on our way to NYC? And most importantly, is this all going to play out like when we train for it? I had to come up with some answers to all this, and do it pretty darn quickly. I started by having Rose stay with us in the cockpit for a few minutes, so she would hear what the game-plan would be, and thus be on the same page of music as the rest of us.

With the same three heads giving me “the look”, I stopped about halfway to the ground zero spot, set the brakes and began to formulate the plan. I started by eliciting opinions about how “serious” they thought this little note might be. We all agreed that it was serious, but we also thought that it was almost certainly put there by some snickering pimply-faced 15 yr. old, or some drunken moron pissed off because we had lost his bag the last time he flew us. We all agreed that had we had an actual funny ticking thing to look at, then we’d all be off the jet like we were shot out of a cannon! I felt very certain (and they all agreed) that this was your basic hoax. We would treat it seriously, and we would ALL be getting off this thing shortly, but we would not be conducting an emergency evacuation (invariably, someone is injured breaking an ankle, etc). Rose left the cockpit knowing how we were going to play this, so now it was time to tell the New Yorkers in the cabin that they would be a bit delayed. I picked up the passenger P.A. mic, and told them what was happening, that is was most certainly a hoax, and what we were going to do about it (only I didn’t use the 15 yr. old, or pissed off drunken moron analogy).

 

b 727 1

(Converting Jet-A fuel into smoke. She was a joy to fly…)

 

So far, it was all going rather smoothly, well as smoothly as a bomb threat can go I guess. The local authorities were scrambling to find enough buses to meet us at “ground zero”, deplane the passengers, take them into the terminal and brief/interrogate them. The FBI bomb team was to be on-site ASAP, and the NWA Memphis Station Manager would meet us when we shut down to coordinate anything else we may need. Cool, just like in the movies.

About that time, Rose came back into the cockpit to tell me that “most of them are doing fine with all this, but one little old lady wants to know WHY we aren’t evacuating the airplane.” Really lady? Ray Charles could’ve seen that one coming. Stop the jet, set the brakes, and back on the P.A. mic to explain why we were going to keep this from turning into a “Chinese fire drill”. Rose was doing a great job of keeping everyone in the back informed and focused on what she needed them to do, and I couldn’t help but wonder if “Riverboat” Terry was mentally calculating our “odds” on this one. “Let’s see….I’ll take $5000 on Crazy Legs Bomber to WIN in the daily double.” I was hoping that if he had to place a wager that he was at least betting on the Boeing crew. “Admiral” Ken was as cool as a cucumber…after all, this wasn’t like going downtown over Hanoi in an A-6 or something REALLY serious…right? I would expect no less from him.

So by now we were famous on the airport property; evidenced by our escort of about a million emergency vehicles (all with lights flashing…oh and we would learn later that we did indeed make the evening news in Memphis…lol.). As we reached the designated spot, I brought the big jet to a stop, set the brakes and was once again speaking into the P.A. mic. “Folks, this is where we’ll be parking the aircraft during all of this. You will be seeing the busses arrive very shortly. In a few minutes you’ll be hearing us shut down the engines, the authorities will be boarding the aircraft from the stairs in the tail, and then we’ll have you deplane and wait in the terminal while we have everything checked out.” So far, so good. “O.K. Ken, let’s have the “Shut Down Checklist” please.”

“WAIT!” (It was Terry the F/O speaking)

I won’t go as far as to suggest that “Riverboat” Terry was spending too much time in a world other than the one MOST of us find ourselves, but maybe his over active imagination was starting to get the best of him. He and Ken had gone to the movie the day before on our layover in Little Rock, and guess what cinematic adventure they had witnessed? None other than the film “Speed” with Keanu Reaves and Sandra Bullock. You know the one with the BOMB ON THE BUS?! You can see it coming, right? As I was reaching for the Fuel Cut-off Levers to shut down the two screaming Pratt and Whitneys, he grabbed my hand. “What if the bomber hooked up the device to a Tach Generator on one of the engines, and when it winds down…..BOOM?”

My only response, was “Huh? What the hell are you talking about?.” Terry: “You know, just like in “Speed”…only they have to keep the bus above 55 mph or it goes KA-BLOOEY!” Me: “Uh, Terry, you’ve definitely got to get out into the real world more often. Now, I’m going to move these both to the “Cutoff” position…and if you’re right, the next sound you hear will be your ass flying through your eyeballs.” Of course, I could go an entire career and not get the chance to do what I did next (I winked at Ken…he caught my drift, and immediately became part of the gag). As I lifted both of the levers over the “Run” detent toward “Cutoff” position…we BOTH let out a big “BOOM”! Terry almost crapped in his pants…I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard ever…still gets me giggling.

 

B727 4

(All three seats [plus the “First Observers Seat] of that beautiful jet. I used to say the most automated thing on the entire machine was the mirror light that came on in the bathroom when you locked the door…that was about it! [Many thanks to Justin Cederholm for the use of his wonderful photo.])

 

Once firmly anchored at ground zero, engines shut down, the “Securing Checklist” accomplished, things began to happen rather quickly. On Ken’s S/O panel we were showing that the aft air-stairs were unlocked, and the aft entry door was open; “Elvis was in the building”. Within a few seconds some rather stern looking gentlemen came into the cockpit and informed me that they were the local “response team”, here to assist in getting all the passengers onto the busses and headed for the terminal. The next face I would see ended up pissing me off to no end. In walked a guy that was about as tall as he was round, and he immediately started to hit me with what “we were going to do” (he was the aforementioned Station Manager for my line). “We’ve been on the phone with all the appropriate security folks, and have decided that this is a “sterile flight”, so we’re just going to do a quick search of the cabin, re-board the folks, then you’ll be on your way to New York in no time.”

Wrong there Mr. buffalo-breath! This scrawny-assed (four striped) home-boy had no intention of playing it like that, “Now just a minute there cowboy. I don’t know who the hell you’ve been talking to, and I don’t really care, but I’m not taking this thing anywhere until every inch of this aircraft is searched. Every seat, every overhead bin, every suitcase, and every friggin matchstick is taken off and searched. If that’s not good enough, then YOU fly it to New York….the keys are in the ignition!” Jeeeezzz, what kind of a moron did this guy take me for? Yeah, no question, the note most probably was a hoax, but I don’t get paid to take that kind of a chance with anyone’s well being. And I didn’t give a rat’s ass how long it was going to take, they were going to be looking at ol’ Mr. Boeing’s airplane long and hard before I would take it anywhere. “Mr. Personality” got really pissed off, spun around and marched out of the cockpit. I think Terry and Ken were wanting to give me a big kiss right then and there (ugh, sobering thought).

So now out into the cold drizzling rain steps your intrepid flight crew. As I was speaking to the on scene commander for the FBI, I noticed that my two stout cohorts had taken refuge in the black government Suburban (read heated and dry)…wimps. All of the passengers and my three flight attendants were now safely in the terminal, so the process of turning this thing inside out was to begin. The FBI Bomb Squad was on site with their two K9 companions, and were in the process of testing them before turning them loose on the aircraft (one gentlemen was planting packages of C4 in an adjacent field for the dogs to individually search for and find….if they failed, then they’re not used for that mission). To my relief, they both passed their tests, and into the cabin they ran (and I do mean ran). I followed them in, and was amazed to see them up in the overhead bins moving and sniffing everything at an amazing rate. They covered every inch of the inside of that jet in no time. I’ve heard that a dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times greater than ours, and I was hoping that whoever relayed that little tidbit to me was not mistaken.

As we exited the plane, the ramp personnel had unloaded all of the suitcases, and lined them up very neatly in several rows on the pavement. Each dog had a turn sniffing the bags, and when they would “target” one (signified by sitting down next to it), the handler would remove the dog, the ramp folks would play a game of shuffle the suitcases, and the dog would return to do more sniffing. This went on for quite some time, and BOTH dogs ended up targeting the same three suitcases each time! Oh, oh…not looking good for the home team. I noticed that “Mr. Personality” had changed his tune. He actually said to me, “maybe it WAS a good idea to have them search everything.”…brilliant statement there Sherlock Holmes!

 

B727 2

(One of my dearest friends recently retired from American. I always thought their “shiny” paint job was totally cool.  It was brilliant actually, they saved hundreds of pounds by not painting their planes. Lighter jets burn less fuel…   Thanks again to Bob Garrard for use of his amazing photo.)

 

Now the FBI agents swung into high gear. They headed for the terminal, rounded up the folks that owned the three suspicious pieces of luggage, and back to the jet they came. Each one was asked to open the offending bag, and display its contents. One was an elderly gentleman that had a butane hand warmer in the bag (good pooch, smelling that butane), one was a lady from Korea, and she had some sort of cooking spices packed in her suitcase (poor dogs had probably never sniffed Kimchi before…been there, done that), and the last was a young lady that looked to be in her twenties (I don’t even want to think about what they sniffed in her suitcase). When they were examining it, I was talking to the “fingerprint expert” about all of our prints on the magazine, and since I never heard a “Freeze, FBI!”, then I assumed that the contents were O.K. All we had to do was load everything (and everyone) back onboard, and away we’d go.

So after our 3+ hour delay, everyone (minus one lady that just didn’t want any more to do with my operation that day) got back onboard and we began the process of taking 175,000 pounds of metal and people into low Earth orbit. The passengers all seemed to be in a rather “who gives a sh*t” mood after all of this, and we flew the next two hours without one bad comment about the entire episode (they were after all New Yorkers). The weather cleared over eastern Tennessee, and we sailed right on into La Guardia without incident. Well, almost without incident.

For those of you who have never landed at the “mess” called La Guardia Airport, let me describe it for you. It was built back in the Roosevelt days (hell, maybe even in the caveman days), on a sandbar in the middle of Flushing Bay. It’s got two short runways (by transport category jet standards) and if you run off the end of them, one ends with a trip onto a very busy freeway, the other three end with a splash into the water. IMHO, this place was obsolete the day the first DC-4 landed there, and it’s been getting worse by the day. The volume of traffic is insane, the ramp areas are nightmarish, and the NYC “attitude” (with regards to the ATC people) just add to the level of tension. In a nutshell, when landing at this place, finesse is not in the cards, you drive the jet in, slam it on the runway, and do your best to get it stopped quickly. BTW, it’s the same as the way you get into the other two really “interesting” airports that accept big airliners: Washington’s Ronald Reagan and San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. I was to perfect this “no finesse” progam to an art form on this very day.

 

b 727 5

 

(The approach plate for the “Expressway Visual 31” at that mess of an airport. The top down view…you BETTER hit the DIALS fix ON speed and ON altitude or this gets ugly quickly (and remember, there are about a hundred planes behind you and you’re following some other yokel). Shea Stadium sits right about where the little arrow says “Flushing Meadow Park”…I’ve never had a problem making steep banks so close to the ground (here and on the “River Visual 18” to Ronald Reagan D.C.), but it can be rather scary from the cabin. What the note that says, “in the event of a go around” fails to mention is that you’ll be southbound down the Hudson all right, but you’ll be about number 50 in line to land! Better have plenty of fuel…)

 

The “Expressway Visual 31” approach went off without a hitch. Hell, the ATC people didn’t yell at us once (a first,…on occasion, I’ve heard them yell at EVERYONE), and the tight 135 degree turn over Shea Stadium to line up with RWY 31 came off nicely (“I got her wired today”…famous last words). I wish I could say it was the gusty crosswinds, or the wake from the airliner in front of us, or even that the sun was in my eyes….but none of that applies. I got the beast into the flare, thought I had it just about an inch above the pavement, just ready to kiss the big main wheels on, when …”Uoh, oh”, we dropped about five feet, and …..WHAM! “Contact!” was the smart-assed response from Terry, while Ken said something about “You got the 3 wire, and I got whiplash!”…..”Bite me!” was my response.

 

b 727 6

(In the middle of the left bank turn, almost over Shea Stadium. This is actually a fun approach in good weather….in the wind, rain, snow…it’s sucks big time.)

 

After wrestling her to a safe taxi speed, I turned off the runway and we contacted Ground Control. We immediately found ourselves in line behind dozens of aircraft on the taxiway, so we were going to have some time before we got to the gate. My two “partners in crime” were still giggling and making smart-assed comments about my arrival, so I did the only thing that I could think of….I grabbed the P.A. microphone and spoke thusly:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I would like to welcome you to New York. Again, we’re sorry about the delay today, and I would like to sincerely thank you for all your patience. Also, if you were wondering about the “firm” arrival a few minutes ago, that was just one more effort on my part to find out CONCLUSIVELY if we had any sort of explosive devices on this aircraft…for if there was anything hidden onboard, it SURELY would have gone off with that landing.”

After hanging up the mic, I was greeted by two faces sporting two very big smiles. However, it was what I was hearing from the cabin that made the day for me…the sound of loud laughter and clapping…

 

’till next time,

 

 

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“Flight Simming: A Pilot’s View”

 

It’s every pilot’s nightmare…the feeling of not being totally in control of your machine or your situation. Sure, I was new to the airline back in 1984, but certainly not new to airplanes, and most importantly, how to keep the metal of said airplane from getting bent. With that said, I was just not having a “warm and fuzzy” feeling about this at all.

The weather was truly ugly; one of those dark, stormy nights that only look good in the movies. The machine was sick, and that was not good. It was one of our newer model Boeing 727s, but one of it’s three engines had developed an oil leak, so passing through flight level 250 (or 25,000′) in the climb, we aborted the flight to Minneapolis, and were on our way back into our departure airport…General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. The upside to all of this was the the fact that the two gentlemen in the front seats (I was the Flight Engineer), were seasoned veterans, with many hours logged in the venerable Boeing. That notwithstanding, something just didn’t add up. Even though I was new to the airplane, new to being a Flight Engineer, and new to the airline, I could still tell that something simply wasn’t kosher. Hence my seat was the recipient of lots of squirming “new guy” butt.

 

pilot simming 5
(A Northwest Orient Boeing 727-251…this was the name of the line when I was hired in 1983. Huge thanks to Bob Garrard for the use of this gorgeous picture.)

 

It all started about 30 miles from touchdown. We had declared an emergency with ATC, had secured the number 1 engine, performed all the required checklists, informed the cabin crew and passengers of the situation and our plans, and I was in the process of coordinating with the company dispatchers (and the station personnel) for our return. “Bang, bang, bang”…about that time, the number 2 Pratt and Whitney JT-8D began to compressor stall (an airflow problem…sounds like your car engine back-firing). The Captain remedied this by immediately reducing the thrust on the that engine to the point where the stalling ceased. In this case it happened to be all the way back to idle…not good. I was about to become one VERY BUSY person…

I asked the Captain if he wanted me to begin dumping fuel, his reply was a terse “YES! Take us down to 150,000 lbs!” (landing weight). Opening the Fuel Dump Panel on the aft bulkhead to my right, I positioned all the switches correctly (we were allowed to do this from memory…most all other procedures required the use of a checklist), watched for all the green lights to confirm that the valves had indeed opened, and then began the mental gymnastics to calculate the required time to dump to have us at the weight specified by the Captain (I knew he would be needing that answer, and soon). So far, so good for the new guy.

Here is where it all began to unravel. My next question to the man commanding this stricken ship, was an inquiry to see if he would like to run the “Single Engine Checklist” (when down to 1 engine on ANY multi-engine airplane, it gets VERY SERIOUS quickly, and the [very involved] “Single Engine Checklist” was the nightmare of any Flight Engineer…it could reduce a “Top Gun” to a sniveling schoolgirl quickly.) To my shock and amazement, he answered, “No! We have only 1 engine SHUT DOWN…so we’ll fly this just like the books calls for!” Well, he WAS right (and he was the Captain), we had only one engine actually turned off, but of the remaining two, one was normal and the other was operating at a VERY reduced power setting (idle to be exact), and I was starting to have strange flashbacks.

 

2
(I took this as a new 727 Captain departing KMSP one cold, sleeting afternoon.)

 

As a child of the 1960s, I’ve always been a huge fan of the WWII movies, especially those involving aviation. I began to flash back to those scenes of the battered B-17 Flying Fortress, barely able to stay aloft, and the heroic crew throwing everything not needed overboard…. 50 caliber machine guns, parachutes, armor plating, even the dead guys (well, not really, but MAYBE). They knew that gravity is a cruel bitch, and that fast air over the wings was needed to keep the bird in the air…and making her lighter was the only answer. The obvious logic was that if it can’t help you…then consider it junk and GET RID OF IT. I adopted that mentality right then and there. Great idea to be sure, the only problem was that I wasn’t in command here…

The next statement I made to him was a bit hard to make as a new hire, but it had to be said. I advised the seasoned dude in the left seat that “in my humble opinion”, since No.2 was at idle, and it’s only use for use was the hydraulic pump and/or electrical generator, and since it appeared that it WAS NO USE for thrust, why we don’t we set up to do a single engine approach? If No 2 does quit, then we’re ready, set up for it, and if it doesn’t then it’s like money in the bank.

(note: There were some big killers on the single engine approach in the 727. Depending on which single engine you had running, you could be stuck with hand cranking the landing gear down [a huge pain in the ass for the Flight Engineer], and once it was cranked down, there was no bringing it back up…. which means there was NO GUARRENTEE that you would have any go-around capability! You were committed to land, period. Plus, you made your approach with only 5 degrees of flaps (instead of the normal 35), AND you had to extend them electrically, which took longer than usual. So you really had to be “on your game” mentally to allow extra time to get everything done, and it meant that when you turned in for the field, you were going to be going like a bat-outta-hell on final approach. So as an F/E, you found yourself: dumping fuel, running several checklists, electrically extending the flaps, hand cranking down the landing gear, all the while providing the two pilots with all important landing approach airspeed numbers, and (IIRC) about a million other things. LOL…)

 

2a
(My “office” for the first year at the airline…the 727 F/E panel.)

 

To my shock, he rejected my suggestion!

I attempted to suggest it again, this time with a bit more of a “convincing tone”…he cut me off. The pilot in the First Officer’s seat wasn’t injecting anything into the conversation, so I decided that CLEARLY they knew more about what was going on than little ol’ me, so I deferred to his command status, and (like any smart noob should) shut my pie-hole, and did as I was commanded.

We crossed the outer marker for runway 01L with the flaps at 15 degrees, and as the glideslope needle centered signalling time to begin our final descent for the runway, the Captain called for the landing gear to be lowered, and the flaps to be extended to 25 degrees. Thank God we still had that middle engine working, for it’s hydraulic pump began the process of opening the big gear doors, and pushing those massive wheels into the dark, wet slipstream. In fact, the pilots had pushed up the thrust a bit on No2, and it seemed to be running pretty well.The tower contoller had cleared us to land several miles back, and I could see the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles lining the taxiways. At about 1000′, I secured the fuel dumping, informed the boss, and was tiding up the landing checklist. All seemed to be right in the world, but the feeling in the pit of my stomach just would not go away.

 

3
(An aerial view of General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. You’re looking directly down RWY 07.)

 

That’s when it happened.

All I remember is a very loud “BANG!”, and the No2 engine seized up! Holy sh*t…”flaps to 5, flaps to 5″ the Captain was yelling at the F/O as he fire-walled the only remaining engine that was running (No 3)! I was gripping the backs of their seats so hard that my hands were aching. The nightmare was unfolding before me. Not in control of what was happening! I remember calling out his airspeed, for he had to adjust it for the lessor flap setting he was commanding. The control tower was calmly broadcasting, “Flight 303, we show you going low on the glideslope”…no kidding pal…don’t bother us now! To say that the three sphincters in that cockpit were closed rather tight might’ve been the understatement of the century. All three of us were talking to that big marvel of modern aviation…both out loud, and to ourselves…”come on baby, come on…almost there!”

It was not to be. Three women became lonely widows that rainy night on the shores of Lake Michigan. In an effort to stretch our descent, the Captain let the machine get slow, we dropped a wing, hit the approach lights with the force of a 150,000 lb collection of metal, fuel and flesh, and we cartwheeled down the runway. The resulting explosion and fireball left no survivors.

Actually, I lied. It wasn’t night at all, it was 10 o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t raining, it was January, which meant it was probably snowing ilke the devil. We weren’t in Milwaukee, we were in simulator bay #2 at the airline’s training center in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I wasn’t lying about the “brand new Flight Engineer” part, for I was so new that I had not even finished my initial “new hire” Boeing 727 Flight Engineer training. In fact, this little flight was my final test (or check ride) before my learning would be complete. So, except for that, it was all a lie. Albiet, a very convincing one. That’s what simulators (our workaday verison of the PC flight simulations) do for the professional pilot. They construct a totally believable lie that we use to develop, learn, and hone our skills as aviators.

 

4
(That “happy place” we call a simulator. A trip through “the box” happens for every airline pilot on a regular basis…it’s just a part of the job. You don’t pass your check-ride, and you’re life changes drastically.)

 

My first experience with a flight simulation was as a ten year old lad in the year 1966. Wait a minute there Hoss, the PC wasn’t even a glint in the eyes of the Gates/Jobs lineage back then, so explain that one. Totally right there pilgrim, but bear with me for a few minutes on this one.

As you’ve probably gathered from my other entries, back then I was living the dream for a kid like me. My biggest hero lived in the same house, had a cool job, we travelled the world, and I got to play on some of the coolest “play grounds” on the planet. When he was occupied at the Army Airfield with a non-flying day, he would march me (and usually my brother) out to an inert flying machine, park us in the cockpit and return hours later to gather us up for the return trip home. He didn’t realize it at the time (nor did I), but he was de-facto creating the first “flight simulation” for this pimply-faced youngster way back then.

When sequestered in those helicopters and/or airplanes, my entire world consisted of that cockpit…and I was by God the hottest aviator in the United States Army! I was rolling in hot on Charlie at some God-forsaken LZ in Vietnam, or under fire holding us rock steady in a hover as the Crew Chief was on the cable snatching the downed pilot from the mitts of the bad guys. It didn’t matter what “lie” I had created for myself, at that moment, it was very much a real thing for me, and that’s all that mattered! I pretended I knew what all those funny clocks meant (many I actually did know), and what all the switches were that I was constantly flipping from “OFF” to “ON” and back! It didn’t matter if I knew what I was doing, for I pushed/pulled, flipped and spun everything in that cockpit, and in my scenarios I would ALWAYS get back to base just as the rest of the company had given up all hope! I was “simulating” something, and most importantly, I was “believing” it. Cool days for a kid, eh?

 

U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky HUSorH-34. Photo courtesy of Frank Colucci
(I was fortunate enough to log many an hour in the cockpit of the Sikorsky H-34.)

 

So how does all of this relate to flight simulations, and the experience we call “flight simming”? A reporter asked me at a LAN meet several years ago while she was interviewing us for the local news rag, “Why would you fly these things, when you fly airplanes for a living?” I gave her the static, corny “I love to fly things” answer, but in retrospect that didn’t quite seem enough. My next statement to her was more on speed. I explained that at work, we operate under an umbrella of enormous responsibility, and we have to attack it each and every day on it’s terms. In other words, for instance when the weather is totally gonzo, we put on our “weather game face”, and go at it, with the stakes being as high as it can get. But in the world of flight sims, I get to attack it on my terms, with the option to mulligan if needed… the real world life and death things just aren’t a factor.

To expound on that a bit, I guess the “hardball” part of my career as a pilot is there every time I put on the uniform, every time I sign the Dispatch Release, and every time I step on to the flight deck. Does that mean it’s not fun? Of course not! It’s a huge amount of fun, just a totally different kind of enjoyment. But it’s always hardball, always for keeps…every day, every flight… getting it right the first time. No mulligans, no time-outs, no penalty kicks. The question then becomes, as a real-life pilot and part-time flight simmer, do I want to simulate the airplane part or the pilot part? Funny thing actually. I find that even though I do it for a living, I not only want the airplane/helo part to be great, but I want the pilot part to be exceptional too. Which means I want the “lie” that goes with it to be believable, not some made up, “terrorists kidnap the President’s kid, and I have to rescue them at halftime at the Superbowl” type B.S. Won’t hack it…not for this old pelican.

 

5
(1C Studios incredible “IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad”. Here, I’m attempting to lay waste to a Russian aifield…)

 

I’m not looking to totally alter my reality…hell, a good bottle of wine can do that. I guess I simply want to be transported to a “pilot world” (place AND time) that only few a will ever see; if only for a few hours (or even minutes). I want the world to be believable, it doesn’t have to be 100% accurate, but it shouldn’t be an “eye roller” either. For example, the world of the leather-clad Spad pilot thinking he’s immortal, the disillusioned Luftwaffe ace, desperately fighting for his homeland, the newby Apache helo driver just praying not to screw up on his first combat mission, or the “pin your eyebrows to the back of your head” Viper or Hornet fighter pilot, loaded for bear, dodging SAMs and AAA over some remote, barren stretch of sand.

When all is said and done, I can sit back, critique my flying, hope I didn’t kill any virtual folks that “didn’t need killin”, police up all the empty beer cans, say good night to my mates on TeamSpeak, and call it a night. It was all “serious”, but only as serious as I decided it to be in my little virtual world. Again, reporter lady, I get to attack it on my schedule, on my terms, and with my fun-metrics. So those flight sim scenarios are all one big fat lie, but it’s a lie of my construction, and it’s as real as I deem it to be. So in a nutshell, I guess that’s one of the big reasons I fly these amazingly wonderful things we call “flight sims”.

 

Screen_141121_220411
(Here I’m flying a UH-1H “Huey” online in “DCS World”. Our mission is to escort the flight of Chinooks to repair a bridge.)

 

6
(I’m online with a friend as he spools up in an A-10C, also in “DCS World”.)

 

2015_2_14__18_30_39
(And finally, I find myself over the bloody fields of Flanders doing battle with an Allied Spad. This is from the WW1 flight simulation “Rise Of Flight”.)

 

So what were my emotions in the make believe world that I found myself in on that fateful morning as a new-hire airline pilot? I quickly learned as a student (and later, witnessed it first hand as a 727 instructor), that these simulator machines do a helluva lot more than just simulate flight in a particular aircraft. They go a long way toward simulating (or creating if you will) the maze of emotions that people can feel in a high stress environment, surrounded by a believable world chock full of challenges, dangers and hardships. I’ve seen these “mother of all” flight simulations bring out the best (and the not so best) in a group of highly intelligent, highly skilled, very motivated and dedicated aviators. And it all starts because at some point in the experience, they give into the lie and start to believe. Take it from me, it’s not all that hard to do in these machines…they are that good. Isn’t that exactly what a good flight sim will do for one? Allow us to give in to the lie and begin to BELIEVE?

Oh, and by the way, in those last few seconds before we struck the approach light stanchions that dark, stormy night in Milwaukee, I cringed and braced myself just like in real life. A few seconds later, when the dust had settled (actually, the simulator just freezes), my only thought was….”f*ck, I’m dead!”

(addendum to the above mentioned 727 simulator story: The instructors informed us that yes, we did indeed crash and all were killed. The Captain and First Officer were taken off “line flying status”, admonished for not taking the (good) advice from the new guy, sent through more training, and another checkride in the simulator. I know for a fact that I did NOT endear myself to them, but so what? This is serious business, so check your ego at the door brudda. I was told that I did a good job of everything, except selling my idea that “if it ain’t working for us, then let’s not count on it…and maybe get rid of it” program, but unfortunately, I too perished in the crash (dead right?). Within a few years of this story, the airline industry as a whole began what we call “CRM Training” [Crew Resource Management]. It’s a wonderful tool, teaching (among other things) how to speak up as a subordinate crew member, and how to effectively use your crew as a Commander. It’s an excellent program, and has essentially (almost) rid the airline world of the “Captain Queeg” types. So I passed my final test, and was sent out to fly the line with an I.O.E. [Initial Operating Experience] Instructor. That first actual time in the jet with passengers turned out to be a funny story…but I’ll save that for another time.

– Happy Simming!

 

’till next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard

“Images Again”

 

Sitrep on the medical thing.

Things seem to be improving almost daily. At the last visit to the ophthalmologist, he was quite pleased with my progress (“you’re 50% better than you were at the last visit”). This news had me skipping out the door a few minutes later. So….it seems that my little vacation from work may be winding down in a couple of months. I can’t say that I haven’t actually enjoyed the time off, because I have. After traveling for a living since the “disco days”, the gift of spending every day around loved ones, sleeping in one’s own bed each night, and just generally developing a “circadian rhythm”, is a wonderful thing. Since I missed my last “CQ” (Continuing Qualification) simulator checkride in December, I’ll have to make a low-pass through that “house of pain” before I can fly a line trip again, but that’s just part of the bargain I’ve made with the airline. They abuse me in the simulator, and I get the keys to the big jet….fair enough.

This next entry was born of another suggestion from a dear friend. Dale O. (or “Olieman” as we know him in our little group) came up with the idea several years ago, and I ran with it. I penned it almost a decade ago, and even though it took some collaboration with my dear brother; in my opinion, I think we made it work. Although my father saw the skies over Vietnam in the early days of the American involvement, they were no less deadly and surreal. He shared scant few stories of that year in his life…here are just a few…

 


 

 

June, 2000

Prologue: Recently, at a Memorial Day picnic, a good friend commented that I might think about doing a “Logbook” about my father’s flying experiences in Vietnam (thanks again Olieman). It was an intriguing idea to be sure, but one that wasn’t easily accomplished. I collaborated with my brother in an attempt to make sure the facts concerning the incidents mentioned were correct. Using my father’s U.S. Army logbooks, assorted other documents, and our collective memories, we verified that they were as accurate as we could piece together.

The rest is my bit of “literary license”. I deeply felt that only three people would ever be qualified to write this. One is forever gone, and I just beat the other to the keyboard. I offer to you…


 

“Images, Again…”

 

As the countryside rushed past the truck window, our haste blurred everything into a menage of colors. While I listened to my son’s tales of recent baseball heroics, I was also hearing another young man speak; a young man from thirty years before. Like my own dear son, this lad was also barely in the first years of his second decade, and he too was blessed with all the innocence, curiosity, and general “clueless” outlook that one must have at his age. He too dreamed of sporting triumphs, epic battles won, and faraway lands conquered…but at that particular moment in time, this young man was just like every other kid listening to his father ramble on, and he was beginning to get very bored.

I smiled as I was taken back to THAT drive made, and THAT conversation between father and son. The differences in the journeys lay with the fact that I was the one with the “clueless” outlook, and my dear father was the one behind the wheel. The year was 1967, we were living in the ancient Bavarian city of Munich, and were on a quest north to an automobile factory in the town of Regensburg. He was rebuilding a very rare model of sports car, and was in search for some difficult to obtain parts. The unbelievable part of the story was that my brother and I were invited to accompany him on this hour and a half drive through the German countryside. Normally, he would make the trip solo, but I was to learn later of his ulterior motive behind our invitation. We were both nearing our teenage years, and he had made the decision to inaugurate us into manhood with “the talk” on this very day, on this very drive. As he stammered on about such alien things (I wish now that I would’ve listened better…lol), my mind began to wander as all young minds do. I was finding out that at the tender young age of eleven, I could care less about girls, or women, or whatever else this stupid lecture was about.

 

WO BE Ball

(Chief Warrant Officer B.E. Ball)

 

My father was about the best damn father a little boy could draw. He was all the things I needed him to be, and this allowed my stock to be pretty high in the little boy pecking order of things. He was tall, handsome, an Army Warrant Officer of the finest order, but most of all, he was a helicopter pilot, a COMBAT decorated helicopter pilot. When he would enter my young world in his olive drab flight suit (his combat boots loudly announcing his arrival), with those bigger than life aviator’s wings on the left breast, and his ready-made smile for me and my siblings; he was nothing short of a hero in the first degree.

On the long ago journey in question, I had stopped my serial daydreaming long enough to see that we had pulled over at a rest stop to eat lunch on the homeward bound leg. He was unpacking the PB & J sandwiches he made for us at 0400 that morning (why the heck did every trip we take, just HAVE to start before dawn?), and was unscrewing the cap on his coffee thermos. He was adamant about the lesson, and as “the talk” continued, I grew more and more restless. I wasn’t hearing a word he was saying, or at least trying not to, and was convinced that this madness had gone on long enough…it was time to act.

I didn’t know much, but I knew pilots. I knew the best way to change the subject with a pilot was to switch the conversation to flying machines, so I invaded the conversation with this simple question, “Say Dad, what did you fly over in Vietnam again?” Slowly his hands stopped working the cup on the metal thermos, his face lost its usual animation, and his eyes unfocused seeing something far away, something that only he could discern. The tactic worked, but with unintended consequences. With that one “innocent” question, I transported him back to his own private hell.

 

H21 Vietnam 1

(The Piasecki H-21 Shawnee.)


 
“Shut up Ben! Shut the hell up!”

“But Mr. Ball, did you see that? Did you see it? Tango 1 went down…..he crashed!”

Of course I had seen it! I was looking right at him when it happened! Jesus Christ, how did they expect us to be doing this?

“I saw it damn it, I saw it….”

This was turning into another bad day for the 81st Transportation Company. We had deployed out of Pleiku with a four ship, landed in Ban Me Thuot to pick up some ARVN Rangers, and were now taking their asses up country for God only knows what. This piece of crap H-21 “Shawnee” just was not meant to be flying this high in the mountains, and especially when it’s this hot. But the ARMY said a few months ago at Schofield Barracks, get yourselves and your birds over there, so here we are.

 

Unit patch 87th

(Unit patch for the 81st T.C.)

 

Dick was leading us on the leg up north, and had elected to fly at 500’ AGL to stay under the overcast. The G2 guy back at base had briefed us that any and all “triple A” was to be a non-item, so we could pretty much pick our altitude and routing. We would be echelon left and I was flying second in the formation, right next to Dick, my call sign: “Tango 2”. And now this…

How can this possibly be happening? I was looking right at him, watching him shoot me the finger, and then BAM! His head just exploded! All I saw were several basketball sized orange balls flying up from the jungle, then a cloud of pink where his head used to be. It must’ve been large caliber, 37 mm, for after the first round hit Dick, the next several just shredded the cockpit and they nosed straight in. There was no way that Dick, his co-pilot (some FNG…don’t even remember his name), or anyone else could’ve survived that.

“Ben, you and Jackson, find that gun! Bob, mark the crash site on the map, get your ass on the “guard” frequency and tell them what happened!”

I gotta keep my shit together here, I’m leading this mess now, so start flying like you’ve been trained….

“Tango Flight, Tango 2, I’m up lead, let’s make a hard left and Di Di our asses outta here…now!”

Christ, I can’t think about this right now, fly this thing! What’s Vne speed again? 128 kts…that’s right…get the nose down, and get to that speed…. But Dick and I had gotten our wings together back at Wolters in ‘57……and just like that he was dead! How would they tell Maryland? And if it happened to me, how would they tell Shirley and the kids? I’m truly beginning to hate this God damned place…

We had been in country for about three months now…but it seemed like three years. The duty piloting these “flying bananas” around Oahu and the Hawaiian islands was pretty damned cushy, but that came to a screeching halt last October. “Where the hell is Pleiku, and where the hell is South Vietnam?” That’s all we could think about when the orders came down. President Kennedy had committed more “advisors” to the Republic of South Vietnam, and we in the 81st were tasked with getting our machines over here, setting up shop, and doing just what we had been training to do…transport stuff. People, cargo, we didn’t give a damn. If it needed hauling…we hauled it.

I was feeling about a million years old, and even farther from home than I ever thought possible. Shirley had taken the kids back to Washington to live with her mother, and I was having a really hard time remembering all the good things in life; especially after seeing the ugliness I’d seen here. The days were beginning to run together, and the death, the pain and the suffering was starting to be like something “normal”…like breathing. I knew that to get through this year, the insanity and pain would somehow have to bury itself; but that might not happen until years from now or it might happen next week….all I know is, it wouldn’t happen soon enough. The mission two weeks ago was the worst I’d seen, until today that is.

It was another Ban Me Thuot run, just like this mess today. After we had picked up the ARVN troops (with a few of our “advisors” mixed in), we launched and headed toward the central highlands. The triple-A threat was again supposed to be non-factor, but again, that proved to be a bunch of B.S. from the briefing weenie. I do remember that it was hotter than a summer day in Dallas, and that we had to do some pretty serious flying just to get these crates into the air. If not for the fact that we were indeed THE BEST damned helicopter pilots in the world, and the ability to do a rolling take-off in this crappy machine (and get our ass into translational lift ASAP), we would’ve had to kick about half the troops off to lighten the load. That single Wright Cyclone was straining to get those blades turning and our butts into the air. But I will say that when we did get up and going, our three “4 ships” were a pretty damned impressive site. “Look out Charlie, here we come!”

How they knew we were coming is beyond me, but they did. To go to all the trouble they did to shoot us up, they HAD to know we were coming. I can’t even remember the name of that ugly little village, but I do remember it was tucked damned far into the hills, and that “one way in, and one way out” operation gave me the creeps from the moment they mentioned it in briefing. All I remember is they let us come in, drop off the troops, and then the shit hit the fan. They opened up on us like they were hosing us down at the car wash. I remember Ben yelling and saying something about kids, and I was wondering “why the hell isn’t he shooting back?” I took a quick look out the right side and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! They had lined the women and children up to stand in front of the gun emplacements! Shit! Now what do we do?

Ben was yelling at me from his position at the .30 caliber we had in the right forward door.

“Mr. Ball, what do we do? Do I shoot? Do I shoot?”

They were giving us hell, and I could see that the ships in front of me were taking some hits…One started wobbling, it rolled to the left and hit the ground hard. It looked like an explosion at the toothpick factory…pieces went everywhere. But still no one was returning fire. Those damn women and kids, and damn the bastards for using them for cover.

It all happened at that moment, and why that moment in time, I don’t know. I guess you could say that I just snapped. The confused yelling over the radio, Ben screaming about firing back, the noise of the guns, the ship going down in front of us, our helicopter bucking from the hits….I don’t know why I said it, but I said it…and it will haunt me for the rest of my days.

“What did you say, Mr. Ball? Say again, Mr. Ball! I can’t hear you!”

“Fire, Ben, FIRE DAMN IT!”

The rattling death from his 30 caliber machine gun was their epitaph, and I had written it…I fought with the controls of the helicopter and felt the tears as I thought about my own kids.

 

WO BE Ball inflight Vietnam

(My father at the controls of his H-21 somewhere over Vietnam. I knew that smile, but I can also see the tension in his eyes.)

 

That was two weeks ago; but this was now. O.K Bill, get your ass back in the game.

“Tango Flight, Tango 2, the mission is still a go…repeat, still a go!”

Dick was down, but I couldn’t think of that now, we still had a mission to fly, and by-God we were going to fly it.

“Tango Flight, Tango 2, form up on me”.

I heard the replies on the tactical freq, but was thinking about a million miles ahead of the program. Bob had gotten a reply on the “guard” freq., and someone was inbound to try and find Dick’s ship, so that box was checked. We still had to get our asses to the LZ, drop these yokels off, and get our butts back home in one piece.

Home. What a name for that stink hole where we park these things. “This ain’t Kansas To-To” was the first thing out of my mouth when we arrived, and boy was that the truth. All the comforts of home, right? I guess if you live in a run-down “double-wide” tent, with a bunch of other homesick guys, in a place where its 100 degrees in the shade, the snakes bite you and after 3 steps you fall dead, and lots of little people on the other side of the wire want to kill you…then, yeah, I guess it’s like home.

And “Shaky Jake”, I still don’t believe that one. He gave the best damn haircut on the entire base. And the shave he could give you with that straight razor was better than any of us could do ourselves! We all loved him. He was a local guy, middle aged, lots of jokes and laughing and scratching with him while we were getting “fixed up” as he called it. Then came that stormy night the VC mortared us for over an hour, breeched the wire and blew up a couple of the helicopters. In the morning we all went around to see what had happened, and there he was lying face down in a huge mud puddle. “Shaky Jake” in his black pajamas deader than a mackerel! We all got wide-eyed, a bit dizzy, looked at each other and grabbed our throats. How many times had we all had that blade next to our Adams apples? Shit, this was a crazy war.

O.K., there’s the LZ. Doesn’t look hot; let’s get these things in and out fast.

“Tango Flight, Tango 2….LZ at twelve o’clock, three klicks. Looks cold, but keep your eyes open.”

“Bob, keep clearing the left side and follow me through on the controls! Ben you and Jackson keep your eyes open, and shoot anything that moves…you hear me?”

O.K. calm down there Bill, let’s do it just like we did in training back at Rucker. Watch the descent rate, speed bleeding off good, and keep the rotor rpm in the green. Surface winds from the right, a little more right pedal…there. Seems to be no activity in the LZ, but what the hell does that mean? Little bit of flare…OK…we’re down! Boys get your asses off this thing; I want my butt back in the air lickity-split! What? “3” is taking hits from the rice paddy on the right…shit!

“Ben, do you see the gun? Ben!”

It was then that I began to feel the hits, and it was like we were in a metal trash can and some crazy bastard was banging on it with a baseball bat! We took some rounds into the cockpit, but most of them hit behind us, and Ben wasn’t answering the inter-phone. I tried Jackson at the other door, but he must’ve been busy taking care of Ben. No guns working for us, and we’re getting our ass kicked…..this was not looking good.

 

H21 Vietnam 2

 

Instinct…to be more precise, the survival instinct is an amazing reflex, for it commands you to do things without cognitive thought. I was in a daze when I looked back, saw the Rangers were gone, one of my door gunners sprawled on the floor and the other bent over him. I instinctively brought us to a hover…and that’s when I saw him.

He was still shooting at us, but he was running down the dike toward a village about a half a klick away. I don’t know what I had planned to do, or if I even had a plan, but I pedal turned toward him, lowered the nose, and slowly began to pick up speed. Bob was yelling something to me, but when I looked over at his wide-eyed face, I could see his mouth moving, but could hear nothing. I must’ve been thinking that we would get a door gun going and we’d shoot this VC a-hole, but any calls to the back were going unanswered. I saw my hands and feet move as if they were not my own, and they dutifully kept the machine steering toward him.

It is said that when a man fights a war, he’s not committing murder; he’s simply killing to stay alive. I feel that’s a statement that only our Maker can (or should) judge. I do know this; I know that I will spend my eternity seeing his eyes as he frantically ran looking over his shoulder. By now he had dropped his weapon, and was just running. Running for his very life.

I could barely feel the thumps as the forward rotor disc began to strike him…..

“Dad…Dad! Did you hear me? Are you OK dad?”

“Yeah son… I heard you…..I heard you.”

 


 

We finished our trip that winter day in Germany, and he said nothing of the incidents described above.

The crossing of the mysterious barrier into “manhood” for my brother (John) and I, came neither on that journey, nor any others we took with him in an automobile. For myself it came as the result of a life-long journey with him as my father, my friend, and my trusted advisor. He was the driving force behind my life in aviation, and he continues to be the yardstick by which I measure myself daily.

 

Epilogue: My father returned from South Vietnam in the spring of ’63. He had several Air Medals (he said they were for picking guys up that had been shot down…he said they asked for volunteers, and he simply raised his hand…nothing more, nothing less…my guess is that there is INDEED more to those incidents), but he had taken no physical damage. He retired from military aviation in the late 60’s when he received orders to go to CH-47 Chinook School, with the addendum that he would be returning to Vietnam upon completion. He had served as a combat medic in the Korean War, and as a combat aviator in the Vietnam War. He decided his days in the Army were done, for it seems that two lifetimes of killing and suffering for this gentle man of peace was more than enough for him.

He didn’t much talk of his time spent in either of those two horrors, but when he did, the above incidents from Vietnam were about all he shared. He only told my brother and I when we were older, I’m guessing thinking that we were mature enough to handle it. He (thankfully) kept it from my sisters, and as far as I know, my dear Mother.

Shortly before his death in 1993, I shared with him the book “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason. It’s renowned as the Holy Grail of books pertaining to being an Army helicopter pilot in general, and in particular about flying combat in Vietnam. When he had finished with the read, I asked for his opinion. He offered that he loved the parts about the early days of pilot training at Ft. Wolters, Texas for he had gone through his initial flight training there, and after retirement, had worked at the very same facility as a civilian helicopter instructor contracted to the Army. Then he paused and said he didn’t like the parts about Vietnam because they “brought back too many bad memories”.

Although, like many veterans, he wrestled with insomnia most of his adult life… I noticed that shortly after reading the book, he could no longer sleep through the night; any night. It breaks my heart to think that maybe when he closed his eyes wishing for sleep, it was not to be, for he found himself looking into the terrified eyes of someone else.

“My dearest father,

I sincerely apologize for opening those horrible wounds from long ago. I know you buried those thoughts and feelings in a deep place, wishing they would never return. I’m so sorry for giving you back that pain…you know I never meant to do that. I pray that your flying now is above peaceful lands, with warm days, and gentle breezes.  I miss you Pop.

You’re loving son,

Bill”

 

Standard

“Firsts”

I’m still not on flying status with the airline, so that leaves tons of time to do things like this (and bug the heck out of the wonderful “Mrs. BBall”…poor woman). The problem that’s keeping me from the cockpit (diplopia) seems to be getting better all on its own (as the doctor advertised), and “if the good Lord willing and river don’t rise”, I’ll be back to work in a couple of months (or hopefully sooner).

This next tale was born of a suggestion (always open for those…IMHO, some of my best topics were hatched from another brain).


We all remember our firsts.

From the immature things such as a first “love” (Laurie R. in elementary school…first kiss too…lol), to the first purchased automobile (1969 Pontiac Firebird), the first job (newspaper delivery boy Ft. Worth Star-Telegram), to the serious and earth moving events. Wonderful things like a first child (James and Barbara came in a packaged deal with my amazing wife Debora), to the inevitable and heartbreaking first death of a loved one (my dear sister when I was 27). We are all blessed with “firsts” in our lives, and my professional world is not immune.

After a terrific suggestion from a friend concerning the subject matter for this entry (thanks again Todd my good friend and fellow Texan), I began to let the ‘ol memory banks wander back in time to some of the pinnacles of my aviation career (the faded brain cells ably assisted by my old Logbooks…lol). He suggested that I scribe about some of the “firsts” in my aviation journey….events like my “first solo”, and “first solo cross country”. I immediately liked the idea, for you see, my friend Todd is in the early stages of his flying adventure, so his sky story has just begun. However, as I began to ponder my own “firsts”, I quickly realized that a 42 year history of a life spent as a birdman (mostly for hire) includes far more initial events than the two he offered; in fact, they’re almost too many to mention. I’ll offer two that stand out…

My first flight as a brand new airline captain, and my first solo flight as a Student Pilot.


First trip as “the Dude”.

As the hotel van left the parking lot that quiet Sunday morning, the sun was just beginning to rear its ugly head on the eastern horizon. Sleep had not come easy the night before, and after besting the alarm by almost an hour, it was obvious that coffee would not be needed to get me going. The six weeks of ground school and simulator training had been successfully completed, the five day trip with a “Check Captain” had gone well, and now it was time to prove my mettle as a commercial aviator. The date was the 5th of June in the year 1994, and I was to fly my first line trip as an airline Captain.

The last time I had “captained” a commercial flying machine was approximately 11 years past, and then it was on a small turboprop “commuter airliner” that held a grand total of 19 trusting souls. Today would be a vastly different experience in many ways. The ride would be another of the iconic inventions from those wunderkinds at Boeing, the 727-251, or “3-holer” as we knew her in the business. It was not only a complicated airplane (a crew of 3 pilots, with almost nothing being automated), but also a supreme joy to fly. She’s been called everything from “sexy” to “beautiful”, and many have said that she appeared to be going “Mach 1” just sitting motionless at the gate. I had to agree.

7 727 3

(The amazing, iconic, Boeing 727 “3- Holer”.)

She offered one hundred and forty-six passenger seats, again was crewed by three pilots (Captain, First Officer and Flight Engineer), employed three flight attendants, had a range of roughly 2000 miles, and was able to cruise just under the speed of sound, six miles above Mother Earth in shirt-sleeve comfort. By comparison with today’s fleet of uber fuel efficient jets (thanks to a mix of composite materials, engines with the thirst of a camel, and cockpit technology that allows maximum aviating bang for your buck), the 727 was the equivalent of the 1975 Ford F-150 to today’s Honda Hybrids. What she lacked in finesse and fuel efficiency, she more than made up for in raw power and strength. I’ve seen some of nature’s worst weather from all three cockpit seats on the 3-holer, and more than a few times it had me sitting ramrod straight (and being very much “in the moment”), but I never lost sight of the fact that I was in a Boeing jet. The old adage, “If it ain’t a Boeing, I ain’t going” rang true to many an airline pilot during her time in our skies.

I had drawn two experienced fellow pilots to share this day, Ian and Brian, and although we had never laid eyes upon each other previous to meeting at our Flight Operations center in Detroit, we quickly settled into our routine of pleasantries and business. Each airline pilot learns this dance from their earliest days with the company, for we fly with a new crew literally on each trip. Fortunately, we are all (for the most part) pretty much stamped out of the same mold. We’re a bit “type A”, we have thousands of hours in many different cockpits (I’ve flown with every type of pilot…from ex-crop dusters, to ex-Blue Angels), we are tasked-oriented individuals, we hold ourselves to a high standard (we’re used to successfully accomplishing the mission), and we all share a passion for aviation. Plus, 99.9% of us are just plain nice folks and we seem to be able to go from total strangers, to co-workers, to friends very quickly.

As First Officer Ian and I began our routine of checking the weather and filling out our flight plan for the first leg to Milwaukee (yep, in the “old days” we actually filled out a paper flight plan, doing all the time/fuel calculations manually…nowadays, it comes off a printer ready made for us at the departure gate), the Flight Engineer Brian (or Second Officer as my line referred to them) left for the gate to make ready the jet. He would do the cockpit preflight checks, the exterior “walk around” inspection, investigate any mechanical irregularities for this machine, and generally get things ready for when Ian and I showed up.

By now, I had (according to Company policy) briefed both of them that they would be flying with “a new Captain”, and I’m sure they were pondering just how much baby-sitting I would require on this little two day trip. Restrictions abound for a new Commander (both Company and FAA) for they are not only required to do most of the flying for the first days of the trip, but are limited to higher weather landing minimums for the first 100 hours as Pilot-in-Command. Plus, before each launch, a call must be made to “Mother Dispatch” for a pre-mission briefing . You’re kept on a pretty short leash, and watched like a hawk when you’re a “noob”, and that’s maybe not a bad thing.

Although the weather was breaking fine this morning in Michigan, a small cold front was blowing across Wisconsin and would offer my first challenge as the boss. The jet for my inaugural leg as a Captain (N277US) was in fine form, the cabin crew had been briefed, and due to the low overcast and rain forecast for Milwaukee, the Dispatcher and I had elected to board extra fuel and list Detroit as our alternate airport. The day had us scheduled to do a “Milwaukee turn”, then down to central Florida for our layover. In plan-speak, that would be the short hop over to “Brew Town”, an hour on the ramp, then back to “Mo-Town”, another hour break, and finally end the day in Orlando …I guess that would be “Mickey-Town”. To be sure, it looked to be an easy day on paper, but every pilot will tell you that sometimes the days that look the easiest, turn out to be anything but.

8 727 4

(The “front office” of the big Boeing.)

My landing on runway 25L in Milwaukee was not great, but not bad. Again, first time in the batter’s box without the help of an instructor in the F/Os seat. The wind and rain made for a good excuse (in case it truly sucked), but I didn’t need one, and I was glad for that. Anyone that’s flown the 727 knows that it can be a bear to land smoothly, and the results of a REALLY bad landing (meaning hard touchdown) can be the dreaded “rubber jungle”. This is when the oxygen masks above each passenger seat become dislodged and pop out upon the impact with the runway. It can be disconcerting for the customers (ya think?), but can be really embarrassing for the person that did the landing. Accepted procedure is for that person to stand at the deplaning door and take the “chin music” from the passengers as they exit. Have I ever plopped a 727 down so hard that I got the “jungle”…yep…once. Funny thing, it was on RWY 25L in Milwaukee a few years later, and we had an FAA inspector on the jump seat! LOL…I only got a couple of masks to drop, and he just laughed.

Fate would shine on me this day, for we did our Milwaukee turn on time, and after dodging a few summertime thunderstorms at the Georgia/Florida border, we landed in Orlando shortly before dinner time. Many parts of the day are a blur, for I was tasked with about a thousand decisions that (in the past as the trusty F/O) I was accustomed to just reviewing…not making. Now I was the one MAKING those choices, and I would be the one to answer to them and/or suffer the consequences. Such is the daily turf of the ship’s commander.

I distinctly remember having some sort of minor mechanical issue with the jet when we returned to Detroit from Wisconsin. As the agent was talking to me at the gate, she queried me as to whether or not she should delay boarding the passengers for Florida. I clearly remember ALMOST saying to her, “hang on, let me go ask the Captain…”, then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was that guy! All the heads would be looking at ME for answers from now on, for the “buck” truly did stop here. It’s a weighty burden to carry, and I’ve been asked many times over the years about “the pressure” of being responsible for all those lives. I always go back to some advice that my dear father once gave me regarding such…”learn to take care of yourself, and everyone sitting behind you will be just fine.” Good advice to be sure.


First solo flight.

The airspace around Ft. Worth’s Meacham Field is some of the busiest on the planet, and this statement was as true in 1973 as it is today. Several hundred machines of all types transit this rather large “general aviation” airport each day. Everything from small trainer aircraft, to large corporate jets, up to and including the occasional airliner flying a charter or ferrying in for some contract maintenance. So why on Earth did I pick this busy place to begin my flight training way back then? One reason. My best friend Randy C. had joined the Civil Air Patrol and had received his training there, so I figured if it was good enough for him then it would be good enough for yours truly. Ft. Worth School of Aviation had a brand new Private Pilot student.

1 Randy Coffey

(My best friend throughout childhood, Randy C., at the controls of a Cessna 150. He grew up to become an eminent physician…I grew up to become…well, when I grow up I’ll let you know.)

I was most assuredly NOT “born a pauper to a pawn” (“…on a Christmas Day, when The New York Times said God is dead, and the wars begun…” sorry, my favorite Elton John lyric…), but our family of seven hung to the tag of “middle class” by our fingernails. We didn’t actually do without the essentials, but there were scant few extras and frills under our roof. My dear mother’s sewing machine logged countless hours fashioning clothes for us (mainly my sisters), and Dad busted many a knuckle as our chief automobile maintenance officer (and I saw countless weekends with my head under a hood with him). Fortunately for me, by the time I began my training in the summer of 1973, I was twice daily delivering several hundred newspapers (at 4:00 am and 4:00 pm), and was raking in almost a thousand dollars profit each month. A king’s ransom for your average 17 year old, and the lion’s share of it wasn’t spent on every-day, normal things,… like girls, cars, dirt bikes, stuff like that. Nope, it was spent on a little blue and white Cessna 150 by the name of “N5305Q”.

My first Logbook entry reads:
“6/14/73 / C-150 / N5305Q / FTW-LCL / Famil/ JD 1930144 CFII / Total flight hours = 1.0”

Although I had logged time in many cockpits as a child (see previous blogs), I had never actually maneuvered a machine in the air before. This one small, seven block entry, “sentenced” me to a life of excitement, thrills, wonder, and yes, even (a few times) disappointment and heartbreak. It began a career that only few dream about, and fewer still get to experience.  This is the part in the story whereby I express a sincere “thank you” to my amazing father for introducing me to flying machines, to my dear friend Randy for taking me up and showing me Ft. Worth from the right seat of a Cessna 150 (and getting me bitten by the flying bug…lol), and to “JD” (my first Flight Instructor), for teaching me how to keep from killing myself as a fledgling aviator.

2 Zero G

(Randy and I having fun doing some “zero G” on one of our flights).

“JD”, or John D. was a trip. Young guy (mid 20’s), personable, good looking, and lots of fun to fly with. When I would show up for a lesson, he would ALWAYS be on the phone with one of his girlfriends, and of them he had lots. Again, young, good looking dude, in fact he looked more like Joe Namath than Joe Namath did, and this kept him in high demand with the fairer sex. For those not in the know, Mr. Namath was a Super Bowl winning QB for the NY Jets in the late 60s, and by the time I met my instructor John, Namath was world famous as an uber “ladies’ man”. This was all fine and dandy, but I was often met with a toss of the airplane keys, and a “go ahead and preflight, I’ll be out in a minute” greeting from John. This usually meant a long, in depth inspection of the machine, plopping my butt into the cockpit, going over checklists and procedures, and then waiting for another 20-30 minutes before he would finally arrive. But arrive he would, and off into the wild blue we would launch together…but not many times it would seem.

The coveted solo flight.

For a student to be given the reigns and allowed to fly by themselves (solo), several things have to come together. Within a few years of my student status, I would be working as a staff flight instructor at the university and would be tasked with making sure each Primary Student was indeed ready for this big step. Make no mistake, it is a VERY big step in the life of each pilot.

Each student must not only know how to aviate the machine (take-offs, landings, climbs, descents, stalls, emergencies, etc), but must also be proficient with the use of the communications and navigation radios, and in a busy environment like Meacham Field, this can be a daunting task. They must know the airspace structure around the local airports, the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) concerning the type of flying to be done, possess adequate knowledge about the weather (current and forecast), and have more than just a hint about a million other things. With all that said, they must also possess one other thing; a thing so rare and devoid of “Earth bound” folks that it would seem alien to them. We call it “air sense”, or as the military folks say…”SA” (situational awareness…as it pertains to airplanes obviously). Some come by it naturally, some struggle to get it (all pilots eventually attain it), but unfortunately some that wish to be aviators never do, and it WILL make the difference between becoming a pilot or “washing out”. Remind me to tell about the time I had to inform one of my students that he just didn’t have what it takes to become a pilot…an interesting day to be sure.

Back when I began my flight training, the average number of hours for each Student Pilot to fly with their I.P. before being ready to solo was in the neighborhood of 15-20 flight hours (I know this because I looked it up). Each student dreams of that day, probably secretly dreads it just a little (am I ready?), but knows that until that moment happens, they are not “really” a pilot, just some yokel sitting in the left seat of an airplane while the “real pilot” tells you what to do.

This particular Friday morning seemed like all the others when I pulled into the parking lot. Light winds out of the south at 5 knots, visibility a beautiful 10 miles, and a scattered layer of fluffy white clouds lazily drifting overhead. It was summer in Texas, which meant that later in the day it was going to hotter than the blue blazes (high in the 90s with a humidity that would dampen any armpit), but when I left the hangar and walked across the ramp to the machine, it was a “cool” 77 degrees. John was once again, “doing his thing” on the phone when I walked in, so I was (once again) sent to begin the lesson by myself.  I knew I had plenty of time before John would show up to the little blue and white friend, so I did my pre-flighted checks slowly and carefully. I checked many things that morning (like every other lesson); the oil/fuel levels (draining the fuel sumps and making sure I got a little 87 octane on me so I would smell like a real pilot). I moved all the control surfaces, checked tires/brakes, flaps, and fuel caps, antennae and light housings, propeller and spinner…all the while trying to keep a hand on the skin as I walked around the little Cessna. Call me crazy, but it’s a habit born of those days, and I do it to this day. Often, when exiting the big Boeing, I give it a gentle pat on the skin…find me a pilot that doesn’t love the connection between epidermis and bare metal, and I’ll show you an aviator “poser”.

Did I know what was in store for me that morning? Not a clue. John climbed in, we briefly chatted about the lesson (same ol’ stuff…”practice area”…which means stalls, simulated emergencies, etc…then back to the field for more “touch and go’s”), we then ran the checklists, I started the little Lycoming engine, and we began our taxi. On the radio, the Meacham Ground Control frequency was unusually calm and quiet that morning, and after our magneto check run up at runway 16, we switched to the Tower frequency and noticed the same. John made some comment to the ATC dude about it being “kinda dead this morning…” and off we went north-bound for more learning.

After roughly forty five minutes of demonstrating various maneuvers to John, we turned south for Meacham and the evitable circuits of take-offs and landings (most pilots favorite part). John seemed distracted, but I simply kept quiet and tried to concentrate on my aviating. I also took the few minutes for us to transit the 15 miles or so, to just gaze around and enjoy the view. North Texas can be as ugly as an old wooden plank, full of scrub brush, scrawny longhorn cattle and mesquite trees, but to me this morning, it was lush with green fields, clear creeks, and the freedom of wide open skies. Ahead of us lay the two vibrant cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth, but their million or more souls seemed far removed from me and my little Cessna. The air was smooth, the machine purred like a happy kitten, and life was good…until he did it.

Yep, as any student pilot knows, when you least expect it, your instructor will yank the throttle back to idle, announce you’ve “had an engine failure” and see how you react. I was a bit startled (only because John didn’t seem to be 100% in the moment), but he had done this exact thing on all of our earlier lessons (except the first “Famil” flight…lol), and I started through my time honored mental checklist (that ALL pilots live and die by): “aviate, navigate, communicate”. I picked a suitable field to land into, set up my “power off” glide as per the manual, started into the Emergency Procedure for an engine failure, and all seemed right with the world (well, except for the “engine has quit” thing). Then he did the unexpected…at about 1500’ AGL (above ground level), he “gave me the engine back”…meaning he announced the engine failure maneuver was complete and I could add power and keep flying toward the field. He had never done that before. Usually, he would let me glide down to a much lower altitude (sometimes just a few hundred feet above the field I was aiming for), then let me “recover” and be on my way. Today he was acting a little different, but I shrugged it off.

This was fine by me, and since we were at the appropriate altitude for the traffic pattern at Meacham, and I was nearing the “highway interchange”, I called the tower to announce our position, that we were inbound for some touch and go’s, and we were told to follow another inbound student pilot. Meacham at this time in history had MANY foreign students…mostly from the Shah’s Iran…and sometimes it seemed the airspace was filled with students that one could barely understand on the radio. We located the other traffic, maneuvered behind them and entered the landing pattern for runway 16. After a successful landing and take-off (I’ve never forgotten one of my Dad’s favorite sayings about such, “any landing you’re thrown clear of is a good one”…lol), we entered the left hand circuit for 16 again. Once on the downwind leg, John took the microphone from its holder and requested a “full stop” landing on our next approach. This didn’t really register with me, for I kind of put “2 and 2” together and figured his distracted behavior and the lateness of his arrival at the plane, all meant that he was having some issue with one of his “harem”, and we had to land so he could attend to it. Oh well, another fun day in the sky with John…

We touched down, exited the runway at the appropriate taxiway, came to a stop, and I began the “after landing” checklist items. It was then that he said those fateful words, “Pull over, I’m getting out, take her around for 3 take-offs and landings…I’ll see you back at the ramp”.  SAY WHAT???

The smile on his face must’ve reflected the shock on mine! I was dumbfounded. This was totally unexpected! Was I ready? Could I handle it? What happened if something went wrong? What the hell do I do now? Oh, yeah…first…DON’T RUN OVER JOHN, then get on the radio and ask the Ground Controller for a clearance to taxi back to runway 16…lol. In a bit of shock, I picked up the microphone and did just that…hoping that I didn’t sound too “frightened/dumbfounded/scared to death” on the Ground Control frequency.

The rest is a blur. I remember how “light” the airplane felt without that extra body  (the Cessna 150 seats a grand total of 2 humans…so subtract one of those, and it’s a big difference). She climbed like a “homesick angle”, and I was at pattern altitude way before I was expecting it! I settled down, got the little machine back to the correct altitude, and made my three landings (on the first one, I forgot to activate the “carburetor heat”, and scared myself when the engine did the slightest “hiccup” when I pushed the throttle forward…only did that once…lol). After the 3rd landing, I taxied back to the ramp, and John was there to greet me. Smiles all around, and he then performed the “time honored” tradition of clipping my shirt tail, and stapling it into my logbook. It was a great flight and a great day!!!

There is, however, a rough edge to this story.

Logbook 1

(The clipped shirt-tail is a cherished part of my Logbook history.)

3 Meacham Field 1973

(Looking back after departing runway 16 at Meacham Field, circa 1973.)

When I got home, I ran into the house, and excitedly informed my Dad about my FIRST SOLO FLIGHT! He hit the roof! Within minutes, he was on the phone to John, and was delivering a scathing, TOTALLY (not for young ears) rear-end chewing! I couldn’t believe what was happening, for I thought that I had magically crossed that time-honored “solo flight” Rubicon and was now a “real pilot”. I also thought that my “Army Aviation winged “ dear ‘ol Dad would be nothing but happy and supremely proud of his little boy! How wrong I was, and as it turned out, how totally correct he was in both his assessment and his actions! You see, “JD” had soloed me probably just a TEENSY-WEENSY bit early in the program. I had no doubt that since I had grown up nursing on the teet of all things aviation, I was a shoe-in for the “ace of the base” award. In reality, I was nowhere near ready to be in the air by all by myself.

How many hours did I have logged when this “first” happened? I suspect that I still hold the record for “fewest hours logged before solo flight” at Ft. Worth’s Meacham Field.

Log entry:
“6/29/73 / C-150 / N5305Q / FTW-LCL / “Practice area, touch and go’s, first solo. JD 1930144 CFII / Total flight hours to date = 3.8”

Yep….3 point (freaking) 8 hours total flight time. I barely knew enough to properly kill myself. Thank you JD!.

Logbook 2

(Page 1, Logbook 1…this is where it all started…lol.)


Two addendums:

#1
After landing in Orlando on that “day of days” flying Captain on a jetliner for the first time, I announced to the crew that we would be meeting for dinner and ATTENDANCE WAS MANDATORY. I also told them to leave their dollars in the hotel room, for drinks/dinner would be on yours truly. They all showed up (go figure…pilots and flight attendants passing up a free meal…not on your life!), we enjoyed a great night at a terrific restaurant, and later we found a pub with nickel shots…thank God we were not scheduled to depart until the next afternoon! To this day, I routinely run into “Russ” (the cabin purser on that first flight) and we have a good laugh about that trip. It was a long day, but a really good one.

#2
I sat in my car (that beautiful Pontiac Firebird), and waited for the Star-Telegram truck to deliver my newspaper bundles like it had done a thousand times before. The alarm at 4 a.m. came way too early that rainy Saturday morning, but thank goodness I now delivered my route from the sanctity of my auto and not walking (or on my dirt-bike) like I had done for many years. June of 1974 saw me as a spanking new graduate from high school, but college was months away, and my job of twice daily delivery of the news was still a big part of my life. This was going to be just another wet, crappy morning, and as I worked the bundles into my car, I glanced down at the front page and was stopped in my tracks.

John’s picture front and center…along with five others.

All dead.

They had departed at 2 minutes past eleven the night before from Lubbock, bound for Meacham, but never made it. John had moved on from his life as a flight instructor, and had taken a job flying a twin Piper Aztec for a small oil company in west Texas. The weather the previous evening had seen an especially violent line of thunderstorms march across north Texas, and I remember watching the dude on the 10 p.m. KTVT weather report announce that the “radar tops” of this monster were over 50,000’! Without doubt, funnel clouds had ripped fields apart that night, and this deadly storm had also ripped something else. It had pulled the wings off of N777AV… the airplane that John was flying.

Piper-Aztec-PA-23-250_e

(Piper Aztec PA-23-250.)

Excerpts from the NTSB report:
“Location- Cresson, TX…Fatalities, CR- 1, PX- 5… Type of Accident- Collision with ground/water: uncontrolled… Probable Cause- Pilot in Command- Improper in-flight decisions or planning, Spatial disorientation… Factors, Weather- Thunderstorm activity, turbulence associated w/clouds and/or thunderstorms… Sky condition- obscuration… Ceiling at accident site- 100’… Visibility at accident site- 3 miles or less… Precipitation at accident site- thunderstorm… Temp- 66 degrees… Wind 300/ 13 knots.

Pilot Data- Commercial, Flt Instructor, Age 27, 3000 Total Hours, Instrument Rated.

REMARKS- PENETRATED AREA OF FCST SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS.

This seems hardly a fitting epitaph for a young man that took me from a student to a SOLO pilot (albeit a bit too soon…lol), and further into my training for the coveted Private Pilots certificate. Sadly, he would leave Ft. Worth School of Aviation for the Aztec job, and would perish before I would get my  wings as a new minted licensed pilot…that would happen 12 days after his death. He taught me many things in our time spent aloft, and I remember him as a happy young man, full of life (maybe too much life when it came to the ladies), and generally fun to be around. In the end, I’ll never forget the smile on his lips, the twinkle in his eyes, and the look of joy on his face when he stepped onto the hot Texas pavement, and gave me a little blue and white airplane (N5305Q) to TAKE INTO THE SKY ALONE for the first time.

THANK YOU JD… she was my “first”.

4 Me and 05Q

(Yours truly in my little friend…N5305Q…shortly after recieving my wings.)

11 YT

(Forty years and a few million miles later… 🙂 )

’till next time…

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“Going To Work With Dad”

 

The following tale is one of my favorites. Both in the remembering, and in the retelling.

It occurred during the dawn of my second decade, was most certainly one of those “day of days” that we are all graced with, and will forever be a heartwarming part of my family lore. I offer it as a small peek into my distant past, and as a possible explanation of just why I turned out like I did…

 


 

Depending on your age, I ask you the following…

Do you remember when you were growing up watching the television shows of the 1960’s? These family friendly themes often depicted one of the kids happily heading off to work with his (or her) father. Be he the town constable, the local insurance salesman, or even the master clown at the rodeo, the chance to be seen with “the ol’ man” at his place of work was a treasured thing for a youngster. Those shows, back in the innocent early days of television, captured that perfectly. Somehow you knew that in real life, when YOUR Dad walked out the door on the way to work, he was embarking on yet another quest to gain riches, slay the dragons, and keep the family safe. The problem as a young lad was that you rarely got to see him in all of his glory, doing the actual dragon killing. In that realm, I was far more privileged than most men of my generation; a privilege that gives me comfort in firmly placing my father as one of the true heroes of my life. Having the chance to spend time with my Dad at his workplace was undeniably an experience that helped shape and give direction to my young life. It was an adventure that few can equal, for you see, my Dad was an Army pilot.

 

BE Ball smile

(This is what a hero looks like…at least in my humble opinion.)

Let me back up a bit.

I am my father’s son. To be more precise, I am what he was, because he was what I admired and hoped to someday become. We are both fortunate to have spent a large part of our life literally with our head in the clouds. We’ve each logged thousands of hours turning, twisting and banking through the skies, far above the world of the earth-bound folks we served. I am a professional aviator today in large part because he was one such person back then. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that my love of flying machines was a gift (slowly and gently) given from him to me as a child. In that respect I owe him a lifetime of joy, excitement, happiness and contentment at my place of work.

 

Back to the present.

Over the years, my children have asked me many times, “When do I get to go to work with you? My friend (fill in the blank) went to work with her Dad (or Mom), so I want to go to work with you.” From a person in my profession, there is no easy answer to such a question. I remember thirty years ago as a brand new airline pilot, seeing this play out first hand. We were tasked with finishing a long day with a “milk run” from Great Falls, over the Bitterroot Mountains to Missoula for a two-day layover. It was a late summer evening, beautiful weather, light passenger load, and the Captain’s young son was onboard accompanying his Dad to do some fishing. Shortly before pushing back from the gate in Great Falls, this Captain did something that I’ll never forget; something that greatly shocked both myself and the First Officer. He excused himself from the cockpit and returned a few minutes later promptly strapping his son into the Boeing 727 cockpit observer’s jump-seat. To our confused looks, he offered, “oh, and Timmy will be riding up front with us on this leg”. What the heck?

This was blatantly against company policy, strictly against Federal Aviation Regulations, and as far as I was concerned (as a new employee whose job was on the line), probably counter to most of The Ten Commandments! Again, the airplane was essentially void of passengers, the flight attendants could care less if little “Timmy” were up front with us, and back in those days the Captain of the ship was just that…the number one honcho, the boss, the “dude in charge”. What he said was the law, and that was pretty much the end of it. Dare I say, if I attempted something like that nowadays, umm… let’s just say I could be writing this from a large brick building with bars on the windows. I would love to take one (if not all three) of my kids to work with me someday, but if they harbor any notions of being in the “same room as Dad” when I’m actually working, then they can just forget that nonsense.

 

The 1960’s rocked as a kid.

My days as the child of an Army Aviator were full of excitement, incredible fun, and lots of adventure. To add some perspective, those were the magical days of the 60s and in my world most things fell into one of three categories: “neat”, “keen” or just plain “cool” (yes, we actually spoke like that). Upsides back then were events like riding our bikes (no helmets) long past dusk without an “Amber Alert” being flashed across the heartland. It’s not that our parents didn’t care for us; they just didn’t worry like parents do these days. As a society, we were in many ways blissfully clueless. We would watch Mom enjoy a martini and a Marlboro to calm the anxiety and jitters of being pregnant (yet again), and every Sunday evening we’d gather around the black and white Magnavox, and watch “Bonanza” not knowing that color TVs (and shows like “16 And Pregnant”) were the frame of our future. When we’d pile into the “woody” station wagon, we’d sit serenely bereft of seat-belts as Dad cruised down the street with one hand firmly on the wheel and the other clutching an ice-cold Budweiser. Yep…those were the days.

 

Family Pic

(Just another Ball Family adventure in the mid 1960s…yours truly on the far left.)

 

The downside for your average fourth grader was fairly ambiguous, but nonetheless not so great. At school, we were presented with a stream of drills about stuff that seems pretty asinine in retrospect. For instance they told us that when indeed the “Red Horde” Soviets launched the nukes, we were to stay calm, get under our school desk, cover our heads and for heavens sake, “don’t look toward the flash”. My generation now laughs at this idiocy, but back then we accepted this without question, somehow believing it would be all OK (as long as we didn’t look at that dreaded flash). As a parent I now understand why the grownups back then didn’t want to pop our collective bubbles, for it would surely cause more angst than it would cure. Also, back in those halcyon days of childhood, acting out usually meant more than a stern glare or a “time out”. It could mean a whack upside the melon, or a kick in the posterior by a size 11 combat boot that would make Beckham proud. “Corporal punishment” was a tool in every parent’s bag, and 99% of them had no issues using it (I can attest to that from personal experience). For the most part however, the 60’s were magical days to be a kid, and for this kid more special than for most. So incredible that riding out to the U.S. Army airfield with Dad was just something my brother and I did on a regular basis. Much like getting our weekly “high and tight” haircut at the base P.X., or tucking in our shirttails before we entered the school building, it was just part of our life, and life was good.

 

The day of days.

One dreary Fall morning in Munich, circa 1967, my Dad rounded my brother and me up, marched us to the Plymouth Fury wagon and off we motored toward the airfield. On this cool, misty day however, our regular routine was interrupted by an unannounced enroute stop. He pulled into the parking lot of the base liquor store, and dashed inside. Within a few minutes he returned carrying a paper bag containing a bottle of the finest Army Aviator’s “go juice” in the world (that would be Jim Beam whiskey for the uninformed). We young two took little notice of this other than the extra ten minutes we spent in the car, but this all changed when we crossed the MP guardhouse signaling our passing from the quasi-civilian base housing to the actual military part of our Dad’s world.Here we were greeted by a stern face guard, and a razor sharp salute directed toward the Warrant Officer driving the station wagon (and his crisp return). We instantly knew that we were firmly back in his world of deadly seriousness. A world of zippered olive drab flight suits, meaningful gaits, heavy duty vehicles and loud flying machines. We were in the company of men that did things we barely understood, things that only heroes could accomplish, and we were somehow a very small part of it all. We had been here before, and we knew it was little-boy heaven.

As we entered the building that housed these larger than life men known as Army pilots, we came face to face with someone that could throw a wrench into this day’s plans. We were hell bent on hanging out “at work” with our beloved Dad, and being turned toward home would simply not do. In military terms this man was called the Officer of the Day. In civilian terms, he is a person that has drawn the duty (for that day) from the Company’s pool of pilots to be the “unit fireman” as it were. If anything in the world of that particular unit needed timely attention, he would be there to make decisions, affix a solution to a problem, and generally stamp out whatever fire had sparked to life. On this day the O.D. was (like my Dad) a Warrant Officer, an Army aviator, and most importantly, a good friend of the family. They greeted each other warmly, smiled like Cheshire cats while the paper bag holding the bottle was passed between them with a soft murmur of, “is it still on?” This was followed by a small nod between the two conspirators that was barely noticeable, but apparently it sealed the deal.

 

OD Ball

(My Dad on one of his days as the “OD”. Nuremburg circa 1966.)

 

In no time, we three entered the hangar for my Dad’s unit and were greeted by a wave of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Later in life I would spend two years working as a “hangar boy” at the airport of the aviation university I attended in Oklahoma, and the smells would come home to roost. My boss back then, an old, grizzled mechanic by the name of “Ralph” once shared with me this snippet of wisdom; as a pilot, I should never trust the work of mechanics from a hangar that gleamed with cleanliness and pristine order. Ralph lived by that mantra, and I’m happy to say that this particular Army hangar would’ve made him very proud. The smells of cleaning fluid mixed with engine oil, grease, aviation fuel and sweat permeated the entire hangar, and to our young nostrils it was the perfume that flamed our passion for these exotic flying machines. My Dad stopped and briefly chatted with one of the mechanics, he then signed something and before we knew it, we were walking toward the flight line. The tall one in our group was adorned in his flight suit, carrying a flight helmet bag and privy to the secret afoot, while the two short ones sported an air of nonchalance adorned with their typically clueless expressions.

As we approached the far end of the flight line, we found ourselves standing next to a machine that was as familiar to us as our Schwinn bikes were strategically laying back in our front yard. We were preparing to climb into an Army OH-13 “Sioux” helicopter, the one that became world renown from the opening scenes to the TV show M.A.S.H. My Dad introduced us to her at an early age, and I learned to be as enthralled by her as I’m sure he was. A large amount of his flight time (and the one peace-time accident he had) were logged in that beautiful bubbled cockpit. A great deal of his flying yarns starred him and his beloved H-13, and someday I’ll relate the story of the time he attempted to do a loop in that little whirlybird.

 

H-13 Sioux

(The Bell OH-13 Sioux…the civilian world knows it as the Bell G-47.)

 

The H-13 wasn’t my only airborne love as a young boy, for I was fortunate enough to spend many hours with my rear-end firmly planted in the various helicopters that my father flew (and a few fixed winged). I’ve “logged quality time” in the OH-13, the UH-34 “Choctaw”, the L-20 “Beaver” and the L-19 “Bird Dog”, plus many that my Dad never flew, but provided me with a guided tour.. All reeked of a curious mixture of leather, canvas, avgas and cigarette smoke, and these became an important part of my early childhood. My brother and I would happily spend hours sitting in the pilot’s seats, twisting every knob, throwing every switch, and pulling (or pushing) every flight control apparatus. This was standard procedure for us when we would follow Dad to his place of work. He would be tasked with some sort of paper work issue or office duty, so he would drag us to the airfield, find a machine at the far end of the flight line, disconnect the battery cables (or whatever else he did to render it inert), and leave us with the following warning: “Play here. DO NOT leave this machine. Move any switch or knob, jerk any lever or push any pedal, but stay with this machine! Understand?” We of course would happily nod while barely hearing the issued statement. After all, we were already engrossed in our collective imaginations and about to depart on yet another adventure.

 

L1 Bird Dog

(My brother in front of an L-19/0-1 Bird Dog)

H-34 Choctaw

(the H-34 Choctaw…the last machine my father flew while on active duty.)

 

The day in question would prove to be different in many ways. First of all, when we got to the helicopter, my father didn’t leave us. In fact, he had us climb in and buckle up while he did an abbreviated “walk around” inspection. As your average 11 year old, I understood that before one took a flying machine into the air, you first had to do “something”…I just didn’t completely understand what that something might be. His absence was short lived, and before we knew it, he was buckling himself in and beginning a routine that was as familiar to him as starting up the family lawn mower. His hands were a symphony of motion, setting dials, adjusting knobs, moving levers, and when finished, he strapped onto our little noggins the two flight helmets that “just happened” to be awaiting us in the cockpit. Within seconds he was talking to us through the inter-phone system, and the faintest of ideas began to gestate that this day would not be like the many other days at the airfield with Dad.

His next move confirmed that thought. With a practiced flow, he moved all of the controls through their range of motion (checking for…well, whatever he was checking for), his hands quickly set the throttle, mixture and magnetos, the engine was primed, and after looking out the open door and letting out a loud “CLEAR”, he moved some mysterious switch and we were treated to the sound of a large engine barely three feet behind us coming to life! Holy Guacamole! He had actually started this beast up, and this was confirmed as the two big rotor blades above us began their dance of follow the leader. Within moments, they were up to speed, and our shell-shocked expressions were met with an unforgettable grin from him. He was not only going to let us peek into his world as a pilot, but he was about to give us a “full Monty” stare. He was taking us with him into his world of the sky, and we sat there frozen, our eyes locked onto him, clutching the seat belts and having no idea what was to come next. We were fairly sure of one thing. We knew this probably wasn’t an approved thing, for no other kid we knew had ever mentioned something like this in the middle of a playground dodge ball grudge match.

 

WO BE Ball inflight Vietnam

(My Dad in the cockpit in Vietnam…this was the grin that greeted my brother and me.)

 

He pulled on the collective, the engine began to strain, and the world around us disappeared in a spray of water and wind! The engine revved a bit more and as if by magic, we lifted into the air! We were flying, and not like the TWA and Pan Am flying we did to move across the country (and the ocean) a few years earlier, but flying as in hovering in a United States Army helicopter! As we would find out much later, this machine was in need of a “hover check” after some sort of maintenance procedure was accomplished, and he took that opportunity to give his two young crew cut adorned sons a ride in the very type of machine they had sat motionless in for many an hour. We did pedal turns, some forward and backward flight and generally never got more than a few feet above the ground, but that didn’t matter one bit to us! We were flying as high as if we’d just done a max performance take-off and roared out of a hot LZ. The incredible noise, the vibration, the sounds of him talking to us in that staccato “pilot style” in our helmets, the up and down dancing under the roar of the blades; it was all a part of a special moment in time in my young life, and I’ll never, ever forget it. He allowed us to lightly hold the controls, so we gingerly grabbed the vibrating cyclic and collective controls, and put our feet on the anti-torque pedals. We were “helping” him hover this amazing machine, and it was better than any amusement park ride I’d ever been on (or since I might add).

All too soon, we settled back to the original spot of our liftoff and the “flight” was over. He placed the helicopter exactly where she had been sitting when we arrived; it was as if the “crime” had never occurred. My Dad accomplished his shut-down and securing checklists, signed the maintenance forms, and we unbuckled and climbed out still reeling in a state of shock. As we walked toward the hangar, I turned back to look in awe at the thing that has just given me wings a short time before. It sat motionless with all systems dormant, two large drooping rotor blades, and the now silent engine making that faint snapping and popping sound that only piston engines do as they cool down. It was probably the adrenaline still coursing through my young veins, but I swear I distinctly felt a connection between that little chopper and myself. I smiled at her, and I swear she winked back.

Maybe that day was the beginning of my journey as a pilot, maybe my Dad saw the spark in me and that was all a part of a plan of his to fan the flames. He’s been gone many years now, so I’ll never know for certain, but I do know that over the years I’ve many times felt the same “connection” between myself and my flying machines. This started early as a fledgling pilot in the little Cessna’s, and now at work I will gently pat the big Boeing on the skin as I enter the cabin door from the jet-bridge. Maybe I simply love to feel the strong metal of the fuselage against my touch, or maybe I’m unconsciously giving it a gentle assurance that I will fly it as smoothly and safely as I’m able. I’m not sure, but I am sure that on a rainy Fall day in Munich almost fifty years ago, my Dad took me to work with him like he had done many times before. But this day was different; this incredible day at work with my Dad changed my life. You see in many ways I left the house that morning a boy, but came back home a few hours later a pilot.

Addendum: On the ride home, my brother and I were subjected to a thirty minute speech about how “the last few hours never happened”. He didn’t go into any particulars; suffice to say that he made sure we understood that this was to be a huge secret just between the three of us, not even my Mother and sisters could know about what had transpired. We swore a sacred oath of secrecy that lasted roughly until we were on the playground the next school day. I have no doubt that more than a few boys finding themselves embroiled in a dodge ball grudge match, were distracted about that crazy kid and his crazy story. You know the one that said he went to work with his Dad and got to FLY A HELICOPTER! Yeah, right.

 

M4 Sherman

(Yours truly a top an M4 Sherman tank display somewhere around Dad’s airfield in Nuremburg, circa 1966)

 

till next time,

 

 

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“Laughter And Heartache”

Greetings folks, First of all, a sincere wish for a Happy New Year to everyone! Secondly, here’s hoping that any recovery from the residual trauma of the holidays is coming along nicely. It’s too bad (IMHO) that as we get older, most of us lose our sense of innocence and joy for that time of year. I vividly remember one Christmas finding a big, red fire engine under the tree, and the rest of that day was spent in little boy heaven. It seems a bit sad that we see those once magical days through older eyes.

A personal note before the next “Logbook” entry.

As that big, sparkly orb touched down in New York City the other night, I sat wondering just what the next 365 days have in store for this weathered old aviator. About a month ago, I awoke to a strange medical issue and as of yet, the dudes in the long white coats don’t really know why. It’s not life threatening (so far as I know as this time), but it is serious. The good news is that (in most all cases) it reverses itself, the bad news is the cause leaves a ton of questions unanswered (with regards to the FAA, my career, my future, etc).

My faith, my family, my friends, and my love of aviation in all its forms (“real” and virtual”) will get me through this. However, as I think ahead to that night just a shade under a year from now (when I find myself again counting down the last moments of another calendar), will I still be a pilot employed by a major U.S. airline? As the previous “Logbook” entry noted, I’ve been down this road many years ago, and it’s not pleasant. It’s a long trip full of sleepless nights, blank stares, and lots of unanswered questions. But as I’m fond of saying, “life is a journey”, and if my journey as a pilot is finished, then I thank God for a most unbelievable trek through the skies.

I’ll keep ya in the loop. Here’s the tale…


“Laughter and Heartache”

Aviation is a wonderful thing, but at times it can be nothing less than a schizophrenic mistress. Some of the most outrageously humorous things I’ve seen have been in and around aircraft; and conversely, some of the most sad and tragic. While paging back through my old flying logbooks, I stumbled onto the following stories.

To start on a humorous note, we’ll travel back to a time when life seemed to be more simple and straight forward. There was no such animal as the internet (oh my God), Ronald Reagan had been elected barely a week hence, and it looked like the hostage crisis from the other side of the planet might be coming to a conclusion.. The date is November 9th, 1980, and yours truly has just been blessed to fly as an honest to gosh airline captain. OK, maybe not for a major airline, that wouldn’t come for another 14 years, and although it was just for a “commuter” (or as they’re known nowadays; a regional), it was nonetheless a rather big deal in my life.

The aircraft was the venerable Model 99 from those great folks at Beechcraft; basically just a B100 model King Air, but without the usual “airliner” amenities like an autopilot, pressurization, a flight attendant, a cockpit door, etc.. She was configured to seat 15 passengers, but to me it might as well have been a 400 passenger Boeing 747. The training was done in the middle of the night, for we had no simulators, and the aircraft were far too busy during the daylight hours to pull off the line. The checkrides with the FAA went very well, and now on this very date I was to finally be in command of an “airliner” filled with trusting souls. It was a big day for me, I was paired with a very competent First Officer, the weather was beautiful, and I was as ready as I would ever be…now, all I needed was to just do it.

December 20, 2000 (3)
(Newly minted “Capt. BBall”. 30 years and 30 pounds ago…lol.)

I was tasked to fly the “second shift” that day, and it was looking to be a long day in the cockpit. We were scheduled to leave my home base of Fayetteville, Arkansas at precisely 1:10 pm, fly to Little Rock, Memphis, back to Little Rock, up to Fayetteville, then to Kansas City and finally return to Fayetteville just before midnight. I reported in early (just like that first day of Kindergarten), and walked down to the flight line feeling a bit nervous (hoping my jacket with the “new” four gold stripes on the sleeves didn’t look too obvious). Again, nervous, but ready to tackle whatever the day had in store. However, something important to my day was missing….N749A, the aircraft I was scheduled to fly. Before leaving the Flight Operations Building heading for the flight line, I had checked the computer to see if it had left Ft. Smith enroute to Fayetteville, and it showed it had indeed left the gate on time.

Odd…Ft. Smith lies roughly twenty minutes flying time due south of home base, and after doing the math, I expected the bird to be landing about the time I had walked the 500 or so yards to where it would be parking. It was nowhere to be seen. Being both puzzled and concerned with their tardiness, I checked the “crew orders” to see who was flying it inbound. Here the mystery began to unravel a bit, for in command of this ship was the “other” new Captain on the block, “Tony”. He wasn’t a bad pilot, more like he had a bit of a black cloud following him around (that and the fact that he was kind of a “nervous Nellie”). Couple the two, and it left him with the tag of “unlucky”. He and I went through Captain upgrade training together, so I got to see his operation up close and personal, and at times it wasn’t pretty, but then everyone has a bad day every now and then.

Time was really starting to tick by. My F/O showed up, and we both began to ponder what was happening. How could Tony leave the gate on time, and now almost an hour later STILL not be here? Had they suffered some mechanical difficulty? The weather was “severe clear”, so that wasn’t a part of the problem. Heaven forbid the thought, but had they gone down somewhere? I was on the phone to our company flight controller (our version of an airline’s dispatcher), and both he and myself were getting very concerned. At about this time, I looked up to see that beautiful red and white, twin turbine touching down on runway 34….I was relieved to say the least, but I was still curious as hell. What on earth would cause an airplane to take over an hour to make a :20 flight?

Company procedures for this machine dictated that upon reaching the parking spot, the Capt. would shut down the left engine, leaving the right one running at idle, using the residual thrust to balance the weight of the passengers deplaning from the aft left door. The First Officer would make his way back through the cabin, open the aft door, deplane, and assist the passengers as they made their way down the airstairs. Well, this day Tony was doing things not at all according to our SOP.. I noticed that when they came to a stop he didn’t secure the left engine, nonetheless the F/O opened the door, made his way to the bottom, and began to assist the passengers. I was fairly close to the aircraft, and when the F/O looked at me, I pointed to my watch to signify a WTF?; all he could do was roll his eyes (and try to yell over the noise of the Pratt and Whitney PT6’s to tell Tony to “shut down the left engine!”….Tony wasn’t hearing him). The F/O was having a devil of a time fighting the prop wash, and as each and every passenger got deplaned, they were fairly blown off the steps. I noticed they were all mumbling something about a “moron, idiot, jerk, etc”…I noticed something else….something very different for most passengers. Many of them had their hands and sleeves covered in dirt and grease, and they weren’t looking pleased about it! What the hell had happened?

When the last person had deplaned and was walking toward the terminal, the F/O fairly launched himself back up the steps, went forward to the cockpit, shut down both engines, then got his kit bag and deplaned. He looked mortified….or was it pissed off…I couldn’t tell.  Here, the mystery began to unfold.

Beech 99big
(I truly loved flying the Beech 99.)

He explained that upon taking the runway for departure down in Ft. Smith, Capt. Tony began his “nervous Nellie” routine and started to fiddle with the “condition levers” on the throttle quadrant. For those of you that have never flown a turbo-prop aircraft, the condition levers are roughly the equivalent of the mixture controls on a recip powered aircraft. For takeoff these are positioned in the “full forward” position, but for some reason Tony had decided it was time to “adjust” them. Somehow he inadvertently moved them far enough aft to SHUT DOWN BOTH OF THE ENGINES! Yep, you read that right, he’s sitting on the runway, take-off clearance received, and he shuts down both engines. According to the F/O, in the process of restarting one of them (remember all the aircraft radios are on, transponder on, landing lights on, etc., so in other words he’s a bit “overdrawn” on the battery now with no engine generators online), he ran the frikken battery dead! Keeps getting better.

They now find themselves on the runway, both engines shut down, and a dead battery which means no way to tell anyone, like the ATC Control Tower. I’m pretty sure we did not cover that scenario in Capt. upgrade training (maybe we did and I just wasn’t listening). So I guess he did the only thing he could think of at the time….gotta move this machine off this active runway, but how? Well, we got an F/O, and about a dozen “able bodied” passengers in the back. You got it, “folks, this is your Capt. speaking, it’s time you got off your big fat asses, get out and push this baby off the runway!” (Probably not what he said, but I couldn’t help myself). So that’s what he did. He somehow got all the passengers to deplane, and then he steered while those that could push did! At about this time in the story, the First Officer was about to boil over at the retelling, so he just shook his head and marched off toward the employee parking lot.

I made my way up the stairs and headed for the cockpit. I found Tony still in his seat, staring at his lap, and pretty much just in “la la land”. I helped him pack up his stuff, went through the “shut down and securing checklist” with him, then generally just herded him off the aircraft and pointed him toward the Flight Operations Building (I’m sure he was going to have a bit of explaining to do). I guess somehow at that point, I realized that no matter what my “first day” was to throw at me, it was gonna be a breeze compared to that….I did spend most of the day just chuckling at the image of a dozen businessmen pushing an “airliner” off the runway…hehe.

As mentioned above, it seems that for every “rib tickler” that the world of flying machines throws at you, it always brings you back to earth with a big dose of reality. On this particular day in 1976, I was a twenty year old student living in Oklahoma attending an aviation college….life was good. I was working on my Commercial License (this entailed a ton of solo flying, which was ALWAYS better than flying under the microscopic eyes of an instructor), and was also working part-time washing and waxing the universities aircraft. I was bicycling the ten or so miles to work everyday after class (I didn’t own a car until my senior year), and generally thought that nothing in life could be better.

As I made my way down the two lane blacktop highway to the airport, I noticed lots of traffic headed for the airfield….then that nightmarish vehicle raced past….an ambulance. A horrible feeling hit me square in the gut, “Oh shit, someone’s crashed” I thought. Unfortunately, that horrible feeling would prove to be right. As I got to the buildings at the flight line, I noticed a group of vehicles at the end of the runway 17, including the ambulance. I asked the first person I came to, and they said there had been a mid-air collision. It was the horror that we all feared at this little airfield, for we had no ATC facility. All traffic was strictly just a “do it like the book says, report in the blind over the unicom frequency, and keep your eyes OUTSIDE the cockpit at all times”. So far it had worked like a charm, this time it hadn’t.

KDUA
(Sectional chart showing my home field…KDUA.)

This accident was a tragedy in the truest sense of the word (all accidents are tragic, this one just seemed more so somehow). It was a Friday, and one of our students that lived in Dallas, was flying his Grumman American AA-5 into town to continue his flight training, thus fulfilling his degree requirements. At the same time, at an airport about twenty miles away (just across the border in Texas), a group of airshow pilots were practicing for a show that was to be held that weekend. As fate would have it, we were the only airport in the area that sold 80/87 octane avgas, so lots of the airshow guys were flying up to top off their tanks.

The student (who was an acquaintance really, not an actual friend) had entered the traffic pattern from a 45 degree heading to a downwind at the correct altitude (just like the book said), had reported over the unicom frequency (by the book again), had turned a base leg, turned final (reporting both over the radio), was suddenly hit from above by something, spun into the ground and died….simple as that…but by the book. It seems that one of the airshow hotshots had flown over the field above pattern altitude, flown an irregular traffic pattern, pulled the nose of his Pitts Special aerobatic machine sharply up, entered a multiple spin descent with the intentions of recovering a few hundred feet above the ground, and land. You can see what happened. As he was in his “airshow mode” spinning descent on the final leg, he spun right into the Grumman. Lady Luck was smiling on one aviator this bright sunny day, for he was able to recover and land safely. I’ve often thought however; was he lucky or not? He would have a lifetime to think about how his little “airshow” had cost another person their life. In shock, I made my way to the crash site, but I won’t tell you what I saw. Thank you “Mistress Aviation”, one more dose of reality in a long line of many.

The next “giggle-fest” I’ll retell also took place at the “commuter” airline. For some strange reason, I was paired many times with brand spanking new First Officers for their first few weeks on the line; but for this day I drew one of the “old head” F/Os. He was one hellava good pilot, and just happened to be my old college roommate and lifelong friend. Oh, did I mention it was New Year’s Eve 1980, AND (I swear) there was a full moon? Have you ever decided NOT to go out on New Year’s Eve because you just didn’t want to mix it up with all the “amateur” drunks? Well, in this case we had no choice.

It was nearing the end of a very long day. Buzz (real name Steve, but he gained the moniker “Buzz” in college after returning from many a solo flight with grass hanging from various parts of the landing gear and fuselage) and I had already flown six legs (apx. 6+ hours in the air). Before we could take this horse to the barn, we had to fly from Memphis to Springfield, MO, then the 30 minute or so flight to Fayetteville. Sounds pretty simple…. yeah right, remember the “amateur drunks” I talked about? As the passengers filed out to board the Beech 99 as flight 485 in Memphis, I could tell that something was bothering Buzz. Finding myself rather busy in the cockpit being as vigilant as I could be with “civilians” around the aircraft and the right engine running (we pulled the same residual thrust trick enplaning that we did deplaning), I didn’t get a chance to recon who we had drawn to fly with us on the flight to Springfield this winter evening, but you can bet that Buzz noticed. As soon as he had the door closed, and was seated in the cockpit, he put on his David Clarke headset and began to give me the rundown on the characters for this little “ship of fools”.

7 Bill
(My dear friend Steve “Buzz” Baker [R] and yours truly on a charter flight during those crazy 1980s…sadly I would lose him to cancer a few years ago. I miss him to this day.)

He started by again, confirming that somewhere in the universe there was indeed a full moon. We had drawn about a half a dozen “daredevils” to accompany us this New Year’s Eve, and I’m not sure any of them were completely sane. First up on the our manifest were “the sisters”. Seems that they were in their mid teens, were identical twins escorted by Mom, and obviously weren’t seeing the same I-Max movie that the rest of us were. His exact statement was something to the effect of, “when they filed past me at the boarding door, they looked at me like I was DINNER!”….not good, probably too many viewings of “The Silence of the Lambs” (shudder). Next we had the two or three redneck/truck driver types headed home for a day or two, your usual young couple trying to not be too terrified, and then we had HIM. He had to be in his late sixties, had the requisite “John Deere” tractor hat on, the big “won this at the rodeo” cowboy belt buckle (I sure with some sort of excrement still on his boots), cussing and bitching the whole time about who knows what. He got on last, sat in the last row of seats, and off we went. As we taxied out, I snuck a quick peek through the curtain into the cabin, and muttered “ol’ Lordy, it’s gonna be one of those flights”.

After an uneventful departure we climbed into an incredibly clear, star filled night sky. N8099R was humming like only a well functioning flying machine can. Memphis Center was quiet and accommodating (they had already given us a radar vector for a direct routing for Springfield), and life was looking very good indeed. Then it started. Someone, not really sure who but I have my suspicions, had boarded with their own libations, and was proceeding to pass the jug around and get a BIG start on that time honored tradition of getting “butt faced drunk” on the eve of a new year.

I’ve never been a fan of mixing airplanes and alcohol, especially unsupervised, but at this point all I could do was get on the P.A. system and advise them to hold off on their little celebration until after we landed in Missouri. This didn’t go over too well, in fact I think that even the “sisters” told me to “eat feces and expire” (or something to that effect). The farther west we flew, the more toasted they became. EVERYONE in the back of the plane was getting pretty drunk, especially Cletus (my new name for mister personality that boarded last). He was becoming very loud, and seemed to be directing his tirade at us in the cockpit. I pulled back an earpiece on the headset to hear just what he was pontificating about….it went something like this: “Why I was a tail gunner in a B-17 back in the BIG ONE, and I’m gonna come up there and kick your two young asses and show you how to fly one of these things!” Great, apparently Cletus was not your basic “happy drunk”.

December 20, 2000a
(The view that “Cletus” may have had…only at night and much more blurry.)

At this, Buzz gave me the “ok, Boss, what we gonna do now?” look. As I saw it, we had two choices, either wait until he made good on his threat (and whack him in the head with the fire extinguisher), or get this bird to a higher altitude and try and put them ALL to sleep. “Hello Memphis Center, Skyways 485 requesting higher”, “Skyways 485, you’re the only airplane over northern Arkansas, what would you like?” Again, we were unpressurized, so we had to either stay below 10,000, or for anything higher for more than 30 minutes, we had to be on oxygen…..which we didn’t have. “Memphis Center, Skyways 485 requesting 12,000 for about 20 minutes”, “Skyways 485 climb and maintain 12 thousand feet, let us know when you want to descend”. Great, just hope it worked like the books said it would.

To make a long story short….it worked like a charm. By the time we got to altitude, and started our gradual descent back below 10K, they were all off to dream land. I would guess the “sisters” were dreaming of a “Buzz dinner”, the truck drivers were dreaming of home (anyone’s home), the young couple….let’s not go there, and Cletus? I’m just guessing he had “visions of Flying Fortresses dancing like sugarplums in his head”. I also bet that noggin of his was pounding just a bit as he woke up on short final into Springfield…..happy NEW YEAR Cletus!

Gordon Shattles is (and always will be) my favorite flight instructor, bar none. He was a few years older than us in college, married with lot’s of kids, and was in the mid ‘70s a true “geeks geek” (he actually wore the black horned rimmed glasses, and had a pocket protector with about four thousand pens in it)….but he was one incredible flight instructor. He would spend hours with us peering over Jeppesen approach plates, Low Altitude Enroute charts, SIDs, STARS, etc, and all at his dinner table (you know what a home cooked meal is like for a bunch of college kids?). Everything we needed to learn the nuances of breaking out of the confines of being a VFR only driver, and becoming a “real pilot” with that coveted Instrument Rating in one’s pocket. And he was damned good at it. For anyone that’s ever gone through any formal IFR training, it’s like learning 1) a new language, and 2) how to fly all over again, only this time within a gnat’s ass of BEING PERFECT. It’s difficult to say the least, but with the right person in the right seat teaching you, it’s also a huge amount of fun.

VOR app KDUA

(VOR/DME approach to runway 35 at my home field. Gordon taught us this new language.)

I’ll never forget one flight he and I took during my IFR training. It was an early Fall evening, when the Oklahoma air just before sunset is smoother than a baby’s bottom. Gordon and I had been in the Cessna 172 for over an hour doing the usual things…holding patterns, basic airwork, NDB approaches, etc (all flown by me while wearing “the hood”, a plastic device you fit over your head such as to make only the instrument panel visible to the student). At this point Gordon began to give me “vectors” to line us up for a straight-in approach to our runway 17. He relayed that I was doing so well, that he was going to give me a “simulated” ASR approach (this is just like in the movies where the ATC guy gives you headings and rates of descent to fly an imaginary localizer and glideslope all the way down to an altitude whereby you look up, see the runway and “take over visually”, usually about 100-200 feet above the ground….tons of fun).

As we neared what I thought would be our “decision height”, he said to stay under the hood with these words (I’ll never forget them)….”you’re landing your 747 at Heathrow, it’s just gone “zero-zero” in the fog….so you’re gonna take this all the way to touchdown”….I remember asking him if he really wanted to do this. He just calmly gave me SMALL heading changes, SMALL rate of descent changes, and within a few minutes….wham, a fairly soft touchdown on the runway….ALL UNDER THE HOOD. Now I couldn’t decide if this guy was totally crazy, or the best damn instructor I’ve ever seen. The only thing I DIDN’T like about all of this, is that he continued to give me headings to have me taxi to the gas pump STILL under the hood (remember Heathrow was “socked in”). Well, my buddies were working the gas pumps and I think they all got a Texas-sized giggle out of watching me taxi up with that big white plastic thingy strapped to my head.

The Mistress we all loved (and hated) would not favor Gordon for long. His young life came to an end a few years later over my hometown skies of Dallas, Texas. He had taken a job flying a Cessna Conquest turboprop for a small corporation, and I’m quite sure was doing a super job as their pilot. On this day, he had filed his IFR flight plan, had departed into one of the busiest air corridors in the world, and promptly collided with a student on his first solo cross country. This person had inadvertently wandered into the DFW Class B airspace (back then it was still known as a TCA), was on a VFR flight plan, but wasn’t talking to any ATC facility whatsoever. So Gordon, his passengers, and this student pilot came together at exactly the wrong place and exactly the wrong time in the vast Texas skies. There would be no survivors. Again even though he was operating by the book (I’m absolutely sure he would do it no other way), FATE was the hunter this day, and my instructor and good friend paid the price.

An addendum to the first story. Roughly a year had passed since my first day as a Captain at the little airline, and I had completely forgotten about the “pushing the airliner” incident. I was in Memphis between flights one afternoon, so after lunch I was spending a few peaceful moments before my next flight gazing out of the terminal window daydreaming. Within a few minutes, I noticed a group of people strolling past my six o’clock. They seemed to be there meeting “grandma” who had gotten off of one of our flights, and as they passed behind me, all I could hear was the old lady saying, “Yeah, that’s right, the last time I flew this airline, we all had to get out of the airplane and help PUSH IT OFF THE RUNWAY!” I started laughing so hard I almost spewed my Coke…thanks Tony, I needed that.

’til next time…

Standard

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

Hey folks,

Well, here we go.

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

I hope you enjoy it.


 

“Night owls”

December 16, 2002 at 01:28

Good evening folks,

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

By nature I’m a night person. When I have to fly an early morning departure, I spend most of the previous night waking up, glancing at the clock (oh, it’s an hour past the last time I looked over there…lovely), and going back to sleep. REM never truly happens, and it makes for a very long day. With that said, if I had to choose between a dawn-patrol launch and an “all-nighter”, give me the night flight 100% of the time. Generally speaking, I prefer flying at night more than during daylight hours, and maybe that comes from my early days in aviation hauling the night freight. The weather is (usually) more benign, the ride is smoother, the incessant ATC chatter has been put to bed, air traffic flow is better, and when it’s a clear night…well you REALLY can see forever.

That brings me to this column. I was paging back through some old stuff I had written, and I came upon this ramble about such flights. I penned it about a year and half ago shorty after I had returned to the line. I had been grounded for almost a year regarding some medical stuff, and I guess I had forgotten the “joys” of flying the all nighters. I definitely love my job, but like all other humans, I can be prone to bitch when I’m tired.

Here it is….


 

“In The Tube In Low Earth Orbit”

 

Flying Mr. Boeing’s incredible model 757 entitles one to a huge number of thrills and perks. You get to see the closest thing to a perfect match of airfoil to engine, (and 21st century technology to hard iron) that the commercial aircraft industry has to offer. One can strap a rump in every seat, fill the cargo holds, pump on five hours of petrol, launch from just over 4500′ feet of pavement , and climb unrestricted to almost eight miles above mother Earth…. try doing that in a tired old 727 (lovely machine for it’s day, but most assuredly NOT a 757). The downside, however is that the “suits” in the airline ivory towers know all that, and they tend to put their star players in where the others can’t do the job…these days that usually means the middle of the night. Communities don’t enjoy the roar of older Pratt and Whitney JT8s over their roofs at midnight, and I can’t blame them for that. So the end result is that we in the 757 community enjoy a bit of the “vampire” lifestyle…we sleep during the day, and fly at night.

 

air_534a_002

 

As I was stepping into the hotel elevator late last night in LAX, a woman got on and (obviously noticing my uniform) stated, “You sure have an interesting job.” I, a bit glibly, stated, “Yeah, I get to go to work at midnight a lot.” What a jack-ass I was! Thinking back on it now, she (and my profession) deserved a much nicer, much more humble response. My only excuse is that I was off on yet another “all-nighter”, and was not very pleased about it. Before the night was over, I was to regret those words ten fold.

We were scheduled to launch from Los Angeles just before midnight, with an ETA of 0553 into KDTW (Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport). After a 3 plus hour nap in the middle of the day (THANK YOU “lord of the motel maids” for keeping them away from my door!), I felt pretty damn good about the coming nocturnal journey. We had a total count of 170 SOBs (not, as we say in Texas, “sumbitches”…but “souls on board”), which consisted of the First Officer, four of my line’s finest cabin attendants, 164 customers, and myself. We were to be bound together for the next several hours whether we liked it or not.

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

If you’ve never seen a roiling, boiling mass of Mother Nature’s hell from 37000’ in the middle of a gorgeous moonlit night, then (my friend) you’ve never lived. I’m the biggest fan in the world of flying AROUND thunderstorms, I only start to get a bit peeved when someone asks me to fly THROUGH them…as my man (the 1st President George Bush) said, “ain’t gonna do it, wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture.” So we altered course a few degrees to port, informed the cabin crew to stow the galleys (most all of the customers were deep into the REM thing about now), got our “radar fingers” all nimbled up, and pressed on around the northern edge of the combat. It was a sight to behold. The moon shining on the towering cumulus buildups, the lightning flashing violently as it played tag in the clouds, the green, yellow and red of the weather radar, the glow of the cockpit lights, the low hum of the jet; and around it all we flew on a (mostly) smooth course peering like two silent voyeurs. I fought the urge to get on the P.A. and announce, “Wake up you sleepy-heads and look out the window! You may not get a chance to see something like this again in THREE lifetimes!” Needless to say, I left them to their slumber. It was a magnificent hour spent watching this incredible display, and when we had passed this moving mass of terror just north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I was a bit sad it was over.

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

 

air_534a_001

 

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

Is my journey down that road mostly over? I honestly don’t know. I offer myself to the doctors the day after this trip ends for my semi-annual CT scan. I then head down that highway once more with films and reports in hand to sit in the waiting room on the 12th floor of the Mayo Building. I’ll pass the chemotherapy cubicles where I had logged many an hour last winter, and find myself in a consultation room waiting to hear if my own private hell has returned. Quite frankly, I’ll take a dozen trips through the line of thunderstorms we had just passed, rather than the one I’ll be taking down to the Mayo Clinic in the coming weeks. Am I afraid of what their news might be? Consider this for an answer; not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and what it could mean for my wonderful family and myself. Yeah, I’m scared…give me windshear or thunderstorms any day.

 

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Approaching Lake Michigan, the horizon that was just beginning to show a faint glow over Minnesota, has now turned an incredible shade of yellows and reds. “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning”, I think as we cross over the lake, but this morning all is well in my little world, and we begin our gradual descent into Motown. The ATC system has been quite and very accommodating after our encounter with the storms, and thankfully this was not to change. We were not subjected to any of the turns, descents, or airspeed changes that are the norm for daylight flying through the busy ARTCCs (air route traffic control centers) of Minneapolis, Chicago and finally Cleveland Centers. During a typical afternoon, that last 500 miles would’ve been flush with ATC chatter, radio frequency changes, clearances, and the like, all leading to a VERY busy (read blood pressure elevated) atmosphere. But not this morning…lots of silence and smooth air.

The weather was clear this dawn in Detroit…albeit a bit chilly at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. We were cleared for the visual approach to runway 3L, and after and left-hand circling approach, I made a very nice “roll on” landing (God knows how after being up all night). Upon clearning the runway we were told by the DTW tower controller, “Northwest 324, turn right at Kilo 15 and taxi to the gate with me.” The terminal was jammed with all the overnight NWA “Red Tails” getting ready to do their version of the Dawn Patrol, but not us. We glided N5518US into gate Foxtrot 9 with nary a hassle, shut down, did our securing checklists, and packed up the tools of our trade.

It had been a bit of a long night, but a good one. We had seen the best of the best from Boeing, seen some of the worst that Mother Nature can conjure up, witnessed a beautiful sunrise, and delivered our 170 something SOBs to their collective fates. Oh, and one more thing…a certain Captain was “delivered” too. For he was shown again just how special his job of driving around in “low Earth orbit” can be…

The next time I get a statement like the one from the woman in the elevator, my response will be on the order of:

“You’re right Mam, I have the best dammed job you can have on the entire planet… and not be naked!” (Well, maybe something like that)

(a postscript….again, this was penned August of ’01, and after many CT scans, my tumor has shown no interest in returning. The Dr.s at Mayo are happy, and I echo their thoughts…well, maybe with a bit more emotion.)

’till next time…

 

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