Passing the Torch

My life’s work as an aviator has been lots of things. It has been concurrently exciting and exhilarating, and (at times) excruciatingly tedious and boring.  For the last thirty plus years, I have had the good fortune to inhabit a job that has filled me with wonder and amazement, for I’ve visited places and witnessed things that few could experience in five full lifetimes. And, I’m sad to say, it has (again, at times) been tremendously lonely and heartbreaking. Days, and weeks spent on the road when heart and family beckons can be painful, and this will bruise even the stoutest of souls. I’ve been thousands of miles removed when death and pain have visited my loved ones, and that is a heavy burden to bear. With that said, it’s been nearly a four decade journey that is slowly nearing its last port of call.  Me thinks that will cause all but the most mundane to pause and reflect.

transitting TRWs SIN to NRT2

(Paralleling a line of thunderstorms just SW of Manila…Singapore to Tokyo.)

Without question, one of the pinnacles of a life spent in airline aviation, is that golden day when you are handed the keys to the jet. When you get to sew on that coveted “fourth stripe” assuming the role as Commander, and begin your work as the person in charge of the operation. As I grow longer in the tooth (in the world of airline parlance, we are referred to as “Senior Captains”), so do my First Officers, many of whom I’ve shared a cockpit with for countless hours. More than a few of them are now leaving the proverbial nest and moving on to write the story of their own Captaincy’s. This phenomenon has begun to accelerate in the last couple of years, and as I hear that they are leaving my world, it’s left me with a mixture of emotions.

An interesting side note. As these old-head First Officers are moving up the food chain, they are now being replaced by brand spanking new “kids” at the bottom of the seniority list. I flew an Anchorage trip with just such a young man a few weeks ago. After inquiring as to the year I was a new-hire (like he), I responded that I was hired as a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer at Northwest Orient Airlines in 1983. His retort was, “Really? What month? “November” was my response. His next question; “What DAY in November of 1983?”  From me; “November 14th”. The look on his young face was of shock and a bit of amazement. It seems I was in my second week of new-hire orientation THE DAY HE WAS BORN! LOL!  I think it’s fair to say that he felt he was now sharing a cockpit with Methuselah himself (and I must admit that I was unsure if he was indeed old enough to purchase a beer). It seems that “old Man Time” keeps plodding right along…the bastard.

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(My new hire class 14 November 1983. I recently flew a trip with a young “new hire” First Officer that casually asked what year I was hired…then what month…then what day. You guess it! He was born roughly two weeks after this picture was taken! LOL…)

A good First Officer.

What makes a good (or excellent) First Officer? The book defines this person as the “Second in Command” of the vessel, which of course means that if I choke on a chicken bone from the crew meal (assuming I will eat that mostly horrid food) and expire on the flight deck, they will now assume command, and steer the ship to a safe landing. The trick as said F/O having been “field promoted” to Captain is to NOT smile too broadly as they haul my carcass off the jet, for they have now “moved up a number” on that coveted System Seniority List. Just kidding of course…none of my F/O’s would do such a thing (maybe).

I was fortunate enough to spend several years crewing different jets from the right seat as an F/O (and from the third seat as an F/E), and they were almost always with men that I trusted, admired, and truly loved to work with (and for). I flew the Boeing 747 (or as we call it…”the Whale”) with exceptional Captains the likes of Harry B., Jim N., Terry M, and George K. I flew the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 with superb Commanders like Al T., Sherman C., Gene E., and Bob F. (the father of the young lady that inspired this piece). These men were very good at their job, they knew the machine well, could fly it through the eye of a needle, but they had more than just “pilot skills”…they knew how to be a great Captain. One can be a good pilot and a bad Captain (leader), but a good Captain has to be both…a true leader and an accomplished aviator.

BTW, the perennial joke about F/Os is that their world consists of: “gear up, shut up, clear right and I’ll take the chicken…” Lol. Obviously, becoming an accomplished “Number 1” can be a mixture of aviating skills, technical aplomb, and tactical prowess. Plus, a dash of psychiatric expertise (to deal with some of those “Captain’s egos”) is a great tool in any right-seater’s bag of tricks.

Needless to say, on very few occasions, I would be paired with a “bad Captain”, and that was most assuredly not fun. They could be demeaning, authoritative, brash, and petty (yes, some were even prone to yelling…lovely, right?). One guy was so bad that he would tell you how to fold your map, where to put your pencil, what to say on the radio, and a myriad of other such nonsensical things. His level of “control” was such that he was smothering the rest of us in the cockpit (not ashamed to say that I truly did not like flying with this gentleman). He went so far as to deem himself the “Captain of the layover”, and one rainy afternoon in Amsterdam as we were riding the trolley for dinner, he would become hellbent on making that point.

He and the F/E were comfortably seated on the tram, and I elected to stand. He told me (ordered me actually) to sit down, pointing to an open seat. I offered that it actually felt rather good to stand (we sit for a living, don’t we?)…but he was having none of it. He said, “Sit down Bill.” I replied, “Nah, I think I’ll just stand.” (Hercules himself couldn’t get me to sit at that point.) His next statement was, “I TOLD YOU to sit down!” I kind of lost it… “Look Dan, on the jet, you ARE the man! The Captain, el Hefe, “the Dude”, and I’ll do whatever you tell me to do! But we AREN’T on the jet are we? You are NOT the Captain of the layover!” I promptly exited the trolley at the next stop and left the poor Flight Engineer to eat with him alone (fairly sure I suggested he do something with his “guy parts” that is anatomically impossible). I vaguely remember the wonderful Dutch folks on the trolley car, slowly lowering their newspapers to get a glimpse of the Americans that were about to kill each other….lol.

Fortunately, Commanders like he were very few and far between. The longs days of such a trip would inch by like the drip of molasses, and when our time was through, a sigh of relief would sweep over me as I left the employee parking lot. Whether I realized it or not, as I was working with these two types of bosses, I was learning from both of them. I don’t remember actually saying something to the effect of, “I want to be like Captain ABC”, but I distinctly recall the times when I would think, “I will never be like Captain XYZ.” I guess we actually do learn as much from the failures as we do from successes.

NWA Whale

(A Northwest Airlines “Whale”. Notice how this pilot has just “cracked the engine thrust reversers” even before the nose gear has touched down. This guy was good.)

Whale SO 2

(Yours truly as a Boeing 747 Second Officer…circa 1987 or so. It always amazed me doing the walk-around on this beast, just how friggin big it truly is! Yeah, that was indeed 30 pounds and lots of hair ago…lol. )

I worked hard and endeavored to be very good at my job as their First Officer…Robin to their Batman, Tonto to their Lone Ranger, Chewbacca to their Han Solo, McCartney to their Lennon, Ernie to their Bert,  (I could go on forever… but I won’t). I tried to do my job to the best of my abilities (meaning both when I was flying the machine, and when I wasn’t…when I was “flying the radios”.  Nothing worse that sounding like an idiot on the ATC airwaves). I always tried to be ready with a suggestions and/or idea when the big vise began to tighten on their Captain’s brain (weather, mechanical, ATC, crew or passenger issues), and generally to have their backs under any circumstance. I think I did a good job, for at the end of the trip, the majority of them would shake my hand and thank me. A few even intoned that it was “nice to work with someone that knows what they’re doing”. I always felt like they meant it.

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(A scene you never want to see walking onto the jet. This is what the start of the big vise tightening onto the Captain’s brain looks like. We were Tokyo headed to Guam one morning last summer…IIRC, it turned into a very long day.)

A good Captain.

So why am I writing this now? Here’s why. As I met up with Pam, my F/O for this 12 day trip (we are on day 12 as I begin to write this, and FINALLY head home this morning), she informed me that it was her last trip as a First Officer, for she was heading down to Atlanta to begin training as an MD-88 Captain next month. My first reaction was nothing short of “Wow…way cool! Congratulations!  You’ll make a great Captain!” (I sincerely meant every word). Her and I have crewed the big Boeing many times together over the last dozen years (and like I mentioned, she comes from good “airline stock”…her father and I flew the DC-10 together many times), and she’s always been a great person to work with. She will indeed make a fine Aircraft Commander.

But what does that mean? What makes a good Captain? Do they all run their “ship” in the same manner? Fly the jet the same, tell the same jokes, treat the cabin crews the same? Obviously not, but IMHO, there are certain traits and blood lines that are endemic to being a good cockpit leader. I grew up in the household of one such person, was fortunate enough to fly as a new airline pilot with many of them, and when they threw me the keys to the Boeing 727 that fateful day in June ’94 as a sparkling new “Four Striper”, I had them ALL (proverbially) sitting on my shoulder with me as I climbed into that coveted left cockpit seat. (I penned a blog entry about that day…it’s entitled: “Firsts” from a January 2015 entry.)

NWA 757

(My mount for the last 19 years…to include the B767 since the merger with Delta in 2008.)

Here are some of the traits that I gleaned from those that I flew under, and greatly respected. Most times they never enumerated such things, but after observing them, it was quite obvious it was part of their “Captain repertory”:

  • Never ask a member of your crew to do something you won’t do. If that means climbing up into a landing gear well to inspect (or nowadays, get a phone video of) a suspected hydraulic leak…then do it. Get your fat butt out of that “golden seat”, go down on the ramp, and see what’s going on. If you get some grease on that white “hero shirt” of yours, not to worry. They sell airline uniforms at the Crew Store…a little dirt won’t kill you.
  • Never, ever put your needs ahead of your crews. Case in point; midnight arrival at the layover hotel, not enough rooms for whatever reason (usually something idiotic like the guy behind the counter has yet to get the “magic fax” from the bean counters at Company Headquarters authorizing payment), and now the dance of musical rooms begins. Always be the person at the end of the line. I’ve sat for an hour in the lobby waiting for that last room…but that’s the bane of being the Commander. The cavalry soldiers of old always fed, groomed and bedded down their horses first, then looked to their own needs. Your crew care comes first…you, a distant second. I saw my Captains do it…I’ve done it myself.
  • Trust your crew to do their job (and do it well). I learned from many a great Whale (and “Diesel 10”) Captain to “empower” those people during your briefing. They MUST know that you will support them in a pinch, that you will “have their back Jack”, and then let them get on with their work. I’ve found that over the years, if you do this for them, they will make your life up in the pointy end far easier. Rather than involve you in EVERY little issue within their cabin, they will take some initiative, work it out, and you’ll hear about it later in the flight (or sometimes, on the crew bus hours removed from the event). Trust them to know their job, and do it professionally. You are in command, but that doesn’t mean you have to be (like Captain Dan) the King of Micro-managing.
  • If the cabin crew can’t do their job in terms of their service to the passengers, then you’re not doing your job very well. You are tasked with finding them smooth air…period…on every flight. This may fall more into the “pilot” job description, but do let them know that when the ride has become like your F-150 has a wheel in the ditch, that you ARE being proactive, and you ARE trying to find them smooth air. All pilots know that there will simply be days when that air is absent (I’ve spent many a long, bumpy night over the North Pacific bouncing along for hours). But they have to know that you are truly trying to “do some of that pilot sh*t Mav” and get them a better ride. We in the business end forget that just walking the aisles during ugly turbulence can be a challenge…not to mention doing it with scalding hot liquids. As long as they know you’re trying to make their life better, you MAY NOT get a squeeze of Visine in your next cup of coffee…just kidding…that’s “old school” stuff. 99% of the new flight attendants don’t even know what that means anymore…lol.
  • When the going gets tough, the Commander should probably be the one hanging onto the yoke. Not always, but most of the times. It certainly depends on lots of things. Your F/O (your previous experience with them, their experience in the machine and in the situation, etc), the weather, the airport, etc. I’m not speaking of those times when your “Captain-ness” is down around your ankles (like in the simulator LOEs, when you have an engine shut down, the blizzard is getting worse, and they’re delivering a baby in the cabin). I’m talking about “normal” times when it sucks. Late night, tired as hell, funky airport, raining sideways…you now, “normal suckiness”. This may be one of the more difficult decisions a new Commander will be faced with.

As 99% of my flying occurs on the other side of the planet, there sits but one destination whereby I prefer to be the dude driving the machine as opposed to the person flying the radios. It’s a tropical paradise known as Palau, and I love going there (the wonderful Mrs. BBall has been there many times with me…she loves it too). It’s a funny little airport, sitting on VERY dark island in the middle of the mid-Pacific. We arrive at midnight local time, and most times amidst the scattered showers that live there 365 nights a year. They have but one coral runway that’s “quasi short”, it’s almost always wet (meaning slipperier than snot), and quite often the landing is done with a bit of a tailwind. There is no “real” glidepath information other than our VNAV display and/or the VASI at the end of the runway. Oh, and the last piece of the “ugly puzzle” is that this typically happens early into our 12 day rotation into the Pacific, so our bodies haven’t switched over to Japan time yet. This means we’ve skipped a night’s sleep going from the West Coast to Japan, most probably have had a rather crappy night’s sleep that first layover in “Dai Nippon” (not uncommon for me to be wide awake at 0400 Japan time on that first night), and now we’re executing this little maneuver 20 hours later at midnight feeling like you’ve been hit on the back of the head with a shovel. To quote one of my favorite F/Os (Lionel “Digger” R.), “What could possibly go wrong?” LOL….

I’ve landed there two dozen times in the last several years, and every single time it gets me sitting up a bit straighter, and working really hard to be on my A game. I never try for a grease-job landing, I just plop the big jet onto the slippery runway, let the Auto-Brakes do their thing, use lots of Reverse Engine thrust, and let the Flight Attendants bitch to me about that “hard” landing at the de-planing door. As we’re kissing the passengers “Good bye”, they’ll usually offer a quip like, “That wasn’t a very smooth landing..ha, ha.”. My answer is usually something a bit flippant like…”Well, here you either get a “plop” of a landing, or you get to go swimming off the end of the runway…I always choose the firm landing…”

Again, this is a tough call for any Commander. I have indeed sat through the landing in Palau with the F/O as the pilot flying. Doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen with those other than the ones that I have flown many trips with, and I know that they can do it correctly (meaning of course, safely).

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(Looking through the jetway fence in Palau. It’s 0430 and we launch for Tokyo in less than an hour.)

Palau Xmas 2015

(Sunset in Palau Christmas day 2015. I still can’t believe that they “make me” layover in this hell-hole for 96 hours! It kind of reminds me of the hotel pool in Grand Rapids…but not really. Did I mention that we layover here for almost FOUR DAYS?!)

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(The beautiful “Mrs. Captain BBall” suffering through a Palau layover with me…misery does indeed love company…right?)

  • My last bit of advice comes from my dear Father. Although he never captained an airliner with hundreds of trusting souls, he did command air machines (in combat) with those perched behind his seat trusting him with their lives. He told me countless times that I should attempt to be the first one onto the machine, and the last one off. This is a bit of a pet-peeve of mine for various reasons. There are indeed times when the cockpit crew will HAVE to bolt off of the jet early in the deplaning process, to hurry to the next airplane that’s perched 100 gates away, and with the next push time literally minutes hence. When I’m tasked with that brand of “fun”, I always try to (rather loudly) exclaim to the F/As that I hate to rush off, but we have to get to the next flying machine post haste (hoping of course, that the passengers have heard me and don’t think we’re just a couple of douche bags that can’t wait to get home and crack that first beer!). I think it simply looks awful to be sitting in the cabin and witness the cockpit crew bowling down old ladies in their rush to get off the jet….well, not really, but you know what I mean. Not what professionalism looks like.

When that’s not the case, I will always try to be literally the last body to walk off the machine. As my Dad would tell me, “You signed for that machine, and that means that you signed to be responsible for EVERYONE’S safety…yours, your crews and your passengers.” I have no problem at the end of the day, suggesting to the F/O to head toward the airline crew bus (and probably getting a 15-30 jump on getting home), but I will stay until the last passenger, and the last crew member have stepped off the machine. On many occasions, I’ve had a Flight Attendant ask if I’d like for them to move their suitcases out of the way so I could deplane, and my answer is always the same…”no thanks, I’ll be the last one off of the jet tonight.” This is (almost always) met with rather strange looks, but I’m ALWAYS left with a “thank you…you’re one of the few Captains that do that”. I never fail to give credit to my Father, and explain that I was raised by a professional pilot, and that I’m a “throwback to the old days”.

My rationale has always been this. So I bound off the jet and make the earlier crew bus. The machine is sitting at the gate “almost” empty of people, and the APU decides to erupt into flames. What now? Hopefully, it auto-shuts down, or a mechanic saves the day….but what if that doesn’t happen? What if someone is injured (or worse) because I wanted to make that early bus? How could I reconcile that with myself as the person that pledged to do my best to NOT let something like this happen? So I’ll stand there with my best “airline look”, say goodbye (or goodnight) to everyone as they gather their junk and walk off, then I’ll make one last trip to the cockpit and look around, and finally, after everyone is off, I’ll get my bags and head toward the door.

Oh, and one more thing that this “last man standing” attitude allows me. It gives me a few precious seconds to soothe this “big horse” before she goes to bed for the night. I usually give her a nice pat on the cold, firm metal of the fuselage as I step off, and a gentle “thank you” never seems out of place. Told you I was a throw-back…

So now I find that the last 22 years sitting in the “God Seat” on the jet wasn’t all about just looking regal, looking “stately”, and acting like you’re a super hybrid version of “Maverick/Goose”, Steve Canyon, and Buzz Lightyear, all rolled into one. Whether or not you’ve noticed (or cared to notice), Captain Ball, you’re been watched all these years. (wait…that sounds kinda creepy) I’m even guessing some of those young folks were taking mental notes.

Being a good Captain isn’t about airplane system schematics, figuring fuel loads, digesting weather reports and forecasts, knowing ATC lingo, understanding the hieroglyphics known as the FARS, being able to fly a “sierra hotel” ILS with an engine shut down, etc….well, it IS of course…but it’s just as much about something else. It’s about people. YOUR people. Your crew and your passengers. They trust you…they should trust you…but you have to EARN that trust. It’s not like putting a coin into a gum-ball machine…and “plop”…out comes their faith (and trust) in you. Doesn’t work that way. It’s a rare privilege to sit where you’re sitting. Earn that privilege.

In the golden years of my career, I can look back and say that I’ve met (and had the pleasure to work with) some of the most wonderful people imaginable. They are stellar aviators (of course…they should be at this stage in their flying lives), but along with that, they are just damned fine people. They’ve made my job as Captain a million times easier, and for that I owe them all a debt of gratitude and a huge “Thank You”.

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(What we look like going across the Pacific “tracks” headed for Japan. Well, if the jet were painted differently, and we didn’t speak Japanese on the flight deck.)

So now, when these new Commanders are (regally) sitting comfortably up at FL350, sipping a cup of our line’s best java (sans the Visine of course), I hope that when they begin to pontificate about the “old days”, and the “old head” Captains they flew with way back in the day….a certain name either IS or ISN’T used in the conversation….

LOL…your call “Captain”… you’re in charge now.

Oh, and to new Captains the likes of “Pam F.”, “Norm L.”, “Terry P.”, and “Tom L.”, etc, it was a joy to fly with you all these years, and it was my distinct honor to be your Captain. You will all make fine Commanders…oh and do me a favor, will you?  Say “howdy” to the gang for me down at Big Bob’s Bowling Alley in Muscle Shoals, Alabama (one of the more exotic destinations for the “Mad Dog”…MD-88).   The “baby pilots” and I will hold down the fort out West (and I’ll keep your bar stool warm in Palau for you)!

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(Yours truly and [soon to be] Captain Pam. She will indeed make a great Captain… “see you on the jet airways Captain Pam!” Good luck and God speed.)

 

Some random glimpses from my journey:

MSP to ANC

(Minneapolis to Anchorage…more mountains than the good Lord has green apples.)

Dawn South China Sea SIN to NRT

(Dawn breaking at FL350 over the South China Sea…Singapore to Tokyo.)

HNL Pearl Harbor

(Descending into Honolulu…Pearl Harbor with Ford Island is middle frame.)

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(Rainy departure from Portland to Tokyo. Since they were smaller…and armed with AIM-120s missiles…I thought I would be nice and let them go first.)

Mt Fuji

(Probably the MOST photographed hill in the world…Mount Fuji. We were inbound to Tokyo from Guam.)

Lightning 1 SIN to NRT

(South of a line of thunderstorms…again over the South China Sea. Screeshot from a video I took of all the cool lightning.)

not always sunny HKG

(Not every day is clear and bright in BBall-world. Departing Hong Kong for Tokyo in the midst of some “liquid sunshine”.)

BF Mongolia

(Somewhere over the vast expanse of Siberia…Seattle to Seoul.

Night Landing HKG

(Night landing in Hong Kong.)

two ANAs NRT

(Twin All Nippon Airways jets in Narita…Boeings as far as the eye can see!)

St Elmos Fire 4

(Another screenshot. From a video of some “St. Elmo’s Fire” on the windshield. Night flight Tokyo to Portland.)

Sacred Ground Iwo Jima

(Sacred, hallowed ground… Iwo Jima. I never pass by without thinking of the thousands of brave Marines [and IJA] that gave their lives here. As was said, “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” God bless you young men. May you all forever rest in peace.)

I love HELOs

(Can you tell I love helicopters? In the restoration hangar on Ford Island, Hawaii.)

 

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(Speaking of the love of rotary winged flight. A shot of my Surface Tablet’s navigation page showing Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. I was transfixed knowing that five decades ago, my dear Father was flying directly below me in these war-torn skies, fearing for his life, doing his job, and thinking of me, my siblings and my dear Mother. I miss them both greatly…)

Tom and Huey love

(More “helo pics”. My F/O on this trip [Tom…superb guy] once Crew-chiefed on Hueys. It was very apparent that the love for this bird was still beating in his pilot heart.)

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(Not exactly sure what this “guard” was keeping safe here on the streets of Bangkok…but he seems to have things well in hand.)

And finally…

Pam and Roy SIN2

(From my last trip. Myself, F/Os Pam and Roy atop the Marina Sands Hotel in Singapore.)

The journey continues…

’till the next time.

 

 

 

 

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The Sundance Kid

 

There are few things in life that are as pleasant as awakening to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and frying bacon. (For my vegan friends, you can ignore the last part of that sentence, but it doesn’t change the fact…sorry.) Smells are time machines, for they, almost better than anything else, have the ability to transport us back to long ago places. To this very day, I can’t smell Old Spice after shave without feeling the strength of my father’s hug, and when a pot roast is cooking in the oven, I’m back in the loving arms of my dear mother. Ah, “thank you” olfactory nerves…you’re the best.

This story begins before dawn on a Texas summer day with the smell of bacon and coffee. The year is 1969, and I’m  enjoying my 13th year of life. Obviously, drinking steaming hot “Joe” was not a part of my daily routine, for I would not adopt that habit for another two decades, and then only to stave off fatigue over the long, dark Pacific as a Boeing 747 Flight Engineer. Saying that international pilots cannot fly without that heavenly bean, would be a gross understatement indeed. But the bacon? That was another matter altogether. I think it’s fair to say that your average teenage male can consume his body weight in fried pork without too much effort. I have no doubt that on this particular morning, that theory was alive and well.

The destination for this day, and the reason behind an excited teenager bounding out of bed at 0400, were part and parcel of an adventure that few (if any) present day teens can say they’ve been a part of. My dear Dad and I quickly devoured the forlorn pig (plus an egg or two), washed it down with several cups of “mud” (me having milk), and mechanically (and stealthily I might add) began the process of gearing up for our one hour drive westward. We were outbound for a small, “one horse town” on the ragged, scrub-brushed plains of North Texas. After loading into the Chrysler Town & Country wagon, my Dad would begin his routine of pouring another cup of coffee from his green thermos, lighting up a Salem, and finding some George Jones on the AM radio. He would reverse out of our slanted driveway on Westfield Drive in south Ft. Worth, turn west, and off we would motor. The eastern sky would be sporting a dim, faint glow, the cicadas would be singing their nocturnal summer tune, and life simply could not be better.

town and country

(The “mini-van” of the 60s and 70s…the family station wagon.)

Mineral Wells, Texas lies just east of the Brazos River, squarely astride the demarcation line for Palo Pinto and Parker counties. Its fame lies not only in its mineral springs, but also in the fact that in the year 1919, it was the spring training location for the Chicago White Sox (the year of their infamous “Black Sox” scandal). One other small fact about this hardscrabble little village, is that in 1925 an outfit by the name of the United States Army opened its gate to Camp Wolters just a few miles down the road. It would soon become one of the largest infantry training facilities during the Second World War, and two famous people (for vastly different reasons) would darken its doors. Two Army privates…one named Audie Murphy and the other Eddie Slovik…take a moment to look them up on Al Gore’s internet. Shortly after the war, the Air Force held the keys to the facility, but it wasn’t truly again on the BIG map until the year 1956. Two incredible things happened in that pivotal year; yours truly was born and spanked into life in an Army hospital in Schwabisch Gmund, West Germany, and the United States Army’s fledgling rotary-winged world opened its Primary Helicopter School on the sun-bleached plains just outside of town.

At this time in my young life, my father had recently ended his active duty career, had “separated” from the Army, and our family had moved from Germany to north Texas (our second tour in Deutschland…counting of course, my “birth tour”). A few years earlier, he had spent his time in the skies over war-torn Vietnam, and after surviving that, had taken a cushy overseas assignment in the cockpit of the CH-34 Choctaw with the 7th Army just outside of Munich. Toward the end of his Germany rotation, he received orders to report for training to fly the CH-47 Chinook (his dream machine), with the ugly caveat that his next assignment would be in that lovely machine, but back in the hell of Vietnam. By now he had served far more than his required 20 years (for a full pension), and decided to simply retire and let the young bucks win the war (it was, after all, his second war…his first as a combat medic in Korea).

The question then became…what next? As any pilot knows, if you can cop an easy gig, that pays good scratch, AND remain in a cockpit, then take it! He found one, it did, and he did. As the 1960s waned, the demand for young men to fly the Army’s newest marvel of aerial warfare (the helicopter) was skyrocketing, but there was a rather large problem. The big hurdle wasn’t finding the needed volunteers to pilot these things, but finding those that could teach their precarious trade to said volunteers. The Army, of course, supplied qualified active duty pilots (most with time logged in Vietnam), but that simply wasn’t enough to meet the ever increasing demand for cockpit crewmembers. An enterprising outfit by the name of Southern Airways stepped in and offered a solution. They would not only provide the lion’s share of the maintenance on the hundreds of helicopters at the blossoming facility at Ft. Wolters, and be responsible for many of the support duties on base, but they would also hire hundreds of retired Army aviators, make them Instructor Pilots, and blend them into the Army Aviation Primary Helicopter curriculum where needed. It was truly a win/win/win for everyone (Southern Airways/the Army/AND the retired pilots). With that “marriage of convenience”, Army aviation history was made.

ch-34

(My Dad’s ride in Germany, the CH-34 Choctaw.)

Where and how my father found out about this gravy train is beyond me, but I’m guessing it was from within his network of Army pilot buddies. He began his second career in aviation in the last days of the 60’s, and within a short period of time, found out that he took to it like a duck to water…and so did his youngest son (me). From his comments to my dear Mother, I surmised the following; he loved the fact that he no longer had to wear a myriad of uniforms (his “work clothes” consisted of a zipper-infested flight suit, his old Army combat boots, and a baseball cap), he didn’t mind not having to salute folks anymore, he had little or no paperwork involved other than the usual student forms, and he simply didn’t have to deal with 99% of the crap that came with many of his active duty flying stints. He was in heaven…albeit a strangely scheduled one. It seems that the Southern Airways “I.P.s” worked an “early week”, then transitioned to a “late week”, on and off ad nauseam. The students would fly in the mornings, do school-house work in the afternoons, and then swap that rotation the next week. Strange to be sure, but so are many of the ways of the Army…hence our pre-dawn launch.

Roughly 30 minutes after leaving my slumbering siblings, we would pull off the massive I-20 superhighway onto the old “Ft. Worth Highway” (legally known as Texas State Highway 180).  At this point, we would be just a few miles east of Weatherford, about 20 minutes from our destination, and the flavor of our drive would begin to change. My dad would begin to lose his usual air of nonchalant conversation about such earth-shattering topics as the upcoming season of the Dallas Cowboys, or my last performance on the baseball diamond or the football turf (he was the coach of my baseball team and suffered through MANY a Saturday morning watching me play Gray Y football). His mind began its time-honored process of switching between the happy-go-lucky groundling to a serious Instructor Pilot (I notice I tend to do it myself as I pull into the airline employee parking lot). I however, would typically become more excited, knowing what lay in store for me that day, but would try my best to let him sink into his thoughts. After all, pilots have a “game face”, and he needed to slip into his.

North Texas Mineral Wells2

As we would make the right turn onto Washington Avenue, under that iconic main gate sign, I would be spellbound under those magic words; “Primary Helicopter Center” with the two beautiful rotary-wing machines, each standing guard on its respective side (the OH-23D on the left and the TH-55A to the right).  Adorning the apex sat a replica of the wings that I grew up seeing proudly displayed on my own father’s chest…those beautiful silver wings of an Army Aviator.  That one shiny symbol always represented to me such enviable qualities as: courage, honor, integrity, and that AMAZING ability to hover! We would pass underneath this metal and mortar gate, but we would also be crossing an actual, no kidding, Rubicon of sorts…we had now crossed from the world of those that know nothing about helicopters, to those that knew everything about them. I was in heaven, and I knew it. It was much like walking into a major league ball park before a big game; these folks were “different” then the rest of us…not a point of judgement, just a simple fact.

gate 3

(Main gate circa 1969.)

gate 4

(Main gate as it looks today.)

By now, the sun would be low in the morning sky, portending another scorching, sweat soaked Texas summer day, and as we drove toward one of the 3 big heliports; my Dad would be lost in his thoughts of that day’s lesson plan with his three students. The civilian (Southern Airways) I.P.s would take the WOCs (Warrant Officer Candidates…they also had Commissioned Officers coming through, but I don’t remember if he had any of those type students), and get them from Day 1 (the nickel ride as it were) through solo and on to some magic “stage check”, where they would disappear off to an actual Army I.P. for the rest of their “Primary” training. After graduation, they would be sent off to “Mother Rucker” down in the red clay world of Enterprise, Alabama for the rest of their journey into the world of Army Aviation. From there, almost all of his students had but one destination…Vietnam. This meant he got them brand spanking new to the world of rotorcraft flight, and all it entailed. I’m convinced that it was not only some of the best flying he ever did, but also some of the most challenging.

fw28

(What else is there to say?)

The Briefing.

Pulling into the parking lot adjacent to the old, paint-peeled building where this would all begin, was tantamount to entering a quasi-world of the military (mixed with us civilian and –ex active duty types). The smell of diesel exhaust, lots of loud olive-drab vehicles, groups of men all moving purposefully, the iconic checkered control tower looming over us, and of course, the requisite HUGE ramp where hundreds of little orange/white flying machines sat inertly squatting in anticipation of flight. The crunch of the gravel under my tennis shoes was drowned out by the dozens of “size 10 combat boots” that my Dad and the other I.P.s wore. They would greet each other with the time-honored banter of all aviators, and although most of the conversation centered around how each of them were in fact THE best damned pilot the Army ever constructed…at times the conversation would become hushed, and snippets of “by the way, I flew with your boy Jones last week, and….”. At this turn, their faces would adopt a deadly serious expression, and I knew that I was seeing them deep within their element…and they were indeed the best.

 

fw27

(One of the three main heliports.)

My father would hustle me into the big room, get me seated at his briefing table, fire up a smoke while pouring another steaming cup of coffee, and start paging through the folder of each of the three WOCs he would be flying with this fine day. Many times, I would be in their world at a “post solo” stage for these young guys, so their first HUGE hurdle (in a long line of hurdles) had been successfully jumped. This meant that a tiny part of the mountain of pressure that they were living with had been relieved, and this translated into relaxation and fun for BOTH the student and the I.P. Presently, the hissing of the air brakes from the Army buses would announce the arrival of said students, and the bright morning sun would invade the cool room as the door flew open, and in would pour a couple of dozen boisterous, smiling, young men. I’m not sure what they thought of me being there, and since I never saw any other dependents hanging out with their old man, maybe they thought I was some sort of “junior, junior ROTC” type kid. Not sure, but they were always really friendly, and essentially just accepted me being there.

briefing tables

(A typical briefing room.)

This is where the rubber would meet the proverbial road for them (and me in some ways), for now the imparting of knowledge would begin. My Dad had an easy way about him, with a smile that could disarm most anyone, and this seemed to lend itself to a relaxed air of learning. Growing up in this world, I had added a strange mix of vocabulary to the normal lexicon of most young men.  At this time in history, most teenage American boys would speak in the language of things like: the wishbone formation, a double play ball or the infield fly rule, a Ruger .22 rifle, a Honda mini-bike, and the Cowboys verses Packers… (All the way to the mysterious) “Bra hook…what the hell is that?” But because of my dear ol’ Dad, you could add to my conversational English terms such as: translational lift, retreating blade stall, vortex ring state, pedal turns, auto-rotations, and about a million other little snippets from the world of Army Aviation. I must admit it…I was a rather weird 13 year old kid.

With the formal briefing now underway, I became a fly on the wall. These conversations were all about some rather cool things like approaches, landings, auto-rotations, and mastering that all important art of the hover. I noticed that my Dad always had a big blank pad of paper on the briefing table, and in later years when ALL of his students were young Vietnamese pilots (Google Richard Nixon and “Vietnamization”), he would end each and every instructional dissertation with “Do you understand?” This was (almost always) met with vigorous nodding of three heads, and a resounding “Yes!” He would then push the blank pad toward them with the comment…”OK, you draw for me what I just taught you.” This was (many times) countered with a blank look and a resounding, “I no understand!”…lol.  I can hardly imagine a more difficult task than to teach something as complicated as rotary winged flight to someone from a third world country with a (mostly) agrarian society. God bless the I.P.s and the ARVN pilots that teamed up to get the job done.

 

The Stage Field.

One of the ingenious ideas that the Ft. Wolters brain trust developed, was the concept of dozens of relatively small training heliports scattered throughout the local area. These little training facilities became known as Stage Fields, and they allowed this huge facility to train literally hundreds of pilots simultaneously. Originally, they were given really cool “cowboy” names like Pinto, Mustang, Bronco and Ramrod. Later in the decade, as the war in Vietnam ramped up to its horrific climax (thus requiring thousands of additional chopper pilots), more Stage Fields were built and given monikers of actual in theatre airfields. These were christened with names like Hue, Chu Lai, Danang, An Khe, Bien Hoa, Soc Trang, and several others. And here’s an interesting tidbit concerning these little airfields; they were positioned in the same relative position as their real world counterparts, thus allowing the newbie pilots to have a slight modicum of familiarity with the names and locations before they shipped overseas. Cool idea…right?

 

Stage fields map

(Map of the Stage Fields.)

With the lesson plans and briefings complete, my Dad and his three students departed for the massive ramp to begin their pre-flight duties on the venerable little Hughes TH-55 (the I.P.s dubbed it “the Mattel Messerschmitt”). With the morning heat and humidity building by now, yours truly would be bouncing across the plateaus of North Texas in a (very) used Ford pickup truck. For each shift, one member of the staff in each flight would be tasked with driving out to the assigned Stage Field, operate the “Unicom type” radio, and generally just run the compact little airfield. It was considered rather cushy duty, for rather than spend hours in a hot, sweaty, cramped little cockpit, he simply hung out, drank coffee, and provided information to the pilots such as the wind, temperature, altimeter setting, etc..

FW_north_takeoff

(Traffic pattern cheat sheet.)

 

pinto

(Stage Field Pinto.)

When I was lucky enough to accompany my father on one of these amazing adventures, I would be allowed to ride shotgun with this man out to the Stage Field. After thirty or so minutes of dusty gravel roads, several cattle gates, lots of hot Texas wind (and several good pilot stories), we would arrive at roughly the same time as the inbound swarm of small helicopters that was darkening the horizon. Our exciting destination for this particular day? A magical place by the name of Stage Field Sundance. The protocol would be that one of the students would fly out to the training airfield with the instructor, while the other two would fly solo to that facility, then spending several hours doing the day’s syllabus while my Dad would rotate between students in their respective machines.

Stagefield Sundance

(Stage Field Sundance)

Once at the Stage Field, I adopted the guise of defacto mascot for the Instructor Pilots. These men were all ex-active duty pilots, they had all been to Vietnam, and several of them had been decorated for their bravery and valor. In my eyes, they all stood 7 feet tall, had the Wisdom of Solomon, and the strength of Hercules. They generally made John Wayne seem like a 98 pound weakling, and they all seemed to have a twinkle in their eye and spark in their soul that few people possess. In short, they were heroes of the finest order, and I felt honored to be allowed into their world. What were my duties as said mascot you might wonder? I was to keep the coffee pot percolating (yeah, this was way back when coffee pots didn’t have fancy names/buttons/etc. ….you put in the water, the coffee, and basically boiled it to within an inch of its life), the snack machine had to be up and going, and just generally whatever else they needed me to go “fetch”, grab or procure for them. I personally felt like my major job description was to stare at them, wide-eyed and speechless, and simply listen to their stories… of which there were plenty.

Within a few minutes of heading into the building at Sundance, it quickly became evident that I was in the midst of a maelstrom of aviation activity. The radio frequency was alive with position reports, requests for landing instructions, and lots of other stuff that my neophyte ears could not discern. Nowadays, I routinely converse with air traffic controllers from nations all over the world. Russian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and yes, even those that are the most difficult to understand…the Atlanta ATC folks…lol. Back then however, I was four plus decades removed from my current expertise, so I could make out the occasional word, but most of it sounded like a confused jumble of nonsense. By now I could hear the whine of dozens of little Lycoming engines and the steady beat of hundreds of rotor blades slapping the hot morning air. Looking out the aged window, I witnessed the stream of many small orange and white TH-55s forming a daisy chain headed inbound to the Stage Field. Stepping out of the building, ignoring the glaring sun, my gaze was drawn skyward in an attempt to see them all…knowing that my Dad was occupying one of those small works of wonder.

The next several hours would be spent in a mix of excitement, exhilaration, and joy. I was in a world I barely understood, in the presence of men steeped in a society so closed that few (other than their own) had ever seen, and I was tolerated, accepted, and somehow even made to feel like I belonged in that strange place. I would sit transfixed by the constant noise of engines, the rhythmic beat of rotor blades, and the endless parade of little helicopters making their way around the traffic pattern.  Auto rotations were as exciting for me to watch, as they were for the I.P.s and students to perform (maybe not, but they were fun to watch). At times, one of the machines would make its way past me, close enough for me to feel the rotor wash of hot Texas wind, settle to a landing and out would bound the instructor. Up the machine would rise into a wobbly hover, make its way back to the conga line of machines in the pattern, and the dance would begin again in earnest.

728px-TH-55_Osage

(The TH-55 “Mattel Messerschmitt”.)

 

T55 checklist

(I still have my Dad’s TH-55 Manual…I wouldn’t trade it for a king’s ransom.)

 

The art of the hover.

One of the common traits of the Stage Fields was always a huge concrete area that was used for parking the helos, but more importantly it was for learning that ONE thing that a helicopter pilot can do that no other pilot can…and that’s hover. A TH-55 would amble over to the middle of the area (always steady as a rock…obviously the I.P. would be at the controls), it would settle gently to the pavement, then there would be a few minutes of the imparting of a brain trust (I.P. to student) in the sacred art of acting like a hummingbird. Upon completion of the unveiling of the most sacred of secrets to this un-enlightened soul, the fun (or torture as it were) would begin!

The little machine would rise and begin a rock and roll dance LITERALLY ALL OVER the football field sized area! The nose would dip, it would rear back up, drift left, drift right, the little machine would shoot up, drop back down…and all the while myself and the Instructors that were standing around (their students were in the traffic pattern doing solo work), would be laughing our asses off! As a 13 year old (and one that had never tried this myself), I was afforded only a small amount of guffaw, but these men in their zippered “hero costumes” would laugh, point, slap each other on the back, and generally have far too much fun watching some poor I.P. out in the “rodeo arena” trying to teach what must’ve been surely the un-teachable. At regular intervals, the machine would cease its spasmodic spectacle, would remain in place as if frozen there (with the I.P. flying it), then presently, the student would be in control again, and the spasms would start all over. The delight we took in watching was almost sinful.

Stagefield Bien Hoa

(Stage Field Bien Hoa)

Eventually, the instructor would somehow solve the riddle of the student and his inability to grasp this golden chalice, and things would indeed improve. To quote my Dad, it was like trying to teach someone to rub their stomach while patting their head, while walking up and down a staircase, all the while chewing bubblegum…and at a critical moment, the I.P. would yell “SWITCH” and it would all be reversed with surgical precision and correctness! Eventually, the “light bulb” would come on over the student’s head, it would “click” somewhere in the deep recesses of their grey matter, the little bird would hover over the same patch of ground (well almost) for the required amount of time, and the fun would be over…

…until the next little orange and white machine would taxi into the “rodeo arena”.

“NOW…out of chute number 7….being ridden by WOC Jones…..WIDOW MAKER!”

It was a type of fun that few (if any) other young teenage boys can say they were ever a part of. Apparently, these “square-jawed”, “steely-eyed” Instructor Aviator types had all completely forgotten about their time in the proverbial barrel, and how retarded they looked trying to hover when they were a bottom-feeding newbie. I’m sure they were no more adept at this dance than “WOC Jones” and his embarrassing maneuvering. My Dad used to say that if you could detect movement in the controls while hovering, then you were completely over controlling the machine…it was more of “thinking” yourself into the maneuver. I’ve often wondered (and have put these thoughts to paper a few times) what my father would think about the current state of flight simulations. Hovering the UH-1H “Huey” in DCS can be challenging, but would he think it even close to the real deal? My guess is that he would love it, spend my inheritance on a new PC rig, and I would never hear the end of it from my dear Mother.

Huey Formation

(Yours truly flying the UH-1H “Huey” in the flight simulation DCS World)

All too soon the day would begin to wind down, and though it was but lunch time to my young body, I would have already put in a full day. I would be riding high on adrenalin for hours, flush with the stories of the heroes, and the sights, sounds, and yes, the smells of my time in their world. Funny, but it always seemed that when they told their flying yarns, they would speak with a sense of awe about the OTHER pilots (and their Crew Chiefs and door gunners), and they did it with a love and admiration that reminds me very much like how I speak of my beloved family. These men loved their craft, their machines, and their fellow airman. When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, and I inquired about his medals, the question was always met with a “no big deal…they asked for volunteers, I simply raised my hand” type response. I would find out later that he had stepped up to fly into danger to pick up downed friends. I know ALL of them would have done it for him without skipping a beat. Such are the men (and women) of the Armed Forces.

 

One sad note.

Very often, my Dads students would take a huge liking to him (like he to them). Many a time he would return home from Ft. Wolters (after a class had graduated) with a symbol of that bond. It was usually in the form of a brand new coffee mug with three names emblazoned on the side (and the time honored bottle of Jim Beam whiskey…lol). It was their way of saying “thank you” to a man that they had come to know, trust and admire. They knew that his knowledge was borne from thousands of hours spent in the sky, they knew that it was true and (most importantly) they knew that it just might save their life someday.  I’m sorry to say that on far too many occasions in those sunset days of his flying life, I would see him arrive back to our humble home with sad eyes and a heavy soul. He would speak in hushed tones to my Mother, and they would stare at each other… knowing a thing that only they could know. Later I would hear (from her) that he had been given the news that one of his students had perished in the crucible of combat in Vietnam. I KNOW from within my heart, that he would spend the remaining hours of that day searching HIS heart to once again see that young man’s face, to hear his excited “I have the controls” when my Dad would give him the machine, and I know that he would find that face, and a small piece of my dear father would perish along with that young man.

Ft.Wolters 1

(My Dad as an I.P. with three of “his” guys…can you tell they kinda liked him? My God they look young…)

Flying for a vocation takes as much as it gives. There are times in every aviator’s life that it takes a toll that is borderline too much.  But sometimes, every so often, as in my days spent as “the Sundance Kid”, it gives more than you can ever imagine. Those unbelievable, magical hours spent with my Dad (and his contemporaries) on those funny little “airports”, across the hot, humid, Texas plains will live with me until the end of my days. I gain comfort from the thought that someday I will get to sit with him again, in the clouds of Salvation, and speak of those times. We’ll laugh and we’ll smile, and I’ll be sure and remind him of his days spent teaching the “art of the hover” to those eager young men just beginning their journey as an Army Aviator. Some would not survive that journey, but thankfully most would. I hope they all remember the man that launched them into the sky…I would hazard a guess that they do. He spent those days shaping them from just past teenagers, into pilots of war-time helicopters. He may not have realized it, but he was also doing some shaping of one rather weird 13 year old boy.

a2a

(You can’t hover the B757…but if you could…if you only could.)

‘till next time.

 

 

 

Standard

“Dear Dad”

The sun remains an hour below the eastern horizon, and I should be sound asleep, but I’m not. I’m wide awake, and in front of this lousy keyboard.

That’s actually quite a statement from me, for one of the better traits that the good Lord has bestowed upon this body, is (was) the ability to sleep soundly in almost any time zone. Unfortunately, that seems to have changed in recent times, and it’s less than great. So the question becomes why? Why the insomnia of the last few months? Truly, it’s been a puzzle that was as troubling as it was annoying; however, a few hours ago (lying in the dark), the answer finally came. You see I, my soul, my heart, my “humanity” is in mourning. I have the feeling of being in the long, dark hallway that we’ve all seen in our childhood nightmares, but worse than that, I know that I’ve been here before, and I know not where it will end.

The following piece I penned shortly after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. It was in the form of a letter to my most trusted advisor, my mentor and a dear departed friend. I’m speaking, of course, of my father (hence the title “Dear Dad”). Like most of the world, I was still in a state of shock by the recent events, and I felt like I had to talk to him. It was as if I had to get the words out or I would burst. He and I shared a lifetime of love and joy with our flying machines, and these monsters had used their graceful beauty to kill and maim innocent people on a scale previously unheard of.

I now find myself at that same place. My soul and the very essence of what it is to be a human being, is greatly troubled…sickened really. Not for me, but for my children, their children and what lies ahead for my wonderful country (and the world). Birds must fly, fish must swim, and writers must write. Hence my insomnia coupled to a keyboard.

The world has seen Islamic terror for years, but recently on a scale of horror that’s almost unimaginable. A few weeks ago, it spread death on the streets of Paris, and less than forty-eight hours ago, it once again came to the shores of America, and it came hard. In Paris, it left several hundred dead and maimed, and in California a dozen innocent people dead, almost two dozen wounded, and truth be told, we were lucky. The demons (in this case, a radicalized man and his equally demented wife), were of the “sleeper” category, and only their ineptitude with explosive devices kept the carnage from being much worse.

At the risk of being labeled a political piece, I offer you the following thought. These innocent Americans were killed as much by the current culture in my homeland, as they were by Islamic jihadist. There exists a faction of the population of my country that simply cannot (WILL NOT is more accurate) acknowledge that true evil exits. This segment of our citizenry shares a view of the world that is so out of touch with reality, so “childlike” in their view of the world, that they actually live in a bubble that is not only foolish, but also very dangerous. The true evil that I speak of is, of course, Islamic terror, and its wish to kill those of us that don’t believe as they do. Part of America simply refuses to see this, and pools of blood run cold because of it.

The simple fact that days after the attack here, with EVERY shred of evidence pointing to Islamic terror, many in our government (and media) simply refuse to call this heinous act by its true name. This fact is shameful beyond words, for it cheapens the bravery and heroism of the men and women that killed this evil. It’s like watching Edward R. Murrow sheltering in the London subway during the Blitz of 1940, and hearing him say, “Well, we can see and feel the bombs falling, and Herr Hitler has indeed declared war on England, but since its dark, we can’t FOR CERTAIN tell if it’s the Luftwaffe doing the bombing.” What in the world has become of journalistic integrity? Has truth and honor given way to agenda and politics? Wake up America! The wolf is at the door, and it’s OK to call it a wolf, just as it was OK to call them Nazis and Fascists.

What makes YOU so smart? How do YOU have all the answers you must wonder? Simply put, I don’t. I will offer however, that even though six decades of heartbeats has taken its toll on this body, it has also given me (and many of my age) one thing in return…and that is clarity. Clarity in thought and deed. That we may no longer be young is offset by the fact that we are blessed with the knowing of certain things. We know that the majority of the world wants peace, prosperity, and to be simply left alone to live and love our children as God intended us to. But we know something else. We know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, real evil lives and walks among us. We know that there exits an evil so horrible that we shudder at its thought…and it takes many forms. The form it took a few days ago cannot be ignored, cannot be wished away, and no form of “political correctness” will stop it from coming back.

Just as important as this knowledge, is this difficult truth; we know that we must face it, that we must fight it, and that we must prevail. This simple thought is the ideological crossroads where the aforementioned segment of my culture and I diverge. They are simply wrong, and the consequences of their folly are dire. Their most erroneous (read dangerous) construct is the following: since they refuse to face TRUE evil, they manufacture their own version of a boogey man… a “straw man of evil” if you will. This begs the question…why do they do this? It’s actually very simple, and it’s where history will paint them with a cruel brush. If they acknowledge evil, then by their own human sense of morality, they are obliged to fight against it.

But this cannot be for them, for they believe that ANY type of fighting or war is worse than a war to vanquish evil. They believe that global warming (or “climate change”…or whatever the “nom du jour” currently might be for this) is THE BIGGEST THREAT to humanity. I have offered to those of this ilk, the following question. What do you think our climate would look like if these demons detonate a nuclear device in New York, London and Tel Aviv simultaneously? In my opinion, that monumental change in the atmospherics of this planet, would do far more harm than the carbon footprint of my F-150. Strangely, they never seem to have an answer to this query.

They also believe that second-hand smoke is evil, that sugared “big gulp” soft drinks pose a threat, that income and gender “inequality” is evil, and that legally owning a firearm is worse than wrong. But most damaging of all, they believe that I, myself must be somehow horrible, bad, even evil, because I don’t believe that these things are. Remember the word “clarity”? The collective conscious of the free world had it 70 plus years ago on the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of New Guinea, and on the streets of America, but unfortunately, many of us seem to have lost it. I fear that Islamic terror will force us to pay for our lack of this clarity…and that scares the hell out of me.

A certain leader of this country had it in spades a few years ago, but I was in my 20s/30s and mostly ignored him (and politics in general), to my shame. He once spoke these insightful words:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

His name was Reagan, and he was beyond right. EVERY generation is tested. My parents generation was tested in the fields of Europe, and on the seas (and islands) of the Pacific. Mine in the jungles of Vietnam and the sands of the Middle East. My children now find themselves in the midst of their test, and it will be in the cities and towns of America (and Paris, and London, and Sydney), and on every street corner where freedom and liberty call home.

A certain group of people have been fighting this evil monster for years…long before they were an actual country. The people that surround them, that hate them, and wish their demise have slogans such as, “We love death more than the Jews love life.” They live with this horror daily, and have for generations. So now we must do the same. My heart weeps for them, it weeps for us, and it weeps for the world.

In a few days, my wonderful wife (my dearest friend and confidant) and I will take that next step in this war against actual evil. We will engage in weapons training (I’ve had many hours of formal weapons training, this will be her first time), and enter the world of the “sheepdog”. After becoming licensed, we will be legally armed while in public (truth be told, at home, I’m never more than just a few feet from a weapon). The circumstances that now have us thinking, acting and LIVING tactically sadden me, but the thought that evil Islamic terror lives in my beloved (free) America angers me past that sadness. America is at war…in the streets, the workplaces, the malls, the playgrounds, and yes, even our houses of worship. Regardless of the fact that the leaders of this country (and a certain segment of the population) can’t see it, simply doesn’t change the truth. I once had a person in my cockpit from the “other side” of the political isle than myself, speak these troubling words, “the truth is relative”. I recoiled at the comment, but he believed it to his soul. The blood of history has left this gory message; the truth is most certainly NOT relative. The unsettling truth is that we are in a fight for our very lives.

Several years ago, while in training to carry a firearm in the cockpit, my training class and I were subjected to a talk from a gentleman that lived his life amongst this evil. His former job was in the service of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), and he was currently acting as an advisor to our group. He told us that America must suffer two more 9-11’s “before you will wake up to the kind of evil you are facing”. We all were a bit shocked, but his words ring true. Was the most recent attack by Islamic radical monsters our second “9-11”? I honestly don’t know. Do we need to “wake up” as a country, look this monster squarely in its bloodshot eyes, and send it back to the hell it most surely came from? The answer is obvious…at least to me. Maybe a few days ago, on a bright sunny day in California stained with the blood of innocent people, was the day everyone in America became an IDF fighter.

Do I love life (and liberty) more than the Islamic terrorists love death? Ask that question to the Jewish nation, then ask me again. I fear the next few decades will test America and the free world. I only hope and pray we have the clarity, courage and faith of our brothers and sisters across the globe from us. God bless them, and God bless the free people of the world

With that, I give you, “Dear Dad”:


(originally penned in October, 2011)

Dear Dad,

I know it’s been several years since I’ve written, but surely know that I think about you every day. How are you doing? I have many, many questions to ask you. Someday I hope that we can meander some distant golf course together under sunny skies, and just chat like we used to. How are Mom and Teresa? Please tell them that I am doing O.K., and that I love and miss them very much.

You must be wondering why I’m writing. I know that you received word about my health experiences of the last couple of years. Yeah, at times it was pretty rough. I was subjected to some rather ugly stuff, but through it all, I somehow knew that I would be strong enough to weather it. I watched you very closely as a young man, and when times got tough in your life, you did just what I hoped I could do. You toughed it out, and you shifted the focus away from you and directed it toward others. Last winter, I lay awake many nights and “talked” to you (and the Big Guy) while times were at their worst, and it helped immensely. Just the thought that you might be listening really eased my mind…you were right, there are truly no atheists in a foxhole.

The reason that I’m writing is to open my heart to you. You see, a cancer has returned, and I need your help. Please don’t be shocked, for you’ve seen it before, and you showed me how to handle it then, as I’m sure you will now. There is but one cure for this type of disease, and I’m not sure that I won’t see the cure without many, many days of pain and suffering.

Right now my heart is heavy, and I get by with thinking of the wonderful things in my life. I’ve been truly blessed with a loving wife and family. They are my pillars of strength, and my anchors in every storm. Plus, I’ve also been given the gift of many really wonderful people that I can call “friend”, and they too are what keeps me going. They’ve seen me through many bad times in my life, and I know they will be there for me again. And then, of course I have my airplanes.

I’ll never forget the morning that I made that momentous decision (as momentous as any 17 year old can make) that I wished to become a professional pilot like you. We were working on one of the many cars in our life at the time, and when I broached you with the subject, your response was, “you better go talk to your Mom about that” (I’m pretty sure I could see you grin as I walked into the house). Her answer was a roll of the eyes, and something on the order of, “oh great, another pilot”.

You and I began that wonderful journey together many years before that day, when you would take me with you out to the Army airfields. You were planting the seeds then, and now those seeds are towering oaks. I remember the time I asked you about taking the night freight job flying the Piper Navajo out of Albuquerque. This was to be my first “real” flying job out of college, and I needed your expert guidance. Your response was, “it’ll be great experience if you live through it, and if you don’t, it won’t matter will it?” (hehe, I loved the pragmatism) It was the perfect answer. Since that first “command”, I’ve had many wonderful experiences. The last 18 years with Northwest have given me so many wonderful aviating memories, that sometimes I feel a bit guilty. The flying machine in my life now is truly an incredible combination of grace, beauty, and raw power. I wish you could feel her in your grasp just once…you’d fall in love in an instant…just like I did.

But Dad, something terrible has happened. Something so incredibly bad that I can hardly understand it even now, many days later. I know you don’t get the news where you are, but you’d better sit down, this is truly a sad story. It’s almost impossible for me to understand this, but unspeakable evil has seeped into our daily lives. Evil that almost none of us can comprehend. The mongers of this curse, just a few days ago, unleashed death on such an unspeakable scale that it tears my soul just to think about it….and Dad, they used our beautiful, peaceful flying machines to do it. I know you’ve seen death on the battlefield, honorable death. But that was not this. This was no Gettysburg, no Normandy, no Dien Bien Phu…it was in the skies, and on the streets of America.

An armed group of terrorists hijacked four airliners (I can’t even use the word hijacked, for that speaks of commandeering an airplane to go to a different destination…what they did was murder the crews and take command of the jets), and then plunged three of them into prominent structures in New York and Washington D.C. In the process, they took many, many innocent civilian lives. Apparently, on the fourth jet, the passengers knew their fate and fought back. They died in their attempt to re-capture the machine, but they did what I know you (and I) would have done…they fought the bastards. They fought like their lives depended on it, as well they did. No matter what the outcome, they won…just by fighting back, they won.

I cringe when I imagine what happened on those jets…I just can’t understand it. I will NEVER be able to look to the skies, at one of those lovely machines again, and not think of those brave people. In a very real sense, something died in all of us that fateful day. Was it our sense of security in our respective worlds? I don’t know, but I do know that humanity lost something; something very precious. I remember writing in my journal about how, after losing you and Mom, I now viewed the world as if through a veil of tears. Maybe we all do now.

This is my new cancer Dad, and it’s spread throughout the world. ALL of humanity has it, and ALL of us will have to find a way to fight it. It’s a disease of hate, death and destruction. We are in for a very long fight, one that I’m afraid will take some of the best of us from this world, but I know what you would say to that. You would say, “Anything in life that’s worth having, is worth fighting for”, and you would be very, very right. Our peace and freedom most certainly fit into that category, right?

I know that you would tell me that this kind of scum has risen its ugly head before, and descent, peace-loving people of the world have fought it back to the hell it surely comes from. They fought it from the shelters of London, the streets of Stalingrad, and the caves of Okinawa, and they won. They won with the cost of much blood, pain and heartache…but in the end they prevailed. I know that you understand why we must do what will be done, and not just as Americans, but as a collective group of people sharing the same rock in space. We want only to live our lives and raise our families, in a world that doesn’t include indiscriminant killing of innocent men, women and children in the name of (religion, government, land, etc) ___________ (fill in the blank). The cancer of hate and vileness that these people spread, just simply can’t be stronger than our love for peace and freedom. It can’t be, it WON’T be.

I know you understand where my heart is now. The pain, the confusion, and the anguish I’m feeling…I’m sure you would be feeling it too. You are in a place that knows not of such things…and for this I am truly thankful. You live in a world were peace and love are the only things that prosper, where cancer under any name is unheard of. Someday, maybe we can have that here too.

Please take care of Mom, Teresa, yourself, and all of our loved ones. Also, please know that we here are trying our best day in and day out to be what you (and the other wonderful parents) have taught us to be. When you feel the gentle wind blow, and feel the warm sun on your face, please send some of that peace our way. Oh, and Dad, you’ve probably seen a lot of new faces about since a few days ago. Give them a hug, hold their hands, show them around, and realize that they’ve been through a very, very tough time.

Your loving son,

Bill

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“Driving the Bus”

Greetings from sunny Tokyo!

Actually, not sunny at all (rather dark and dreary).

In a few days, we in America will celebrate another “eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month” event. It was the final bell of the “war to end all wars”; a span of four years so devastating that it claimed an entire generation of European youth, not to mention many from Down Under. We know it as “Veterans Day”, and it proudly holds a special place in my heart.

Why is that you ask? For essentially one simple reason. Each year on this one day, I ponder my adult life, and I’m left with the same conclusion each time. I feel that a very important part of it has been an abject failure. I know, harsh words to be sure, but none the less brutally honest.

I look back and reflect on the fact that I was raised in the family of a veteran, groomed to love my country (and the liberties and freedoms she represents), and wanted nothing more than to enter military service and do my duty. This would never come to pass, and in that regard, I’ve failed in my quest to repay the wonderful “idea” known as America with time spent “on watch”. My failure to serve would change my life in ways I’ll never be able to fully comprehend.

I wanted to fly. It was my calling and I heard it loud and clear. I yearned to be in the spot where I’ve been fortunate enough to call my “workplace” for almost 40 years…the cockpit of an air machine. Fate would intervene and steer me down a path far different from the one I dreamed of, and wished for, as a young man. This was to be a path that started with the rigors of military service, and ended with the cushy life of the airlines. I worked hard as a teen, kept (mostly) good grades in school, stayed in shape, and was pointed toward a scholarship that ended with a jet that had the initials USAF painted on its fuselage. It was to be, and my Dad and I couldn’t have been more excited. Then it happened… I failed.

To be exact, I failed the vision test of the entrance physical of the Air Force ROTC program that I was to attend (Texas A & M University). Way back in the days we call “the 70’s”, part of the physical exam included a thing called the “near vision acuity” test. This consisted of an Air Force enlisted person placing a ruler on the bridge of your nose, and you reading the letters on the little slide sheet that worked up and back on said ruler. The issue with my vision was inherited from my dear father himself…it was exceptional far vision. I swear my Dad could see a gnat on the ass of mule at 500 yards, and I could too it seemed! Since my ocular muscles were born of him, I was tested at an amazing far vision of 20/15 (meaning that I could see at 20’ what most folks could see at 15’), but unfortunately this meant that my near vision muscles were weaker, and the best I could do was 20/30 (what you see at 30’, I have to be at 20’ to see). The United States Air Force required no less than a rock solid 20/20 for pilots, and I simply couldn’t hack it.

My dream of serving was over. We were both upset, disheartened, and (yes) disappointed greatly. I somehow felt like I had not only let my country down, but that I had let him down too. However, he (being the beautiful man that he was) would hear none of that, and devised a plan to get me to a cockpit sans the help of the American taxpayers. I would attend an “Aviation University”, graduate with a four year bachelor’s degree (the airlines require such), and have a life amongst the clouds after all.

Those that know me, know that’s essentially the story of my life, and interestingly enough, when I was interviewing for the position at Northwest Orient Airlines roughly 10 years (to the day) from my failed USAF physical, my near vision muscles had gotten stronger, my far vision muscles had grown weaker, and my vision was a perfect “20/20”. Such was the plan laid down for my journey by a higher power, and it’s been nothing short of an incredible life.

But on that one day each year, I give thanks to those that have served, admire those that are serving, and feel a tinge of pain that I was never fortunate enough to be a part of that group of most honorable men and women. They deserve nothing less than our undying “thanks” for their sacrifices, what they’ve done for each and everyone of us.

“thank you”

The following piece I penned over 10 years ago regarding a military charter I had recently flown. Part of the addendum that would be the “current one” (not the one at the end of the piece), is that my son grew up to enter the United States Army (through the ROTC system), has deployed to a war zone twice, and is currently serving wearing the twin silver bars of a Captain. The father’s “grip of fear” that I mention in this piece has lived in this Dad’ heart, and it’s a dark place indeed. With all that said, his Mother and I could not be more proud of him. I will add his two sisters to that list…the older no less, married to an Army officer herself…he too, an exemplary young man.

With that, I give you “Driving the Bus”…

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“You’re just an overpaid bus driver”

I’ve heard that little quip from passengers, neighbors and yes, even friends and family. Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours trying to explain my world as a professional pilot to those that have no idea what it’s like. I’ve told of the many long years of training for all the sundry licenses and ratings, the crappy (and sometimes dangerous) jobs taken to build precious flight time, the frustration of yearning to work for a major airline and (through no fault of one’s own) not being able to land the job. Then after the grueling interviews and actually getting the nod, being faced with many, many hours of training and check rides, all under the jaundiced eyes of the FAA and company check-airmen. Also, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the “endless journeys” on the treadmill (and in the weight room) to stay in shape for that semi-annual trip under the medical microscope. Getting the job is one thing, keeping it can be an entirely different battle.

Strangely enough, even the folks that should (almost) understand what my world is like (the cabin attendants) simply don’t. They see us sequestered into our little closet with windows, but they’re only allowed in when things are at the most dull point in the flight…the cruise segment. I’ve actually heard them say after a long duty day, “But why are you so tired? You just sit there all day?” It can be very frustrating; for it seems the hours I’ve spent trying to let earthbound folks peek into my world, has all been for naught when I hear that “bus driver” comment. But the truth be told, sometimes that is exactly how I feel when at work in the cockpit.

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My closet with windows, a Boeing 757-300. Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

I received my Commercial Pilots License while attending an aviation college in the summer of 1976, and my very first passenger for hire flight was what we called a “Lake Texhoma tour”. I was tasked with loading a couple of locals into one of the university’s mighty Cessna 172s, and then spending the next hour flying them on a sightseeing tour over the expanse of that huge lake. It wasn’t anything on the order of a Grand Canyon tour, but this rather large body of water on the Oklahoma/Texas border offered some cool viewing. These were inevitably sweaty, bumpy days, and the barf bags were known to return filled to overflowing, but it was “professional flying”, and I loved it. I had FINALLY turned the corner in my aviation career, and when I handed the Cessna keys back to the flight school person, there wasn’t a wad of MY dollars attached to them…cool. It was all pretty neat to actually be getting PAID for flying an airplane, and a bit heady for this shy 20 year old.

Nowadays, my “tours” take me from one end of this planet to the next. The jet that I call home flies to several continents, and dozens of cities. I’ve seem most of them…many, many times. I can tell you lots of little tidbits about them. For instance; Milwaukee has the best airport bookstore in the system, runway 33L in Baltimore is so humped that when you’re on one end of it… you can’t see the other end, ATC will ALWAYS keep you “high and hot” on the arrival to the south runways at Orlando…so you better configure early. There’s a good chance you’ll get moderate turbulence below 300′ AGL landing on runway 06R in Anchorage when the wind is out of the south…but 06L will be smooth. Don’t ever..ever…believe the Bejing Approach Controller when they assign you a runway, for it WILL change (usually at least twice)! The hotel in Tokyo can be as noisy as the Super Bowl at halftime, and for God’s sake don’t get the chili at the Bangkok airport…your spouse will regret it. Does this sound like the rantings of a person that’s been to these airports/towns over and over again hundreds of times? Yep, I’m afraid it does. Sometimes I literally have to roll over and pick up the phone book to see which city/country I just woke up in.

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A 747 heading the other way.

A few weeks ago I was able to fly a trip that would put an end to all that for a few days. It was advertised as a charter, but not just any charter flight. We fly all sorts of “off line” flights in the airline business, and I’ve done my share of them. Most have been sports charters, and I can honestly say that picking up a load of “20-something NFL millionaires”, and kissing their (at times) prima dona asses all the way across the country isn’t my idea of fun. Some guys love it…. I don’t. These superstars can be a bit less than nice at times, but I guess that’s O.K. when you feel (and are constantly told) that your feces has no odor. This charter however would be something different, for it was to be a CRAF flight. CRAF stands for Civil Reserve Aviation Fleet, and it’s basically working for the MAC (Military Airlift Command) folks shuttling their personnel across the USA and around the world. One of my first MAC flights was back in 1987 when I was a Second Officer on the 747, and I remembered it as being truly “different”…but in a good way.

What makes these trips so different? First of all, there are the destinations. Mostly places I’ve never been to before. On this particular junket, we left at 0600 on day one ferrying the aircraft from KMSP down to Grey Army Airfield on the Ft. Hood Army reservation just outside of Kileen, Texas. Ever been to the sprawling metropolis of Kileen? Me neither. I spent my formative years growing up on U.S. Army bases all over the world, and my teen years on the plains of north central Texas, but I’ve never had the pleasure of logging quality time in Kileen. After an hour on the ground, we were to deliver the troops to Victorville, California, then ferry back to Ft. Hood. A two day layover was scheduled, then off to take more troops back to Victorville. Following that mission, the F/O and I would ferry the aircraft through the night out to Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington, D.C., arriving at approximately 0430. After a short nap at the hotel, we would be tasked with dead-heading home later that day. So, with the prospect of flying to several new airports, and ferrying the aircraft three out of the five scheduled legs, I was really excited about releasing the brakes on this one.

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The aviation flight line at Grey Army Airfield. I logged many an hour on flight lines like this with my Dad when I was a kid.

Ferrying is weird. Maybe it’s the word “ferry”, but I would hope that I’m not that -phobic. I guess I would prefer these legs be called “repositioning” flights. 🙂 I would champion a cause that would require all new hire flight attendants to ride at least one leg in the cockpit during one of these ferry flights, for this would allow them (many of whom have never been around a small airplane, much less an airliner) to gain lots of insight into what running a cockpit can entail. It would show them important things like… when we are busy, how we are busy, why they can’t ring us as the gear is coming up, and why we always seem to be doing nothing when they come into the cockpit at FL350. Plus, it’s always fun to have someone sitting on the jump-seat that isn’t sporting a badge with F.A.A. printed all over, or some sweaty, bad-breathed pilot-type.

With all that said, there’s one other VERY important thing that makes these flights special to me. This “thing” makes these trips super …and it’s actually not a thing at all…it’s the people that I’m fortunate enough to serve. I’m talking of course about the young men and women that serve in our armed forces…in this case, the U.S. ARMY. I feel truly blessed to have been raised in this “family of honor”, and I deem it a distinct privilege to chauffeur these wonderful folks from point A to B.

What makes them so special you might ask? I can’t really put my finger on it, but I’ll give it a try. It’s a look, a walk, and an air about them that most civilians don’t have. My Dad had it, my uncle Wade had it (he wasn’t really my uncle, but he and my Dad were best friends from their early Army chopper days), and these “kids” sure as hell had it. It’s almost as if they know that they’re carrying the history of freedom’s long forgotten battles on their young shoulders. They look you square in the eye when they talk to you, and they aren’t afraid to let loose with a “yes sir, or yes maam” when it’s appropriate. They seem to have a purpose to their existence, and that purpose is wrapped in honor and integrity.

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My special charges for the day.

One of the curious by-products of being raised on Army bases is that I can recognize and decipher that bizarre collection of symbols and insignias that every soldier lives by; I’m talking unit patches and rank. I grew up knowing that the beautiful gold shield with the black stripe and horse silhouette is the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) of Vietnam fame. The four green stars linked within the tilted square can only be the deadly 4th Infantry Division, and I know that 2nd Armored Division sports the “Hell on Wheels” patch. And who can forget the “Big Red One”, the “All American” 82nd, or the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne? Most all ARMY units have histories bathed in blood and bravery, and I was teethed on their stories.

As far as the maze of confusion known as rank, I can tell the difference between a Staff Sergeant and his boss the Master Sergeant with the “three up and three down”, a “butter bar” Second Lieutenant from a Chief Warrant Officer, a gold-leafed Major from a silver-leafed Lieutenant (or “Light”) Colonel, and I know that nobody loves seeing a “full Bird” Colonel headed their way. But of course, history has shown us that the most important of all ranks is the “dog face” PFC, or Private First Class, for he/she is the backbone of the infantry. Throughout time, in the heat of battle, it’s been the NCOs and the “dogfaces” that have carried the day, and vanquished the enemy. The generals will always get the glory, while the grunts get the Purple Hearts.

I was also schooled at an early age about tradition and respect, and in the military, one of the primary forms of respect is the salute. I was told that you salute the rank and not the person, and that EVERYONE salutes a Congressional Medal of Honor wearer, no matter their rank or stature. I watched my Dad salute lots of higher ranks, and he always seemed to mean it, but it was truly special when someone snapped off a crisp salute his way, for the respect and reverence that it intoned always made me walk a bit taller next to him. He taught me that serving a cause higher than “self” (one’s country) is the most noble and honorable thing a young person can do, and I’ve never wavered in that belief. I loved growing up in the Army with my Dad, and a few months ago (when we were all glued to our television sets) I had many thoughts of just how proud he would have been to see “his” Army, and how they were fairing in battle.

The last days of my father’s active service were many years ago, and all the soldiers in my life then were much older than me. Now I wear the face of four (plus) decades, and all of the troops on this trip seemed to be young…. very young. Hell, most of them seemed like just kids. Both times we landed in Victorville, I stood at the cockpit door to say goodbye to each of them, and I swear that I saw my 16-year-old son’s face under many of those helmets. As a father, it was scary as hell, but I’m sure their fathers feel more than I the grip of that fear. It has been said many times that “war is a young man’s game”, and I guess it’s a true statement. However, that doesn’t make it any easier for the young widow or the grieving family. These young men and women serve a dangerous profession.

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Descending inbound to KVCV. If it looks hot, it’s only because it was.

Even “the brass” sitting in first class seemed young. Heck the Captains looked 20, the Majors 25, and the “full bird” looked all of 30 years old. I’m actually not joking at all…they really seemed (to me) to be that young. With the current events in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, there is very good possibility that these folks will be deployed to a combat zone sometime during their time in uniform. If they do deploy, there’s always a chance that some of those young, fresh faced, Harry Potter reading, “I was carrying a Gameboy last year, and now I’m toting an M-16″ kids…. won’t…. well…. you know…. make it back…. and that breaks my heart.

My Father once told me…”son, the Army took me out of the slums of Dallas, got me my High School G.E.D. (my Dad had dropped out of high school), sent me to night school to gain a college degree, taught me a trade, and showed me the world. All my country EVER asked in return was to twice go fight her battles. Once, as a medic in Korea, and once as a pilot in Vietnam…. I think that was a pretty fair trade-off on my part.” I’ve swear that I’ve never forgotten those words.

Many of the kids I flew around have grown up in “soft” America, where they’ve had everything from MTV, Windows XP, and “soccer moms” to make their lives easier, but all that has ended for them now. They are being shown the “hard” world, where bad guys fly airplanes into buildings, where RPGs take off arms and legs, and where your buddy’s life can sometimes mean more to you than your own.

In the last few years, I’ve had my doubts about the “youth” of today. I’ve wondered if they could stand up to the inevitable challenges that evil will throw at folks that live in free, honest, hardworking, and descent societies. History tests each generation, but could these youngsters step up to the plate, like the “20 somethings” that braved the trenches of the Argonne, the beaches of Normandy, the icy hell of Chosin and the jungles of the Ia Drang? I can honestly say that after what I’ve seen from Iraq in the last many months, and my CRAF trip a few weeks ago, I no longer have those doubts. These kids can handle it.

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Off-loading in Victorville, California.

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So, when someday a grandchild is sitting on my knee and he or she asks,

“Granddad, what did you do in the war on terrorism?”

“Oh, I flew my airliners around the country and the world, always working hard to fly safe, and protect my passengers from the bad guys.”

“But Granddad…what did you DO during the war against the terrorists”

The real answer will be:

“Oh honey, that’s easy….

I drove the bus that the heroes rode on…. I proudly drove the bus.”

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The hero’s bus.

One final note:

God bless all the coalition troops, and special prayers to my two nephews that are serving. Recruit Jason Hobbs just beginning his journey of service, and Specialist Nicholas Stewart, 2/3rd ACR, 7th Infantry Division (Light), United States Army deployed in Iraq. We love you Jason and Nick, and we’re very proud of you and your comrades. Do your duty well gentlemen, and return home safe.

till next time,

BBall

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“Requalification Part III” (Final Installment)

So Mike and I now find ourselves in the Briefing Room poised to do the actual checkride itself, and we’re feeling pretty good about the whole thing. That would change within the next few hours. Day 2 of this extravaganza was best when it was over.

The evening before the event, we met for a nice dinner of good ‘ol southern Bar B-que, headed back to our respective hotel rooms, and after a last minute skull –session reviewing junk that I would be required to regurgitate on the morrow, I instituted “Reveille”, and got a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

As any professional aviator knows, the annual trip under the “instructor pilot microscope” is something that (early in our careers) is filled with dread and foreboding. However, after about a thousand times down that rabbit hole, you learn to relax, do your thing without feeling intimidated, and (many times) actually learn something new about your jet. It’s not a bad thing, can be a good thing…but is mostly a pain in the ass thing.

After arriving at the “schoolhouse”, our I.P. (“Bennie”), started the checkride as most all of them do…a scant amount of small talk, and then a look at our Airmen, Medical, and FCC Certificates. With those little pleasantries taken care of, we divide into teams (his and ours), choose which goal to defend, and the actual checkride kicked off. This normally consists of a “round-robin” volley of questions concerning the Boeing Limitations and performance issues, a waltz through lots of pictures showing various parts of the exterior of the airplanes, whereby you simply explain to the I.P. what you would be checking and/or observing whilst doing an exterior walk-around. This “oral exam” typically ends with some in depth discussions (and questions) concerning new procedures that are the “hot topics du Jour” for that time frame. This can be very informative, even fun, but it can also be ugly.

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(Roughly two years into my career on the 757…circa 1999.)

But with that said, one thing that EVERY instructor knows deep down in their shriveled little rock-hard hearts, the hearts that beat blacker than the depths of Mordor itself (speaking as an ex-CFI-AI-MEI and B727 I.P.): no one is perfect. No one person sitting in a checkride “oral” exam will know everything about everything…period. If you simply ask questions long enough, you’ll eventually find something that even the sharpest of pencils will not know. We call it playing “stump the monkey” (or “stump the dummy”), and it’s a dick move by an I.P. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it up close and personal.

Usually, at this point, the I.P. briefings begin. He/She basically breaks down each maneuver we will be required to perform. If you have any question about such…now is the time to raise your hand. Rest assured, 99% of us have “chair flown” these many times in the proceeding weeks (days), and they SHOULD feel pretty ingrained by now.

For whatever reason this bright sunny afternoon (except in the windowless basement of the schoolhouse where all the simulators and/or briefing rooms reside), our “Herr Bennie” decided it was time to play STM with yours truly. Not a big deal, I’ve been yelled at and berated by the best of them. I remember being a brand spanking new-hire at my former airline, on about ride 5 of my initial training to be a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer, and the I.P. literally screaming at me and saying that I was “the worst student he had ever seen”! I was devastated…until I talked to my roommate and (you guessed it) “Mr. Warm And Fuzzy” screamed at him during his entire lesson also informing him that HE was indeed “the worst student he had ever seen”. Wait a dang minute there Hoss! I thought I was #1 on his Hit Parade…always the bride’s maid and never the bride.

So now we have the dude that’s giving us this rather important checkride, trying to show us (me) that he’s uber cool, and knows everything about everything when it comes to the collection of metal that Mr. Boeing’s wunderkind bolted together up in Everett, Washington those many years ago. He’s off into some rant about VNAV ad nauseum, and he hits me with some obscure question about…”well Bill, if it’s Tuesday in Canada, and the distal constellation is in the house of Mars, and Elvis walks into the building…what will the FMA say when you…..” la, la, la…. I gave him the doe in the headlights look, and he pulls out the big gun of all I.P.’s the world over…”wait a minute Bill….how many years you been flying this?” “Uhhh….18.” “And how many hours do you have in the B757?” “Uhhhh…about 10 or 12,000.” (wait for it)…”AND YOU DON’T KNOW?” “Uhhh….I don’t even understand the question Bennie…”

I get the eye roll, he asks Mike, and gets the same response, and OFF TO THE RACES HE GOES to show us that he’s way cooler than we are. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t get that upset, I didn’t even want to smash the QRH checklist into his face. I’ve seen this too many times, and in too many places. He’s just a guy playing “my penis is bigger than your penis”, and if that makes him feel better about his deal, then so be it. I did however, many years ago, basically tell an F.A.A. check airman to go “f*ck himself” after a simulator check ride. It’s a long story, from a galaxy far, far away, and rest assured, I was right, he was wrong, he walked out of the briefing room (as he should have) and we passed our ride. A yarn for another day.

Back to Bennie and our little jaunt to get blessed to go back to the line and do what we do. It’ll be a two-act play: the MV (Maneuvers Validation), and the LOE (Line Oriented Evaluation).

He eventually has his fix of making us feel like morons, asked a few more (relevant) question…which we answer correctly, and all seemed to be well in “Bennie World”, so we head down to the actual flight simulator itself. Mike and I have been in this cockpit so many times over the years that it literally feels like putting on a pair of old shoes…plus we were in this exact “box” the day before, and did a very credible job rattling the dust out of our collective craniums. THAT however was a “warm up”, and THIS is the real deal…for “the win” as it were.

air_534a_001

(The “office” at FL350 ANC to MSP.)

ACT 1: The Maneuvers Validation.

Mike and I strap in, we do our preflight duties, load the jets FMC, load up our Surface Tablets, and start briefing. This is essentially going to be the twin sister from yesterday; operating out of KSFO with all sorts of different weather, different approaches, different “issues” with the jet, and we’ve briefed it all before, in fact less than 24 hours before to be exact! But not in front of Bennie, and that’s huge. Mike knows the game and how it’s played, Bennie knows the game and how it’s played, and yours truly DAMN SURE knows the game and how it’s played. As a transport-category, heavy jet, airline aviator you know (and your experience tells you) one sure thing. Half of the issue is controlling the machine (the PF or “pilot flying” duties), and the other half (and sometimes the much more complex…read harder…half) is the dude NOT controlling the machine. The ring master is always the Captain, but the PM (or “pilot monitoring”) is many times the make it or break it guy in the equation of keeping the dance grooving along like it needs to be. It’s a choreography, and when it’s done right it’s a thing of beauty…when done wrong…well recollections of my disco dancing in college come to mind…uggh.

We brief it ALL again. Start Up, Taxi (single engine to start the remaining engine on taxi out), the Weather, Aborts, Abnormals, Runway to expect, SID for said runway, Terrain issues, Transition Altitude and any “Special” things to consider at this airport. I’ve done it a thousand times, and Mike played the part and attentively listened while I bloviated.

My notes from the actual ride (I’ll only put up the notes I have on my turn “in the barrel”):

– Normal Takeoff = “good here”

– VOR Approach RWY 19L = “I.P. hammered me on the briefing. Mike selects “PPOS HOLD” coming out of the holding pattern, doesn’t take it out and we blow through the LNAV final approach course. We get a GPWS warning and do a CFIT escape.”

*** As Bennie was rushing us to get set up for the VOR RWY 19L approach, I told him that we needed more time and requested a holding pattern. He, acting as ATC, gave us some funky clearance to an obscure point, and I had Mike set it up for an entry into the hold. We got in, I briefed the approach (we actually use our VNAV function on non-precision approaches as a pseudo “glideslope” as it were…works great, but takes longer to brief for you have to use a different manual on your Surface Tablet to brief it…AND…keep the Jeppesen approach page displayed at the same time. Remember, Mike and I had never used the Surface do-dad on the line yet, and some of its “magic”… like showing two pages at the same time… was still a bit of a mystery for us). We eventually feel like we’re good to go, Bennie gives us a quick clearance for the approach, I arm “LNAV” to intercept the final approach course, but Mike gets a bit behind the program, and doesn’t make the FAF our active waypoint…hence the autopilot doesn’t capture the LNAV track and we head through the final approach course. Within about 15 seconds of “what the fkk is it doing now?” from Mike, and me saying we need a clearance to turn back toward the course and for him to “clean up” the FMC…we get a …you guessed it…Ground Proximity Warning System…”whoop, whoop, terrain, terrain.”

F*cking lovely! In the goo, at night, heading toward some hills east of Oakland (and I don’t even have my Crips or Bloods colors proudly displayed), and we get this crap. Oh well, one thing to do (just as we would in the jet), the old “CFIT Escape Maneuver”. Basically, FULL THRUST (not climb thrust…I mean turn off the auto-throttles and push those funny little levers as far forward as you can), stand her on her ass (about 20 plus degrees nose up), and climb like a homesick angel! Funny thing…we were tasked with having to demo one of these later in the ride, so we just got a tad bit ahead of ourselves…lol.

We recover, Bennie bitches a bit, but can’t really say anything, for even though we dicked up the intercept on the VOR approach, we did the right thing by NOT merging metal with dirt. He gave us a vector back to the course, Mike and I pulled our collective heads out of our asses (remember, I had been off for about six months, and Mike for almost an entire year), and executed a beautiful VOR approach, culminating in a nice landing on 19L.***

VOR RWY !(L

(the VOR 19L SFO)

– Engine Failure After V1, RWY 28R = “nailed it”

– Engine out CAT 1 ILS RWY 28R, Engine out Missed Approach = “nailed it”

***On the engine out go-around, Mike was a bit late on getting the rudder trim dialed in, and I did a small amount of weaving on the SFO 295 radial out through the hills. It’s a bitch to have zero thrust on one side, and 37000 lbs of “push” on the other. Thank God, Mr. Boeing puts big-assed rudders on his jets! (and thank God for my Bowflex leg exercise contraption!)***

– Engine out CAT 1 ILS to a landing RWY 28R.

***The F.A.A. (in their infinite wisdom) require that on every other checkride, we actually HAND FLY this monster down the ILS to a landing in “CAT 1” weather (basically 100’ overcast and 1800’ RVR…or just under ½ mile visibility) with an engine out. This is utter stupidity, for in the real world, if I had one motor in the bag, and the weather sucked balls, I would let Mr. Sperry’s incredible autopilot (3 autopilots to be exact) smoothly, gently and no-plussed, ride me down the glideslope and on the localizer until I once again glimpsed the world, then I would click them off, and hand fly the thing the last 30 seconds to a graceful (and light as a feather) touchdown and rollout. Nope….the F.A.A. (meaning Bennie in our case) wants to see if you can “do some of that pilot sh*t Maverick”, and watch us sweat keeping a broken jet flying right side up using our amazingly razor sharp instrument skillz (and a great Flight Director), and all the while whistling Dixie (the last part I made up). It’s stupid, but it’s their bat and their ball, and they can play the game anyway they want. I just show up to sing bass… I did a good job here, although still thinking it’s a stupid thing to have to demo.***

– Inadvertant Windshear Encounter After Liftoff = “really ugly windshear…do well.”

– CAT 3 ILS RWY 28R to a landing = “nailed it”

– Approach to Stall During Departure RWY 28R = “nailed it…lots of trim”

– Upset Recovery = “good”

– Approach to Stall in Clean Configuration = “good”

– Controlled Flight Into Terrain GPWS Warning = “did already…lol”

– Approach to Stall in Landing Configuration RWY 28R = “good”

– Holding = “good”

– RNAV (RNP) Y Approach RWY 28R to a Missed Approach = “Mike briefs the wrong page… we figure it out, do the approach to a G/A…good”

End of my MV checkride. Mike does essentially the same stuff (with a few differences), and after about three hours in the box, we take a break and get ready for the LOE.

Final Act: Day 3, the LOE.

As luck would have it, we draw “Bennie” again…wonderful…lol.

First a bit of background on the LOE. It’s a different animal altogether from the M.V., and was pioneered way back in the infancy of airline flight simulators (by my old line I’m proud to say). It used to be called a “LOFT” (Line Oriented Flight Training), was filmed with old (wait for it) VCR tapes, and it would be fun as hell replaying the “brain fart” moments to everyone during the debriefs.

We don’t watch movies at the end of these things nowdays, but some of the old films were great! I distinctly remember watching one (in black and white…hehe…lets you know how long ago that happened), whereby Capt. “Bob” and his intrepid crew of Boeing 727 airman were in the throes of some sort of sim problem, and about every five seconds “Bob” would turn around to Flight Engineer “Bill” and task him with something to do. Within seconds, poor “Bill” was utterly and completely tasked saturated, and it went something like this:

– Captain Bob, “say Bill, would you begin the fuel dump…take us down to 5000 across…and give me a time to dump.”
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob.”
– Captain Bob, “oh, and Bill, would you pull up the latest MKE weather?
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob.”
– Captain Bob, “And Bill, let’s start that engine shutdown checklist right now…OK?”
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob.”
– Captain Bob, “Oh and Bill, call Suzie in the back and give her the briefing on the emergency…she needs to be in the loop on this.”
– F/E Bill, “OK Bob”
– Captain Bob, “One more thing Bill, why don’t you give the company a call, and let them know we’re headed back.”

***Now Ray Charles can see what’s happening here, poor Bill is busier than a one legged man in an ass kicking contest, Bob is doing nothing but barking orders, and First Officer “Ned” is looking out the window basically doing nothing! You can see the frustration start to build in “Bill” and his “if looks could kill” program is starting to rear its ugly head…crew continuity has completely broken down. Bill can’t get anything done, and he finally just loses it!***

– Captain Bob, “Say Bill, have you got the fuel dump time for me? I thought we were going to start that checklist? How about that MKE weather? How’s Suzie doing in the back? Did you call the company yet and let them know we’re RTB-ing?”
– F/E Bill, without saying a thing, literally throws his hands into the air, and (BEHIND THE CAPTAIN’S BACK) begins to shoot him the “middle finger salute” with BOTH HANDS! Over, and over, and over….

 

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LMAO. We call it CRM (Crew Resource Management), and the above example is NOT the way it’s supposed to work. It’s hard to believe, but when this idea hit the airline world many years ago, it wasn’t very popular. Certain commanders with a little “Captain Queeg” in them saw it as usurping their (God given) authority, and they didn’t like it…not one bit. But it wasn’t that at all. It was the concept of using ALL of your available resources to get the job done…and in a way that you didn’t have a “Bob” and “Bill” show. Many other industries have since adopted this attitude (medical E.R.s and/or Operating Rooms), and it seems to be working well.

So the premise is to give Mike and I an actual “line flight”. Fly from point A to point B with “normal” things that might happen on any given flight. Weather issues, mechanical problems, passenger things to deal with, ATC headaches….you know, just a normal day at the office. The I.P. wears all sorts of hats…basically whatever you need him to be. Find an issue during preflight…call out the “mechanic Fred” (I.P.), “Barry” the Purser has an issue in the cabing…call out the catering dude (I.P.), Dispatch wants to talk to you…guess what…it’s our very own “Bennie” playing the Dispatcher. You get the jist…he’s here to “help” you, but not break character and instruct you. You’re on your own, and it can actually be kinda fun.

Two funny LOE stories.

#1. I was a seasoned First Officer in the DC-10 doing an LOE from Milwaukee (non-stop) to Minneapolis one snowy morning (actually, it was June outside and the sun was shining brightly). We launched toward KMSP, and shortly thereafter, the Flight Engineer (don’t remember his name) leaned forward with a small note that the I.P. had obviously given to him to read to the Captain (Jerry). “Captain…I don’t feel very well, I’m going to be sick.” Jerry looked at me (I was the PF), looked at the F/E and said this, “Don’t you die on me! Don’t you dare die on me! You croak, you do it right there at your desk! Don’t you move!” (I was laughing my ass off). Sure enough, within a few minutes, the F/E “died”, and the two I.P.s (one for us pilots, and one for the F/E) had him get out of his seat and take a seat in the back of the simulator! We were now on our own….

Of course in the next :30, we had to shut down an engine, declare an emergency, dump fuel, and do the LOC only approach to RWY 12L at KMSP in a blinding snowstorm! Jerry got out of the Captain’s seat, worked the F/E panel like a pro, and I basically just flew the jet, talked on the radios, and answered the checklists as he read them. Worked like a charm. Of course….at the debriefing…the (dead) Flight Engineer who was getting his “LOE checkride” also (and did basically nothing), quipped…”Wow, I learned soooo much just sitting in the back observing you two! That was cool!” (We told him he sucked as a human being and that he was buying all the beer that night…)

 

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(That beautiful lady…the DC-10. I spent five wonderful years in the front right window seat.)

#2. As a new B727 Captain, I was doing my first LOE checkride with a very experienced F/O and F/E. Good guys, I had flown with them on the line, and they knew their sh*t. We departed KDTW inbound for KMSP when about ½ way across Lake Michigan we get a call from “Suzie” in the back that there is water leaking out all over the aft restroom. “Could the F/E come back and shut off the water handle for us?
Again, Ray Charles could see this coming…F/E goes back, gets in a fight with a drunk passenger, gets the snot beaten out of him (simulated), and I’m stuck where Jerry was in that DC-10 scenario!

I looked at the F/O and asked him if he knew where the water shutoff handle was…he sheepishly said “no” (playing the game for the I.P.s….they wanted an “important” member of the crew….the F/E to get whacked). I said to the F/E….”you I need”….to the F/O…”you I don’t need….get your ass back there and find that handle and shut it off” (not playing the I.P.’s game….lol). He gets up from the F/O seat goes to the back of the simulator for a few minutes, comes back and tells me he can’t find it. I do what any good commander would do, I send him BACK to look again! (I REALLY didn’t want to lose the F/E…..). Back he comes a few minutes later with the same story…can’t find it….lol. I FINALLY cave and send back the Flight Engineer and (you guessed it), he gets assaulted by a drunk Navy pilot (just made that up), and he’s out cold.

OK…so me and “numb-nuts I can’t find the handle” F/O are going to have to work out any small issues just by our lonesome. Guess what #2? Yep, we experience a catastrophic engine failure, and part of the collateral damage is that the “A” system hydraulics begin to bleed out. OK…time to do some of that pilot sh*t. We have to secure the engine, dump fuel, electrically extend the flaps/slats, and last but most assuredly not least, we have to manually crank down the landing gear….and WHO…do you think will be doing all of that? Not this cowboy…lol. About this time, me thinks that our intrepid F/O was dearly wishing he would’ve found the handle, had his brains beaten out, and could sit in the back of the simulator and watch the two up front flail away like “Bonzo and Bobo” the pair of trained seals!

Needless to say, we got it all done. He was cussing just a bit as he was lowering that last main gear (if you’ve ever cranked the gear down in the Boeing 727, then you know of what I speak…it’s like monkeys fornicating with footballs), but we got it all finished in time to shoot the ILS to 30L in KMSP, land and be towed to the gate like two conquering Roman Gods! (well, maybe not, but it’s a cool visual)

Naturally, “numb-nuts #3” who did his entire checkride from the observers seat in the back of the simulator hit us with the usual…”Wow, I learned soooo much just sitting in the back and observing you two! That was cool!” Dickhead….he bought the beer that night also.

Our LOE.

This won’t take long for I don’t actually remember too many details from this little “flight of the damned”. We launched with crappy weather (requiring a take-off alternate), headed up the west coast for our :30 flight to KSEA, and somewhere enroute we had a “CARGO FIRE” warning light come on! Lovely!

I ALWAYS elect to have the F/O be the PF on an LOE, for all the obvious reasons. I will be the “ringmaster”, directing ATC, Dispatch, Cabin Crew, Checklists, and most importantly, be the “keeper of the time bucket”. It’s all about time management…slow down to assess and plan, or as in this case, speed up and keep the fire from doing its thing.

You can see which one this became quickly. I had Mike get on the radios, declare an emergency and have ATC inform Dispatch of our predicament, we ran the checklist, talked to “Bruce” the Purser, made the appropriate cabin P.A.s, and about a million other things all while watching Mike fly the jet like a bat outta hell. We were approaching from the south, KSEA was landing south, but ATC offered us a straight-in landing north on RWY34R. Mike, how do you feel about that? Mike was “performance peaking” about now, had it wired, felt good about a “fast” approach (the weather was great), and I cut him loose. “Bruce” was calling with sitreps in the cabin…floor is hot….smoke in the aft of the cabin…have moved passengers to front…etc. Good man. I now had enough info to make the big decisions….we WILL BE EVACUATING THE JET ON THE RUNWAY. Bruce knew it, ATC knew it, Mike knew it, Dispatch knew it….pretty sure even the Kardashians knew it by this time.

We kept up with the checklists, Mike elected to use “MAX AUTO” on the autobrakes (good thing, ‘cause we were going to us them regardless of what Mike wanted…it’s good to be King), and I directed him to slow when he felt comfortable, but stay fast as long as he could (we were well past the 250 kts below 10,000’ rule by now). Checklists done, Bruce ready in the cabin, Mike flying like a big dog…all that was left was to plop it on the pavement, get ‘er stopped, and get everyone off.

He did, we did, and they did. ATC said it looked like a fire when we were on short final, and Mike performed flawlessly. He planted the big jet on the runway, we screeched to a halt (MAX AUTO works like a charm), and we began the EMERGENCY EVACUATION CHECKLIST. When that was done, I did my “Sully” routine…took my flashlight, cleared the cabin, and exited from the farthest aft (useable) exit. We then headed for the nearest “virtual lounge”….

evac

(These things are NEVER without injuries…ugly to be sure.)

LOE complete.
MV complete.

Mike and I were now OFFICIALLY back in the game. He and I shook hands, I thanked him for being a terrific partner, and wished him luck on the line (with the promise to buy him a cold beer next time our paths crossed). He left to drive back home (he lived in the next state over), and I nestled into seat 22B (lodged between two fat guys…what else?), and winged my way back toward the Northland.

It had been a very long five + months away from my world in the cockpit…but it wasn’t the first time I had ridden that rollercoaster. I LOVED the parts about being with my lovely wife and youngest daughter every day, sleeping in my own bed EVERY night (weird to be sure), having the ability to eat and workout on MY daily schedule and not the airline’s (my waistline approved), and just generally feeling “better” physically and/or mentally. It’s a hard job kicking your body’s ass all over the world each month. Lots of strange times, strange meals, strange beds, and just when you start to feel “normal” again, it’s time to pack the trusty suitcase, kiss the loved ones goodbye and head toward the setting sun.

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(from one of my favorite destinations…Palau)

Someday (in the not so distant future) the merry-go-round will turn its last turn, the music will stop, and yours truly will step off for the very last time. Will I miss it? Of course I will. Will I miss MVs and LOEs? LMAO…what do you think?

It’s good to be back.

me ckpt 1

’till next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Requalification 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 View K65021

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 Columbian 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. WX 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 centerline 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, repositions 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 centerline, 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 firewalled 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, 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. I remember 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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“Requalification”

“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.


“Requalification”

(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 vaction).

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.

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.)

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(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 jovialness, 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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