Flying Then As Now


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Aw, hell, it’s a beautiful day; so why not go down onto the flight line instead of just right into the cockpit for a change? Bright sky, gleaming jets, the sun climbing its early arc from a not too warm, still fresh and breezy morning toward what will be a hot, dusty dry pre-afternoon. The perfect, clear, preflight moment.

Clomp down the jet bridge stairs, and try not to face plant on the spike-grated steps grabbing the soles of your dress shoes (the ramp crew would love it) as you descend to the tarmac. Feels  so familiar: jet exhaust and the smell of kerosene mixing with the light scent of leaked Skydrol, engine oil, maybe even a spattering of propylene glycol dripping out of drain masts, souvenirs of previous departures from up north.

Over it all, the warm, dusty signature Texas breeze, dry, easy but mustering strength for a gusty day later, a spring promise well kept. And the scent and the sky and the sun and the wind; feet on the ramp, moving among metal giants at rest but ready for flight. There’s that same old “this is mine” feeling, this is my world, my jet, fueled, ready for me to climb in, strap it on, then bring the beast to life and launch off into that indigo canopy above.

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Flashback: tromping around on the Air Force flightline in flight boots, heading for sleeker, faster, more treacherous jets. The flight boots were a wry realization: we’d all been foot printed because, the laconic tech who did that job told us, chances were good that given the nature of the jets and the type of flying, whatever was in the boots was most of what they’d have to identify us by in certain cases.

Whatever: we were immortal. Tromping out of the life support shop loaded with crap–a chute, helmet bag, leg board; tail number of your assigned jet inked in ballpoint on your palm, along with “step time:” the briefed “step to the jet” minute coordinated with everyone else involved. Give a glance at the sky to see if those pattern altitude winds are anywhere near what the weather-guessers forecast. Probably not.

The alcohol swab you used on your oxygen mask to clean it before leak-testing it still burns your fresh-shaven face, letting you know you’re alive, despite the early hour. Hoist yourself into the converted dump truck with bench seats that slowly trolls the flight line, sad and slow as Eeyore, pausing to pick up pilots just blocked in after a flight, taking others like us out to our jets. Exchange a grunt or a pleasant obscenity with a fellow aviator also loaded down with flight gear. But even then, as now, before morning flights, always preferred general “shut up” before flying, like a silent meditation before church.

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Never was–am–nervous about flight. Just prefer less earthly clutter on my mind, mostly calmness, zen, before the orchestra strikes up. And then in my mind the relationships of time, distance, speed, angles, rates, thrust, pitch and roll all come out of the woodwork like ghosts in a darkened dance hall: we all know our places and how this waltz interlocks into a kaleidoscope of motion. Think it, live it, do it.

Like a blind date: you know what she looks like from her picture, but seeing the jet–your jet–from afar, then close up; it’s the best: we’re going to do this. It’s all coming together, and when it does, there’s going to be speed, thunderous noise, power, altitude, and no gravity. You can look for my boots later, I don’t give a damn: we’re going to this dance.

Something about touching the jet, as you walk around it, visually inspecting, really matters. Because just like a any thoroughbred, you’re going to pat her flank before you just throw a saddle on and cinch it up. Used to always pat the underwing vortilon on the Maddog; many a fueler watched with mild disinterest, ramp denizens familiar with pilot touchstones. Not sure why I did, maybe just because I always did, reassuring me that she was metal, and her that I was not.

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Now I just walk under that bigger, fatter cambered Boeing wing, too high to touch even if I wanted to. Admire that clean, shiny leading edge that tapers outward then flows gracefully up into the seven foot winglet on each wingtip. Love the big, gaping scoop of engine cowl around the clattering fan section of the high-bypass engine, blades windmilling loosely, soon to be centrifugally taut at 30,000 RPM just at idle. They gulp air so powerfully even during taxi that you’ve seen them suck puddles, even just moisture, from the concrete in twisty tornados swirling right into the engines.

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Around the towering, gleaming (new paint job) tail, then under the left wing, always with one eye open for the dozens of ground carts and tractors scuttling around the ramp like a jailbreak. You could get run over down here. Enough; time to mount up.

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The cockpit is always home. Everything there is spare, utile, functional, and state of the art. Some pilots call climbing in “building their nest,” hooking up comm cables, adjusting straps and rudder pedals and seat position. I don’t call it anything, I just strap in. My favorite copilots have little or nothing to say as we piece together the dozens of technical steps required to go fly: performance, navigation, systems. What needs to be said is rote, a litany, more like gears and cams than conversation, and I like it just fine that way.

“Step time” becomes push time, the canopy clunking closed and locked gives way to the forward entry door thunking shut, locks engaged. Then the cockpit door bolts shut; talk on the crew interphone to the ground guy unseen below. Release the brakes, clear the tug driver to shove us off the gate, onto the ramp, cleared to start. She comes to life, engines spinning up, fires lit, hydraulic brawn ready, thrust available when you call for it.

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With the tug disconnected, the crew chief holds up the nose steering pin, red “remove before flight” streamer attached, for you to verify that hydraulic steering is back under your control; you flash the landing light, he snaps you a salute, then the ground crew hops on the tug and trundles back to the gate.

Give ‘em a minute to get clear, then call for the flaps to be extended, flight control checks, then taxi. Beautiful morning, promising a stellar, clear spring day, one you almost hate to miss. But then, as she rolls in response to your nudge of jet thrust, with a squinty glance above, you notice the chalk lines of contrails arcing east and west, north and south.

Thoughts of the day, the earth, springtime, and anything below five miles and five hundred miles per hour somehow seems less relevant, even less real. It’s all about getting and being up there again, precisely, as perfectly–and in my case, as quietly–as possible.

Granted, she’s more of a draft horse than a thoroughbred, but there’s tremendous power and grace in her nonetheless. And these days we realize we’re mortal, boots or dress shoes–but we really don’t give a damn about that either.

It’s a kinder, gentler type of flying, especially with 160 warm bodies aboard. Burnished, polished smooth by the thousands of hours in the air, but then as now, and ever, what really matters is flight.

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15 Responses to “Flying Then As Now”

  1. paulmlally Says:

    Sheer poetry masquerading as prose. Great way to start my day. Thanks, Chris!

  2. Thanks for the morning pick me up. A great read, sir, thanks!!!

  3. Bill Brandt Says:

    Nice write-up describing the start of your day, Chris. A question i have had ever since the stowaway was found in the wheel well of the 767 – should someone have preflighted that plane early that San Jose morning? Wouldn’t a look up the wheel wells been part of that walk around?

    Still amazed that the guy didn’t fall out in takeoff or – more likely – landing.

    I assumed you flew a fighter in the Air Force – what kind?

    Always thought to go from something like that to an airliner is like trading your F1 ride for a bus.

    But flying is flying.

    • Hi Bill! Just thinking about long ago and far away, fun times, great flying in the -38. On the guy in the wheel well, I still don’t buy the story. More likely he snuck into a cargo compartment, which is entirely survivable. But if the Navy SEALs need oxygen to HALO jump from the 20k level, I’m not believing this kid survived without breathing at 38,000′ for five hours at -60 degrees.

  4. This is just an awesome article! I feel as if I’ve been there!

  5. Giulia Says:

    :) :) :) I love this on so many levels!!!!! Thank you!!!! :) :) :)

  6. Beautifully written and really interesting. Loved your references to horses. Brings the message home to me. Just confused about your last sentence. … Thanks for sharing your experience as a pilot. It’s obvious your passionate about it. :-)

  7. Thanks for sharing the love of your life with us…

  8. Randy Sohn Says:

    Wow! Sure do wish that I could express my feelings like that! Anyway, you made me recall a couple of thoughts when coming down those stairs onto the ramp. How dangerous the walk around was with baggage cart tugs, etc. zooming past. And the invariable sneeze when the first ray of sun struck my face when walking out from underneath a control surface!

    • Sure is true, Randy. Especially on the widebody: preflight ing the DC-10, which sat up so high that ramp tugs could drive under the fuselage (they weren’t supposed to, but did) so you’d have split attention–a quick glance at the jet, then carefully scanning for tugs/lav trucks/mx vehicles ready to mow you down.

  9. From one to another, very well said.

  10. drnjbmd Says:

    You have a true gift for capturing the “magic” of flight in words. Few people can write as eloquently about anything as you have about what you do. Awesome post that helps explain why flying is like nothing else in this world.

    • I used to think there was only one person who could write as clearly, with such descriptive imagery and most importantly, emotion, and then he passed away in the crash of jet. Now there are two of them. Chris says he’s not as good as Lex…but he’s pretty damn close. I think the only difference is Lex was pure Irish poet :)

  11. Love the last pic ! Is this A.A.’s new livery? I hope so, it looks pretty sweet!

  12. Inga Chalmers Says:

    Beautiful! Touching and captivating.
    I feel fortunate to be one of the lucky few who are eternally in love with what they do for a living, and this article sums it up so well.
    Thank you for sharing your passion with us.

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