Archive for airline

Hard Blue Redemption

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by Chris Manno

5am

Slap that alarm in the dark; AGAIN … now it’s on the floor. Damn. Fight your way out of the amnesia of sleep, gradually rejoining the world: damn again–realize you’re not home, this isn’t your bed, your stuff and consequently, not your day. That’s the Original Sin of air travel: you sold the day, wet-leased it, and your flying skills to the airline whose uniform is strewn in a trail leads from the door of the hotel room, across the floor and to the bed you’re finally rising from, stiff, un-caffeinated and rumpled, inside and out. You bought the ticket–you take the ride.

Darkness in a time zone east of your own is a double-whammy: it’s early, earlier still from the time change, and it’s only a charcoal gray dawn as night relents but grudgingly. And listen: rain, but not only rain, wind-whipped and cold-slung pellet rain, one of the reasons you don’t live in this “there,” one of the many “theres” far from the “here” of home, but also with too many good reasons why it isn’t home: like early season pelting freezin’ rain. Be glad you’re not waking up as First Officer, who’ll have to do the exterior preflight.

Light? There … on; sit. Good dog. And there’s another flash in the back of your mind, a cobalt pilot light ever glowing, growing: sky. Flight. The reason of the day, for the day sold to the owners of the jets you get to fly. The sky, blue as the speck in your mind, the gas blue sheen but a down payment, earnest money, underwriting the rest of the day in the blue.

Around “there” (check the nightstand before acknowledging where exactly “there” is–the phone book has more than once corrected a faulty assumption: “Oops, Cleveland, not Columbus”) the gears of life will turn differently for a hundred and fifty other early rising souls who’ll converge with you on the boxy stacked concrete airport. For them, “here,” your “there,” is home. They’re leaving home, you’re just leaving “there.” You wish the best for them and their “there,” wherever that may be.

Wrestle with aerodynamics from your first waking moment: the Venturi effect of the shower sucks the Saran Wrap-thin hotel shower curtain inward to mat against the body you’re trying to wake with trial-by-needles of always “too” hotel bath water: too hot, too cold (no in between), just be done with it.

Double-bag the in-room coffee maker: regular plus decaf equals stout yet blah but passable brew. Reassemble the uniform, throw everything back into the bag with five minutes to spare before show time. That’s both literal and figurative: the show time for the crew, the “AIV” (Ass In Van) time to leave the hotel, plus showtime for the non-crew. They will either to ignore you (my fervent hope) or engage you, which will go all kinds of wrong unless you hide behind a phalanx of flight attendants who are professional at “friendly, especially before an entire day of thoughtless and often rude passenger behavior.

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Through the airport, selective eye contact. You don’t need to hear anyone’s tale of terror and the plane allegedly falling thousands of feet and blah blah, whatever. And you definitely don’t want to hear any guy’s (why is it always men?) explanation about why they’re not a pilot, because there are too many damn good reasons why you shouldn’t be a pilot but you refused to give in. And there were too many in the Air Force pilot chase–including you, at times–who were scared shitless in some of the flying but didn’t quit, and even some who died in the trying and flying anyway. So let’s avoid that eye roll.

Silver tail: there she is. Heart skips like a first date: she’s beautiful, here for you, yours all day. Let’s get to work.

Morning light struggles with tumbly dark clouds tacking the sky like schooners on a gale. Sheets of rain rake the Tarmac and the big tail bucks the gusts, rocking the jet. A cup of coffee, a bar of something with a side order of precision: weights, power settings, instrument departure route, climb and cruise. Certify that it’s correct–get your phone out and call for more fuel: DO IT. You never regret that later.

The slow trundle aboard the ark continues under the background music of the tower frequency and an electric monotone issuing clearances; wait for your own. Verify each point. Scan the sky, eyeball to eyeball, what’s it really doing? You have the weather report, but you don’t fly on paper. Who’s winning the fight for the sky?

Cracks of indigo and slats of sunshine joust in the heaving sky as morning clears its throat making way for noon. It’s the early blue that’s best, a dark, hard blue promising so much more than an evening sky that’s mostly a grudging, sighing concession to an overpowering night. Savor the taxi out, careful, slow, watching the sky fight itself, clearing, tearing up the rumpled angry cloud banks and flinging them east like a dissipating surf boiling away against a rocky shore.

At the right moment (at last!) it’s time to climb; pour on the coals, ride the thunder, ascend, climb. Through the clouds then above, let them all fall away with the earth, somebody else’s squabble now. Salvation in flight, above the dirt and rocks and concrete and asphalt and hotel shower curtains, time away, not here but there but now away; suspended between here and there by the salvation of flight.

There’s the hard blue redemption of a sky that deepens the higher you fly, going to black straight above. Quiet crystalline cold, smooth; the big jet cruises with ease. High enough for now, Icarus, perched in the blue, halfway to there. Savor the flight while it lasts.

 

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These 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

Priced at the printing production cost, this collection is not for profit–it’s for YOU to keep.

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Airline Seat Reclining and the Death of Civility.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot blog, airline seat recline with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

It’s not about seat reclining. Really, the controversy isn’t the cause–rather, it’s an effect.

Considering the abysmal totality of the airline experience these days, with long lines, limited customer service staffing, “unbundled” product (read: a spectrum of additional fees), security hassles, historically unprecedented high load factors, diminished on-board amenities, airport delays, weather effects, and air traffic control induced flight delays, reclining seats are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not really about reclining a seat–it’s about control, maybe one shred of personal authority over an already downsized and minimized bit of enroute space rented at a substantial price.

Because you can’t do a thing about security hassles, or overcrowded airports and air traffic control, about fuel surcharges and overbooking, or add-on pricing. When you get right down to it, in the huge, intransigent, inscrutable and unanswerable juggernaut that is air travel, the only person who has no choice but to listen to you is the passenger within arm’s reach of your seat, upright or reclined.

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But the sad irony of the seat recline squabble is this: the very victims of all of the above factors are turning on each other. And “each other” is simply one victim victimizing another.

The Knee Defender is the catalyst, but not the root cause. Rather, it’s the final straw in a backbreaking load of unpleasantry that has become air travel. We put up with even worse travel hassles in other modes of transport without a protest: filthy cabs, rude drivers, subways packed, buses too, and often unclean and from a crime standpoint, dangerous crowds of travelers.

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But that’s because we don’t spend a week’s wages on the trip, nor do we travel for hours on end with unreliable arrival times and in some cases, changed destinations.

The Knee Defender actually did us all a favor. Rather than having the current “We’re madder than hell and we’re not going to take it any more!” moment erupt over wanting a full can of soda or a seat armrest (or, anyone notice the lavs never get sanitized?), endangering a blameless crewmember (remember, we have zero say in any of the above), the seat recline issue blew up into a national debate about limits.

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That is, the limit of one passenger’s authority over another (the answer: zero, and you’ll deplane in cuffs if you push it) but more importantly, how much shrinkage in the “airline product” can the traveling public withstand?

That, for any airline exec actually looking at this all-important breaking point in both civility and tolerance from the consumer standpoint, is wholly separate from the spreadsheet analysis of revenue and profit margin.

Plain and simple, it ain’t just about the seats and knees, despite the headlines. It’s hearts and minds and human tolerance for complete lack of any power over the last frontier–personal space. We’ve lost all the other fights about price, service, seating, crowding and “security.”

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The airline that finds a way to fill the seats while reversing the trend of shrinking space and diminished personal authority will be the miracle worker that restores both personal dignity and travel value to the skies–and the marketplace.

Until then, industry regulators, law enforcement, crews and passengers can expect more tumult in the already unpleasant skies.

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Airliners & Missile Defense: A Pilot’s View.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner missile defense with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2014 by Chris Manno

US Army “Spyder” missile launch.

 

After an apparent missile strike brought down Malaysia Air flight 17 over the Ukraine with senseless, tragic loss of life, public focus has included possible defensive systems for airliners. From my perspective as an airline captain, I believe the discussion is good, but in my opinion, fruitless.

First, my disclaimer up front: I’ve never flown any aircraft with defensive systems, and I haven’t flown a military aircraft since my last flight as an Air Force pilot in 1985. Even then, our strategy was simple: avoidance of threat areas.

So what I know about aircraft missile defensive systems is from three sources: discussion with engineers who design such defensive systems at Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, former military pilots who did evade missiles in flight, and industry publications such as Jane’s Aircraft and Weapons and Aviation Week & Space Technology.

That background, plus my 29 years (and counting) of uninterrupted flying as an airline pilot lead me to the following questions, for which I find no good answers:

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1. Who? As in, who would operate such defensive systems, not only in cruise flight, but as importantly, in the low altitude structure on approach and departure when both the crew workload and vulnerability to even shoulder-launched missiles is highest? A passive system might (heavy on the “might”) do an adequate job detecting an impending missile threat (launched, launch-ready, or targeted) but then who–especially on a two-man crew, will analyze the threat and devise the defensive tactics to defeat the weapon or tracking system?

Some analysts point to the industry-standard TCAS (Traffic Conflict Avoidance System) as an example of an already operational avoidance system, but that overlooks one major flaw: TCAS is designed to detect potential flight path intersections of two flying bodies, then to compute and issue avoidance instructions to each. Besides the fact that one party in the impending collision–the missile–will not respond to avoidance instructions, the fact is, for the other aircraft, the instructions would be insufficient to avoid a missile. That’s because TCAS conforms to the design limitations of the airliner, stopping short of any maneuvering loads that would damage or destroy the aircraft.

So, who on board the airliner will be operating any defensive systems that would monitor threats, analyze incoming missiles or antiaircraft fire and devise evasive tactics? In a word, it can’t/shouldn’t/won’t be the two whose full attention better be on the approach or departure.

 

2. What? As in, what defensive systems? There are some systems designed for large aircraft that mask the infrared signature of the engines to foil heat seeking missiles. But, as in the case of MH17, the missiles weren’t heat seekers anyway. They were radar guided, against which heat-masking is largely ineffective. The simplest countermeasure against radar guided missiles might be chaff, which is essentially shredded foil that is ejected when a missile launch is imminent or in progress to disrupt targeting radar returns, but step two after dispensing chaff is to aggressively vacate the airspace the missiles were targeting. That brings us back to the limits encoded in TCAS: design limitations to prevent damage or structural failure preclude anything other than lumbering maneuvers in the air, hardly sufficient to avoid a missile traveling near the speed of sound.

3. Where? As in, in flight (see above) or on the ground? Regarding the latter, consider the recent destruction of 9 passenger jets on the airfield by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. Even if there were aircraft-based defensive systems, the fully-fueled, barely maneuverable or even parked jets are sitting ducks for explosive destruction–with hundreds of innocent lives at stake.

Which brings us the recent FAA ban on flight into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. In my opinion as just one individual airline pilot, that FAA restriction was a mistake, for a couple of good reasons. First, I believe it was an over-reaction by the FAA that contravened the airlines’ own internal safety and security analysis and strategy. Worse, the one-size-fits-all restriction was hasty and clumsy, creating economic and political liabilities for our most staunch ally in an already volatile region.

 

I don’t advocate unthinking flights into a dangerous area, I just believe that the individual airlines are fully capable (and unceasingly, painfully aware of liability) when it comes to determining whether or not to continue airline service.

I’m fully informed on the risk of what is typically an unguided rocket (vs. missile, with a guidance system that could be defeated) being lobbed by dumb luck onto the airport. But the risk assessment should be left to the individual airlines to evaluate and resolve with sensible policy.

Passengers, of course, can decide for themselves whether to fly or not–but crewmembers are assigned to flights. I believe they should be given a choice whether or not to fly into a hostile area, but that’s a completely different decision level way below the FAA blanket ban and its attendant political and economic liability to the host nation.

4. Why? This is a “big picture” issue: why even discuss defensive systems for airliners, beyond the “warm fuzzy” (recall the short-lived “office parachutes” that appeared briefly after 9-11) even if unfounded, when we realize–as with my last Air Force squadron–that avoidance is the only way to make a large aircraft safe when any offensive weapons are in use.

Again, while the FAA is prudent to issue air route restrictions (route were modified/restricted–not prohibited) over war zones like the Ukraine, blanket bans such as the Tel Aviv landing prohibition are senseless and politically, reckless.

Let airlines, passengers and (this should be ensured) crew decide what risk makes individual sense. And leave the missile defense to the pros, which in the case of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, certainly the Israelis are the best in the world. It would be my personal choice to fly there myself for that reason, and I’d rather both pilots were focused on civilian flight duties when we do.

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Air Travel: 3 Simple Ways to Make Your Summer Flights Easy

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet flight with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Summer time air travel can be stressful, but there are practical and simple things you can do to make your trip easier. Here are my top 3 simple ways to make your summer air travel as efficient and low stress as possible.

1. Information: install the smart phone apps for the travel services that apply to your trip (airline, hotel, rental car) and take a few minutes before your trip to set them up with “push” notifications so you will automatically be notified of gate changes, delays and even rebooking. If you’re notified of a delay by the airline, having a hotel, rental car or resort app installed will put you in touch with those important services quickly and easily. Your pharmacy’s smart phone prescription app can speed you through the refill process in a distant city, or transfer prescriptions in many cases.

 

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Many airline apps let you rebook instantly, avoiding long waits in a customer service line, and can outline your options quickly without you having to navigate a website. Best of all, you can beat the rush when re-booking is necessary. On some airlines–American Airlines is one–you can use the airline’s app and website in flight through the on-board WIFI for free.

On taxi in, when you’re cleared to use your cell phone, you will be notified–if you authorized “push” notifications–of your next gate accurately if you’re connecting, or your baggage claim if your travel is complete. The gate agents pull that info 10-15 minutes before your gate arrival, and we print it out in flight 30-40 minutes prior to landing. But your “push” notifications will be more timely and accurate than the other two sources.

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You can delete any travel apps you don’t need later, but while you’re on the move, there’s no quicker or more accurate way to get the answers you need to your immediate travel needs. Install the apps, know how they work, and use them to stay ahead of the crowd–especially in case of cancellations, delays or gate changes.

2. Survival gear. First, count on none of your basic needs being met: food, water, shelter. Provide all three yourself. First, food: if you can’t buy something in the terminal to take along–and often you can’t–better have whatever compact, long shelf life calories source you can pack: power bars, granola bars–whatever you prefer that will stave off hunger.

Ditto for water: you “can” get water on board, but the question is when, and sometimes, how–are you in the back and they’re starting the beverage service from the front? Or vice versa? Or is it too turbulent to safely move about the cabin for passengers or crew? Just have a liter of bottled water handy per person, then don’t worry about it.

Finally, “shelter:” dress for the trip, not the destination. That resort-wear will not keep you warm in a chilly cabin, particularly on long flights. And here’s a crew secret: your flight attendants are active, working, and blanketed in layers of polyester. Who do you think calls us to ask for changes in the cabin temp? If they’re melting under the uniform layers, you’re going to wish you weren’t in shorts and a tank top, because we’re more likely to hear “cool it down” than “warm it up” from our working crew in back.

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3. Consolidate: all vitals and valuables in one hand-carried, locked bag. Medication, documents and here’s the big one–valuables, like your watch, wallet and any jewelry MUST go into this one locked bag BEFORE security. Why would you ever–and I see this all the time–put your wallet, watch, cell phone and other valuables into an open container on an unmonitored conveyer belt? Why not consolidate them all and then after you’ve successfully passed through security screening, retrieve your items from your locked bag?

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And locked is the key: if you’re pulled aside for additional screening, do you want all of your valuables laying out in the open, outside your reach and often, out of your sight? Even if that one locked bag requires extra screening, the lock ensures it will only be searched in your presence.

The final part of “consolidate” applies to your personal belongings: do NOT disperse your items all over your seat area. It’s a sure way to leave an item on a plane, a fact that is borne out by the number of passports, wallets, personal entertainment devices, tablets, keys and phones that turn up on overnight cleaning of aircraft. If you leave valuables, much less valuable documents like a passport, in the seat back pocket or anywhere else, you’ll likely never see them again. And speaking of “seeing” them, the normal climbs, descents, banking and on landing, braking will cause whatever loose items you may leave or drop on the floor to end up rows away. Even if you check your immediate area before deplaning, some items might have vanished. So don’t scatter your belongings about! Return items to your hand carried bag immediately after use or when not in use.

Face it–air travel is stressful as it is, but a lot of stress can be alleviated by these three steps. Information is king when you’re departing, trying to connect, or are changing plans on the fly due to delays or cancellations. Get the apps, set them up, and use them. Stay hydrated, fed, and warm to ease the physical stress. And finally, move smart: consolidate your valuables and do not let your personal items become strewn about your seating or waiting areas on board or in the terminal. Inflight forces will help them slide away, or if you leave them inadvertently, chances are slim that you’ll ever recover those items.

Follow these simple steps–and have a good flight and a great vacation.

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Flight Crew Like You: The Airline Cartoon Book Now Available

Posted in air travel, air travel humor, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, flight crew with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by Chris Manno

Finally, collected and published, the JetHead firsthand cartoon view of air travel, airlines and flight crews:

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Here’s the insider, behind-the-scenes look at the world of airlines, air travel and flight crews!

This all-original cartoon collection takes you inside the flight crew world on the flightline, flying trips, facing the ups and downs of flight crew life from an insider’s perspective. The 74 pages of cartoons in this collection are must-haves for anyone who is an air traveler, a frequent flyer, or a crewmember–or hoping to be!

Available now on Amazon–just click the link below.

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 Here’s a sneak preview of just a few of the cartoons in this book:

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Sex On The Plane: Felony and Filth.

Posted in air travel, airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines, flight crew, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Sex on the plane is a disaster from a flightcrew standpoint, plain and simple. This isn’t a  question of morality, which is none of my business. Rather, it’s a question of the captain’s responsibility and accountability for everything that happens in flight. So forget the nudge-wink-“stays in Vegas” marketing and “mile high club” mythology promoted by aging pinky-ring lotharios like Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson. Contrary to the fantasy, reality includes both filth and felony.

Consider the situation objectively and the problem becomes clear. First, the aircraft is a sealed environment with little personal space and nearly zero privacy. The latter fact alone should discourage behaviors that would lead to arrest and indecency charges in any other public place, but it doesn’t. And there’s an even darker side.

An NBC News report cited a recent increase in sexual assaults in flight. FBI agents say these crimes are difficult to prosecute because upon landing, potential witnesses scatter and are difficult to locate for testimony.  Neither the FAA nor the NTSB keeps track of these crimes statistically, making organized prevention difficult. Adding to the challenge is the reality that a darkened aircraft, particularly on late night flights, is tough to monitor, especially with an average ratio of one flight attendant per 50 passengers on a full flight.

 

There’s little personal space between airline passengers, often strangers, and many times the victims are asleep at the time of assault. Frequently these cases involve unaccompanied minors with little ability to defend themselves and on a full flight, in the air, there’s literally nowhere to go to escape. According to FBI Supervisory Special Agent Drew Ptasienski, victims of inflight assaults have also pretended to sleep through the attacks and this coping strategy may make an assault appear consensual to nearby passengers when the situation is really anything but.

Flight attendants are prepared to handle assault reports from passengers in flight, and the cockpit crew is more than willing to have federal law enforcement officers meet the aircraft on landing to investigate every case. Nonetheless, many assaults go unreported due to the shocking effect they have on the victims. According to Ptasienski, “Victims are so shocked they’re being assaulted, it takes them awhile to process it.” By the time they do, witnesses are dispersed and evidence gone.

Clearly, there needs to be a viewpoint shift among passengers in particular, to see “intimate” behavior in flight as completely unacceptable, consensual or otherwise: in many cases, passengers assumed what they’d witnessed was consensual, but in reality was a predator assaulting a victim. Yet if all passengers immediately reported every instance to the crew, no matter how things “appeared,” (a simple chime of the call button will bring assistance) the risk would be reduced for all potential victims.

Although such a strict and uncompromising vigilance and action would likely deter sexual assault in flight, such customer awareness runs counter to some marketing strategies. For example, according to a recent Slate article, Virgin Atlantic promises “a more intimate flight” than other airlines, and Virgin CEO Richard Branson encourages passengers to flirt and hook up on board:

Seriously? Consider the fact that a Today Show scientific analysis  rated the aircraft lavatory as the “second germiest place” you’ll ever experience–virtually a flying outhouse, a mile high Petri dish–and rethink the “romantic” aspect.

Consider also the question of what behavior should be tolerated by nearby passengers, especially when faulty assumptions can mask criminal actions, as noted above. Definitely, at least on the part of the crew, zero tolerance is essential, because notwithstanding Virgin’s claim that their crews “are not the type to interrupt” an amorous romp on the plane, after-the-fact accusations, questions of legal age, STDs, and unfortunately, drugs or alcohol will have to be accounted for by those responsible (read: the crew) for the safety of all aboard.

Then the question would be, why didn’t the crew intervene? Why did the crew allow this?

 

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Ironically, despite the cheesy Virgin ad campaign, the reality for frisky Virgin passengers can be anything but romantic. Worse, the “more intimate flight” and such leering Branson “mile high club” marketing may backfire on an airline if a liability suit regarding an in-flight assault lands in court. Ultimately, airline crews have zero tolerance for any behavior on board that violates the law and victimizes any passengers. Flight attendants work hard to spot threats in the cabin, including human trafficking and illegal, threatening behavior.

But that’s not enough: two crucial changes are vital. First, passengers need to be both aware and intolerant of any such activity on board, never assuming that it is consensual. All incidents must be brought to the crew’s attention immediately.

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And second, airline marketing strategy needs to evolve (most have–but not all) from the sniggering throwback sexual innuendo to less risky, more proactive and twenty-first century intolerance for a potential felony masked as “intimacy.” If Richard Branson wants to encourage membership in “the mile high club,” he should advertise hotel rooms in Denver.

Sex on the plane? More than just indecency in a public seat or a filthy lav–although it is every bit of that–worse, it’s a real threat, with real victims: see it, report it, stop it. Anything less makes you part of the disaster.

 

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Flying Then As Now

Posted in airline, airline industry, airline pilot, airline pilot blog with tags , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by Chris Manno

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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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