Archive for vacation

Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.

Posted in airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

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I can’t decide if winter flying is is one long act of defiance, or shorter acts of combined faith. On a cold January day with an icy, raggedy ceiling and needle-like freezing rain rasping against the fuselage on taxi-out, on board it’s a steady 75 degrees. People aboard reflect the destination, not our departure point–and act of faith on their part requiring an act of defiance on mine.

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It’s actually a worthy challenge, bringing all of the details to a successful conclusion: flight planning, routing, de-icing, preflight, taxi-out and pre-take-off de-icing. There’s a puzzle to assemble, jagged pieces of holdover times for de-icing fluid, precip rates and types–you know what’s reported, but you deal with what’s actually happening–and it’s up to you to account for the difference. Take-off performance degrades; weight limits based on the restrictions of leaving, but with due diligence to the weather conditions 1,200 miles south.

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Boeing has given us a marvelous machine that will wake up encased in ice, but in a matter of minutes will operate from the ice box to the tropics. Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

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It’s a lot slower, but more than the temperature is involved: there are more requirements, plus people and machines work slower in the cold. As they should be expected to do, but which often results in frustration for those whose involvement is limited to riding the jet rather than trying to fly it safely. Sorry.

But eventually, we get to this:

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Again, that’s going to be slow, too, by necessity. But be patient: the destination must be worth the trip, right? But inevitably, the factors a passenger plans to escape by air don’t make that escape easy.

Half the battle is getting into the air–where the other half is usually just as challenging. Again, the same crud that you want to escape packs a punch from the surface to the stratosphere. We’ll deal with that, too, at 300 knots, or maybe 280 if it’s bumpy. Already told the cabin crew to remain seated till I call them, when I’m sure we’re in safe, stable air. More griping from passengers, I know, but they’re not responsible for not putting a crewmember through a ceiling panel.

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This is how it might look if anyone checked ahead (I did) so it wasn’t surprising face to face, really. Which looks more like this, and nobody’s getting to paradise till they work their way through this frontal line.

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Eventually, we win: the further south we go, the more miles we put behind us, the weather–and the escape–become reality. You begin to get a glimpse of paradise with your 320 mile digital vision. The 20-20 eyeballs show the passage from land to water, a sure sign of warmer days for 160 souls on board, patient or not.

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Soon it’s all blue, with ghostly outlines below that carve the indigo into brown and green, lush islands poking above the mild, warm seas.

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Nassau, the Bahamas, straight ahead. Power back, begin the slow, gentle glide from seven miles high to sea level. More islands slide silently below the nose. Never tire of seeing the parade of blues, browns, greens; paradise.

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Where’s the snow now? The icy grip of winter? Escape–by the lucky hundred and sixty aboard, each with their own getaway plan, winter runaways we eagerly aid and abet: someone has to break free, to teach winter a lesson.

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A world away, if only but the blink of an eye in a lifetime, it’s nonetheless an eyeful. I’m happy for those who’ll stay, at least for a while.

IMG_1390Welcome to Nassau. For me, it’s a few moments of sunshine and sea air on the ramp while ground crews unload cargo, reload, refuel and get us turned around and ready for launch back to the north. Too soon, in a way, but not soon enough in another: this isn’t my escape–it’s my job.  From which, for the vagabond pilot, home is the escape. Will be back here, back and forth, all winter.

IMG_1388He’s headed home, too, a longer way back, but with a couple hundred aboard not facing the cold quite yet. But likely missing the scenery shrinking below as we climb and arc away to the north.

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So long to paradise, hello radar scan; fuel burn, overwater navigation, peaceful cruise until you face the enemy line you already slipped through once today. Still there, waiting. The sun gives up, slips into the muck and so do you, both promising another trip around the globe another day.

IMG_1391There’s the final act of defiance, or maybe faith: through the choppy, sleet-streaked darkness, at 200 knots, toward the runway you better know is below the 200 foot ceiling.

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Then it’s all about home, after appeasing the winter gods (“We brought at least as many back from paradise–you can ruin the rest of their season, plus make them wistful for the tropics the rest of the year!”) yet again. A healthy respect goes both ways; careful defiance, faithful flight. Starts again tomorrow.

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Beads, Lists, Gravity and Fate.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot blog, flight with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2012 by Chris Manno

Trust me: determination trumps faith where gravity is involved. You discover that the moment you let go and gravity takes over: it took determination to take the plunge, and faith ain’t half enough to stop it. In fact, faith wouldn’t have gotten anyone with a pilot brain out the door in the first place. Yet everyone’s flying through the air regardless.

I never quite understood the “tandem skydiving” thing. Is it really enough to hitch yourself to someone else while they do something daring, then claim the thrill as your own accomplishment? Does this act  invert the balance of faith and determination when it comes to gravity? Without your own hand on the ripcord, and with only dollars paid serving as a meager voucher of determination, there’s but a thin sinew of faith in someone else’s hand between you and the certainty of gravity. I’ll never get that–which is why all my jumps have been solo.

The bottom line with gravity and flight never hits home as solidly as when you’re solo, with or without an airplane, if you give flight the healthy respect demanded to walk away from it in one piece. Maybe that’s why it’s actually easier to fly solo–I believe it’s easier to jump solo too, since I’m not about to cash in a stranger’s fate for my own–because that eliminates the middleman: you do it, you rely on your own determination, and faith takes a back seat. No one to share the blame or provide the fame.

Maybe that’s where modern life becomes more about counting the beads than saying the prayers, because after all, which is quicker and easier? And never mind that I think that’s more like a swipe of the icing than a bite of the cake, anything beyond the polar bear club or a good rollercoaster crosses the line between trendy-funny-bucket-list-nonsense to just plain reckless.

Knowing that in the worst case, when faith is betrayed and determination forsworn a thousand feet below in a cash register receipt–you bought the ticket, now you take the ride–I can only imagine what final thoughts must attend the original choice to inherit the earth so dramatically.

Maybe that’s a roundabout way to say that I neither trust fate nor bank my determination to fly with anyone else’s hands. Maybe that’s why I’m still in touch with thin veneer separating “cool” with “safe,” and I never overlook the ripcord moment nor depend on anyone else to pull it for me. It’s always my hands.

And you can count one one thing from mine, or from any professional airlines pilots’ hands: it ain’t our hobby–or your bucket list–that’s happening from the moment of brake release to parking at your destination. We don’t do it on weekends or days off because it’s a sport or recreation, we do it year round in all weather, day and night under the strictest supervision, and see it for not only what it really is, but also what it should never be. Ain’t no counting the beads in this service.

With all that said, why the hell was I into skydiving in the first place? There’s a twofold answer: I was putting myself through college and flying lessons were too expensive–but skydiving was a fraction of the cost. Got me into the sky with a minimum of hassle or expense, though the part about getting down in one piece kind of got overlooked. Beads, not prayers: much cheaper in the short term, bad investment in the long run.

And now 17,000 flight hours later, despite faith in my pilot abilities, when I’m done flying big jets–I’m determined to be done flying. I’ve squared off with fate too many times in the air to close my eyes and count the beads, especially taking anyone with me.  Don’t get me wrong, I encourage anyone who wants to do so to get some good flight instruction and proper aircraft and go see for themselves. That’s fair–and a lot of fun, plus a lot of the pros I fly with now came up that way.

But for those still daydreaming the “bucket list” silliness, I suggest pursuing that with both feet on the ground. Flying with or without an airplane ought to be more than just a box checked by someone else’s hand. Because just like everything else, store-bought imitations just never satisfy like homemade, do they?

All in a Pilot’s Day: Thunderstorm Zen and the Captain’s Firewall.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airliner, airliner take off, flight crew, passenger bill of rights, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by Chris Manno

Head pounding. Look down at your right calf: a liter bottle of water, mostly full.

Stupid.

Just flew 3 hours from DFW to DCA–should have paid attention to hydration. Now, sitting near the end of runway 1 at Reagan national, it’s too late: the damage is done.

Been sitting here for over two hours now. In a thunderstorm. Which has hit the tower with a lightning bolt that fried their primary radios–so now they’re using a weak backup radio that sounds like the controller is using a tin can on a wire.

More delay while the radio situation gets fixed, plus the hand-offs from tower to departure ain’t working. Wait.

Call the tower: “Tower, American 445.” Wait.

“American 445, go.” Sounds like her head is in a bucket.

“We’re wondering about a take-off time, as we’re bumping up against some Passenger Bill of Rights time constraints.”

Like three hours–an hour from now–then we need to go back to the gate and probably, cancel the flight. Passengers have a right to not go anywhere, rather than sit on a plane waiting to go somewhere.

“We don’t have any information,” comes the tinny reply. Thanks for your help.

Ignored several phone calls from the cabin crew already, saying passengers are antsy, wondering what the latest is. When I ignore the interphone chime, the F/O has to field the questions to which there are no answers anyway. I prefer to isolate myself to focus on weather, fuel, timing, the departure procedure to the north (the FAA will violate you for even a tiny stray from the radial) and a clear path on radar. Which I can’t see because our nose–and our radar dish–is facing south. I make a PA every thirty minutes or so, telling passengers what I know: westbound departures are on hold due to weather on the departure routing. The lady in the tower sounds like her head is in a bucket. I don’t tell them that, but still.

Already tried to negotiate a departure to the south or even east in order to air file a route west–craftily uploaded an extra 3,000 pounds of fuel before pushback, after seeing the storm front marching on Washington as we landed.

No dice.

More calls from the back: passengers want to use their cell phones; they’re getting up . . .

Tell them no–if they use phones, the cabin crew has to make another aisle pass to ensure they’re off for take-off (FAA regulation) and if we’re cleared, we need to take the runway, check the weather–then go.

Sure, they have connections and people waiting. But that can wait till we get there. What I want to attend to is a new and higher power setting that creates less time on the runway; an optimum flap setting that gives a better climb gradient, and a wind correction to stay on the safe side of the departure radial.

That’s where the “firewall” comes in: if I let connections, cell phones, Passenger Bill of Rights or even my own next flight tomorrow (not going to be legal if we keep delaying) mix with the important considerations like fuel, weather, radar, performance and power settings, something’s getting messed up.

It’s not that I don’t care–I really do. But if I don’t attend to the latter set of considerations, the former won’t matter, will they? Drink some water, rehydrate. Relax. Run through your list of priorities for right now. Pay attention to right here, right now. Be ready to do “now” right; worry about later, well, later.  That’s the thunderstorm zen, the captain’s firewall.

It happens fast: “445, start ‘em up–you’re next to go.”

Fine. I reconfirm with the F/O the heading plan (310 is good–but 305 is better. If we have to correct back right to the radial, fine–but we do not stray east . . . a full radar picture before we roll, static.”

Raining cats and dogs, hard to see, swing out onto the runway and grab every inch. Stand on the brakes, full radar sweep–decide.

“You good?” I ask the F/O as a formality–because I’m looking at him and I can tell from his face whether he is or isn’t from his look no matter what he says. And if he isn’t okay or doesn’t look okay, if maybe his firewall or zen are under seige, I’ll know and we won’t go until everything adds up.

We roll; relief when we’re past abort speed; mental chant “engines only, engines only” reminding myself of which of the hundreds of warnings I’ll abort for on that rain-slicked postage stamp of a runway; throttles speedbrakes THEN reverse, amen. The jet rockets into the whipping rain undaunted; love the big fans at a high power setting. We climb, buck, dodge, weave and finally . . . cruise at 40,000 feet above all the turmoil as the lights of the nation wink out.

Landing after midnight, home finally at 1:30am. Crew Schedule calls: “Sleep fast, we’ve slipped the departure of your Seattle turn just long enough to keep you legal. You’re still on it.”

Eight hours in the cockpit today; another eight tomorrow. Plus a few hours to sleep in between.

Erase today–it’s over, safely and smartly done. Rest, and save a little zen for tomorrow. No doubt, you’re going to need it.

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there!

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2011 by Chris Manno

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there.

I mean that guy. The one who will make your travel a little less pleasant, probably unknowingly, but still.

For example, cruising at 40,000 feet northwest bound, the cabin interphone chimes. The First Officer and I exchange glances that ask hot, cold, or stupid? It’s too soon for crew meals—that’s where we’re stupid for eating them, but it’s something to do—and only minutes ago someone called to say it’s too hot in back.

Traditionally, within minutes, one of the other four Flight Attendants who don’t seem to be able to talk to each other will call and say it’s too cold.

But I answer the phone and this time, it’s stupid: “We just found a passport in seatback 30-A.” No, it’s not the flight attendant that’s stupid—it’s the passenger who on some previous flight for some odd reason decided to stash his passport in the seatback pocket.

Before our flight, the jet had come in from JFK. Maybe an international arrival, and now someone is enroute somewhere without a passport.

That’s where you come in: you’re in line at Mexican Customs in Los Cabos, and you’re sweating like a fat lady in a vinyl chair, waiting, waiting, waiting—because the guy ahead of you in line talking to the taciturn Customs agent is suddenly aware that he doesn’t have a passport. Your vacation is on hold just a little longer because like me in the super market, you got in the wrong line (“Price check on lane seven!”) while passengers to your right and left are breezing through and claiming their luggage (and maybe yours), heading for the beach.

Sure, it’s going to be worse for him—without a passport he’s not getting back into the United States without a major hassle and, you hope as payback for your delay, a strip search. But the lingering question is, why would anyone put anything of value in a seatback pocket on a plane?

But you’d be amazed at what you’d find back there after a flight. Well, what someone else would find back there: I’d sooner stick my hands into a trash can in a crack den than risk the snot rags and barf bags or kids’ diapers or half eaten ham sandwich that will be stuffed in there.

 

Still, people for some odd reason nonetheless sit down, empty their pockets, stash wallet, iPod, keys, camera, travel documents, passport—you name it, into the seatback pocket as if it were their glove compartment on their family car (okay, there may be a ham sandwich in mine, I admit).

Never mind the hassles going forward to recover a lost item, a headache made all the more difficult because the jet will crisscross several thousand of miles before the discovery of a missing item is made (call the lost and found in Seattle, Chicago and New York). The important thing is that the Stupid One is delaying your vacation.

And unbeknownst to you—he may already have delayed you. Remember sitting at the gate well past departure time? I can’t tell you how many times five or ten minutes from pushback to a resort destination in Mexico or the Caribbean when the agent steps into the cockpit and says “we have a problem.”

Let me guess: someone confirmed on the flight is in a bar somewhere starting on the umbrella drinks and about to miss their flight to the actual resort. Why? Because they can’t read a ticket? Don’t know their own itinerary? Can’t do the math on a time zone change? Are intellectually low functioning and were finished off by the TGI Friday’s Bloody Marys in the airport bar?

Doesn’t really matter. The point is, if they’re not on board we get to sit at the gate while the ground crew sorts through the cargo compartments crammed with the luggage of 160 passengers to pull their bags off. That takes a while. You get to wait, I get to wait, both of our days becomes a little longer.

Yes, it’s the lowest common denominator that dictates when we leave and when you arrive in paradise.

But there is justice in the situation, as I witnessed once at a departure gate as I waited for my inbound jet. Airport police officers had pulled a couple off to the side as passengers boarded a jet for Cancun.

Apparently the man and woman had been to the airport bar, and the man had clearly had a few too many. Federal law prohibits the boarding of any passenger who even appears to be intoxicated, and the airline agents had done the right thing: when in doubt, call law enforcement to sort out the situation in accordance with the law.

Sorry ma’am,” I heard an officer say as the man was being detained, “he’s going to be placed under arrest for public intoxication.”

I couldn’t hear the exact back and forth between the steamed woman and the officers, but in the end, it seemed the officers weren’t the cause of her anger: she grabbed her boarding pass, shot a pointed glance back at her handcuffed partner—then boarded the flight.

Just as well: he’d probably realize in the Customs line in Mexico that his passport was missing anyway.

Flight Lessons for Real Life

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, blind faith, elderly traveller, faith, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, life, parenthood, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2010 by Chris Manno

Most of what I’ve learned in over 17,000 flight hours–usually the hard way–applies on the ground in the big picture of life as well. Here are two primary lessons you can rely on whether you’re in either place:

1. There’s nothing more useless than runway behind you. The concrete behind you can do little good for you when things “change” and suddenly you have less space than you planned on to get up to speed. In real life? Forget shortcuts=start at the beginning: don’t waste any parts of the runway. Sure, First Officers tell me all the time, “we don’t need all of the runway–we’re light.” Yes, jet is lighter than planned so we don’t “need” it mathematically–until an engine ingests a bird at 35,000 rpm and destroys itself.

Then suddenly those mountains seem higher and like the end of the runway, not so far away. What does that mean in real life?

What did you take for granted? What precaution did you skip for convenience or because on paper, it didn’t seem necessary?

Personal decision? Nobody else’s business what you do as far as “precautions” because it’s your life? Well, does that apply to me too?

I’ve had passengers tell me they “don’t worry” about flying because “when your number’s up, it’s up.” I remind them that when my number’s up–theirs is too.  Because whatever applies to me applies to you when you’re on the jet I’m flying. And so it’s really not about me–rather, it’s about the hundreds a day who pay me to do what I do perfectly and in their best interest. Never mind what’s easy or convenient for me.

You?  Think there’s anyone depending on you and the decisions you make in the course of your life? Family? Business?

Okay, even if you don’t have the classic four piece set yet–when do you think is the time to do the preparation they’re counting on in order to have a smooth journey when they come on board with you?

What monumental yet tedious preparation would be nice to have behind you–rather than empty runway–when the challenges ahead demand every iota of advance preparation? Does it really matter down the runway what you might have skipped out of convenience a couple miles back?

So you tell me: do we really need all of that runway? Wouldn’t the mathematical minimum be sufficient? Can’t we deal with things later or if it’s easier now, not at all?

2. Don’t trust the weatherman. Why? Because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Specifically, he’s looking to the past, predicting future outcomes based on historically similar circumstances. Two problems with that: first, you’re going to be dealing with the weather in the future, not the present and certainly not the past. And the weather guy will be the first to say, “things change.”

Second, no one has succeeded yet in crossing any bridge before they come to it–and the weatherman ain’t going to be with you when you do. Those who depend upon “experts” making predictions of future  outcomes based on past events will find themselves ill-served and alone if they base crucial decisions on a forecast–of weather forecast, financial, political or any critical issue. I prefer the simple way: assume the weather is going to be awful and prepare accordingly. What’s the worst case scenario, and how to I bail myself out when it comes to pass? Then, if the weather’s nice–oh well, we’re safe, happy, secure.

But if the weather’s awful: you’re a prepared. No one rewards you for fortune-telling; being ready for everything makes you the genius everyone was counting on you to be. As with number one above–it really isn’t about only you.

Experts can predict a forecast that suggests that umbrellas aren’t really necessary. We know how that goes . . .

If you rely solely on the predictions of those outlining the future by peering into the past, you could be in for an interesting fight for your life well down the road.

Okay, that’s it for me nagging. The point is, most of what has become a culturally normative standard of individuality is completely irrelevant in the life or death business of flight. Looking for motivation? Or, have someone who needs a little push in their life because of the way the life plan affects others? Feel free to forward this post to them:

Diligence is dull stuff, on the ground or in the air. People count on their pilot to do what is prudent and safe no matter what effect that has on the “free choice” or convenience of the pilot. I affirm the commitment passengers expect when they strap in behind me. It’s all a part of the duty that comes hand in hand with the privileges inherent in the position at the controls. Anything less is simply unworthy of the trust others who count on you have placed in you–in flight, and in life.

. . . and okay, here’s the rest of the Chris Farley “motivational speech:”

Air Travel and the “Kick the Dog” Syndrome.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, lavatory, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2010 by Chris Manno

The forward cabin door closed with a kerthunk and its warning light winked out on the overhead panel.

My first officer said, “You know, this is still a pretty good job once the door’s closed.” I nodded and keyed the interphone mike to called the ramp crew chief in the tug below. “Brakes are released, stand by for push clearance.”

He was right, of course: once we close and seal that door we’re on our own, free of “supervision” and the hassles that come with it. Now all decisions rest on the flight deck; each can be handled sensibly, quietly, without abstract criticism and senseless third-party interference.

But when is this not a “pretty good job?” Well, usually any time we’re not on our own–which is when the cabin door is open. Because besides the usual hurdles required to pass through an airport–gates, passengers, baggage, maintenance, cargo, restricted items, law enforcement travelers, fuel, engine service, catering–there’s one major side effect of the financial and managerial failures endemic to the Post-9/11 airline industry:

The “Kick the Dog” syndrome. And unfortunately, everyone gets to be the dog sometime at the airport.

The Urban Dictionary defines “Kick the Dog Syndrome” as “[t]he act of mistreating a peer or someone inferior to you out of frustration because a superior (whom you can’t argue with) has treated you poorly.”

Everyone in the airline and airport biz has been beaten thoroughly and regularly from the top down. Everyone’s reaching the boiling point from drastic pay cuts, stripped retirements, increased work, longer hours and less rewards than ever.

The airport is a combat zone populated with disgruntled airline employees, besieged concession workers and overwrought passengers. As a result, the trickle-down effect of the industry’s harsh austerity causes an inevitable reversal of polarity: surely as a methane gas bubble raced from the ocean floor five miles to the ocean’s surface and blew the hell out of the B.P. oil rig in the Gulf, air travel is right at the flashpoint of anger.

Tremors that indicate something ready to blow, someone on the verge of “kicking the dog?” Here are the classic examples that tell me for someone, I’m the dog:

1. Long day, many legs, bad weather–but it’s finally over. The whole crew’s dead tired, trudging to the hotel pick-up spot.

No hotel van.

We’re on time; same schedule as always. No van. Flight attendants look at me sidelong . . . do something, captain. Too many captains simply don’t, but I’m not one of them. I dial the hotel on my cell phone.

“Hi, the flight crew from 1157 at the airport waiting for pick-up . . .”

Pause. Then whoever answers the phone at the hotel says, “The van should be there.”

Now I’m ready to kick the dog. I know the van should be here–but if it was, would I be calling? Do I really need to know it “should” be here? Are we all just stupid: the van’s really here, we’re just calling the hotel for the hell of it?

Not gonna kick the dog, not gonna kick the dog. “I know that,” you dumbass I say only in my head. “Can you tell me how much longer it’s going to be? We have a short layover and if necessary, we’ll take cabs.”

Pause. “Well, we won’t pay for cabs.”

Note to self: Prozac. Valium. Yoga. Nine Milimeter. Whatever it takes.

2. Quick turn in Las Vegas. Gotta grab some food and get back on board to pre-flight. Hmmm, Burger King is near our gates; I even have exact change. I wait in line.

Finally, my turn. “I’d like a veggie burger with no pickles.”

The guy in the paper hat smirks. “The veggie burger doesn’t have pickles on it.”

So why do you have to say anything, other than “Okay,” then take my money? Don’t kick the dog, don’t kick the dog.

“Well, then put one on it then take it off because I don’t want one.”

Okay, I kind of “nudged” the dog. He deserved it.

3. Checking the destination weather back at the home drome. Chance of thunderstorms both en route at in the terminal area just popped up. Plus, I know from experience that we won’t get our cruise altitude right away due to outbound traffic from another major hub. Better call for more fuel.

A quick cell phone discussion with the airline dispatcher–he agrees and sends the updated release fuel to the station. Then a courtesy call on the radio to the station staff: “We’re going to add another thousand pounds of fuel.” From the station: “Stand by.”

I can feel it coming . . .

Finally, on the station frequency: “The fueler says you don’t need more fuel.”

Sigh. Did I ask the fueler if I need more fuel? Am I confused and can’t read the fuel gages myself and so was checking with him, especially knowing he doesn’t feel like driving back out to add more? No doubt, he’s checked the weather en route and we’ll just go with his judgment on this.

Don’t kick the dog . . . don’t kick the dog . . . “Uh, we’ll need another thousand pounds; he’ll be getting the fuel slip from dispatch any minute. When we get it, we’ll go.”

Just in case the Operations people forgot that we might have requested more fuel, not that I’m unclear on the amount on board. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Operations: “Well, no one else has asked for more fuel today.”

Who the hell cares what anyone else has done? Who’s responsible for my flight–and who’ll answer for anything that goes wrong in the next thousand miles? Well honestly, I’d tell the FAA inquiry, they said no one else has asked for more fuel so I didn’t.

Before I could kick the dog, my First Officer jumped on the Ops frequency: “Ask the fueler if he’d like to add the thousand here, or drive about five hundred miles down the road and refuel us when we divert.”

Good answer! A kind of “nudge” to the dog.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that once we’re underway, things go more smoothly. But meanwhile, if you’re walking through the terminal, reconsider whether you really need to ask the flightcrew people you pass where the bathroom is (especially when they’re on their cellphones, grabbing a minute between flights to communicate with home), or whether you must ask them the “20-questions” starter, “am I in the right place?”

Just don’t ask or better yet, think before you do. This simple advice might make life smoother for your dog when you get home.

High Flight: I’ll Take The Low Life.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by Chris Manno

The oddly symmetrical reality of flight is this: there’s only so much flying you can do without repeating yourself.

That’s not just because it all starts to look the same. Rather, it’s because if you keep flying, it actually WILL be the same: you’ll eventually circumnavigate the globe and end up over the same spot and on your way again if you don’t land.

But that’s not all. It’s also an inescapable reality that the higher you get the faster you can go, but the high price of altitude is that higher is colder and the air so thin you’d turn blue in a matter of seconds.

Sure, you’re able to skip over most of the weather because you’re above most of the atmosphere.

But then, where’s the bottom, the foundation upon which you can really ground the experience, to say you’ve been to, and not just over,  a significant landmark? Sure, you saw it–I see big stuff every workday as I crisscross the continent–but the difference between “up there” and down-to-earth is like night and day.

I have time to consider the distinction between higher and lower as I wait between flights in that great equalizer, the boarding area. Like the hospital waiting room, there’s only one and it’s filled with people from all socio-economic levels.  True, the “elite” travelers often wait in a separate lounge between flights, some even apparently entitled to the more rarefied air of “special services” whisked to the gate at the last minute on a private cart.

And sometimes, the casual traveler goes casually off the deep end, traveling in attire more suitable to cleaning out the garage than flying.

Nonetheless, I’ve seen the man in a suit that costs more than the car driven by the man seated next to him in the boarding area, elbow to elbow, waiting for the same flight. But that’s where the commonality ends.


For the travel “elite,” it seems like it’s always about time and I’m just guessing, more about where he’s going than where he’s waiting.  There’s an iciness there that you don’t want to bump into.

But for the infrequent traveler, the waiting is charged with the excitement of going, and they’ll actually drag you into the experience if you let them. And why the hell not? I’m glad to hear about what’s waiting after landing and often enough, wishing I was about to do the same thing, whether visiting friends or family or a resort destination. For them, the waiting is the anticipation of the opening act of a first-run play in which they’ll star.

For those simply rushing from point “A” to point “B,” the flight is a dull rerun of a show they’ve seen too many times, and the flying experience probably isn’t going to go well. There will be delays and traffic jams and diversions and cancellations. They won’t be part of the adventure but rather, a pain in the rear: there’s a schedule to keep, calls, texts, deals, dates, times, no flexibility, no slack. No wonder.

The infrequent flyer isn’t experiencing a “travel product,” but rather, is living an adventure. For them there’s still some wonder in the skies and in the process of climbing miles into the air, and they still like doing it.

It’s a moving tapestry that unfolds below them and time, rather than just the logjam between now and the big “then” of arrival is more than simply the endurance akin to a few hours spent in a dentist’s chair.

There’s more to the experience than just the slow passage of minutes and miles–rather, there’s the marvel of passing a mile every 7 seconds. There’s the view that stretches from horizon to horizon, the darker blue of space above and the mottled tan of a mid-continent mountain range in between. There are monstrous cumulonimbi thundering about harmlessly below

and rivers wandering lazily into the sunset.

There are hardly words to describe how the sun gathers in the day and runs off like a thief to the west, chased by a moon sliver and the evening star.

So I guess what you see and how it strikes you depends on how high you are. There’s warmth and red-blooded breathable pleasure the lower you go. If you take a little of that with you as climb higher–and we do to a maximum pressure differential of 8.32 psi at altitude–suddenly the experience is truly more of a wondrous passage than a tedious transport.

Which brings me back to the symmetrical reality of flight: there’s only so much flying you can do without repeating yourself. And in over 17,000 flight hours, I guess I’ve flown enough miles to circle the globe more than a few times and so I keep crossing over the same spots. That being the case, how does one preserve the wonder of flight, and why?

Helps to have a touch of the Earth in you, and a memory of the days when flight was the exception rather than the rule. And the awareness that the everyday in the sky is anything but for everyone other than the few. That’s the low life: the life on the surface, grounded in that realization. Puts flight into perspective.

It’s the eyes of the non-flyers that see such things truly. The renowned Ski Parker, a professor at USC’s School of Flight Safety and Accident Investigation once asked me, “If you and a non-pilot layman were to witness an aircraft crash, who’d be the more reliable witness?”

In my first few thousand hours of pilot time I couldn’t accept his answer, but now I know he was right: those with clear eyes, without thousands of repetitions skewing both expectations and memory have the truest vision of flight.

That’s what grounds the experience, which provides a foundational value for the coolness of flight. If I capture in text the head rush of shoving throttles forward, thundering down the runway like a runaway freight train, then pulling back and lifting off; and share that with those seeing with clear eyes, then I share the vision–which is what originally got me into flying and helped me over the bazillion hurdles enroute–and preserve that clear vision too.


And okay, I’m still a sucker for jet piloting, still get a rush out of it all. But I realize too that the enduring reward comes from sharing that with those un-jaded and unaccustomed to the thrill. Down to earth, where it’s warm and clear, is where that view is. That’s where all the important stuff, like home and family and an appreciation for flight lives.

See you there. Which, actually, is right here.

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Flight Deck: Zoom With A View.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, elderly traveller, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by Chris Manno

Wanted: the lucky few with vision.

Job title: Zoom With A View.

“Applicant must be willing to sit for long hours looking out window at ever-changing sky. Hours vary, as does the sky, and applicants must have the ability to stay alert regardless of the hour.

Must have the ability to play nicely with others, particularly in crowded airspace . . .

. . . where “bumping into a stranger” is never a good thing.

Job often requires eating on the fly.

Working with fun people in very close quarters.

Must keep an eye on details inside, while appreciating what’s going on outside as well.

Applicants must demonstrate innovative vision in traffic jams . . .

and an ability to capture a moment visually doesn’t hurt.


And on the ground . . .

Old meets new in Louisville

. . . it’s helpful to have an eye for the sublime,

. . . and a tolerance for the absurd.

Workplace security is provided by a specialized force of hand-picked officials

trained and employed by a government agency.

How can you NOT rest easy when they are responsible for your security? Well, never mind that.

Paperwork is kept to a minimum,

. . . and stunning views are at the maximum

. . . if you just look.

Nonetheless, must see that people are what really matter anyway

especially when it’s “us against the world” of delays and weather and maintenance problems . . .

. . .  you realize who your friends are,

sometimes, if you’re lucky, for life.

So vision is key, maintaining perspective crucial. Applicants must be able to perceive magnificence in the minute

in order to realize what really matters, and be able to recognize your own minuteness next to the magnificient

in order to see with humility

and perceive humanity with the the appropriate respect.

Applicants simply need several thousand pilot hours of jet time to apply; approximately one in two hundred will be selected.

Views provided free.

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The Flight of the Invisible Man

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, life, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by Chris Manno


It doesn’t matter that you can’t see me–in fact, it helps ease the passage. We go together, silent partners, then we go our separate ways but the main thing is, we go.

Don’t act surprised. That’s the corporeality of life and time and especially jet flight: nobody goes backwards. Spindly hands sweep the clock face, blue-green waves crash on the beach then hiss away, aluminum egg crates ride the fire off into the blue until they’re just a dot and then gone.


The ever-forward urgency of flight masks the destination with the passage itself like the blindfold on a condemned man: best not to peek past the ledger of doing and done and yet to come. There’s sanctuary–at least for now–in the bustle that is the embarkation, the itinerary and finally the living-out of the route, waypoints like days on the calendar torn off and gone.

Who cares? The calendar still seems pretty weighty. So is the relentless tide of here-and-now washing up on the beach of there and gone, actually, but what the heck: we’re on our way. Meanwhile, there’s strength in numbers, which is good because the passage is a trial, isn’t it, starting with the mass inquisition.

Like the troll at the bridge: who shall pass?  And not just where to go, but how to get there. Myriad choices of routing and travel modes, never mind destinations and events and people and places that matter scattered to all points of the compass like mercury to the touch.

You can’t really see me there either, but I am, just masked from your perception by the elaborate costumes and the authentic set that allows those there to ease the passage to blend discretely into the scenery like a motionless owl treed in the dark, watching intently nonetheless. Gotta get you on board and on your way, right? We’ve got an airline to run and a schedule to keep: there are tons more passengers crowding in behind you, and there’s hardly room for everyone. And they’re all going somewhere in the world, or at least somewhere else.

So where in the wide, wide world of sports are you headed? Decide. At least for now–you can always change course later–but let’s aim you like a rifle, get your boarding pass and fire you off on your way. Can you even imagine who and what’s waiting for you “there?” Hope it’s everything you dreamed it would be but regardless, we’re going you and me.

Every moment en route is a crossroads of people more than places, because people are what move: young, old, single, families, alone, together you name it. Places have no life, only lives lived there, a stage acted upon and waiting for the next troupe of players. So many places to go, stages to act upon yet so little time and funding but mostly, the pesky pyramid-like quality of time: gets kind of tight at the top, you know?

Near the apex there seems to be less elbow room but at least you can finally see the point, if you you look. But one step at a time for now. The clockwork and moving parts mesh only slowly when you’re waiting, don’t they, as if they weren’t moving at all?

But pass they do like the scenery of which I’m a part, invisible as the nameless and faceless characters, extras they seem, on the set as you make your way through your travel scenes. We do all we can to smooth your passage because it’s our job, but also because we’re on the way, too. The last thing we do is count souls on board and we keep one total with no distinction between those in uniform or without, once you cross that little jet bridge and file aboard.

I keep that thought and that number in my head because I’m responsible for each, especially when we leave the planet. Which happens pretty quickly once we commit thrust to weight and lift overcomes drag and off we fly.

Unseen still, the Invisible Man, but no matter–in flight, everyone’s about the destination anyway. Pay no attention to the pilots behind that armored door, but do at least say “please” and “thank-you” to the cabin crew making you comfortable and most importantly, seeing to your safe passage. Once we’re cruising, seems like it goes without saying but somebody should, even at the risk of irritating the biz guy studiously avoiding recognition of the wonder unfolding below his window: look down.

He’s too travel savvy, but I’m not. The sun’s about to set, gathering the day and slinking away west. On your right is the “Big Ditch.” Here’s Bryce Canyon. Look, there’s most of Arizona trying to blow itself into New Mexico and beyond.

And there’s where centuries ago the Mississippi froze, then jumped its banks and cut a new path five miles wide another ten miles west. Check out cobalt blue Lake Tahoe looking looking like a puddle from five miles up.

And there are the northern lights and on the other side the constellation Orion our tireless friend and on and on are you listening at all? Anyway, you get the picture–if you look–without me saying a word. So much flying by so check it out, see everything and anything but your watch which will go neither slower nor faster for being looked at, but will go nonetheless. And that’s what makes all this tick.

What you don’t see is missed–gone one way or the other. And since you’re going anyway, might as well notice the passage.

But me you don’t need to notice, really. I’m on my way back before you do anyway, ready to ferry another shipload of precious souls on their way to wherever. Because air miles are my workday I’m invisible in this voyage. But this is your life–so you’re not.

Once we get “there,” we’ll go our separate ways, you on with your life, me back in the air. Silent partners no longer, but I’m glad nonetheless to have shared a calendar page and a passage in the sky with you. Safe travels, wherever you’re headed.

Airline Passengers: Are YOU “That Guy?”

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, layover, life, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2010 by Chris Manno

You know “that guy,” the one passenger, man or woman, who is annoying bordering on obnoxious–but is the only one who doesn’t recognize what a pain they are.

There’s always “that guy” at some point in the day’s thousand or so miles in the air. Typically, 350 to 450 passengers over the multiple flight legs board and deplane and in between, one or more reveal themselves as “that guy.”

Who’s he? Let me introduce you.

First, there’s the mangled lingo guy. Going to make conversation in the argot of the crew, right? What “runs” are you doing? That’s my favorite, although don’t forget the close cousin, what’s your route?

Both tired questions conjure the image of Ralph Kramden for me. Except that the average bus driver never aimed a 75 ton pile of pig iron ripping along at 200 miles per hour at a concrete slab he couldn’t see until a matter of second before the wheels finally touched the ground, nor navigated the same beast 7 miles up at 500 miles per hour.

There’s Ralphie’s “Main Street to 4th” run, and there’s my flight sequence, which is usually 3 legs somewhere to somewhere, then a hotel.

I don’t have a “run” or a “route,” because after 24 years, I really don’t care about most destinations anyway. Rather, like most flight crew members who’ve been around a while, I’m all about whatever flight sequence–2 or 3 days–requires the least amount of time away from home.

Destination? Who cares, although I do try to fly south in the winter, vice versa in the summer (all birds do that, right?) to lessen the weather hassles in and out of the airport. But as far as the “glam” spots? Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, Miami, New York? Who cares? I’d rather be at home with my family.

Part of that is the “been there, done that” effect of hundreds of “runs” (JUST KIDDING–it’s “trips”), part of it is the weariness of the suitcase life, being on the road and NOT having your place, your stuff and most importantly–your time. Because it’s not your time, it’s a work schedule.

Once in Puerto Vallarta, the hotel ran out of standard rooms and put me (“El Capitan,” they said) in the Presidential Suite. Two problems with that:

1. I spent the night sleeping with one eye open, just knowing a band of drug cartel banditos would eventually kick the door in, kidnap me mistakenly (“No, I’m just a lowly crewmember, not a gazillionaire who could afford this outrageous luxury and by the way–check out the grand piano in the living room!”) and then mail home my chopped-off ear with a ransom note, although Darling Bride would probably request a larger appendage as confirmation and the airline would deny even knowing me. Not good rest there.

2. The luxury suite just reminds me that I’m NOT on vacation, I’m not here with my family enjoying beach time or happy hour or the scarf-till-you-barf “Can I Get Immodium With That” buffet. I have to get up early and get my butt back into the polyester and get to work. Just stick me in a broom closet for my lavish nine and a half hours at sea level.

Besides that, I usually don’t even check where I’m going until the night prior and up until then, I’m probably trying to trade my trip for any open trip requiring a captain that has less time away and less work involved. So we really don’t have “runs” or “routes” anyway, and I’ll trade any trip for Tulsa-Omaha if it gets me home quicker and less painfully.

The next “that guy?” He’s “Mr. I Have Frequent Flyer Status.” He–or she, often–differs from the real frequent flyer who is characterized by the efficiency with which he boards, stows his things, sits down, says “please” and “thank you” and doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

I'm a "Triple-Axel" elite!

By contrast, those who are impressed by their mileage category or the goofy distinctions airlines dreamed up to make them feel important (“I’m a premium/zirconium/gold circle/fat cat/lead pipe/triple Axel status holder . . .”) run headlong into those who are simply trying to do a good job for everyone, despite the marketing opiate of mileage status.

"Ain't I got status!"

This person is likely to remark to me at some point, “Bet I have more time in ‘these babies’ than you do.” Doubtful, unless you’re in the air more than 900 hours a year and even then, actually flying “these babies” requires more than napping in back in a filthy seat between snoring mothers with squalling lap kids–but better you than me.

Finally, the least obnoxious but often the most disturbing:

We know why you fly: it's cheaper than Greyhound and Amtrak has a dress code.

Unlike the “Status Dork,” these folks don’t mean to be annoying and often, don’t have the experience to not be that way. Never mind the little things like asking if there’s a toaster or microwave in the galley (“Sure–right by fridge and the sink”) or using the lav in only socks or less (“Ewww, but thanks for mopping the floor!”), it’s the stopping dead in the middle of a moving terminal throng, or never knowing their own travel details:

“Is this my gate?” “Give me a hint: where are you going? And god forbid, what’s your flight number?”

It’s just the unfamiliarity with the environment–like me in the dentist’s office or the American Girl Store–

That's NOT me--I took the picture.

it’s the circumstances that make normal people (the “beast” playing with dolls) do silly-looking things they wouldn’t otherwise do, especially if they knew how it made them look. Get the picture?

So if you don’t fly often, it’s not your fault, BUT GET A CLUE:

Dress appropriately. This ain’t a garage sale or a day at the beach. In my Air Force flying, we were told to–and I did–consider the effects of fire on your flying garb. And so we wore Nomex fire-retardent flight suits and even gloves though often it was pretty hot in the cockpit, with cotton underneath, mindful of the melting-onto-bare-flesh effect of artificial fibers when jet fuel burns.

Okay, you don’t need to be that paranoid, but is the T-shirt, cut-offs and flip flops thing going to work for you on your way home from O’Hare in January, never mind if you make an unexpected stop?

Besides, every type of clothing doesn’t look good on every type of body, so just because you’re traveling to an unfamiliar destination doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily look good in whatever they wear there.

When you get home with your Bolivian halter top or bead-laced hair, in the context of a normal day–you’re going to ask yourself “why the hell did anyone think this looked good?” Trust me: we’re asking that as you walk through the airport and onto the plane.

Nix the wife beater shirt, the ripped garage-cleaning wardrobe, the beach wear. Just dress decently and act that way, too. Know where you’re going and on which flight. Say please and thank you where appropriate, and try not to be too impressed with your mileage status or how many hours you have “in these babies.” Things will work out better that way.

And you won’t be “that guy.”

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Click here to listen to my interview along with the P.R. Director of Air Tran Airlines and the regular panel of Airplane Geeks discussing pending airline legislation, The Passenger Bill of Rights, the replacement of Air Force One, and many passenger-related airline issues.

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