Flightcrew Zoo: Sky God & Switch Bitch
(First in an occasional series profiling classic flight crew members)
Those were the days.
The captain was a “sky god” in every sense of the term. Well liked-by crewmembers on both sides of the flight deck door, he’d advanced through the pilot ranks over twenty-some years to the top of the heap: senior captain on the widebody.
I was the “switch bitch,” or “plumber,” or any of the other unflattering sobriquets that designated the new-hire flight engineer. I loved it regardless, having landed on the DC-10 flight engineer’s panel fresh-faced and new after seven years as an Air Force pilot. Sure, I was “sitting sideways,” doing my apprenticeship on the flight engineer’s panel rather than at the pilot controls up front.
But that would come soon enough–a copilot’s seat on a narrow body jet was mine for the asking within months. I had chosen instead to do my probationary year at the DC-10 panel because there was less chance of anything happening that could lead to termination, which was always a possibility for a probationary pilot. Seemed like a good way to breeze through probation, sitting at the mostly automated DC-10 engineer’s panel. What could be easier?
It was a sub-zero day at O’Hare. I’d finished my walk-around inspection on the frozen ramp and then shed sweater, overcoat, scarf, hat and gloves and sat back down at the engineer’s panel, waiting for pushback after all 250 passengers had boarded.
Captain Skygod sat in the left seat, feet propped up on the instrument panel, idly thumbing through a golf magazine. The First Officer sat like a zombie, having done nothing, which was the beauty of that job as I later enjoyed myself for a year or so.
One of our nine flight attendants interrupted our reverie.
“We have a bag problem in back,” she sighed. “Could use some help.”
Skygod didn’t even look up. “Why don’t you go back and see what you can do, son.”
The First Officer smirked at me over his shoulder, telegraphing he means you, which of course I already knew.
“Yessir.” I unstrapped, grabbed my hat and headed for the main cabin.
I squeezed past the boarding throng to the mid-cabin where an irate woman argued loudly with three flight attendants–a fight she seemed to not realize she could never win. It seems that the garment bag storage was full and so the flight attendants were insisting the woman’s overstuffed garment bag be checked in the cargo hold below. That was not acceptable to the red-faced, irate woman.
“Look,” I said, gently but firmly pulling the garment bag out of her hands, “I’ll personally take this downstairs and place it in the cargo hold then bring you the claim check.” The flight attendants nodded, hustling me off before the glaring woman could protest. “Thanks,” one flight attendant whispered, clearing a path for me to the entry door.
In shirt sleeves still, I carried the bag out the jet bridge door and into the sub-zero freezing cold, down the steep stairs to the arctic ramp. I carefully placed the bag in a cargo container set to be loaded aboard, then return half-frozen with the baggage claim check to the mid cabin. I found the woman at her seat, still fuming.
“Here you are, ma’am,” I said, handing her the baggage claim check.
She snatched it from my hand, giving me a look that could bend a spoon and snapped, “You f*cking asshole.”
Back to the jet bridge, out into the freezing cold; down the icy stairs to the frozen ramp. Find the baggage pallet–there’s the bag. Rip the baggage tag off of it; drag it to the gate next door–a Super-80 heading who-knows-where. Toss it into the cargo compartment. Race back upstairs half frozen.
I slipped back into my seat, shivering. Skygod was still flipping through his magazine. After a moment, he spoke.
“Did you get that baggage thing worked out?”
I turned the cockpit heat up a notch. “Uh, yessir. All worked out.”
He nodded, never looking up. “You do good work, son.” Nice guy that he was, I knew he’d give me a glowing recommendation on the probation report he’d fill out on me later.
I survived my probationary year and moved up to the copilot’s seat on a narrow body jet. The flying was more fun with a set of controls, but I missed the DC-10 days of motoring around the system without any real responsibilities–save the occasional “baggage situation.”
I flew many miles with Captain Skygod until we parted ways: he moved up from the domestic flying to the coveted trans-oceanic trips; I upgraded to the copilot position on the MD-80.
Then the only time I’d see him was in the airline employee lot as I was arriving at the buttcrack of dawn to fly a cruddy junior-guy trip and he was just returned from his Honolulu flight.
He’d stationed his RV which the crews nicknamed “The Whale” in the lot so he and most of his pilots and flight attendants could enjoy “happy hour” after flying all night. As the sun was rising, you could hear the whirring of his blender, laughter and tinkling glass from “The Whale” as the rest of the world began their work day.
Ever the gentleman, after the mai-tais had been free flowing for an hour or so he let the muu-muu clad flight attendants have first dibs on the lav. Eventually, he was busted for using a light pole to relieve himself and the airport police invited him to remove The Whale and never bring it back as a quid pro quo for not arresting him.
Captain Skygod retired from our airline at what used to be the mandatory age of 60, but went on to fly 747’s somewhere overseas. I lost track of him over the years and having been a captain myself for 19 years now, I doubt he’s still flying. But when I think of him and those days, I have to smile, and only wish we could get away with half the things we used to do back then.