Songs In The Key of Flight


It’s definitely the Giddy-Up Chorus howling out there on the wings as soon as you press that Takeoff Power button on the throttles. Last eastbound flight out of Las Vegas, so we’re pretty light–everyone’s either already beat it out of town or is still in a casino somewhere trying to break even. Although they don’t realize it, in Vegas that’s winning.

Funny thing to pop in and out of that world so briefly. For me, it’s all about getting in between the other air traffic and the mountains, then getting out as quickly as practical, around those mountains, then climb as high as possible to ride that jetstream tailwind home.

During preflight, the cockpit sounds like an orchestra pit before the show, with hydraulic pumps whining like a string section warming up, the kettle drum thud of cargo loading, then huge doors locking shut. The forward galley door whomps open with a blast of fresh air and the clatter of catering carts trundling on and off the plane. Two flight attendants try to squeeze into the cockpit and huddle against the swirl of cold night air, mixing their chatter with the drone of air traffic control on two radios on speakers overhead.

We’re all in matching polyester costumes, waiting for the curtain as the audience troops in: the edge of night travelers, worn out from whatever they did in Las Vegas, resigned to arrive on the east coast at dawn–I’ll take them halfway there, then hope to dodge the wrong way drunk drivers on Airport Freeway to get home myself after midnight. It’s an easy crowd leaving Las Vegas–out of money, out of vacation, often hung over. The exact opposite of the inbound crowd.

Had lunch myself hours ago and a thousand miles away. My fortune read “you will travel with the person of your dreams.” Is that what they’re doing in the back? It’s hard to remember when you’re work is travel that in back, it’s a passage to somewhere or from somewhere and some one. And the person of my dreams is two time zones away, getting ready for sleep, but never too far from my mind.

Huh? My First Officer? Guess I won't use the lotto numbers.

We’re going through our lines carefully, checking that everything’s in order, all systems performing as they’ll need to for the next thousand miles. He reads, I check, I answer, he confirms. It’s all too complex to just have at it. We’re careful now so as not to have to be “resourceful” later.

The agent announces curtain time: “Everyone’s on board–okay to close up, Captain?”

I thanks the agent for the good job boarding the flight–whether it’s good or not, I just know they’re hassled and need a pat on the back. Then it’s show time: places, everyone, places! Lap belts, shoulder harnesses, crank the rudder pedals forward to get full throw. Don the headset, adjust the boom mike and wait for the cue from the ground crew. “Chocks are pulled, everything’s buttoned up, we’re ready for brake release when you are, Captain.”

Glance to the right at the warning lights on the overhead panel–trust but verify–to ensure all the cargo doors are closed. “Brakes are released, stand by.”

Glance to the right again. “He says they’re ready downstairs.” That’s the First Officer’s cue to call ground control for pushback clearance.

And now it’s time to strike up the band. “Turning number Two,” I say, hacking a clock to time the start sequence.

Gonna take a big bite out of the night sky, aren't we?

Valves respond to the switch I just twisted, channeling high-pressure air into the huge turbine section. It begins to moan, vibrate, whirl; one of my favorite sounds in the whole world: a jet engine starting. Never ever tire of that sound.

The left engine joins the symphony. Numbers tell me they’re both in tune: 20% N1, 40% N2, 600 degrees Centigrade at idle, 800 pounds of fuel per hour. Oil pressure. Hydraulic pressure. Electrical power from the generators. Amen.

They’re a perfectly tuned duet, and they’ll spin at 30,000 rpm for as long as we have jet fuel and oil, the latter as much for cooling as for lubrication. From behind, a virtual blast furnace: I’ve seen it, taxiing behind another 737; a devilish smelter glow–you can actually see the ring of fire if you’re close enough.

We join the parade of floats with winking lights rolling toward the runway. More numbers along the way in a litany of challenge and response: planned weight, actual weight, power settings, speeds, distances, maximums, engine failure routes and safe altitudes, minimum climb gradients, hold downs, departure speeds, obstacle clearance altitudes, initial level off. Crosschecked, crammed into my head.

The cockpit’s dark save the instrument glow. I transition to ghost vision, as I call it: the Heads Up Display–or HUD. Everything on my primary flight display is projected on the glass in front of my face so I never have to look down in flight.

But instead of the multiple colors that help separate function, everything’s a ghostly glowing greenish aqua. And it swims: the airspeed tape runs upward like the dollar signs on the gas pump. Then when we lift off the right side begins to jump with altitude and vertical velocity.

Can’t get lost in it, mesmerized–there’s a jet to be flown. Take it in subconsciously, they tell you, just fly and hold that in your peripheral vision.

It’s all in your head as you roll down the runway chanting to yourself fire, failure, fear or shear. After 80 knots, that’s all you’re stopping for, so it’s all you’re looking for: engine fire, engine failure, a “fear” in my judgment that some structural failure has left the jet unflyable (good luck determining that at 150 mph) or windshear.

Luke, I'm your FATHER . . .

I’d rather handle everything else in the air. Since we’re lightweight tonight, when I shove the throttles up and hit the “TOGA” (Takeoff-Go-Around”) power button, we leap forward. The wing slices the air and rises. A half dozen computers sing to themselves and each other, figuring fuel flow, engine temperature and pressure, wind speed and direction, ground speed–the engines snarl and buck.

We lift off.

Ghost vision tells me the lift vector, the flight path, the course, the wind, our speed, our climb performance, compass heading, on-course tracking and deviation and a hundred bits of changing information. Hands and feet on ailerons and rudder, I trace a line in the sky invisible to everyone except for me, and anyone on the ground watching the arc we inscribe in the sky, strobes flashing, running lights and exterior spots like an arc weld in the sky.

I can see it; I live and breathe it, day after day after day. And if you listen, you can hear it too: riding the righteous fire, we sail off in a buzzing roar of high by-pass fanjets hurling us up to the forty-thousand foot level, the final act you can see from the ground: a tiny speck of light that arcs up and away, taking the show far and away at five hundred miles per hour.  A contrail in the moonlight, the song plays on, the chorus that carries us home.

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8 Responses to “Songs In The Key of Flight”

  1. The prose reminds me of “Song of the Sky”.
    Have you read the book? If not I recommend it highly.

  2. Wow, that was a really good read. I’m still waiting on your first flight update on the new jet.

    Jeremy

    • I’ve had four days of flying with a supervisor in the right seat, getting the FAA mandated 25 “experience” hours. I’ll be on my own this week and will have a report soon.

  3. Nostalgia … ever so bittersweet. You passed the test Captain. To an aviator, the whine of a turbine engine starting IS the sweetest music one will ever hear. I don’t mean a person with simply, a pilot license ….. an aviator. Starting a radial is close … potato, potato, potato … but a jet engine is the whole orchestra.

    Damn I miss it!

  4. blackwatertown Says:

    Thanks again for the insight.

  5. […] the only person who gets high from listening to a plane engine start up. (The moo-ing part, I mean) Jethead captures these emotions perfectly in his post Songs In The Key of Flight. (He’s a pilot, you […]

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