The Trouble With Angels

Always so careful, so step-by-step methodical on the ground. That’s the dues you pay to find the angels–trouble that they are in the end.

At sea level, it’s like you don’t want to get spotted, apprehended as a fraud: you are this airline captain thing?  Aren’t they like steely-eyed cliche marketing stuff? And you–where are your aviator glasses? You’ve never had a pair (they’re annoyingly fish-eyed) or a big pilot watch (Darling Bride gave me a subtle smooth Longines tank that reminds me of the drunken cruise stop in Barabados where we bought it) and you aren’t a Republican?

No matter, there are plenty of pilots who like playing the role, which is a good thing because it means you don’t have to. I just don’t do “pilot theater.”

The airport is a troubled hive, buzzing with creatures waiting to fly off to the four corners of everywhere but here. Make your way through the busy swarm, touch the bases: just need a jet, a decent fuel load–period. I’ll handle the rest: route, departure, cruise altitudes, and The Edge.

The what? The Edge is what I know independent of the charts, stats and observations about the flight: air sense tells me if that fuel load’s sufficient, having dealt with the altitude hold down or mountain wave or speed restrictions or any number of wild cards thrown down to make your fuel load inadequate, your paperwork obsolete and your boilerplate plan garbage fodder. That’s the cumulative instinct born of many thousands of hours in the air watching the corners draw in: how’d you get into this situation, and how the hell are you getting out?

The answer is simple: stay out of trouble in the first place. Duh.

“Hey, this is Chris, the captain to Montreal. How about throwing an extra 1,500 pounds of fuel onto that release?” Which is an order rather than a request–but why not couch it in “nicety?” We’re still on terra firma; different rules apply when gravity is in effect. Plus, I appreciate all the folks who work behind the scenes to abet my escape. They make it all happen–I don’t ever overlook that.

It’s still a great feeling to step on board and turn left, into the cockpit, into the sanctuary: the whirring of cooling fans, a mini-sized Times Square of lights and lettering glowing with a message, all of it related to your launch. And it’s not just that, really, it’s actually more of the fact that you get to shift your attention from the ground to the sky: what’s going on up there? Winds? Departure corridor? Weather? traffic? More in the sky than the ground–let go of that gravity stuff. Say goodbye to the dirt, hello to the sky.

An army of cleaners swarms over the cabin interior. The cabin crew is boarding, stowing their bags then checking their workspace: emergency equipment, catering stuff. The First Officer is dragging his gear into the cockpit, then pulling on a safety vest to go outside and pre-flight, before coming inside to set up the cockpit. They’re all really busy, so why don’t you make yourself scarce? Good idea.

Bing! Time’s up: we should be sufficiently close to launch so you can step on-board, finish the last pre-flight checklists, verify the route (VERY important); then the challenge and response–and the blink check: you sweep your eyes over all of the panels (yaw damper on, pressurization auto . . .) making sure for yourself that everything’s the way you want to know it must be when you’re rolling down the concrete with your eyes on the centerline stripe being gobbled up at a hundred-fifty miles per hour.

Exterior door warning lights wink out one by one as the last bags are thrown into the cargo compartments. Feels like a symphony warm-up, while the ushers urge everyone to their seats before the curtain–don’t want to be late.

The jet’s alive and breathing now, the auxiliary power unit–a small jet engine in the tail section–now pumping out high pressure air and generating our own electricity. I add the hum of hydraulic pumps to the mix and with a thud, 3,000 psi of hydraulic fluid snaps the flight controls to attention. Now my arms are 130 feet long, with sleek wingtips, my feet on the rudders swing the three story tall tail. Places everyone, we’re near curtain time.

Pull that jetbridge and set us free . . .

Life goes slo-mo: take it all in, piece by piece. Last check of the weather and the barometric pressure (rising or falling?) the winds (gusts, shear, direction). Challenge and response checklist like a deacon and a cantor, back and forth, rethinking the world: we’re dividing attention between “to do” and “done.” Simplify, like bees from the hive–all essential focus on flight.

There are numbers in my head, shifting and verifying sums I WILL see before we take off: planned weight, then the actual weight, the combination of which determines pay for angels: how many thousands of feet can we put between us and the dirt? What will the wing support? How much muscle can we get from the two straining horses slung under the wings?

This ain’t just walking around in Vegas and yanking a handle to see what numbers come up–I’m lining them up in my head one by one, verifying them visually. The taxi is a trundle, like walking up steps to a shrine on your knees, and that’s good: buying the angels, which is how we used to refer to altitude in the Air Force, must be a sealed transaction, paid up front–or you will fall from the sky.

“Angels twenty-five,” a radar controller would snap at us over some dark and deep god forsaken ocean, “you have a pair of fighters inbound at your six, angels twenty-five.” Size it up; altitude above you–angels above–absolutely worthless. Angels below are energy.

What a laugh. Now we’re taking a friendly load of tin-packed bees to angels forty-one, and they don’t know or care about the what or why. Which is fine–that’s why I’m here, comfortably invisible behind the bolted and locked (I love that) door.

The litany of preflight sanctifies the same binary on taxi-out: done, to do; done–numbers aswarm not only in my head, but before my eyes.

I see through the jet and it sees through me, numbers spun out by dozens of computers talking to satellites and data linked, but mostly through the complex on-board analytic comparators. We’re a team: I sort it out, toss in The Edge, send back signals and control inputs.

And all the talk ends with the exchange of clearances, lastly “cleared for take-off.”

Then it’s all power and noise–two things that attracted me to jets in the first place–and the brute force hurtling the tons of bone and blood and steel down the concrete with the energy of a freight train. That’s the price to claim the angels–kinetic energy that will need to be dealt with, but later.

I can feel the wing ready to fly, know it will fly, but just keep the nose tracking the runway centerline till the automated voice calls out “V-1.” Good–too fast to stop, committed to flight. Good or bad, that’s where I’d rather be anyway. The earth drops away.

The jet’s more graceful now, smoother too with the wheels off the deck. And now I have the arc of the wing, a dip and a turn, plus the climbing of the nose to keep ahead of the howling duet under the wings.

The background music in my head is the melody of time and fuel and speed and altitude–the mix never ends, the harmony must prevail–no off notes, not a beat missed; we climb, then stretch out and slice an arc across the sky, trailing a white tail that points away, shows where we’ve been, promises where we’re going.

We own the angels, for now. Climbing up means stepping down, eventually. But for now we just fly, the rest is just details, and for later. Now is the sky and we can worry about the dirt only when and as much as we have to, when the time comes.


19 Responses to “The Trouble With Angels”

  1. blackwatertown Says:

    Ah – the poetry of lift off.

  2. Fantastic post!! I really enjoy how you described what is probably such a mundane part of the job with such flare and made it so interesting! Thank-you!

  3. Wow, hats off, Chris. Is it me, or is that your best post to date?
    I love the sense of anticipation you capture, the fact that this is all leading up to the final piece of radio chatter- “cleared for takeoff”.
    I also think it was interesting how you related your arms to the aircrafts wings, and feet to it’s huge rudder.

    However, I have a question.
    On a recent flight (738), during cruise I noticed a line on the wing stretching from that yellow bit where it says “no step” to about 3/4 of the way up the wing.
    I’ll do my best to describe it. It was like one of those thin, transparent plastic strings.
    It reminded me of one of those videos of concord in the wind tunnel, and you could see the lines of compressed air stretching out from over it’s nose.
    Sorry if my explanation wasn’t the best, but I was just wondering if you know what this is and what causes it. I assume it is just a thin line of compressed air over the area of maximum air resistance on the wing.

    Anyway, thanks for the entertaining and informative blog, keep it coming !

  4. robert Says:

    The most rewarding moments of flight. The translation from rumble and shake to the support of the air and the satisfaction of an on the numbers and centreline arrival. Great feelings whatever the flying machine.
    Another of your posts which was a pleasure to read.

  5. hmunro Says:

    God, how I love your blog … it’s sheer poetry! You make me wish I’d skipped journalism school and that I’d instead become a pilot.

    Thanks, as always, for providing such an insightful view from the cockpit.

    • I appreciate that. I felt like it was a little disjointed, but I’m always trying to push the writing aesthetically. There’s no shortage of stick-and-rudder type narratives in the blogosphere (“I pulled back and we went up . . . “) and that’s fine for reading and writing as far as that goes. But I’m trying to get into the essence, to make it a habitable metaphor, to let the experience be owned and lived. I don’t always succeed, but I’ll keep trying.

      • Giulia Says:

        “…to let the experience be owned and lived. I don’t always succeed, but I’ll keep trying.”

        Like a true artist, you are hard on yourself. I don’t know about anyone else, but your writing helps me “own it”. I really enjoyed reading this one. Of course, I also loved your photos. 🙂

        Thank you again, Captain.

      • Happy to share!

  6. Thanks for a great post, Chris. I guess we understand that you push the writing at times and we understand why. Hey! it often works. On a lower plain, I guess I’m delighted that you fly away from playing Airline Pilot on the ground. And I am delighted that you play the role with vigor when you are working. Knowing the numbers, guessing ahead of time and then validating them with the machines – and recognizing/questioning any differences is my idea of a professional. Yes, sir, you are welcome to leave that stuff on the airplane. I’ll bet that it does not impress Mrs. Chris anymore. Thanks for a great essay. -Craig.

    • Yup–I’m happy to leave all of that at the airport on the way home. And you’ve zeroed in on what I consider the most important aspect of being an airline pilot today that is emerging as the new challenge: the advanced automation can usually tell you when it has an internal failure of hardware or software, but seldom can warn you of an input error. That’s why I HAVE to verify planned versus actual numbers in the flight guidance, and it’s too easy–I see it–for folks to simply respond “set and crosschecked” because the F/O read the numbers aloud. Nope–see them with your own eyes: the actual data-link print out, the plan.

      And Boeing has warned that the advanced automation on the 787 (and largely, the 737-next gen series) will outpace the human capability to do calculations. In other words, a pilot can no longer do backup calculations to validate flight guidance commands–so the new role is to intervene at the first sign of deviation, disconnect the automation, ask questions later.

      True, I don’t go for the “pilot theater” stuff: have an acquaintance who refers to her husband as “Captain R.” He wears the title on and off the job. Jeez. I’m glad I live a half hour from the airport communities we call “base housing;” down here you’re not likely to see that tired bumper sticker, “My other car is a jet,” or see anyone in the grocery store with airline logo shirts. My only logo gear is Boeing stuff and I’m in the cult: have flown a lot of jets and no one builds a better pilot/flight guidance system and excellent airframe than Boeing.

  7. Well, after a search on the internet, it seems you are exactly right about that air on the wing, and (uh-oh), my interest in planes has now extended into aerodynamics.

    This ‘boundary layer’ is just a layer of stagnant air sitting on the surface of the wing.
    You mentioned that it might have ben a humid day. Does this mean that humidity affects the viscosity (new word to me) of the air?
    Thanks again, an enthusiastic 15 year old.

    • No, it doesn’t affect the viscosity, but if the air is very humid, the instant low pressure causes vapor to form in little swirls and strings. If you ever watch landings on a humid day, you’ll notice little vapor trails coming off of wingtips–same deal. Low pressure on top of the wing or in front of an engine creates instant vapor under the right circumstances.

  8. Ahhh, ok, I get you.
    Sort of like warm air rising, cooling, and condensing when you’re talking about weather, then? Just a lot faster.
    I know what you mean about the vapour trails, this was transparent though.
    Looks like I need to look into this a little more….
    Once again, thanks for the speedy reply, and the fantastic blog!
    All the best.

  9. Teresa Bailey Says:

    Bye Chris, sorry you don’t want to be FB friends. Please remove me from your blog list………..T

    • T–

      I think you’re missing the big picture here. I didn’t “unfriend” you–I closed my Facebook account.


       Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  10. Captain,

    I just discovered your Flight Gallery. (I know, not observant.) You should add more photos in that gallery. You have some really good ones.

    :)) And you should make a better link to it. I’m sure some people have overlooked it.

  11. Margaret Says:

    Fabulous. I really enjoy being able to experience your world vicariously.

    I also appreciate how you speak to me as a passenger – there is so much trust involved in being a passenger. I have always felt like I should introduce myself when boarding a flight – “Hello, here’s my life and the lives of my children. Thanks for taking on the enormous responsibility of getting us safely to the next place.” But since no one has time or energy for that, I guess I’ll just say it here, to you instead. There is so much unknown feeding our fear of the unknown, so much vulnerability. Knowing more through your writing helps.

    I wish I knew the name of the pilot who flew us from Hungary to NYC last summer – my little boys’ first flight ever. I should have written him a thank-you letter. As we boarded, he saw the boys and gave us a big smile, motioned for us to come into the cockpit (can we do that? I worried) and gave my boys, 6 and 9, a tour. Sat them in the seats. Let them touch some things. Explained. Told me to take pictures. My littlest one had been so afraid of crashing. He told the pilot he was afraid – and the man took his hat and showed us the photo inside of his family. He calmed my little boy by saying, “We’re going to get to New York just fine, because I need to get home to these guys in Boston.” It was precious.

    I’ll be flying to the US with my 16-year-old daughter next month, this time with AA. I’ll keep my eyes open for you.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. Not sure what I’ll be flying in June, but this I’ll be doing transcons from Washington, DC to LAX. Hope you have safe travels!

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