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.
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.