Jet Flight: Elephants, Leggoland and the Paper Swan.


The final moments before flight are an indeterminate gap of time and space left for you to carve out intervals of facts and process; cold, smooth and regular as the steps of a cathedral.

It’s a lazy roll around the corner and onto the runway, engines breathing smoothly the dragon’s breath of gale-force jet exhaust. Ghostly green alphabet soup of the Heads Up Display projected on the glass floats before your eyes, as if inside your head and maybe it is, dutifully reporting headings as the nose swings left.

Layers deeper in consciousness ticks the chopped litany that paces the solemn climb up the cathedral steps: a quick review of the new rejected take-off procedure (speed brakes before reverse!), weights (double checked) winds (no hazards, anticipate roll), target thrust setting, a final scan for birds, amen. Time, like fuel to the twin jet engines, flows in a slow meter like a dirge now, but soon to give way to a thousand degree war cry.

He sat hunched slightly forward in the wheelchair as if stating in body language that he really didn’t belong there, and maybe he didn’t. He flips one hand idly, grins, and says, “Hardly the place for an old airline pilot, isn’t it?”

Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very old and he deserves your attention.

And what place, you have to wonder: the airport? The wheel chair?

“There,” he says, pointing to the destination displayed behind the agents. The Rust Belt; no place for anyone, much less a guy seemingly in his late eighties, especially in winter.

You laugh. “No kidding. Why not Florida? Palm Springs? Phoenix?”

His face twists into a frown. “No,” he says. “No elephant dying grounds. You have to go back to where you came from, at least one more time.”

A wheelchair aide shambled up, shirttail hanging out, and grabbed the man’s ticket without asking, poring over it.

He seemed not to notice. “It goes so fast,” he said, looking straight ahead, as if talking to no one, every one. “So damn fast.” The aide pushed the wheelchair away, oblivious.


You briefed a static takeoff for a reason: short runway. Stand on the brakes, hard, because the high takeoff thrust setting will want to scrub the fat tires squatting under eighty tons of plastic and metal and fuel and people clean off the runway.

“Cleared for takeoff.” Now a clockwise circle, starting at nine: start the elapsed time counter, up and straight ahead (no bird flocks ahead and above), to the overhead panel for all four landing lights switches and twin wing illumination light switches, to the nose landing light switch, drop your eyes one last time to confirm the thrust setting.

Verify the first navigational fix and altitude. Shove the throttles forward, confirm the prediction on the N1 gage and when the actual thrust touches 40%, toggle the thrust lever and let the autothrottles pour on the coals.

“Looking for 98.7,” you say methodically, orchestrating the hand-eye-mind convergence of takeoff thrust dutifully set by the autothrottles, engines thundering and shaking the airframe and you release the brakes just as it peaks; the jet leaps forward, you get that reassuring seat mash feeling as you sail through eighty knots, the first checkpoint, then a hundred thirty  in just a handful of heartbeats.

You have the countdown of runway distance remaining in the ghost script on the glass and in your mind, the airspeed too; the third dimension is the runway end rushing at you ever-faster as you accelerate; geometry in your head playing out the triangulation of stopping versus shrinking distance remaining versus minimum flying airspeed.

Calmly, scanning for the big five that will require a lightning abort action, filtering only for those, living the three dimensional compression of distance remaining, speed gaining, and the commitment to flight the instant one outweighs the other.

Pull back, carefully, rise, climb; pull more, match the pitch to the green ghostly hieroglyphics claiming your peripheral awareness; she rockets upward at max power. Nothing but blue sky.

dusk b

One leg of a turnaround done, one to go. Walking up the jet bridge, trying to be invisible among the passengers deplaning, headed wherever it was that had them aboard the jet. Some connecting on, some gone as far as they will. You just need a new flight plan, maybe a cup of coffee. Then back into the cockpit, head for home.

Your mind’s elsewhere anyway, negotiating the algorithm of fuel and altitude time and speed and …

A blur, knee high, rushes past and then turns to face you.

“Fast,” the tyke says, tufted red hair a coppery flame atop a stumpy little candle. “Goes so fast!” He makes a zooming motion with his hands.

Keeping to yourself is one thing, but you can’t not talk with him, he’s very young and he deserves your attention.

A woman with a rusty bob and an armload of carry-on bags catches up to the boy, breathless. “Sorry,” she says, “he likes it when it goes really fast on takeoff.”

“You should go to Leggoland,” carrot top says. “We’re going to Leggoland.”

“No,” you say, “No Leggoland for me. I have to go back to where we came from, one more time.”

Mom flashes a harried smile, grabs his little hand and leads him tromping up the jet bridge. “Goes so fast,” he says. The one hand free of mom zooms. “So fast.”

Maybe. Might depend on if you’re looking forward or backward, whether you’re going home, or “there,” even if “there” is home one more time. Elephant dying grounds or Leggoland, It goes so fast, so damn fast.

Hold that thought. The enduring solemnity of nighttime cruise at altitude will be the perfect place to fold those truths like an origami swan, end to end in half and again, then hold it before squinted eyes.

For now, though, the flight in between matters more.

sunset undercast


16 Responses to “Jet Flight: Elephants, Leggoland and the Paper Swan.”

  1. […] airline pilot blog, airliner, airlines. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  2. paulmlally Says:

    Like perfect Haiku, except better.

  3. Cedarglen Says:

    Thank you, Chris, for another great post and a Happy New Year to you and yours. In no particular order: All of the events and actions that you mention are worthy of a good Captain. That third scan is probably a hallmark. Do the better of your FOs ever get to fly that SNA departure, or is that a ‘Captains Only’ procedure?
    This is not the space to discuss customer service, but do you know how important those quick moments of grace were, to both the customers and your your employer? Gracing an old pilot or a carrot-topped kid (who may strap on a single seat jet someday) are worth a moment of your time. (And as for that Jack-Ass of a WC driver, we understand his ID badge does not carry your proud logo. Yes, the little stuff does make a difference!) I know that you are not a recruiter for your airline or for USAF, but the moment with that carrot-topped “Go so Fast,” zoomie probably made a huge impact. While the little monster may not hold your seat in 25-30 years, I think he will remember the encounter. (In 1955 or ’56, I got to honk the horn on a DC-6 or-7. My first flight and on the way to Disneyland at ~5, the general attitude was [nasty word] Disneyland; “I like this airplane and that’s a;; I care about!” There as a small red button on the overhead panel and The Captain ordered me to push it! It honked the horn and I pushed it again. Three-to-six year-old kids simply do not forget those things. Your carrot-top may end up as one of the last classes to drive the F-35. Good job!! Of course your job is 110% safety, but those tweaks make a difference. Perhaps you can refresh my old memory about the Magic Five that would cause you to RTO rather than leap, even with an imperfect engine. Thanks for gracing the retired pilot with a few seconds; that means a lot to me – and I know that he appreciated your time. Best wishes for a safe and happy New Year, -C.

    • Yes, that’s kind of the metanarrative: I was that kid once (minus the red hair), and I can conceive of the far end but realize the middle–now–is what matters most.

      Had a nice chat with the old guy, because as much as I try to be invisible, the very old, very young and those who don’t speak the language always get whatever they need from me. But anyway, he mentioned his old airline, aircraft; I always enjoy learning about the flying days before my own.

      We alternate legs, SNA and everywhere. It’s no problem, really–by the time folks get into our ranks, they know what they’re doing.

      Sometimes I think it would be easier to not be contemplative about how things like the two ends of the flight continuum coming together can be a meaningful contrast, but you know the saying about a life unexamined …

  4. I enjoy these beautifully crafted excerpts from a life a great deal. Long may they continue. Thanks, Captain Manno.

  5. Brilliantly written (as always). Thanks, Chris!

  6. Lego Spaceman Says:

    The first time that I flew with my son, and he was old enough to understand what was going on, was a lot of fun. When we arrived at our destination I purposefully waited to deplane so that we would see the pilots on their way out. They spoke with my son for a minute or two. One of them asked what his favorite part of the flight was. My son replied “The launch is the best part, it’s fun.”

    From that day, and forevermore, it’s not a take-off; it’s a Launch. Like we’re going to the moon.

  7. I also enjoy that special, rather more curious state of mind while on long flights. Such thoughts I can have also early in the morning.

    Anyway, I must admit this piece is nicely written! Good luck Jet Head 😉

  8. Thank you, Chris. I’m a long-time reader and enjoy your posts. This particular one really resonated with me. While I always enjoy learning about the pilot’s perspective, the “it goes so fast” comments from both the older man and the little boy hit me emotionally. As a dad with a boy about that age (and a father heading toward the older man’s age), I can relate to both situations vividly. Thank you for that.

  9. ❤ Thank you for this! I've read it over a few times; it's so lovely.

  10. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    This was lovely, Captain. It was timely, too, because I just spent much time with an old pilot in Hospice. He shared similar sentiments with your old pilots. And, as I prepared him for his “final flight”, he humored me with tales from the air and “getting there”…and much advice for me as a student pilot and as a young man with many flights left before the final one.

    A blessed New Year to you, and I look forward to reading more of your posts.
    -Fr. Jeremiah

  11. Damon Hynes Says:

    That. Was. Beautiful. Thank you.

  12. OK, sorry here… the “Big Five” that would lead to a lightning abort would be… what?

  13. I didn’t like my wheelchair job (1st job at the airport) but I still made sure to look presentable and offer friendly service out of pride if nothing else, but its great to see future aviators getting attention from the very people they look up to. I to this day still remember that AFR Captain (even his full name) who allowed me in his A340 cockpit 11 years ago and he did not see to mind the million questions blurted out in fact he seemed rather happy to see a youngster so interested in his trade. Fast forward to this day I had to give up flying for a career solely due to the associated costs but there is this one enthusiastic mechanic who is steering me towards the aircraft maintenance career and hopefully I’ll get to turn wrenches and bust a few knuckles on my beloved A340 before they start to retire little by little.

  14. Chris,

    I very much like your blog and speculate that you might enjoy this prose I wrote in 2006 on my thoughts when flying that just might strike a note with your above piece. It is liable to cause some offence for some if on public view, so this is for you and those you wish to share it with, if there are any, hopefully there are.

    When I am Travelling
    When I am travelling and am at airports I will always look for the lights on incoming planes descending to land. They queue up, one behind the other so on a cloudy day you may only see two or three, then if the air clears and the skies are busy you can see four or five. At night you may see six or seven, even at a great distance.
    They remind me of women that I have yet to meet. Even though I cannot yet see them, or hear them, they are out there, making their way towards me, lights shining brightly, their wide appendages spread while descending, about to straddle some runway. I feel that they are gently gliding towards me, these curvaceous vessels of all colours, shapes and sizes.
    Kirsty was one of these. She landed with a lot of baggage, and after a little while turned around and took off again, still with lots of baggage. Now I ‘m on her stop-over itinerary. Currently Alison, Jess, Juliette and someone else whose name I forget are stacked up within view. But after them there will be more because there’s more and more traffic all the time nowadays, and they can’t stay up there forever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: