The Big Girl and What You Don’t Know
She stands tall in the chocks, that DC-10, all shiny polished aluminum gleaming at the leading edges like an Atlas rocket. A grand old bird, a design maybe Mac-Doug rushed into production to compete with what some called the better tri-jet from Lockheed. Not that I gave a damn, first as flight engineer, or Tengineer, as we were called, then as DC-10 copilot.
Because she had what a pilot needed–lots of lift on a fat gull-wing that produced a nice ground effect cushion to make you look good on landing if you treated her right, and tons of smash in those growly hi-bypass fans slung under the wing and mounted in the towering tail. For all her bulk and heft, she’d go like a halfback after the snap.
And in the cockpit, windows so wide next to the pilots’ seats that you’d swear you were going to fall out and drop two stories to the Tarmac on your first pushback. That took some getting used to.
That morning I was flying with Big John, a guy as nervous as you might expect a senior captain to be just months from retirement, not wanting to screw up. He had an enormous belly, hence the nickname, which I’d slap with the control yoke when I pulled it back during the taxi-out flight control check.
You’re supposed to watch the small, square flight control position indicator in the center of the instrument near the Thrust Rating Computer as you put the ailerons and elevator through their paces. But it was more fun, out of the corner of my eye, to watch Big John’s rubbery lips twist into a frown by the second or third time I’d heave back on the yoke till it popped him on the gut.
“Watcha tryin’ to do, boy–loop it?” he’d ask with a wet, wheezy sigh. The flight engineer and I would share a laugh about that over beers later. Conspiratorial, we were, young pilots laughing at the fat old captain.
The big jet rolled like a tank on the ground but once in the air, she climbed steady and strong, shoved smartly by those three big, snarling engines. Once she leveled off and planed out like a speedboat does, her nose dropped and she was a thoroughbred on a quarter mile track, effortlessly sailing along at .84 Mach, mane flying, not even breaking a sweat. And there was the quiet beauty of a morning flight, with everything below bathed in a rising arc light of sunshine as if revealing the new day by degrees of latitude and the majestic solar march along the ecliptic.
In cruise there was nothing to do but put your feet up on the traction-taped bar below the sparsely stocked instrument panel–it was so wide it just seemed empty–and ease that electric seat back a comfortable inch or two more. Then the good flight engineer would produce a small bottle of unreasonably Scoville-blazing hot sauce and make us Virgin Mary’s with the tomato juice in the collection of drinks and snacks and a pot of hot coffee and water the flight attendants had tossed into the cockpit on climbout to keep us pacified.
The Ten design engineers took cabin pressurization a step further than most jets, not only modulating outflow to maintain a habitable pressure despite the membrane-thin atmosphere where we cruised–but also varying the input tapped off of the big engines humming out on the fat wings. So she puffed and wheezed like Big John struggling his girth into the crew van, as the three air cycle machines opened and closed high stage bleeds.
You might not notice so much in the cabin, but having spent a thousand hours myself manning the DC-10 flight engineer’s panel, even up front I was in tune with her calliope-ish huffing, familiar as a the breathing of spouse of so many years in the middle of the night.
“Not really happy ’bout these winds,” Big John said, shaking his head. “Big damn crosswind.” Which really mattered at LaGarbage, with its fairly short runways.
But the engineer and I couldn’t care; Virgin Mary’s and tonight in Manhattan mattered more: with half the flight attendant crew–the others would find something better to do–we’d walk from the Mildew Plaza to the Westside Temple for crappy Chinese but free wine. All you could drink, though the wine tasted like piss. But it was free and we were airline pilots: free piss is free piss. Big John could pour down a bucket by himself.
“Seems marginal,” Big John muttered, holding the current wind printout. That was the good engineer’s cue to check it out on his tabletop wind chart. We all knew the limits.
“It’s right at it,” the engineer offered. At it ain’t over it, we both decided, but of course Big John had signed for the jet, the damages, plus the FAA and NTSB beating should so much as a ding appear on the silver girl’s skin.
The engineer shrugged a second officer shrug: I told the captain the winds. I did too: I agreed. Glad it’s not my decision.
“Tough call,” Big John said, searching my eyes, I figured, for some hint as to what I’d do if I were him.
And that’s the moment blazed into my mind to this day as I carry his weight. Not his gut, but his pilot-in-command weight, in the twenty-some years I’ve been wearing four stripes. Ain’t no simple, pat answers, just air sense, and the ability to bring others into the decision in a meaningful way.
“We’ll fly the approach as long as we have the fuel increment to divert to JFK on the missed approach with at least fifteen thousand pounds on the deck there. In a standard Korry arrival that leaves about fifteen extra minutes after the full approach so we bingo out at twenty-five regardless. Just request clearance on the missed.”
Then, the golden question. He turned to both of us. “Now, what am I not thinking?”
Not, what do you think of my plan, which is a useless question if you want to know what others think (Your plan? Okay, but I have other ideas) or what you might not know. What am I not thinking?
“That sounds like a good plan,” I said. It was–and there wasn’t anything in my head that I could share or hold back, especially since he asked. Simple? Might seem so–everywhere but the left seat where the buck stops, where the authority and responsibility irrevocably resides. Big John didn’t need an answer from me–he’d been a captain since I was in grade school. What he needed was what every captain needs: information, ideas, data, and a linked-in crew trained to speak up and comfortable doing so.
Because it’s not what you know–Big John knew plenty–it’s what you don’t know that’ll bust your ass. It’s crucial to ask and by doing so, demonstrate that asking, that searching for what we don’t know to perfect what we do is the way we’re going to think and fly this jet. And speak up about it, dammit, because we’re a team.
We stepped her down through the complex arrival that is the New York Center latticework of airways and approach corridors. I aimed at the two big Maspeth tanks, we were cleared the Expressway visual that’s a box pattern of low-altitude, tight maneuvering (can’t interfere with the JFK pattern) close in and eventually, treetop level. Big John called the left turns for me like a third base coach, having the better view of the SS LaGarbage over his shoulder.
She rolled out squared up, power on against the barn doors of max landing flaps hanging off the trailing edges of the wings. Just a touch of right rudder and she lined up true against the crosswind which less than the limit, or so it felt. The Ten was a stable giant, unlike the squirrely MD-80 I’d also flown as copilot, requiring constant tugging at the leash to get her to heel. When the big gear trucks rolled onto the runway, the ponderous weight settling, it was like she wanted to stop, a great feeling the DC-10 conveyed through your feet on the brakes and the mass weighing her down.
That flight is etched in my memory not only for what Captain Big John showed me, but because of the discovery waiting for me among the half dozen useless messages in my crew inbox after the trip. Sandwiched in the middle was a notice of pending crew status: my captain upgrade class, scheduled for the next month. Just like that, my eyes became Big John’s, needing to know, wanting to make the best decision and from that day forward, accountable.
No more riding along, offering, but now the “tough decision” no longer belonged to someone else.
“You’re not yourself tonight,” my engineer friend said later at Smitty’s, the last resort Irish bar only a few body-slams across Eight Avenue from the front doors of the Mildew. We’d watched Big John polish off a trough of Kung Pao Chicken at the Westside Temple, washed down with a tankard of free piss. After a Westside night, the last snort at Smitty’s helped wash the bad taste out of your mouth.
“Yeah,” I said after a moment. “Probably never will be again.” At least I hoped not. I wanted to be worthy of that fourth stripe.
He looked at me like he didn’t get it, but that’s okay. He would, eventually, when his day came. Until then, in his shoes, it’d be just one more thing he didn’t know.
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