In the wake of several recent airliner losses, talk in the media once again turns to the futuristic concept of remotely piloted passenger jets.
A very bad idea, as I explain on Mashable.com. Just click here to read, or use the link below.
Sidelong cross-cockpit glance: yep, it’s a flat top, ex-USMC style, and the bushy but gone gray Magnum PI mustache suggests a time warp. Better times? Easier times? He laughs a lot for a guy on the razor’s edge of disaster. I say nothing.
Ahead cumulus knots itself into towering stacks, each with a cirrus blow-off pointing like a banner to where the fleet’s headed. Same place we are, or so the anvils point. I’m thinking an upwind end run around the billowing, full-sail armada. He’s talking about our Chicago layover tonight.
His wife, a flight attendant, met us at our connecting gate as she passed through the airport. Something in her eyes matched the foreboding that weighed heavy as the tide on my mind. Pleading? Hurt? Wary? I couldn’t tell–yet I know what I know: My Darling Bride, also a flight attendant, flew with her yesterday. And I knew his wife–flew with her many times–before they were married. Then she was bright in the sense of Christmas lights, tiny scattered points of happiness gleaming everywhere. Not any more.
“Takes two to tango,” his words tumble in a snippet from what is more of a forced chatter, or so it seems. I guess if you’re talking you never have to listen. But in the tango of time and fuel, in the dance altitude and storm clearance, may I cut in?
“I’d say left,” my mouth says. It’s his flight leg, but my jet. He’s flying the plane, but I signed for the damages. Upwind is longer, but smoother, safer. The shorter way is too uncertain, could put someone through the ceiling.
“We can top it,” he suggests, sweeping a hand out flat, as if showing a planar space between our altitude and the boiling cumulus rising ahead. Ah, there’s a thought. Climb another two thousand feet to max habitable altitude for the weight–which puts you into the coffin corner where the difference between high-speed buffet and low speed stall is a handful of capricious knots. If there’s any turbulence, those knots stop the tango and freestyle. Good luck.
His wife had mechanically recited to mine the all-too-familiar litany. “We just bought our ‘captain’s house’ … he wants me to quit flying … he can hold captain in Chicago … get a crash pad there …” In the jumpseat confessional, all is forgiven, but there will be penance nonetheless. Ahead, lightning licked the bruised-blue cloud bases, promising a fresh evening hell for Kansas and eventually, Illinois.
“Let’s take it over the top, direct,” he says with finality. “Stay on time.” Unsaid, but mentioned earlier: “she gets in an hour ahead of us.” Gentleman that he is, he doesn’t want her waiting. She flies for a different airline, but even after working her way over to our terminal, she’ll still have time to kill.
The thing about fiery cumulus and boiling sky is this: you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Never mind about the paper algorithm of options and assets, timing, clearance and margins, in real life, you just never know.
I key the hand mike. “Center, we need twenty left for weather.”
He slumped a little. Peeved? The perfect plan set back a few minutes? Can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. We swung wide upwind.
I glance at the cloud tops, anvils aglow with the molten sunset. Some storms seem to fade, to lose their fire when the heat of the sun goes away. But this towering mess seemed the type that would thunder ahead regardless.
“Some things,” I say, “Some things you just can’t get over.”
Deaf ears. He was already hundreds of miles ahead, prattling on about Geno’s and where they’d watch the mind-numbing circularity of NASCAR (“She gets it–and me!”) inside The Loop.
Shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry, too far down the road, I thought to myself. Some things you just never get over, and really, you probably shouldn’t try.
Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing, I consider to be my best writing effort yet.
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This is the most awful day of remembrance and I hate it–but I will always keep faith with those we lost.
From an airline pilot perspective, we’ve lost a lot, never to be be reclaimed. On that day, I had been a captain at the world’s largest airline for over ten years. Then, I used to think of air travel as a modern miracle shared between passengers and crew. That meant freedom for all to range at will across the skies over our far flung nation, coast to coast and beyond. Sure, we took security precautions against crackpots and even political hijackings. But it wasn’t then as it is now: we live with the realization that we are in the crosshairs, targeted by uncivilized, radical and suicidal zealots seeking to use our “miracle” as a weapon which will kill everyone on board in the process.
Now I look at everyone boarding or even approaching my jet to service it with a suspicious eye, watching for signs of malicious intent. Now I seldom if ever leave the cockpit in flight. And now many pilots fly armed with a 9mm handgun.
The shine is off the miracle of flight, replaced with a healthy dose of vigilance and defensiveness. That’s the new reality of air travel post- 9/11. I still grieve–and always will–for those we lost that day. But I go forward, flying in my thirtieth year as an airline pilot, just as I did the week the airlines returned to the air after the atrocious, cowardly terrorist act.
Today I join thousands of my fellow crewmembers, remembering that awful day but flying nonetheless. That’s what we do, that’s what we refuse to surrender to those who wish us ill. In that way we honor those we lost, and commit to overcome the darkness that brought about the tragedy of 9-11. Never forget and, most of all, never give in to those who would steal and destroy our miracle of flight.
Never, ever forget.
Summer time air travel can be stressful, but there are practical and simple things you can do to make your trip easier. Here are my top 3 simple ways to make your summer air travel as efficient and low stress as possible.
1. Information: install the smart phone apps for the travel services that apply to your trip (airline, hotel, rental car) and take a few minutes before your trip to set them up with “push” notifications so you will automatically be notified of gate changes, delays and even rebooking. If you’re notified of a delay by the airline, having a hotel, rental car or resort app installed will put you in touch with those important services quickly and easily. Your pharmacy’s smart phone prescription app can speed you through the refill process in a distant city, or transfer prescriptions in many cases.
Many airline apps let you rebook instantly, avoiding long waits in a customer service line, and can outline your options quickly without you having to navigate a website. Best of all, you can beat the rush when re-booking is necessary. On some airlines–American Airlines is one–you can use the airline’s app and website in flight through the on-board WIFI for free.
On taxi in, when you’re cleared to use your cell phone, you will be notified–if you authorized “push” notifications–of your next gate accurately if you’re connecting, or your baggage claim if your travel is complete. The gate agents pull that info 10-15 minutes before your gate arrival, and we print it out in flight 30-40 minutes prior to landing. But your “push” notifications will be more timely and accurate than the other two sources.
You can delete any travel apps you don’t need later, but while you’re on the move, there’s no quicker or more accurate way to get the answers you need to your immediate travel needs. Install the apps, know how they work, and use them to stay ahead of the crowd–especially in case of cancellations, delays or gate changes.
2. Survival gear. First, count on none of your basic needs being met: food, water, shelter. Provide all three yourself. First, food: if you can’t buy something in the terminal to take along–and often you can’t–better have whatever compact, long shelf life calories source you can pack: power bars, granola bars–whatever you prefer that will stave off hunger.
Ditto for water: you “can” get water on board, but the question is when, and sometimes, how–are you in the back and they’re starting the beverage service from the front? Or vice versa? Or is it too turbulent to safely move about the cabin for passengers or crew? Just have a liter of bottled water handy per person, then don’t worry about it.
Finally, “shelter:” dress for the trip, not the destination. That resort-wear will not keep you warm in a chilly cabin, particularly on long flights. And here’s a crew secret: your flight attendants are active, working, and blanketed in layers of polyester. Who do you think calls us to ask for changes in the cabin temp? If they’re melting under the uniform layers, you’re going to wish you weren’t in shorts and a tank top, because we’re more likely to hear “cool it down” than “warm it up” from our working crew in back.
3. Consolidate: all vitals and valuables in one hand-carried, locked bag. Medication, documents and here’s the big one–valuables, like your watch, wallet and any jewelry MUST go into this one locked bag BEFORE security. Why would you ever–and I see this all the time–put your wallet, watch, cell phone and other valuables into an open container on an unmonitored conveyer belt? Why not consolidate them all and then after you’ve successfully passed through security screening, retrieve your items from your locked bag?
And locked is the key: if you’re pulled aside for additional screening, do you want all of your valuables laying out in the open, outside your reach and often, out of your sight? Even if that one locked bag requires extra screening, the lock ensures it will only be searched in your presence.
The final part of “consolidate” applies to your personal belongings: do NOT disperse your items all over your seat area. It’s a sure way to leave an item on a plane, a fact that is borne out by the number of passports, wallets, personal entertainment devices, tablets, keys and phones that turn up on overnight cleaning of aircraft. If you leave valuables, much less valuable documents like a passport, in the seat back pocket or anywhere else, you’ll likely never see them again. And speaking of “seeing” them, the normal climbs, descents, banking and on landing, braking will cause whatever loose items you may leave or drop on the floor to end up rows away. Even if you check your immediate area before deplaning, some items might have vanished. So don’t scatter your belongings about! Return items to your hand carried bag immediately after use or when not in use.
Face it–air travel is stressful as it is, but a lot of stress can be alleviated by these three steps. Information is king when you’re departing, trying to connect, or are changing plans on the fly due to delays or cancellations. Get the apps, set them up, and use them. Stay hydrated, fed, and warm to ease the physical stress. And finally, move smart: consolidate your valuables and do not let your personal items become strewn about your seating or waiting areas on board or in the terminal. Inflight forces will help them slide away, or if you leave them inadvertently, chances are slim that you’ll ever recover those items.
Follow these simple steps–and have a good flight and a great vacation.
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Night falls slowly, painfully on the flight deck westbound. Chasing the sun but losing, sunset grudgingly unfolds in slo-mo, Pat Summerall running color commentary: “Oh my, that’s not how it’s supposed to happen.” A burning lip flecked with cobalt, shafts of charcoal stolen from the blue promising a stormy beating for a landscape miles away, yet you know, feel, what you can’t see. Darkness comes in withering shades and declining latitudes, searing the horizon, azure overtaking the florid arc as if the smoldering, sighing sun just didn’t give a damn anymore.
Entropy flies in the cargo belly: chickens–baby chicks breathing through air holes in cardboard cartons, never imagining themselves winging 500 knots across the ground–and radioactive material (aft compartment), tagged bags and other stuff, plus a tissue sample on dry ice rushing to doctors on the sunset coast, deciding if someone in the eastern darkness can live or die, or so the cargo folks told me.
Not really more sanguine upstairs in the pressure hull defying the -60 degree stratopause inches away, with a meager partial pressure of oxygen that would instantly start the blood bubbling and the gas escaping crushed lungs in a fog. Never mind, eyes on the prize, 250 degrees true, beyond the jagged threshold of the Rockies and Sierras. Less than an hour to go.
While I’m ten stories forward of the aft jumpseat confessional, I’m aware of what’s unfolding nonetheless. One just left her husband, the other just got left. Forward galley, well he’s an old friend, a gay guy with a good head on his shoulders and compassion enough to care how hard relationships, same sex or otherwise, can be when the wreckage piles up.
And we both have Old Testament faith in flightcrew clannishness: we’ll get through whatever together, day, night, a few thousand miles or continent, even an ocean away; the jumpseat and crew van and the gawd awful bidsheet that binds us hot forges a flightcrew stronger than we could ever be alone. So we never really are–and the two pros will smile and work that coach cart, they’ll do the giving that they always do, with stronger hearts regardless of the weight they’re bearing.
Me, up front, I’m just the timekeeper, shoveling coal to stoke the boiler fire and constantly questioning the course I’ve set: can we get the chickens and tissue and broken hearts and shattered dreams to the far coast with fuel burn I counted on? Does the X-Ray vision of the radar and the wind plot say that the wedding gown carefully, almost religiously stowed in the forward closet will make it timelessly to the reunion with the soul-sister maid of honor waiting to pick up the bride in the City by the Bay?
Flex. Breathe, flex again; crank the rudder pedals back, unfold the six foot scrunch another inch, strapped in just the same. Breathe. Force the HEFOE litany carved in stone an age ago: “hydraulics, electric, fuel, engines, oxygen,” amen. Simple, my part as captain is: keep us flying forward, rightfully, safely. Be the faceless guy in the locomotive cab of the wailing freight train, dragging an ice trail across the night sky, contrails silhouetted in moonlight like silver rails against a shadowy landscape thundering below: dusk left and right, darkness behind–we sail on ahead nonetheless.
Crossing the last waypoint before arrival and descent, claim that inward smile: job done, promises kept; plans worked, fuel plenty, brides, chicks and heartbreak alike–delivered. From here it’s only about negotiating the descent, the approach, landing and taxi in. Cake. And folks will either be happy or not, but you did what you promised them. Chicks will either recognize a new coast or they won’t, someone in New Jersey will get good news (I hope) or bad, and somebody’s big day will lead to a lifetime of heartache or not. And the heartbreak cabin crew will be replaced by another eastbound, instantly bound by the Gilligan’s Island of flight crews: castaways, for better or worse, on a thin air island eight miles above and a world away.
Yet in the end, it’s not regret, really, that darkens your sky, but in a way it is: can’t be sure how any of what we landed just now turns out afterward, though I’m not sure I’m supposed to know. Back off; take a deep breath and set out once again on the ironclad litany for the eastbound flight, the homeward leg. Regret can wait; another worthy ark of eastbound hope and dreams and everything in between sails on at brake release and pushback in an hour. Claim a breath, a moment of peace, then get your head back in the game: details, captain, and promises you must keep for the hundred some souls on board.
Keep ’em, every one, defy the sunrise alone. Careful, truthful, the sky is the footpath home.
What we have here . . . is a failure to communicate.
You wouldn’t think it would be so hard for crewmembers to communicate in flight–we have the technology; interphone, PA system, headsets and handsets–even our oxygen masks on the flight deck are wired for sound.
Nonetheless, once the cockpit door is closed, communication dies a slow, miserable death and as captain–it’s YOU taking the Cool Hand Luke beating from the Road Boss.
You don’t like it, I don’t like it–but that’s the way he wants it . . . so he gets it.
Let’s start with what’s usually the first salvo, fired right as we climb through ten thousand feet. That’s the magic end of “sterile cockpit,” which is the time period when flight attendants know non-essential communications with the pilots is prohibited because it’s a phase of flight requiring our concentration in the cockpit, and distractions are not welcome. I have answered the crew interphone when we’ve received a call below 10,000 feet with the admonishment, “We’d better be on fire if you’re calling me now.”
But above ten thousand, here it comes: “Can you turn down the air?”
Sigh. What does that even mean? More cold air? More hot air? Higher temperature? Turn down? So begins twenty questions: “What is it you want?” Sadly, though, the whole thing is our own fault or, honestly, usually the F/O’s fault.
That’s because F/Os just CANNOT LEAVE THE TEMP CONTROLS ALONE. This is especially true of those with lingering brain damage from the MD-80, which essentially had a caveman vintage air conditioning system that DID require a lot of tweaking. On take-off, at full power, it could make snow in the back if you didn’t nudge the temp control valve off of the full-cold stop.
Not so with the Boeing–but F/Os HAVE to mess with it anyway–even though if the temp was comfortable on the ground, the Boeing will maintain that in flight.Nope–F/Os have to mess with it, have to do something, even though automatically, it’s fine left alone.
And that brings on the second failure to communicate. Inevitably, the F/O has to argue, usually tossing out, “Well, the duct temp says 75 degrees.”
Unfortunately, the crew interphone system is a party line, and the flight attendants are listening. Sigh. They don’t give a damn about the duct temp–neither do I–they just know if they’re comfortable. But that’s the pilot pigheadedness: we already know everything.
To reiterate, as I bump all three compartment temps down, just leave it alone, and give them whatever the hell they want. What do you care? You’re not back there.
Plus, use your head: this is a senior turnaround flight, with senior flight attendants swathed in layers of polyester, hauling carts and traipsing up and down the aisle. You think they want heat? You think I do? Sitting in the gazebo, direct sunlight–I constantly reach over and call for more cool air. You’re cold? Too bad–next flight, bring a sweater.
Now, let’s visit the cruise portion of our non-communication. The primary voice passengers hear is the PA, which announces information pertinent to our flight, like arrival time and weather. That’s key information for travelers and crew alike. But, there’s a catch: flight attendants can’t hear the PA.
For flight attendants, the PA is like a dog whistle: we can all hear it, average dogs that we are, but flight attendants are oblivious. You could have just said over the PA “we’ll be landing in one hour” and within minutes, the interphone chime will go off and the question will be, “When are we landing?” And not just once, because not only do flight attendants not hear the PA, they don’t talk to each other either. So you’ll get the same call two, maybe three times.
And never mind that you’ve given them a hard copy of the flight time before takeoff, and that they’ve typed that information into the touch screen at their station controlling the passenger information and entertainment system . . .
. . . and that touchscreen, if they look at it, will tell them how much longer we have left in the flight. But, that would mean they’d have to look at their watch, then do the math. Especially when we’re landing in a different time zone–it’s easier to just call up front and ask me. Right?
Well, maybe not me. My answer is usually relative: “About ten minutes early.” Which means: look at your watch. This is your flight–know your own schedule.
Or, look at the gee-whiz panel at your station, counting down the minutes. Or, do the unthinkable: ask one of your colleagues in the back? Nah. Whether it’s the temperature or the time, rather than ask each other, just call up front. All of you–not one call, but four, because you can’t hear the dog whistle or talk to each other. Even had a fifth flight attendant, just riding the aft jumpseat home 130 feet behind me, ask me to “cool off the back.” Seriously?
Okay, it’s a given: we work together, fly together, even all talk–sometimes at once–to each other. We just don’t communicate very well. So, my new policy is this: any time the crew interphone chimes, I look to the F/O and say, “It’s for you.” He’s the one screwing up the temp anyway.
And at least I’m happy, and that’s a start.