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From Sea Level to 737 Captain: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, flight crew, jet, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , on November 6, 2010 by Chris Manno

[Note: this is part of a continuing series describing what it’s like to become an airline captain on a brand new jet. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.]

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Midway through the simulator phase and there’s plenty good, some bad and a lot of ugly.

But the latter stuff, that’s just your perspective as a pilot. What the hell do you know?

Overall, it’s good to be handling hardware rather than clicking a mouse and watching animation. But there are rough patches. You can’t find anything. Reflex guides your hands to the wrong place: need a wider Nav display range? That’s not where it is. Looking for a map light? Uh-uh, it’s over there, not here, and it can’t exactly reach anyway.

And the HUD: a thousand bits of information before your eyes. But it’s all displayed in lime green, largely negating the symbol sorting aide provided by colors (red, warning, yellow, caution, green okay, blue, advisory) on all other displays. Plus, what doesn’t fit on the display is converted into a number: the all important radio altimeter hides in among a cash crop of abstract digits rather than as a moving display. But half of what you need to call for is based on its countdown–or up.

Here’s you on the controls: take it easy . . . what is this with the power steering? You’re flying with hamfists and pork brains, or at least that’s how it will feel in the back of the plane.

From the movie Airplane:

Gunderson: “He’s all over the place! Nine hundred feet up to 1300 feet. What an asshole!”

Ever fly a plane before? Well, yeah–the last 19 years on the MD-80 which handles like a pig in both pitch–especially pitch, being a long tube, and with un-powered ailerons. The 737 is a Maseratti by comparison. So you feel like a klutz, wing-rocking down final because it’s so sensitive–and you’re not. Which brings out your inner teacher:

Maddog jocks, you know the drill: put some smash on the jet, aim it at the runway. Cross the  threshold at fifty feet with a plus-five knots (I always did; admit it, you do too) over V-Ref  speed then snatch off all the power. But not in the Boeing.

And you’re your own worst critic. The real teacher? The Simulator Instructor? She’s great; real laid back, very calming demeanor in the briefing and in The Box (which is what we call the simulator). You learn better that way, the way she is: confident, knowledgeable yet very easy-going.

Cleared for the approach, read the fine print.

Still, need a conversion course for MD-80 “steam jet” pilots. But you’re figuring it out: LNAV VNAV is smart box stuff–FMC driven.  Where’s the IAS and vertical speed? Ah, there’s the magic.

But practically speaking, the hours in The Box are beginning to add up. Here’s what week one of the sims reveals:

1. You’ve become lazy as a pilot because there was no challenge to the same old Flintstone (do I really need to spell this out? PREHISTORIC Douglas jet) flight deck for too many years. Time to update and rethink the concepts such as Category III approaches hand-flown to a 50′ decision height (YGTBSM), 600 RVR, vertical navigation, and how twenty-first century technology has changed flying.

Simulator instructor's station. Right behind us; pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.

2. Boeing has made a stable hand-flying jet. That’s a good wing, a dependable airfoil. Feels substantial both in the flare and on rotation. Not so much lion taming with a whip and a chair like the MD-80. Plus power to spare, on the wing.

3. With the state-of-the art technology comes the challenge of lawyers and liability. Now procedures are driven by what just happened in court regarding some type of aircraft accident.

Anyone can fly like a pilot, but now you need to fly like an attorney. So many new restrictions and procedures that you can tell stem mostly from legal considerations and absolutely not from good flight practices. But that’s just the twenty-first century, right?

Still, so much to absorb, especially in the left seat: you’re going to sign for this jet and everyone on board in about ten days. You have to get this right, not just to pass a check, but for what you know is coming: that dark and stormy night when things start going to “the top of the pyramid:” options narrow, no way out, it’s up to you to out think and outdo whatever nasty situation that will–not might, will–test you in the air sooner or later.

Funny thing: flashback.

Pilot survival, from so many years ago. Back then, a “double-bang:” fly two sorties, back-to-back; formation, aerobatics–you name it. In between, a Coke and a bag of peanuts for you. The Coke had both caffeine and sugar to pep you up. Same deal now, at midpoint in every simulator session, in the Iron Kitchen now, in the Squadron Snack Bar back then, face still showing the outline of an oxygen mask, hair matted from a helmet.

Now, the Iron Kitchen is just an alleyway between simulator building, filled with vending machines and a few tables. It’s the crossroads of airline pilots all somewhere in sim world, whether on the break between sim periods on a check or like you, between training sim sessions. It’s the company of pilots at once lost in their own reverie about their sim check or like you, the right steps into a new jet, shooting the breeze, hangar flying, griping, laughing but regardless, it’s the folks who fly.

Just like back in the Air Force, the peanuts good and salty to put something on your stomach quick, then back to the struggle with an unruly jet that wants to get the better of you.

It didn’t then, and won’t now either. That I promise; I promise me, promise you. Believe it.

Coming next–and in the next installment of this blog: final preparation, the the FAA rating checkride. Stay tuned . . .

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From Sea Level to 737 Captain: Drinking From The Firehose.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, flight, flight crew, jet, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2010 by Chris Manno

Note: this is part of a series relating firsthand what it’s like to transition to a new jet as an airline captain. If you’d like to start from the beginning, click here.

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It gets this way eventually in all aircraft ground school:

“In the beginning, there were two molecules. Then Boeing added a hydraulic system, plus five auto-switching electrical distribution buses, and transformer-rectifiers . . . .”

Huh? That’s what we call “drinking from the firehose.”

There’s always a balance in teaching theory in a one-size-fits-all syllabus: some people need to know the “whys,” some just the “whats.” You’re the latter category–just tell me what it does.

Really don’t need the why (“the Force-Fight Monitor closes this solenoid which allows pressure from the standby pump to blah blah blah. . .”) but simply the “what:” if the PACK TRIP light comes on, you can reset it and if the temperature goes down, it will come back on line.

Everyone learns differently. So at this phase of what’s become an information overload, you develop your information filters. Primarily, being practical, the sort criterion “will this be on the three hour systems exam?” organizes your thinking and listening.

Now it’s all about the exams on Friday: the 14 “Immediate Action Items” which have to be regurgitated verbatim–or the whole exam process stops. No references, besides your already overloaded brain.

Then if you get by that hurdle, there’s the 3 hour systems exam: the computer database generates 100 questions from thousands possible and creates a unique exam for you. For this, you can use your Operating Manual (unfortunately, not the systems manual) and Quick Response Handbook, because you’ll have them both in flight anyway.

Then finally, a one hour exam on an active Flight Management Computer: can you manually (the jet does this itself via data link) input the route of flight, nav data and then use it for intercepts, route changes, climbs, descents, restrictions and holding without ending up lost over  Bumfuk, Egypt?

That’s four days from now.

The good news? At least the cockpit is starting to make sense. You can find most of the stuff you need now and the beginnings of familiarity with systems actuation and procedures become stronger every day.

And this is a cool jet. So it’s worth the struggle.

The Flight Academy has every conceivable training gizmo you could think of to help you understand the function of the systems. Here’s the “Star Wars Trainer,” which has animated displays and touch screens, along with animated schematics to show you what’s going on system-wise when you activate components.

The navigation systems work as well, so it’s a completely integrated trainer–probably cost a bazillion dollars–but has room for chairs and books and active schematics to blend the cockpit and classroom.

That’s emblematic of the Flight Academy: all the best equipment, a thorough and advanced syllabus, even the schedule is engineered to account for travel time (Bill’s based in New York and lives in North Carolina) and even food requirements.

What choice did I have? Now I'm addicted--to both the crackers and the Captain's position.

Instruction has been thorough and very good, although it’s probably inevitable that the instructor would start to get in our hair after so many hours. You’ve even considered saying, “Look, I’ll let you use my name in exchange for you not poking or kicking me every time you want my attention.” Guess that’s just the way it goes–only a couple more days of ground school anyway.

So here’s your practical approach now:

1. With Bill, decide if the class stuff applies to The Bigass Exam this week. If not–ignore and study what is. We know as line pilots that trivia doesn’t really help in the air, or on an exam.

2. Take the practice test over and over. Still scoring in the upper 70’s (need 85%), but that’s without the flight manuals we’ll be allowed to consult and it included a few systems we haven’t covered. Looks like we’re on-track to hit the 90’s by the exam day.

3. Max the tome-length “Immediate Action Item” test–and you have been hitting 100% on that.

4. Don’t lose your marbles over the byzantine Flight Management Computer operation. That’s been going smoothly and will continue as long as you don’t over-think it.

A few more systems trainers and simulator sessions but mostly, ground school is all about getting out of ground school: the exams are dead ahead. Let’s get through them and move on.

Coming up next here: after the inquisition, on to full motion simulators. And in two weeks, into the air in the real jet. School’s fine, but get  back in the air where you belong.

Flightcrew Zoo: Stupid Layover Tricks

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, cruise ship, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2010 by Chris Manno

When you’re shipwrecked with fellow crewmembers, there forms a special bond. Over the years, I’ve shared a few exceptionally memorable times “shipwrecked” on layovers with pilots and flight attendants who have become lifelong friends. Here are a couple of the most memorable stories.

Mile High-Jinks

Dave was a fairly senior 777 captain when he took early retirement a few years back. Before he did, when we’d pass in the terminal, besides saying “hi,” one of us would grab the other and say to our first officer, if they were nearby, “He can verify that galley story I told you is true.”

And the story was from twenty-plus years ago when Dave was a DC-10 First Officer and I was the Flight Engineer. We flew all month with the same flight attendants, enjoying long layovers in downtown Chicago. The core group of us–me, Dave, Jennifer, Marianne, Lynne and sometimes Lonnie (whom Marianne admonished for “wearing too much make-up for daytime”) went out every night in Chicago to some club or other night place. Everyone became fast friends and hated to see the end of the month come which would mean no more weekly Chicago long layovers.

To make our last trip memorable, the inherently devilish Marianne dreamed up a plan. During our last leg from Detroit to DFW late one night, I got a call on the flight deck. “There’s something wrong with the P-Lift,” Lonnie said. “Can you come back and have a look?” The “P-Lift” was one of the elevators from the mid-cabin galley to the lower deck galley. Typical that there would be a problem and being the engineer, typical that I’d have to go back and see about fixing it.

“They’re having trouble with the P-Lift,” I told Bob, the leisure suit-wearing captain who ditched us in Chicago every layover to go out with his boyfriend, we suspected, and also to let Dave know I’d be gone. “Be right back.” I grabbed my flashlight, turned on all the fuel boost pumps and headed for the main galley.

“Downstairs,” Lonnie deadpanned, pointing to the P-Lift. Okay, I thought the P-Lift was the problem, but let’s go downstairs. I hopped in, closed the door and pressed the down arrow. The lift lowered me into the darkness below. Hmmm, good thing I brought my flashlight.

Every ORD layover included a stop here after midnight.

The door opened to candlelight in the lower lobe galley. Blankets and pillows covered the floor, and Marianne, Jennifer and Lynne were sprawled out in their nightgowns. “Want to join our slumber party?” Marianne asked, the three of them totally ignoring the 250+ passengers upstairs.

About twenty minutes later, I re-entered the darkened cockpit acting as nonchalant as possible. “Uh, Dave,” I said, “I think you’d better go have a look.” Maybe he knew what was up, but he wasted no time unstrapping and heading back. At least twenty minutes later, Dave returned, grinning. As soon as he did, Bob started to unstrap, maybe thinking it was his turn but Dave very pointedly said “No!” All’s well, he said–no need for you to leave the cockpit. The ladies would have killed us if he’d shown up.

Before Dave retired, our First officers would shake their heads in disbelief at the story but with verification, they could only think back on “the good old days”–such a thing would never happen today.

I still see Marianne now and again, Lonnie too. Lynne quit flying in the 1990s, and Jennifer worked on all of her flight ratings and is no longer a flight attendant but rather, a fairly senior First Officer with us now.

Man The Lifeboats!

Back in the 1990s, we used to have long layovers in Long Beach on the Queen Mary, which had been converted into a floating hotel. We used to convene in the forward lounge which was an art-deco masterpiece. The fun trick was to recruit flight attendants who’d never been to The Queen to have a beverage on the forward veranda of the bar, outside overlooking Long Beach harbor.  The trick in that was the magic hour of 7pm, when they blew the ship’s horn which was located just above the veranda.  More than a few spilled drinks and near heart attacks resulted from the uninitiated experiencing that heart-stopping blast.

My First Officer and I had a good laugh at our flight attendants’ expense on one such trip. One in particular, Rhonda (I still see her now and then) vowed to get even, but we figured it was all in good fun and so thought nothing of it.

That particular layover, The Queen was full and so both he and I had been given adjoining suites instead of the regular crew cabins. Of course, the flight attendants didn’t believe us when we told them. “Here,” my First Officer said to Rhonda, handing her his room key, “see for yourself. I’ll get another key at the desk.” They left us to tour the ship–including his suite–while we opted to stay and watch the NBA playoffs in the lounge.

A couple hours later, the game ended and we headed below decks, me to my suite and my F/O to the front desk to get another key. We had fifteen hours before we had to fly again and so I was looking forward to at least ten hours of good sleep.

As soon as I unlocked my door, I heard water running. Not a good sign, especially on a ship, I decided. At the same moment–maybe I was a little slow from a couple cold beverages–I noticed that I was standing in an inch of water that was beginning to slosh. Again, the beverage-effect: WE’RE SINKING! I grabbed the phone and called the front desk . . . to the lifeboats! She’s going down! “Uh,” I stammered, “I need a plumber pretty quick here.”

A few minutes later, I had both a plumber and hotel security in my cabin. The plumber removed the towels stuffed in the sink and tub and had turned off the water. Hotel Security began to grill me. “Why did you flood your room?” Rhonda. “What?” I tried to act indignant. “Why would I douche out my own room?” The F/O’s key, the adjoining room. She’d gotten her revenge.

Eventually, the Security Agent decided that he couldn’t prove that I’d flooded my cabin, but as punishment, I was given a virtual broom closet of a cabin–the ship was booked full and I believe it actually had been a broom closet at one point–and so I slept with one eye open looking for the ghost that legend has it prowls the old ship’s quarters.

Even now when I cross paths with Rhonda in the airport or even on a flight she smiles slyly; I smile, too. Thankfully, she stopped saying “you deserved it” about ten years back, although she never actually admitted to the deed nonetheless.

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Flight Deck: Zoom With A View.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, elderly traveller, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2010 by Chris Manno

Wanted: the lucky few with vision.

Job title: Zoom With A View.

“Applicant must be willing to sit for long hours looking out window at ever-changing sky. Hours vary, as does the sky, and applicants must have the ability to stay alert regardless of the hour.

Must have the ability to play nicely with others, particularly in crowded airspace . . .

. . . where “bumping into a stranger” is never a good thing.

Job often requires eating on the fly.

Working with fun people in very close quarters.

Must keep an eye on details inside, while appreciating what’s going on outside as well.

Applicants must demonstrate innovative vision in traffic jams . . .

and an ability to capture a moment visually doesn’t hurt.


And on the ground . . .

Old meets new in Louisville

. . . it’s helpful to have an eye for the sublime,

. . . and a tolerance for the absurd.

Workplace security is provided by a specialized force of hand-picked officials

trained and employed by a government agency.

How can you NOT rest easy when they are responsible for your security? Well, never mind that.

Paperwork is kept to a minimum,

. . . and stunning views are at the maximum

. . . if you just look.

Nonetheless, must see that people are what really matter anyway

especially when it’s “us against the world” of delays and weather and maintenance problems . . .

. . .  you realize who your friends are,

sometimes, if you’re lucky, for life.

So vision is key, maintaining perspective crucial. Applicants must be able to perceive magnificence in the minute

in order to realize what really matters, and be able to recognize your own minuteness next to the magnificient

in order to see with humility

and perceive humanity with the the appropriate respect.

Applicants simply need several thousand pilot hours of jet time to apply; approximately one in two hundred will be selected.

Views provided free.

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Flightcrew Zoo: Sky God & Switch Bitch

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by Chris Manno

(First in an occasional series profiling classic flight crew members)

Those were the days.

The captain was a “sky god” in every sense of the term. Well liked-by crewmembers on both sides of the flight deck door, he’d advanced through the pilot ranks over twenty-some years to the top of the heap: senior captain on the widebody.

I was the “switch bitch,” or “plumber,” or any of the other unflattering sobriquets that designated the new-hire flight engineer. I loved it regardless, having landed on the DC-10 flight engineer’s panel fresh-faced and new after seven years as an Air Force pilot. Sure, I was “sitting sideways,” doing my apprenticeship on the flight engineer’s panel rather than at the pilot controls up front.

But that would come soon enough–a copilot’s seat on a narrow body jet was mine for the asking within months. I had chosen instead to do my probationary year at the DC-10 panel because there was less chance of anything happening that could lead to termination, which was always a possibility for a probationary pilot. Seemed like a good way to breeze through probation, sitting at the mostly automated DC-10 engineer’s panel. What could be easier?

It was a sub-zero day at O’Hare. I’d finished my walk-around inspection on the frozen ramp and then shed sweater, overcoat, scarf, hat and gloves and sat back down at the engineer’s panel, waiting for pushback after all 250 passengers had boarded.

Captain Skygod sat in the left seat, feet propped up on the instrument panel, idly thumbing through a golf magazine. The First Officer sat like a zombie, having done nothing, which was the beauty of that job as I later enjoyed myself  for a year or so.

One of our nine flight attendants interrupted our reverie.

“We have a bag problem in back,” she sighed. “Could use some help.”

Skygod didn’t even look up. “Why don’t you go back and see what you can do, son.”

The First Officer smirked at me over his shoulder, telegraphing he means you, which of course I already knew.

“Yessir.” I unstrapped, grabbed my hat and headed for the main cabin.

I squeezed past the boarding throng to the mid-cabin where an irate woman argued loudly with three flight attendants–a fight she seemed to not realize she could never win. It seems that the garment bag storage was full and so the flight attendants were insisting the woman’s overstuffed garment bag be checked in the cargo hold below. That was not acceptable to the red-faced, irate woman.

“Look,” I said, gently but  firmly pulling the garment bag out of her hands, “I’ll personally take this downstairs and place it in the cargo hold then bring you the claim check.”  The flight attendants nodded, hustling me off before the glaring woman could protest.  “Thanks,” one flight attendant whispered, clearing a path for me to the entry door.

In shirt sleeves still, I carried the bag out the jet bridge door and into the sub-zero freezing cold, down the steep stairs to the arctic ramp. I carefully placed the bag in a cargo container set to be loaded aboard, then return half-frozen with the baggage claim check to the mid cabin. I found the woman at her seat, still fuming.

“Here you are, ma’am,” I said, handing her the baggage claim check.

She snatched it from my hand, giving me a look that could bend a spoon and snapped, “You f*cking asshole.”

Fine.

Back to the jet bridge, out into the freezing cold; down the icy stairs to the frozen ramp. Find the baggage pallet–there’s the bag. Rip the baggage tag off of it; drag it to the gate next door–a Super-80 heading who-knows-where. Toss it into the cargo compartment. Race back upstairs half frozen.

I slipped back into my seat, shivering. Skygod was still flipping through his magazine. After a moment, he spoke.

“Did you get that baggage thing worked out?”

I turned the cockpit heat up a notch. “Uh, yessir. All worked out.”

He nodded, never looking up. “You do good work, son.” Nice guy that he was, I knew he’d give me a glowing recommendation on the probation report he’d fill out on me later.

I survived my probationary year and moved up to the copilot’s seat on a narrow body jet. The flying was more fun with a set of controls, but I missed the DC-10 days of motoring around the system without any real responsibilities–save the occasional “baggage situation.”

I flew many miles with Captain Skygod until we parted ways: he moved up from the domestic flying to the coveted trans-oceanic trips; I upgraded to the copilot position on the MD-80.

Then the only time I’d see him was in the airline employee lot as I was arriving at the buttcrack of dawn to fly a cruddy junior-guy trip and he was just returned from his Honolulu flight.

He’d stationed his RV which the crews nicknamed “The Whale” in the lot so he and most of his pilots and flight attendants could enjoy “happy hour” after flying all night. As the sun was rising, you could hear the whirring of his blender, laughter and tinkling glass from “The Whale” as the rest of the world began their work day.

Ever the gentleman, after the mai-tais had been free flowing for an hour or so he let the muu-muu clad flight attendants have first dibs on the lav. Eventually, he was busted for using a light pole to relieve himself and the airport police invited him to remove The Whale and never bring it back as a quid pro quo for not arresting him.

Captain Skygod retired from our airline at what used to be the mandatory age of 60, but went on to fly 747’s somewhere overseas. I lost track of him over the years and having been a captain myself for 19 years now, I doubt he’s still flying. But when I think of him and those days, I have to smile, and only wish we could get away with half the things we used to do back then.

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Airline Passengers: Are YOU “That Guy?”

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, layover, life, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2010 by Chris Manno

You know “that guy,” the one passenger, man or woman, who is annoying bordering on obnoxious–but is the only one who doesn’t recognize what a pain they are.

There’s always “that guy” at some point in the day’s thousand or so miles in the air. Typically, 350 to 450 passengers over the multiple flight legs board and deplane and in between, one or more reveal themselves as “that guy.”

Who’s he? Let me introduce you.

First, there’s the mangled lingo guy. Going to make conversation in the argot of the crew, right? What “runs” are you doing? That’s my favorite, although don’t forget the close cousin, what’s your route?

Both tired questions conjure the image of Ralph Kramden for me. Except that the average bus driver never aimed a 75 ton pile of pig iron ripping along at 200 miles per hour at a concrete slab he couldn’t see until a matter of second before the wheels finally touched the ground, nor navigated the same beast 7 miles up at 500 miles per hour.

There’s Ralphie’s “Main Street to 4th” run, and there’s my flight sequence, which is usually 3 legs somewhere to somewhere, then a hotel.

I don’t have a “run” or a “route,” because after 24 years, I really don’t care about most destinations anyway. Rather, like most flight crew members who’ve been around a while, I’m all about whatever flight sequence–2 or 3 days–requires the least amount of time away from home.

Destination? Who cares, although I do try to fly south in the winter, vice versa in the summer (all birds do that, right?) to lessen the weather hassles in and out of the airport. But as far as the “glam” spots? Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, Miami, New York? Who cares? I’d rather be at home with my family.

Part of that is the “been there, done that” effect of hundreds of “runs” (JUST KIDDING–it’s “trips”), part of it is the weariness of the suitcase life, being on the road and NOT having your place, your stuff and most importantly–your time. Because it’s not your time, it’s a work schedule.

Once in Puerto Vallarta, the hotel ran out of standard rooms and put me (“El Capitan,” they said) in the Presidential Suite. Two problems with that:

1. I spent the night sleeping with one eye open, just knowing a band of drug cartel banditos would eventually kick the door in, kidnap me mistakenly (“No, I’m just a lowly crewmember, not a gazillionaire who could afford this outrageous luxury and by the way–check out the grand piano in the living room!”) and then mail home my chopped-off ear with a ransom note, although Darling Bride would probably request a larger appendage as confirmation and the airline would deny even knowing me. Not good rest there.

2. The luxury suite just reminds me that I’m NOT on vacation, I’m not here with my family enjoying beach time or happy hour or the scarf-till-you-barf “Can I Get Immodium With That” buffet. I have to get up early and get my butt back into the polyester and get to work. Just stick me in a broom closet for my lavish nine and a half hours at sea level.

Besides that, I usually don’t even check where I’m going until the night prior and up until then, I’m probably trying to trade my trip for any open trip requiring a captain that has less time away and less work involved. So we really don’t have “runs” or “routes” anyway, and I’ll trade any trip for Tulsa-Omaha if it gets me home quicker and less painfully.

The next “that guy?” He’s “Mr. I Have Frequent Flyer Status.” He–or she, often–differs from the real frequent flyer who is characterized by the efficiency with which he boards, stows his things, sits down, says “please” and “thank you” and doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

I'm a "Triple-Axel" elite!

By contrast, those who are impressed by their mileage category or the goofy distinctions airlines dreamed up to make them feel important (“I’m a premium/zirconium/gold circle/fat cat/lead pipe/triple Axel status holder . . .”) run headlong into those who are simply trying to do a good job for everyone, despite the marketing opiate of mileage status.

"Ain't I got status!"

This person is likely to remark to me at some point, “Bet I have more time in ‘these babies’ than you do.” Doubtful, unless you’re in the air more than 900 hours a year and even then, actually flying “these babies” requires more than napping in back in a filthy seat between snoring mothers with squalling lap kids–but better you than me.

Finally, the least obnoxious but often the most disturbing:

We know why you fly: it's cheaper than Greyhound and Amtrak has a dress code.

Unlike the “Status Dork,” these folks don’t mean to be annoying and often, don’t have the experience to not be that way. Never mind the little things like asking if there’s a toaster or microwave in the galley (“Sure–right by fridge and the sink”) or using the lav in only socks or less (“Ewww, but thanks for mopping the floor!”), it’s the stopping dead in the middle of a moving terminal throng, or never knowing their own travel details:

“Is this my gate?” “Give me a hint: where are you going? And god forbid, what’s your flight number?”

It’s just the unfamiliarity with the environment–like me in the dentist’s office or the American Girl Store–

That's NOT me--I took the picture.

it’s the circumstances that make normal people (the “beast” playing with dolls) do silly-looking things they wouldn’t otherwise do, especially if they knew how it made them look. Get the picture?

So if you don’t fly often, it’s not your fault, BUT GET A CLUE:

Dress appropriately. This ain’t a garage sale or a day at the beach. In my Air Force flying, we were told to–and I did–consider the effects of fire on your flying garb. And so we wore Nomex fire-retardent flight suits and even gloves though often it was pretty hot in the cockpit, with cotton underneath, mindful of the melting-onto-bare-flesh effect of artificial fibers when jet fuel burns.

Okay, you don’t need to be that paranoid, but is the T-shirt, cut-offs and flip flops thing going to work for you on your way home from O’Hare in January, never mind if you make an unexpected stop?

Besides, every type of clothing doesn’t look good on every type of body, so just because you’re traveling to an unfamiliar destination doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily look good in whatever they wear there.

When you get home with your Bolivian halter top or bead-laced hair, in the context of a normal day–you’re going to ask yourself “why the hell did anyone think this looked good?” Trust me: we’re asking that as you walk through the airport and onto the plane.

Nix the wife beater shirt, the ripped garage-cleaning wardrobe, the beach wear. Just dress decently and act that way, too. Know where you’re going and on which flight. Say please and thank you where appropriate, and try not to be too impressed with your mileage status or how many hours you have “in these babies.” Things will work out better that way.

And you won’t be “that guy.”

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Click here to listen to my interview along with the P.R. Director of Air Tran Airlines and the regular panel of Airplane Geeks discussing pending airline legislation, The Passenger Bill of Rights, the replacement of Air Force One, and many passenger-related airline issues.

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Inflight Insanity: My Top 5 List

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, lavatory, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Chris Manno

Twenty-four years and counting as an airline pilot–the past 19 as captain–have taught me to never say or think “now I’ve seen it all.” Because just when you think you have, something like #1 below happens.

I still expect to have many more years of flying ahead. But I can say that over these flying years so far I’ve seen a lot of almost unbelievably bizarre things that I wouldn’t have thought could ever happen in the airline world had I not seen them myself–even though often, I wished I hadn’t. Here, then, is my list of the top five weirdness, at least so far, and the valuable lessons in each.

5. A short, stocky taciturn man connecting onto our flight south after clearing Customs from Shang Hai boarded our plane early. He headed to the last row, sat down, dropped his tray table and pulled a strange device from his carry-on bag. This calculator-sized gizmo had blinking lights, a few loose wires, and an LCD display that flashed an ever-changing series of numbers. He then draped his jacket over his head and most of the tray table, tenting himself in seemingly intense concentration on the strange device’s number display.

Of course, that freaked out the flight attendants supervising boarding. They called me on the flight deck and reported the whole oddball situation. Sigh. Why couldn’t he be on someone else’s flight? I called operations and requested a Passenger Service agent to investigate what certainly was abnormal passenger behavior.

The guy spoke only Chinese and tried to ignore any requests to deplane. Eventually, law enforcement officers were summoned to ask him a few questions. As he was led off the plane by Passenger Service agents, glaring at everyone and muttering in some Mandarin dialect, I made sure to stand behind the waiting police officers just in case he went Ninja-crazy with some obscure martial arts move from deepest China, ripping out your heart with one hand and showing it to you as you collapse.

Found out at our next stop that investigators–and translators–determined that the man’s strange device was a “random number generator”that he liked to stare at because it “calmed him down” since he was afraid of flying. Lesson here: don’t act like a weirdo-zombie with a strange device during boarding. It freaks out the crew.

4. In flight, I kept hearing a male voice outside the cockpit door. We had an all-female cabin crew on that flight, so I knew it wasn’t one of their voices I heard. I had made the standard P.A. reminding passengers that congregating near the galleys was not allowed. I also heard a muffled female voice sounding urgent in between words from the male voice. The seatbelt sign was on, so no passengers should have been up anyway.

Sigh. Can’t everyone just stay seated when the seatbelt sign is on? Of course not. I called back to the forward flight attendant, asking what was going on. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” she answered, then asked me to make another seatbelt P.A.. That worked–the male voice vanished.

Later, the #1 flight attendant came up to explain why the man was standing outside of the cockpit door and mostly in her galley. “He had just come out of the forward lav and was doing calisthenics of some sort. I asked him what he was doing and he said he’d been feeling gassy, went into the lav to pass gas but couldn’t, so he was trying to work out a big fart.”

Lesson #4: share your gas with your fellow passengers near your seat–not up front. We’re busy flying the plane and breathing is key.

3. During boarding in Puerto Vallarta, a woman with a grating New Jersey accent poked her head into the flight deck and demanded “can you guarantee that there are no peanuts on this plane?”  I thought about it and realized I really can’t guarantee that. We don’t have any peanuts in the catering, but who knows if other passengers may have some with them as a snack? Peanuts are not a prohibited item. “No,” I answered slowly, pretty sure I was correct, “I really can’t guarantee that.”

“Well,” she snapped back, “my son has a severe peanut allergy and if there’s so much as one peanut on this plane, he’ll go into convulsions. So you’d better be sure.” Then she huffed off to the back of the plane where her husband and son were seated.

My first officer looked at me with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin that said what are you going to do, captain?

Sigh.

Sigh. I called Operations on one of the VHF radios and requested a phone patch with the 24-Hour Physician On Duty at Headquarters. After hearing the woman’s story, he made the corporate recommendation: deplane the family. That would be my choice as pilot-in-command as well, because I don’t really want to do an emergency descent and landing on some crude runway in a foreign country with questionable medical help anyway.

I called to the back of the plane and asked the flight attendants to pass along the directive to deplane to the peanut-sensitive family. Within the twenty seconds it would take to stride the 130 feet from the back to of the jet to the front, we suddenly had an irate man with a grating New Jersey accent standing between the First Officer and me.

“We’re not getting off,” he announced, “so you just go about your business.”

I put on my game face. “Well sir, the decision has been made at corporate headquarters. It’s out of my hands–you’ll need to gather your belongings and deplane. We can’t risk your son going into convulsions in flight as your wife warned us.”

“Ignore her,” he said with a wave of his hand. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And we’re not deplaning.” He stomped off.

Sigh. I called Puerto Vallarta Operations and explained that we would need law enforcement to escort some passengers from the flight. “Si, senor,” came the cheery reply,” we will send you some help.”

Good enough. I went back to gazing at the palm-studded landscape, the sunny breeze, the ocean in the distance . . . the dumptruck full of soldiers with semi-automatic rifles pulling up in front of of the aircraft.

Huh? “Looks like the cavalry is here,” my First Officer remarked idly.

I called the Flight Attendants in the back of the plane. “Could you send Mr. Congeniality up front one more time?”

Shortly, the Jersey guy reappeared, looking annoyed. “You can’t make us get off. I know my rights.”

“Well, if you look out there,” I pointed to the twenty-some soldiers fidgeting in the hot sun, now line abreast with their weapons unslung in front of the camouflaged dumptruck. “Those folks there are going to help you off the plane if you don’t go on your own.”

He stomped off with mild cursing; shortly the whole family deplaned with Mr. Congeniality muttering threats about “rights” and “lawsuits.” The soldiers looked disappointed as they climbed back into the truck. No guerilla assault today.

Lesson #3: get your story straight before you board. And try to avoid phraseology like, “you can’t make me.”

2. Flying with my favorite flight attendant of all time as #1 flight attendant. We’re inbound to DFW from somewhere up north, and about an hour from landing, The Gorgeous One calls me on the flight deck.

“Just so you know,” she tells me, “we have a guy in First Class saying he needs oxygen, he’s having trouble breathing, and he’s already had three heart attacks.”

Sigh. So close to home, and yet so far away; imagine the paperwork in this. But no one ever dies in flight, I tell myself–they’re just incapacitated. Much less paperwork that way.

The Most Beautiful Flight Attendant of All Time finds a nurse on board who takes the guy’s vital signs while I query the navigation data base for the closest airport with at least a 5,000 foot runway: Tulsa.

The First Officer starts the divert procedures without me having to say anything. The nurse reports that the guy is having chest pains, too. The corporate Doctor-on-Call concurs: land the plane, get the guy some help. I tell Darling Bride we’ll be on the deck in fifteen minutes. Sorry hon–your day just got longer, but I know you want to get him on the ground before he needs the jumper cables.

Like clockwork, we secure the necessary clearances and point the nose towards Tulsa. Medical help on the ground is standing by, ready to whisk Mr. Cardio off the plane and to a medical center. Good deal? Nope.

The passenger doesn’t want to land in Tulsa. Maybe the thought of dying in Oklahoma–living there would be awful enough–is too much for him to contemplate. Whatever–he’s now livid. That’s not helping his heart rate any.

We land safely and taxi right to a gate were an ambulance waits.

Medics strap him to a gurney and wheel him off the plane, protesting all the way, yelling about the pilot’s (that’s me) incompetence. Well, there’s certainly that, plus the thousands of dollars the divert cost, never mind the inconvenience to the hundred or so other passengers with normally operating central circulatory pumps who would likely miss their connections in DFW as a result of the immediate action to save his life. And to save me the paperwork, but regardless: buh-BYE.

Lesson #4: no good deed goes unpunished. Nonetheless, if you’re going to have cardiac problems, we’re going to try to save your life. So have your heart attack quietly if your downline connection is that important.

And the Number One bizarro experience, at least most recently:

1. We’d pre-boarded a thirty-something individual who had mobility issues. A travel aide whose sole purpose was to attend to this passenger’s needs also boarded. Once they were comfortably settled and we were about to start general boarding, a mechanic announced that a necessary system check would cause a delay. So we stopped boarding, figuring the passengers would prefer the more spacious terminal for their delay. But the pre-boarded folks remained in the cabin.

After about twenty minutes, the passenger sent the travel aide into the terminal to fetch some junk food.

I saw the travel aide leave the jet bridge because I was at the gate counter on the phone with dispatch, coordinating a new flight release.

Then I noticed on the computer screen I was viewing that the crew list had changed: the number one flight attendant position was vacant.

Huh? I’d only been off the plane for a matter of minutes.

My First Officer filled me in when I returned to the cockpit: as soon as the travel aide left, the individual decided a trip to the lav was an urgent necessity. Which couldn’t happen without the travel aide.

So the number one flight attendant, being somewhat of a saint with perhaps a touch of insanity, agreed to help, holding a styrofoam coffee cup for the still seated passenger.

THREE TIMES. And apparently, on the last “cupful,” through some anomaly of aim, trajectory or hydraulics, our flight attendant ended up hosed down.

And so we ended up with a replacement flight attendant.  There’s no “sigh” with this one–just “ewwwwww,” plus see also lesson #4: “no good deed goes unpunished.”

And here’s lesson #5: just when you think you’ve seen it all–watch out. I just don’t say those words any more, and now you know why.

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