Archive for storm

Nightshift: Meditations From A Dark Sky.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, blind faith, cruising, faith, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, life, night, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2010 by Chris Manno

There’s a soundtrack especially for this text.

Click here to download the music, adjust the volume, click play, then return here to read.

Ah, the sun: sneaky devil.

Puts on the same show twice–once at dawn, again at dusk. One’s the same as the other, only in reverse; one followed by darkness, the other brilliance. How are you supposed to know which is the real deal, which the rerun? What’s the day’s main event, darkness or light?

It’s a different world once the sun sinks into the far west leaving the sky empty cold and black.  Happens slowly in a showy way as if the dazzling exit can somehow justify the expectation of an equally brilliant return in a matter of hours.

It’s a major league show no matter where you view it from but especially from six or seven miles up. Because even if the sun sets behind you, the sky spreads the news, repainting the image in case you missed it.

Topside, a quick brush from the crimson lip burning away behind you slaps rouge on the towering boomer ahead. But the sun’s not quite done, still spreading the gold above and over the gathering darkness. That’s the cool thing about a perch seven miles high: you can see the night sneaking in between the sun’s angle over the curve of the earth and the actual horizon.

Twins abound: look at the ghosts below, clouds and their doubles. Like magic, darkness mimes light, twin schooners in flight.

Racing away from the sunset, trailed by the hulking shadows of thunderbumpers behind pointing ahead, monstrous cloud stacks thunder east.

But we’re way too fast in a jet to be caught. But do you think any of the ordinary mortals below see the sunset striated with bruising blue fingers and will put two and two together hours later when the thunder booms and lightning streaks away?

Closer look? Sometimes the sky is so thick with boomers there’s no choice but to pick your way through the darkness with our x-ray vision at least giving you a fighting chance.

Sure, you can slip between the big-shouldered thunderstorms, but they let you know who’s boss and why it’s important that you don’t get too close.

It’s not that I only appreciate the sunset at the expense of the sunrise–I don’t. It’s just that I find little reason to get up early enough (yeah, I used to have to) to see what I know is replaying later anyway.

This could be either, couldn’t it? Except that I’ll tell you that it’s heading west, as we all do. Maybe that’s the point of the light show at the end of the day: reminds you of old times, of the past, of mornings when this tired day was new and all things were possible, all things ahead. That’s all behind you at sunset.

And that’s where everyone’s headed, eventually. Follow the trail, enjoy the show. Not sure, but I think it’s nature’s version of the Faustian cataclysm in Renaissance drama: sound and fury, flash and fire.


Then darkness. Silence opposing the dwindling flash, swallowing the glaring echo of day’s brilliance. All that’s left is the veiny glow of feeble ground lights allowed only after sunset to inscribe a a place on earth.

Sometimes it’s the darkness itself that provides a backdrop for a place born and bred of night. Only dazzling when not competing with the sun, when the absence of light takes away the blemishes and without shadows, grounding everything as if there were no tomorrow, as if it weren’t hopelessly locked between nightfall and dawn like the underworld.

Sometimes, it’s just a nameless town, a place marked by the headlights like strung jewels inching through arteries that map the topography.

And then I always wonder, looking down, who are all these people, and where are they going? What are they doing under their artificial light, earthbound and not noticing the night?

Or maybe they are looking at the sky, seeing our twin strobes as a satellite whizzing soundlessly by miles overhead. Maybe they wonder where we’re headed, who we are way above and so soon, at our jet speed, far beyond the horizon and into the dark unknown.

Either way, we’re all headed traveling the same road. Sunrise, sunset; flash and fury; darkness, dawn, darkness, dawn, the parade goes on and on.

Same show every day: evening’s about darkness, morning–light. Despite the crushing certainty of night, everyone bets on the dawn and no one’s leaving before the last encore.

And so, life goes on; day to day and always. Crafty, that sun is.

Flight Time: Soothsayers, Stooges, Sages and Thunder.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, blind faith, faith, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2010 by Chris Manno

Time is pretty sneaky when hooked up with his silent partner, motion. You think you’ve got all the time in the world–and relatively speaking, maybe you do–but where you’re headed will force your hand nonetheless.

Can I get by everything in my way? Am I above it all? Or do I need to change course? Ah, the curse of forethought and the knowledge of a future rushing your way.

Can you really look too far ahead, and if you do, can you get an accurate picture of what’s in your way? Can we trust the seers and soothsayers we look to for their view of the future?

Do they really know, or are they just telling you what they see, rather than what’s real?

There’s no shortage of people with answers to sell but that all depends on your buy-in: do they really have the answer you need? Can they see the path ahead of you? Even if they can, what will change between the time they give their view and when the picture ahead becomes near and real?

Can you really have faith in either art or science claiming to transcend the barriers of time and space and help you understand the future? I guess some people do, because they continue to ask the experts for a vision or at least a forecast.

Always good to have options, right? And a backup plan.

And information is always good, with a catch: predictions, visions and forecasts are all helpful, but nothing beats realtime information. What’s happening right now? What’s happening on the path ahead this minute, this second?

That’s where time and place coincide: worry is because there’s nothing you can do until they meet.

Now the picture is clear–not a prediction, not a forecast, but at last, square in your face. Now you can take action: evaluate your options. You could wait:

Fine a place to hold off to the side until the storm passes. Of course, that presumes we’re talking about a “passing storm,” not anything permanent.

Another option would be to plow right on through and hope it’s just a temporarily bumpy ride:

Some folks choose to plunge headlong into the storm. Maybe they’re mislead by the earliest look at things–where maybe from afar there seems to be a safe passage through the ugliness, based on a forecast or an earlier report. “Look–a sucker hole. Can we make it before it closes up?” That puts YOU in the business of predicting the future.

And the only thing predictable with perfect reliability is that things will continue to change. Opportunities for safe passage vanish in an instant and there you are, nose to nose with big trouble. With the escape path blocked. With no options but straight ahead.

Oops! The sucker hole is closing fast . . .

Where are the soothsayers now? Where’s the clear path, based on a few minutes ago? That’s why I’m a confirmed pessimist, at least at work. Expect the worst. Count on it. Plan for it.

I knew this was going to happen. So we have a couple tons of fuel to spare–we can outlast the storm. We can go the extra miles around the tumult and so just not care what it does in the near term–or ever.

Well folks, slight delay here as we give trouble a wide berth. We didn’t worry too much in our flight planning as to whether there’d be problems along the way–rather, we just planned on it. And so we have the range we need to keep life smooth for all of us.

Don’t really need soothsayers or good luck charms–just tons of fuel and patience.

Like mayhem in life, lightning in flight is best enjoyed as a spectator:

That’s life. Craziness is fine, as long as you’re just a casual observer and can step around the insanity. Forget the soothsayers and stooges telling you what they think you want to hear. You already know what you need to dodge the thunder.

Here’s how that looks from the flight deck. You can relax in back and enjoy the view–we’ve got time and distance all under control for you.

There’s always a way around, if you’re ready now, never mind “then” or whatever “they” predict. It’s a big sky, thankfully. Plan accordingly.

Flying the Summer Chameleon

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, jet, life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2010 by Chris Manno

We’re flying creatures of the season, consciously or not. Unlike birds, though, despite the plumage, we transcend the simple “south in winter” edict and scatter to the corners of the globe in summer. But like landscape, we seem to brighten up as we warm.

Maybe it’s because there’s more leisure travel that the colors are brighter. Perhaps folks match their demeanor with their color scheme–dead serious drab dressy for work,

Bust let’s cut loose a little on vacation, right? And the destination, not the journey is the matchup:

It’s that place you hold in your mind’s eye that’s the wardrobe match-up.  Sure, that might clash a little en route, or maybe it’s even supposed to

at least not as long as there are no natural predators around. Mostly, though, we seem to ignore the “now” part of getting there and picture ourselves wherever we’re going. Which is fine–I do it too

But the part that would be a shame to miss is the color en route. Because it seems like around early to mid-May, the landscape wakes up too and furious colors erupt as if making up for lost time. There are parts of the country whose colors may stay roughly the same, but the bright light of a tilted earth in this hemisphere’s summer casts a more brilliant spotlight deepest colors.

Same on the surface, too, if you stop and look. In the flight crew business, surface transportation in a strange town is typically on foot–which gives you time and proximity to take the up-close look at the colors of summer. Lousiville goes all out with their flowers

Block by block I stumble into someone’s flower beds, finally awake and blooming. Not to say, though, that the Big Picture landscape from altitude is any less dramatic:

The badlands of Utah and Arizona seem to gain their second wind in Spring, with deep colors that from miles above seem to be painted with a heavy brush.

When you’re walking (or running, although I have to retrace my steps with camera for anything cool) it’s easier to notice the little details of beauty that are the careless by-product of Spring and summer.

Just a few days (and in my case, a few thousand air miles) later, the fury of the yellow dots fade (I checked) but for this slow moment, what could be brighter?

Even just the sky alone is puffed up with swelling ocean moisture heated by sunlight then boiling up into towering storms, shoulder to shoulder daring you to either top them or go a hundred miles out of your way–which we often have to do.

That of course adds to the colors on our radar map display as well, another sign of the season.

But that’s okay–a few hundred extra miles in a week is no big deal, and the view, as with the short-lived flowers, is worth appreciating while you’re there. And the closer you get to the ocean, the more rambunctious the towering cumulus gets.

In hot weather, flying in Florida reminds me of the South Pacific where the thunderstorms were so tall you couldn’t even see the tops–you just went around them.

And before things get too ungodly hot, a morning walk in the California desert still gives a burst of color if you look.

That’ll be gone by the end of summer. And so will the flying chameleon: it’ll be back to the drabness of bundled layers, colder weather, duller light and subdued colors.

But until then, while you head for your brightest vacation spot, don’t miss the bright chameleon en route both on the ground and five miles in the air. Sure, keep that destination image in the forefront of you mind as you travel, because that makes the trip seem easier, doesn’t it?

And while I take you where you need to go, I’ll be seeing this . . .

. . . but since it’s summer and the season to enjoy a colorful excursion, I’ll be thinking this:

Safe and colorful travels, whether at 2 miles per hour or 500. Enjoy.

Just throw your airfare under the car.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2010 by Chris Manno

This is me looking down on my old high school–literally, not figuratively–where as a freshman, I had a neighborhood paper route.

It’s significant for me now to look down on my old paper route there–the Sacramento Bee, daily and Sunday, over a hundred customers–because in those days I looked up from my bike as I tossed newspapers, wistfully watching the airliners climbing toward the Sierras. I have the better of the two views now.

But I also relate to a “customer service” lesson I learned on the paper route that’s just as valid from my present perspective a few miles above my old paper route and and two hundred times faster than bike speed.

The biggest pain every month had to be collecting from customers. And the worst of that was at the house of a junior high school principal who lived on the route.

Ring the bell. Wait. He comes to the door and points to his driveway.

“Your money’s under the car–where I normally find my paper.” Crawl under the car; at least he usually had exact change. Every month.

Which didn’t seem fair, because his paper wasn’t under his car every day. Just now and then, because I had about 137 papers to throw from my moving bike, often with a dog or two chasing me, and a lot of days in the rain.

I think of that percentage as we top the Sierras (that’s Lake Tahoe in the middle)  because we’re running about forty minutes late.

Of the one hundred and forty people on board, I’m sure that one or two are steaming like my old customer, wanting to see me crawl under the car because this is what “always happens.” No dogs chasing me this time, but yes, weather slowing things down and a traffic-jammed Air Traffic Control system.

For that guy, and those of his ilk, there’s no explaining what goes on and why–they’re really not listening anyway and just want to tell their neighbors about how the paperboy has to crawl under the car to get his measly $3.50 a month.

But for the majority of reasonable folks on board, here’s a behind the scenes explanation for the common frustration experienced by all but seemingly insurmountable for the “under the car” minority.

Why doesn’t the pilot tell us what’s going on? Well, because  . . . it is going on: two nights ago, we were taxiing in the aluminum conga line to the runway, watching on radar as a ring of storms converged on the airport.

There’s no time to spare. I’m recalculating fuel burn for a new route, listening to and answering ground control giving instructions on one radio, monitoring the other radio that my first officer is on negotiating a new route from Clearance Delivery and steering the jet with my feet on the rudder pedals. And that’s not all that’s “going on;” it’s taking shape as the minutes tick by and the ring of towering cumulus closes in on the airport. I don’t have time to step out of the task mix and say “here’s what’s happening” because it’s changing by the minute.


It’s difficult enough when one of the Flight Attendants call up and ask “What’s the delay?” The answer would be, “I’m doing five things at once; don’t call me back unless we’re on fire.” Most Flight Attendants realize that and don’t call. If they do, I realize they’re taking heat from the hundreds of eyeballs boring into theirs as they sit on their emergency exit jumpseats. Any wonder why some of them may be a little defensive?

So–I know this is not what you want to hear, but–if I’m not saying anything on the P.A., it’s because there’s nothing for me to say and no time to say it anyway. And even what information there is changes by the minute. Even if you wanted to be part of the chaos, I don’t have the time to narrate what’s going on and still keep up with it and stay on top of our flight priority in the mix. Can you just get started on your crossword puzzle and trust that we’re doing our jobs as efficiently and safely as we can?

Once we do get into the air, we have another 4 hours of flight.  So make it the New York Times crossword: it’s in the “Entertainment” section, on the driveway. Under your car.

Meanwhile, lighten up on the paperboy, okay? He’s doing the best he can.

Halfway From Yesterday.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, cruise ship, cruising, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, life, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by Chris Manno

The world from cruise altitude seen from the flight deck is a lie: looking straight ahead, it seems as if you’re suspended motionless miles high, floating. Neither here nor there, it seems, and there’s the illusion–in reality, you’re crossing the dirt seven miles below approaching the speed of a shotgun blast.

That’s the world between here and there and really, I think it’s less obvious if you don’t spend as much time there as I do. Sure, we’re all in the same jet, but you’re between wherever–and whomever–you just left, and who and whatever it is you’re going to see. The flight just gets you between the two points.

Not me. The flight is the point, and there’s much for me to do as a result: I have a radar beam projecting 300 miles off the nose, then bouncing back to show me what’s ahead. I can plan a turn to avoid the troubled sky bearing down on a city, promising us a bumpy ride and those on the ground a nasty afternoon. Rush hour’s going to suck down there, I think to myself, dipping a wingtip gently so you’d almost not even notice in the back, but easing us south of the coming storm nonetheless. The space between your “here and there” is my crystal ball, knowing and seeing from miles above what those on the ground can’t and what would be the point? The weather’s coming anyway. Ground life has no wingtips, no motion. Roots.

We find stuff for you to do while you’re aloft in the rootless space from here to there that means little to you besides being the quickest way in between. Even the seats in the cabin all face forward, as if reinforcing that we’re all going “this way.” And the time enroute is divided by events planned mostly for that purpose: flight attendants and a serving cart will appear in the aisle and go from front to back.

Why? Because front to back, that’s how you can see “the show” or the event that’s breaking up the time because really, the event is ceremonial: two fingers of a beverage and a couple ounces of a snack, just enough to put food on your breath and create the illusion of having eaten. The cart moving back to front?

That would actually make more sense, less distracting but then, that is the point: like my ten-year-old on a car drive, there needs to be islands of distraction like the DVD player, iPod, cell phone and a stop at Sonic (Cherry Limeade!) somewhere along the way between here and there.

Which is fine when you’re ten, but I learned a valuable point from an elderly couple seated with us at dinner on our cruise. “We don’t plan ahead,” Florence told me, speaking also for her octogenarian husband Stanley, “If we are well enough and able, we just go and do.” That’s because, I realized, in the here and there of life, they are closer to the far end. The time between is all they have.

But the secret, like the illusion of flight, is that the time in between is all any of us has. Some, more than others. Some less, yet no one, ten or eighty, can really see as far ahead as I do  enroute with the magic of radar. But in a lifetime, no one gets the miles-high God’s-eye view of whatever is bearing down on a city, ready to make rush hour a nightmare for those between here and there, work and home, between work week and weekend.

And so the calendar becomes the itinerary, with weekends and vacations the waypoints in between. Weekdays are life seated in rows, the illusion of snacking on a tray table facing forward, confirming our heading ever towards the “somewhere else,” farther away from wherever we were, as fast as we can get there.

That’s the illusion of “in between,” like the view from the flight deck: floating motionless high above it all, as if “now” were a place and not an instant, rocketing forward toward Flo and Stan’s perspective like a shotgun blast. Why the hurry to get there? Moreover, what about whatever time there is in between?

Florence’s philosophy makes perfect sense on a cruise ship: it was all about the time in between embarking and getting there. Actually, “there” wasn’t really the object anyway; just a fun waypoint or two, island distractions, and in fact a bridge officer once told me there were a fleet of cruise ship like ours motoring in circles so as to be underway, even though we were practically at our next port of call. The main event was the sailing, the formal nights, the lavish food, the entertainment, the beverages, alone time together.

The journey between ports was what mattered. I’m sure the captain using the bridge  radar could even see the next island, but wanting to provide us the smoothest and longest sea experience the cruise brochure had promised, prolonged the rootless time afloat nonetheless.

The calendar is the map between yesterday and tomorrow. The speed of passage between the two is really an illusion, because no one really knows how far ahead the calendar stretches. Like Flo, I need to go and do when and while I can. Just looking at the calendar, and considering weekends and holidays and vacations, I have to admit there’s more ocean than islands.

We’ve made air travel into an endurance contest between here and there. Ditto the calendar, with barely enough space to breath, no leg room, scant time or availability of decent food and water, and the need for some distraction so as not to notice the hours waiting to “get there.”

Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe it will always be for you about the far end of the trip. I’ll get you there, I’ll look ahead and make it smooth, and do all I can navigationally to make it as fast as possible in between.

Me? Like Flo, I’m going to try to make life more about the Cherry Limeade with Darling Bride and our sweet ten-year-old. Never mind the highway, which ain’t really going anywhere. Never mind the calendar, too, which puts us halfway from yesterday and most of the way to tomorrow. Instead, I’m going to inhabit the momentary roots of now while I can. If we spend our time wisely, maybe we can miss rush hour all together and just cruise.



Fly early, or be late.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, travel, travel tips, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2010 by Chris Manno

Fly early, or be late. Here’s why.

First, consider aircraft and crew access. On the first few flights of the day, both the aircraft and crew are beginning their first flight of the day. That’s important to you, because it means they most likely spent the night at the airport. So when you get there, they’re already at the gate, not coming in from a distant location, subject to arrival delays due to weather.

Some important advantages you gain early in the day:

1. If on the last flight the aircraft had any mechanical discrepancies reported, mechanics have had all night to perform any required maintenance.

2. The crew, too, is fresh: their FAA mandated maximum day is just starting. No problems with crew legalities.

3. The crew is together–not the cabin crew coming in from one coast, the flight deck crew from the other. They’re all starting from this particular airport.

4. The maintenance shift has just begun, plenty of time for mechanics to complete any work before shift change. More about that later.

5. Less gate delays: the aircraft is likely ON the gate, not waiting for the gate to become available, thereby delaying their deplaning, your boarding, and the swap of cargo and baggage.

Delays due to crew manning, maintenance requirements, and gate availability are much less likely EARLY IN THE DAY.

Next, think about passenger loads, because they do affect you. Here’s a chart of planned departure times and passenger loads from Denver to Chicago on one air carrier:

Passenger Loads Denver to O’Hare 2-27-10

Flight Departs Arrives Passengers Capacity
1 0700 0914 65 148
2 0755 1008 71 148
3 0845 1100 110 148
4 0955 1215 127 148
5 1100 1300 165 172
6 1135 1345 138 148
7 1210 1430 142 148
8 1255 1520 144 148
9 1340 1605 255 237
10 1450 1720 150 148
11 1535 1755 181 178
12 1650 1917 155 148
13 1800 2005 135 148
14 1900 2110 142 148
15 1950 2205 128 148
16 2055 2305 101 148
17 2130 2350 65 148

Note that before noon, the flights aren’t quite booked full, but after noon, several are overbooked. Why?

If you’re early, particularly in a mid-continent hub like Denver, DFW or Chicago, no one has been able to fly in yet to connect: the east coast flights haven’t landed yet, and the west coast, hours behind, haven’t even begun to board and dispatch. Which means less competition for seats with standby upgrades or overbooking.

But you’re not standby, you say, right? You will be if there’s a cancellation, especially of your flight. But look at the above chart–your best bet to snag another seat is in the morning. By the afternoon, a bow wave of standby passengers will have those flights packed to the gills.

Once the connecting flights from either coast or commuter connections from outlying areas add their passengers into the hub airport passenger pool, it’s a whole different ballgame. If arrival at your destination is time critical, or if you have a down-line connection the odds are more in your favor early in the day. Later, as the day goes on and delays, cancellations and stand-by lists begin to snowball, not so much.

Here are two other crucial factors that can be largely sidestepped early in the day.

1. Weather.

Sure, there are storms in the morning sometimes. But not the ones that result from the day’s heating and convection of moisture. But even if there is bad weather in the morning, if your aircraft is on its first flight of the day, at least it’s there–and so is your crew. Later in the day, your inbound jet could have to divert because of weather, tossing you into the standby line, or inducing a large delay. Crews, too, start running up against the FAA duty limits due to diversions. Don’t gripe–the FAA limits are for your protection as well as mine: you really want me on duty more than 14 hours for your landing?

2. Maintenance shift change. Why is this important? Simple: because an FAA-certified mechanic is performing licensed procedures on any aircraft. His signature goes on the paperwork certifying the maintenance action. It’s just not workable for one mechanic to do part of the procedure, then have another finish and sign for the entire job. So, if the first flights are at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, add eight hours and see when lengthy maintenance actions will probably not be started because they can’t be finished within the shift and so are likely to wait for the next shift. Which means you will wait, too. And I know what you’re thinking, but no–there’s no money for mechanics’ overtime in the sea of red ink flowing from the airline industry. The job will be done right, but you’ll likely wait.

Finally, I recommend you board early. That’s because of human nature: nobody’s going to do as they’re told and put one of their hand-carried items under their seat, then maybe one in the overhead storage bin. If you board last, it’s likely to be you standing in the aisle with a bag but no place to put it.

Other passengers will avoid eye contact with you, acting as if they DIDN’T already hog all the overhead storage space–but they did. And your bag is going to have to be gate-checked, whether you want it to or not. Choose a seat near the mid-point of the cabin if you can, which means the middle boarding call:

I like those emergency exits over the wing. Not only is there more leg room,  it’s also the smoothest ride  because the center of gravity and thus the pivot point of the jet in both pitch and roll are there. No, you won’t see much on the ground because the wing is in the way, but  you also won’t be the last group called to board, and thus be stuck with nowhere to stow your hand-carried items. You also won’t have to wait for the entire aircraft to deplane before you can get off–you’ll be in the middle of the pack.

Okay, got all that? Here’s a summary: early, early, early; booking, boarding, flying. You’ll have a smoother flight with less opportunity for delays.

Good luck, and by the way, don’t look for me at the airport when you get there early: I’m not an early morning person. Since the plane won’t leave without me, I’ll take my chances later.

Lake Tahoe


Sure, it’s always funny till someone loses an eye.


Airline pilots are overpaid–or maybe not.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, wind shear with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by Chris Manno

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

None of my passengers yesterday had any idea that on landing, they were speeding down the flooded runway with no brakes, which is fine with me.

I mean the part about “nobody had any idea.” I’m a big fan of braking, especially when it comes to a sixty-ton jet on a rain-slicked runway.

They all deplaned a few moments later, none the wiser, which is also fine with me. I wanted to make a phone call and grab a bite between flights and I only had a few minutes to do it.

If you prefer to have “no idea” what goes on in the cockpit, click here.  If you you want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, here we go.

Twenty-some miles out of Raleigh-Durham Airport at 5,000 feet and about 200mph. The wind is a direct tailwind at 69 knots. The ceiling at the airport is between 300 and 500 feet. That means we won’t break out of the clouds until we get below 300 feet. But the minimum we can descend to without a determination that the landing is safe is 200 feet. That means we’ll have about 5 seconds from when we see the runway to decide if we can land–and make the necessary control inputs to position the jet for a safe landing and oh by the way, the approach lights aren’t working today. With me so far?

The tower reports the surface wind to be a direct crosswind. So we know the wind will shift 90 degrees somewhere between 5,000 and touchdown, plus decrease in velocity by nearly half. Also, the temperature at our altitude is about 50 degrees, but it’s 33 on the ground with freezing drizzle. Besides the fact that the jet, like a galloping horse, wants to point it’s own head and go where it’s pointed–into the crosswind, which isn’t unfortunately the way the runway’s pointed–the shifting airmass we’re riding in is bumpy as a logging trail. I call back and warn the cabin  crew,

“Hang on–she’s gonna buck.” They’re Dallas-based as well. They get it. Lightens the mood–okay my mood–a little to joke around.

My F/O is one of the best. She’s an Air Force Academy grad, and like me, a former Air Force pilot. “Takes 4,000 pounds of fuel to get to Norfolk,” she offers, thinking of our alternate. We have 12,000 pounds at the moment.”If we don’t land, you put clearance on request to Norfolk and we’ll be there in twenty minutes. The winds are lighter there.”

This ain’t my first rodeo, I know how this goes: I’ll have a couple seconds tops between when we break out of the clouds and she calls “minimums,” which means if we’re not in the slot–on airspeed, fully configured, power stable–we’re going to Norfolk. Also, I know that when the jet’s done bucking around, her nose better be pointing down the runway (that’s what rudder’s for, but there’s not always enough throw) and I’ll need to delicately put the upwind wingtip lower, touching down right main gear first, then left, then the nose. Then stop the beast on what I know is a slick runway.

We break out of the clouds but into heavy rain at 300 feet. I take a “one-Mississippi” breath to size up the picture, kick in the correct rudder, lower the wing, and see if my correction will hold. It does–we can land, if nothing else changes.

This is actually my watch. No nerdy-pilot clunker here.

“Minimums,” Nora calls. “Landing,” I announce. I keep a hair-trigger on the go-around throttle toggles, ready till the last few feet to rocket us back into the air if the bronco starts to get the better of me in this wild ride. One deliberate bump from the heel of my throttle hand and the fuel controls 140 feet behind me will dump a torrent of jet fuel into both burner cans, then we’ll stand it on it’s tail riding 50,000 pounds of thrust, getting the hell out of Dodge.

I wrestle the controls; I win. We touch down softer than I meant to, but with the blustery winds, my main goal is to make it a controlled gear-by-gear touchdown without dragging a wingtip.It’s a smart jet. On touchdown, when a computer senses that the main wheels are turning, the spoilers on top of the wing automatically pop up to kill the wing’s lift and thereby put more weight on the wheels and make our braking more effective.

The spoilers didn’t deploy. That’s because the wheels weren’t spinning: we were hydroplaning at about 145 miles per hour.

As I said, this ain’t my first rodeo. I know that hydroplaning occurs most readily at nine times the square root of the tire pressure. Our main tires are at over 200 psi, so the square root is around 15; multiplied by 9 equals 135 or so. After which, we’ll get traction and braking. Lesson of the day: if your car’s tires are at 36 psi, your hydroplane vulnerability is around 50 mph. Don’t panic! Stay with it, decelerate carefully and you WILL regain traction.

My excellent First Officer called out, “No spoilers” and manually deployed them. I kept the nose straight with aerodynamic controls until the brakes became effective, slowing our sixty-ton sled to taxi speed, skidding nonetheless four or five times more over pooled water from the heavy rain.

We warned the Southwest jet on final ten miles behind us. Then taxiied to the gate.

The jet emptied, the passengers went safely on their way, and I stopped at my favorite barbeque place before turning the jet around and launching back into the rainy gloom.

Just another day at the office. I couldn’t do anything without the teamwork of the fantastic first officers we have.  And you couldn’t get where you’re going in one piece without all of us on both sides of the cockpit door.

Nonetheless, we still hear all too often that airline pilots are overpaid. Click on the video below, and think that over.


Meet your congress!

Well, at least one famous member. Here’s the “Larry Craig Toilet” in the Minneapolis Airport:


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