Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Youngest Marine


This post is dedicated to my friend John, who spent time patrolling the streets of Mosul and came home to talk about it. 



During my tenure as a pilot in the Military Airlift Command flying C-5s, I was assigned a variety of missions.  These missions were in support of one of the branches of the U.S. military, a NATO member, a U.S. government agency, a contractor, or an international body, such as the U.N. The variety was what kept the job challenging and led to an expansion of my flying skills and aeronautical knowledge in more ways than I could possibly tell you in one story.

We worked hard to support the customer of the day and took the philosophy that we were there for the customer, not the other way around.  Every mission had its nuances that sometimes made us stop and rethink the mission to meet the expectations of whoever we were supporting.

As an example, on one mission what I thought was going to be a simple flight from California to the Cape Canaveral airstrip turned into an interesting night.  Inside the cargo compartment was a large single cube with cables and wire bundles coming out of all of its sides and the top as well.  The cables were all gathered into a giant bundle and disappeared up a ladder into the large crew area. I was met on the upper deck by my flight engineers and a half dozen scientists and engineers from a defense contractor. They led me to the rear of the rest compartment to a large bank of computers and monitors.

The lead contractor told me that the cube in the cargo compartment contained a “device” that was to be launched into orbit and that it was extremely fragile. The team wanted me to taxi very slowly and to fly as smoothly as possible, avoiding any rough air at all costs. I was unable to extract from him what exactly the device was, but that in general terms, the “device” was important to national security and it was very expensive.
It was a long and slow night and as the sun rose over the Atlantic we gently touched down on the skid strip at Cape Canaveral, a runway so large that NASA used it to glide first generation rockets onto it, in order to recover data recorders in the 50’s-60’s.  I assumed the “device” arrived in working order.  It took hours to extract the cube and load it onto a trailer, then we departed, empty, only concerned with who got to sleep when and warming up a can of Beefaroni.

Most of the work we did was with the different branches of the U.S. military.  I always enjoyed serving the Marines and delivering them and their equipment to the far corners of the planet.  We pilots were humbled by their professionalism, integrity and unity. If they were willing to risk getting in harms way, we wanted to get them where they needed to be in the safest and most comfortable way possible. The entire crew felt this way.  If we were delivering them to a remote airfield in a foreign country in the middle of the night, we wanted them to walk off the airplane rested and ready.

We usually had a chance to interact with the Marines before they boarded the troop compartment. The Marines would either march out to the aircraft or be standing by in buses, waiting to board the C-5.  After finding the Marine in charge, I would ask them, that with their permission, I would like to invite the youngest Marine present to join the pilots on the flight deck for the takeoff.  Most of the time the officer would allow this to happen, although about 20% of the time I would receive courteous thanks but no thanks.  Whatever the decision, it was respected.

On one mission we were taking a group of Marines to Okinawa. In this group of Marines, a young 19 year old was the youngest amongst the group and he was offered the choice to join the pilots.  I could tell the Marine was a little unsure of the offer and was not sure how to respond.  I told the Marine that it would be an honor for him to join us and we would do our best not to scare the hell out of him.  He reluctantly came along with me and we climbed the long ladder stairs to the flight deck.

The flight deck, crew compartment, troop compartment and cargo compartment of the C-5 could be busy and full of airman during the prefight.  It was not unusual to have a dozen or more people on a crew, all of us moving about, upstairs, downstairs and outside, completing the tasks assigned to them. The loadmasters would assume the tasks of serving the passengers in the troop compartment.  The loadmasters always took pride in their service to others and would make any service from a commercial airline look amateurish compared to the service they provided.

Upon reaching the flight deck, I introduced the Marine to the other two pilots and our flight engineer, who welcomed the Marine and gave him a tour of the pointy part of the airplane. Eventually all tasks were completed and the entire crew was ready for departure.  We sat the marine in the jump seat, allowing him an unobstructed view out of the windows.  After taking off that day, we rendezvoused with an airborne tanker for refueling training.

For the most part air refueling a C-5 was fun and challenging.  That day was a clear day with smooth air and a great crew working the KC-135 tanker.  We took some blankets, put them on the floor and had the Marine kneel on them just behind the pilot’s seats.  This allowed him to look upwards thought the windows to see the entire refueling process.
At the time of initial contact with the tanker, all eyes were out front, but the third pilot glanced at the Marine and saw that his eyes were the size of saucers.  He quickly explained what we were doing and how the process worked.  I don’t think it helped that much and I guess most people would find two big airplanes so close together very intimidating, especially when your sitting in one of them.

We terminated our refueling and continued to Okinawa.  The Marine was given a couple of box lunches, that days newspapers and a seat at the navigator’s table.  The navigator’s table was a large desk with a seat stationed within the flight deck, but had not been used for navigation for years, as inertial navigation systems had replaced the need for a navigator on the C-5.  After a couple of hours, we offered the Marine one of the bunks we used to sleep in. He slept the rest of the way, until we had to wake him up for our arrival.  At this point we sent him back to the troop compartment to rejoin his group.  He expressed his appreciation at being able to experience the flight from up front and he was escorted back to the troop compartment.  Of course, none of us ever saw that Marine again.

Over the years this type of invitation happened many times.  Sometimes the individual passed up the opportunity or would ask to rejoin their group after a short visit.

During Operation Desert Storm, patriotic ham radio operators setup a listening watch on high frequency radios 24 hours a day.  There, at their listening posts, they would patiently wait for a military aircraft to make contact with them.  Several times it was my aircraft.  Commercial phone carriers in the U.S. offered unlimited phone calls for free and the radio operators used their equipment to connect an airplanes’ HF radio to a private phone line anywhere in the world. To this day, that was one of the coolest and important programs of any corporate entity, ever.  Remember that this was a time when the Internet did not exist for use to the general public. Contact with loved ones was made over a phone attached to a wall.

These magnificent ham radio operators, once contacted, could set up a phone connection to anywhere in the U.S. Once connected, on the other end, the conversation was open, meaning each person at either end of the conversation would say something and have to end their statement with the word, “Over,” so that the person on the other end knew when to speak.  A simple example is, “Hello, Brian, it’s dad, over” “Hi dad, where’s mom? Over”. All of this was explained to both parties before the final connection was made.  When we were bringing troops into or out of the theater of operation, we would let the troops know that we could make a connection home for them.  Needless to say, we had many visitors and we would spend hours making contact with the ham radio operators, connecting loved ones with radio waves that bounced off the upper parts of the atmosphere.

Because the lines of communication were open, there was no privacy in the calls being made.  All parties (the radio operator, the pilots and both calling parties) heard everything.  Parents could be heard screaming for other family members to come to the phone.  Wives were speechless, some sobbing, their husband was coming home. Children were the best, not sure exactly what to say, laughing and confused with having to say “over”.

We were half a world away, so it was not unusual to wake people up in the middle of the night. Imagine getting a phone call at 2 a.m., from a stranger, telling you that your husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, is 10,000 miles away, at 35,000 feet, on a military transport, coming home and they want to talk to you and that you’re a ham radio operator, that has nothing better to do than magically connect you to that aircrafts’ radios, so you can talk to them.  Then you are told how to communicate on an open phone connection, then seconds later being connected. As you can imagine, emotions were often high.

The last time I made a phone connection this way was with the youngest Marine. He sat in the jump seat with the headphones on that we gave him, waiting for the connection to go through. The ham radio operator made the final contact and the youngest Marine was talking to his parents. It became clear through listening to the conversation that this Marine was the only child of the parents on the other end of the conversation. His mother wanted to know where he was.  He simply said that he was on his way home.  It was a short conversation.  A party was planned. He said he wanted burgers and brats. They couldn’t wait to see him. His uncle had a car for him. His mother was crying.  The youngest Marine finished the conversation, telling his parents he loved them and he would be home soon, then radio connection was terminated.  He thanked us and left to rejoin his unit.  The continuous crackle of the high frequency radio lingered.

That was over 20 years ago.  The youngest Marine is now in his 40s. I hope all of those young Marines remember the short time they spent with this heavy driver. I always will.

I want to thank the ham radio operators who spent countless hours tuning their radios and plucking those many voices from the sky and sending them home.

And to the youngest Marine, whoever you are, thank you.

Be Safe,

Fly Guy

Friday, May 28, 2010

Captain Utah

As in any other profession, we pilots have our distinct class of odd balls and nut jobs, that work amongst us. Very few of these "different " individuals escape our attention. The reason for this, is that we pilots tend to be a harmonious group of people. We expect to have fun and enjoy ourselves, while flying around the planet, doing our job. If were not having fun, something, or someone is wrong.

After thirty years of flying with more individuals than I could ever count, very few pilots I have had anything to do with, fall into the odd ball, nut job category. The pilots I am describing generally include the pilots who live different lifestyles than your average pilot, the pilots that exhibit odd behaviors while working, and the pilots who are simply classified as jerks, assholes, or dumb asses.

In my thirty years of flying I have flown with every type of personality imaginable, but there have been a few pilots who impressed me so much with their unique personalities, their stories need to be told. To cope with a month or more of flying with these individuals, I gave them nicknames and told my friends and family about the quirkiness of the pilots I flew with. All of them were captains.

1.Captain Comfort Food.

Captain Comfort Food always made me feel like I was the most important and finest copilot that existed. He also took great strides to make me as comfortable as I could be. He also loved and always carried, bananas. If I showed up to an aircraft, unsure of who I was flying with, I always knew as soon as I entered the cockpit, that Captain Comfort Food was the man of the hour.

He would always beat me to the airplane. I would always find a blanket with a pillow laying in my seat, put there by Captain Comfort Food. He would take two prepackaged cookies and a banana and lay them on top of the pillow, using the cookies for eyes and the banana for a smiling mouth. In my drink holder would always be a cup of juice with ice. This would happen without fail, every time I flew with him. He also would do the exterior walk around inspection for me as well.

No matter where we had a layover, he somehow managed to always have a large supply of bananas. I asked him once where his never ending supply came from and all I got was, "It's my magic trick", from him. I never asked again. He had large enough banana supply, to offer a crew of flight attendants bananas as well.

He had memorized every aspect of my life, including the names of my children, my ex wife and my most current girlfriend. He would talk to me like Mr Rogers on steroids and instead of a family album, he had pictures of his private airplane collection. He talked without emotion, but I knew his words were meaningful and genuine. He would present me with small gifts to give to my children.

On every layover, Captain Comfort Food would disappear and usually go out to the airport early, in order to do the walk around, blanket, pillow, cookie, banana thing. Oh, yeah and the juice. The only time I ever saw him on a layover was once after flying a red-eye. I was not tired, so I decided to eat breakfast. Captain Comfort Food was in the cafe eating. He signaled me over, stood up when I came to the table and graciously asked me to join him. After eating, he insisted on buying my meal for me.

During the normal tasks of flying, he would politely ask for the reading of a checklist, or any other thing performed in the normal operation of an aircraft. "Thank you very much for reading the checklist, I appreciate how well you did that", he would say. His announcements to the passengers were prolific. He had an uncanny ability to chatter on to the passengers and they loved it.

Captain Comfort Food eventually retired. We were all surprised but happy to see him show up at union meetings in his retirement. The last time I saw him was at one of these meetings and in his hand was a half eaten banana.



2. Captain Art, the Great Hunter.

Art was one pissed off individual. I do not know of one copilot that enjoyed flying with him, except me. Art had no social skills whatsoever and seemed to constantly be putting his foot in his mouth, yet had no idea that that's what he was doing. He flew as often as he could, because in his own words, "I hate my house and the woman that lives in it." Art was not your average happily married guy.

The pilots who had to fly with him, usually complained about his abrasive personality, always demanding things at inappropriate times, and extremely hard to communicate with. I lucked out with my first encounter with Captain Art. I had heard all the griping and harsh rhetoric about the man, so I had built up a large amount of angst.

Captain Art beat me to the airplane and was busy programming the navigation computers. I stepped into the cockpit and introduced myself. Captain Art took one look at me and said, "Let me know if the log book is clean." "Sure, right away" I said. As I started to sit in my seat I noticed a small photo album laying on the center console. It was open and there was a picture of Captain Art, holding a high powered rifle, kneeling next to a huge bear.

"That's a big damn bear, mind if I look" I said. "Go ahead, I just got back from a hunt in Alaska." It just so happened that captain Art and I were on our way to Anchorage, Alaska, for a 24 hour layover. I picked up the photo album and said, "Let me get my work done, then I want to hear all about this." About an hour later, we were cruising at altitude, with hours to go until we landed. Captain Art, obviously enjoyed hunting, so I decided to try to keep him on that topic for as long as I could. It was not hard to do.

As Captain Art's hunting story unfolded, I found myself mesmerized by his experiences. The photo album was full of boring pictures, but behind each one,was a story. The picture of the bush plane, to me was just that. Captain Art told me how the pilot had to land uphill on rough tundra, to get him to his hunting site. Primitive tents and dry food was all they had for days, while they hunted out in the middle of nowhere. No communication whatsoever was to be had in case of an emergency. Five days later the bush pilot landed and carried out as much meat as he could, then came back to carry out Captain Art and his guide, with more meat. The pilot had to takeoff downhill and then drop off a ledge into a steep ravine to pick up enough speed to fly away. That trip was all he talked about on the way to Anchorage.

Once in Anchorage, we made our way to our hotel and went our separate ways. I was in the lobby a short while later, when Captain Art saw me and asked if I wanted to go to his favorite bar. I accepted his offer and I was told we could walk there. Downtown Anchorage is full of great places, but like any city, it has it's seedy side. This was many years ago and the city was not nearly as nice as it is now. Captain Art marched me past the very nice establishments, then the nice establishments, then the OK ones and on to the bad ones and finally the very bad ones. It was summer in Alaska and there was still plenty of light outside for me to notice the passed out drunks, prostitutes and numerous scary men. Art was about as milquetoast as you could get. Tan slacks with short sleeve shirt, tan loafers, with a baseball style hat sporting a fly fisherman on it. The text book example of someone that was prime meat to be rolled.

He pushed his way through the crowd and entered his bar, that had no name that I could see. The bar was large with one long bar, lots of tables and a section dedicated to playing pool. The place was packed and everyone there seemed to be native Alaskans. Captain Art took a stool at the bar and pushed the one next to him, over to me. " I've been coming here for years", he said. "Your the first copilot to have the balls to come to a place like this" he said. I said, "Naw, I'm just not very bright."

The bartender came over and said, "Captain Art, you brought a friend!" I introduced myself and ordered a beer. Seconds later the beer was placed in front of me along with a menu. The food was great and we spent a few hours there. In that time, no less than twenty people came up to Captain Art to say hello, buy him a beer, or ask him about his last hunt. He seemed to be the most popular guy in the bar and also the friendliest. Captain Art was in his place of comfort.

He had indeed been coming here for years. Over time, he got to know some of the workers and patrons and started fishing with them on his layovers. He then started to come up on his days off and take small fishing trips with them. Eventually he was passed on to friends and relatives in the remote villages, who would take him hunting and fishing. The man was respected and adored by these people. In particular, he was esteemed for his fishing and hunting skills. It was something you had to see to believe, this man who no one wanted to fly with, being the most affable guy you could imagine.

One very drunk man, carrying a pool cue, approached Captain Art holding the pool cue as if it was a rifle. The man stood back about six feet, with the tip of the pool cue about 6 inches away from Captain Art's nose. He yelled "Bang!" then lowered the pool cue with a huge grin, showing a mouth with half it's teeth missing. He started to talk, but all he could do was blabber the inaudible words of a drunk. I could clearly hear the words, "great hunter" from him several times. We left the bar at about 1 am and stepped outside to a sky still filled with light. It was the middle of June and the sun was just below the horizon. I thanked Captain Art on the way back to the hotel and told him I would fly with him anytime, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he could be. He stopped walking, looked at me and let out a gut wrenching laugh. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I am the biggest pain in the ass in the world and I have to live with him!' From that moment on, every time I saw him, I called him Captain Art, the Great Hunter.

The next day, we went out to breakfast to a spot not far from the bar. Some of the same people from the night before were already there, having left the bar early in the morning and heading directly to the cafe. The cafe was a one person show, owned and operated for 20 years by the sweetest woman you could ever meet. We sat there and talked over coffee for a couple of hours. He told me of his many hunting expeditions. The stories would make a best seller.

On our way home, Captain Art, fell into his normal routine. Somewhere in that day, I reminded him that by his self admission, he was being a pain in the ass. He looked directly at me and with a quizzical look and honestly said, "I am?"

We flew together several times after that. Captain Art was a very senior pilot, so he mostly flew the Alaska trips and that is where I would normally see him. He always had a new photo album to show off and great stories to go along with it. Captain Art, the Great Hunter eventually retired. His plan in retirement was to mount all the horns, heads, and stuffed bodies he had collected over the years. He was even preparing to buy a separate home to put them in as his wife had always refused to allow any of it in their home.

Captain Art was a diamond in the rough and one of the most skilled pilots I have ever flown with.



3. Captain Bloody Ass

I apologize ahead of time for this spoiler alert. This story is disgusting and may make you nauseous. I had seen Captain Bloody Ass way before I flew with him. He was not hard to miss as he was huge, somewhere in the 350 pound range. I had always heard great things about him and the copilots enjoyed working with him.

He was known for his "information sheets". These were sheets of paper that were filled from top to bottom with valuable information on specific subjects, that were put together by him. He had a sheet on tax deductions, one on all the things to do in Boston and another for touring the Napa Valley. He kept these in his flight kit and if a subject came up that he had relentlessly studied and made a sheet for, he would yank it out and explain it in detail, then give you the copy. I have no idea how many subjects he had covered, but it seemed like a lot.

The first time i flew with him was on a trip that took us from the west coast to Boston. Yes, he had a fact sheet to give me and I used it for years. One of the first things I noticed about him, was that in order for him to sit in his seat, he had to enter the cockpit backwards. He would enter the flight deck with his gear and position that first. Then he would exit and immediately re-enter backwards, quickly maneuvering himself into his seat. It was like watching a Rubik's Cube in fast motion and I never figured out how he did it.

The transition to the twilight zone with him, began just after we leveled off. We were cruising in the mid 30,000s and had about four hours of our flight left. Captain Bloody Ass looked over at me and told me he had something he wanted me to know. I looked over at him and he said, "I have a problem with infections and boils in my crotch area. My doctor told me that it would help if I keep that area dry. I use a hair dryer to do that. I think I used the hair dryer too long today and popped a vein, because I'm bleeding down there. I want you to know that, so in case I pass out, you'll know it is probably from blood loss and you can get me help."

After jacking my jaw back into my skull, several things went through my mind. My first thought went to the 110 volt electrical outlet next to my seat. Airplanes have electrical systems very different from what you have in your home. To allow the mechanics to power some of their tools while working in the cockpit, there is an electrical outlet on the copilots side of the aircraft. I don't know why, but an image of Captain Bloody Ass, bent over holding his ass cheeks apart, with me holding a hair dryer for him as per his doctors orders, popped into my head.

After shaking that nightmare out of my head, I told Captain Bloody Ass that it was hard for me to believe that you could heat a vein up enough to pop and not be screaming in agony. I also told him that there could very well be something deeply wrong with him and he should see a doctor.

Captain Bloody Ass proceeded to tell me about his daughter and her family, who were going to meet him in Boston and stay at the hotel for the two days we were going to be there. "I'll see a doctor as soon as I get back" he said.

I let it go, which was the wrong thing to do. I figured if he did have a problem, I could land the plane by myself. Today, as a captain, I would never put my copilot in that position and certainly not a plane load of passengers.

Captain Bloody Ass went to the bathroom a lot. He would get up out of his seat at least once an hour or more and use the first class lavatory. On his first trip to the bathroom, a flight attendant was in the flight deck to open the door for me. She was standing behind Captain Bloody Asses seat, when I heard her say, "What's that?" I said, "What?" "That" she said, pointing to Captain Bloody Asses seat.

Captain Bloody Ass had taken a gray plastic trash bag and laid it on his seat. A thin layer of blood was spread across the entire plastic bag. I looked at her and in a panicky, loud voice, yelled, "I don't know!" She looked at me like I had worms coming out of my face. Captain Bloody Ass re-entered the cockpit in his usual backwards manner. The remainder of the flight was uneventful until we got to Boston.

After landing, Captain Bloody Ass told me to go ahead to the hotel pickup point. He told me that he walked slowly and it would take him a while to get there. I suggested to him that he go ahead and I would finish the flight deck duties. He agreed and left the aircraft. About 5 minutes later I left the aircraft. I said goodnight to the gate agent and proceeded through the terminal to the pickup point.

There is a long straight stretch of the terminal that you walked through to exit. I was walking through that part of the terminal when about 200 feet in front of me, I spotted Captain Bloody Ass, hobbling his way through the terminal. Between him and I was a cleaning woman. The floor of the terminal was poured and polished acrylic. She was holding a long stick with a rag on the end of it. She was rubbing the scuff marks of the days hurried passengers off the floor. She was facing me, walking backwards, with headphones on. She was in what I would call a Zen state. Music was filling her psyche, overwhelming the reality of constant scuff mark erasure. She almost looked like the finely balanced ice skater moving backwards with such ease, it reminded you of a cool mountain stream, flowing naturally, without effort.

During this time, I was catching up to her and Captain Bloody Ass. I was now about thirty feet away from Captain Bloody Ass and 15 feet away from the cleaning lady. I noticed something protruding from the right leg of Captain Bloody Ass. It was large and getting bigger. All at once, a large blood soaked lump of toilet paper, about the size of two large fists, fell to the floor, from the right pant leg of Captain Bloody Ass.

I saw this as I was passing the cleaning lady, who was aligned with the bloody mass of paper. My second mistake of the day was to make a wide sweeping evasive maneuver to avoid the bloody mass and NOT inform the cleaning woman of her impending CSI like encounter. I just kept moving, trying to obliterate the entire day out of my head.

I have no idea what happened to the cleaning woman. I am sure though, that when she came across the wad of blood soaked toilet paper, she wasn't thinking, "I wonder who's ass this came from?" As for me, that is the end of the story of Captain Bloody Ass. He had a great time with his family and we made it back without him passing out from blood loss. Captain Bloody Ass retired soon after this incident, but not because of his medical condition. Several pilots in his age group left to maximize their retirement.

So, what are the lessons here? I have been trained and tested for thirty years in a career where those above you, give you the experiences that lead you to being the best aviator you can be. I was hired 22 years ago to be a captain someday. Well, here I am, enjoying the best days of my career and I have the captains that tested me, to thank for that.

Captain Comfort Food showed me that no matter who you fly with, turn your spotlight on them and let them know they are appreciated.

Captain Art, The Great Hunter, taught me to look beyond the exterior of those you fly with and to take the time and patience to explore what is beneath.

Captain Bloody Ass helped me define my limits as a captain, around the concept of safety and the need to put all others above my immediate needs.

These are just three individuals of hundreds that have impacted who I am as a pilot. I thank them all and all the pilots who will take my wisdom as part of their future.

As for the title of this story, Captain Utah, well, that is something a young copilot educated me on recently. We were having a great trip and while hovering at a high rate of speed on our way to somewhere, he said to me, "I'm really glad your not a Captain Utah." "Captain Utah?" I said. He said, "Yeah, it stands for Up Tight Ass Hole."

I guess there is still much for me to learn.

Be Safe,

FlyGuy

Sunday, February 14, 2010

IN THE PASSING LANE


video

The hi-ways of our national air transportation system, are fairly busy any day of the year. The jet routes, or roads, that pilots fly on, have multiple levels that are separated by one thousand feet. These jet routes start at 18,000 feet and go up to over 40,000 feet. Airplanes flying to the east, fly at odd altitudes and airplanes flying west, fly at even altitudes. Aircraft going in one direction are separated 2000 feet apart. Traffic going in the opposite direction is layered in between these aircraft 2000 feet apart. What you end up with are airplanes going 500 mph, flying in opposite directions, only 1000 feet apart. That's close!

In the cockpit, it ends up as a fun event to watch, over and over again, as you fly along the jet routes. Modern airliners are easily capable of maintaining this separation. All commercial aircraft have electronic devices that allow us to see the location and the altitude of aircraft around us, day or night, good weather, or bad. Sometimes, like today, you slowly catch up and pass a jet going in the same direction, 2000 feet above or below you. The video I attached was taken as we were overtaking a jet on our way from LAX to JFK, somewhere east of Albuquerque. The aircraft was 2000 feet below us. I did use the optical zoom on my camera to capture the exhaust trails from the engines.

The video is close to what we observe. Youtube has a good video depicting a 24 hour moving graphic of air traffic in the U.S. at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E_Z_Ve-ayA.

I would like to direct anyone interested to my good buddy and pilot Joe, who maintains the podcast "Fly With Me."
He is strarting a live podcast that starts next week. Should be pretty entertaining. The following is the email he sent to me,

"The first Fly With Me Live broadcast will be Sunday, Feb 21 at 1:00 PM PST. It will be on Ustream.tv (link below). I hope you can join us. My guest will be "Betty" from the "Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase" podcast -- she'll appear via Skype video. And she's hilarious.

I will be encouraging viewers to call in via Skype to join in the conversation with us -- so make sure your Skype setup is ready! The call-in Skype address is "fwm_live".

If you don't want to call in, there will be chat via Ustream chat and the "social stream"(Twitter, Facebook, etc.). You can ask us questions about anything you want. And then we can just say whatever we want in return ;-) I hope you can participate, because this will be a lot of fun.

Also, let your friends know about the show -- I'm sure they'll enjoy it. You can just forward this email -- here's the link to the show: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/fly-with-me-live

Hope to see you there,

Joe

http://flywithjoe.com
Twitter: @Joe_dEon"


Be Safe,

FlyGuy

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Fallen Soldier Redux


I continue to receive comments on my post, "FALLEN SOLDIER" One comment deserves attention. It was written by a member of the company honor guard. FlyGuy was humbled to tears when I read this individuals' comment. I wish I could shake the hands and look into the eyes of every one of these men and women, who give so much of themselves, to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. The following comment has not been changed in any way. God Bless you all.

"Great story Fly Guy, however we are the XXXXX Air Lines Honor Guard. We have worked with the patriot riders on a few escorts.
We honor all those who serve in the military in any branch and in any capacity, we have honored those who have been MIA for over 65 years from WWII to a young man who passed away his last day of boot camp. I have personally never served a day in my life. I am honored to be surrounded by many agents who have served and few who have not but are just as dedicated. Some have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Viet Nam, Two have lost family, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

These people are dedicated and have no problem rendering honors in the rain, cold, wind and blistering heat on the ramp. I have people show up on their days off, before work, after work and even on vacation to help. This group is all volunteer, no extra pay or benefits no extra days off just the satisfaction that they have honored a person who has committed their lives to protecting ours and our great way of life. One thing I do not think most people realize is many times the escorts are themselves related to the service members. A few recent ones I will never forget.

An Air Force pilot that was shot down in Viet Nam in 1968 and finally recovered and identified was traveling through ATL on his way to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. We went to render honors, and I went upstairs to get the escort, he had elderly woman with him and asked if she could come down as well, I agreed and we went down and preformed honors and when I gave him the card and coin to give to the next of kin he referred me to this small frail woman, she was the pilots wife. She is 81 years old and had been waiting 41 years for him to come home, she was in awe that a group of total strangers would take the time to honor a man none of us knew. She personally thanked everyone and then the Air Force escort pointed to his wrist, there on his wrist was an MIA/POW bracelet for this pilot he had been wearing for the last 17 years...

I had an escort come off a flight, a Command Sergeant Major, 30 years in the U.S. Army, a man to be both respected and feared. The honor guard had finished rendering honors on the remains he was escorting, an 18 year old “girl” who was killed in Afghanistan, I was getting ready to take the escort upstairs to board the flight when he asked me If I had any children, and if any were serving in the military, I told him “yes” I have three sons and my oldest was deployed in Afghanistan. He was trembling and asked that I give my boys a hug and next time I talked to my son in Afghanistan to let him know how much I loved him “because you never know.” The “girl” he was escorting was his daughter...

On April 24th we had an escort come off the flight from HNL and then connecting on to DFW I had done some research and had found out the remains were that of SSgt XXXXX of the United States Army Air Force, shot down in his B-24 in September of 1944. Normally if the remains is army the escort is army and so on. SSgt XXXXX escort was a United States Marine. This gentleman would not leave the remains for a second and was absolutely dedicated to watching over his ward. After rendering honors on SSgt XXXXX the escort asked if he could address the honor guard. At this point Captain XXXXX, USMC wanted to thank us and everyone at Delta Air Lines for the manner in we transported and the homecoming of SSgt XXXXX, his grandfather whom he had never met...

On October 8, 2008 my eldest son Sr. Airman Brian J McConnell Jr. USAF escorted the remains of my father MSgt Angus J. McConnell {USAF retired} through Atlanta. I was filled with many emotions that day, sadness for the loss of my dad and over whelming love and pride for my son and his commitment to honor his grandfather and get him home. I will forever be grateful to my Delta family for the respect and honor shown to my family and myself. Thank You All..."

Be Safe,

FlyGuy

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

International Flying

Greetings all,

I know I have been absent for a while, a new interest will do that to you. Last October I made a transition to international flying, which has made my job more interesting and enjoyable than ever. The picture I included here, was taken taxiing out of the Guatemala City airport. There are many active volcanoes in the area that keep things interesting. The volcano in the picture is popular with the local touring companies. I have been told that there are no safety rules at all on some of the tours. You can get as close to the lava flows as you want. One company offers shoes you can wear, so yours don't melt. FlyGuy likes a larger safety margin than that! I arrived in Guatemala City on new years eve, at 6:30 in the morning. I had high expectations of a loud and festive day and night.

I Googled "new years in Guatemala" and the first thing that popped up was a description of a popular thing that the men do. The men, it said, like to wear costumes mad out of fireworks. These costumes are quite elaborate and when lit, produce a running fireworks show. Compound this with numerous individuals running around at once, all on fire, producing a shower of sparks and explosive noises and most probably screaming at the same time. This was something that I had to see.

I asked the hotel employees where the action was on new years. I was told by everyone that "Today is a quiet day, everything will not be open." I ventured out of the hotel into a ghost town. The hotel staff was correct, everything it seemed was closed. We saw a crowd at the end of the block, so we went to see what they were doing. It turned out to be an organized run, with the participants wearing costumes. The first person I saw was running in a diaper. It was hilarious what people were wearing. I saw a guy in a barrel, Sponge Bob, Iron man, a pineapple, and all sorts of oddities. After about 20 minutes of this, the street once again became quiet and stayed that way for the rest of the night. We were lucky to find a small restaurant open, which was great.

I returned to Guatemala 2 days later carrying a large group of young performers, who marched in the Rose Parade in California. They talked about the excitement of being in America and how proud and honored they were by the cheering of the crowds they marched by. I don't think any of them was older than 18.

Last week I worked a flight to Jamaica. The Jamaicans are very fun people, who never seem to stop smiling. Next week I'll be in the Virgin Islands. I love this international stuff!

Be Safe,

FlyGuy



Tuesday, June 16, 2009

VANISHED

I had finished a two-day trip a few weeks ago, and started my commute home.  When I landed in Los Angeles, I heard the news about the Air France flight that had disappeared over the Atlantic.  I walked across the airport to my departure terminal, thinking about what the pilots went through, trying to save their ship.  I got onboard the jet taking me home, feeling melancholy.  I wanted to sit alone, but most of the seats were taken. 

 

When I find myself on a full flight and I have to sit between two people, I have found a way to make the travel easy on me.  I try to find a row that has two young ladies in it, about the age of my oldest daughter, who is twenty.  I do this because I know that they want to have nothing to do with me and will leave me alone for the entire flight.  I can sit in my seat, put in my earplugs and don my noise reduction headset and sit back.

 

On this flight I saw a small pair of legs at the end of a row and no head above the seat.  As I came up to the row, I saw two boys about six years old sitting next to each other.  The window seat was vacant.  “Excuse me gentleman, is that seat by the window taken?” I asked.  They looked up at me, looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Whoaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”  “Do you guys mind?” I said.  They did not mind and I started to move around them to the window.  The father of one of the boys said, “Sir, you don’t have to sit there, you can sit in my seat.”  I looked at him and his pretty wife and said, “Sir I am a commercial airline pilot, I have more in common with these boys than any adult on this aircraft.”  I heard laughter from other passengers and moved into my seat.

 

I was immediately asked if I was a pilot.  When I told them that I was, one of the boys turned to his parents and yelled, “Mom, this man is a real pilot and he is sitting right by me!”  The mother of the boy said, “Shouldn’t he be flying the airplane up front?”  I told the boys that I was going to use my Iphone and control the airplane from my seat.  These guys were smart ones, they did not buy it.

 

We pushed back and the engines were started.  I told them how high we would be, how fast we would be going, and how cold it would be.  As we started to take the runway for takeoff, I said, “This is the part where I start to get scared.”  They looked at me and one of them said, “You mean to fly?”  I looked at them and whined, “I want my mommy.” just as the plane started to accelerate.   The boy at the aisle turned to his mother laughing and yelled, “Mom, he wants his mommy!”

 

I told the boy next to me that when I counted to three, the airplane would come off the ground and start flying.  After thousands of takeoffs, you get pretty good at knowing that.  I counted, 1, 2, 3, and the nose lifted up into the air.  The boys eyes got very big and he said in a low voice, “Your really smart.” 

 

I put my headset on and flipped the switch that takes the noise out of the air like a magician.  One of the boys asked me what I was listening to.  I told him it was church music and asked them both if they wanted to listen.  They both refused and immediately started playing with their electronic games.  I smiled as I leaned back, fell asleep and did not wake until the wheels touched down.  It was a brief respite from the mind churning disaster of the Air France loss. 

 

Over these 28 years of flying, I have experienced, second hand, the tragic loss of many, most of whom I did not know.  As pilots, we can’t help but put ourselves on the flight deck and in the pilot’s seats, trying to recover these aircraft from impending disaster.  There are the safety reports stating the facts, built from expert investigation, clearly showing the causes and contributing circumstances.  Some of these reports make you wince in anguish, knowing the accident was preventable.  The hardest ones to read are the accidents that clearly show the pilots were performing in perfect form and fearlessly doing everything and anything they could to save their ship, to the point of impact. 

 

Modern airliners are designed with self-reporting system monitors.  The electric, hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel, engine, environmental and other systems send out messages in-flight when certain predetermined parameters are met.  An example would be when the internal part of an engine starts to vibrate beyond a preset limit.  The engine may run just fine and I as a pilot would not know that the limit was exceeded, or that a message was sent.  The message would be logged and analyzed by the engineers at the airline and perhaps the manufacturer as well.

 

The Air France pilots never transmitted a message that they were experiencing mechanical problems, or any problem for that matter.  I read that they informed air traffic control that they were entering an area of severe weather, something that happens every day with airliners around the world.  Something went wrong and went wrong quickly.  The aircraft transmitted over 20 messages by itself, electronically informing the company that systems were failing.  Then there was nothing, the flight simply disappeared.

 

Yeah, it really bothers me.  All we can do as aviators is to learn what lessons we can and make our already safe air transportation system, safer yet.

 

Be Safe,

 

FlyGuy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hot Gas

The cacophony of a busy airport terminal reminds me of a living, breathing thing, with a mind of its own.  Arriving at these airports is just the start of the experience.   You know that parking your car, or being dropped off, is the easiest part of the painful process, that eventually leads to sitting in a seat, that moves through the sky.

 

As a commercial airline pilot I get to avoid most of the pain.  We are dropped off and picked up at every airport, our hotel keys are usually waiting for us, we can go to the front of the line at security, we do not have to wait in the gate area to board, it is illegal to enter my office and under the right conditions, a person could be shot if they tried.

 

Although we are shielded from much of this pain, we can’t help but feel yours.  It is agonizing to watch the flying public endure the constant barrage of ever changing rules, policies, fare structures, monotonous public addresses, lines, more lines, weather delays, cancellations, gate changes, oversells, holiday nightmares, bad food, no food, confiscated items, frustrated parents, beeping electric carts, overflowing bathrooms, expensive food courts, no one in sight to help you, signs that don’t help you, rude employees, no employees, etc.

 

My company's JFK operation is now spread over 3 terminals and a remote parking pad.  It is possible to go through security at one terminal, only to find out that your flight is actually leaving two terminals away.  My company set up an inter-terminal transportation system to move people from terminal to terminal, thus avoiding having to go through security a second time. The passengers are taken directly to their gate or holding area.  The problem I have recently noticed is that nobody has ever bothered to inform the passengers of this cumbersome process. 

 

I had one frustrated, angry, and tearful passenger explain to me how she eventually got to the proper gate, which I was waiting at, as I was working the flight to LAX.  She was dropped off at one terminal, spent forever going through security, and emerged into the wrong terminal.  She was told to proceed to the next terminal that was connected.  She did that only to find out she had to be transported from that terminal to the correct one.  She waited for the bus and was transported to a holding area at the next terminal.  There she met me and proceeded to vent.  I completely agreed with her and asked her

not to shoot the messenger, but that her saga was not quite over.  “Our airplane is parked remotely, so we all have to be transported out to it on a big people mover”, I said.  She thought I was joking.  I apologized and told her that once she got on that last bus, her worries were over.  I told her that she was in good hands; that her crew would take care of her and safely do the job that she had paid for.  “When you sit in your seat on my airplane, let go of all of this and relax.”  I gave her two dollars for a headset, so she could watch the 30 channels of entertainment onboard. 

 

We boarded the bus with the first group of passengers.  I was told there would be three busloads coming to the airplane.  I talked to the passengers near me and told them our flight time to LAX, the weather en-route, and that I anticipated no delays.  I could tell they were listening to everything I was telling them.  Others were straining to hear me.  I am continually humbled by the respect I receive from my passengers, even the angry ones.

 

With my passengers in their seats and the entry and flight deck doors closed, the time comes that every pilot enjoys, the movement of metal. 

 

 

 

Moving an aircraft around JFK is usually an experience all in itself.  Dozens of aircraft of every size are working their way through the labyrinth of taxiways, intersections, and long lines.  Very long lines.  Throw in some snow or a thunderstorm and we might enjoy a couple of hours of taxi time. Eventually we taxi into the takeoff position at the end of our assigned runway, my right hand would be resting on the throttles, awaiting a take off clearance.

 

The checklists are complete and we receive our takeoff clearance.  The moment has come to once again witness the miracle of powered flight, and the best part of the miracle, is that I get to make it happen.  As the throttles are slowly moved forward, the engine instruments are monitored as the power in the engines awake in a thundering roar.  Acceleration is fast and steady and I feel the awkward contortions of my aircraft diminish into a determined metallic beast, begging me to let go of its leash.

  My right hand is relaxed on the throttles, ready to reject our takeoff at the last possible moment, if needed.  Critical speeds are called out.  The engines would be howling at maximum power, devouring and shredding tons of air, smashing and compressing it into a hellish conflagration, then releasing it all at once, a fraction of a second later.  With nowhere else to go, the turbulent expanding gases escape from the narrow exhaust cone, pushing the machine faster. 

 

 These hot gases, produce 90% of the engines thrust by turning the big fan blades you see at the front of the engine.  These engines have accumulated over 26 million flight hours of service since their introduction.  Yeah, they are reliable and one of the reasons flying is so safe.  The thrill and rush of controlling these technological marvels with my fingertips is an experience that never gets old.

 

Be Safe,

 

FlyGuy.

 

Monday, October 27, 2008

FALLEN SOLDIER, THE REST OF THE STORY


My post, “Fallen Soldier”, received thousands of views this past weekend. I am writing this post to tell you what happened after that flight and some things I have just come to know.

After the family was taken off the aircraft, they were immediately escorted down to the ramp and the cargo door. I found out last week that the team of escorts that met the aircraft to assist the family, are employee volunteers. These employees come from all areas of the airline for the single purpose of giving a fallen soldier the honor, respect, and dignity they deserve during their final journey home. I am proud to tell you that the corporation I work for unconditionally supports the efforts of this group of volunteers.

They call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders and have all volunteer teams in Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, Norfolk, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. The Atlanta team has special jumpsuits made by a uniform supplier, displaying a military seal on the back. The team members render honors along with the military escorts and pay last respects to deceased service men and women as they are transported through the airport. Most volunteers are former service men and women or have family who are or were in the military. They have flags and when possible present a commemorative medallion on behalf of my company to the soldier’s family with the inscription: “We will not forget their sacrifice.”

I found this quote on the company's employee website, written by the senior vice president of customer service. I have replaced names with the letter “X”, to remain anonymous in my writing. “Were proud of our honor guard volunteers who represent XXXXX in paying special honors to the men and women who have served our country. The ceremony is not only meaningful to the families, but for everyone who has the privilege of seeing it.”

The article on the website was about the return of U.S Air Force Capt. Lorenza Conner, a pilot killed when he was shot down in Vietnam, in 1967. According to the article, his remains were discovered and identified last year. Apparently Capt Conner is a Georgia native and his remains were returning home for burial. One of our pilots, a Vietnam vet himself, piloted the last leg home from Honolulu. One of the Guard Riders was quoted, “I am doing this in part as a XXXXX employee, but I ride escort as a Ride Captain with the Patriot Guard Riders, escorting fallen soldiers home during funeral services.” Some of these volunteers use their free time to ride along with the remains to their final destination, all the way to burial.

I must throw in a thumbs up for the countless flight attendants who go out of their way to thank every service member in uniform as they exit the aircraft upon arrival. I listen to boarding announcements where along with the normal words, a statement is made to the cabin that there are military members on board today and that their service is appreciated.

Back to the family and their journey home with their son, husband and father. The team escorted the family to the cargo hold. After thanking the rest of the passengers, I proceeded to the pilot lounge as I had a couple of hours to go before my next flight. The lounge is a large area with computers, lockers, tables, chairs, etc. There normally is a lot of traffic there. I saw a friend of mine who was in my original training class twenty years ago. I have always liked Dave, he and I have bantered back and forth for years.

You see, Dave was a fighter pilot and I flew the heavy cargo planes. Dave was a dashing young fighter pilot in the day, crazy as they come and damn good at what he did. He taught fighter pilots, how to teach fighter pilots. His weapon of choice was the F-16. I flew cargo all over the world; doing some things I will never be able to tell you. My weapon of choice was a small Swiss army knife. It could open a can of beefaroni or a bottle of beer. My mission was to constantly seek the ultimate beaches, rivers, ice fields, and other naturally spectacular places, wherever I went.

Although Dave was an Air Force pilot, he managed to learn to swear like a sailor. Dave is now in his fifties and I can attest to the simple fact that he has officially made the transition to being a loud and crusty old fighter pilot. I had not seen him in a while so I walked up and pinched his left nipple as hard as I could. “Jesus, you dumb bastard, let me kick you in the nuts!”, he said, while not one other pilot bothered to look our way. “Hey, I was just making sure you were still alive. That stupid ass grin you keep on that pasty white sheet, you call a face, makes you look like a mannequin”, I said. And so it goes for a few minutes. We finally settle down and catch up on life, his in Florida, mine in California. I asked him if he had time to get a bite to eat. He said, “Yeah, I don’t sign in for a few hours, I work a flight to Norfolk at 4:30.”

“Norfolk!” I said. “Is it flight XXXX?” I said. Dave was flying the soldier home on his last leg. I proceeded to tell Dave what had happened on my flight. At one point, Dave flushed crimson red, and then tears welled up in his eyes. “Fuck, I cry like a god damn baby every time I hear stories like that”, he said. “Well listen up soldier, you have the honor of taking him home and I have a mission for you”, I said. We talked a bit longer and I had to leave. Dave knew the family was going to be escorted back down to the cargo hold to watch the soldiers’ remains be put aboard his aircraft. Dave was planning on getting to the gate early to introduce himself to the family and escort. He wanted to be standing with them outside, if the family wanted that. That crusty ass fighter pilot was on a mission and nothing was going to stop him from doing anything and everything he could for that family. They could not have been in better hands.

I have not seen Dave since that day. Somewhere down the road we will catch up with each other and I will ask him how the rest of that day went. In the mean time, the honor, respect, and dignity that our fallen soldiers deserve, will continue 24/7 at my company. I am sure other airlines have good people doing the same type of thing. As of Saturday, October 25th, the U.S. deaths in Iraq totaled 4,187. The U.S. deaths in Afghanistan totaled 549. Spc Deon L. Taylor, 30, Bronx, N.Y., Cpl Adrian Robles, 21, Scottsbluff, Neb. and Lance Cpl San Sim, 23, Santa Ana, Ca, who died this week in service to their country, deserve nothing less.

Be Safe,

FlyGuy

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Right Thing To Do

I was busy programming my flight computer for a JFK to San Francisco flight, when I heard the lead flight attendant make a public address announcement.  "If I could have your attention for a moment", she said.  She continued with, "We have a mother and young child that do not have seats together.  I am looking for two volunteers with adjacent seats who would like to volunteer to give up their seats, so they can sit together".  A few minutes later I heard her ask again for seat volunteers.

  I picked up the cabin inter phone and made an announcement over the public address system. I said, "Barbara, this is the captain speaking, If you cannot find two volunteers to give up their seats, the copilot and I are more than happy to give our seats away to the mother and child".  I heard laughter from the first class section over my ridiculous statement.

I turned around to look into the first class section.  As I did so, I saw two first class passengers get up out of their seats and walk back into coach.  Less than a minute later I saw a woman and a small boy sit in the same two first class seats.  Yes, they sat next to each other.   Gotta say I was pretty impressed with that random act of kindness.

  I told the copilot what I had just witnessed and he said, "Hell boss, if it makes you feel any better I would be more than willing to give up my seat for yours".  I am still mad at myself for not having a snappy comeback for that one, all I could muster was, "Alright smart ass, before start checklist".

Be Safe,

FlyGuy 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What is that thing?

The number one reason why I will never get tired of this job, is the simple fact that you never know what will come your way on any flight.  I recently had a once in a career experience that I would like to share with you.  

I was descending into JFK on a clear summer night, the first officer was the pilot flying.  We were vectored for a visual approach to runway 22 left.  Runway 22 left at JFK is in a dark area of the airfield.  The approach and touchdown was uneventful.  Once we were on the ground, the speed brakes deployed and the first officer extended the thrust reversers.  As I verified these configuration changes, I focused my attention on runway alignment and our deceleration.  I looked down the runway and noticed a dark area in the dark background of the runway.

Something was not right about that.  I said to the first officer, "I think there is something on the runway, right side".  He said, "Yeah that looks weird".  "How about you move to the left side of center line", I said.  He moved the aircraft laterally  and  about 3 seconds later, at about 120 mph, we zipped past a large engine cowling sitting in the middle of the right side of the runway.  I later figured out that our right engine missed that huge piece of metal by about 20 feet.

"Tower XXXXXX 1420", I said.  "Go ahead" was the reply from tower.  " At about the 4000 foot remaining marker, in the middle of the right side of the runway, there is a large engine cowling that poses a great danger".  "United XXXX go around", was the immediate response from the tower controller.  The ground and tower controllers at JFK are some of the best, anywhere.  I have a high degree of respect for the job they do everyday, without fail.  That tower controller coordinated the closure of runway 22 left, the canceling of all departures on runway 22 right and the sequencing of all airborne aircraft to the remaining available runway to land.

My words to the controller started a sequence of events that would take the better part of an hour to finally settle down to normal operations.  Where I was able to get a word in, I gave the controller as much information as I could.  The engine cowling was big, about 10 feet across.  The aircraft that landed in front of us asked me what color the cowling was.  I told them that at 120 mph I was just trying to void it, it was dark out there and I could not help him.  The tower controller told me that their ground radar was picking up an object about that size, in the area that I told him I saw the cowling.  The newer ground radar systems must be pretty good to pick up something that size.

There was about 10 seconds of silence, when that aircraft transmitted to the tower that they thought they might be missing an engine cowling.  Hitting that cowling at a high rate of speed could be catastrophic for any aircraft.  That night it was no harm, no foul.  A serious disruption in the normal operations of JFK, as the international departures were at their peak.

I doubt that this will ever happen to me again, but that is the same thing I said to my daughter when she backed into the neighbor's car the first time.

Be Safe,

FlyGuy.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Fallen Soldier

Another 4th of July is here and all across the nation, millions of us will celebrate in thousands of different ways.  Our military members around the world will miss out on hometown celebrations, instead, performing the duties assigned to them.  This story is in honor of them.

 

As a commercial pilot, I too see the effects of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Last month I showed up to start a trip and was approached by a gate agent.  “Captain, good morning, I wanted to inform you that we have H.R. on this flight”, she said.  H.R. stands for human remains.  “Are they military?”, I asked.  “Yes”, she said.  “Is there and escort?”, I asked.  “Yes, I already assigned him a seat”, she said.  “Would you please tell him to come to the flight deck, you can board him early”, I said.

 

A short while later, a young army sergeant entered the flight deck.  He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier.  He introduced himself and I asked him about his soldier.  The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and with us.  “My soldier is on his way back to Virginia”, he said.  He proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no words on his own.  I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no.  I told him that he has the toughest job in the military and that I appreciated the work that he does for the families of our fallen soldiers.  The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand.  He left the flight deck to find his seat.

 

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back and performed an uneventful departure.  About 30 minutes into our flight I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin.  “I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying, is onboard”, he said.  He then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and 2-year-old daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father home.  The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left.  We were on our way to a major hub at which the family was going to wait 4 hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia. The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was too much for him and the family to bare.  He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival.  The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane.  I could hear the desperation in the flight attendants voice when he asked me if there was anything I could do.  “I’m on it”, I said.  I told him that I would get back to him.

 

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of email like messages.  I decided to bypass this system and contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary radio. There is a radio operator in the operations control center who connects you to the telephone of the dispatcher.  I was in direct contact with the dispatcher.  I explained the situation I had onboard with the family and what it was the family wanted.  He said he understood and that he would get back to me.

 

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher.  We were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the family.  I sent a text message asking for an update.  I saved the return message from the dispatcher and this following is the text.

“Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you.  There is policy on this now and I had to check on a few things.  Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft.  The team will escort the family to the ramp and planeside.  A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family.  The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal where the remains can be seen on the ramp.  It is a private area for the family only.  When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and planeside to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home.  Captain, most of us here in flight control are veterans.  Please pass our condolences on to the family, thanks.”

 

I sent a message back telling flight control thanks for a good job.  I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant to pass on to the father.  The lead flight attendant was very thankful and told me, “You have no idea how much this will mean to them.”  Things started getting busy for the descent, approach and landing. 

 

After landing, we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp area.  The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway.  It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to enter and exit.  When we entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.  “There is a team in place to meet the aircraft”, we were told.  It looked like it was all coming together, then I realized that once we turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane.  As we approached our gate, I asked the copilot to tell the ramp controller we were going to stop short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers.  He did that and the ramp controller said, “Take your time.” 

 

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake.  I pushed the public address button and said, “Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking.  I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement.  We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect.  His name is private XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life.  Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold.  Escorting him today is army sergeant XXXXXXX.  Also onboard are his father, mother, wife, and daughter.  Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first.  Thank you.”

 

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures.  A couple of minutes later I opened the cockpit door.  I found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just do not see.  I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family to exit the aircraft.  When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started to clap their hands.  Moments later more passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping.  Words of “God Bless You, I’m sorry, Thank you, Be proud, and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane.  They were escorted down to the ramp to finally be with the loved one lost. 

 

I never did see the family.  Another soldier died, another family grieved and we did what we could.  That is the way it works sometimes.  I get a call from the cabin and we work as a team to do what we can.  That day everybody from the flight crew, to the operations center, to the 184 passengers onboard, we did what we could.  Many of the passengers disembarking thanked me for the announcement I made.  They were just words, I could say them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring that soldier back.  I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this day and the sacrifices that millions of men and women have made to ensure our freedom, safety, and the right to live a good life.

 

Be safe,

 

FlyGuy.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jungle Pool

I found this incredible freshwater pool during a hike in the Dominican Republic.  I have never seen anything like this, natural, refreshingly cool water, and no people.  I have been working on a war story, that will soon be posted.

Be Safe, FlyGuy

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cheap Bastards

When my company hired me two decades ago, one of the first things I noticed about many of my fellow pilots was that they were cheap bastards. I consider this to be a compliment to my fellow aviators.

These pilots were not cheap when it came time to splitting the dinner bill, as they were all quite gracious in paying up. As a new guy, I had many meals and drinks bought for me by the captains I flew with. “I don’t want your money, just do this for your copilots when you’re a captain”, they would say. A friend of mine had one captain sternly make him take back the money he had just given the captain, for the prior evenings’ dinner bill. They were in the cockpit when the captain thrust the money back at the copilot and said, “God damn it, I told you I didn’t want any fuckin money and when I say I don’t want your fuckin money, that means I don’t want your fuckin money! We have two more days of flying together dip shit and if I see one fuckin red cent come out of your pocket, I will cut your dic off and use it for a pitot tube!” A fraction of a second later the senior flight attendant burst into the cockpit and screamed, “Everything you just said went over the public address system, stop talking!” The captain had been resting his hands on the center console, where the radio panels are. He had accidentally pushed the transmit button on the console, giving all 150 people on board a front row seat to his dialogue. He was mortified. Both pilots looked down the center aisle of the cabin and saw 300 eyeballs bulging out of people’s heads in disbelief. They had not left the gate yet, and had another four hours with these people. The captain performed an emotional Mea Culpa, hoping an offended passenger would not file a complaint.

Hotels offer a plethora of freebies that end up in the homes of pilots. There are soaps, shampoos, lotions, sewing kits, amenity kits, and other things of strategic value. On the nightstands in hotel rooms, there usually is a pad of stationary and a cheap pen. The stationary pads are commonly found in the cockpits, on the built in clipboards, but the pens are too valuable to leave behind. If there are free newspapers at the front desk, we are certain to take one. At some of the better hotels you can find a newspaper and a Wall Street Journal at the same time, major score.

There is the story of the pilot who finally sends his first child off to college. The young adult returns for the holidays and proceeds to tell the parents everything they have learned. The parents are told many things, but their child was most impressed by learning that most bars of soap are actually very big and shampoo comes in bottles that are bigger than their thumb. Being raised on hotel toiletries brought home by the student’s father, the young person was ignorant to this important part of life, only because the father, a pilot, was a cheap bastard.

Discounts and deals abound in the pilot world. Almost every airport eatery and hotel restaurant offers a percentage off of whatever we purchase to eat. There are coupons for free drinks or buffets. I have seen 50% off in some places, which none of us can pass up. I was at a coffee shop in a layover hotel recently, getting ready to head to the airport. The young woman working the counter got me my coffee and handed me two big chocolate chip cookies for free. Of course I shyly refused, but she insisted that I take the cookies. “You never know when you might get hungry”, She said. I was trying to smile and not drool at the same time. This treatment is not unusual. I was walking through the Cincinnati airport once, when a worker at the Mrs. Fields Cookies counter waved me over. “You can have all the left over cookies for five dollars”, the counter person said. I walked away with three bags of cookies and boasted about my good deal for weeks after. I had realized that the cookies kiosk was closing and instead of throwing the cookies away, they would offer them all at a price no pilot could refuse. I scored those bags of cookies several times but got so sick of them, that I eventually refused the good deal. The same thing happened in Buffalo New York one night. We were doing a turn around, so we were there for about an hour. I ran down to the cafeteria and ordered some wings. The man working the counter asked if I wanted extra wings. I said, “Sure, sounds good”. He brought out three large to go boxes of wings, mild, medium, and hot. We stuffed ourselves. When ordering a meal where the food is scooped up in a predetermined amount, the generous workers dishing out the food usually add a partial scoop more, smiling at us while they do it. I have never seen a pilot tell them to take it back.

There is a good chain of communication amongst pilots, allowing us to share the free things or good deals in our layover cities. A fellow pilot told me about free coffee at the hotel coffee shop in Boston. He said, “You have to be in uniform to get the free coffee”. I mentioned this to my copilot the evening we arrived at that hotel. The next morning I was in the lobby of the hotel studying the subway map. We had the entire day off and I was interested in visiting a museum. I was surprised to see the copilot walk by in his uniform, seven hours before we were to be picked up. He marched over to the coffee shop and picked up a free cup of coffee, saving himself about $2.50. “You make me proud”, I said. He smiled, held up the free cup of Joe in a salute, and then proceeded to pick up a newspaper someone left on a chair. He went back to his room, drank free coffee and read a free paper. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I worked the Hawaiian operation for several years. Our layover hotel was at a gargantuan hotel complex with three, forty story towers. Through the grapevine, I had found out that the rooftop of every tower had a hot tub on it with an ice chest of soda next to it. Access to the rooftop was limited to the expensive business rooms on the upper floors. This was by no means a deterrent to us pilots. I discovered that if I took the elevator as high as I could go without using a room key, I could then take the stairwell up the remaining floors, to the rooftop. I was not interested in the hot tub, but drinking a free soda and taking in the incredible view from forty stories up, was great. I spent many hours up there over those years and never saw another person on that roof. On my way down one day I decided to take the elevator from the highest floor. As I walked towards the elevator I saw a door open to what looked like a lounge. I walked into the room and realized this was a suite converted into the business club lounge.

The suite was gorgeous, fronting the ocean, filled with food, drinks, newspapers, and a self-serve bar. The best part of this situation was realizing that there were no hotel employees in the room. I was alone with platters of food, free drinks, and 24 hours off. I settled in like I owned the joint. I left two hours later, only when another hotel guest entered the room. I went back many times, but one day, when I walked in, I saw a woman sitting behind a desk. “Good afternoon sir, can I assist you?” she said. I wanted to say, “Yeah, can you just go away from this good deal I have?” I remained calm and said, “I am trying to find my boss, and I was told to meet him here.”

“Oh, no problem, what is his name, I can look him up and contact him.” she said.

I was digging myself into a hole. I politely refused her help and left quickly. I could tell she was eyeing me suspiciously. When I got to the elevators, I turned around to smile at her. Next to every elevator were a big bowl of tropical fruit and a stack of newspapers. In an act of defiance, I picked up a papaya, a mango, and a Wall Street Journal while smiling. The elevator arrived quickly and I left. I called the front desk and asked when the business lounge was staffed. I was told that at 4:30 every afternoon, the business lounge was staffed. I had my answer. From then on I made sure I never spent time in that room after 3:00.

I spread the word about the rooftop and lounge to my fellow pilots. One of my fellow pilots brought his wife with him on a trip to Honolulu. He convinced the wife to go to the rooftop with him and sit in the hot tub. It was a beautiful night and they ended up having sex, then more sex, then running around the rooftop naked. Just as they were getting back to putting their clothes on, a security team came out onto the roof. Both parties were surprised as hell to see each other. The pilot apologized to the security team as he was putting his clothes on, grabbed a couple of free sodas and left with his humiliated and unhappy wife.

There was a time when most airlines served good food, especially in first class. I am allowed to sit in first class when I travel off duty. The pass system at my company allows me to travel unlimited times a year. Some years ago a pilot told me that over the weekend he took his wife and children on a flight that was a round trip flight to another city. He flew out on the first leg enjoying a nice lunch and free drinks in first class. They were on the ground for an hour before the same aircraft with the pilot and his family still on it, returned to its point of origin. He and his family enjoyed a first class dinner on the way back, the children enjoying a few ice cream sundaes. That was how they spent their day and evening, enjoying free food, drinks, desserts, and movies. The monthly food bills were less than normal because the pilot was uncanny in his ability to be a cheap bastard.

Not that long ago I was riding to a hotel for a layover. Across the street from my hotel I saw a sign on the marquis of another hotel advertising free wireless Internet. My monthly schedule requests were due the next day and I needed Internet access to send my requests in. Instead of paying for the service in my hotel, I walked across the street that next morning to use the free Internet at the other hotel. I walked past the lobby and sat in a public area near a fireplace that had couches and coffee tables. As I was booting up my computer I saw a large urn of coffee across the room. “What the heck” I thought, it’s just a cup of coffee. I got up and fixed myself a large cup of coffee, just the way I like it. I was working on my computer with a solid Internet connection, drinking my coffee, when a hotel employee approached me. “Sir, the breakfast buffet is now open, would you like me to show you what we have this morning?” she said. Without the slightest hesitation, I said, “Why that would be great, thank you.”
I proceeded to make myself a waffle, gather a plate of eggs and bacon, a glass of juice, and a container of strawberry banana yogurt. I was still there three hours later when they closed down the breakfast area. I was asked if I would like anything else, so I asked if I could take a snack to go. I have shared this nugget with many of the pilots I fly with and they too have enjoyed a scrumptious morning buffet, across the street.

This story could go on and on as there are endless examples of pilots being cheap bastards, but there is one last example I would like to share with you.

About 16 years ago, I was an engineer on the Boeing 727. The captain brought a bag onboard at the beginning of our trip. He handed me the paper bag and told me to put it in a safe place. When we got to our destination that night, he asked me for the bag. During our four-day trip, each day would start out the same, he would hand me the bag, I would put it out of harms way, and he would ask for it at the end of the day. On the last day, as he handed me the bag, I heard the clinking of glass. “Be careful with that,” he said. I asked him what was in the bag. He told me there were about ten light bulbs in the bag. I asked him why he carried all of these light bulbs around. He said to me, “I take the burned out light bulbs from home and exchange them with the working light bulbs in our hotel rooms.” I was at a loss for words, but I remember thinking that this guy is one cheap bastard!  I am honored to be carrying his torch, twenty years later.

Be Safe,

FlyGuy