Choir of Angels


Chapter 8




Objective: Show the reader a typical international trip, in great detail; introduce Ray Stallings, Steve Liezewski, Pat Deever.


Time: 1000

Place: Lee’s Coffee Shop: Fredricksburg, Texas

Date: Nov. 14, 2005


“Why don’t you just go early tomorrow?” Lee asked, peering over the top of Kevin’s newspaper. She was holding a pot of steaming coffee, ready to refill Kevin’s large cup. Lee, the owner for the past twenty-odd years, had seen Kevin become a regular over the last five. A well-preserved, attractive blond, perhaps into her sixties, had flirted with Kevin since his arrival in the small town in the Texas Hill Country. Her café occupied a prime spot on the busy main street. It was bustling today, the pleasant November weather attracting droves of tourists.

“What makes you think that I’m going somewhere?”

“That’s an easy one. When you have a Tokyo trip, you always show up early here, the day before you the trip, so you can get your chores done before you drive to San Antonio for the five o’clock fight to Kansas City.”

“You keep pretty close track of me. How do you know the trip isn’t leaving today?”

“You’d already be gone if that were the case. That would be the six o’clock flight from San Antonio to get to Kansas City in time for the eleven o’clock departure.”

“I think you’ve been reading my mail. Why don’t you just put on my uniform and take the damn thing to Tokyo, since you know so much?”

“I might just do that. I’d need a haircut, though.”

“You’re right on all counts. I do have the regular trip tomorrow. I checked on the employee space available for the flights to Kansas City, and tomorrow morning’s flight only has five seats open. In fact, tonight’s flight is completely full, but I managed to reserve the cockpit jump seat. Since Gamma cut back on the flights out of San Antonio, I’ve had to pounce on the jump seat as soon as it’s available. That means dialing the reservation number at exactly twelve o’clock, three days before the flight. Mercifully, this will all be over at the end of the year. After I hang it up, I’ll probably be in here every day, all day, pestering you.”

“Wooo, sweet. I’ll be looking forward to that.” Lee expertly filled Kevin’s cup over his now lowered newspaper. “Well, I’m back to work, Sugar.”

Kevin, having taken early retirement in August, had returned to Gamma as a “Contract Pilot.” The September bankruptcy had taken no one by surprise. The triple-blow of high fuel prices, onerous security requirements, and the devastating effects of the 9/11 tragedy, had been too much for the once-mighty Gamma. With the bankruptcy looming, many employees had chosen to retire early, to lock any benefits that were available. The pilots were no exception. Having negotiated a generous benefits package in their 1996 negotiations, they were especially vulnerable. Their contract called for a fifty percent lump sum payout at retirement, and the remainder payable in equal monthly payments. The exact amount of these payouts had been calculated using an industry-standard defined benefit (DB) package. Under the DB plan, Gamma had agreed to set aside in an account owned by the employer, funds sufficient to pay the retirees all vested benefits.   In Gamma’s case, these funds happened to be insufficient to pay what they owed. Realizing this, Kevin and hundreds of his contemporaries, now at the peak of their earning ability, had elected to retire early. The fifty percent lump sum was to be the only part of their retirement that they would receive. The remaining debt would be turned over to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC would later agree to pay the pilots a portion of the debt owed them by Gamma. In Kevin’s case this would eventually amount to exactly zero.

Kevin earned $400 each month for the first six months of his employ with Gamma. Then his salary doubled to $800 for the rest of the first year. He was thirty when he began his career with Gamma, amassing three thousand hours of flying time in fighters during his twenties. A few lucky souls had managed to join Gamma earlier. These enjoyed the benefits of great seniority their entire career. Bob Crawford was typical of these. Having earned his licensure as a teenager, he was fully qualified to become an airline pilot at age twenty-one. However, Gamma had a love affair with military pilots. In every class of twenty-five pilots, only two would be young civilian-trained men. Being the most stable, and best–paying airline in America, Gamma received applications from thousands of very experienced pilots from all quarters of aviation. There were exactly 15,500 fellow applicants when Kevin submitted his. The “Good ol’ Boy Network was alive and well in the late 1970’s. The use of influence, bribery, and nepotism, although specifically prohibited, was the only way to prevail. Kevin’s entrée had been a friend of a friend.

Clancy Langford, a retired Air Force officer, had returned to work as a civilian consultant employed by General Dynamics. His assignment crossed paths with Kevin at Tyndall AFB, in the 475th Test Squadron. Kevin, having served a tour of duty in the 48th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, had engendered a fatherly feeling in Clancy, who had also served in the 48th. Clancy and John Hume had flown the Republic F-84 in the same squadron at Luke AFB many years earlier, in Phoenix, Arizona. John became the Vice-President of In-flight Services for Gamma.

“So, how’s Clancy?” John Hume was seated in a sumptuous leather char, behind an enormous mahogany desk. Leaning back, his elbows were on the arms of the chair. He clasped his hands together, fingers intertwined, except for his two index fingers meeting at the fingertips.

Kevin’s head was turned toward the wall to John’s right, which was covered with photos and plaques. Among those happened to be one portraying John and Clancy alongside an ancient F-84.

“He’s great. He knows the F-106 better than I do. He must have been quite a fighter pilot in his day.”

“Oh, yeah, he could fly circles around all of us. He was the fighter pilot’s fighter pilot.”

During the next few seconds, both men heard the silence. Both wondered if more small talk was appropriate. Both heard the noises generated by a jet taking off in the distance, and the shuffling of papers in the secretary’s office nearby.

John broke the awkward silence. “I suppose you are here about a becoming a Gamma Pilot.”

Kevin smiled. John was no buffoon. He was a fighter pilot like himself. There was to be no beating around the bush. The bond was palpable.

“Yes, sir, that’s exactly right.”

“Well, after reviewing you application, I think that Gamma should be pleased to have you. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer you a job.”

Kevin was stunned. He felt as if he were a fly on the wall, observing a sad situation that would be forever etched in his mind. His imagination raced. What could be the problem? John must have seen a fatal flaw in the application. Am I too old? Do I have too little flying time? Hell, you can’t get much more flying time if you are in fighters. If I had been flying trash hauling cargo planes, I would have lots more time. Maybe Gamma isn’t for me. His face flushed with anger, having been dismissed so casually.

“However, I can get you an interview. We have to leave the actual selection process to the experts. I have a few favors to call in down the hall. I’ll ask for a slot in the January Class for you.”

Kevin’s mouth opened slightly. He felt a surge of emotions. Adrenalin shot through his body, reminiscent of challenging flights. Embarrassment, for having felt unappreciated, elation, for his success, gratitude for the opportunity, such powerful feelings threatened his composure.

Licking his lips quickly, he took a deep breath.

“Thanks, John, I appreciate confidence in me. It won’t be wasted.”

“I know, Clancy told me you were coming. If he hadn’t called, you would have never gotten past my secretary.”

And so it began. The class contained two civilian pilots, one of whom had previously worked as a gate agent for Gamma. The rest were military veterans, eight of which had graduated from one of the U.S. military academies. Transport flying proved to be the ticket. Only four of the twenty-five were fighter pilots. Not all destined to be the best of friends, but forever joined as brothers.

“Beeeeeep, Beeeeep.” The speaker at the entrance to the employees’ parking lot in San Antonio droned, without a human response. Kevin pushed to button again. He was stopped at the gate, and having swiped his airport identification card without being permitted entry, he was running short of time.

“Shit, I paid for this parking pass through the end of the year. Somewhere in the system, I’ve been denied access for some reason.” Muttered Kevin.

He put his car into reverse to begin the trek to public parking, and began backing out of the entrance lane. In the other lane a redhead in a red Mustang pulled up to the exit barricade. The bar raised, and she slowly passed, giving Kevin a pleasant smile. He waved, and began counting the seconds that the barricade remained open. Eight seconds, and another car was approaching the gate. When it had passed, Kevin gunned his truck’s engine and dashed through the exit lane. No one noticed.

“Just one more pain in the ass that will go away when I retire.” Thought Kevin.

The quarter-hour employee bus arrived twenty minutes later. Kevin dashed from it at the terminal, now having only fifteen minutes until his flight’s pushback time. Skipping the check in which would have been required had he not reserved the jump seat, he went directly to security. Bypassing the long line waiting there, he approached the employee entrance, flashed the jump seat pass which he had completed, along with his Gamma identification card, and proceeded to the screening area. Being a longtime veteran of such procedures, he grown accustomed to the drill. Quickly taking off his shoes, belt, watch, Aggie Ring, removing his laptop from his roll aboard suitcase, and emptying his pockets, he breezed through.

Since 9/11, employees, even in uniform had begun to receive the same stringent inspection applied to all passengers. Although never officially admitted, evidence existed that one of the hijackers on American Flight 11 (which crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center) was riding on the jump seat, in an airline uniform. If would be almost ten years later before a crewpass system was developed allowing crewmembers to be treated any differently from passengers.

Kevin felt a twinge of regret as he began getting dressed. As a crewmember on domestic flights, he was authorized to carry a Heckler and Koch .40 caliber automatic pistol. Had he been commuting to such a flight, he would have bypassed security completely. In those cases, he would go directly to the Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) desk at the security exit, present his credentials, sign in, and proceed to his aircraft. The regret was that no international agreements had been made to allow him to carry a weapon on flights outside the USA. The Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) Program had enjoyed a perfect safety record since its inception. Later, the first accident, involving a U. S. Airlines Captain, although embarrassing, proved to be mostly harmless when his pistol discharged, sending a bullet through the aircraft’s skin. Statistically the FFDO, or Fido Program, as the pilots called it, became a huge success. There had been no attempted hijackings since 9/11. The number of pilots flying the domestic skies with weapons in their cockpits will remain classified forever. Not all pilots care to participate, and not all pilots seeking to join are accepted. Kevin’s application had been submitted for six months before he received a response. After a thorough background investigation in which his neighbors were actually contacted by the FBI, he was scheduled for psychological testing. A full three months after his written test, an interview with a government psychologist was the next obstacle. After clearing those roadblocks, he was authorized to apply for a training date at the federal “shooting school” at Artesia, New Mexico. Kevin had traveled there, like his classmates, at his own expense. Gamma contributed nothing to the process except non interference. It was no secret that most airlines opposed the program. The Boards of Directors reasoning that airport security being sufficient, the FFDO program presented an additional risk from careless pilots. The pilots, lacking a ground job with a fortress for an environment and millions in salary, simply wanted to protect themselves, considering ground security inadequate.

During his stay at Artesia, Kevin was subjected to a week of fast-draw, rapid-fire marksmanship, taught by gunfight-experienced veterans. Self defense class was a breeze for a Black Belt rated martial artist, like himself. Elegant computer simulations, and role-playing in actual Boeing Airliners made even battle-hardened military veterans grateful for the training, and confident in their ability to thwart an airborne hijacking. Kevin chuckled as he thought of the Fido Icon. A sticker on his flight kit, now awaiting him in Kansas City, depicted a tough-looking dog with a big head, and a spiked collar, denoting the arrogant pilot, and their small jurisdiction (only the cockpit).

“Back to the salt mines, huh Kevin?” Eddie Rodriquez smiled broadly as Kevin approached the gate.

“”Yeah, the usual, wild women, drunken brawls on layovers, and only the greatest respect from fellow employees and passengers.”

“You’re living the American dream, and I see that you have reserved the jump seat. Let me look at the load.” Eddie peered at the computer monitor between them. “We have four empty seats. Would you rather sit in the cockpit or in a middle seat?”

“I’d rather sit between a fat lady and a wrestler than ride in the cockpit.”

The boarding pass machine made a brief whining sound. Eddie reached below the counter and produced the familiar card.

“Eighteen B, if everyone shows up, I’ll have to roust you up to the cockpit.”

“Thanks Eddie, I’ll stay sober.” Kevin replied, referring to the requirement of jump seat riders to become a part of the crew.

As the last person to board, Kevin stopped at 18B and put his briefcase in the seat. Proceeding down the aisle, he began opening overhead bins in search of space for his roll aboard suitcase.

Click – the bin opened. No space. Slam – the bin closed. Proceed to the next one. Click – slam. Click – slam. Click – slam.

“Hi, beautiful.” Kevin greeted the Flight Attendant at the rear of the aircraft. “Looks like the overheads are full.”

“We’re just on a “turn around” (no overnight stay, no luggage), you can use our luggage space. That is, if you’ll buy me a drink when we get to Kansas City.”

“It’s a win-win deal.” Kevin replied in an obviously fake enthusiasm.

“Just kidding, got to get home and scrub floors and feed eleven kids.”

“That’s just the kind of woman I’m looking for. I’m in 18B if you want to talk about this some more.”

“Un, no you’re not Kevin.” Eddie Rodriquez spoke from behind. Everyone showed up. You have to ride in the cockpit.”

“OK, no problem, a ride’s a ride.” Kevin said cheerfully as he ambled up the aisle.

As he stepped into the cockpit, he held his jump seat pass and company identification in his left hand and extended his right hand toward the captain, in the left seat.

“Howdy, I’m Kevin Connor; can I hitch a ride with you to Kansas City?” Giving the captain a firm Aggie handshake.

“Hello, I’m Steve Stricker, and this is Jim O’Rourke. Are you goin’ to work?”

“Yeah, I have a trip at ten, tomorrow morning. Just going over early to get a good night’s sleep.”

“And that would be Tokyo, welcome to the small time. We’ll make you as comfortable as possible in our little jet. Did you get some coffee?”

“I’m all taken care of. I’ll just strap in while you guys do your thing.”

“We’re finished with the Before Start Checklist. Just waiting for the paperwork so we can type the load data into the computer.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to protrude, or nuthin’.” Chuckled Kevin.

“Protrude, that’s a good one.” Laughed Jim.

“It’s a full boat. Here’s your paperwork. Have a good one.” Eddie handed a sheaf of papers to Kevin, who passed it to Jim.

“Brakes released.” The tug driver signaled his readiness to push the aircraft from the gate, precisely as the forward entry door slammed closed.

Steve adjusted his headset-microphone and keyed the lower switch on his control yoke. “We’ll be right with you.” Releasing the microphone switch, he complained to himself, “Everything always happens at once, y’know. Jim, would you go ahead and call for pushback clearance while I type in the data?”

As Steve loaded the Flight Management System (FMS), Jim called Ground Control and received pushback clearance.

“We have a two thousand pound margin under runway allowable weight. Kevin would you look over those numbers and check my typing?” Steve handed Kevin the papers.

“Looks good to me.” Stated Kevin after a brief pause.

“Thanks.” Keying the switch for the ground intercom, without pausing to change addressees, Steve continued.

“Brakes released, cleared to push.”

“Cleared to start.” Responded the voice of the tug driver.

The engine start, taxi, and takeoff were uneventful. As the altimeters wound up past 10,000 ft. Steve double-clicked the “Fasten Seat Belts” switch, signaling the Flight Attendants to make their “turn on the games” announcement, and relief from the “sterile cockpit” rule.

Steve broke the ice. “I think Jim and I would look great in that triple seven, don’t you Kevin?”

“You really would. It’s just about the perfect airplane, you know.” Replied Kevin.

“Since I’m still here flying, you can tell that I’m not taking early retirement. Guys like me are really caught between a rock and a hard place. We don’t have enough years to have accumulated any retirement, and we can’t really go anyplace else. I’d go back to the Navy if I could, but they don’t have a place for an old fart like myself.”

Kevin paused, knowing that he had achieved a much more generous retirement than they two in front of him ever would.

“Yeah, first you find out that it’s not as glamorous as you once thought, then the money vaporizes.” Kevin sympathized.

“Speaking of vaporize, I’d like to make Leo and Ron vaporize after they ran off with all that money. When I was a Navy SEAL, I killed lots of guys that I liked better than those two.”

“If that happened, maybe some of those upcoming assholes would think twice before they negotiated a similar package.” Kevin agreed. No one spoke for a moment. Lost in contemplation, the cockpit became silent except for the sound of the engines.

“Ding Dong.” The Flight Attendant chime sounded, accompanied by a yellow light overhead.

“It’s pretty smooth, and we’ve got a beverage service to do. Can you turn off the seat belt sign now?” The senior flight attendant’s voice came from the overhead speaker.

“Oh, hell, I forgot. Sure, it’s OK. I’ll turn it off right now.” Steve reached up and flipped the switch. “I guess we got to talking and forgot to fly.”

After arriving at the gate in Kansas City, Kevin stepped out of the cockpit and onto the jetway. After waiting for all the passengers to deplane, he returned to the aircraft to retrieve his luggage. Walking toward the rear of the aircraft, he sidestepped into a row of seats to allow the flight attendants to exit the aircraft. The flight attendant who had offered the banter before the flight hung back slightly from the others as they passed. Kevin was hoping for encouragement as she passed. None was forthcoming. After she proceeded three rows past, Kevin spoke.

“Are you sure those eleven kids can’t wait a little longer?”

She turned abruptly. “Let me guess. You’re single, you have a ranch in Texas, and you’re not interested in one-night stands.”

“You are very perceptive. And you aren’t the kind of woman who would tease a pilot into spending a lot of money, because you’re really a good Christian and are independently wealthy anyway.”

“I’m Barbara.” She said, as she offered her hand.

“I’m Kevin. Nice to meet you. May I call you sometime?”

“I that would be good. Tonight is really not going to work. though.” She handed him a scrap of paper, obviously prepared ahead of time.

“I promise to call.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. We’ll see.” She turned and walked toward the forward entrance, her hips making a slightly exaggerated swaying motion.

Kevin retrieved his luggage and walked forward, turned the corner, and exited the aircraft. Steve Stricker was kneeling down, placing his flight kit on a hook on his roll aboard. They were alone.

“Uh, Steve. You sounded a little angry when we were talking in the cockpit. I think that I may have a plan that could offer some good therapy for folks like you.”

“You’re not one of those “hold hands in a hot tub” advocates are you?”

“No, just the opposite; I’m one of those ‘bang some heads together and maybe they will behave’ advocates.”

They regarded each other for a few seconds.

“OK, I’m listening.” Stricker finally spoke.

“Give me your card. Here’s mine. Let’s take a month to check each other out.”

“That’s a cautious approach. This sounds serious. I’ll be waiting for your call.” Stricker stepped toward the door that led down to the ramp.

“Thanks for the ride.” As the door slammed behind Stricker, Kevin headed for the door to the terminal. Since he did not have a flight kit with him as did Stricker, he had no need to descend to the ramp, enter the operations area, and leave his kit before leaving the airport.

The Kansas City Drury Inn offered a free drinks and snacks from five until seven o’clock. Kevin’s timing was perfect, he had just enough time to check in and hustle to the bar for his freebies.

“The usual, Captain Connor?” The attractive black lady tending the bar asked.

“Please, and thanks for calling me Captain, Rhonda.”

She poured him a generous helping of cheap chardonnay. Kevin left a five-dollar tip in the large mug setting on the bar. The vegetable bar and dressing would suffice for Kevin’s dinner. Afterward he hit the street for a walk before retiring. Like most airport hotels, the Drury was located on a busy street. Kevin turned left coming out of the hotel and proceeded toward the airport. The night was clear and cool. As he proceeded down the tree-lined street, a huge aircraft came into view. On it takeoff , it approached him from behind an overpass which lay ahead. As it passed low overhead, Kevin could see the landing gear retracting. The landing lights pierced into the darkness ahead. Mesmerized, even after experiencing such things thousands of times, Kevin stopped and turned his body to follow the spectacle.

“Cool jet, huh? Got some spare change?” Came a voice from the darkness, toward the overpass.

Kevin, normally acutely aware of his environment and its treats, cursed himself under his breath for allowing himself to have become vulnerable. Gathering his wits, he took a deep breath, consciously kept his hands at his side and slowly turned toward the voice.

Ambling toward him from the darkness was a shabbily dressed young white man in his early thirties, wearing blue jeans, and a seat shirt emblazoned with “TRY GOD.” As he approached, Kevin felt a menacing presence from the powerfully built stranger.

“As a matter of fact, I do. You look like you’re a little down on your luck these days.” Kevin reached behind himself as if to produce a wallet. Waiting to see how the situation progressed, he had no intention of allowing the situation to take one of his hands out of a potential battle.

“Well, that’s good. Why don’t you just give it all to me?” The stranger was now standing five feet from Kevin, turned slightly to Kevin’s left and extending his left hand slightly.

“And what are you gonna do if I don’t?” Kevin carefully annunciated his words in neither intimidated nor intimidating tones.

“Whatever it takes. Let’s have it.” He took another step toward Kevin, making fists with both hands. He was now slightly turned toward Kevin’s right with his right fist slightly extended, and his left near his waist.

With his right hand still behind him, Kevin calculated the distance to the mark. Without raising his hands, he took a half-step with his right foot toward the adversary. Planting the right foot, he adjusted his weight, now evenly distributed on both feet. Quickly pivoting to the left on the balls of both feet, he momentarily lost sight of his attacker as his head turned. As the situation returned to his field of vision, the attacker was advancing with both arm extended. Kevin, now looking rearward, with his body directed away from the attacker, placed his weight on his right, and simultaneously lifted his left leg. Like the release of cocked trap, his powerful back kick met the attacker, arriving precisely between the words “TRY” and “God.”

“Kee-Yah.” Kevin shouted as he delivered the blow.

“Uhhhh.” Came from the lungs of the attacker as his was stopped in his tracks. His head, arms, and feet flailed forward, as Kevin quickly retracted his foot and leg.

With his body still facing away from the fray, Kevin briefly considered flight. But as the attacker fell motionless to the sidewalk, his thoughts turned toward concern.

“Are you dead, unconscious, or just playin’ possum?” Kevin asked, sternly.”

No response.

The would-be attacker now lay face-down, crumpled into a heap of tangled arms and legs. Kevin cautiously approached from the head side of the heap. Placing two fingers on the jugular area of the attacker’s next, he felt a strong pulse.

“Unconscious.” Kevin said aloud. Let’s see what you have for weapons.” Kevin felt under the arms, in the pockets, and down each leg. The search produced a sheath knife, strapped to the right leg, and a thin wallet.

Sitting on a nearby low, stone abutment to the overpass, Kevin set the knife on the wall and opened the wallet. “I always wondered what thugs carried in their wallets. I’m about to find out.” He thought. Inside he found a Kansas Lottery Ticket, a photo of a young boy with a telephone number of the back, and three one-dollar bills.

A low moan came from the figure on the sidewalk. He rolled over on his back, without attempting to rise.

“I charge three dollars for Karate lessons. Ya want another one?” Kevin spoke calmly.

“MMMMMMuhhh, I think I’ve had enough for one night.”

“I can’t decide whether to call the hospital, the police, or the kid whose photo is in your wallet. I’ll tell you what. I won’t call anyone if you’ll just lay there and get your wind back, and tell me about it.”

“That’s a deal.” He wheezed.

“I’m listenin’.”

The marauder spoke soft and slow.

“OK, here’s the short story……… I was a mechanic for Gamma up until eight months ago…….. I was keepin’ up with my child support and making ends meet ‘till the cutbacks hit…….. I went from forty hours at $37 an hour, to twenty at $25. I got to layin’ around the apartment drinking too much and things just went south from there.”

“You’re sayin’ that you’re really a nice guy, who just fell on hard times, right?”

“Check it out. I did a good job when I was in avionics at Gamma. I’d work now if I could find somebody to hire me.”

Kevin put his hands, palms down, on the retaining wall on which he was sitting. One on the knife, one on the wallet.

“This is a hell of a way to start a job interview, but I may be interested.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah, really. I won’t call anyone right now. I have the phone number on the back of your son’s photo. I’m guessing that the person who answers that number won’t be too happy to hear from me. I want you to tell me your Gamma employee number, your address, and maybe even your name. I’ll check out everything you say, and maybe get back to you. I need someone who’s smart and a little desperate. Maybe you’ll do. I want you to forget everything about tonight. If I decide to hire you, I’ll just be a voice on the phone. The things that I ask you to do may be illegal, but I’ll pay well.”

“You’ll just sic the cops on me.”

“Later, if you fuck up, but not now. I have my phone out so that I can either record your info, or call 911. What’ll it be?”

“How could things get much worse? I’m Robert Driscoll. I live at 3257 Tiffany Springs Road, Apartment 202, at least ‘till they run me off for not payin’ my rent, and I don’t have a phone.”

Kevin keyed the information into his phone. Unhurriedly, he stood, walked closer, and dropped the knife and the wallet, on the attacker’s chest. “Don’t bother getting up when I leave, I’m used to getting no respect.” With that, he smiled, turned, and stepped out toward the Drury. Listening carefully for activity behind him, he momentarily glanced back at the attacker, still prone, as another behemoth aircraft passed low above him.

“Airport.” Shouted the rotund van driver. “All aboard for the Airport.”

Kevin, now dressed in his uniform, except for his company hat, ambled toward the door pulling his roll aboard.

“I guess it’s just us Cap’n. Smiled the driver, as he closed the door on the otherwise empty van.

“Yeah, folks goin’ to Tokyo don’t much stay at the Drury, do they?”

“I see whacha mean. Those must be expensive tickets.” The driver regarded Kevin in his rear view mirror.

“Yeah, you’d think that Gamma could make a profit after charging so much. Wouldn’t you?”

“No offense, but I heard that it’s the high pilots’ salaries that’s forcing Gamma into bankruptcy.”

“Yeah, I hear that every day. We just took a 60% pay cut, and Leo Mullin waltzed away with fifty million. Do you really believe it’s the pilots?”

“Looks like to me that no one should get away with that much money after doing such a bad job of running a company.”

“I’m with you there. I don’t know what we can do about it though. It seem like there’s no one to stop ‘em from stealing as much as they want.”

The diver expertly nosed the van into the Drury angled parking slot, between two other vans. “I don’t know the answer, either, Cap’n. Let me get your bag. I hope you have a safe flight.”

Kevin cautiously entered the terminal. Cautiously, not for fear of attack, but in an attempt to avoid the watchful eye of the Chief Pilot’s Office. Rather than crush his hat in his suitcase during his commute from home, Kevin routinely left it in his locker in flight operations until reporting for work. Largely a symbol of authority, the Chief Pilot and his assistants stalked the halls to “check appearances.” Being caught would result in a scolding, and for Kevin, a reminder that as a Check Pilot, he should serve as a better example. Having escaped detection, Kevin let out a sigh of relief as he descended the stairs into flight operations.

Flight 55 was scheduled to leave Kansas City for Tokyo at 9:50 AM. All international flights require that pilots and flight attendants report for duty one and one-half hours before the scheduled pushback time. Kevin glanced at his watch. The time – 8:05 – fifteen minutes early. Somewhere in the headquarters building, an alarm was set to alert the Crew Scheduling Department if any of the crew had failed to sign in by 8:20. He briefly considered postponing his computer sign in, just to create a little anxiety there.

“Naa, I have too much to do, I’ll just get started.” Thought Kevin. He entered his employee number and password in one of a dozen the standup computer stations near the entrance. After a brief pause, the screen filled with not-so-welcome information.








US: 10-56; EUR: 23-34; ASIA; 22-17; SOUTH AMERICA: 13-21; AFRICA: 12-09.




Kevin pushed the “print” key. As the printer chattered, he looked around the room. A dozen photos hung on the walls, each portraying one of Gamma’s jets, and adorned with signatures on their mats. These were the retirement photos of the soon-to-leave pilots. The Gamma custom called for old friends to sign the photo of a departing pilot and mention some experience that they had in common. In years past, it was a rare occasion for someone to retire. Today, in addition to those, stacks of such photos were set on edge on the floor. His was somewhere among them.

“Like rats deserting a sinking ship.” Muttered Kevin. “Except the big rats were in senior management, and they’ve already left. We’re just mice, and we may not survive.”

Kevin logged off the computer, tore the trailing edge of the long snake of the printout and began folding the necessary document. The paper had spilled from the counter and accumulated in a huge pile on the floor. Although lengthy, the critical information consisted of only a few numbers. The flight time would be fourteen hours and two minutes; the route of flight read: CHIEF3.MCI STJ DIR FSD DCT DIK GGW DCT YWV NCA14 YESKA J123 ANC DCT NODLE R220 NANAC OTR 10 AIRES AIRESS RJAA. Having been over that exact route dozens of times, Kevin could well imagine how the flight would proceed. That route would carry them over St. Joseph, Missouri, Fargo, South Dakota, Dickinson, North Dakota, Glasgow Montana, Yellow Knife, British Columbia, across the Brooks Mountains to Anchorage, Alaska, west across the wastes of central Alaska, north of the Aleutian Islands, South (but in sight) of the Russian Kuril Islands, and into Japanese airspace over the northern Island of Hokkaido. The flight would cover a little less than six thousand miles; initial fuel load would be 251,000 pounds; takeoff weight would be 636,000 pounds, down from the structural maximum of 648,000, owing to the 82 seats, which would be unoccupied. The performance limit takeoff weight (what the engines could safely accelerate the aircraft for lift off) for the forecasted weather conditions (31 degrees Fahrenheit) would be 653,000 pounds, well above the expected load. Liftoff speed would be 167 knots. Most importantly, target gate arrival fuel showed to be 24,600 pounds, a pleasantly plump amount.

Next, he gathered the contents of his mailbox, which consisted of two revision packages for his flight manuals, a revision for the Flight Operations Manual (company procedures), a letter seeking donations to the Christmas fund for the Chief Pilot Office (CPO) secretaries, and a letter requesting his presence in the CPO for a “Conference on official business.”

“What now?” Kevin muttered. “Someone must have taken exception to one of the check rides that I gave last month. I suppose that it’s that one I gave to Bob Sanderson, the ALPA MEC (Master Executive Council) chairman. Management is always trying to nail him for something.” With that thought, he gathered his flight kit from his locker, grabbed his rollaboard suitcase, and hustled into the cubicle marked NRT, for Narita, Japan.

Ray Stallings, the junior captain, sat facing away with a copy of the long flight plan in front of him. He turned as Kevin arrived. “Hey, Kevin, good to see you again. Steve Liezewski, and Pat Dever, the First Officers, were standing, looking over Stallings’ shoulder. “We’ve been going over the flight plan. It looks pretty routine. We’ll go over Anchorage, out R-220, and get into Narita with twenty-four thousand pounds of fuel. It’s scheduled for fourteen hours and two minutes.”

“Routine is good. I guess Steve and I will take us to Narita, and you guys can bring us back. Let’s get the dispatcher on the speaker phone and fill that square.” Replied Keivin.

“Thirty-two, Albright.” Squawked the speaker phone.”

“Good morning, this is your Narita Crew. How are you today.” Kevin asked, cheerfully.

“I’m OK. Let me get your paperwork together here. Hmmm. Got you arriving Narita with twenty-four-six pounds with fourteen hours and two minutes enroute. “

The Gamma dispatchers and pilots were the only two groups at the airline to be unionized. Management had done everything possible to prevent them and every other faction from doing so. The flight attendants saw the most contentious recruitment. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) periodically demanded a union vote. Each time, a huge propaganda campaign ensued. Each time the union was rejected, with Gamma slightly sweetening the compensation package in order to win. The dispatchers, like the pilots were, for the most part, happy with their union representatives and the contracts that they negotiated. Compensation was never discussed outside one’s group.

“I’m seeing some choppy air over North Dakota, and again as you get close to Japan, around Nippi Intersection. The weather should be VFR (Visual Flight Rules, denoting good weather, not requiring instrument procedures) at your arrival time. I suggest that you climb on up to thirty nine as soon as you’re light enough. You should be above the tropopause, and get smoother air.” Albright spoke in a very businesslike tone.

“Does anyone have anything else? OK, we’ll be talking to you later. Thank you.” Kevin reached for the button on the speaker phone.

“Thirty-two, Albright, out at seventeen forty-one.” Albright signed off, the formality reminding everyone that the conversation had been recorded, and was required for the flight.

“Let’s go brief the stew-birds before they leave their briefing room to go to the airplane.” Kevin walked out of the cubicle with the other three in tow.

“Knock, knock. Is now a good time to talk?” Kevin stood partially in the doorway of the “Inflight Service Briefing Room.”

“Sure, c’mon in. I’m Sharon West, the coordinator, and this is Suzy Bratton, the “B.”

Tradition had established the titles of the flight attendants. In earlier days, the roster provided alphabetic headings for each of the positions. The first, being the “A-line,” then the “B-line,” and so forth. Now, no such document remained, but the titles did.

Kevin introduced himself and the other pilots. Gamma employed so many pilots and flight attendants, that it was rare for any of either group to recognize a familiar face. There were few opportunities for friendship, much less for intimacy among the groups. He then repeated the weather briefing that he had just received from the dispatcher.

“What do you want to use for the secret password to get into the cockpit? How about “Allah Akbar? Hah, just kidding. Do you have one that you like?”

“Very funny. How about “Sushi?” West replied, feining disgust at the sick joke.

“That’s fine. There’s just one thing that I would like to emphasize. That’s the cockpit entry procedures. Let’s do it exactly like we’re supposed to. Also, if anything unusual is happening in the cabin, we want to know about it and help……..That’s all I have. Anything else?……..No? OK, we’ll see you on the jet.” With that, the four pilots shuffled from the room.

“Oh, shit, we’ve got that bitch, Sharon, for a coordinator. We’ll never get fed now.” Lamented Stallings as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Since you have obviously tangled with her before, let me smooze her and I’ll guarantee she’ll treat us like kings.” Challenged Kevin.

“This I have to see.” Replied Stallings, skeptically.

“Steve, would you get the cockpit ready to go for me. I know it’s my leg to Narita, but someone in the Chief Pilot’s Office is asking for me.”

“Sure, no problem. Kevin. I’ll be happy to do that.” Said Liezewski.

“Hello Marcie, you’re looking unusually beautiful today. Did one of the Perfumed Princes want to harass me today?”

“Why hello, Captain Connor. Thank you. And yes, Captain Price asked to see you. I’ll check to see if now is good for him.”

She disappeared through a door behind her, and quickly returned. “Please go right in, Captain Price can see you now.”

Kevin entered the office of his Chief Pilot and long-ago training classmate, Allan Price. Photos, plaques, and certificates adorned nearly every square inch of wall space. His handsome desk sported two model aircraft on stands. Both resplendent in their detail and shininess, one, an MD-11 replica displayed Gamma’s colors when Ron Allen presided. The Boeing 777 displaying the newer paint scheme chosen by Leo Mullen. Price, one of Kevin’s “newhire” classmates in 1977, had chosen a path closely aligned with Gamma Management. An Air Force Academy graduate, he had arrived at Gamma with a military officer’s philosophy. Indeed, the Gamma personnel department depended on that. A military flying background was ostensibly good experience in becoming a competent, dependable pilot. Further, though, most brought a bent toward management, rather than a union viewpoint. Price had worked his way to his present position through a series of unpleasant chores, such as simulator instructor, CRM instructor, accident investigator, and assistant chief pilot.

“Kevin, long time no see.” Price stood, walked around the desk and extended his had to Kevin.

“No offense, but this isn’t a place I like to frequent.” Kevin was feigning trepidation.

“It’s not like that, Kevin. Actually, it’s quite a good deal. What with all the recent retirements from Gamma’s upper management, we need some help. Since I have always kept up with our classmates’ activities, I know about your formal education, and your dedication to Gamma. You stepped up to the plate and did us proud, when you served on the CRM Steering Committee. Will you do it again?”

“Well, since I got screwed out of half my retirement, I’m broke enough to listen.”

“We need a guy like you to slide into the Assistant Vice President for Flight Operations Office. Since the Senior VP of Operations left, our leaders have percolated up into higher offices. You could go all the way up if this works.”

“Allan, I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, but what you just said is the craziest notion that I’ve ever heard. I’m very angry about the golden parachutes that our so-called leaders have taken. I think you’re suggesting that I get in line for some of that same action. I certainly couldn’t do any worse at running an airline than those idiots, but I’m just not that good of a liar. I don’t know whether to thank you for suggesting that I have marketable skills, or to slap you for suggesting that I could fit in with those assholes.”

“Now Kevin, calm down. What you say is precisely the reason that I’m asking. You do have leadership skills, and you are an honest person. You could be the first of a new wave of leaders at Gamma. Imagine, honesty in upper management; what a concept.”

“Ok, if that’s the track, then I apologize for attacking you. But the answer is no. Gamma is too stuck in her ways to change by gentle persuasion. It’s going to take more drastic measures than I could produce as a Vice President to change her.”

“Such as?”

“Well liquidation may not be such a bad idea. Sometimes you have to burn everything to rid yourself of the disease. Jail time for some of them might help too. What I would really like to see is a system of oversight that provides for performance-based salaries for management. Another thing that would help is for management to be paid a reasonable multiple of the workers’ salaries. I could really get into this oversight thing.”

“Well, Kevin, will you help?”

“You will have to show me how this new deal is going to work. Running Flight Operations is one thing, but creating an incentive-based pay structure is something entirely different. If it’s going to be the same ol’ shit, then I’m out. I absolutely will not be corrupted by this offer. And another thing. I will refuse to be the only honest guy in a pack of thieves. I want to see everyone play by the same rules.”

“Well, I can see that we’re on the same wavelength. This is a big change for the “good ‘ol boy” network, though. It will take a long time to kick in.”

“Allan, I don’t doubt that you believe in this. However, I’m skeptical, that you or anyone else can make it work. I honestly don’t know how you can convince me. What document could you possibly produce that would guarantee this huge change will actually take place?”

“We could start with a modest compensation package for you, Kevin.”

“Yeah, and what if no one else’s package is as modest?”

“That might take time to have such reasonableness kick in and affect everyone.”

“Allan, I don’t have that much time. I have a different plan that could accomplish what you’re suggesting in less than three years.”

“I can’t imagine that. This could be worth tens of millions of dollars over the next few years. Refuse it if you will, but don’t expect everyone to do the same. Besides, you’re an outsider. You’ve got to drink a little cool aid to get in. Maybe after you prove yourself, you can get these changes implemented. How can your plan beat that?”

“I can’t say, Allan. But if you ever hear of an executive at Gamma begging for a more modest compensation package, think of me.”

“I’ll be looking forward to that. Meanwhile, the offer is good for a week. Why don’t you fly your trip and come back in Thursday afternoon? Maybe we can negotiate something.”

“OK, Allan, but I recommend that you have something more than a contract that pays me less than everyone else.”

“Thanks, I’ll work on that. See you Thursday, Kevin.”

Kevin walked up to the desk at the gate. “Hello, here’s my I.D., please check me off so I can go down to the airplane.”

The gate agent looked at Kevin’s I.D., and compared the name on his roster. “OK, Mr. Connor, you’re good to go. Everyone else is already down there.”

“Mr. Connor indeed.” Kevin fumed to himself. ‘You would think that a guy in a uniform with four stripes, boarding the biggest equipment that the company has, and taking it on the longest trip would be called Captain. Oh, well, it’s hard to find good help these days.”

Kevin paused at the airplane’s entrance long enough to toss his briefcase into the crew rest quarters. He then proceeded to the cockpit and began “making his nest.” It was a familiar routine, practiced several times each week for almost thirty years. Stow the roll aboard, place the flight kit in the left seat. Hang up the hat and coat; get a cup of coffee; place it in the cup holder; put the flight kit in the space between the seat and the left side of the cockpit; grab the overhead handle and slip down into the big chair; fasten the lap belt and crotch strap; open flight kit.

Kevin chuckled as he remembered a question that Jim Woodward, a local rancher had asked him. “What do you guys carry in those black bags? I always imagine that there’s whips and chains for those wild layovers. Maybe a bottle of whiskey, and some light porn.”

In this case, fiction was much stranger than the truth. A little bag with a lightweight headset lay on top. Kevin retrieved it, connected the headset to the airplane, and affixed it to his left ear. The microphone extended around the side of his face near the left corner of his mouth. After swapping his Breitling watch for his Timex vibrating alarm watch, he extracted a one-inch thick five-ring binder, containing the maps for the forthcoming trip: a large book of maps for Asia, two for the U.S., the Policy Manual, the Pilots Operating Manual (containing normal and emergency procedures), and the B-777 systems manual. All this left precious little space for spare sunglasses, circular slide rule (useless, but required), a light sweater, and a few pencils, no whips nor chains. Kevin next tested his oxygen mask, and interphone and began his routine of checking every switch and indicator in the cockpit. To a visitor this would have appeared complex. In Kevin’s mind the process was perfectly logical. Just start at one side of the cockpit and make sure everything is the way it was for the last hundred trips. Push a few “test” buttons, and make sure everything goes back to normal after the test. Simple.

“I loaded the flight plan into the FMS (Flight Management System), Kevin.” Steve reported.

“Thanks, I owe you one. I should have been here on time to do that, since it’s my leg to Tokyo. You wouldn’t believe what Allan Price wanted. I’ll tell you about it, later.” Kevin held the flight plan in one hand, and pushed buttons on the FMS with the other.

Flight Management Systems had been around for twenty years. Their purpose is to assimilate navigation sensor information, and direct the autopilot and pilots’ instruments to achieve a course specified by the pilots. The 777 has two independent systems, which accommodate calculations pertaining to wind, fuel, speed, time, course offsets, jet airways, and multitudes of other less useful information. Steve had entered today’s pertinent information. Kevin was checking it. On long airways, such as R-220, that covers much of the North Pacific, only the beginning and end points needed to be specified. The system filled in all the intermediate waypoints. Kevin checked the forecast weights, fuel load, and navigation track.

“Looks good to me, Steve. I noticed that you only entered the track to the initial fix at Narita. I went ahead and entered the approach for runway three zero. We may not get that, but we can call it plan A, and change it later, if necessary.”

“That works for me, Boss.

“Here’s my plan.” Kevin began the mandatory departure briefing. “The weather here’s fine. If we have any excitement on takeoff, I plan to just fly the jet and let you guys figure out the problem. The runway’s clear, dry, and long. We’re seventeen thousand pounds under the performance limit weight. Transition altitude is 18,000, and there are no special procedures for this runway. Now’s a good time to discuss anything that’s bothering anyone. No? Then I’m ready for the check list, please.”

Steve began reading the items that Kevin had just checked. Kevin responded to each. Gamma’s philosophy of using a “check list” permitted such activity. Other quarters of aviation erroneously labeled their procedures as “check lists” when they were actually “do lists.” When using a “do list,” one person reads an item, and the other person performs the action, such as changing a switch position.

“Before start check list complete.” Stated Steve after less than twenty seconds.

“I feel great. How about you guys.” Kevin inquired.

The other three nodded and indicated that they, too were in good condition.

“I’ll be glad to be on the first break, though. I’ve been losing a lot of sleep with kid problems at home.” Lamented Stallings.

“Cabin’s ready for pushback.” Sharon West announced as she forcefully slammed the cockpit door.

“Brakes released, cleared to start.” The voice of the tug driver crackled over the speaker.

“Brakes are released, we’ll call for clearance.” Replied Kevin.

Liezewski called the Gamma tower which controlled the gate traffic for permission. Being the highest priority flight at the airline, he expected no delay and received immediate clearance.

“Cleared to push.” Kevin advised.

And with that, all 636,000 pounds of metal, fuel and people began their journey. None of the pilots seemed particularly worried about moving backwards, and having a hundred systems performing around them. It was a routine that had grown very comfortable for them. Each knew the pattern, and each would have detected the slightest deviation from the norm.

“Start both engines please.” Kevin had waited a few seconds after being cleared by the ground crew to start the engines, in hopes of having them finish the start sequence exactly at the time when the ground crew was out of the way. Liezewski performed the almost ludicrously simple procedure. He moved first the right and then the left engine start switches to “start.” Next he moved the fuel switches to “run.” The rest was completely automatic.

The groan of the mighty 90,000 pounds thrust engines could be heard in the cockpit as they reached idle speed. Kevin having dismissed the ground crew, prepared to taxi. Liezewski advised the ramp tower of their intentions, and received clearance to taxi and to change radio channels to airport ground control frequency. The muffled sound of the pre-recorded passenger announcements could be heard through the door as the engines began to produce breakaway thrust.

“Gamma 55, Kansas City Ground, follow your company triple seven via Delta, Alpha 11, hold short of Runway 01 left.”

“Roger, hold short of one left behind company.” Replied Liezewski.

A brief flurry of activity readied the aircraft for takeoff. As each item on the taxi checklist was accomplished, its associated warning on the center screen became green. When all the lines in the taxi checklist were green, Kevin spoke. “Taxi checklist, please.”

“Taxi checklist complete.” Came the reply.

Kevin loved taxiing the big aircraft. The main landing gear lay 100 feet behind them. The nose gear 27 ft. back. Turning the aircraft required placing the nose considerably outside the desired turn path. This became especially obvious as they neared the end of the taxiway and began a 90-degree turn to the right. Kevin allowed the nose to proceed toward the edge of the pavement until the entire cockpit hovered over the grass. Then, sharply turning the tiller, the nose swung around, with the distant main wheels remaining precisely on the yellow center line. Bringing the aircraft to a stop, just short of the dashed line marking the runway, he set the brakes, and called for the before takeoff checklist. A few items required verification from both pilots. Although the aircraft’s computers were poised to advise of any forgetfulness, both pilots verified aloud that the flaps were, indeed, set for takeoff.

“Gamma 55, fly runway heading, wind zero one zero at niner, cleared for takeoff, runway one left.” Called the tower.

As the big aircraft aligned with the center of the runway, Kevin reviewed what he considered the most difficult task of the flight. Takeoff decision speed or V1 is the go or no go speed. Below that, and the aircraft is able to stop in the remaining runway. Above it, and it is able to takeoff if one engine fails. Myriads of possibilities exist for failures. Some are so insignificant that the takeoff should be continued. Some are tricky. A tire failure before V1 can render the stopping capability diminished, suggesting that one should continue the takeoff. The captain always makes the decision.

Kevin pushed the throttles halfway forward. The big Trent engines groaned as they reached for their purpose. Seeing that the engines had accelerated in harmony, he pressed the TOGA (takeoff and go around) switch on the throttle. Lightening his grip on them, the autothrottle computer moved the throttles to the maximum thrust position, releasing the full 180,000 pounds of thrust, or about 360,000 horsepower. As they accelerated down the runway, the fan section of the engines began to gulp more and more air. The amplitude of the groan grew louder, passing 100 knots. Sixty seconds and nearly two miles of runway passed.

“V1.” Announced Liezewski.

Kevin let out a slight sigh of relief. The hard part was over.

“V R, rotate.”

Kevin began pulling back on the yoke. They were passing the big “2” on the side of the runway, indicating that they had two thouand feet of runway remaining. As the nose slowly rose, the wingtips began to bow upward. The passenger in seat 55A was slightly frightened to see then rise almost 17 feet. As they gently left the ground, Liezewski called “Positive rate.” Indicating that a good rate of climb had been achieved, and that the landing gear could be retracted.

“Gear up, please.” Kevin adjusted the pitch of the mighty aircraft to climb at takeoff safety speed (V2). After about a minute had elapsed, the radar altimeter indicated that they had passed 1000 ft.

“Flaps five, (pause), flaps up, V nav, heading select.” Called Kevin.” These actions changed the aircraft configuration from takeoff to climb mode, enabled the vertical navigation mode (V nav), signaled the autothrottle computer to reduce the engine power, and adjusted the pitch command in the flight director to accelerate to best climb speed of 270 knots. Heading select mode in the lateral navigation computer produced steering commands on Kevin’s Primary Flight Display (PFD) to comply with their clearance to proceed on runway heading. All four pilots were expecting exactly this to happen. Not a single extraneous word was uttered. Since they had all seen this scenario play out a thousand times, each was completely focused for any deviation from the norm.

“Gamma 56, contact departure control, hade a nice flight to Narita.”

Liezewski keyed his microphone. “Thanks, Gamma 56 over to departure.” He pushed the switch to transfer the radio transceiver to the new frequency. “Good morning departure, Gamma 56 is passing two thousand five hundred for ten thousand.”

“Gamma 56, departure, radar contact, expedite your climb to ten thousand.”

“Hah, what a joke, we’re a heavy pig. Tell ‘em no chance.” Said Kevin.

“Uh, depature, Gamma 56, we’re unable to expedite, on account of weight.” Replied Liezewski.

“OK, 56, I guess you’re pretty heavy. Climb normally, turn left 20 degrees for traffic.”

“Gamma 56, turning left 20 degrees.”

At ten thousand feet, Kevin cycled the ‘No
Smoking’ switch to notify the flight attendants to announce to the passengers that their electronic devices could be enabled. Since the air was smooth, he turned off the ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ sign at 20,000 ft. At that point, he employed the autopilot, having satisfied himself that he had enough manual flying practice for a while. Five minutes later, the autopilot leveled the aircraft at 35,000 ft., the altitude specified in the computer generated flight plan and previously typed into the FMS.

“Well, Kevin, if it’s OK with you, Pat and I will go back to the condo.” Said Stallings, referring to the crew rest facility. “Give us a call twenty minutes before you need us back up here. Do either of you need coffee or anything?”

“I’m all set. Sleep well.” Kevin responded, as the relief crew stole into the crew rest facility.

“Gamma 55, cleared direct Fargo.” Air Traffic Control spoke through the pilots’ earphones.

“Direct Fargo, thanks, Gamma 55,” replied Liezewski.

“Well, Steve, how’s it goin’, being wing commander of all those C-117s at Charleston?”

“It was sorta fun, but I’m not doing that any more.”

“Really, I’m surprised. I thought that was a great gig for a reserve officer like you. What happened?”

“I timed out, and needed to move on. An O-7 slot popped up at the Pentagon, and I was nominated. Besides, that wing commander job is a lot of work. This is much easier. I’m in charge of the plans shop for reserve airlift now.”

“Wow, that’s really something. I’m flying with a general. I’m proud of you. I don’t know where you get all the energy. When I went on second year pay with Gamma, my bullshit tolerance went ‘way down, and I got out of the National Guard. My hat is off to you, Steve; you’re a real patriot.”

“I don’t look at it as patriotism; it’s more like a little extra retirement money. Gamma is looking a little shaky these days. Who knows if they will be good for all the benefits that they have promised.”

“You’re right. I’m pretty much screwed if Gamma reneges on the deal. I wish that I had stayed in the National Guard and had that to fall back on too. But as I was saying, it’s more than the money for you isn’t it? I mean you’re a smart guy, who is giving a lot more than the Air Force is paying you. That’s patriotism isn’t it?”

“Kevin, it’s just the money.”

“I don’t believe you. You could have made a lot more money elsewhere. You could have become an attorney or physician, and still flown for Gamma. No, I think there’s more to it than the money. You love your country don’t you?”

“Well yeah, but no more than the rest of us. You served in the military. You’re not pounding your chest about being a hero.”

“I guess I’m just wondering why we do it. Eagle Scout, Air Force Pilot, Check Captain, those are good things, but I suspect that I did that because I was supposed to. It seems to me that there are those who rebel, and those who comply.”

“I think I see where you’re going with this, Kevin. We had a term in my squadron for mindless compliance. It is “lifer.” It’s a disparaging description of a person who has little ambition and is content to allow the military take care of him in exchange for perfunctory performance. If you’re saying that I’m just doing what I’m told, then you’re mistaken.”

“That’s not what I meat at all. What would you say if I told you that I intended to emigrate to New Zealand?”

“New Zealand! Holy shit. Are you serious? You can’t do that.”

“No, I’m not serious, but why not? It’s a great place with beautiful scenery, and really nice people. It’s relatively inexpensive to live there, and the weather if fine.”

“Oh, I see, you’re challenging that ‘my country, love it or leave it’ slogan.”

“Exactly. Have you ever read Mitchner’s book, Poland?”

“Yes, very carefully. My grandfather came to New York from Krakow in 1932. Since you seem to know a lot about Poland, you know what was happening during the thirties there.”

“I do. All that pre-war turmoil didn’t just start with Hitler. Poland’s nationalism had been developing for eight hundred years. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the poor people of Poland retain and even embrace the Magnates all that time for many reasons that seem erroneous today?”

“It’s true, Kevin. One thing that held back progress was the notion that the lower and middle class people were jealous of each other and didn’t want any of their group to succeed and rise to power. The other thing was the notion that they were being handed a good deal by the Magnates. What’s good for the Magnates is good for the peasants. Doesn’t that sound like something you hear in America? What’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street. “

“Ok, Steve, I rest my case. If one believes that America is an analogy to Poland today, then why not go to New Zealand? Your grandfather left Poland for America? What’s the difference?”

“The big difference is that the solution was hopeless in Poland. In America, there is a good chance that our efforts will make it better.”

“So you’re saying that since there is a chance that I can make America better, that I should stay. But what is better? Who says what the model is? How about those fruitcakes that blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City? They probably believed that they were doing something good. For that matter, those ragheads, uh, Muslim Gentlemen, who destroyed the World Trade Towers probably believed that they were making America better.”

‘Kevin, now I’m totally confused about what you’re saying. First you say I’m a patriot. Then you say I’m just doing what I’m told. Then you say that you have to try to make your country better. Then you say that better is in the eyes of the beholder. What are you trying to say. Could you summarize this for me?”

“I wish I could, Steve. I only have questions. Since I’m completely dissatisfied with the condition of our country, I’m looking at options. Just hanging it up and going to New Zealand doesn’t look so bad. Another is just to accept it as my country without question. The last is the most difficult: stay and try to change it. Should I run for political office? Should I advocate anarchy? Is loving your country the same as loving your government? What is the patriotic thing to do? What is the patriot’s metric?”

“Gamma 55, you’re now recleared direct Edmonton. Contact Edmonton Center on one twenty seven decimal three five.”

“Gamma 55, direct Edmonton and over to 127.35.” Liezewski dialed in the new frequency and as Kevin selected direct to YYE on the flight management computer.

“Steve, let’s continue this discussion later. For now let’s get the depressurization route into the FMS for the relief crew.”

Aircraft that fly over mountainous terrain have long been in jeopardy of colliding with that terrain. Modern aircraft can tolerate many types of failures and remain at altitudes that are well above high terrain. One failure that can be fatal is the loss of cabin pressurization. These aircraft have emergency supplies of oxygen and associated delivery systems. The familiar passenger briefing in which the flight attendant discusses “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure,” addresses that possibility. All such aircraft must carry a sufficient supply of oxygen to allow time to descend to an altitude where oxygen is no longer required for the passengers (10,000 ft.). However, in many areas of the world, the terrain extends above 10,000 ft. It is for this reason that “depressurization escape routes” exist. These contingency plans allow the pilots to proceed as quickly as possible to an area where the terrain permits descent below 10,000 ft. A typical escape route would be valid between two waypoints. When the downtrack waypoint is passed, a new route becomes valid. The active route might call for an immediate descent to 16,000 ft., a high-speed cruise to a particular point, after which a further descent to 10,000 ft. or below would be safe.

“Kevin, I’ve put the routes into the alternate flight plan page, and put the paper copies of them on the yoke clip on this side. Are you ready to roust out the relief crew?”

“Thanks, Steve. I’ll give them a call.” Kevin picked up the intercom handset from the rear of the center console and dialed 44 for the ‘condo.’ “Are you guys asleep? OK, see you in a few.”

“They’re on their way up here already.”

The oncoming shift’s pilots received their ‘briefing,’ which consisted of a negative report of anything unusual happening, along with the general state of the aircraft. With that completed, Kevin and Steve adjourned to the ‘condo.’ The ‘condo’ or crew rest facility is a highly prized asset of long range aircraft. Early in Gamma’s international buildup, such crew rest facilities had been denied. Contrary to FAA regulations, company management elected to provide a “coffin” in the forward entry area of the first long range aircraft, the MD-11. It consisted of a horizontal bunk over which an accordion-like cover could be extended. While providing a dark sleeping environment, noise easily penetrated it. After negotiations failed, ALPA filed suit alleging that the facility failed to comply with the regulations which described the qualities of long-range aircraft rest facilities. Finding for the plantiff, the U.S. District Court forced Gamma to re-engineer the facility. A row of revenue-producing seats was removed from the aircraft and the regulation compliant facility was installed. With the failed attempt to low-ball their legal requirements, Gamma had unceremoniously acquiesced to the Boeing recommended facility that existed in all their B-777s. It was with great pride and pleasure that Kevin retired to the ‘condo’ to take advantage of his three-hour break. The changeover process always reminded Kevin of the “cannibals and nuns crossing the river” riddle. A crewmember always guarded the cockpit door. As one pilot entered, another exited while another guarded the door. All the while, one pilot remained seated at the controls, on emergency oxygen, because he might be the sole manipulator of the controls in the event of a rapid decompression. With the ritual complete, Kevin and Steve climbed the steep stairs to the facility which occupied a space at the forward end of the first class cabin, and extended rearward above it. Once inside, looking rearward, two first class seats, facing forward, were close to the stair. Behind them, lay two bunks, their long axis parallel to the longitudinal axis of the fuselage. Only 60 inches high, one could walk, albeit in a slight crouch, the length of the room. Both pilots sat in the two luxurious seats. Kevin dialed the forward galley and the flight attendant on duty agreed to cook the crew meals that had been provided for them. Kevin unfolded a newspaper.

“Kevin, did we ever decide whether you were going to emigrate to New Zealand, or start a revolution?” Began Liezewski.

“That sounds pretty simple. But you know that it is not. I meant to say that I’m very confused as to the metric of patriotism. Should we question authority? There’s always been a dilemma in the military of the illegal order. It’s not mutiny if you refuse to follow an obviously illegal order. But orders are seldom obviously illegal. But I get the impression that you’re baiting me. You’re a General. You tell me.”

“In War College, we talked a lot about the necessity of unquestioning execution of an order in combat. Obviously, in the heat of battle, we can’t be discussing the pros and cons of the order that you just received. And further, we all know that the mission is more important that the man. It’s acceptable to order the completion of a mission in which casualties will be likely.”

“I agree with all of that, but how about the case of a Courts Martial acquitting a person known to you to be guilty. Would vigilante action be justified?”

“Well, I can’t say that hasn’t happened, but I couldn’t condone it. If soldiers lost faith in the justice of the system, command and control would revert to chaos.”

“So, you’re saying that we must always work within the system, otherwise, the chaos that would be created would overcome the justice produced.”

“Yeah, that pretty well sums it up. Without the system, we would all be much worse off. Vigilante justice endangers the system.’ Said Liezewski.

The chime sounded and Kevin picked up the handset. “Your meals are in the box.”

“Thanks, you’re a great cook, Melissa.”

Kevin walked down a half-flight of stairs and extracted two trays from the receiving area. This dumbwaiter arrangement precluded condo occupants having to get dressed to receive their meals, and also negated the need for door security procedures.

“Bon appetite.” Smiled Kevin as he handed a tray to Liezewski. They both began to wolf down the surprisingly tasty beef filet without speaking.

“By the way, what was all that Chief Pilot Office harassment about today.” Asked Liezewski.

“Strange that you should ask.” Kevin pulled a small memo recorder from his shirt pocket. “I just happen to have the answer right here.” With that, he pressed the “play” button and set the device on the edge of his tray.

They ate in silence as the recording revealed the conversation of earlier that day.

“That’s a very interesting conversation. I’m guessing that
Alan didn’t know that you were recording it.”

“That’s a good guess, Steve.”

Well, what’s this mystical three-year plan to make all the powdered princes sit up and volunteer to do the right thing?”

“I can’t say, Steve. But, when you see it, you will recognize it. I can tell you that it has a lot to do with the conversation we had earlier about patriotism. I don’t mean to be rude, but I respect all that you have done in your Air Force career, and where I’m going is incompatible with your path.”

“Kevin, there are a lot of General Officers, and a lot of them are ass-kissers. From where I sit, it doesn’t seem too important to be in that club. Let me just say this in the blind. If you and your cause need anything that I have, and if it turns out that I can provide it with a reasonable risk, I will help.”

“That’s very generous of you, Steve. If I ever were to ask a favor of you, I would communicate with the utmost care. I’ll be retiring soon, and conversations like this will be a thing of the past. Maybe we will get a chance to reminisce at a Gamma Pilots reunion somewhere. Would you be able to attend something like that?”

“I can’t see any risk in that, especially if it’s in a controlled environment. The very least I could do would be to attend, offer my opinion, and keep my mouth afterward.”

“Thanks for the support, If you can’t help, you can keep a secret. That’s all I could ask. We have about an hour and a half left on this break. I think I’ll hit the bunk and try to sleep a little.”

As Kevin snuggled into the bunk, he was comforted by the notion that he was in on of the safest places available anywhere. Much like a nuclear submarine resting far below the surface, the aircraft carrying him was impervious to natural or man-made disasters. Of course, an engine failure would be exciting, but according to Rolls-Royce, the Trent has an “impeccable” In Flight Shutdown Rate (IFSD). The big Rolls Royce Trents sang their monotone basso profundo as they slipped through the afternoon air. With those happy thoughts, he slept and dreamt of sushi and sake at his favorite Narita bar.

Awakening two hours later, his Timex watch was vibrating on his wrist. At $30, it was a steal. It could tell him the time, temperature, altitude, and a multitude of other functions. It could also wake him in the sometimes noisy environment of the aircraft. Eschewing his $10,000 Rolex, Kevin had all the functionality and none of the worry of the more expensive watch. The slightly early wakeup gave him the chance to become fully awake, get dressed, get a cup of coffee, and get back to the cockpit a little early. The chime rang in the condo as he was leaving, summoning Steve from his nap.

When he returned to the cockpit, Ray Stallings briefed Kevin on the progress of the flight.

“We climbed to flight level four one zero over Yellow Knife, and passed over Anchorage about ten minutes ago. We’re up fifteen hundred pounds of fuel over the flight planned burn, and dead even on the time. Anchorage has radar on us, so no position reports are required until later. The airplane is all up, you guys can buy us a beer in Narita for doing so well. Just give us a call fifteen minutes before you need us back up here.” And with that, he and Deever retired.

Liezewski kept the clip board with the flight plan on his side of the cockpit. It contained spaces that the “Pilot Monitoring” (the person not flying) was to complete with ongoing trip data. As the aircraft passed each specified waypoint, he dutifully recorded, the time, and fuel state. While under the watchful eye of Anchorage Center, no position reports were required. After “coasting out” on the western shore of Alaska, radar coverage was no longer available. It was then that the Controller to Pilot Data Link Communication (CPDLC) came into its own. As the mighty ship hurdled through the sky, each waypoint became automatically reported to Tokyo Control. Sensing its position, the Flight Management System commanded the CPDLC to report the information formerly transmitted by High Frequency (HF) radio. Not so many years previously, such aircraft remained separated from each other by reporting their position via HF to one of the Oceanic Controlling Agencies. As the aircraft passed one of the cardinal longitudes, e.g. 170 degrees west, the HF radio came into play. It was a ritual as old as transoceanic flight itself. On rare occasions, the CPDLC might fail, and such reports were required. First the HF frequency must be decided upon. This changed with the height of the ionosphere, which changed with the time of day, season of the year, sunspot activity, and many other mystical variables. Once determined and set into the radio dials, the speakers were selected. A sudden rush of static noise would engulf the cockpit. Frequently some Morse Code, music, or someone screaming in an unintelligible language would be present in the background. If the channel was relatively clear, the pilot would call, “Tokyo Contol, Gamma 55 calling on 14792.” Upon release of the microphone button, the static would resume, and very commonly, no response would be heard from the controlling agency. This might go on the thirty minutes or more as the pilot repeated his call, and changed frequencies. Sometimes the next waypoint was passed without establishing communication. On a good day, a subdued voice would recognize the caller with, “Gamma 55, Tokyo Control, go ahead with your position report.”

In that very fortunate circumstance, the pilot would enunciate the litany: ‘compulsory, compulsory, next.” Meaning that he had just passed a compulsory reporting point as defined on the high altitude charts, state the time and altitude over that point, state the estimated time and altitude over the next compulsory point, and state the name of the next point, compulsory or not. It was a ritual that pilots had carried out for almost eighty years, with little change. In the 1980’s, as a crewmember on the ancient TriStar, Kevin was fond of belittling the system for having changed so little.

“Here we are in 1986, and we’re still saying ‘Hello Rangoon, just like they did in the 1930’s.”

Today, no such torment was necessary. “Gamma 55, Anchorage, radar service terminated, report Nippi to Tokyo on 9963.” Nippi, being a compulsory reporting point adjacent to the Kuril Islands, off the coast of Russia.

Liezewski acknowledged, and fussed with the flight plan for a while, and then turned to Kevin.

“Are you gonna take that job with Gamma?”

“Absolutely not. You heard what I said about being the only one earning an honest salary.” Replied Kevin.

“So what’s this mysterious method that you have to get everyone to fall into line?”

“Like I said, you’ll just have to attend one of the meetings and see. I’ll send you an invitation. We’ll see if you’re one of those guys with an alligator mouth, and a hummingbird ass.”

“I’ll be there, Kevin.”

The sun hung high in the southern sky. The aircraft was chasing it as the earth rotated. Traveling only slightly slower than the sun across the sky, the glare was relentless. For fourteen hours, the sun hung in almost the same position. Were in not for sunglasses, and the (illegal) placement of maps in the windscreen area, a headache would have been inevitable. The Kurils were visible in the distance when the incoming chime of the CLDPC sounded. The associated message appeared in the upper center display.


Kevin pushed the acknowledge button and complained. “Well, it wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t get the weather guesser’s cover-their-ass forecast of turbulence up ahead. If this were our first time over this route, I would get everyone in the cabin tightly strapped in for the rough ride. We get that forecast every time, though. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. Someday we will really hit something, and they can say “I told you so.’ Steve, would you get on 123.45 and see if anyone ahead of us has had any trouble?”

None of the aircraft on the tracks had experienced any turbulence, so the two retreated to their thoughts and papers.

The fuel remaining at Narita estimate was holding at 26,000 pounds at the crew change. After another three hour break, Kevin and Steve resumed control, about thirty minutes before scheduled ‘top of descent.’ The first thing on Kevin’s agenda was to review the ‘Notams,’ or Notices to Airmen. This document was the product of a system that could hardly have been in worse condition. It’s original purpose being a noble attempt at notifying pilot of pertinent changes in situations at airports. In modern times, it had morphed into an incomprehensible array of reports on airport lights, towers, airways, volcanoes, and multitudes of types of information that anyone anywhere believed might be pertinent. As a result, the benign neglect that the system had suffered over the past fifty years, Kevin was presented with a printout of everything in aviation that might be reached in a fourteen hour flight from Kansas City. The medium was continuous printer paper. It happened to be about fourteen feet long today. To make matters worse, it was written in an obscure code, whose translation was impossible. Even with the abbreviations manual open, many were absent, being the concept of the local author of the alleged unusual situation. As he scanned the document in a perfunctory ‘Easter Egg Hunt.’ Kevin noticed one entry in particular. “NRT WEF RW 14-32 CLOSED.”

“OK, guys, here’s my plan for landing in Narita.” Kevin began. “I checked the Notams, and notice that the only runway in Narita might be closed. That’s what WEF means, isn’t it? When effective. What a joke. Don’t get me started on my displeasure with the Notam system. As for the approach, the weather should be good. We’ll plan to be vectored for the ILS for runway 32, in visual conditions. There will not be any high terrain to worry about, and the transition altitude to QNH will be 7500 feet. The special pages for that approach call for landing gear to be extended before reaching the coastline.”

Kevin had just finished the required company arrival briefing called the “NATS briefing.” That being Notams, Approach, Terrain, Transition, and Special pages. The transition altitude, while always 18,000 ft. in the USA, varied in other parts of the world. Above that altitude, all altimeters were set to 29.92 inches of mercury, allowing all aircraft to share a common datum plane. Below the transition altitude, the local barometric pressure was set, allowing the altimeters to accurately reflect altitude above sea level, and thus, altitude above the ground. Having completed the Notam search, the approach setup, and the aural briefing before the top of descent, Kevin looked forward to an uneventful and unrushed approach and landing in the often busy Tokyo-Narita environment. As they began their descent over the northern island of Hokkaido, the forests far below were resplendent in their pristine beauty. Far from the crowded cities of the main island, Japan seemed to boast of its wilderness below. The headwinds were onerous. At nearly 200 miles per hour, the ever present winds, slowed their progress to a mere 285 nautical miles per hour (Knots). That was, however, anticipated, and the landing fuel reserve computed on the FMS remained steady at 21,000 pounds, a comforting figure. The flight attendants, long accustomed to scheduling their activities on the cues of the aircraft’s descent, were nevertheless notified by Liewzewski of their imminent arrival. Since there were no clouds, the ship’s radar only painted the coastline as they proceeded on their nearly southerly track. The Transponder Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) indicated a few aircraft far below their altitude. The Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (E-GPWS) showed the mountains of central Japan to their right, which were clearly visible with the eye. It was with all briefings completed, all check lists completed, all systems functioning, and reporting good news, that they began their descent into the hectic Tokyo low altitude environment.

“Gamma 55, Tokyo Approach, cleared direct to Aries Intersection, hold southeast, as published. Descent to flight level 100, expect further clearance at 30.”

“Here we go.” Groused Kevin, as he keyed the holding pattern into the FMS. “The obligatory Gajin holding pattern. As soon as all the JAL airplanes get on the ground, we can proceed.”

The holding pattern proved to be brief. Airspeed control was proscribed by Air Traffic Control, making the descent planning a ‘no brainer’ for Kevin. While hundreds of systems aboard the aircraft harmoniously interacted to achieve a graceful arrival, in reality, Kevin needed only landing gear down, flaps down, and ‘speed to fly’ to make a safe landing. As the majestic aircraft descended below thirty feet, Kevin gently pulled on the yoke, flattening the glide, slightly. The two-hundred foot wings flexed dramatically as they neared the ground, and the twelve main wheels gently kissed the runway.

“Nice landing, Boss.” Commented Lewzewski.

“Thanks, Steve. Another example of a blind hog finding an acorn. “

The taxi route to the gate was ridiculous. Japan, lacking eminent domain laws, cannot force landowners to yield their farms to the progress of a new international airport. So there was Grandfather, as they called him, in his conical hat, pajamas, and hoe, working in his garden, precisely in the middle of one of the busiest airports in the world. Kevin simply taxied around the old man; he appeared not to notice. As they neared the gate, a Japanese man, perched on a very elaborate metal tower directed their approach. Once the aircraft had stopped, the man crossed his batons bowed deeply, signifying completion.

“I’ll be buying at the ‘Jet Lag Club” at six, if anyone’s interested. Now let’s get off this son-of-a-bitch before it burns down.” Joked Kevin.

Getting to the hotel was always tedious. Once all the passengers had deplaned, the station manager had been briefed on the state of the aircraft, immigration and customs had approved everyone’s presence, and the bus to the hotel located, it was a short ride to the Holiday Inn, Narita. The City of Narita was home to Tokyo’s international airport. Fifty miles to downtown Tokyo being a long trip for the passengers, the layover hotel lay at the airport edge, a short ride for the crew.

As the big hotel bus made its way out of the airport, Kevin began his briefing. “Listen up everyone. If we have an earthquake or any other excitement that requires us to leave the hotel and rendezvous, we’ll meet at the parking lot across the street from the hotel. Pickup’s at three for the pilots, and two thirty for the flight attendants. I’m buying at the Jet Lag Club at six. Have a good layover.”
Commensurate with the Japanese custom of everything being pleasant, check in was perfect. Rooms were ready, the sign in roster was waiting, and the room was clean, spacious, and pleasantly cooled. Kevin immediately began preparing for his walk into town. Being seven miles through the hilly back roads, the trek usually required almost two hours. Without exercise, the dramatic time change would have made sleep later that night difficult. Within twenty minutes, Kevin was purposefully striding up the hill adjacent to the hotel, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and sweat shirt.

The first mile consisted of dodging cars and bicycles. The main road turned then turned, leaving Kevin on a paved path, almost too narrow for an auto. It roughly paralleled the divided highway that led from the airport to town. The path twisted and turned, alternating between flat, open rice fields, and steep hills, covered with dense vegetation. Kevin heard an invisible bird twittering, which he had learned was actually a tree frog. At one point he was in a deep hollow, the path a tunnel through a pine forest. At this point, he frequently thought of the possibility of a Doolitle Raider, evading the Japanese enemy, sixty years previous, passing the same place. Although all those aircraft either ditched at sea or crashed in China, the notion intrigued him. Even if one spoke Japanese, your appearance would be immediately recognizable. The cold of early April would have taken its toll. Even stealing an occasional chicken or turnip, capture would be inevitable. From that incredibly hostile environment of long ago, Americans were now, if not embraced, at least made to feel welcome. He briefly contemplated becoming a fugitive from justice. Hiding in south Texas or Alaska might be infinitely easier than what he just imagined.

Topping a ridge, Kevin encountered an elderly woman, squatting down, tending her large garden.

Ohio gozimus.” He cheerfully offered.

Ohio,” Grunted the old woman, somewhat begrudgingly.

“You never know what’s going on in their heads. She’s old enough to have seen the fire bombing.” He thought to himself.

As he began to arrive in the outskirts of town, he made his way to the rear entrance to the beautiful Narita Temple grounds. A shortcut, the path led near dramatic waterfalls, clear ponds, open-air places of worship, and strolling tourists. Pausing to contemplate the serenity and beauty of the lush surroundings, Kevin elected to ascend the stone steps and enter the shrine. He paused briefly at the well-shaped kiosk to offer two hundred-yen coins and stand in the incense-laden smoke pouring from it. Moving into the interior of the hall, he became surrounded by worshippers and other tourists.

“These Japanese have lived on this small island for thousands of years. Their behavior comes from the necessity of optimizing everyone’s happiness in a limited space. They are so sensitive to each other’s feelings. We Gajin savages could learn a lot here.” Contemplated Kevin.

With those thoughts, he exited the temple, and the grounds. With practiced precision, Kevin made several turns down paved paths, wide enough for a tiny car, or three pedestrians, line abreast. After one turn, he fell in behind two uniformed schoolgirls. Dressed in white skirts, and blue blazers, they coyly regarded Kevin from a short distance ahead. Prancing and giggling, they eventually diverged from Kevin’s course. He passed many of the upper class homes in the area, most having granite pillars at the property corners, and ornate roofs atop stucco walls. Most had pleasant scents drifting from the windows, reminding Kevin of his hunger. With a few more turns and a short walk, he entered the Jet Lag Club, his favorite bar. The time: six o’clock.

“Hey, Captain Kevin, welcome.” Shouted Vincent Zimmerman, the owner. “Will you have the usual? It’s on the house, of course.”

“That would be perfect, Vincent. How is Sayaka?”

“She is in Tokyo, teaching. I expect here back here soon.”

Zimmerman had carved a successful business out his former digs as a Sabena Air Lines flight attendant. Since Vincent’s arrival in Narita, Kevin had taken the position of consultant. His advice on the renovation of the building, the placement of the dart board, the bar stock, and a myriad of details, had proven fortuitous; the place was packed with people. Kevin had even smuggled Vincent a popcorn machine in the 777 closet on a previous trip, as evidenced by the photos on the wall of the owner and patrons eating the inaugural batch. The free glass of red wind set before him reflected Vincent’s gratitude for Kevin’s help. After sufficient badinage with the regulars, Kevin moved farther into the darkness, looking for the other crewmembers on his flight.

He found them at the dart board. Deever was trouncing Stallings. It was predictable, since Deever always brought his own darts. Kevin sat at the adjacent table where two beers apparently belonging to the combatants set. The bar was crowded, yet four precious chairs awaited them. Vincent always accommodated Kevin’s crews. None of the flight attendants had accepted the invitation. Liezewski emerged from the men’s room and sat beside Kevin.

“Hey, Kevin, how was your walk into town?”

“The usual, the land of many stinks. Have you been here long?”

“Just arrived. Ray and Pat took the four-twenty bus. They’re a little ahead of us.”

“May I buy you a drink? You look thirsty.”

“Sure, a Sapporo would be great.”

Returning with Lizewski’s beer, Kevin sat with his back to the dart board, facing his companion.

“So, did we finish deciding whether we’re anarchists, or patriots?” Led Kevin.

“Can we be both?” Replied Lizewski.

“That’s what is bothering me. I know that it’s a soldier’s duty to resist an illegal order. But we have such pride, that we would rather fight and die carrying out an illegal order than to be accused of cowardice.”

“It seems to me that the two tasks overlap. In the middle, you could make a convincing case either way. Exactly what in the hell are you contemplating, anyway?

“Well, Steve, I’m just not sure that the judicial system can handle slippery bastards like Ron Allen. He’s out there with hundreds of millions of dollars, while we poor peasants are getting screwed out of our paltry retirements. And worse, that was his plan all along. This shit keeps happening, and the C.E.O.’s and top execs are replaced with another ass kisser with another golden parachute guaranteed.”

“OK, how can we fix it, Kevin?”

“I’m open for suggestions, Steve. What would it take to make that kind of behavior too risky?”

“What if they just disappeared, every time this sort of thing happened? What if the golden parachute was a streamer?”

“Yeah, and who is going to make that happen? I was thinking of legislation. If we get a Democrat in the White House in ’08, we’ll have a good chance.”

“That’s all well and good, but I don’t think it will be enough, or in time. Suppose we get exec salaries limited to some reasonable multiple of the average salary, and suppose options were only to be exercised after five or so years, and suppose salaries were paid on corporate performance, even then the truly malicious could still triumph. I say snuff ‘em. They’ll think twice before stacking the board of directors with yes men, and beating the legal system.”

“That sounds good to me, General. I know a dozen guys who would have no problem joining that team. I think you have hit on a great idea. May I name the project after you?”

“Yeah, right. The Steve Lizewski Conspiracy to commit mass murder. Can’t we be a little more subtle than that?

“Boy you guys need to lighten up.” Interjected Deever. “How about a quick game, Steve.”

The loud music, popcorn, beer, and darts had their desired effect on the four pilots, awake at seven A.M., body time. After bidding Vincent good-bye, they adjourned to the Western Beggar, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant situated down a narrow alley, a short distance from the Jet Lag Club. When they arrived, the only table (out of six) available seated them next to a United 747-400 crew. Pinned on the walls were hundreds of photos of airline crewmembers enjoying themselves in the Western Beggar. The kitchen lay to the left, with a stainless steel serving counter opening directly into the seating area. Near the door, a refrigerator, full of beer, invited all to retrieve their own drinks. At the rear, the washroom waited to torment the unwary. Behind a shower curtain door, the entire facility was contained in an area of six square feet. The basin faced the door, with the unique commode at the left. It consisted of two foot-shaped protrusions and an all purpose ceramic Toto commode, beyond. Although tiny, it was, like everything in Japan, ever so clean and sweet smelling.

All the Gamma pilots ordered Giozas, an extremely tasty fried dumpling, with pork filling. After wolfing down a half dozen of those, along with two more beers, the happy crew bid their United brethren good-bye and launched for the city square. Waiting for the Holiday Inn bus provided an intimate view of teenage Narita social life. Trios and foursomes of punk-looking boys drifted by as they grooved to their walkmans and sent text messages into cyberspace. The quarry, many still dressed in their academy uniforms remained unimpressed. With the arrival of the bus, the weary crew clambered aboard for the sleepy trip home.

No one spoke enroute. Climbing down the steps of the bus at the hotel, Liezewski spoke to Kevin.

“Kevin, I’ll help you in this if I can, and if you tell anyone that it was my idea, then my ghost will have to return and get you.”

“It would be helpful to have access to some of your information. Thanks for the analysis. Good night.”

Kevin rose at sunrise, about five-thirty in November. He had been asleep about six hours. Back home, the same hours constituted the afternoon in Texas. Nights in Japan equaled afternoon naps in Texas, and vice-versa. As the elevator doors opened to the vacant lobby, the sweet chirping of birds could be heard. Although realistic, Kevin knew the sounds came from overhead speakers.   Emerging from the main entrance clad in sneakers, nylon jogger’s pants, a long sleeve t-shirt, emblazoned with faded Korean letters, and a ski cap, he began jogging a route similar to the one he traveled the previous evening. Instead of running alongside the railroad tracks, he turned to cross the Nekona River. As he neared the bridge, a minivan became visible through the mist. Inside four armed soldiers huddled. They gave him sheepish looks as he passed, for their duty was to prevent terrorists from firing shoulder-launched missiles at arriving airliners.   His thoughts returned to the conspiracy that he was planning. Was the law a consensus of rightness among the masses, or was it a set of rules for the convenience of the privileged? How many freedom fighters were jailed at this very moment? Wasn’t Nelson Mandela a good example of that? The Japanese live mostly in very crowded conditions. Their society’s smooth function depends on orderly social behavior. Following the rules is very important in their culture. In a way they have distilled civilization beyond what America has achieved. But their polite, predictable, obedient ways struck Kevin as more appropriate for cattle in a crowded feedlot in Texas, waiting for their slaughter by those in control.

Kevin returned to the hotel, showered, breakfasted, and napped before pickup. After helping the pilots load their luggage into the minivan, the hotel staff formed a line and politely bowed as they pulled away from the curb. Stallings was to be in command for the return trip, and he had graciously allowed Deever to assume the role of “Pilot Flying.” The young ladies in JAL Flight Operations had perfectly lain all of the appropriate documents on the flight planning table. After reviewing the flight plan suggested by the dispatcher in Kansas City, Stallings and Deever drew the route on a plotting chart, which would be used as a backup for the onboard computer. Once aboard the aircraft. Kevin and Lizewski busied themselves with the preparation of the “condo.” Departure was on time, and the entire ground crew formed a line and bowed as they taxied away. After takeoff, the sun set quickly, as they were speeding eastward, away from the sun, at one and half times the earthbound rate. They would witness a sunset and a sunrise before arriving in Kansas City, two hours earlier on the same day as their takeoff. Crossing the date line eastbound sometimes created administrative problems for the crew. Pilots the world over understand that time means GMT or UTC, the time in Greenwich, England. The date, however, according to Gamma, was the date at the location of takeoff. Tracking a much more southerly route to take advantage of winds, put them in San Francisco Oceanic airspace early in the flight. San Francisco, having implemented Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B), waived all voice position reports, either by high frequency radio or satellite communications. Under ADS-B, the electronics aboard the aircraft automatically transmitted their identity and location several times each minute. In San Francisco Oceanic Control, a display, much like a radar scope showed their position, the modern equivalent of grease-pencil plotting of aircraft on glass maps. After a few hours, Kevin and Liezewsi were alone in the cockpit. Sensing finality on the previous discussion, conversation was scarce. The Aurora Borealis flared brilliantly. At first indistinguishable from clouds, it grew brighter and became a curtain of yellows, reds, and greens. Sometimes static, sometimes dashing from horizon to horizon, Kevin never grew tired of its beauty.

Kevin was the first to speak. “There’s a lotta luck involved with this job. Do you remember that United flight that hit the extreme turbulence out here? Just like us tonight, they were on a random route, not a published track, with no aircraft ahead of them to warn them. Here we are out in the middle of the Pacific, with nothing to sense such a thing coming. We’ll probably retire after thirty of so years of flying and never having bent an airplane of hurt a passenger. But you never know. It could just be “wham” the next second, and we would be famous for being the world’s shittiest pilots.”

“No, I disagree. There’s always a clue if you’re sharp enough to notice. You do your homework, you keep your eyes open, and everything will work out OK.”

“Maybe you’re right. I think I would add ‘choose your friends wisely’ to that.”

Three shift changes later, Stallings and Deever assumed control of the 777 for landing in Kansas City.

“I hate to be the bearer of mediocre news, Ray, but Kansas City weather went down in the last hour, and they’re holding everywhere, trying to get in.” Kevin briefed Stallings. “We have a little over an hour of hold fuel, depending on where we do it. You’re the boss on this leg, but I always say divert early and avoid the rush.”

“No problem, we can drop into Denver and wait it out, if necessary. I agree with the early thing. If you divert, refuel, and get ready, you are usually the first back into the destination after it opens up. Also, there’s probably a whole shitload of airplanes that aren’t Category III qualified. We may be able to go to the head of the line since we can land with zero ceiling and 600 ft horizontal visibility. Looking at the FMS, I figure we can hold at Topeka down to 18,000 pounds, then shoot the approach and Kansas City, do a missed approach, and land at Denver with 12,000 pounds. Is everyone OK with that?”

Deever answered. “That’s well in my comfort zone, Ray. And if we just head to Denver without shooting the approach, we’ll land with more than that.”

“Gamma 56, are you Category III capable?” ATC called.

“That’s affirmative, we can take a 600 RVR (Runway Visibility Reading) clearance.” Responded Stallings.

“Gamma 56 you are cleared to Kansas City via the JHAWK 6 Arrival, descend at pilots’ discretion to flight level two-four-zero. Mid Continent weather: indefinite ceiling zero, visibility one eighth, fog. RVR 600, 700, 600.”

“Well, Pat, you know the rules. I gotta shoot the landing if it’s below Category I minima. I had hoped to get you a landing, but I guess that isn’t going to happen.” Stallings sheepishly said what all were thinking.

“Thanks, Ray, don’t worry about it. I’ll just volunteer for one of those Orlando trips and get a bunch of landings before my currency runs out.”

With few aircraft waiting for such a low-weather approach, they flew directly to the initial approach fix. All such approaches demanded that all of the on board equipment be functioning properly, and that it be used. With three autopilots comparing tracking solutions, the pilots’ confidence ran high. Myriads of “what ifs” came to the forefront. If one autopilot failed at the last moment, they would continue. If a radar altimeter failed early in the approach, they would abandon it. With the aircraft fully configured and properly tracking, little remained for the crew to do, except to ensure that the aircraft properly tracked the horizontal and vertical paths to the runway.

“Before Landing Checklist complete.” Announced Deever.

“Roger, standard callouts, please.”

The litany:

Deever: “Localizer Alive;” Stallings: “Roger.”

Deever: “Localizer Capture;” Stallings: “Roger.”

Deever: “Glideslope alive;” Stallings: “Roger.”

Deever: “Glideslope capture, rollout and flare armed.”

Deever: “Land three, 1000 ft., cleared to land.”

Deever: Five hundred.

At 250 ft. the aircraft changed from a crab into the crosswind, to wing low, so as to touch down with the nose straight down the runway. “Align.” Said Deever.

Deever: (at eighty feet above Alert Height) Approaching Minimums.

Deever: (at 50 ft. radar altitude) “Minimums.”

Stallings: “Land three.”

Deever: (at 40 ft radar altitude) “Flare capture.”

Deever: (at 2 ft. radar altitude) “Rollout capture.”

They all felt the gentle touchdown. As the nose derotated, the runway became visible. Stallings pulled the reverse thrust levers as the aircraft exactly tracked the centerline. The low groan of the Trents rose to confirm the gauges.

“Sixty knots, nice landing George.”

“Yeah, that really pisses me off when the autopilot makes a better landing than I can.” Lamented Stallings, as he depressed the autopilot disconnect on his steering yoke.

“Great job guys, commented Kevin cheerfully. “Now comes the hard part, finding the gate.”

The Surface Maneuvering Guidance System (SMGS), pronounced “Smegs,” exists for such situations. Following every Category III landing, SMGS defines strict procedures for taxiing. In this case, the after landing rollout to the end of the runway was mandatory. The distance remaining to the end of the runway being communicated to the pilots by the centerline and runway edge lights. At 3000 ft. remaining, the centerline lights began to alternate red, then white. At 1000 ft. remaining, the edge lights switched from white to red. At 500 ft. remaining, green lead-in lights appeared in the centerline, and properly followed, directed a gentle turn from the runway. Stallings, reducing the aircraft to taxi speed well before the lead-in lights appeared, easily followed them, and came to a complete stop where a row of red lights appeared, crossways to the taxiway. A 10 foot diameter orange ball painted on the taxiway centerline there, contained a black letter “C.”

Deever picked finished his after landing chores and picked up his microphone. “After landing check list complete. (keying microphone) Kansas City Ground, Gamma 56 is clear of runway zero one center, stopped at spot Charlie.”

“Roger Gamma 56, not in sight from the tower, follow SMGS guidance to your gate. Welcome home.”

With that, the red crossbar extinguished, and a path of green centerline taxiway lights illuminated ahead, extending into the fog.

Lizewski picked up the P/A handset and thanked the passengers for riding with Gamma, acknowledged the autopilot’s good landing, and cautioned them to drive home safely in the fog.

Arriving at the gate was always a thrash. With a full aircraft, containing 270 passengers, anxiously hoping to make their connections, a dozen wheelchair requests, another dozen gate checked strollers, how not? When the confusion had subsided, the crew gathered their luggage and headed for operations. As they walked up the jetway, Stallings spoke to Kevin.

“I know you have a tight connection for your San Antonio flight. If you want to go directly to the gate, I’ll take your flight kit to ops for you.”

“Thanks Ray, I have plenty of time. Besides, I need to report to Allan Price’s office. ”

“Uh, Kevin, I don’t want to pry, but I overheard you and Steve talking in the Jet Lag Club. Let me just say that I have some skills and assets that might be useful. If you call me, I’m listening.”

Kevin was stunned. Not only was he surprised that Stallings was volunteering as a fellow conspirator, but more, he was ashamed to have been caught in a security breach.

“I hear you, Ray. I’ve learned a lot in the last ten seconds. I’ll be in touch, thanks.”

“Hello Marcie, I’m back. Is Captain Price in?”

“Hello Captain Connor. I’m sorry, but no. He did leave this for you though.” She handed him a company mailer pouch. On one side It had lines for consecutive addressees so as to make it reusable. Several of the previous addressees were lined through, with “Kevin Connor” being the last, with no line through it. Kevin immediately opened it and extracted the folded paper inside.

It read, “Kevin, thanks for your time. I took the liberty of telling Leo that you are not interested in the position that we discussed. I knew from our conversation that you would not be able to compromise your ethics to do what we asked. Best regards, Alan.”

“This works for me, you assholes.” Muttered Kevin.

“I beg you pardon?” Asked the secretary.

“Uh, are you working Thanksgiving, Marcie?”

“No, the office will be closed Wednesday through Sunday.”

“Well happy Thanksgiving. I’ll see you next month.”

Kevin had reserved the cockpit jump seat for the flight from Kansas City to San Antonio. Having performed all of the compulsory paperwork and introductions, he was sitting on the jump seat when the gate agent stuck his head through the cockpit door.

“Here’s your paperwork guys. Six and one twenty three (there were six passengers in first class, and 123 in coach). Have a good flight.”

“Kevin, I’m going to be really offended if you had rather ride in first class than sit up here in an uncomfortable jump seat.” Joked the captain.

“You’re the boss, but I really stink after that long Tokyo flight.”

“Well, OK, I order you to sit in first class. Enjoy.”

During the flight home, Kevin agonized over the previous few days happenings. Was he becoming a terrorist, an anarchist, a vigilante? Or better, a true patriot, a leader, a person who has the power to make a difference for the good of his fellow man and his country. He reminisced about flying Air Force missions in jet fighters. Before some of his more exciting flights, he had sat alone and prepared himself. His technique had always been to perform a question and answer session on himself.

“Are you afraid to fly this mission?…..Yes.”

“Are you so afraid that you cannot perform?…..No.”

“Is this mission something that you believe in?……Yes.”

“Are you going to do it or not?…..Yes, I am going.”

“Then just do it and never ask yourself how you feel.”

He peered out the window. It was a crisp November evening, with a full moon. Below a few clouds drifted by, partially obscuring the Oklahoma landscape. It was at that moment that he made his decision. He would proceed. He would continue to ask what is right, but never ask him self how he felt.

As a good omen for his decision, the flight arrived in San Antonio on schedule, the employee parking lot bus waited for him as exited the terminal, and his truck started on the first try. It was Thursday evening and traffic was light as Kevin turned onto IH 410 West. He drove five miles and turned onto IH 10 West. He put his truck and mind on cruise control and contemplated the events of the last three days. He had yet for any of his confidants to criticize his plan. Some naïveté on his part was inescapable. How could he know if his beloved country possessed the will and the capability to fix what he perceived as a gross injustice? Did this even need fixing? Perhaps the injustice that he perceived was so trivial in the grand scheme, that he should just let it go. No, his method for dealing with fear and uncertainty had served him well in the past. He would stand with his decision to proceed unless confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

As Kevin emptied his pockets on his dresser at home, he was reminded of the past three day’s events. Besides his Aggie ring, Breitling watch, cell phone, wallet, and money clip, there was also a business card from Barbara Sturdivant, Flight Attendant, a terse note from Allan Price, Chief Pilot, and in his phone, information on Robert Driscoll, thug.

“I’ll miss the excitement after I retire.” Thought Kevin. “But retirement from flying may not require giving up the excitement.”

“Well, I see that you cheated death once again.” Lee served up Kevin a cup of black coffee from her tray. It was a ritual that they both enjoyed. Kevin always received ‘the usual,’ and never complained even if it was not what he wanted that day. Being back at Lee’s after only four days struck him as a terribly efficient way to make a living. He had covered almost 12,000 nautical miles and logged about twenty-six hours of flying time, not counting the commute. For his trouble, he would receive a check amounting to almost two hundred dollars for each hour spent flying (after his 40% pay cut). His friends were approximately evenly divided as to whether he was underpaid or overpaid. Most were adamant. Like many jobs that require deep experience, a snapshot of his workdays would appear relatively easy. However, on the rare days when an emergency required quick thinking, disciplined execution of procedures, and creativity borne of twenty-thousand plus hours as a crewmember, his critics conceded that he earned his pay.

“Did you know that the odds of being killed between here and San Antonio are eight thousand times greater than being involved in an accident on the Tokyo trip?’

“Noooouuuh. Is that true?”

“Yeah, probably, but I just made that up. Can I have the Cowboy Breakfast today, please?”

“Comin’ right up, Sugar.”



17,336 words; @ 500 words/ page = 34 pages.






Stranger To The Ground

Stranger to the Ground


Part I


The date is September 1965. Your reviewer is a 19-year-old private pilot with 227 hours of flying time.

Dell has recently published a book entitled Stranger to the Ground. It is paperback and contains 188 pages. The promising young author, Richard Bach has autobiographically told a story about a single flight in an Air National Guard F-84G over Europe. The New York Times says, “The incredible story of one man alone in the sky facing awesome challenges of speed and space…penetrating…stands with the works of Saint-Exupery…Masterfully told.” Your reviewer is almost nineteen years old. He is very focused on a career in aviation.

Richard Bach exudes everything a young fighter pilot should be. He has total familiarity with his aircraft. He has an unflinching devotion to duty. He has the courage to do, and courage to admit his fear. Most of all he has an eloquence to describe his experience vividly. Lt. Bach is a New Jersey Air National Guard pilot assigned to fly a special cargo of top-secret documents from Weathersfield, England to Chaumont, France. The mission is important and the weather is forbidding.

Bach’s narration of it includes a background into the details of his aircraft, his training, the Air Traffic Control Environment, and his philosophy. That, of course, is how he is able to expand a single flight into a book-length story. During the idle moments in the flight, Bach reminisces about exciting missions, inspiring people, and dead friends. An intensely proud person, he carefully develops his points, which come together in a compelling view of military aviation.

The flight is an exciting one. At one point he enters a thunderstorm, loses control on his aircraft, and barely recovers in time to save himself, his aircraft, and his precious cargo. He battles ice formation, radio failure, and a variety of unforeseen problems to accomplish his mission.

This book is a riveting story masterfully told. It offers an incisive view of the USAF, and the Air National Guard. Surely Bach is the epitome of what a pilot-patriot should be.


Part II


The date is September 1989. Your reviewer is 43 years old, with 11,580 flying hours of flying time, 2000 in fighters. He is a B-737 Captain for Delta Air Lines.

A dusty, almost forgotten book has been retrieved from long ago. Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and other successful books, wrote an autobiography of his aviation career in the mid 1960’s. Stranger To The Ground describes him as a lieutenant in the New Jersey Air National Guard before his huge success as an author.

Lt. Bach was a fool, a very eloquent, highly trained, dedicated fool, but still a fool. This is the story of a young man who risks his life, his aircraft, and likely those of people on the ground to fly a bag of papers from England to France. This book describes a single flight of a young pilot who cannot know the importance of his mission. No one will thank him or even remember its success or failure. Neither can he know that he well likely die if he flies it as assigned. The effect of this is a huge irony. That is, how can such a proficient, highly trained young man come so close to destruction? It is a study in being confident and enthusiastic to a fault.




The date is 2001. Your reviewer is 55 years old. He has 19,140 hours of flying time. He is an MD-11 Captain for Delta Air Lines.

I look back at what Richard Bach wrote and what I thought about his writing. Do I detect a pattern? We were both enthusiastic and dedicated to a fault when we were young. We became arrogant and intolerant in our middle age. Now in our mature years, what are we? I don’t know about Bach, but I’ve never been happier. I regard those early stages as a beneficial process. I have become a member of a group that seems to agree as to what the process should be. As a junior captain, I was too hard on the copilots. I appreciate them more now.




Well isn’t his a surprise. It’s 2016, I’ve been flying for fifty years, and I’m still alive. They gave me a “Master Pilot” award for that. I’ve been retired from airline flying for ten years. Flying my “bug smasher” little airplane on instrument flights still gives me a lot of satisfaction. Perhaps this gives me license to reflect on the different strategies that I have seen in aviation.

“Hot Shot” – These are mostly already dead. Flying inverted under bridges is a very short-term strategy. Probably doesn’t make for a good career, even if you survive the unnecessary risk.

“Natural” – Everyone thinks this person was born with the “gift.” In reality they study harder, work longer, and pay more attention to their flying. They excel through effort and focus. It is strategy to be emulated.

“Jerk” – Really just a fearful person. He doubts his own capabilities and diverts attention to minor flaws in those around him. He is unable to allow anyone to operate beyond his pitifully small world, even the “Natural.”

“Numbers Man” – He knows every temperature, power setting, fuel flow, etc., etc. in the book. Much of that is useless, but if conceals his weak stick-and-rudder skills.

“Check List” – Like the Numbers Man, and the Jerk, he is a weak, fearful pilot. He believes that he will be protected by strict observance to his security blanket. In a real situation he is little help. (I agree with those who define a checklist as a document to be reviewed after you have made you best attempt at conducting a procedure from memory; if you read an item and then do it, it’s a do list)

“Comedian/Joker” – Usually a very bright, but bored person. Like the Hot Shot, he takes unnecessary risk in order to reduce his boredom and/or to be regarded as cool or cute. I’ve seen this guy convince a flight attendant that there is a person trapped in the wheel well. Another idiot liked to scare the copilots by starting an engine on the takeoff roll. Flying doesn’t have to be dead serious, but it doesn’t have to be dangerous or traumatic either.

“Instructor” – He thinks he is a “Natural.” Always ready with some advice, he is convinced that his perfection should be emulated. Copilots only comply when he is present, rejecting his techniques when he is out of sight.

“Chief Pilot” – A legend in his own mind. Like the Instructor, he is an alleged repository of aviation wisdom and leadership. He loves the title and power more than flying. Rather than being selected for his flying skills, he does a job no one else wants, that of a glorified baby-sitter, disciplining misbehaving pilots.

“Normal” – I have listed several strategies to be avoided, and most of us can’t be the Natural. Those represent a tiny fraction of the people I have worked with over the years. The huge majority of the pilots with whom I have flown, share my appreciation of the beauty of flight, the goodness of people, and the satisfaction of a job well done. The new normal appreciates the value of all of the crewmembers. The days of the tyrant captain and the “set your hair on fire” fighter pilot are mostly gone. The guy or gal flying a half-billion dollar fighter doesn’t fly under bridges; the airline captain knows the value of an effective team in the cockpit.I recommend a career in aviation, not for the money, but for the joy of it.


Lindburgh said it best, “Science, freedom, beauty, adventure. What more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved.

Aviation Human Factors blog changes to Flying Stories

Since there hasn’t been much activity on the Human Factors blog, I have come to believe that we have said all we know about it. We’ll have to leave future progress in that discipline to the folks who are actually immersed in it.

I used to believe that I would write a book about my flying experiences. Mine are pretty bland compared to most, and I wouldn’t want to burden anyone with a “mercy read” of a boring book. It’s relatively easy to see if anyone is interested by posting some of the stories on a blog. I plan to tell a few stories here and see how it goes.

  1. We flew the 1956 model F-102, the venerable “Deuce.” (previously billed as the supersonic, needle-nosed sentinel of the skies). We were the “Black Knights” of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of Keflavik, Iceland. Even in 1972, the “Deuce” was getting a bit long in tooth. The quarry was the Soviet TU-95 Bear, which regularly wandered through NATO airspace. Our raison d’etre, was to protect the U.S. Navy P-3, submarine hunters from the Bears.

    Jack Webb might have described the situation thusly: “My partner and I were working the night watch out of alert during the Winter of ’72.” “Alert” meant that we “cocked” our fighters by getting everything ready to go on short (five minute) notice. Once notified by loud noises and flashing lights, we were obliged to don our anti-exposure suits and get the aircraft airborne in the allotted five minutes. These suits were tight fitting and a little difficult to manage. We called them “poopey suits,” although I’m not sure exactly why. The weather was 300 ft ceiling and one-half mile visibility in snow, with the usual 25 knots of wind. The alternate, Leuchars, Scotland, which lay 640 miles away was clear with a quartering tail wind most of the way there. The red phone rang without an accompanying klaxon. “Opcon” informed us that we were to intercept a pair of TU-95’s at a point where they would penetrate the ADIZ, then proceed to Leuchars. That would, of course, happen about three o’clock in the morning. Meanwhile we should just get some sleep. Not an easy task.

    I didn’t have to do much except follow Chuck since he was the “Old head.” At the predetermined time we donned our “poopey suits.” With an “airborne order,” rather than a scramble order, we had the luxury of proceeding to the airplanes at a leisurely pace to make our assigned take-off time. My feet were dancing on the big “Convair” cast into each rudder pedal because I was cold. There was nothing to be afraid of. After all, it wasn’t like a combat mission. The only thing to worry about was a flame-out way out there…200 miles North of the Arctic Circle…over all that cold dark…night…water.

    Kaboom. Chuck’s starter fires and jolts me back to reality.   OK, here we go. Ignition button down, throttle outboard, back inboard, bang, the starter fires, RPM, throttle forward around the horn, fuel flow, EGT, oil pressure, guarded switches down, shiny switches forward, radar on….

    “Zero one flight check.”


    Chuck’s aircraft boldly emerges from the adjacent shelter at a surprisingly fast taxi. I follow closely, on the upwind side of the taxiway.

    “Kef tower, Sloe Gin Zero One Flight, taxi, airborne order time zero five.

    “(Heavy accent) Zero one taxi into poseetion und hold, cleared for take-off, your discretion.”

    “Roger, cleared to go, Zero one flight, let’s go button four.” Unlike our civilian counterparts, we always changed to departure control frequency before takeoff. That made flying formation much simpler. If this were a daytime mission, I would expect Chuck to give me the runup signal visually. Since it is very dark, there is none.   I hear Chuck’s engine start to roar. I ease the power up slowly so as not to skid on the packed snow, 70, 75, 80 (skid) back down to 78 per cent. I will wait until the take-off roll to check full power. Lead is rolling, his afterburner lights with a (normal) terrific explosion. I look away from the blinding white plume. My airplane shakes. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds; I release the brakes and move the throttle up to full military (non afterburner) power. The gauges look good. I push the throttle outboard into afterburner. The exhaust pressure ratio gauge dips and then recovers as the afterburner nozzles first open then the burner lights. I feel a dull thud and a kick of additional acceleration. Ahead, lead is rotating and disappears in a swirl of stirred up snow. Now I have a hundred twenty five knots, and start the stick back to rotate. Just a grunt more back stick, then I’m airborne. Gear up, dampers on, radar return to search, drop tanks on. I run the radar antenna a little up. I am careful to hold that climb, as there are 6,000 ft. mountains ahead. I take a peek into the scope: one, two, three sweeps…there he is coming out of the ground clutter about 2 ½ miles ahead.

    “(Yawn) Two is tied on.” The boredom in my voice belies the pounding in my chest.


    Lead levels off at 35,000 ft. in the clear. I can’t catch him until he pulls the power back for level off. Gradually, the little circle in the radar scope rotates to show my overtake increasing. My 100 knots of overtake in the blackness is revealed only by the quiet precision of the radar. Far ahead is the faint but rhythmic flashing of a red rotating beacon. My vision cannot detect the overtake.   Soon, I join up very close. That makes me feel a little less threatened by the night. It’s darker that the inside of that proverbial cow’s stomach out here tonight. Chuck yaws his airplane, the signal to loosen the formation, a little more violently than usual. I sense that he is a little aggravated with me for flying so close and thus pushing his wing up with the deflected air from my wing. I settle down for the long drive at 50 feet from his wing tip. The aurora is modestly spectacular tonight. It looks like a huge curtain whose bottom is about thirty degrees up from the horizon. The colors are beautiful, red, white, and green. It flutters as if in a breeze, then abruptly jumps to the left, then to the right. Without Chuck to fly formation on, I would be tempted to roll to level my wings with the bottom of the aurora, rather than the real horizon.

    “Sloe Gin zero one flight, this is Drainage Control. You have two targets zero six zero for a hundred and twenty.”

    “Zero One.”

    Shortly – there they are – about five miles apart – No, not out there, in the scope.

    “Don, looks like we’ll be below bingo when we get there, you take number two Bear, I’ll take the lead one.” (Regulations forbid us to split up. We should position one fighter up and back so as to be able to launch an attack if the Russians become aggressive. Chuck has decided that we will rely on their usual good nature to expedite tonight’s mission.) Bingo fuel to Leuchars is the number of pounds of fuel on board at the completion of the intercept, which will guarantee minimum fuel on Landing (1200 pounds). That number is 200 pounds more that I’ve got, but chasing the Bears south will put us a little closer to Scotland and should reduce bingo a bit as we go.

    I recheck the armament switches safe and lock the radar on to the trailing Bear. I can hear his engines, but I have no perspective other than his rotating beacon.   The “Min Range” warning flashes on the scope. There is a big silhouette ahead – the roar of his turboprops is now thunderous in the cockpit. I can feel the vibrations through the rudder pedals. In a few seconds I can see him well enough to pull along side.

    I am very careful not to pull the throttle back too abruptly. I tried that once, when I first arrived in Iceland, and it didn’t work very well for me. On that occasion I was joining up on a Bear and pulled the throttle all the way to idle. When I arrived along side the big aircraft, I quickly pushed it back up to join. The F-102 doesn’t like that and it says so by generating an “off idle compressor stall.” Nothing in aviation is more frightening and less harmful.   The engine belched fire out the intake ducts and made a horrible noise. It was so bad, that I think it even frightened the Bear crew a little. No, they likely had seen it before and were laughing at me.

    As my rotating beacon flashes, I can see the aircraft plainly. A bit surreal, yet easily beautiful. Props glinting in the dim light, red star on the tail, polished aluminum all over, clean, long, sleek. I wish you could have been there. Invisible inside I know is Ivan. From the darkness of our protective cocoons, we regard each other for a moment there, he no less threatened by this hostile environment than I am. I wonder for a moment, is he a fierce, evil killing machine, or does he have the feelings that I do? Perhaps we are we two pawns – brothers for a moment.

    “Two, you got your numbers?”

    I quickly note the tail number and the position the antennas and sensors on the big aircraft.


    “I’l head one two zero, you can join up.”


    “Sloe gin fight (British accent) this is Polestar, Leuchars lies one two four degrees for three hundred fifty three mles (very precise), the weather is clear and thirty.”

    That leaves fuel on initial approach. At 300 miles out I note my fuel and at 200 miles, I calculate how many pounds of fuel I have used to cover 100 nautical miles. Nine Hundred! As the Brits would say, “This is dreadful.” I had planned to use only 750 pounds to go that hundred miles. The quartering tail wind that we were promised has turned into a headwind. If this trend continues, I will only have less than emergency left at Leuchars. Emergency fuel is when you plan to land with 800 pounds. Not really very much for a 30,000 pound airplane.

    I can see Scotland now, can’t take time out from worrying to sightsee though. There, six miles below lies Loch Ness, Inverness, and Navy Kinloss with its twin rows of runway lights.

    “Lead, Kinloss looks pretty inviting doesn’t it?”

    “Yeah – we can make it to Leuchars no sweat.”

    “Lead’s gonnna balance up the fuel before we start down.”

    Good idea. My right side fuel is higher. I turn the left side boost pumps off. Wait a little while. Check the fuel. The balance is perfect now, all boost pumps back on.

    “Uh, approach control, zero one flight will be minimum fuel at Leuchars, I’d appreciate landing priority.”

    “Roger, tower will be listening for you on this frequency you are cleared to land.”

    Not bad, 50 miles out and cleared to land. I can see Leuchars now; it seems so close in the clear night, nestled there up against the coast. Both low fuel lights are on now. I check the fuel again. With the left side selected, the fuel gauge needle slowly swings from total (which ain’t much) down to…not half of total, but half plus 150 pounds. I feel a numb sensation. The left side isn’t feeding.

    “Zero one, this is two.”


    “Looks like I got some trapped fuel”

    “Click, click,” is the reply, probably meaning: “OK, there’s nothing better to do than what we are doing.” My only consolation is that I will use little fuel in an idle descent.

    I pull the throttle back to keep position. Down we go into what looks like a black hole, which is the English Channel, east of the base. I pull the throttle all the way back to idle and crack the speed brakes to keep formation position. Can’t see anything but black behind Chuck’s airplane. I must be very tired, because it seems like we’re pulling more than the usual amount of G’s. Chuck momentarily dips the wing on the other side of his aircraft. That’s my signal to cross under and fly formation on the left side. I slide back a little, cross under, spend a little fuel to catch up. Now the G’s lay on. This is very strange. A good leader would be very gentle when his wingman’s aircraft is low on fuel, but Chuck is maneuvering the formation abruptly. Before I can curse him, his aircraft violently pulls away; I can’t keep up with him. I find myself in a 60 degree right bank, directly over the runway, which is the normal position for a fighter break and an overhead 360 degree traffic pattern. OK, the engine is still running, I suppose that one can’t argue with success. Gear down, three greens, I can make it from here even if the engine does quit. After touchdown, I take my left hand from the throttle and put it on the drag chute handle. Maybe I shouldn’t use it. If I do, I may spend all day repacking it. If I don’t I may careen off the other end of the runway.

    The little voice says, “Pull it, you just used up all your luck today. I can feel the tug as it deploys. The “follow me” truck appears on the taxiway. I turn off the runway and open the canopy. What is that strange fragrance? It’s trees. We don’t have any of those in Iceland. Next I queue up (one queues when in Scotland) beside Chuck. The young man on the ground gives me the “chocks are in” signal, and I move the throttle back and around the shutoff stop.   I take my helmet off and put it on the canopy rail. I select right fuel gauge…200 pounds, a record low for me. One can’t beat the low fuel record; one can only tie it. The engine winds down and starts that clankety-clank sound as the compressor blades become loosely held. For a moment I contemplate how much luck I just used up. What could I have done smarter? Not much, I decide, sometimes they really are out to get you.

    Chuck says, “Hey, you sissy, you used your drag chute.”

Automation Humor (sort of)

Delta’s first Fourth Generation airplane to arrive on the property was the MD-11 (later called the BMD-11 when Boeing bought or merged with McDonnell-Douglas). In the early 1990s the MD-11 was the latest and greatest automation wonder of the world. As most pilots are inveterate gadgeteers, we were all anxious to fly it. Capt. Jerry Battenhouse was selected to manage the implementation into Delta’s operation. He was the king of gadgeteers and became totally immersed into the aircraft’s capabilities. The first problem was the landing gear. For the first several months, Delta serviced it wrong. It was a complex, triple-oleo, gas-filled arrangement that actually flew with a flat stage during this period. The airplane developed a reputation of one that no one could land smoothly. The (female) flight attendants developed a procedure just before landing that called for crossing the arms in preparation for the inevitable hard landing. Miraculously that all went away when the arrogant Delta Technical Operations people finally listened to McDonnell Douglas.

I had been flying captain on the B-737 for seven years and although bored, had little chance for advancement due to stagnant hiring. For various reasons I elected to go for MD-11 copilot. It was about the same money and I thought international flying might be fun. This downgrade, although frowned upon outside the U.S., was common for us. This was the most difficult type rating I ever earned. Since the extra automation was new, the necessary level of knowledge was not precisely defined. The fuel system was this airplane’s nemisis (every airplane has one). It was so complex, and the automation moved fuel from tank to tank so frequently, that it was said that the airplane wore the fuel out before it used it up! The single engine landing was a real challenge. I can only imagine an ab-initio Cessna pilot trying to make that work. I think all McDonnell-Douglas airplanes are hard to love. (So was the F-101) Somehow I managed to get through the rating and eventually appreciate the airplane. I loved the gadgets, but seven years earlier had participated in creating Delta’s automation philosophy. I hand flew the aircraft a lot.

The flight control system was unique. Even with the autopilot off, control wheel steering was in effect until the pilot pushed or pulled with more than two pounds of force. That was Lateral Stability and Augmentation System (LSAS). If one pulled harder, you got different control law and lots more authority. Gently flown, very precise altitude control was possible, even at maximum speed or 365 knots indicated. The experienced reader can see where this is going. The dinosaurs couldn’t get it. They would push and pull like they did on the DC-8 and go in and out of LSAS. Sometimes they would get little response, other times a lot. These guys formed a group that believed that it wasn’t possible to hand-fly the airplane, and told their copilots so. I remember a flight to Bangkok with a member of the cult. Bangkok Center had given us clearance to “keep the speed up,” and descend to 2000 ft., just as we crossed from the Laos border. (In the U.S. 250 knots is max below 10,000 ft.) A few minutes later we were at 2,000 ft. and 365 knots. Getting ready to slow down and land, I disconnected the autopilot. The dinosaur nearly had a cat. I was able to keep the altitude right on as we slowed to flap speed. We didn’t discuss the autoflight system any more during that rotation.

Fast forward two years and Jerry Battenhouse and I are preparing to depart London Gatwick airport. In the meantime Jerry has received a CAA violation for this exact departure procedure that we are planning to execute. His mistake was to penetrate the Heathrow airspace to the north of Gatwick. When departing to the east, the procedure calls for a left turn (toward Heathrow) and then heading back to the west in a corridor between the two airports. However, when a strong wind from the south is blowing, staying within the corridor is difficult, as the wind pushes you toward Heathrow.

Jerry: “OK, Don let’s have your departure briefing. Make it a good one, because we have the FAA riding in the jump seat. Ha, Ha.)”

The company-standard departure in those days was “WARTS.” That acronym stood for weather/wind, abnormal/abort procedures, runway considerations, terrain/transition altitude/taxi, standard instrument departure procedures (SID, now DP), special Jeppesen pages. Not a bad idea for even Bonanza pilots to review. Lots of the dinosaurs would just say, “WARTS, ha, ha,” and call that a briefing.

Don: “Well, Jerry, the weather’s good. I plan to hand-fly the departure. I will leave 15 degrees of flaps down and hold 210 knots until we finish the turn to the west.”

Jerry: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, you should use the automation and let the autopilot fly this difficult departure.”

Don: “OK, Jerry that’s fine, you’re the captain, I’ll be happy to do that.”

Jerry: “But it’s your leg and you can fly it however you like.”

Don: “OK, Jerry, I plan to hand-fly the departure. I will leave 15 degrees of flaps down and hold 210 knots until we finish the turn to the west.”

Jerry: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, you should use the automation and let the autopilot fly this difficult departure.”

Don: “OK, Jerry that’s fine, you’re the captain, I’ll be happy to do that.”

Jerry: “But it’s your leg and you can fly it however you like.”

Don: “OK, Jerry, I plan to hand-fly the departure. I will leave 15 degrees of flaps down and hold 210 knots until we finish the turn to the west.”

Jerry: Looks at the FAA guy in the jump seat and nods. To say OK if the kid screws this up we will both have a piece of him.

Don: Oh, S___, I’ve done it, now. If I use the autopilot, we will probably get a violation of airspace. If I don’t use it and make a mistake, I’m dead.

Don: “Gear up, Vnav. (at 1000 ft.) Flaps 15, speed 210. Three miles starting hard left turn, leveling off at 2500.” I could see on the electronic map where we should not transgress, and we made it, turning inside of that area.

Jerry: “_________.”

I know it’s not like, “There I was at 800 knots indicated with flak all around and two MiGs on my tail,” but it’s about as exciting as airline flying gets theses days. The Late Earl Wiener was instrumental in developing modern concepts of automation in the piloted cockpit. One of his aphorisms was, “If the automation is increasing your workload, turn it off.” In this case, it was not only increasing workload, it was not capable of the depth of logic required to complete the departure, even though the aircraft had that capability. I predict that we pilots will continue to have a job for some time to come.

Promech Air Crash in Alaska

The reason that we didn’t go on the floatplane flight during our Alaska cruise was that it was too expensive. It didn’t occur to me that it might be dangerous. I have flown high above Alaska hundreds of times. I have notices that the weather there stinks most of the time. I have ridden in an Islander across Kodiak Island a few times. During those flights I rode with mostly young, but always very conscientious pilots. I am always stimulated by the stories of bush pilots “water skiing” across a stretch of water and stopping in incredibly short distances once on shore. I found a report called “Fatal and Serious Injury Accidents in Alaska, A Retrospective of the years 2004 through 2009 with Special Emphasis on Post Crash survival.” While not all that much fun to read about accidents, it is undeniably interesting. The leading causes of accidents in this report: Spin/stall loss of control, and continued VFR into IFR conditions. As a veteran scud runner back in my younger years, I can sympathize with the pilots in the Alaska environment. In Alaska, if one is to fly at all on any given day, it will likely be in and out of low clouds. At one moment you are flying along at low altitude with acceptable visibility, suddenly you’re in solid IMC (instrument meteorological conditions, in the clouds). You can either make a 180 degree turn and hope you miss the mountains, or pull up and beg for an instrument clearance.  Most of the pilots involved in these accidents were in their 40s and 50s, with 5000-8000 hours of flying time. These are not newbies. The statistics show the third cause of accidents to be “willful violation.” Also “rogue pilot” category showed 100% fatality when involved in an accident.

Of course, inexperienced pilots are always at greater risk, but is Alaska a place that will eventually “get” you if you fly there long enough? I can’t say for sure, but if my pilot has a good GPS display with terrain, the weather is acceptable, and he or she convinces me that we have the same (conservative) concept of risk, then I’m ready to go flying.

For all you Alaskan flight department managers out there: Have you had a safety audit lately? Can your pilots cancel a flight and keep their job? Do your aircraft have GPS/terrain?

German Wings 9525

German Wings 9525 Comments Published July 9, 2015

I just received my copy of “Aerospace,” the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society.  In this issue an article called “New Rules for Pilots Medicals?” appears. The authors examine the medical confidentiality for non-pilots versus pilots in the U.S. and Canada. In Canada a pilot’s privacy is suspended as a condition of the issuance of a pilot license. Further, license holders are required to advise an attending physician that they hold an license. In the U.S. pilots have the same rights to medical confidentiality as other citizens except when an exam is conducted by an AME. The article discusses the relative under-reporting vulnerabilities of both systems. The German Wings accident raised questions about the limits of medical confidentiality for pilots. These questions lead to questions as to accountability. In Canada most large airlines have their own medical departments. That sounds good at first, but that system is vulnerable to abuse. EG., “Doc, you need to find something wrong with Don, so we can get rid of him.” Future court rulings are likely to clarify employer’s duty to know of a pilot’s poor mental health.

My take on this is that a better balance should be found for the individual’s right for confidentiality versus the public good. That sounds a bit like the guns controversy in the U.S.  Both of these controversies are about the attempt to identify and disarm the crazies. When I go for my FAA physical and complete the Form 8500-8, I dutifully answer all the question with honesty. I list any medical provider seen since the last physical. That includes my annual general checkup, dermatological checkup, etc. As such, I would be in favor of adopting the Canadian system of suspended confidentiality.  The notion of airlines having a greater duty to detect aberrant behavior is a slippery slope, rife with potential for abuse. Even so, I think a ruling requiring a fellow pilot to report aberrant behavior is at hand. Today if a pilot permits a fellow pilot to operate an aircraft while alcohol impaired, that pilot is considered as guilty as the drunk. Expanding that rule to include behavioral aberrations might be a good idea.


(Published March 30, 2015) (More below)

The recent crash of German Wings 9525 has revived some of the old controversy about crazies in the cockpit. Although not closely related to automation and workload, the title of this blog is “Why Airplanes Crash.”

A pilot who would cause 150 people to die lies in an extreme subset of those who would make aviation less safe through their unacceptable behavior. When Crew Resource Management (CRM) became the mantra for behavior in the cockpit in the ‘80s, the ostensible motivation was to better utilize resources such as copilot knowledge, flight control assistance, and ATC. Great ideas all, but a main focus became the retraining of the tyrannical, narrow-minded, dinosaur captains who were scaring their fellow pilots. Not all cockpit jerks were/are captains, either. I was involved in some interventions of “fringy” pilots. One of these was a first officer, a Viet Nam F-105 veteran who had a low tolerance for the flying ability of captains. He frequently got into squabbles with captains that I had flown with and had no problems. He soon became a captain. I suppose the first officers avoided him like the plague.

Another strange case was the guy who defueled the airplanes. His big thing was that the company was wasting money by hauling such huge amounts of fuel around. In reality, the safety and economy of having extra fuel comes from lots of experience in the industry. After a few complaints from first officers, the chief pilot sternly told him not to do that any more. Of course, he continued. That’s when we had the intervention. He was given six months of counseling with no flying. My friend, Tom, drove to his house to check his progress. On the way Tom needed some fuel for his car. He stopped at a little country store along the way. An old man in coveralls emerged from the store and suspiciously eyed Tom’s license plate frame, which proclaimed the company logo.

“You work for that airline?” He asked.

Tom replied in the affirmative.

“I ain’t sellin’ no gas to anyone who works for the same company as that SOB (the captain that we’re discussing).


It’s funny now, but who would want to get on an airplane with him? How can pilots be screened so that these sorts of behaviors never occur in the first place? One solution that was popular in the old days was to hire former military pilots. A perfunctory personnel department interview process was sufficient since some other reliable entity had done all the work. This was fairly effective. I remember the screening I endured to enter the Air Force. That was very thorough, and operationally, debriefings were merciless.

But even that became controversial. After flying for Delta for a few years, a discussion emerged as to just which source was best for new hire pilots. I maintained that former fighter pilots were best because they usually were at the top of their Air Force training class, and had very challenging missions. The transport guys replied that all I knew was rough maneuvering of the aircraft without any consideration for the comfort of others.

I’ll never forget a meeting I attended in Germany on this issue. The Lufthansa Chief of Personnel delivered a speech in which he announced that all for future new hire pilots would be “ab initio” civilians. That means that Lufthansa would train its pilots from no aviation experience whatsoever. He looked exactly like the late John Denver. When I protested, he cited statistics that cast the former Luftwaffe pilots in an unfavorable light. I believe that the underlying theory was that the Luftwaffe pilots brought an unacceptable concept of risk management to the airline cockpit. Maybe so, but I don’t recall any of them intentionally flying an airplane into a mountain.

What can be done to prevent another German Wings 9525 or Egyptair 990? Huge lawsuit losses will surely get Lufthansa’s attention. If found negligent, airlines around the world will devote more resources to background checks and the hiring process in general.

There is a disconnect between general medicine and aeromedical medicine. One of the questions on the FAA application for medical certification asks about any other medical professionals with whom I have consulted lately. They want to know for what, which doctor, when, and contact information. If caught lying, you lose your license. Although FAA policy on the continuing of flying while on psychotropic drugs has become more lenient in the last 20 years, many pilots would rather risk taking antidepressant drugs illegally than risk losing their job through official channels. Many choose to continue flying untreated.

How is an airline to know? Enter “Professional Standards.” This is a Pilots Association Committee that receives complaints from pilots lodged against one of their fellows. Its effectiveness is limited to those who can be shamed into behaving. The committee has no power except persuasion. It is axiomatic that the association does nothing to harm its members. Therefore it is reluctant to divulge any of its information to company management.

The congenitally ill pilot applicant could be eliminated through a very thorough background investigation and screening process. The subsequent deterioration of mental health might be noticed by fellow pilots, but perhaps not. How are we to detect the mentally ill pilot who behaves normally, does not seek medication or counseling, and fails to mention his or her dilemma to their aeromedical examiner? I believe the answer is that we cannot.

The best that we can do is to be extremely sensitive and vigilant for any subtle clues that we have. And also to act upon those clues. Further, we must create an environment that removes the stigma and risk to those who need help. The first item on my cockpit briefing has always been, “How are you feeling today?” Even when I am alone.

April 1, 2015

This is not an April Fool’s Joke.

I received this comment from Bob Flocke, retired U.S. Army, ALPA Staff, and Mayor of Wimberley, TX: “…….. It reminds me of the old Personnel Reliability Program we had in the Army, and I imagine in other services too, for those working with nuclear weapons. After a comprehensive initial screening, it relied to a great extent on self reporting medications, illness and personal situations that could effect a soldier’s reliability with nukes. Also, there was a peer and superior observation component. All of a PRP soldier’s records–personnel, finance and medical–were marked to indicate a PRP member. Easy to monitor when one is seeing military doctors. Nothing other than the threat of military discipline, kept members from seeking medical or psychiatric attention for something that might reflect negatively, but it worked for the most part. We couldn’t afford a misstep in handling and firing nukes.”

Like Bob, I had a Background Investigation (BI) for access to nuclear weapons. In theory, if WW III happened, those of us in single-seat fighters would take off with nuclear weapons and become the first in history to be alone with one. The D.O.D. actually sent guys in dark suits, sunglasses, and wires out to Uvalde, Texas to ask my childhood neighbors if I was OK. I don’t recall hearing about any unauthorized nuclear detonations at our hands, so I suppose that the system works well.

Where is the disconnect between the airline background investigation which works poorly, and the DOD system which works well? How would you answer the questions confronting the Lufthansa CEO now? His answers seem a little lame to me. I would like to be able to say, “We hired lots of military pilots and we had access to their records. For the non-military people, we sent guys out to investigate very thoroughly.”  That would sound pretty good to the jury. The airlines should get ready for the coming storm that will nail them for their unwillingness to adequately screen their new hires. When that storm subsides, they should devote the resources to the issue that would have been reasonable in the beginning.

Why airplanes crash

Don in SuitEveryone is a #$%^&* expert.  I just received a long dissertation from an “expert” who  “as retired high time international airline pilot, I feel qualified to give you a look at the practices in an airliner cockpit.” He seems to have all the answers. He feels that modern cockpit automation has diminished pilots’ stick-and-rudder skills to a dangerous level. The solution, he says, is “a pilot should hand fly the jet from take-off to 10,000 feet on departures and from 10,000 feet to landing at least twice a month. This will be enough to maintain a satisfactory level of hand flying.”

Do  you really think that will do it? Back in 1988 I helped Delta formulate an automation philosophy for pilots to have a strategy for dealing with the then new automation available to us. Since then the controversy has not abated. On the one side, automation naysayers proclaim that they need all the practice that they can get and that they can do a better job of controlling the airplane than the computers. The automation cool-aid drinkers (I am one of these) say that pilots must have manual flying skills available, but some things are better left to the computers. To reconcile these diverse strategies, the regulators and operators have mandated (promulgated) many rules for the pilots to obey. For example, if the runway visual range (RVR) for an approach is less than 4000 ft., and an autopilot and/or flight director is available, then it must be used. That sounds very reasonable to me. On the other hand, when demonstrating proficiency at my semi-annual simulator torture, a hand-flown, single-engine approach looms. A little manual flying practice seems to be in order, as the aforementioned expert asserts. Yes, but how much and what type? More to come.

Jan 23, 2015

Back in the early  ’80s, I was flying the B-727 when the then highly automated B-737-200 came out. I quickly volunteered to take a more junior position so I could experience the automation. It had a mode control panel, dual autopilots, and a Performance Data Computer, very advanced for the day. Some of the pilots had difficulty managing even that low level of automation. When the B-767 came out, it ushered in a whole new era of automation. Senior pilots were flocking to the higher pay, but many had difficulty in the checkout. Delta backtracked somewhat and started the “Introduction to Aviation Automation” (IAA) program, designed to bring the dinosaurs up the the computer skills of the kids. Fortunately for the dinosaurs, Delta allowed them to fly the 767 like they had done in the 727, if they chose to do so. That, of course, missed the whole point of increasing safety with automation.
On the other side lay the lazy, the geeks, and the arrogant. They never turned the stuff off. “Gear up, flaps up, autopilot on,” was the mantra heard in many cockpits. Later that was followed by “Gear Down, Flaps down, autopilot off, aren’t I wonderful.” Maybe so, but I couldn’t really know if they could fly or not. I once saw a new 757 pilot get cleared for a visual approach from 10 miles out from Louisville, a rare opportunity for those of us condemned to fly the instrument approach most of the time. He proceeded to type his way around the approach with the mode control panel. A sadly lost chance for that manual practice that we covet.
Too little or too much use of the automation obviously can result in less safety and efficiency. Where is the sweet spot where automation reduces cognitive workload when it is needed, and provides guidance accuracy that humans are unable to achieve?

Jan. 24, 2015:                   THE HISTORY

So what did we come up with in 1988? The need for an automation philosophy  became obvious after Delta’s “Summer of Shame.” In a short period Delta pilots narrowly avoided a midair due to a pilot error over the North Atlantic, landed at the wrong airport (no injuries), crashed a 727, and was still smarting from a L-1011 crash. I attended both the Delta 191 and Delta 1141 NTSB hearings as the ALPA Human Factors representative. At the 1141 hearing, the NTSB Investigator In Charge (IIC) was really mad at Delta for not complying with the 191 findings and recommendations. That’s when the airline really took action. The Vice-president of flight operations (later Senior Vice-president of operations), Harry Alger, selected Captain Reuben Black to lead a group that was to create a Cockpit Resource Management (later Crew Resource Management) program for the airline. Alger committed a huge amount of resources from a notoriously penurious company. Black was the consummate diplomat and led by extracting the best that was within each of us. Delta had never hired an outside consultant for anything. We were funded to hire the late Bob Helmreich and his NASA/UT group, the late Earl Wiener at the Univ. of Florida, and Phillip Hackman, a well-known psychologist from Boston.

Delta needed fixing. As a new hire, I was introduced to line flying at the Houston, Texas base. “We are a captain’s airline,” was never so true as it was there. What that really meant was that management was unwilling to devote the resources to develop a meaningful set of operations procedures to guide us. In that void, the cowboy captains ran amuck. Their logic ran something like this: “Since we haven’t had any accidents, the crazy stuff we are doing must be OK.”  I was flying fighters in the Air National Guard at the time and thought I was bulletproof, but they scared me. Their luck ran out in 1985. The fix, was a good flight operations manual, better communications, and most of all, a fully participating crew, committed to doing what was best for the passengers. Imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth when the old guard was called upon to change. “Holding hands in the hot tub,” they called the class. They planned to co-opt the program and never change. A pilot could not fail a check ride for CRM. However, an angry First Officer might fail to remind the Captain that one of his illegal habits would cause him a technical failure. The younger pilots got it. Management’s choice was just to allow the dinosaurs to retire in time, or to force compliance. It was a bloodbath. Simulator check rides were repeated, line checks were incomplete, pay was lost, it was serious.

In this tumultuous environment, the company wanted to form a policy on the use of automation. After all, Southwest had bought automation and disabled it. American bought automation and demanded that it be used.  Of course, the FAA had previously promulgated rules that required the use of automation. Little argument existed over the notion that Category II approaches were better flown by the autopilot. No argument existed over the notion that Category III – autoland approaches were a spectator event for the pilots.

The problems facing us were similar to the ones we have today: Mode confusion, automation surprises, over dependence/loss of manual skills, and increased workload trying to use the automation that was poorly understood.  Here’s  what I came up with:

1. There is an optimum level of automation for every situation.
2. If the automation is increasing workload, use a lower level.
3. Pilots must be proficient at all levels of automation.
4. Both pilots should be fully aware of the state of the autoflight system at all times.

Optimum levels include allowances for using a low level to maintain proficiency. Maintaining proficiency at all levels of automation requires one to self-manage their training program. That is, enough manual flying to be able to handle the aircraft when the autopilot says, “I quit.”  Both pilots fully aware means that secret typing in the Flight Management System is not allowed.

As of my retirement, this philosophy remained largely intact after eighteen years. Some good stuff was added:

One  pilot should maintain outside visual awareness.
Both plots should maintain a comfortable workload distribution and situational  awareness.
The pilot flying must compare the performance of the autoflight system with the flight path of the aircraft.

Most of us would agree that the aforementioned ideas are pretty good ones, but this devil is in the implementation. What with modern aircraft using Controller to Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) the assigned altitude is automatically set in the mode control panel. How could you screw that up? Well, we still have altitude busts. We still have B-777s crashing for lack of manual flying skills. Correct me if I am out of date, but the last time I checked there had NEVER been a fatal accident following a autopilot-coupled Category III approach. Thus the dilemma: the autopilot can do it better than I can at the moment, but might fail unexpectedly.

I have experienced cognitive overload. I have frequently felt that I was at maximum workload. For instance, on a manually flown  approach: intercepting a localizer, slowing, and configuring (and talking on the radio when single pilot). If a surprise had happened, I would have had to prioritize and do something later. Automation is a wonderful workload reducer in that situation. Asking your fellow pilot for help works too.

I have questions:

How does this apply to flying single-pilot aircraft?
How can I maintain manual flying proficiency when my boss says always use the autopilot?
How can I trap and mitigate the inevitable errors?
The weather is 700 ft. ceiling and 2 miles visibility. Is overall safety enhanced by flying the approach manually today?
Is there room (or need) for different styles of resource management?

Jan. 26, 2015

Flying IFR in a single pilot airplane can be very busy. I remember taking my instrument rating check ride, a long time ago. The examiner asked me to hold at an intersection with a single VOR. I must have done it OK, because I passed. I wouldn’t try to do that today for all the tea in China. I think that is partly because of my concept of risk and partly because I’m moving a little slower nowadays. Fast forward to a naive kid flying a F-106. It was so easy to get behind that airplane that we were all trying to think of something to do to get ahead (of stay up with) the situation. Things don’t happen that fast in an airline cockpit, but it was good preparation for flying the Bonanza. I have owned that airplane for less than a year and have shot approaches down to minimums twice.

I wouldn’t have been there if I did not have a good autopilot. What exactly are my manually flown minimums? I don’t have a formal a set of rules. I know I’m OK with VFR on top and punching through an undercast down to 500/1. What if the autopilot had failed enroute to a destination at minimums? I would go to the alternate. What if the approach coupler failed on the way down to a minimums approach? It’s always an exciting experience when the autopilot hands you the airplane unexpectedly. If the approach were stabilized and no other factors were worrying me, I  would continue. If I were on downwind leg and this happened, well that’s a tough call. Proceed to alternate? Ask for an extended downwind? Admit to an equipment failure to ATC?

There are good reasons that corporate and airline flying is safer than General Aviation (GA). Maintenance, procedures, proficiency, management, and nearly every aspect of the operation receives more focus than GA gives it. Is that to say that we GA pilots should emulate corporate and airline operations? If you can afford to trick out your avionics package like a 777, I say, “Go for it.” Bloody likely though. What we could do is adopt an automation/workload philosophy more like theirs. Statistically speaking, it would certainly be a good idea. If one were to embrace this concept, then there is a wealth of knowledge that draws from their experience and the procedures that were created in response to it.

Feb. 3, 2015

For those of us who believe that Air Asia 8501 and Air France 447 crashes are similar, note the following:

DATE: December 10, 2014
AD #:  2014-25-51
Emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD) 2014-25-51 is sent to owners and operators of Airbus Model A318, A319, A320, and A321 series airplanes. Background:
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is the Technical Agent for the Member States of the European Community, has issued Emergency Airworthiness Directive 2014-0266-E, dated December 9, 2014 (referred to after this as the Mandatory Continuing Airworthiness Information, or the MCAI), to correct an unsafe condition on all Model A318, A319, A320, and A321 series airplanes.
The MCAI states: An occurrence was reported where an Airbus A321 aeroplane encountered a blockage of two Angle of Attack (AoA) probes during climb, leading to activation of the Alpha Protection (Alpha Prot) while the Mach number increased. The flight crew managed to regain full control and the flight landed uneventfully.
When Alpha Prot is activated due to blocked AoA probes, the flight control laws order a continuous nose down pitch rate that, in a worst case scenario, cannot be stopped with backward side stick inputs, even in the full backward position. If the Mach number increases during a nose down order, the AoA value of the Alpha Prot will continue to decrease. As a result, the flight control laws will continue to order a nose down pitch rate, even if the speed is above minimum selectable speed, known as VLS.
This condition, if not corrected, could result in loss of control of the aeroplane.
To address this unsafe condition, Airbus ***[has] developed a specific Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM) procedure, which has been published in AFM Temporary Revision (TR)No. 502.
For the reasons described above, this AD requires amendment of the applicable AFM [to advise the flight crew of emergency procedures for abnormal Alpha Prot. 

Well, it appears to me that in the A-320, if the computer thinks that the aircraft is stalled, the nose is coming down, and there is not much the pilot can do about it. I flew the A-330 simulator. Delta was considering the purchase of them and wanted to know if ALPA would go for it or not. It was pleasant to fly, when everything was working. I asked for a scenario in which I had to maneuver to avoid a midair. The aircraft was so gentle in responding to my inputs that we had a simulated collision. The takeaway for a Bonanza pilot trying to be safer is to choose an airline that buys Boeing. I’m just not buying that these very experienced pilots just went stupid under pressure. Remember the cheapest group to blame in a crash is the pilots.

Feb. 18, 2015

AOPA’s Tom Haines weighs in (Pilot Magazine)

One of my favorite aviation publications, “AOPA Pilot,” Feb. 2015 issue contains an article by Tom Haines. He comments that back in 1912 when Sperry developed the first autopilot, some of the pilots probably declared the contraption was for wimps. “Automation can improve safety and reliability, increase situational awareness, and increase redundancy. Yet, despite the progress, we continue to see a high level of accidents where pilots seem too dependent on automation.” From another source, I read about the last moments of Air France 447. After the static system failed, the automation set the throttles at an acceptable place for level flight. If the pilots had just held the nose level for a while, things might have turned out differently.

A few years ago I was asked to comment on Turkish Air 1951 which crashed at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in 2009. They accepted a slam-dunk approach. With the throttles at idle, they didn’t catch an autothrottle computer failure. The aircraft crashed short of the runway for lack of thrust. I believe that there is a parallel to the Asiana 214 crash in San Francisco bay in 2013. Although they had visual conditions, it was a slam-dunk and lack of thrust became the cause.

I had very little excitement during my airline career. However, the most gut-wrenching feeling I ever had, was the second or two that I thought I had waited too long to push up the throttles, near the ground. Why would a pilot be caught in that situation? When we transitioned to jets, we were always told, “Keep the throttles ‘way up, because jets don’t accelerate as fast as piston engines. ” Good advice, but if you were able to push the throttle(s) up at the last minute, you saved fuel and looked “cool.”

The late Neil Anderson, the famous Convair/General Dynamics test pilot, who conducted many of the F-16 early tests, was my mentor when I was learning to fly airshows in the T-33. I miss him greatly. He told me a story about himself and the MiG-21.  He was “the pilot” when the F-16 was sold to Egypt. President Mubarak asked Neil if there was anything he wanted. Neil replied that he would like to fly the MiG-21, a mysterious aircraft back then. Next morning, there was the aircraft waiting for him, no briefing, no checkout, just a crew chief and a General to answer questions. Asked about his plan, Neil said he wanted to conduct a couple of “touch-and-gos.” The General asked, “What is touch-and-go?” Neil explained that after landing, the pilot advances the throttle and takes off again. The General nodded in acceptance. Upon returning from his flight, Neil did exactly as planned and advanced the throttle, except nothing happened! Halfway down the 12,000 ft. runway, the engine reached 60%. With 2,000 ft. to go, 75% was indicated. After exiting the departure end of the runway and destroying nearly a mile of brush, the engine reached full thrust and the aircraft became airborne. Leaving the landing gear down, he landed and taxied up to the ramp, where the General and crew chief waited.  The flaps, gear doors, and belly had been severely damaged, a tribute to the durability of the MiG. The General asked, you guessed it, “Mr. Anderson, did you enjoy your flight?”

Well, the point of this discussion is that jet engines accelerate slowly and our lack of understanding and  practice of thrust management may be more detrimental to safety than getting rusty in our manual maneuvering skills.

Feb. 22, 2015

(Copy of Correspondence from Bud Landacre, commenting on the Neil Anderson story)

Interesting article. I was always an advocate of hand flying the aircraft. I remember a quote by on old mossback published in an article in BCA magazine regarding automation. He said ” I can’t fly worth a damn any more but I can type 40 words per minute”. I was riding as an observer in the Lear simulator as the crew flew a coupled ILS approach to minimums. As the crew dutifully monitored the autopilot flown approach the sim operator input an aileron trim malfunction (full left aileron trim). The autopilot did a masterful job of flying the airplane with a not too noticeable control wheel offset. Can you guess what happened when the captain clicked off the autopilot at about 150 ft agl in min vis conditions?

Feb. 22, 2015

Here’s me on a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country.


Feb. 23, 2015

I’m hoping to find consensus on the use of automation in aircraft. Looking at the discussion and comments suggests one thing that we can agree on is that automation can do some things better than human pilots.

According to the FAA, we must use the autopilot when cruising in RVSM airspace.  The Reduced Vertical Separation Minima was introduced to pack more airplanes into the 28,000 ft. to 41,000 ft. airspace. Formerly aircraft were assigned altitudes two thousand feet apart. With RVSM that restriction is reduced to one thousand feet. However, to be allowed into that airspace, the aircraft and autopilots must be certified to be very precise. This sounds reasonable to me.

I remember a long flight from Taipei to Portland in the MD-11. As the copilot, I had flown  the previous leg; it wasn’t my turn to fly. When all three autopilots failed, it became my leg. The Captain wouldn’t or couldn’t manually fly those long hours going home. I confess that my altitude-holding precision diminished after a while. Yes, the autopilot is better at that.

Regulations tell us that when the runway visibility is less that 3/4 mile, we must use an autopilot if it is available. Also, we must use three autopilots, autothrottles, and automatic landing if the visibility is less than 1,200 ft. Some Category III certified aircraft can land in weather as low as zero ceiling and 75 meters horizontal visibility. These numbers vary across airlines, where their operations specifications are approved by “the authorities” and become regulatory. Again, I have no problem with these regulations. In my 50 years of flying, I have conducted or more precisely, watched the autopilots conduct, only five approaches in zero-ceiling conditions. Three of them were in Zurich. To qualify to do this, the aircraft must be equipped with three autopilots, dual autothrottle computers, dual radar altimeters, and a slew of other gadgets which must all be working properly. One important gadget is GPWS, Ground Proximity Warning System, which compares GPS position to a worldwide terrain database to assure us that we aren’t going to run into a mountain.  The pilots must be trained and current, and the aircraft must have conducted an autoland recently. If any of the required equipment fails early in the approach, better weather must be found elsewhere. Closer to the ground a failure such an one of the autopilots is merely disregarded and the approach is continued with two, since a missed approach from low altitude is considered more risky. The Captain must fly the approach. The First Officer (copilot) makes the callouts. The mode changes are among the most important of these. Near the ground the aircraft goes into align mode for crosswind correction. “Flare arm, flare capture, touchdown, and rollout,” are the only  human sounds in the cockpit . If any of these mode changes don’t happen at the proper altitude, I press the TOGA (takeoff-go around) button and we’re outta there. As the aircraft passes fifty feet from the ground, the copilot says “Flare Arm,” and the radar altimeter announces height every ten feet in its human female voice . “Fifty, …., forty, …, thirty – flare Capture, …., twenty, …., ten, …., touchdown, …, rollout. I still see nothing out the front windscreen. Derotation begins and  the nose wheel is gently landed as I bring the engines into reverse thrust. As the nose lowers, I begin to see the runway centerline lights, but only a few since the visibility is so low.  The alignment is perfect – it always is. The wing spoilers deploy automatically, the brakes slow us automatically, with out any skidding, I disconnect the autopilots as we slow down. I am instructed by tower to continue to where the runway lights intersect the SMEGS or Surface Movement Guidance and control System lights. Since the tower controllers can’t see us, we receive guidance and control with lights embedded in the taxiways. Chuck Yeager might be able to do that without getting wet armpits, but I can’t.

If there’s anyone out there who likes to do this without an autopilot, I would like to hear from you. Absent any disagreement, I would like to establish Automation Tenet No.1:  Automation can do some things better than human pilots.


Here’s an MD-11 cockpit. Don’t worry about the gear and flaps, it’s at cruise.  MD-11 panel

Mar. 3, 2015

QFYou might notice something a little strange about the F-102 in this photo. I took some of these from the rear seat of a T-38 while TDY at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico in 1974. I’m not sure if I took this one or not. The airplane is one I frequently flew while at Keflavik, Iceland. The point, of course, is that no one in in it. No discussion of humans vs. computers in aviation would be complete without getting to UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones. The caution with which we conducted these flights might be indicative of the process whereby we entrust airliners to one or zero pilots in the future.

This is a QF-102, a “man-rated” airplane. That is, it still had all the controls for a pilot in it. It could be flown with or without a pilot. Later versions, called the PQM-102 had no place for a person in the cockpit. Earlier drones, such as the QF-104 were controlled from an aircraft (usually a T-33) flying nearby. The QF-102 was controlled from the ground via a huge radar dish that was not perfectly  reliable. Consequently, WSMR safety insisted that we have a device that would destroy the aircraft if we had a Loss Of Signal (LOS) for more than a few seconds. Harsh stuff. The purpose for the drone was to test our new missiles with a full-scale target. Previously, we had done so by shooting at a Ryan Firebee with radar and infrared augmentation. That was a small aircraft and no one knew if the accuracy of our tests would “scale up” to  real fighters. Thus the QF program. It was a sad day that I watched “my” airplane that I had flown so much in Iceland, get shot down by an AIM-9 missile. Better to die being productive that be chopped up, I suppose.

Later during some of the scheduled shots at the aircraft, the pilots were fully ready to fire more than just the test missile at the drone if it were to have a LOS problem. None ever escaped, to my knowledge. That was a far cry from modern UAVs. Nowadays, GPS and Satellite communication permit lethal drone airstrikes in Afghanistan, conducted by pilots in a bunker in Houston.  With this new-found reliability, is it only a matter of time before airlines go to a single pilot?  The B-777 have a software program in it that sounds an alarm if no switch or button has been actuated for a few minutes. Sometimes when there was an unusually long distance between reporting points over the Pacific, it would fire. Had we been asleep, it would have awakened us. I think the next big controversy will be whether or not to allow a single pilot during the cruise portion of a flight, while retaining two or more for other times. That’s going to be a tough sell for airline management, remembering AF 447. I admit that my prejudice may come from the desire for job security. However, retaining two pilots at all times has some obvious safety benefits. Imagine a single pilot on a B-797 in the future who expires unexpectedly. The airplane detects this and summons the other (sleeping) pilot. Meanwhile some previously unknown software failure mode commands 23 snap rolls. Not a pretty thought. Forgive my ramblings. What I intended to say is: Are there some things that pilots can do better than the automation?

March 6, 2015

Bill Gross commented: I think it might be profitable to look into the events at 3 Mile Island.  The PA Nuclear Power plant that almost lost it in the late 1970s.   From what I recall the plant operation was almost totally automated to the point that the operators lost focus on what was going on.  When indicators started showing the plant was having problems, these ignored because the operators lost that focus.

I think he is exactly right. Many disciplines are experiencing the controversy that we have in aviation. This goes beyond automation. It is a crisis in responsibility. Whether your title is Captain, Nuclear Power Plant Supervisor, or Backup Quarterback, if you are being paid to be ready to do a job, but seldom are called upon to do it, discipline is required. That may be internally or externally enforced. Pilots are usually the first at the scene of the accident, often in a fatal manner. Perhaps this is the reason that most of them who I know, generate this discipline internally. Not so for the backup quarterback. I he does a lousy job, he can take his millions and go home.

March 17, 2015

The computer says it will make it to Tokyo just fine, climb aboard.


In my last post I asked what things pilots do better than the automation. I’ll start by suggesting that pilots taxi, takeoff, prioritize, adapt, fly the visual approach, and evaluate risk better than the computers. Also, and this is a biggie, we check for reasonable answers. Before I retired, we were still putting the flight plan into the Flight Management System manually. Maybe it’s being uploaded by now. When we did that, we would check the total distance against the printed copy. If it was very far off, the legs page usually revealed that we had a typo which resulted in the magenta line going off the page to some faraway place then back to the next waypoint. We are very good at finding and mitigating those unanticipated failure modes, both self-inflicted and computer generated.

We still taxi, takeoff, and fly the visual approach with little automation. During my B-777 checkout, I was asked to fly a V1 cut without the automatic rudder input. I asked, “Why do I need to practice multiple emergencies (loss of an engine, and loss of the autorudder)?” The answer was that it’s not really much of an emergency if you can fly an engine-out departure like a normal one. I will take this as a compliment: an engine failure during takeoff is still too risky to allot to the automation.  I don’t know why we haven’t implemented auto-taxi. Maybe it’s because the low-risk situation doesn’t warrant the expense. I used to say after turning off the runway, “It was a good flight and I don’t see how we could possibly be killed between here and the gate.”

Any comments about what we humans do best? Why aren’t we practicing those things, like visual approaches? Hello, management, are you listening?

June 12, 2015

I just read my June issue of “Soaring” Magazine. In it Rick Eriksen comments on this subject in “Today’s Pilots Depend Too Much on Technology, adding to Human Error.” He says, “Planes fly the same way they flew back when I was flying in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. And we made it work with much more reliability than they do with today’s over-the-top automation.”

I have to disagree in that statistics clearly show that automation has made us safer. I do agree that many of us have checked our brains at the door and let the automation run. However, if we return to rule #3, “pilots must be proficient at all levels of automation,” and we agree that is a good idea, then how do we convince reluctant managers and pilots that it is a good idea? Mr. Eriksen says, “Maybe it is time for the FAA to start to begin to differentiate between flying time and computer time.” That’s a good idea for managers, because training and check rides are so closely monitored. How about the lazy pilot: “Gear up, flaps up, autopilot on. Aren’t I a wonderful pilot?” And then there’s the pathetic airline pilot typing their way around a visual approach with the mode control panel. I think it was an extreme dependence on the autothrottles that nailed the Asiana pilots, after all, the airplane hit the runway.

I regret that many of us in general aviation do not maintain our manual flying skills sufficiently. However, it is completely unacceptable that airlines and other professional pilots fail in this regard. The fix is simple: the regulatory authorities demand that manual flying skills and visual approaches be demonstrated on rating and recurrent check rides. If they tightened down the screws on this, pilots would be out there practicing.