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.






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Soloed in 1962. Seven years in USAF flying F-101, F-102, F-106. Got lucky and hired by Delta in 1977. Flew most of theirs, retiring in 2006 off the B-777. Owned and did some airshows in T-33. ALPA's Human Performance guy for 20 years. Helped develop IFALPA and ICAO policy on Automation and Workload. Fly a V-35B Bonanza now.

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