Monday, March 8, 2010

Aviation - A Glimpse of Reality

Aviation – The Reality
Aviation has and always will be a mystery to the masses.  That to me is of no concern.  However, the fact that aviation, the real aviation, the one behind the curtain of coolness and intrigue, continues to be a mystery to most pilots, that worries me.   

According to NOAA records, 1999 was the forth busiest year for tornadoes since the agency began keeping records. It all started in January when 216 twisters blew through Mississippi and Tennessee, tripling the previous record for that month. Mid-year, the vintage aircraft community was dealt a blow when the legendary Stearman parts and repair shop, Dusters and Sprayers took a direct hit from an F-5 that also leveled parts of Oklahoma City. And as if that wasn’t enough, adding to the frequency of storms was the additional oddity of the season with places such as Salt Lake City, taking casualties. That’s how the weather went until the last storm blew through Bentonia Mississippi on December 9th drawing the season to a close. Strangely enough, this was also record season for me.

According to my logbook, 1999 was a busy one. In fact, from May through September, I managed to average over 130 hours per month in DC-3’s.  And due to the nature of the job, before it was over I had personally witnessed a few of those tornadoes myself. This is the story of the last one.

Standing inebriated with fatigue in front of a WAC chart papered wall, the swish of my hand seemed much louder than usual as it crossed Cleveland toward Buffalo. That night, a concert of players, each of different instruments, was being organized to save a BMW plant from shutdown. For our role in the orchestra, we had been chartered to fly a vintage Douglas northeast to pick up parts and deliver them hastily without fear to South Carolina. Myself, in charge of “hastily,” I sat down with a thud and reached for the phone.

Fifty miles away, a typically stiff Flight Service employee grudgingly leaned forward to answer my call. Having exerted himself to answer the unwanted intrusion, his desire to make it short became apparent when, with arrogant brevity, he attempted to tell me what we would and would not be able to do. Speaking with the wisdom of an armchair pilot and the condescension of a computer programmer, Fred Flight Service then responded to my "AAAND?" by telling me that due to a hurricane moving up the coast, we would not be going to South Carolina. Five minutes later, I hung up the phone having filed us for every leg, including to and from South Carolina; from was to prove a point. Let the fun begin.

Pilots who’ve never flown for a living are blessed for they hold the ideals of a hatchling. The rest of us, kicked from the nest by force or instinct, are cursed with the knowledge of what goes into sausage. Look into our eyes and you’ll discover the truth. Aircraft repair is a function of cost not safety, the Feds are on the side of everyone but airmen, Chief Pilots are driven by self preservation to be liars and cheats, pilots who love the uniform fly “by the book” and have the least skill, training is not for safety but checking boxes, dispatch guesses at more than they know, and there are some dreadfully awful pilots flying your family through the skies. On this night I would be tricked, for the last time of my career, into flying with the latter.

Walking hurriedly down the unlit empty hall toward the ramp access doors, echoes of my foot steps mingled with those of a fountain and a Coke machine empty of drinks with caffeine. Unique to this night, my rush to fly would take me past the historical photos and faded warbird posters that so often stopped me in my tracks. This time instead, I hit the wide metal handles with a thunk and burst onto the tarmac in a trot that could’ve easily been mistaken as excitement. Then I saw the other pilot.

“NOOOOO! YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!” I thought to myself. Just days earlier the chief pilot and I had come to an agreement and I had been pretty sure he understood that “Make sure I don’t fly with that idiot again” meant that he should never ever schedule me to fly with “the company crazy” ever again. You know the type; right? Every company has one.

The company crazy is far different from the company airhead, cheerleader, or cowboy. Instead the company crazy is all those combined plus pathologically demented; crazy eyes and all. Unfortunately, ours was of the most unpredictable variety. Identifiable to keen observers by their unkempt Marlboro Man mustaches and affinity for chain smoking, members of this sub-species are one level of evolution past a straight jacket and hold a preference for nesting at dirtbag freight operations***. Unfortunately for me, if your plan is to acquire any useful experience, you’re committed to spending some time at the same.

Standing there, feet glued in place, I had a decision to make. Considering the drive to the airport, adding in those fantastic moments with flight service, and deferring to the aviator’s code (*REAL/AIM) I chose to go ahead. One thing a true aviator never does is refuse a flight that would force some other poor bastard to fly with the company crazy. It was with this knowledge that I was able to, with clear conscience, climb upwards toward the cockpit and buckle in.

A few hours later, we were on our way to South Carolina. The first leg, a flight to Buffalo, had been in perfect weather and something I barely managed to get through without an aneurism. The company idiot was the flying pilot on that flight and like so many other crazies before him, he was sure he had found a better way to do everything. Back then, DC-3s had been flying for over sixty years with thousands of different pilots at the wheel and yet Captain Crazy was sure he had figured out things all those before him could not. And since it was smooth sailing that night, I found myself on the receiving end of some bizarre unwanted flight instruction. Thankfully, Captain Crazy also wanted desperately to be accepted by us idiots and so he always swapped legs. This one, the first one through the weather, was therefore mine.

Fully loaded and approaching the Carolinas, what had been a smooth nighttime flight soon gave way to the ups and downs of an approaching weather system. Ahead I could see what flight service had warned me about and decided it best to seek an early heading change. “How about twenty right” I said to Captain Insano to which he replied curtly, “We don’t need it.” Being my first request of the night, I let it go and flew ahead.  Meanwhile, I pondered how I was going to deal with this person of diminished mental capacity.

With the cells growing larger in the windscreens, again I asked for a heading change away from the boiling collection of moisture in our flight path. And once again he refused as he sat there between each puff of his cigarette imagining himself to be a great PhD of the air.  With the ups and downs growing worse, I changed my strategy and asked him to request a block altitude. Having such a large wing span, doing so was practically standard operating procedure in the “three,” but again The Winged Wacko refused. It then became clear he was trying to impress upon me his authority as Captain. What he accomplished instead was proof of his ignorance.

Finally, when it was obvious we were arriving at our last chance to avoid the weather ahead, I keyed the mic to ask for a block altitude and inform the controller we were turning right. Colonel Cuckoo was furious that I had taken it on myself to avoid the storm but in support of my effort, the transmission was followed by the controller’s relaxed late night response “Roger, we were watching to see if you were crazy enough to fly through that stuff.” Unfortunately though, it was too late and the mere graze of this storm rattled my eyes to the point of blindness. Behind me, the sound of cargo slamming repeatedly to the floor inferred loose tie downs and the altitude deviations felt in the seat conveyed I would not want to revisit this cell. Luckily, we were almost to our destination and a short while later, if all went well, we would land safely in South Carolina having only heavy rain and wind to deal with.

On the ground, while palletes of chrome kidney grills were transferred from our plane to the awaiting semi, I made calls and plotted our escape. Out back Major Madness sucked down cigarettes to hide the smell of alcohol, out front the fueler waited for me to remove a sticky cap, and back at home dispatch pushed for us to return. Knowledge gained by experience is hard to ignore but on that night I would do just that; agree with dispatch. I was ready to go home.

Four gallons of oil, three hundred plus gallons of avgas, and what one can only guess as two packs of non-filtered Marlboros later, number one turned to life and we blasted off. All was good but one exception; General Disarray was at the controls.

With the gear in the wells and climb check complete, ten thousand feet and a familiar friend grew closer. Although I had lobbied for a safer lower altitude, Commander Crash insisted on going higher** and as expected wild flashes of lightening illuminated, directly ahead, the cell we had grazed on our way in. Making things more difficult and stressful was the addition of a squall line that appeared out of nowhere. Apparently, our engines had been quiet longer than thought or the storm had advanced quicker that forecast, but whichever it was, we now were flying headfirst into danger with an idiot at the controls.

Working the radios on this leg, I was doing everything I could to “encourage” us toward the weakest point in the line. This meant, among other things, that I listen to other cargo planes in the area, watch the ADF, look for patterns of lightening in the line, and search for less defined clouds. Meanwhile, Sergeant Storm seemed determined to fly direct and although once again I couldn’t figure out why, my goal was to discover a hole in the line and nudge him that way; which I did.

Keying the mic to request a heading I nearly came out of my skin when Captain Chaos screamed “WE DON’T NEED A HEADING!” And so my only option was to make another call to rescind, with one addition, my request. “Sorry center, scratch that heading. Captain says he’s flown through level fives before.” This was then followed by a long pause followed by one of the timeliest transmissions I have ever heard “You’re kidding, right?” This put me in a real bind, as there is something karmically wrong with not spiking a perfect verbal set and so I just said what came to mind “No sir, flying with God himself tonight and I’m guessing he plans to will us home.” “Good,” said the controller, “cause that’s what it’s going to take on that heading.”  When you're lucky enough to stumble upon a good controller, you're always thankful. Having sensed my dilemma, this one had offered up an outside opinion in my effort to sway Captain Jackass toward the one hole in the weather. Unfortunately, it was to no avail. Then came the swells and rain.

I have often pondered the many ways the ocean and sky compare. Growing swells indicate an approaching storm, once you’re so far in the only thing left to do is go it head on, and loosing control in the eye of a storm is disastrous. Well, suffice it to say that at this point we had reached were “so far in,” and at that point I could only hope to live through it.

Surging up and down and caught in the misty surf cast off from the storms, for the second time on this trip I asked for block altitude. Having other things to prove, Captain Duck screamed once more yelling “WE DON’T NEED A BLOCK ALTITUDE!” And so, once again I struggled to place my finger on the mic to rescind my request this time adding “We’ll get back to you.” The controller said “Good luck” as rain hit the windshield.  A small jolt followed, then an eerie calm.

Bump, “Oh boy” I thought. Caaaaalm, jolt, bump bump, “Here it comes” I said to myself. Caaalm, jolt, caaaaaalm, caaaaaalm, caaaaaalm, ba BUMP bump jolt-bang creek bang BANG BANG BABANG!!!! “HOLY HELL!!!” I thought. We had just flown into something fierce and I was left to do nothing but ride it out and wonder what Captain Crazy Eyes would do. Inside the storm the radio was useless due to static, I couldn’t see the instruments, and my hand couldn’t land on the mic if I wanted it to. Deeper in, lightening zipped by with a crackle as the turbulence melted into extreme drafts of up and down. That’s when I turned to look at Captain Cuckoo.

Horrified and completely creeped out at what I saw, Major Marlboro was staring directly at me doing the one thing I did not want to see. Burning a hole in my head with his soulless eyes, Partial Pilot was committing a crime against a basic principle of flight for what was now an obvious reason. This idiot was attempting, in some insane way, to prove he was right and that earlier I did not need that block altitude I had requested. Imagine someone on a rowing machine doing their best to burn fat and that’s what this nut-job was doing. With each extreme draft of up or down, full and immediate opposite elevator was fed in by him to keep us level and on altitude during the one time he should not be doing so. And that's when that moment, THE MOMENT, came to me.

If you’ve never had a near death experience, it may be hard to understand or believe the clarity that overcomes your mind. When it happens things slow down, you give in to the inevitable, and if your have an inquisitive mind like I do, then you might even want to watch how it unfolds. Clear of mind and wanting to see that moment I turned to do just that.

Out of my window, a fifty-seven year old aluminum wing curled up then down like that of a competition sail plane. Up then down, then up then down, then up then down it went with each change in direction bringing the question “would this be the time it folds?” With that question, in my mind I had accepted death with the sense of a corpse in fresh dirt. The thought “So this is what it’s like when you know you’re about to die” glided smoothly across my synapses like a warm hug from a cherished family member.  Meanwhile Captain Crazy was rowing for gold in the workout suggested by the voices in his head. And the suddenly, it was over.

Struggling to pull it together, thoughts emerged from my mind and accelerated in a struggle to catch up with lost time and ATC. We’re alive….wha, what just happened…what the hell…. “143JR Jax center”Where are we?… “143JR Jax center” …. what the hell was he thinking… “143JR this is Jax center?”uh what, what’s our altitude…… “143JR THIS IS JAX CENTER CAN YOU READ!” That sounds like the radio….I’m going to kill this son of a bitch… “143JR THIS IS JAX CENTER, CAN YOU READ THIS?!” “Um yeah, this is 143JR, sorry about that, we lost the radios for a while.” “143JR ARE YOU OK??” “Um uhh yeah we’re ok I think, why?” Asking why was an attempt to play stupid as even when near death your first thought is always to CYA. “Well you’re several thousand feet off altitude and about sixty degrees off course.” “Yeah we went through a bit of a storm back there” “I suppose so. We thought we had lost you…you sure you’re ok…you were out of contact for several minutes and that cell you flew through is producing tornadoes.” “Seriously?” “Yeah seriously” “Uuuuh OK can we get direct to Columbus?” A good radio guy always uses pity in exchange for shortcuts. “Cleared direct.” Long pause…… “You guys are crazy.” He was right about one of us.

After that exchange the cockpit was silent for at least another five minutes as we each collected items from about the cockpit floor. Then Captain Insano says to me “I told you we didn’t need a block altitude.” And that’s when I exploded. “What the hell were you thinking? You’re a complete idiot. And why have you been stalking crew members (yeah he did that)? We’ve seen you hiding in the bushes you know. Do you need therapy? Are you on medication?  How much did you drink before work?” On the other side of the cockpit, Crazy Eyes let go of the yoke, turned at the waist, drew back to swing and it was on. Somewhere in there he got hit with the can (a metal can that holds the plane’s logs) and a fist, and maybe my headset as I attempted to leave a lasting impression on him. As for me, my left arm took two direct hits in the exchange while the old girl flew better than ever toward home with nobody at the controls. Ending as quickly as it started, our in-flight fist fight drew to a close with a stare down from which silence prevailed.

Six months later, having never flown with the company crazy again, I came away with a type rating and a job at a regional airline. One year later so did he. In those days, if you could fog a mirror you could get hired at the regionals. He is proof of that and perhaps so am I. Yet there is one thing I came away with that I am sure he did not. To this day, whenever his airline destroys metal or flesh, I always expect to hear he was at the controls. That’s simply how bad he was.

* REAL/AIM Realistic, Experience based, Aviator Law/AIM, as opposed to the FAR/AIM which is just that, FAR from reality.

** Years ago, when the FAA was on one of its reactionary panic attacks, there was a huge push to avoid windshear.  Along the way, their passion for process and lack of experience ended up convincing a large portion of the flying community that you never want to fly under a storm when in fact this is often the best place to be.

*** No offense to my friends who work at or run such operations.  Dirtbag is said with affection.

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