Monday, July 16, 2012

Sex, Politics, and Religion; Actually It was Just a Job

Twelve and a half years ago, I turned in my Dakota keys for that of a Saab. I had been offered a seat in the jet and yet I took the turboprop because I thought that was more logical. Today nobody would do that and back then I was one of the last.
Things were roaring in the industry at the beginning of 2000 and for whatever reason, I had taken the advice of many people and acquired a spot at one of the regionals. It was so crazy that year that the conversation in the crew room was not of where you would like to go but “where are you going to go?” Seriously, things were moving so fast, people actually thought they would just work at a regional for a year or two and then move wherever they wanted. A few did, most did not.
Myself, I was the oddball. People would ask me the question “Where are you going to go?” and I would answer “Well, if I could go anywhere it would be FedEx or Southwest”. This was always followed by guttural sounds of disgust as the words “I would never work at a low cost airline” or “I would never fly cargo” were spoken to me as if I were from another planet. When things went south after 9-11, those same people got jobs at Southwest and FedEx and I was snubbed. But hey, that’s how it goes for aviators in an industry of pilots.
Oddly, as much as people wanted to move on, the company I worked for was loved by crews. On several instances grown me wept on their last day. One in particular comes to mind because I witnessed it. An old salt at our company, this guy was taking a risk with airline that was new to the world. It was called Jet Blue. Back then, people thought he was crazy too. Today, I imagine he’s in the top 50 at that marvelous company. Sadly though, today nobody cries when they leave.
After living through one of the most insulting interviews ever at FedEx, never being called by Southwest, and turning down a job offer at Continental, today I found myself flying my last flight at the same company I expected to leave long ago. Admittedly, there was a time things were so good it was easy to consider staying. Yet like so many other places, it has now become a cesspool of union vs. executive rhetoric dressed as concern for the little guy. That is why last year I began to consider my options. A few months later I was in “the pool” at a great place and expecting a call within a month. Eight came and went.
Then came a day that felt like bottom. Running into a good friend in the crew room, he asked “Weren’t you supposed to leave long ago?” I was and although he was joking, and I often joked about my thousand yard stare, for some reason at that moment it resonated with reality. As the day progressed, things got worse. Everything that could go wrong did and everywhere I looked it seemed was a message for me, “Get out, get out now, RUUUNNNN!” Yes, it was one of those days when a person knows they no longer belong and can no longer hide it in the back of their mind. I think everyone has been there for something and it’s a miserable feeling. Fortunately, it almost always is followed by a positive but I couldn’t find it.
Weather delays, reroutes, and a controller who couldn’t get anything right chose to pick on us as if we were to blame. Some places are known for cranky controllers looking for a fight and on that day we would pass through one such wedding cake three times. That’s how we ended up briefly accused of doing something wrong. When you forget your assigned speed, turn the wrong direction, and forget to hit “NAV”, among other things, being called out is helpful because you actually did them and you can correct them. When you’ve done everything right that’s a different story. Unfortunately, the pilot is always assumed to be the wrench in the gear. It’s so bad at times that I occasionally find myself expecting to be corrected by the restroom concierge for dressing the wrong direction. It’s maddening. The FAA’s cultivation of an us vs. them mentality has removed many of the common sense methods that once made things work and replaced them with procedures. Therefore, at fault or not, pilots often end up filling out senseless paperwork merely for the purpose of heading off senseless attacks created by poorly thought out procedures; in this case, a standard arrival and an RNAV arrival that are nearly identical.
Pecking away on the computer at the end of a terrible day, filling out forms that I never fill out (for many reasons), thinking of how I would rather be anywhere else, and that I would never be called, I found myself at the punch line. All of these “programs” have them. What’s the punch line of a safety program? Well, it’s the point where they offer you the chance to offer solutions. It’s a punch line because it’s a joke. Only there to make it appear they care what you have to say, it’s the one place where pilots get to have fun because nobody is going to read them anyway. Yet, as the letters on the screen added up, once again I found myself the victim of optimism “…and having researched this on the web, I have found a large number of identical issues reported. If you want a fix this once and for all, change one of the arriv” RIIING. Grabbing my phone like I was jerking a knot in it, I looked to see a strange number. Ordinarily I would never answer an unknown number but being at the point of not really giving a shit I did.  How bad could it be? At the very worst it could be someone telling me my house had been hit by a tornado Yep, it was a bad day and this solicitor chose the wrong person to call.
Wrestling the screen with my thumb, I tapped it and answered with an I’m having a bad day and why the hell are you calling me “YEAH?” On the other end, the poor guy asked sheepishly “Is this Rich Davidson, I’m calling from _____”. HA!  Moments earlier I had decided this call would never come and now like a dealer offering a hit of something I'd almost escaped, the guy on the phone offered what I wanted; international cargo.
One week later I would fly my last flight at my third commercial aviation job. Thinking it through, it felt shameful to have stayed twelve years; a lifetime wasted. Then I noticed a DC-3 sitting neglected by the runway. Just before the same twelve years, I was hauling freight in such a plane and often crossed paths with that very machine. During nights encrusted with ten carat hail and haunted by the soundtrack of radials, her crew and ours would swap stories of leaks in the cockpit and lightning on the horizon. In short, I was moving cargo.  Now, ONLY twelve years later, I find myself about to do the same in 747’s.
Notes about twelve years of life: You would think that after twelve years at a company, I would be a little sad to leave. I was not. In fact, it had become so bad that long ago I disassociated and now it is as if it never happened. How anyone could take something as amazing as aviation and turn it so miserable is beyond me. I believe the reasons are many but I will not go into them. Instead, I would like to discuss the one good thing about the job; all the wonderful people I met.
Along the way I met some of the most well known people in the world, several of the most powerful politicians, and even a few legendary business people. Yet it was the other people I’ll never forget. The stories are amazing and too varied to cover here. But, I’ll try.
I will never forget the pilots from other airlines who were trying to get home for one reason or another. One guy needed a jumpseat because someone important to him had been killed and another witnessed me do something colossally stupid and then turned to genuinely suggest I considered applying to his very successful airline; he was an assistant chief pilot and he claimed he had always wanted to do what I did. There are all the exhausted crew members who fell asleep hanging from the harnesses of an uncomfortable jumpseat and those who allowed me to do the same in theirs. Some of them had been at work too long, some had so much going on that was the only time they had to sleep, and others, like me, merely fall asleep as soon as they set down in any airplane they aren’t flying.
I will never forget the soldier I flew home. It was the last leg of a journey from a hospital overseas and I ended up waiting and talking with him while a wheelchair made its way to the airplane. “What got you” I asked. “An IED Sir”. “Are you doing ok?” I asked. “Yes sir, I have a plate in my head, lost a large percentage of several organs, there’s nerve damage, still some shrapnel, and many bones pinned together. I should be ok but I do have nightmares”. As he told me these things I got the distinct impression nobody else had asked. He was young and he was a great man. I also got to fly a German Sheppard to his new home in Milwaukee. This dog was nationally famous. He had been a soldier in Iraq and a human soldier had fought hard for the right to save and bring him home. And of course there was the family who wanted their son’s ashes to ride in a special place on the way home. I obliged without question; where that was is between them and me.  And of course there was the Medal of Honor winner I met in line at Chik-fil-A.  When I saw his cap and the Flying Tigers symbol, I had to ask if he had won the award.  That led to a convesation about how he was one of the first Flying Tigers, how he made his way to China, and many other things.  He was in a wheelchair and too soon he had to go catch his flight.  He was heading home from what he said would likely be the last reunion.  A month later I read he had died.
Along the way I flew under the colors of TWA, United, Delta, American, US Air, Continental, America West, Frontier, and some other company I can’t remember right now. Continental is well known in pet circles for its relatively good treatment of animals. Before I go any further, allow me to ask you to please never ship an animal on an airline. It is cruel even under the best circumstances. Even if they are treated well, the environment is extremely stressful for them. Now, that’s I’ve spoken my peace, here’s to all the little cats and dogs and even birds that I took time to walk back and hold, scratch their heads, or talk to. I could tell it made them feel better and it was always the highlight of any day.
The people I worked with were great; a truly wonderful bunch. There was the female whose basic flying skills were consistently better than all others, the guy who was easily the best FO anyone will ever have, and one good friend who was one of the first Captains I flew with. Many wonderful crew members moved on, upgraded, got married, had kids, and even told the industry to go suck it so they could go home to be with their families (my personal heroes). Several of the people I hope to talk to on the phone when I am old and gray(er) were FO’s when I first met them. One of them is the most loyal person I’ve ever known, one prefers farming to flying, another has truck loads of weaponry, and the others stand out because they are quite normal; an oddity in aviation.
Many of the Flight Attendants I flew with were surprisingly wonderful and I wish them the best. One was the life of the party and she ended up running off to marry some Southwest pilot; go figure (party/Southwest). Another FA showed up to help us clean up after the tornado. She too was a lot of fun with an equally good heart and a great sense of humor. Oh there are so many more. I wish you were paid better.
Outside of the crews, I have actually come to know several van drivers, lav cleaners, tug drivers, front desk employees, restaurant employees, and a few janitors by name. When we first met, I’m sure some of them probably thought I was strange for asking them about their lives but eventually they realized I was just being friendly. I’ll miss them and I wish them the best because I’ll likely never see them again and I won’t be there to ask them if they got it.
As for people that I will never forgive and a few who will always be slimebags to me, there is Captain K and First Office W who bumped me and my uncle off a flight to DC over 175lbs of gas. My uncle was in Europe during WWII and he really wanted to see the WWII memorial. Instead of taxiing out and sitting for five minutes to burn off that gas that was nothing but extra, you bumped us off. I hope you both find a little perspective and though I know you don’t care, I’ll never forgive either of you for what you pulled that day. When it comes to slimy there is the guy who punched a Flight Attendant in the stomach when she shot him down. He went to Air Tran and is now at Southwest. And of course there is the guy who got a flight attendant pregnant and then refused to talk to her about it. When I asked him why, he said “Having a kid would be a real inconvenience for me right now”. I have no idea how I got out of that plane without killing that worthless asshole but I made sure everyone knew what a dirtbag he was; especially the flight attendants.
For the few of you guys that once were friends until you became check airmen and lost all perspective and memory of your time in the seat, I expect it to happen to politicians but not to you. I sat with one of you as a new hire on your initial landings and you F’d everything up. We all F things up and you need to remember that. Safety does not make proficiency, proficiency makes safety. It really is that simple.  You're there to make pilots better; not to make yourself look good.
My last crew: David Kuzman and Rebecca Rogers, thanks for being the way I had hoped you would; relaxed and going about the day as usual. Dave married one of our previous flight attendants (Nicolette) and they recently found out she was pregnant. I am very happy for them. Good people should have kids and I wish them the best (I think Eldon would be a great name if they have a boy). Dave has always been on my short list of good people to fly with I hope he gets his upgrade soon. He will do a great job. And as for Rebecca, I had never met her until yesterday but she’ll do well. She’s got a great smile and a great attitude and she fits right in with the SDF gang. Thanks for an uneventful day. I’ve included a photo of the sunset we saw on the way home. I think it is appropriate. The setting of one day always precludes the rise of a new one.
Here a few stories from this job. Some of you will get them and some of you will wonder what that was all about.  It on the Saab and ended on the ERJ.
OK here goes:
*I’ll never forget all the members of the memo club. You earned it well and I am proud to call you a fellow member. Some of you gained as many as three stars.
*Safety card surfing. How did we do that without getting hurt?
*The giant bull outside our hotel in Toronto and everyone that rode it in one way or another.
*The reason our windows froze over on rotation during a snowstorm and how the Captain kept yelling “Make it fly Richie, MAKE IT FLY”.
*The tornado I saw out the right window after making a 180 degree turn to the right. Think about that one.
*The way we completely shut down Cincinnati airport for three hours and didn’t know it because we were in the Outback restaurant eating.
*Neither pilot having the charts.
*Crewmembers flying in the lav.
*Running cover for a first officer who had two women visiting him in the same hotel at one time. In my defense, I was running cover to keep the day from turning into a disaster for everyone involved.
*The FO who thought he was “the one” when a flight attendant messaged him about hooking up. Right next to him on the van another guy got the same message.
*The fact I was never called in front of the Chief Pilot for ________.
*You realize you used the F-word four times in one sentence.
*The Carmex Conspiracy that supposedly almost killed a thousand people on a fifty seat aircraft.
*Static Man – I honestly can’t believe you fell for that.
*Jumping out of the cargo compartment after landing and scaring the all female ramper crew in Waterloo, Iowa.
*Getting out of sequence for take off by accident (yeah right).
*Racing Air Tran to the runway as ground calmly said “And down the stretch”.
*Telling Houston Departure the reason for our go-around.
*Teaching new flight attendants to do stupid stuff so the next crew would think they’re crazy.
*The bar in Toronto that had photos of our pilots on the wall.
*One extremely backed up day with planes sitting everywhere a friend who was once a controller and now an FO called metering while we were backing off the gate: As soon as the engines started “Banana 3214, cleared onto the runway, back taxi full length, cleared for take-off.”
*The airplane that flew funny and we refused to fly it.
*The reason our Flight Attendant's manuals read “underwear” under the heading of “required uniform items”.
*Me to FO, “What are you working on?” FO to me, “Well, I’ve got to get these wedding present thank you cards done, sent, and to everyone before they find out we’re getting divorced”.
*The failing pilot’s seatback that had been written up 11 times in 8 different places and signed off by five company maintenance managers as fixed on six different occasions. My write-up, intended to put an end to it, was three and a half pages long. To this day I still have the message the Chief Pilot left on my phone.
*The first time my brother flew into LGA with Comair was the same day I had finished training at the company where I would spend 12 years of my life. I had been in the sim in LGA and was scheduled to commute from LGA to CVG then home. My life has had an amazing run of coincidences like this. I finished training and got a free ride home from my brother.
*Listening to Potomac Approach for the double-dog secret password neither of us had. Our government really is that stupid.
*Learning my Pakistani sim partner had been in the country illegally and working for us with apparently no background check. We found out after 9-11 and only because he was a jerk to Canadian Customs as he was trying to get back in.
*Running down a TSA Agent who had against protocol boarded our plane and then walked off across the ramp and then him telling me he could legally kill me for grabbing him and or make it so I never worked again. This is the face of our government.
*The Flight Attendant who would take all the alcohol on the airplane. Later she ended up working for the TSA.
*“Idabout ayyohclock”. This was the funniest thing I think I ever witnessed. I wish I could tell you what it’s about as it too involves the alcoholic TSA agent.
I better stop. There are so many more.

Airlines whose colors I flew under:
TWA; I miss those guys and gals. We used to joke “If you meet two pilots in the airport in St. Louis, how can you tell which one flew for American and which for TWA”? The answer was, of course, “The TWA guy will smile and say hello”. TWA was the last legend standing and several of its crew members, pilots and flight attendants, were my first crashpad roomies. I will never forget them and their stories of how “it used to be”. Damn they were off the charts. Best descriptor: St. Louis misses them.
American; I have only known three of their pilots that didn’t have mustaches. All three were great guys. As for their culture, hmmmm, well I know they taxi slower than grass grows; never understood that. Maybe if they moved faster they’d make more money? Yet, despite the days they spent on my front bumper, and despite the fact TWA would have been a better combined name, I wish them all the best. Oh, they also have a sub-airline called American Eagle that is known to the many in the industry as The Hitler Youth. Personally, I don’t like that name. They’re too old to be “youth”. Best descriptor: Pressed uniforms right down to the hats.
United; I know a few absolutely wonderful guys who fly for United. That said, United has screwed them all. Best descriptor: Four people standing, one working.
Continental; had what was likely the best operation in the US until it was merged with United. Everyone hoped Continental ways would cross over but I fear the opposite is happening. Good luck guys and gals. Best descriptor: We were the rollout customer for the 787 until someone conned us into going with the name UNITED. Where is that person so we can beat him?
America West; Remember them? They were a cool company until Airways happened. Now they are merely a call sign. Best descriptor: We had Bart Simpson on our planes.
US Airways; The perpetual fall back for prom night and the ongoing center of a silly rumor that it’s the place to be in the long term. Best descriptor: Are you lonely? Just call 1-900 1HookUp and I’ll make all your troubles go away.
Delta; five years ago they had the best operation going; five years ago. Now we can only wait and see. Best descriptor: Remember service? So do we and we hope to get it back.
Frontier; Little known fact: This is the very first airline I ever flew on. I think I was twelve. Anyway, I know a great guy at Frontier who escaped one scary place to go there only to see Frontier acquired by the same scary place. I wish the best for Frontier only because I hope my friend gets what he deserves; the best. Best descriptor: We’re that sucking sound Republic pilots hear in their sleep.

My biggest regret - Ginger never once flew with me at work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am both happy and sad to see you go. Happy your getting out of this mess, sad I won't get to bump into you on the line. I won't forget you coming to congratulate me on my upgrade in CVG, that ment a lot. Best wishes at your new company. I'll catch up with you for hamburger in September.