I rolled my suitcase over the entry door hump, unhooked my flight bag from its strap and heaved it in one swift motion onto my left-hand seat in the cockpit of a rapidly aging MD-88. My suitcase went into the cockpit coat closet and like a good pilot, I strapped it in using the canvas webbing.
I got two newspapers from the pilot's lounge, a three-week-old Newsweek I found in the snack bar and yesterday's USA Today crossword a Monday version that is bound to be easy...
"Word is," said my co-pilot Bob, who was sitting to the right side of the pedestal, "that you were seen buying a newspaper last week just outside the B Concourse Starbucks at Hartsfield. If that is true, I'm sure you'll understand that we'll have to throw you out of ALPA for non-pilot behavior."
Perish the thought. Buying a newspaper, and let's not start off this trip by calling USA Today a real "newspaper," goes against everything this tightwad captain holds dear. If none of the people in the back leave one, or I can't steal it from a lounge or a trash can, I don't read it.
"Anything to drink?" asked Chantal, today's head flight attendant, who looked around the corner from the forward galley. "Have you guys heard about the new security procedures the media thinks we are doing? We're not really supposed to pat-down the fat passengers, are we?"
Coffee, two sugars, some artificial cream. Bob wants his black.
"We have real milk," Chantal said.
Never use the stuff. Cows excrete it.
While Chantal goes to the galley to make sure we are beveraged, and before we commit a flagrant act of aviation and become airborne, maybe I ought to give you my pre-pushback briefing so you can lower your standards and relax a little bit...
"Were you saying something?" Bob asked as he looked up from reading the latest edition of Don't Die When You Fly, our company's flight safety magazine. "I was just reading this fascinating article written by some management wannabe line check pilot, titled 'Hitting Mountains is Bad for Safety.' I think he is the same guy that wrote last winter's safety epic, 'Ice Sucks.'"
I was saying, Bob, that in my cockpit we have very few rules. The first rule I have always used from the first day I was a captain, way back in the "brown hair days" is a simple one: Whoever is the most scared wins. This means that if I'm about to fly into the growling maw of a black and deadly thunderstorm, perhaps because I am in the middle of an senior moment, or maybe because I have my head down tuning the ADF to an oldies station, all you have to do is tell me or show me how scared you are by shrieking for example and we won't do it.
On the other hand, if while you are just about to land you hear me suck in a quick breath, you might want to begin your flare.
Rule two: This is a two-man, or to be more politically correct, a two-person aircraft. The simple truth is that we're both going to miss things, like you just did when you didn't put the pressurization back into auto after testing it a moment ago. The rule here is: Whoever gets to it first gets to it first. No lectures, no dirty looks, no NTSB hearings. If you see I missed it, just fix it.
Another standard operating procedure I follow is that if something is work or is tedious and time-consuming, like engine logs or one of those annoying company position reports, just assume that you are going to do it. Don't even ask. This frees me up to think deep captain thoughts and discern the answer for fifteen down on the crossword that I constantly have in hand to keep my brain limber.
The next rule I've had for a long time is the one that says we have to maintain a very low level of tension around here so we will have all kinds of energy if something really goes wrong. Too many captains I flew with way back in the ancient 1970s and 80s spent so much time being uptight that when something really went wrong they were totally useless.
You don't want to have a V-1 cut when you are obsessing about some petty thing like whether or not our shoes are shined properly. At worst, you'll enter the afterlife all tense if things go bad and at best you may save the airplane and have clean shoes, but I guarantee you that after a for-real low-level uncontained engine failure other parts of our uniforms will be soiled.
Finally, from time to time I will borrow money for motel limousine tips or perhaps dinner. A buck here, a buck there. Don't embarrass me by asking for it back. It will just upset me and spoil our relationship. Also, occasionally I may tell another captain that I think you can beat up his co-pilot. I don't really expect you to fight the other co-pilot, unless, of course, you think you can take him.
"I'm sorry" Bob said, "I was listening to the ATIS, did you say anything important?"
"One coffee, 'wimpy,'" said Chantal as she handed me the lidded Styrofoam cup, "and one 'beautiful'. Have you guys figured out how to use this security bar?" she said as she looked over her shoulder at the red metal thing hanging near the coat closet.
Ah, you mean "the bar of doom"? I have lots of things to say about that, and lucky for us we have some time before pushback so I can get them all in.
The security device you are gazing at, Chantal, is the latest in aviation safety equipment. It is red, denoting a certain amount of urgency. Red; the color of fire trucks, cocktail waitress lipstick, and also the color of the ink our company has been bleeding since September 11. The bar is metal, it is strong, and it is bulletproof. It is the only part of the door or cockpit that is, so I fervently hope if somebody opens fire on us from the cabin that they hit it and not us. Bulletproof doors are on the way, I'm told, and not a moment too soon.
The bar locks us away from terrorists, which is nice, but also locks us away from rescue workers, which, in the event of a crash, is not nice.
It is the first step in what many consider the defense of the cockpit. I'm very much for having a safe cockpit. Hopefully, one with my own bathroom so I don't have to go through all the security procedures now necessary for me to "drain the main." One of the reasons I picked transport aircraft when I was younger instead of single-seat supersonic missile movers was because the transports had potties and my bladder has the same restricted capacity as the imagination of an airline executive.
One thing I'm not in favor of is giving me a gun. As much as I'd like to shoot some of our more unruly passengers, I'm really not trained for it and I have to wonder what would happen if I make a mistake.
Let's say I think somebody is rushing the cockpit during a flight and I turn in my seat, unholster my Walther PPK and squeeze off a few rounds. I would, most likely, shoot the CEO of a major corporation who is sitting in first class picking out a gift for his wife or girlfriend out of our overpriced catalog. My bullet misses the evildoer and drills Trey, or Biff, or whatever his moniker is, right between his Harvard MBA educated eyes. A simple mistake, to be sure, but I'd be willing to bet there would be a lawsuit somewhere in my future if that were to happen.
Also, I personally think I am dangerous enough in an airplane without being armed and I'm sure that thousands of my passengers would agree with me.
I think we should hire all the pilots we've recently furloughed back as in-flight security guards. They already know about airplanes and would probably enjoy carrying some sort of automatic weapon on board. The "sky seal," as I like to call him or her, would sit on the forward flight attendant jump seat the one in the front that faces the passengers with an AK-47 across his or her lap. That would deter most evildoers and since our new security guards have been unemployed, they'd have no money for tort lawyers to take should they accidentally "off" a Vice President of Sales or two...
"Hey cockpit," came a voice on the intercom from the tug driver, "the wings are clear, can we have hydraulics to lift the stairs and can we pull the external power?"
I looked over at Bob, testing my rule about tedious work and with a shrug, he answered the tug driver and turned on the hydraulic pumps. A loud whine came from the back of our MD-88 as the hydraulic pump started, the back air stairs came up and our drooping hydraulic wing flaps stopped drooping. Had a gear door been left open it would have immediately sucked itself up to the fuselage. That is why we always "clear the wings" before turning on the pumps. A mechanic could get killed if he was in the wrong place when the hydraulics were turned on. As a matter of fact, this has happened from time to time, mostly on 727s that have those deadly leading-edge Kruger flaps.
"I left a Hazmat form on your jump seat," the tug driver continued, "It is for twelve cases of butane cigarette lighters, they are already loaded in bin two and we're hoping you'll take them."
Not this time. It would be safer to carry TNT, which I've done and I'll tell you all about later, Bob. For now, will you tell the tug guy "no," please?
That Hazmat form brings up a whole 'nuther part of this security circus. We're patting down passengers, yelling at employees for bringing fingernail files to work and are searching carry-ons for plastic knives but we are still throwing unscanned bags into the bin underneath. We also carry dead bodies in big coffins (unsearched), boxes of chemicals and sometimes thousands of baby chickens, frogs and mice. Just imagine the security fun if ten thousand baby chicks break out and get into everything.
"I thought they are scanning all the checked baggage and cargo just like the carryon stuff," said Chantal.
"Some places they are, some places they aren't," Bob chimed in as he wrote "rejected" on the Hazmat form and handed it over to the agent at the cockpit door who was trying to hand "final paperwork" to me over Chantal's shoulder. Bob then turned his attention to finishing up programming the FMS for our flight. It was my leg and I should have done it but I think I've already mentioned rule four...
Ah, a plane flies a forest dies. Weight and balance sheets, the dispatch release form, final weather, the fuel slip, the security briefing sheet. Where would the airline world be if we didn't kill a stand of trees every time we aviated? In a perverse sort of way, when you think about it, killing all those trees removes obstacles to safe flight. Why, I flew right into a tree once...
"Okay, see you later," said the agent, interrupting what was going to be a great flying story. She slammed the forward entry door, putting us on the clock paywize and me in command of my very own subsonic people mover.
Before-start checklist, Bob. Let's push-back and see what this baby can do!
|With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.|