CEO of the Cockpit #29: My Talk with the Tent People

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How can you give a talk to pilots who know a lot more about flying than you do? One way is not to talk. But when confronted with a receptive audience, AVweb's CEO talked about what he knows: flying airliners and being a good airline captain.

I was in a tent and it was raining, but at least it was warm. Standing behind a plywood podium in a "forum tent" at a recent Florida Fly-In, I had been invited to give a little talk to the experimental airplane crowd on what airline flying was really like.

I was more than a little overwhelmed with the task before me. After all, these guys I was addressing have probably forgotten more basic aviation stuff than I can remember. These are the people in our society who can look at a big pile of tubular metal, fabric, and random engine parts that others would throw away and say to themselves, "You know, this would make a bitchin' two-thirds-scale, flyable replica of a P-51 ... "

Telling these people about flying and pretending I know more about the subject would be more presumptive than if I tried to discuss painkiller abuse with Limbaugh or drinking with a Senator named Kennedy.

Still, I had 52 minutes to fill between the corn roast and the afternoon's air show, so I knew it was time to start my talk. I cleared my throat and said:

That's about it -- any questions?

Even Wild Ones Grow Up

A man wearing a ball cap with his airplane's N-number on the front got up and said, "Hey, I remember you ... weren't you that fuzzy-faced kid that used to be a lineboy around here back in the 70s? Are you still smoking those hand-rolled cigarettes? And how in the name of all that is holy did you manage to get an airline job?

You are right, my grizzled, polyester-clad aviation brother. I was a lineboy here back in the ancient 70s. It was a time of learning. A time of new discoveries, practicing how to roll my own cigarettes using Zig-Zags, pipe tobacco and spit. To answer your second question, I have no idea how I got hired and am as shocked and appalled as you are.

As I looked into his disbelieving eyes I remembered him and understood his shock at the fact that I had found full-time employment as a pilot. Way back in the 1970s, he flew into our airport one day in his Bonanza. I ran out onto the ramp to park him. I was wearing my bright orange jumpsuit, had hair down to my shoulders and was sporting a fu-man-chu mustache. Dangling from my cynical teenage lips was one of those hand-rolled smokes.

I crossed my arms to get him to stop and after kicking two chocks under his nose tire, went up to his door as he got out, to ask him for his fuel order.

He took a good long look at me, noting what he had to believe was a joint and my general appearance. He shook his head and handed me a crisp five-dollar bill.

"Here kid," he said. Don't come within 50 yards of my airplane, okay?"

Now, here I am, years later, standing before him and others pretending I know more about flying than they do. I am much grayer in the hair department and I've lost both the fu-man-chu and the penchant for smoking, but to him I'm still the 18-year-old he shooed away from his plane.

Days Of Glamour Are Gone

Another member of the audience chimed in.

"Isn't all that airline flying nothing but a bunch of button pushing, girl chasing, drinking, and featherbedding?" he asked.

Well, I have to admit that flying the 767 does entail an awful lot of button pushing, dial turning, seat adjusting and bottled-water drinking. The girl-chasing part I really don't know much about. I've been married for quite a long time and came up with a policy on that subject at the beginning of my airline career.

"What do you mean?" they guy asked.

When I was a flight engineer, I saw a lot of captains and copilots back then having affairs, playing around and getting divorces, and they all had one thing in common: They were broke. Then an old captain who I respected gave me the best financial advice (and personal advice for that matter) that I've ever gotten in a Holiday Inn bar. He said, "Son, you are already married. Don't buy any more women any more houses and you'll be fine."

Since that day, I've always figured that any flight attendant with weak enough morals to have an affair with me had standards that were way too low, and I didn't want to buy any more houses for anybody. I like the one I live in now and it's almost paid for. Not that I haven't been tempted from time to time over the years.

Now that I'm considered a "senior captain" by virtue of my paunch and thinning gray hair, it is a moot point anyway. Years ago I stopped looking on young flight attendants as potential conquests and began looking on them as more like my daughters.

Dropping the Dump Truck

Finally, a question about flying came up when a person in the back of the tent wearing a Pratt and Whitney belt buckle got up and asked, "What's it like to land a 767?"

Landing a 767 is just like landing a Cessna 172, except the wings are on the bottom, you are going a hundred knots faster at touchdown, and the main-gear tires are about a hundred feet further back.

On a good weather day it really is easier to land a 767 than a Skyhawk. It is the bad days -- when the Cessna's are all tied down (or should be tied down) -- that it gets a little more difficult to put the "dump truck" (as we call the 767-200) firmly on the ground.

Because we tend to fly in all kinds of weather, a normal year flying the 767 is bound to have its share of wind shears, thunderstorms, heavy loads of ice, and big-time crosswinds. Even though theoretically nobody is supposed to take off or land when the tower is talking about 15-knot-loss wind shears, it is done all of the time.

Once you get used to the size of the 767 you get spoiled by all of the goodies it has to offer. Autobrakes are really neat, especially on the heavy-crosswind-wind-shear days when you are looking busier than a monkey fornicating with a football just getting the thing on the ground. The autobrakes work great and stop you "Long time, G.I. "

For some reason, flying a plane like the 767 with its wing-mounted engines makes for easier landings than airliners like the 727 and DC-9s with their tail-mounted motors. Also, having four main tires on each side makes for smoother touch-downs.

Autopilot and Autoland

The radio altimeter has a voice feature that calls out the last 50 feet in 10-foot increments. When you hear "Bruce" call out "50," you should be starting to think about flaring. By the time he gets through "30, 20," and on to "10" you better have the nose up a little. Then you just roll it on, keep it on the centerline and get the thrust reversers going. The spoilers will extend themselves and I've already told you about the brakes.

The 767 will do a fairly decent autoland as well. I flew the MD-88 for 10 years and the only time we'd autoland that thing was when we had to during Category III operations. The "Long Beach Death Tube" (as we called the MD-88) did a passable job landing but not an especially nice one. The 767 lands just fine but if you want the very best in autolandings, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Boeing 777.

The best autoland I ever sat though was a few years back in a 777 arriving in Manchester, England. For some reason, every time I landed in Manchester, it was raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. Even with the heavy rain and high winds, the 777 sat itself down on the runway like a feather.

To answer your next question before you ask it: Yes, we do use the auto flight systems an awful lot on the 767. It is fun to hand fly the airplane but for your five- and six-hour legs there is nothing like a good auto flight system hooked up to a great FMS.

The Tricky Topic of Takehome Pay

In the second row just to the side of a huge tent pole a questioner with a sort of angry look about him got up and asked the question I had been expecting the whole hour.

"How do you feel about all the pay cuts that airline pilots have taken this past couple of years? Why are you guys so greedy? I work in the insurance business and would do your job for free and yet you get paid all this money. What's up with that?"

In the flying business, ever since I've been in it anyway, there have always been people saying what you just said. From your perspective, it probably makes some sort of sense and I understand your anger. To answer your question let me tell you a true story.

In the town where I went to college and flew as a corporate pilot and flight instructor there was this older guy who flew a King Air for a trucking company. It was absolutely the best corporate flying job in town. Once, as a joke, we CFIs at the local FBO started a rumor that this guy had just come down with a heart ailment and had to retire. He came in the very next day and told us to quit it; a dozen or more pilots had come into his company's office after his job ... many of them offering to fly for free, just for the "experience."

Flying is a profession, at least to me. Not a lark or something done just for the pure joy of it, even though it does contain more than its share of joy. Like any job, people who fly for a living, whether it is Cessna 150s or 767s, like being paid for what they do.

I've enjoyed making a good living flying airliners and I have nothing to apologize for anymore than you owe us an apology for what you make in the insurance business. Any time you are asked for a huge 30 percent (or more) cut in pay because your bosses need to "get their costs in line," you need to think a little bit about it and maybe question their paying the last boss $16 million just to go away.

The Grass and The Greenbacks are Greener

Here's the thing. Everybody thinks everybody else has it better. I'm sure that people working outdoors in the rain look in your insurance office and think, "Wow, that guy sure is overpaid for just sitting at that desk all day." Thinking that way is just human nature.

The only difference, I guess, between people who think like that and me is that I don't think that way. There is nobody who I envy for their job. I have the best job there is. I get to fly huge jets around for a living. Even if I flew banner towers again like I did when I was younger or had to clean airplane toilets like I did when I was even younger and smoked my own hand-rolled cigs, I'd be happy.

It had stopped raining. I suspect the weather was the real reason I had such a large audience for my talk because they began to file out into the sunlight leaving me with my sweat-soaked shirt, cold coffee and three guys who remembered me from my lineboy days and wanted me to buy them a beer.