CEO of the Cockpit #42: BUFFs and Buggy Whips

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AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit lost a buddy this month -- not to death but to retirement. Distance and personality type usually mean pilots don't see each other once the goodbye party is over. But at that party -- everybody wants to outdo each other with stories of '... When I was a junior co-pilot ...'

Retirement parties, like funerals, get more plentiful as your life and career nears their respective ends. Much like funerals, these retirement fetes are sometimes the last opportunity to pay last respects to old friends.

Leaving the airline almost always means literally leaving your flying friends. This is because a major airline's flight crews are usually made up of individuals who have very private lives outside of the company. Also, because of the uncertainty of our professional lives, most of us commute. It is hard to visit your buddy who commutes from Seattle when you commute from Miami.

My friend and classmate, Jeff, had finally thrown in the seatbelt napkin and was going off to Wisconsin for a retirement life of float fishing, float flying, and beer drinking. For those of you not in the know, by "seatbelt napkin" I'm referring to that age-old Boeing 727 custom of getting a linen napkin to put between the huge seatbelt buckle and your pants. If you get in the habit of doing this, you can add years to the lives of your uniform pants and keep your fly area from getting shiny.

Party in the Hospitality Suite

Jeff's 767 had pulled into the gate hours ago and we were now deep into the reception part of the party in a nondescript hotel meeting room. Open bar, chicken wings and 50 or 60 aging pilots and wives. Not a bad mix. About two of us still had wife number one, but most guys were on number two or three. Buying random women houses is an unfortunate side effect of being an airline pilot.

Our big round table near the back was staffed by five pilots, two wives and one significant other. You might imagine the conversation would center on how unfortunate it was that most of us were retiring very early because of the sorry state of the airline piloting profession, but we had already had that conversation hundreds of times in hundreds of airborne cockpits. What we were looking for was a little perspective, some good stories and something enjoyable that most of us would very soon miss.

Having been out sick for almost a year once, I already know what that "something enjoyable" is: Hanging out with other airline crews and drinking beer in various motel lobby bars. I know that sounds cheap and tawdry and I should talk about missing the joy of flying or maybe the joy of serving the tank-top wearing flying public, but that would be a lie.

When you retire you don't give up the joy of flying. Any retired pilot can afford a Cessna 150 or Citabria and, trust me, that is way more joyous than a 767 at 4 a.m. in turbulence. As to the joy of serving the flying public, you'd have to refer to earlier, more caustic and cynical episodes to understand my attitude on that subject.

The NDB Dinosaur

That our little world was changing was undeniable. A recent news story was a good indication of that. Matt, who was a chair away from our now pretty inebriated guest of honor, was the one who brought it up.

"They are doing away with over 500 NDB approaches," he began. "Wow; that has to be the least important news I've heard all year. I can't remember the last time I actually shot a real NDB approach with a real ADF."

Chuck, who was on the other side of the table with Jeff in-between, chimed in: "It was in 1990 in Baton Rouge in the rain in an old DC-9. I missed twice and had to fly to New Orleans and quit for the night."

That was you? I couldn't believe it -- I was the guy who was rerouted from a very nice Baton Rouge layover at 3 a.m.. They put us in a taxi and we drove to New Orleans to pick up your plane and fly it back to Baton Rouge.

"How did you get in when I didn't?" Chuck asked.

The way I got in was that I noticed they had an ASR approach to the same runway and I asked the sleepy controller for a surveillance approach. Nobody should fly a jet at night in the rain depending on an NDB approach when radar is available.

I honestly can't remember the last no-kidding NDB approach I've done in any airplane. The ones they are getting rid of are overlapping other approaches -- most likely ILSs anyway -- so it is no big loss.

Maybe the remaining NDB approaches will become the buggy whips of the instrument flying world. Buggy whips are always brought up in not-very-well-thought-out diatribes about the world moving on.

Some slick-haired movie star says that everybody bought buggy-whip stock and then nobody needed buggy whips. The truth is that I own a barn with driving horses in Kentucky and we own about a hundred buggy whips. Not only are buggy whip companies doing very well, their prices keep going up.

If you've been around any profession for a number of years you are bound to see quite a few things you took for granted at the beginning change before you get to the end. Most of us at the table aren't quite at our end yet but we can certainly feel the rumble strips beneath our tires telling us we are getting close.

Real Pilots Need More Engines

The subject was taken up by Jeff, who was half in the bag and all the way into the conversation.

"When I started out, multi-engine meant a whole butt-load of engines," he began. "When I was flying the 'BUFF' we always said that 'eight was enough' -- now people think that two engines is a lot of motors. Hell, two engines couldn't even taxi the BUFF."

For your non-Air-Force types, BUFF stands for: "Big, Ugly Fat F'er." Please don't confuse this with the Boeing 737, which has earned the name FLUFF for "Fat Little Ugly F'er."

Jeff was right, albeit in a slurred way. Three used to be the minimum number of engines you'd be allowed to fly airline passengers across an ocean with -- mo' bettah four. Now two power plants are the norm to traverse the big, cold, wet to Europe. At the beginning of our careers this was almost unthinkable. What would happen if you lost an engine at 30 West?

It turned out that with the newer engines you almost never lose one. I don't pretend to know the actual number for "almost never" but I've had hundreds of crossings in the 777 without a hiccup.

Looking a little further back in time, nobody would cross without a navigator, either. Now computers do a much better job than the best old-time navigator could ever do.

Real Pilots Need More Pilots

This, of course, led the discussion to the lost art of being a flight engineer. Matt, who with his wife Judy was sitting right next to me, had served a few years plumbing aboard the L-1011 and flew it internationally. With the advent of pretty decent automatic systems onboard our airplanes, it became obvious that the job of flight engineer wouldn't be around long. Not that we didn't fight it like Luddites in a Kinko's. As a matter of fact, when we first ordered the 767 it came with a flight-engineer panel and seat. I had the first and only advanced entitlement as a 767 engineer. They canceled the seat and it went to a pilot/co-pilot-only version before I could go to school.

At the time we thought it was a disaster because we just weren't used to a two pilot crew. Our union had fought a long and expensive fight with Air Alaska, believe it or not, for a third pilot in the Boeing 737!

The whole engineer thing worked out for the best even though we fought it. First, with all two-pilot crews we didn't have to be flight engineers for 10 years while waiting to get into the right seat. We had been trained as pilots and looked on being a flight engineer as something to get through so we could once again become pilots.

On international flying they no longer had a flight engineer but had to add a "relief" co-pilot. This led to the wonderful practice of "dozing for dollars." For roughly a third of the crossing you got to sit in a first-class seat in the back and sleep while being paid. This didn't even take into account the fact that co-pilots got paid more than engineers and everybody got more money.

Bigger, Better ...

"Too damn big!" shouted Jeff. It was his party and he could shout whatever he pleased, but I wondered what he meant. I found that he wasn't so much drunk as he was overwhelmed by the attention that his swan song had brought him. He clearly told me his reason.

"It's that damn Airbus 380," he said. "I'm all for big airplanes, but 555 passengers is way too many for an airplane. Where are you going to find that many people interested in going to anywhere at the same time? Only 66 or so airports in the world can handle this thing, so I ask again ... why bother?"

I don't know, but I'm willing to bet that pilots have said the same thing about ever-enlarging airplanes throughout the ages, from the DC-3 to the 777. The trouble with getting older and being stuck in the past is that it makes it hard to accept the future.

Notwithstanding all of our inebriated complaints, we had been the beneficiaries of quite a few improvements on things, from weather dissemination to digital communications. It is fun to talk about the "old days" but nobody really wants to go back there.

The party was winding down and we all began to say our goodbyes to Jeff. Promises were made to visit him in Wisconsin, but face it: Who really voluntarily goes to Wisconsin? We would probably rarely if ever see him again.

With my retirement coming up one of these days I took comfort in the fact that pilots are pilots no matter where you go, and most towns have bars. All I have to do to re-create the joys of a layover is join a flying club and buy the first round.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.