Pick-up times can come awful early when you are laying over in Manhattan and departing out of Newark. Our 6 a.m. departure for Los Angeles from EWR necessitated a 3:45 a.m. pick-up at the "Mildew Plaza" on 7th Avenue. Our normal pick-up times in Manhattan are an hour and a half before report time, but the early hour allowed a 15-minute exception to the rule.
Not that I'm complaining. We got in around 11 a.m. yesterday and had a great layover. New York layovers always guarantee good food, things to do and interesting people to watch. Good times; but now my crew and I are paying the price for our fun as our Golden Touch limo hits every pothole between our hotel and the tunnel.
Some of these potholes have been here since the British occupied the city in the late 1700s. I am sitting in my van seat imagining red-coats cursing the ride in their army wagons.
I couldn't help but notice that the pigeons were out in full force and that spring had arrived in the city. Damn good thing, too. It has been a long and hard winter for this captain. I think my crews and I have spent more time in the de-icing area than in the sky. We've hit more airborne, winter-time bumps than usual and suffered more than our share of mechanicals, missing ground crews, inoperative APUs, and mis-caterings. Maybe the new, warmer season will smooth things around for our airline in general and this captain in particular.
I usually throw my seniority around and take the right-front seat of the van. I don't have to talk to anybody if I don't want to and it is easier to catch a short nap up in front. The driver never talks to us. I'm not sure he can, but if he does speak English, he must be in constant amazement about the dumb stuff we say.
One of the most important skills for a new pilot to learn is how to balance and drink a full cup of coffee during a turbulent van ride to the airport in the morning. It isn't as easy as it sounds and can sometimes be harder than doing a double engine-out landing in a 777. The key to the whole procedure is to maintain a light grip on your cup and let it sway (within reason) with the ride and the bumps. Timing your sips can be dicey and, because of this, I've ingested almost as much coffee through my nose as my mouth during my career.
Normally, on a very early pick-up such as this, my flight attendants are quiet and somber as they ponder their day and regret staying up late to see that off-Broadway play. Apparently, today wasn't a normal day.
My self-imposed exile in the front of the van didn't spare me hearing the summary of my crew's shopping adventure of the previous afternoon. I'm not sure why they shop on trips. I have enough trouble getting my stuff through security without having to deal with a bag of swag I just bought at Macy's. I was miserably awake now, with no hope of a decent nap, so I was actually glad when my co-pilot Paul chimed-in from his second-row seat.
"I guess I'll have to start my warm-weather bidding pattern," He said. "I normally bid trips with southern layovers in the winter and northern ones in the warm months. It is about time to stop bidding Fort Lauderdale trips and start thinking again about Seattle and Boston."
That piqued my interest a little bit. Paul and I share a weird sort of bond that has led us to fly together more than your usual pair of random pilots. No, it isn't like that ... we share the trait that we bid our trips for good layovers instead of maximum flight time.
Most pilots have the attitude that when they are at work, they ought to be by-gawd working. This leads them to bid trips that are awful in my opinion. They prefer trips to nasty places that arrive at times of the day that they know are going to be full of thunderstorms, just so they can get the huge delays and gather in more duty- and credit- time.
Paul and I have bid our time so we can arrive at a great layover well before the afternoon thunderstorms fire up. We are normally halfway through a happy hour as the first line of boomers rolls in. Then, with early morning departures, we can get a few more benefits:
There are various things that make getting an early trip like this really hard to get. First, if you commute -- and most pilots today commute -- you have to go to work the night before and pay for a hotel room before you begin your trip. Second, almost every airline has a "preferential bid system" that builds trips for you based on your stated preferences and seniority. This makes bidding much harder than when you could actually see the trips ahead of time. Finally, almost any international rotation to and from Europe begins in the evening, not the morning, and flies most of the night.
Our van driver turned his radio up a little when he heard a news snippet that mentioned "grounded airliners." We stopped talking about Calgary layovers for a moment and listened to the first bad news of the morning. They had grounded the MD-88 fleet again. It wasn't due to a wiring inspection like last time. Our Long Beach Death Tubes were tied to the ground this time due to a hydraulic power-pack inspection required for the rudder.
The grounding wouldn't affect my 767 crew today, but if they don't clear the grounding up by tomorrow afternoon, half of my flight attendants won't be able to commute home. Also, the terminal at EWR, instead of being a mess like it usually is, would be more like the last days of Saigon. Passengers would be running around waving pieces of paper over their heads and mewing like scalded kittens.
I was just about to start telling the group a story about how we used to inspect things before they became illegal but was interrupted by the fact that our van driver had made record time getting us to the airport and was, even now, maneuvering our crew barge to a sideways parking spot at the curb. We tipped our driver, loaded our various stuff on our pull-along bags and trudged to security and the gate.
The drowsy hassles of an early morning pick-up evaporated for me as we climbed out from EWR. We had hit the jackpot of pre-dawn flying this morning. The coffee was hot, my lamb's-wool seat cover was fairly new and comfortable and we had an airplane with absolutely no maintenance carry-overs.
Paul was flying, which left me to only answer the radio, run the occasional checklist and sip on my hot java as I thought my private, captain thoughts. We had the added early morning advantage of heading westward -- away from the rising sun. Life was good.
Cleared direct to East Texas VOR, we were now autopilot-controlled and our day got even better near cruise altitude just as the "movie running" illuminated on our overhead panel: We actually got meals from the back! Getting fed on a domestic flight was almost unheard of, yet here we were eating eggs and other breakfast stuff that was actually heated and on a plate. Could things get any better than this?
It turns out they could. A building line of thunderstorms was about 20 miles ahead. I would usually not like this kind of development, but because it was early morning, they weren't all that tall and mean yet, and the line had sizeable gaps. I asked Paul if I could fly for a while and had him get us a block altitude from ATC. I then had the pleasure of a half hour of hand-flying my favorite airplane through and around pink-tinged build-ups.
What are working people doing today? I wondered. I complain a lot because I am a captain and it is my nature, but there aren't many people playing around clouds while burning hundreds of gallons of highly priced jet fuel and getting paid to do it.
Sometimes the joy of flight can overcome the cynicism of the airline world as it has become. These are the times that make me tuck in my white shirt, clip on my black tie and keep showing up at 3:45 a.m. for work.
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