A good copilot is a good copilot, no matter what the aircraft. I fancied myself a good copilot back when I was a first officer on various airliners. I considered myself better than the average bear when it came to flight engineering, as well. Being a good copilot is harder, in my estimation, than being a good captain. And if you could manage to be an outstanding flight engineer, then God bless you; you were tragically warped, but you were an asset to your airline.
I was in the right seat of a northbound Cessna Skyhawk and was trying to resurrect my skills at being a subordinate pilot instead of occupying the king's seat on the left side of the bird. We were departing the Lakeland, Fla., area of operations for our return trip up north to the land of permafrost and crowded toll roads with potholes -- Chicago.
My friend, Ozzie, was based in ORD with a little airline we'll simply refer to here as "United." A 737 driver, par excellence, Ozzie was a copilot on the FLUFF, or the "Football" as it is sometimes called. This led to what Bob Dylan would call a "simple twist of fate." Imagine me, an egotistical, slightly overweight and graying senior captain, metaphorically "pulling gear" for a snot-nosed, fortyish, FLUFF first officer.
In this case, Ozzie was in command by virtue of aircraft ownership and flying skill, not seniority.
This particular 172 was outfitted with the very latest of 1970s avionics and automation. We sported a Cessna Navpac II suite of radios, complete with the beige-colored, twin nav-coms, an encoded transponder and a digital ADF. That old ARC-manufactured ADF, by the way, in my never-to-be-humble opinion, is the best ADF I've ever come across or operated. It is very easy to tune and the sound quality, while not up to the Bose level, is damn close.
Today, I was making the best possible use of the ADF and had it tuned to 1230, WONN Lakeland. It softly played old big-band music in the background (and at roughly a 150 degree relative bearing) as we climbed at a blistering 700 feet per minute to our VFR cruising altitude.
The pilot in command of our flight settled back into his seat as we leveled off. He pulled the power back to about 75 percent, leaned it out for cruise and tuned Cross City VOR onto Nav #1. We still had Nav #2 tuned to 116.0, the Lakeland VOR, although we had no intention of turning back to the bedlam that Sun 'n Fun can become when everybody wants to fly home at the same time.
On most flight decks, it is the captain who sets the tone and often introduces the subjects for discussion during a flight. This day was no exception and Ozzie, for some arcane reason, wanted to discuss the world of airline flying. I would have preferred talking about almost anything else, but being copilot instead of captain, I acquiesced.
"Skybus, ATA and Aloha," he said. "Who's next? I know that Alitalia is in trouble and a bunch of other airlines are about to go belly-up. With jet-fuel costs making up over half of their total expenses, how long will it be before all the airlines go out of business due to high fuel prices?"
I honestly don't know. I do know that airlines have cut their personnel costs about as far as they can get away with. Our airline lost quite a few copilots last year during the last big bankruptcy crunch when they figured out they could make more money quitting their airline job and returning to fly for the military. After crunching the career numbers, some pilots even chose to teach school for a living. With most public-school systems still offering good benefits and a fairly secure retirement, it looked like a better deal to them. Plus, if they taught school, they were guaranteed every holiday, including Christmas, off.
"The big airlines are all partnering-up to try and form the biggest galactic, omnivorous airlines in the world. I'm just a dumb FLUFF driver, so I don't know much about big business, but I don't see how combining two losing business propositions into one giant losing proposition makes sense."
I think the reason their lawyers are giving -- and remember that it is the lawyers who stand to make serious money out of any mergers -- is that, at stations where both airlines operated in the past, they can eliminate one whole ground operations and gate agent staff, not to mention combining reservations and hundreds of other functions that pilots like us never think about. Plus, they can combine passenger loads and operate with fuller airplanes.
"How much fuller than 100 percent can they get?" asked Oz. "When was the last time you got on a flight and had any empty seats? The real problem is that even with an all-full airplane, they are still losing money with oil at over $100 a barrel. I checked today and the airlines are paying $3.66 a gallon for Jet-A. How can they make money with fuel that high?"
I was about to try to lighten-up Ozzie's angst with a joke or one of my tried-and-true, old-time airline stories when I made the mistake of looking forward out of the windshield. A dark mass of storm-like clouds were about 10 miles ahead. We used to call Cross City VOR the "Cross City Connection" because it always seemed to have a thunderstorm over it. All you had to do to find Cross City at night was to look for the lightning flashes and steer in that direction. It looked like today would be no exception.
I pointed to the clouds, which my captain had already noticed and we began a 40-degree deviation to the east around the build-ups. A westerly deviation would have been shorter but it was over the Gulf of Mexico and no sane Skyhawk driver starts down that road, especially in Florida, for two reasons. First, you can start deviating over water and end up 50 or 60 miles out before it is all over. Just how far can you swim after the engine quits? Second, if we had to coast-in west of Tallahassee, we could run into all sorts of military airspace around Tyndal, Hurlburt and Eglin Air Force Bases.
It looked like our little deviation would add about 20 minutes to our leg and would burn at least a few more gallons of precious avgas.
"I heard that the regional jets are on their way out because of the higher price of fuel," said the Oz man. "Can you imagine being one of those people who spent $50,000 or so on the hope of getting an RJ copilot job, only to find out that you missed the boat and the combined airlines got rid of them?"
Oz, I said, one of the things that advancing age gives this pilot -- besides more "No's" than "Yes's" from flight attendants when I invite them to dinner -- is perspective. When I was in college and beginning my CFI career, the whole aviation world was going to end because of the Middle East oil embargo. Then it was going to end because avgas was going up to a record 60 cents a gallon. Then, we were all going to lose our oil supplies and freeze to death because of the Iran hostage thing. Then, after I got my airline job, my career was going to be over because of the PATCO strike. It just goes on and on.
Now, everybody has their panties in a knot because oil is over a hundred bucks a barrel and the FAA is actually starting to enforce maintenance rules. In the words of my favorite Saturday Night Live philosopher, Roseanne Rosanadana, "It's always something."
Somehow, over all the years of embargos, gulf wars, price gouging, airline bankruptcies and product liability lawsuits, people like you and me have kept flying. For one thing, the airlines will probably get re-regulated soon, once the government comes to the realization that most of their military airlift capability is civilian based. For another thing, people will keep buying airline tickets, even if the prices go up. Why? Because the price of car gas is going up too, and it is still cheaper in terms of gas prices to fly to Florida than to fill the Toyota's tank six times to get there.
I think that my flying partner had heard enough doom-and-gloom airline talk for one day. Rather than saying so and changing the subject to more interesting things, like layover restaurants, happy hours in San Juan and which shows in Vegas still give a crew discount, he showed me the kind of captain he was destined to become by offering me a baloney sandwich from the little cooler we had between the front seats.
We enjoyed our in-flight lunch and swilled root beer as the fading signal from WONN played Sinatra. It was then that I remembered why I hold a slight preference for flying airliners over Skyhawks. We still had two hours to go to our first fuel stop, we had no lav facilities on board, and I had to "drain the main."
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