Many people think they know all about the devil-may-care life-on-the-razor’s edge existence of an airline pilot’s existence. They have no idea.Movies such as “Catch Me If You Can” seem to show the public the truth about the flying life of a crew. The double-entendre sex talk with the flight attendants, the first-class hotel stays with banks eagerly giving us money for bad checks (OK, that part is true) and all the exotic locations we fly into and out of.Our life is more modest, our days more ordinary. Today was such a day. A simple duty period smack in the middle of a “four day hostage crisis” or what we airline types call a four-day rotation.There is nothing special about this day. If anything, it is a good example of average and a poor example of outstanding. The names have, of course, been fabricated, and the locations, while being real, are not important to the account. Normal airline flying days happen all over the world much the same as this one.
5 a.m. …
Alarm clock number one, located on my wristwatch, cheeps and awakens me to another glorious day of airline flying. My back-up alarm is my cellphone, which I have set for five minutes later. Never ever trust a motel wake-up service. The phone never rings when it is really time for you to wake up but always rings when you are in the shower. Ditto for the cheap clock radio they always have in the room. It takes too long to figure out how to set it and you’ll always get it wrong.Turn your room’s heater off. You’ve left the ice bucket full of water with a damp towel hanging out of it to provide some sort of basic humidifier. It worked — the towel is bone dry, but you still have a nosebleed from the super-dry motel air.The next step is to make your in-room coffee. I always combine the little tea-bag-sized regular coffee with the decaf bag to make the java strong enough to taste. Run the shower without you in it for five to ten minutes. This early in the morning it takes a while for the hot water to show up.Brew the coffee while in the shower. Slurp it while dressing and listening to CNN on the TV. Don’t ever tune in the Weather Channel first thing in the morning. No matter how good the weather really is they will make it sound terrible and dangerous for flying wherever you are planning to fly. Who needs that kind of stress when you’re going anyway?
In the Hotel Lobby Around 5:45 a.m. …
The van to the airport isn’t here. The driver either forgot or didn’t wake up or is on the way. No problemo … As long as your crew is down there on time and you can blame the late sign-in on somebody else you’re sitting fat.If he doesn’t show in the next 15 minutes you’ll get a couple of cabs and expense them to the hotel. He shows in 13 and you are on your way.You and your co-pilot are semi-comatose. Your flight attendant crew is wired and is talking over every single detail of either the “Bachelor” or “Joe Millionaire,” doesn’t matter which. The yammering becomes background noise as you contemplate your “easy” two legs for the day.The 767 trips are “easy” compared to what you were doing a few months ago on the “Long Beach Death Tube,” a.k.a., the MD-88. Usually, you only have three legs max, and they are long enough to build up some time without constantly battling into and out of major hubs.Today is super-easy — Denver to JFK and then down to DFW. The weather doesn’t suck all that much, you should get a crew meal on leg one, and your co-pilot is a nice enough guy who pretends to be interested in whatever you are talking about.We drive out from Denver to “Francisco Pena’s Intergalactic Jet Port,” or the “new” Denver airport. This place is conveniently located about six hundred miles from town in the middle of nowhere, although I have to believe (but can’t prove) that a lot of landowners made a lot of moola when Francisco bought the land out here. The tent-like main terminal structures glow in the pre-dawn gloom, evoking a mental image that you just can’t deny or shake. That is why I coined the term “Titty City” to name this airport. Call me crass if you will, but you won’t be able to ignore the image yourself. I suspect Francisco had some serious Freudian issues, but that is not for me to judge, because …
We’re Finally At The Airport!
We shuffle, as a crew, toward those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed federally employed eagle-eyed protectors of justice, freedom, and the American way: the security checkpoint guards.Courteous to a fault, they scan my sock-clad tootsies while my shoes get radiated to prove I’m not going to bomb myself with my footwear. Then, after a very pleasurable probing of my “Daddy Area” to prove that I’m not hiding an Uzi down there, I’m off to the airplane.It’s broken.Well, not exactly broken. It is flyable. There are only two things wrong with it. The APU is inop and one of the two air-conditioning packs is deader than Jimmy Hoffa. This will limit our altitude a little in cruise and make it necessary to start the engines at the gate with two ground-air starting carts that won’t be there until we ask for them even though they’ve known they’d need them since the jet got in last night.Both items are “on MCO,” what we call “maintenance carry-over.” This requires a little background information.Years ago, when the airlines made money and things seemed to make some sort of sense, we had individuals called “mechanics.” These people wore tool belts and made a decent living by doing something we used to call “fixing things.” Nowadays, there are a few of these people left, but they usually aren’t allowed to carry tool belts — they carry pens and pencils.Because they are so few in number and because the airlines don’t fix anything anymore until the last-assed second before the FAA fines them for not fixing it, the mechanics usually “carry over” items by making a note in the log and slapping a sticker on the broken system’s switch or gauge.You can have MCOs more numerous than lawyers at a Los Angeles multi-car pileup on your aircraft and still fly it. Usually there are none, sometimes there are a few and very rarely there are so many it is beyond ridiculous. My personal maximum was 23 maintenance carry-overs on an MD-88. I refused to take that particular jet even though, “by the book,” it was perfectly legal.We start both engines at the gate, push back and begin our long journey to find the runway for takeoff.Denver’s airport is very nice and the runways are long enough but the place is the size of Montana. It takes a while to taxi out. We finally find the runway and book.
As we climb out to the east of Denver enjoying the moderate chop that the front range always gives us as a way of saying, “So long guys … come back soon so we can kick your butts with moderate turbulence and a little mountain wave action!” we discover something that we forgot:The sun comes up in the east and it is going to be in our face for the entire leg.Up go the sun screens that Boeing so graciously made for us. They are green plastic and clip to little brackets above the windshield. We improve them by stuffing the flight plan behind them. You can’t see through them then, but you couldn’t see anything looking directly into the sun anyway.The 767 flies so much nicer than the MD-88, it isn’t funny. Powered flight controls, a solid feel and an instrument panel that makes some sort of sense almost all of the time. The displays are big enough for my almost-50-year-old eyes to see. Even in this turbulence (which is beginning to really bug me), I can see the read-outs fairly well.On other airplanes I’ve had the pleasure of captaining, this hasn’t always been the case. During my “brown hair days” as a young DC-9 captain I discovered that, in really gnarly bumpy air, my eyeballs would be traveling down while the instruments were traveling up, making them impossible to see clearly.The air smooths out around top of climb at three-three-oh. I’ve had the autopilot on since ten grand and have found a comfortable position to sit in that has the center bar of the windshield blocking the sun.There are two en route reporting points on our flight plan that the company wants us to send an ACARS message about when we cross them. The whole position-reporting thing is so archaic — Flight Control has a huge TV screen showing where each of its flights is in real time. I think the only information they really get from us that they can use is the outside air temperature and the report on the ride.
Time For The Crew Meal!
Ah, the highlight of our day. My co-pilot and I eagerly tear open the little white boxes that our crew meals came in.I find it very odd that only a few years ago we did something totally different — we fed the passengers! Today, the only people sure to get fed are the crews. It is a strange world we live in today.The actual crew meals aren’t all that much to crow about. They amount to a basic box lunch (or in this case, breakfast). Basic survival chow. Nothing hot unless you want to chance heating up that bagel in the forward galley oven.Of course, if you want to do that, you’re going to have to go through a long security process to open the “door of doom” to heat your multi-ethnic gut bomb. Better to eat it cold, my friend.After we enjoy our crew meal it is time to think about going to the bathroom. This used to be a simple process that entailed asking your cockpit partner if they wanted you to bring anything back from the galley, opening the cockpit door, peeing in the lav and then returning.The process is much more complex and secret due to 9/11. I’d tell you exactly how we do it but if I did I’d end up in Gitmo being questioned by Marines. Suffice to say that it is such a hassle that we no longer go to the lav just to chat with the flight attendants. If we go, we really have to go.
After the usual half-hour hold somewhere west of Jersey, we make our approach to JFK, land and find our gate. We change airplanes for our trip to Texas, do the same process we did in Denver without the security feel-up, and then blast off for DFW.The trip southwest to Texas goes pretty much the same as the DEN/JFK leg except our butts are a little more numb, we’ve already told each other all the interesting things we can think of and there is no crew meal on this one.We drag ourselves after landing at DFW out to the pickup point for today’s motel van. It is late (big surprise) but we finally find ourselves in yet another motel bar in yet another layover city.Two beers, some bar food and half a big-screen televised basketball game later, I find myself in the rack with another 5 a.m. wake-up setting on my watch and phone.This was the bare-bones outline of the exciting life we airline crews lead. If you are flying an MD-88, figure on three to four legs. If you fly an RJ, it could be six or seven legs but the days are pretty much all alike.I’m sure there are some airline crews out there that live like DiCaprio with only one leg a day to a tropical layover with willing girls, cold drinks, and lobster dinners, but I’ve never met them.