CEO of the Cockpit #18:
Early Learning

Even grizzled old airline captains have habits they learned when they first started flying, and AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit is no exception.


We were preparing to push back in Kansas City and we were heavy. The hot weather wasn’t helping the takeoff figures much either.Full up on passengers, cargo and fuel, the gate agent was in the passenger cabin counting babies. Your average passenger is calculated at about 170 pounds (if I remember my ATP written questions correctly), and babies are supposed to weigh much less. So, when you have an airliner that you think may be overweight for takeoff, you count the babies to get that total passenger weight down.I’ve always thought that when they came up with the “average passenger weight” it must have been during the Great Depression or some other famine. I haven’t seen a 170-pound adult passenger recently. They all look like they are a Whopper shy of 210.Once you count the babies, the next step to getting this thing off the ground legally is to look into a “no-pack takeoff.” By turning off the air conditioning packs you can recover a little bleed air and use it for thrust instead of comfort. When I was a 727 driver, almost every takeoff out of San Francisco for the east was a no-pack squeaker. I’ve yet to have to use a no-pack procedure on the 767.Mack, this week’s co-pilot and victim, entered the takeoff data into the computer as I read it off. Then he double-checked the figures on the weight and balance sheet and ran the pushback/start checklist.”Man,” he said, “the last time I was on an airplane this heavy we were leaving England loaded up with bombs.”I’ve never dropped any bombs on anybody unless you count those smoke grenades when I flew skydivers, but I’ve had some experience with overloaded airplanes.

Heavy Load

My first “super heavy” was a brand-new Cessna 150 that I picked up at Cessna Field in Wichita back when I was in high school. My mission? To fly the new trainer from Kansas back to Lakeland, Fla., and to get back before I missed enough school for anybody to notice.My secondary mission was considered very important by the folks at the FBO — the transport and delivery of enough Coors Brand Beer to keep our line crew’s party fund in cash for the rest of the year. Back in the early 1970s, Coors beer was only sold out west, so we could get up to five dollars a can with the local frat boys at Florida Southern.I was too young to buy beer myself, being only 17, so the Cessna Rep did it for me. I crammed myself and my shopping bag/suitcase in the pilot seat and was surrounded by beer.I’m not sure how much the airplane weighed but I’m sure it was well above 1,600 pounds. The takeoffs on that trip home were more like the Enola Gay taking off for Japan than a 150 taking off for Shreveport.”Early learning is a really important thing,” Mack said. “You can talk about airplanes that are loaded wrong or are over-gross for takeoff, but you really don’t buy into the danger until it happens to you. I learned all about airplanes that are loaded wrong one night when we were trying to take off from Diego Garcia for a little mission we were flying toward Iraq. An out-of-balance airplane just doesn’t fly right and you don’t know about it until you’re in the air and it’s too late to do anything about it but try to get it back on the ground.”


I think every pilot’s current habits are a reflection of their early learning. For example, I’m terrified of thunderstorms. Of course, being an airline pilot means I am constantly dealing with them, and we have at least the basic tools to avoid bad weather. But while other guys might worry about mechanical things or being busted by the FAA for something, I constantly worry about thunderstorms.This is because on my first or second flight through the clouds as a brand-new instrument-rated pilot in Florida, I got a good education about them. I was flying a couple of people back to Tallahassee from Albany, Ga., in a Cessna 172 that sported a Nav Pak II option. We were in the clouds at about 5000 feet heading south when an embedded thunderstorm snuck up on us.I can’t remember which was louder — the hail hitting the airplane or that girl in the back seat screaming as we hit the severe turbulence. I do remember that as the rate of climb pegged out on the up side I jerked the throttle back so hard that the engine quit. I learned later in other thunderstorms that the engine may have quit because of water inundation, but at the time over Georgia, I didn’t care. Not only was the engine dead, but the speed had dropped off so much that the prop had stopped.So, there we were, with the prop stopped, but still climbing at about 3000 feet per minute. Then we hit the downdraft side and plummeted at about the same rate in the other direction.The storm spit us out at about 2500 feet. I managed to get the engine started again and we flew the rest of the way home VFR below the clouds.

Demons in the VORs

Like I said, other people I’ve flown with have other demons to deal with. I flew with a very senior 727 captain back when I was an engineer, and his big fear was VOR idents.Every single VOR we tuned and used all month was identified aurally by this guy at a very high volume. Evidently, he had been fined thousands of bucks by the FAA years ago when he failed to ident a VOR he was using for an approach. Nothing else bothered him. Not weather, nasty passengers or mechanicals. VOR idents were his thing.I’ve flown with other guys that really have a problem with ice and snow. Being a southern boy, my early learning didn’t include those hazards, so they don’t bother me much today. Now, if you’re talking about a snow thunderstorm, that is another thing.

Happy Memories

“All early learning isn’t about scaring the snot out of yourself and learning from it,” Mack added. “I remember my aviation infancy with warm, fuzzy feelings. That first flight, my first solo, the first time I dropped a bomb on the bad guys — all happy memories.”Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Even though I’m known as being a malcontented grumpy old captain, I was and still am a dewy-eyed optimist when it comes to flying. I think you almost have to separate “flying” from “flying for a living.”If you ask almost any airline pilot, they’ll tell you that if they retired today they’d miss the flying but not the job. I think almost everybody who flies had what could only be termed as a “magical experience” with flying.My first magical moment came back when I was 13.Back then, I was an “airport bum,” a “ramp tramp.” I literally rode my bicycle out the six or seven miles to the airport every chance I got and spent the entire day just sitting around the ramp. I passed a lot of time sitting on the wings of Cherokees, peering into their windows at the instrument panels, and dreaming about flying in them. I spent even more hours under the wings of Cessna airplanes to escape the sun. I’d usually sit on the little step on the landing gear strut.If somebody was pulling an airplane out of the hangar or pushing it back in I’d eagerly try to help just so I could touch the airplanes and pretend I was a part of it all.When pilots would come out to preflight their airplanes I’d hang around with this lost-puppy-dog look on my face hoping to score a free ride. I had extensive flight experience already though. I’d already taken both the Cessna and Piper $5 introductory flight lessons, so I had upwards of 45 minutes of total flight time.

One day a guy let me help him pull his Ercoupe out of the hangar and preflight it. I was hanging around while he was about to get in when he uttered the magic words: “Hey kid, do you wanna go for a flight?”I clambered in and we drove out to the runway and took off. We flew around the area for over an hour and a half and he let me fly the airplane quite a bit. We buzzed cows, looked for my house, did some steep turns and the Ercoupe equivalent of stalls, and returned to the airport for some touch and goes.After we landed for the last time and taxied in, I helped him tie his plane down thanked him profusely and started my bike ride home.

Everything Changed

It was like every other bike ride home from the airport. Hot and sticky with that hill leading up to the railroad track that cut across Drane Field Road about halfway home.The ride was the same but I was totally different. That was because on this particular day, flying went from being something I drew pictures about and thought I might try, into something I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a part of.I rode my three-speed bike past storefronts, gas stations and grocery stores and had the startling realization that I had been flying today and these poor people hadn’t! Not only that, but most of them never thought about airplanes or what the world looks like when you are in a 60-degree bank. They just didn’t get it and I did: Flying wasn’t just a way to get to Pittsburgh faster than driving — flying was, well, it was FLYING!There I was, a lower middle-class teenager on a cheap bicycle, and I had something none of these people had. I had magic. Seriously, how many of the people I passed with my bike had flown that day? How many had landed an actual airplane on an actual airport?I’m sure other people get the same feeling from their first boat ride, football touchdown or even their first convenience store heist, but I really felt like I was bulletproof that day. Not many people figure out what they want to do with their lives when they are 13, and almost none of them are struck by magic when they do.That’s what it felt like — magic.It still feels like that every so often today. Sometimes when I nail a difficult approach in crappy weather, or salvage a good landing out of a stinker, the feeling is there. Most recently, I had the feeling when I flew close to Mount Rainier on the way out of Seattle. For the most part though, I get wound up on the “job” part of the job and forget about the magic part.Early learning, in my case, taught me things like: Cows eat upwind, don’t ever land with a 20-knot tailwind, and most important, if you are on fire, you should land. But it also taught me that, to most people, magic is something they watch Harry Potter do on a movie screen.To me, magic continues today. If there wasn’t magic involved, how could we get these 200 people into the sky to travel at 600 miles an hour in air too thin to breathe?