Usually it's my intent to emphasize more of the flying aspects of the airline pilot career with the Jumpseat column. But on this particular occasion, unique circumstances provided an interesting sequence of events prior to becoming airborne. Albeit embarrassing, sharing this moment is an insightful glimpse into my world. If you are a colleague … well ... go ahead and chuckle.
For the month of September, I included a reserve selection in my monthly bid requests. It was something that I hadn’t done in almost 21 years from the days of being a very junior 727 captain. Rather than explain the dry nuances of our pilot contract, suffice it to say that my logic for choosing reserve was a simple matter of pay versus time off. And for nearly the same pay as some of the regular trip selections provide, I reasoned that trying the reserve option for a month wouldn’t cause too much pain and suffering. As per positive reports from fellow 777 captains, it appeared that my particular seniority position would favor the definition of underworked.
The known quantities in a reserve schedule are the days off duty and the days on duty. Normally, the days on duty can involve a trip assignment to any 777 destination from my New York crew base. But normal disappears in unusual circumstances. In that regard, my timing was perfect. I picked the first of two months when 240 pilots elected to retire. The stock market slide, in addition to the dismal financial state of my airline, affected their decision. Many of the retirees were 777 captains. Great.
I subscribe to an electronic trip trade service that is programmed to send me a text and e-mail message any time a trip becomes available. By late afternoon on Aug. 31, I was certain that my BlackBerry was suffering from epilepsy. The phone chirped and vibrated itself toward certain battery death. The new retirees were leaving voids in the airline schedule.
At the same moment that I had an epiphany about my reserve status, my cell phone rang. Crew schedule was calling in a semi-panic. Another New York captain contractually entitled to a London trip that originated in Miami had temporarily gone missing in action. Before the other pilot was given 50 lashes and a failing grade, I suggested we wait 20 minutes. I promised to jump into my Superman costume if needed. At the 19th minute, my colleague acknowledged the assignment. Although I was hoping to fly the trip, theorizing that it might be my second and last for the month, I was not unhappy with remaining home.
Just as I attained a state of bliss, my BlackBerry buzzed with a trip trade message. Another Miami trip had appeared, this time to São Paulo, Brazil — all night coming and going. The trip was not on my Top 10 list. And I had given away London. No good deed ... Within moments, crew schedule was calling to congratulate me. I was to deadhead down from JFK on a 1730 flight and then lay over in Miami. I would leave at 2340 the next evening to São Paulo.
Arriving at JFK early, I completed a few administrative chores in Operations and then entered the restroom. In all my years of training to appropriately deal with engine fires/failures, hydraulic losses, electrical malfunctions, flight control issues, etc., I was inexcusably unprepared for a different type of emergency: a wardrobe malfunction. I suffered a complete and catastrophic zipper failure 45 minutes prior to my deadhead flight.
Maintaining a captain’s game face, I exited the restroom with the deftness of a tightrope walker. I crossed my fingers hoping that one of our few female pilots would not be in the vicinity. Not only were my wishes ignored, but the female pilot was also an old friend. I scurried away from her line of sight as she studied a computer screen.
A quick and frantic search through my overnight bag found two rather anemic safety pins. They would have to suffice. Despite my marginal tailor abilities, I achieved enough success to brave a walk through the terminal to the departure gate, uniform jacket strategically buttoned.