A Hummer and Zurich

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Larry had a relaxed demeanor when he introduced himself in JFK Operations. He had been a Super 80 captain based in Boston for quite some time. Now he was transitioning to the 767/757. I was his check airman for the international qualification portion of his Operating Experience (OE). He had already completed the domestic portion of his OE.

We would be flying to Zurich. I chose the trip because it was a good representation of European operations, notwithstanding the fact that it was time for a change. Paris had been on my schedule more often than not. In addition, it was early November. Soon, the temperature would make a Zurich layover less desirable.

Our flight standards department had deadheaded Larry into New York the night prior due to a temporary shortage of available check airmen in Boston. He had been grateful for the extra layover, having used the time to review reference material.

I completed my typical briefing of international flight planning in Operations, explaining the various facets of an Atlantic crossing. With Larry only slightly overwhelmed, we assembled our bags and headed for the airplane. As we descended and ascended the endless escalator system of Terminal 8, I discussed my agenda.

I had told Dave, our relief pilot, that Larry and I would accomplish the walk-around inspection. Normally, the relief pilot performs the entire preflight inspection, which includes the cockpit. Because of scheduling, Larry had only flown the 757 on his domestic OE. I needed to acquaint him with the nuances of our 767-300. Initial training for a pilot new to the airplane involves only classroom and simulator instruction without actual exposure to the real thing.

I had also asked Dave not to enter data into the FMC computers or the ACARS computer. I wanted Larry to become familiar with the process. We had a lot to cover in the short period of time prior to our departure. Larry and I left the cockpit and marched out the jet bridge door and down the steel-grated stairs onto the ramp.

I motioned at the airplane in mock Vanna White-style, as if somebody had just asked for a vowel. I said simply, "It's big."

The grin on Larry's face was both an indication of his career accomplishment and the realization that he was about to fly an impressive piece of equipment. I guided Larry over to the nosewheel and began the walk-around familiarization.

With the walk-around complete, we climbed the steps and opened the door back into the jet bridge. A steady trickle of passengers was boarding. As I contemplated the tasks remaining to be accomplished, we encountered a perplexed gate agent and a Hasidic young man.

The young man was garbed in the standard Hasidic uniform -- black coat and black hat. He held an anxious expression on his face. The agent and the young man stood on opposing sides of a rather large box. The box displayed a photo of a remote control Hummer.

The gate agent pointed at the box, looked at us, and said, "It won't fit in an overhead. The flight attendants claim that they don't have room in their closets. Would you guys consider the cockpit? I'd hate to check it and risk damage."

The young man's expression turned to anguish. Larry smiled with a twinkle in his eye. He must have realized as I did that nothing was more important than solving this dilemma. Larry had been a captain for almost as long as I had. He knew when to delegate. He looked at me, shuffled toward the cockpit, and said with a snicker, "It's your call, Captain."

I shook my head and grinned. I glanced at the gate agent. I looked at the Hummer box. I smiled at the young man.

"I'm sorry, but we have three of us in the cockpit with bags. It's already crowded up there." Technically, no bags other than flight crewmember luggage were allowed for security reasons, but sometimes we bent the rules when the item could be determined a non-threat.

I motioned to our purser, the number one flight attendant. She had been casually monitoring the interaction. I asked, "Can we find space in a closet somewhere?"

The purser sighed, appeared to show signs of resistance for a brief moment, and then said, "Let me see what I can do."

I thanked her, nodded at the gate agent, and then walked toward the cockpit. With that crisis averted, it was time to attend to less important details like supervising the safe flight of 225 people across the Atlantic Ocean and ensuring that Larry's OE was a valuable experience. No problem.

I slid into the copilot seat. Larry was attempting to enter data into the left FMC. His index finger was poised above the keypad. Not wanting to interfere in the interest of self-education, I began organizing my side of the cockpit. When I was finished, I glanced over at Larry. His finger was still poised.

I leaned in over the center console and offered a suggestion. Larry nodded in understanding. We finished the process together. And then we moved to the ACARS computer.

As Larry progressed through cockpit preparation and the checklists, it was apparent that he was a methodical man, especially in unfamiliar territory. Although I was tempted to increase the pace, it would not have benefited Larry's learning process. I did my best to provide explanations when required, despite the fact that our scheduled departure time was fast approaching.

Ramp control and our ground crew applied some pressure. As a testament to Larry's methodical manner, he refused to be rushed. It didn't matter. Despite the fact that our pushback from the gate was almost 15 minutes late, we would arrive in Zurich 10 minutes early.

Having been based in Boston as a Super 80 pilot, Larry's opportunities to experience the eccentricities of JFK had been almost nonexistent. He was outside his comfort zone as far as airport real estate was concerned. We persevered nonetheless, taxiing to the departure end of Runway 22 Right without reprimands from ATC.

With our takeoff clearance acknowledged, we rolled onto the runway. Larry moved the power levers forward. Our 767 accelerated down the centerline. We rotated skyward in one smooth motion. Larry had listened to my coaching and not applied heavy back pressure to the control wheel, an idiosyncrasy of the 757.

Because of arrival traffic, New York Tracon kept us at low altitude longer than was typical. That translated into Larry hand-flying the airplane. Hand-flying was something I encouraged. Larry's simulator training was not conducive to hand-flying. The simulator environment rarely allows a trainee to experience altitudes above 10,000 feet, let alone the opportunity to fly an airplane that isn't suffering from some catastrophic emergency. The autopilot becomes a necessary tool.

Shortly after climbing through 18,000 feet, Dave excused himself to take the first break. Larry and I were left to mind the store. I began my agenda of preparing a new international captain for the process of navigating across the ocean. The process is not rocket science, but I have to convey a lot of material in a relatively short period of time. Rather than spew out information like water through a fire hose, I pace my discussion to match the progress of the flight. I use the return trip home to cover areas that were missed.

Of course all plans are subject to change. Such was the case on our flight. Circumstances managed to put the completion of our meals, the beginning of Larry's break, and our airplane at the oceanic entry point all at the same time. In addition, our selective calling (SELCAL) check with Gander (Newfoundland) radio on high frequency (HF) didn't activate the appropriate chime and blue light. Although the problem prompted me to offer corrective solutions, a valuable experience in itself, we failed to achieve the desired result. That meant we would be forced to monitor the HF radio via our volume controls. It was worse than listening to an overplayed vinyl record on a phonograph with a bad needle (for those of you who remember such things).

Larry made the first position report without problems. When Dave returned to the cockpit, Larry excused himself to begin his rest break. As the cockpit door thwacked closed, Dave sat down in the left seat while I reshuffled some paperwork.

I had flown with Dave on a prior trip almost a year ago. He was now 59-½ years old, a fact that contradicted his younger appearance. Dave had begun employment with our company as a result of a buyout of another airline. Before the first industry downturn of 2003, he had enjoyed a pay raise. Unfortunately, circumstances now put his salary at almost the same pre-merger level. With kids in college, one in law school, Dave was doing his best. Despite the controversy of the merger, he expressed no regrets.

At the next reporting point, we regained our SELCAL capabilities. Dave and I sighed with relief. Time passed quickly and it became my turn for a break. With Larry's return, I left the cockpit indicating that Keflavik in Iceland was our closest diversion airport. I was glad for the opportunity to close my eyes for a couple of hours.

Upon my return, 35 minutes from our touchdown in Zurich, I was informed that the weather was living up to its forecast. And the forecast wasn't especially inviting. The visibility was being reported in meters. That's never a good sign. However, conditions indicated that the airport still remained above CAT I ILS minimums.

I indicated to Larry that a normal ILS on his first European landing would be a good learning experience. He agreed, excited about the prospects of hand-flying the airplane. But it was not meant to be.

As we descended toward Zurich, Dave handed me the latest ATIS report. The weather had all the signs of a deteriorating trend. The RVR now translated into 2,000-foot visibility and 200-foot ceiling.

I looked at Larry and said, "Well … you're supposed to execute a CAT III approach on your OE. How about today?" Larry grinned.

As is typical for the last 15 minutes of a European flight, the pace becomes fast and furious. Larry was doing his best to keep his thought process ahead of the airplane. It wasn't easy. Although the controllers have a good command of the English language, the accents are heavy. On a few occasions we would raise an eyebrow in response to an instruction.

Unfortunately, the unfamiliarity of a new airplane and a new ATC environment pushed Larry to the limits of his methodical disposition. A prompt or two from me helped keep us on track. We intercepted the localizer and then the glideslope. Three autopilots began the process of a CAT III approach. We descended into the gray murk. As per procedures, Larry kept one hand on the control wheel and the other on the power levers.

Just below 200 feet, the last flashing segment of approach lights glowed into view. In a few moments we were over the runway threshold. The automation glided us onto the concrete with a graceful touchdown.

Larry reached for the reverse levers. I reminded him that idle reverse was all that was allowed. Zurich was probably the quietest airport in the world. Even APU usage was restricted until required for engine start.

With two clicks of the autopilot disconnect button, we rolled off onto a high-speed taxiway. Three pairs of eyes peered into the wispy thickness of gray fog. The dark silhouettes of airplanes outlined the terminal and our gate. Larry moved us forward at a cautious pace until we were safely parked at the gate.

With the parking checklist complete, I reached out and shook Larry's hand. One more leg and he would become an official international widebody captain. The mission was almost complete.

But it wasn't until the smiling young man with the remote control Hummer walked off the airplane and onto the jet bridge that I realized that the mission had truly been accomplished. Nothing else was more important.