Just Say ‘No’

It was late fall. An unusual weather system had impacted the New York area. The system brought with it some scattered convective activity and high winds blowing almost directly from the east. The disturbed air was a turbulent nightmare. Our 727 was being battered as though it was a rowboat that had been set adrift in the North Atlantic. At times, the entire gray instrument panel shook on both sides of the cockpit with such tenacity that individual flight instruments were almost impossible to discern. The autopilot was doing everything within its capacity to keep the airplane level and at the commanded altitude.

During a moment that I diverted my direct attention away from the task of flying the airplane, I glanced at my crew. The copilot’s face was an intense mixture of concentration and concern. The flight engineer’s expression, shadowed by the dim glow of his panel lights, bordered on sheepish. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture that indicated he was powerless to do anything but ride out the choppy seas with the rest of us. I just shook my head in silent resignation.

La Guardia was vectoring airplanes for arrivals to the ILS Runway 13, an unusual circumstance in and of itself. Periodic rain showers had moisturized the concrete. It was nighttime. The weather was bordering on MVFR. Despite the nasty conditions, airplanes were landing without incident. No missed approaches were being broadcast on NY Tracon frequency.

I was 33-years-old and a brand-new captain. I refused to be defeated by turbulence. The mission would be completed. Our passengers would accept nothing less. It was my turn to be a hero.

I was an idiot.

As we intercepted the localizer, the view of my flight instruments vibrated to such an extent that I couldn’t tell whether it was the gauges or my eyeballs that were actually bouncing. With the glideslope needle centered, I configured the airplane until we were in a stabilized condition with full flaps and the gear down. I had to consciously remind myself to relax my wrought-iron grip on the control wheel. Moisture seeped into the palm of my left hand. I used my uniform pants as a hand towel.

We bumped down the glideslope, interrupted by a few moments of relative calm. With the orange glow of the runway lights in sight, I assessed the intensity of the crosswind by adjusting the crab of the airplane accordingly. The crab wasn’t bad … maybe about 10 degrees to the right. We blazed over the last row of approach lights. The right main gear kissed the concrete first as if the runway was a sponge. The left main gear made contact in the same manner. I smiled as I reached over the top of the power levers and snapped the reverse levers rearward. A wet runway can be your friend … sometimes.

With the airplane slowed to a safe crawl, we exited onto a high-speed turnoff. I exhaled a long sigh and realized that the rest of my crew was doing the same.

“Nice job, Captain,” was all that was said. And that was enough.

Approximately one week later, I ran across a friend in our La Guardia operations area. The friend was also a 727 captain. He had been my check flight engineer for my OE (Operating Experience) flights back when I was a new hire. He had flown through the same nasty weather that evening. While being vectored for the approach he decided that La Guardia was not the place he wanted to land. Instead, he chose JFK. The active runways were longer. And as it turned out, the turbulence was not as intense. His passengers and crew were bussed to La Guardia. End of story.

I mulled through my friend’s decision for quite some time. It didn’t take me long to realize who was the real hero. The decision to just say ‘no’ takes real guts. I applauded the man’s fortitude. He was the epitome of a captain.

Seventeen years later, I would be presented with similar circumstances. But this time, as a check airman. And this time, it was my job function to allow someone else to make the decision.

As is normal custom for most check airmen, I had called the upgrade captain that was to be flying with me on his OE trip. It was to be his first experience flying the actual airplane. The trip consisted of one evening leg to Bermuda from JFK and a return home early the following morning.

The phone call to the pilot flying the OE trip serves two purposes. First, it alleviates any expectation anxiety. A relaxed pilot is more likely to absorb the lessons of his or her experience than an uptight pilot. No matter how professional crews try to minimize it, flying with a check airman still holds the connotation of a check ride. In a way, that’s true. If a new pilot is having difficulties that go beyond the normally allotted OE time, it is my responsibility to ensure that further training is given. But I like to consider myself a coach. I am there to help refine some of the skills that were taught in the simulator. In addition, normal operating procedures and the nuances of the airplane are not emphasized during the intensity of the initial training environment. It is my job to familiarize the upgrading pilot to these items.

The second reason for the call is to offer some reference materials that are helpful preparation. Between our flight manuals and our airline’s pilot website, the upgrading captain has a handful of resources he or she can choose to review before we have the opportunity to fly together.

New 757/767 captain Joe Romanko

In that regard, over the phone, I found Captain Joe Romanko in good spirits with a relaxed demeanor. He had just completed his simulator training. Joe had been a Super 80 captain and was now upgrading to the 757/767. Like most folks, he was looking forward to completing the final phase of his training.

The following day Joe and I shook hands in JFK Operations. Joe arrived early and had made an attempt to print the flight plan. But the computer was displaying a “not updated” status. That status sometimes indicates that the dispatcher or load control is working on an issue. In this case the issue was wind.

An advancing cold front in Bermuda was creating a velocity that was exceeding the 30-knot crosswind limitation of our 757. This was not an uncommon occurrence for the island. Our departure was at risk of being cancelled. The dispatcher awaited updated forecast information.

As expected, the updated forecast magically predicted a slow decrease in wind speed as the evening progressed despite the approaching cold front. Joe and I shook our heads. We smiled. Without verbalizing, our eyes said, “Yeah … right.”

I approached the nearest computer keyboard and typed the code for the current Bermuda weather. Interestingly enough, the wind speed had decreased. Joe nodded, acknowledged the observation, and then typed the code to print the flight plan. We would be departing on schedule.

After discussing some of the aspects of the international flight plan, I paused. Joe scooped up the paperwork. He looked at me and grinned.

He said, “You know, I don’t need to be a hero. It’s not going to hurt my feelings if you want to fly this leg.”

I looked at Joe and said, “I am comfortable with any decision you make. If you want to give it a try, I have no problems with that either. It’s up to you.”

Without hesitation, Joe responded. “No thanks.”

I smiled and said, “Fair enough. How about you fly us up to cruise altitude and I’ll take it from there? At least that way I won’t take all of the stick time.”

“It’s a deal,” Joe said, looking relieved.

As we walked out of Operations toward the elevator, I chided Joe for his decision. He would be forcing me to perform under pressure. He would have to pay for that eventually. In reality, Joe had already passed his OE ride. He had made a rational and competent decision. He knew his own limitations. And by saying that he didn’t need to be a hero, he already was one.

I, on the other hand, would be faced with not only the responsibility of keeping our passengers safe, but with attempting to demonstrate a competent performance. Although I have thousands of hours in a 757, my proficiency opportunities have decreased because of my check airman status. In addition, I would be making the landing from the right seat.

As we began our descent into Bermuda, I briefed Joe. I explained that any indication of wind shear or controllability issues would prompt me to initiate a go-around. We would return to JFK. Period. Upon landing, Joe was to help maintain forward pressure on the control wheel in order to keep the nosewheel firmly planted on the runway. He was not to touch the tiller until I stated that he had control of the airplane.

We experienced only light turbulence as we descended on the glideslope for a landing on Runway 30. The airplane had established a well-defined crab, but nothing extraordinary. The tower reported a steady-state wind of 25 knots. And then the tower reported 28 knots. And then the tower reported 27 knots. And then I muttered to Joe that the tower should discontinue any further wind reporting. The controller must have heard us. The frequency remained silent all the way to touch down.

A glance at the rudder trim gauge and the travel of my foot on the rudder pedal indicated that the flight control had plenty more authority if I needed it. The airplane was tracking straight with only a slight degree of bank angle. With a solid, but not uncomfortable thud, the right main gear merged with the concrete first. The left main gear followed. And then, the nosewheel. Joe assisted just as I had briefed. We slowed and turned off the runway toward the terminal.

The tower must have enjoyed the entertainment because the controller had to ask just what our crosswind limitation really was. I told him, dreading the possibility that he might minimize actual wind information in order to maintain legal compliance for the next arrival.

In any case, the mission had been accomplished. Joe had observed and absorbed a reasonably competent performance. I had landed the airplane safely in difficult conditions. And another hero was born just by saying, “No.”


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