King Tut and London

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My monthly check is similar to the process of writing. Initially, the schedule resembles more of a rough draft than a publishable piece of literature. Editing is part of the process. Some months involve more editing than others. In that regard, when I retrieved a voice mail message to call our lead flight standards coordinator, I knew to prepare for a revision. But the revision was not what I had expected.

Mary explained that she had been given priority to remove me from my next trip that was to begin the following day. I was originally scheduled to fly with a new captain upgrade. Earlier in the day I had left an informational message with the new captain in anticipation of beginning his OE (operating experience). Apparently, that plan was no longer in the cards.

Instead, Mary was being directed to juggle schedules in order for me to fly a special assignment as per the direction of our 767 fleet captain, my boss. I was to call him ASAP. Special assignment? What the heck did that mean?

My boss informed me that the mission, should I choose to accept it, was to fly King Tut from London's Heathrow Airport to DFW. The 3,000-year-old boy king had been exhibited in the UK and was now to spend some time in Texas. Our airline had been entrusted to carry the entire exhibition valued at a mere $4 billion. Due to the extensive size of the exhibit, a 777 would also be involved.

I explained that I had never been to Heathrow. Wasn't a regular line pilot more qualified? Nope.

"Why me?" I asked.

The answer was simple. Very upper-level management had requested a check airman. I was qualified. I was trusted. And it just might make an interesting story for this magazine; notwithstanding the fact that my boss had originally planned to fly King Tut himself had he not been obligated to perform another duty. He would be flying to Hawaii on the first 757 retrofitted with the new flat-panel upgrade display. Hawaii? Bummer ...

After bantering about the distinct possibility of an Egyptian curse being bestowed upon me, I considered hijacking my own airplane for the ransom money. I dismissed the idea, realizing that I would probably forfeit my pass benefits and my medical plan among other things. My boss had no problems with any insane decision I might choose as long as my conscience could live with the fact that he would lose his job if the King didn't make it to DFW intact and unharmed.

I was told that Heathrow security would be on high alert and to expect even more scrutiny than normal. Considering the fact that Heathrow already had a reputation with flight crews for taking security more seriously than most, an interrogation in a dimly lit room seemed to be the only remaining possibility.

Two regular scheduled flights would be used to transport the exhibit -- a 777 and our 767. Passengers and their luggage would be on board as per normal. An exhibition representative would most likely be accompanying the shipment.

Armed with all the information that I could possibly use, I hung up with my boss and called Mary to arrange the logistics. The trip had already originated with a Dallas-based cockpit crew from DFW. It was a six-day trip for them. The crew had flown to London and laid over. As Mary and I spoke, they were already en route from London to Raleigh-Durham (RDU) for their second layover where I would catch up with them on their fourth day the following evening. We would depart RDU and fly to Heathrow for another London layover. The final leg would be to fly King Tut to DFW. The original captain would be released to go home once he arrived in RDU. My first order of business was to deadhead to RDU from my base in New York the night before the trip. Simple.

Well ... weather problems and normal La Guardia delays made the deadhead a minor nightmare, but I arrived at my layover hotel relatively unscathed. The shopping mall restaurants across the street remained open late. I was saved from starvation.

The following morning I met Pete, the copilot for the trip, in the hotel gym. He chided me for not allowing him the opportunity to go home early also. He was slightly guarded by the fact that a check airman would be his new captain. Normally, my presence indicated training. But my mission was an unusual circumstance. I explained our special cargo.

Pete smiled and raised his eyebrows. He chided me again, saying that a regular line pilot would have been more qualified. I agreed. Pete and I would play well together.

At pick-up time from the hotel I introduced myself to Scott, the relief pilot. Scott was a tall guy with a warm smile. Pete had briefed him about the mission. Scott found the mission interesting, but would have been just as happy to have gone home three days earlier with pay.

Upon our arrival at the RDU departure gate, Pete and I marched off toward Operations while Scott walked down the jet bridge to begin preflight preparations. I reviewed the flight plan paperwork and discovered that except for the domestic portion, our Atlantic crossing had a very similar routing to my European trips that departed New York. We would enter the track system at an oceanic entry point that I had already circled on the Atlantic Orientation chart from a previous flight. The forecast winds favored the airways that followed the coastline from our position in North Carolina all the way through to Gander, Newfoundland.

With the paperwork in hand, Pete and I trotted back upstairs and out to the airplane. We introduced ourselves to the flight attendants in the forward galley, shuffled through the cockpit door, and began to organize our respective sides.

Scott's efficiency had most of the initial preflight complete. Pete and I had only to confirm the route with the clearance that was received via the ACARS printer and to complete the before starting engines checklist. The whole process was finished with time to spare. Although it is the captain's prerogative to take any leg that he chooses, I was the outsider on the trip, so I thought it good form to ask Pete if he had an objection if I flew to London. He was happy to oblige.

With the checklists complete and a quick taxi from our gate, we departed a very quiet Raleigh/Durham Airport. I eased back on the control wheel, and our heavily loaded 767 lumbered into the September sky. I smiled. I was finally going to see London for the first time.

An hour from our ETA at the oceanic entry point, the ACARS printer rolled out a section of curled white paper with our Atlantic crossing clearance. We acknowledged the clearance with two entries on the ACARS computer keyboard.

With our oceanic entry position report completed and the HF frequencies verified with Gander Radio, it was my turn for a break. Scott returned to the cockpit. Pete escaped for a brief lavatory visit and then I jumped out of my seat in an orchestrated changing of the guards. I left the cockpit confident that the airplane was in competent hands.

My two hour and twenty minute break went by quickly. I had managed to sleep for most of that time. Once Pete left the cockpit for his break, I spent a portion of my return reviewing the Heathrow arrival.

The British love details. Most of the UK's airport pages are stacked with volumes of procedures, rules and transitions. The most notable procedure involves a "continuous descent approach." The objective of the descent is noise abatement. The intention is to avoid a power application until the airplane is well within the approach phase. The British complicate the procedure by the use of graphs depicting descent rates and distances. Aside from the 'language barrier,' the operation is straightforward.

Thirty-five minutes prior to our landing, all three of us were strapped into our seats. Except for a hold that I had been told was the standard on every trip, the anticipated intensity of the arrival became nothing but an approach to another piece of concrete with an upbeat British flare. I rolled eight tires onto Heathrow's Runway 27 Left.

** First Officers Scott Summer and Pete Marquart**

With some guidance from Pete and Scott, I found the terminal and the gate. We were greeted by an unceremonious array of ground people, all making the same fashion statement in their lime-green vests. The parking checklist was completed. The maintenance logbook was signed. Greetings were exchanged. Three pilots and nine flight attendants with droopy smiles trotted off the airplane toward the outside of the terminal and the waiting crew bus.

After receiving our hotel room assignments, we made plans to begin an extreme tour of London in the afternoon after a four-hour nap. Where we didn't go on our self-guided tour was simpler to explain than where we did go. I was a few steps shy of a good blister. The culmination of our journey ended at the hotel pub along with other crews. For many, including myself, the evening became a reacquaintance with faces long forgotten. Fatigue finally forced us back to our hotel rooms. I was grateful to see my pillow.

In the morning, I half expected to see a small army with automatic weapons and armored personnel carriers. Not surprising, I saw nothing but the standard flow of traffic rushing to the airport.

As per normal procedure, our crew bus pulled up to an entrance gate at the terminal perimeter. We waited as airport police began their routine checks. We shuffled off the bus and retrieved our bags. We dragged them one at a time onto a standard security screening belt. Despite our crewmember status, the British authorities still require us to separate our gels and liquids. (I find it curious that some of us are licensed to carry a semi-automatic weapon in the cockpit, but can't be trusted with an oversized tube of Colgate.)

We reboarded the bus. Pete and I were dropped off at Operations while the rest of the crew was driven directly to the airplane. So much for heightened security ...

The Operations agent greeted us with the dry British humor that I had been expecting. His casual mention of our special cargo made it seem as if we took King Tut back and forth across the ocean every day. With our flight plan paperwork in hand, we were driven to the airplane.

I saw no 18-wheelers with King Tut emblazoned on the side. I saw no leather-jacketed men carrying Uzis. I saw no suits with clipboards. I saw nothing but a 767 with closed cargo doors. It couldn't be this easy, could it?

Pete and I walked onto the airplane. Flight attendants were quietly organizing their work areas as they did on every international flight. Agents were scurrying about the jet bridge. The entire scene was the picture of serenity.

I asked our purser, the lead flight attendant, to gather everybody including the air marshals in the first-class cabin for a briefing. With the small crowd assembled, I discussed my standard items that included emergency procedures and security issues. And then I disclosed the information about our secret cargo.

I got a smile. A raised eyebrow. A shoulder shrug. And one, "Cool." It wasn't until later that I realized a question from the lead air marshal would be the defining moment. He asked, "King Tut? What country is he from?"

I began to smile, thinking that the man had a sense of humor, but the seriousness in his expression betrayed the innocence of his inquiry. I answered with a solemn tone, resisting the urge to snicker.

Our departure preparations progressed without problems. Expecting to have a gate agent advise us of additional considerations, nothing of the sort occurred. The only out of the ordinary circumstance was a brief visit to the cockpit by one of our airline cargo representatives. The representative had traveled to Heathrow from Dallas for the specific purpose of ensuring our expensive shipment encountered no problems. She indicated that the museum representative was on board, but had not made his acquaintance.

When asked whether it was us or the 777 that was actually carrying the King, the answer was disappointing. It seemed that the real mummy never traveled. I dismissed that answer, wanting to believe that we were far too important not to be carrying the real thing. I need my fantasies.

We pushed back from the gate ahead of schedule. A few moments later we were airborne. No surprises. Our 10-hour flight to DFW was the epitome of a routine trip. As for King Tut ... well ... that's ancient history. (Sorry ... it had to be said.)