Life on the Line

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With the practiced air of a concert pianist adjusting his piano bench, Les Abend slid his captain's seat forward and towards the midline of the American Airlines 757, adjusted the seat height and rudder pedals with habitual precision, surveyed with satisfaction the array of dials, screens, switches and throttles, then turned to me and first officer Robert Wall and said, "Does anybody know what any of this stuff does?"

Luckily, he and Robert appeared to. During the next four days I was to experience the rhythm, cadence, sights, sounds, aromas and textures of what a "trip" is all about for an airline pilot. Contributing Editor Les had gotten permission from the FAA, American Airlines, the Department of Transportation, American's chief pilot and Principal Operating Inspector for me to ride in the jumpseat as he and Robert worked their way from Fort Lauderdale to San Juan to Chicago to Orlando to Boston to San Juan to Fort Lauderdale. For them it was work; for me it was the trip of a lifetime. I wrote last month about the impressive culture of safety at American, so this time I'll tell you more about how the whole escapade looked and felt.

It is a sticky, warm night in Lauderdale as we wait to board the 757 that has just arrived from our destination: San Juan. Thunderstorms are about, but none are actually over the airport. With the final passenger count, takeoff weights and a last call for water or coffee from the flight attendant, we push back with a full boat, start engines and taxi out to 9 Left. This month Les and Robert have done this trip twice before, then Robert took some vacation, so Les flew it last week with another FO. I am strapped into the jump- seat behind the copilot, trying to act nonchalant.

First surprising observation: On takeoff the airplane really shakes as those powerful Rolls Royces reach full power and 80 knots seems to come up very quickly, but V1, VR and V2 (speeds in the mid-140s) take a long time in coming. The end of the runway is definitely in sight from our high perch as we finally achieve VR. I had no idea as to how alarming the view was. It's Robert's leg, so he does the flying, but it's Les' hands on the power as we thunder down the runway. "American thinks the captain should be in charge of the abort," Les told me later. With positive rate established, Robert waves his open palm toward the heavens like a conductor exhorting a little more out of the horn section, and Les retracts the gear. Next surprising observation: The nose gear comes up right under the cockpit and it makes a very mechanical racket as it snubs and stows.

We step climb to Flight Level 370. Night falls. We are over water. Robert, who has been on vacation, says, "I missed this." We're served coffee and water by a friendly flight attendant. It is dark in the cockpit save for the instrument lights and the occasional spotlights that are turned on momentarily to consult Jeppesen charts that are clamped on to holders next to the pilots. Imagine a cockpit big enough to accommodate a set of Jepps, in their leather binder, to be affixed next to you. This will be our only leg of the day and we're headed for a fine hotel in San Juan. Our on time departure, Robert and Les's cockpit reunion and our destination make for a happy work place.

Too soon for me, the island of Puerto Rico comes into view and the lights of San Juan are visible from 100 miles out. Our approach takes us right over the city and on to Runway 8.

Surrounded by bright urban lighting, the airport looks like a black hole until we're close enough to see the approach lights. Les sees the airport from way out and shows it to Robert who says he has it in sight. I can't see anything until we're on top of the runway, it seems. Robert greases it on. Les chides him about it. We set the brakes on time, run the after shutdown checklist, wait for all 187 passengers to deplane and then head out.

The crew van is right there, as all of them were during this trip. We take a short ride to a fine beach resort hotel, check in and meet in the lobby 10 minutes later. Les has changed into the ubiquitous official airline pilot layover uniform: a bright Hawaiian shirt and slacks. All the restaurants at the hotel are closed except the Japanese place, so it is sushi for us. We wander out into the lobby after a nice meal only to be confronted by a spectacular midnight sight: it's prom night in San Juan. Dazzling young women and clueless appearing hipsters are everywhere and it is clear that their night is just beginning.

Next morning both Robert and Les get exercise before we head to the airport. Robert runs and Les uses the hotel's excellent workout room. Our lobby call for pick up is pushed back because scheduling already knows we'll be late departing, due to a mechanical delay on the incoming equipment. Better to wait comfortably at the hotel. We sign in an hour before the rescheduled departure, check the flight plan, weather, etc., and wait. Finally the 757 arrives and we hustle down the jetway in an effort to make up some turn time. Les queries the incoming crew about the mechanical; it was a problem with air conditioning packs that required a return to the gate in Chicago - the airplane functioned fine on the trip in. The captain, whom Les has never met, says at the end, "Aren't you Les Abend, the guy who writes for Flying?" Les acknowledges the recognition, the captain is complimentary, and just when I think we've said our goodbyes, the captain looks at me and says, "And this must be Dick Karl." I am immensely pleased.

San Juan to Chicago is a long way, scheduled for a block time of just about five hours, but we haven't even started an engine before Les and Robert begin discussing what kind of burrito they plan to acquire at O'Hare. A short seven hours later, I find out why.

This leg is upwind, but the 757 shakes off modest headwinds because they are such small fractions of cruise speed. I note with amazement that we're indicating Mach .81 and still climbing at over a thousand feet a minute out of Flight Level 370. Robert and Les are used to this.

Five hours of flying is a long time together and naturally the conversation turns to flying, among other things. Robert has been a captain with American, but the airline downturn after 9/11 has put him back in the right seat. He's been with American for 16 years. Les is only a year older than Robert, but he's been with American 22 years, 16 of those as captain, and he now enjoys an excellent seniority number. Such are the vagaries of airline life.

Robert is philosophical, though. "I had a choice to make, and I made it. I love flying, love this job and I'm not going to complain." He goes on, "When I first got hired as an engineer on the 727, I couldn't believe my good fortune. I figured that I had two college graduates who would fly me from party to party." A bell chimes, indicating that one of the flight attendants is calling. Les, in mock approximation of alarm, says urgently, "I've got the airplane." The next time he and Robert go through this practiced routine, I get the joke and don't tighten my seat belt.

Over North Carolina we're given a new full route clearance and I startle as new numbers start issuing from the ACARS. It seems that American's dispatch people already know about the route change, and our fuel burn and station passage times have been recomputed. Wow. We start down. An ILS to 4R is in the offing and I can see us and lots of other traffic displayed as we dance in a line down the downwind around the inbound turn and then fall in line for the approach. Les makes a good landing, an occasion which prompts Robert to sing out, "Nice landing, Captain." He laughs and tells me this phrase is part of the after landing checklist.

We're late and we're taking the same airplane to Orlando, so Les and I run out to that burrito stand. Les is obviously on a mission. Wrapped in aluminum foil, we get two chicken and one spicy chicken, each the size and weight of a brick. We hustle back through O'Hare's crowded Friday evening concourse, lit by slanted sunlight, to our gate where Les prints out the next flight plan. A harried passenger queries Les about our delay and Les answers with patience I find admirable. Already I have learned that, for me, it doesn't matter what time we leave or arrive, I'm heading to a hotel room regardless.

Eating this massive burrito proves to be an experience in dining, digestion and logistics. I manage to catch most of the debris in the aluminum cocoon, but Les drops about 20 pounds of whatever is in a burrito on his right pant leg. An alert flight attendant named Sylvie immediately provides club soda and solace. I like her already, but when she passes a tray of heated nuts our way, I am in love. As we wait for our final numbers, Les whistles the theme song from The Godfather and Robert begs him not to sing. That's all Les has to hear. Noting tomorrow's destination, he begins singing, "Please Come to Boston." Les guides us via tiller to the departure runway like he was commuting to work. O'Hare's jungle of taxiways, runways, penalty boxes and bridges are as familiar as his driveway. I see he has the airport plan open on his Jepp stand, though.

Robert takes us up to 370 and the sun disappears over his shoulder. It is quieter now. We've been together for eight cockpit hours and on the ground, too. Discussion arises about a red area on the radar just north of Atlanta. Both pilots are very conservative about deviating away from any danger. Even so, they're unhappy with the ride and we ask for and are given 390. Les says, "I'm off," meaning he's giving a PA announcement and that Robert is in charge of both driving and talking.

As the night drags on, Les asks no one in particular, "Are we there yet?" Robert holds his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart and says, "This much to go." Two and half hours after takeoff, he has us wheeling around to land to the north in Orlando. Those bright runway and VASI lights are beautiful in the dark. He makes another great landing and is rewarded with an early high speed taxiway turnoff. We are instructed to an unconventional gate and Les brings the airplane to a stop to look at the Jeppesen diagram Robert holds up for his reading pleasure.

The van is right there again and we take a surprisingly long ride to the airport hotel, maybe 20 minutes, all told. The place is sold out and two huge front desk men, who appear obviously related, are not rushing with their tasks. We're finally given keys, after which we meet briefly for a nightcap and fall into bed. Day two is over.

I awake the next morning missing my buddies. We're not getting picked up until after two and I've got all morning to move some machinery around in the very nice YMCA next door. I get a free pass for the Y in the lobby and meet Les in the exercise area. He promises me a very good seafood buffet across the street at noon. I'm very eager for lunch. Like I said, I am missing these guys and can't wait for the Boston leg. I'm starting to get the hang of this now. Through security and onto the 757, I stow my stuff and try to be helpful by folding the ACARS dispatch information just so; just the way Robert has taught me. It is hot and the trip is routine until we're near Pautaxent, when we hear Washington Center say, "Turn to a heading of 270 immediately or you will be fired upon." We listen with rapt attention to the plight of some pilot who has wandered into a TFR until Les breaks the spell and asks, "Was that for us?" I've flown commercially into Boston many, many times, and I've flown small airplanes in there on occasion, too, but I've never been able to watch the whole over water, skyline silhouetted approach this way at dusk before. It is beautiful, as is Les's landing. We park at the gate, grab our stuff and walk towards the exit when Les leans towards me and says, "That's the gate Flight 11 left from on 9/11. This is a small base. Everybody knows each other. It still hurts." Suddenly I am chilled.

The bartender in the hotel restaurant is a middle-aged woman with a leg injury. Les asks after her health; he's been following her progress on this trip all month. We get an earful but, fortunately, no show and tell. It is 8 o'clock and tomorrow starts early, so the crew eats and hits the sack. I sneak off and have dinner with my son and daughter-in-law, full of stories about my trip.

Sunday morning I wake up and switch on the Weather Channel. It's funny: "Local on the Eights" is different every day. Yesterday it was Orlando, Friday it was San Juan, today it's Boston. But it is hot with chance of thunderstorms everywhere. This last day is sort of sad as I don't want this to end. I've really enjoyed the airplane and the people. We've got a big day ahead, though. Boston to San Juan to Fort Lauderdale; then I'm flying our Cheyenne home to Tampa. Originally Les had planned to catch up with his wife Carol in Tampa, so we were going to finish this airline odyssey with some general aviation flying. But she's now in New England and it is her birthday, so Les is planning on deadheading to Kennedy when we get to Florida. Les dials home on his cell and he, Robert and I sing "Happy Birthday" to Carol. This is part of the airline pilot's life.

Buttoned up and waiting, strains of The Godfather theme contaminate the atmosphere again. We're soon out and off, though, and once we're level I get this great sense of well being. The sun is bright, we're on time and I have genuinely come to like my two cockpit companions. I've known Les over a few dinners, but now I count him as a friend. Bermuda is covered with clouds, but we're in the sun.

There's weather on the radar and out the cockpit window, almost over the airport in San Juan. I watch with admiration as Les and Robert decide to hang tight with the controllers and to trust them. We turn just short of the thunderstorm and follow a company 757 to the same Runway 8 we left two days ago. Our traffic is slowed to 160 knots and there is some discussion about the pilot's dawdling. Robert nails another good landing, but we're stalled on the taxiway by the same airplane that slowed us down on the approach. One of my friends says with exasperation, "This guy is still in our way."

Homeward bound. We launch into the sun and follow it to Florida. An hour later, Les asks again whether we're there yet and Robert gives his by now familiar hand signal.

There's rain all over Florida and Les extends the onboard radar range, so that I can see what lies in store for me on the short trip from Lauderdale to Tampa after we land this big airplane.

Les gets the best landing of the trip but our on time arrival is sabotaged by full gates. We park and shutdown in a holding spot in full view of the laggards. Weather all over has fouled things up. For a while it seems that the 767 at our assigned gate will leave soon, but Les and Robert, spotting baggage loaders left in place, don't fall for this story. Next we hear that some steps will be moved so we can use the gate employed by a commuter airplane, but nobody comes to move the steps. Finally another 757 pulls out and our four-day trip comes to a quick end. I'm out the door to beat the thunderstorms to Tampa, Robert's heading home and Les is fleeing to catch the flight to Kennedy. In our haste we race by a crew that is starting the very same four-day trip by flying to San Juan. The cycle is starting over again and our airplane is not yet through for the day.