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Early Years

I'm switching the rest of the story to the Flexible Flyer banner.  I have always thought that would be a good title for my memoirs.  My ...

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wise Ass

I flew the 747 for 5 years at UPS.  Because of the lousy conditions at UPS, pilots senior to me were leaving and going to other airlines.  Passenger airlines were always considered better places to work for pilots.  It was considered more glamorous to walk out a jetway than to be driven to your plane by a van, in the middle of the night.  

There were advantages to not having passengers in the back.  The boxes did not complain about anything and did not have any of the problems that humans can come up with.

Having realized that it was UPS or nothing for me, I had settled down and found a way to enjoy my life and enjoy my job.  I was becoming an experienced international pilot and very experienced on the 747.  Once you get used to the sight picture out the windscreen when you are landing, it is a really easy airplane to fly.

I went to a local airport to get checked out in a Piper Arrow, a plane I had flown for many hours in my Butler Graham Airport days, and when I was trying to land it, I was flaring way too high and scaring the instructor.  When we were touching down on the runway, it looked to me as if we were going under it.

I was now flying with captains who had less experience on the 747 than I did.  Many were brand new, just out of training.  It was fun to help them with some of the details and watch them as they were learning the plane.  There were some guys who were nervous about things like landing at the Hong Kong Tai Kak Airport and wanted me to do that a few times before they tried it.  They were all good pilots and were just being prudent.

There was one guy who had recently been flying the 757, with all its fancy avionics.  The Whale was definitely a step or two back in that respect, but it still had good stuff.  You just had to know how to use it.  The new guy from the 75 and I were flying across the country on a day trip.  

Somewhere in one of the western states, there was a big, lone column, that looked kind of like a thunderstorm.  It was not showing up on our weather radar and the captain was freaking and complaining about the junky radar.  The 757 had digital, color radar.  This gave you a very clear, very easy to see image of precipitation in 4 colors based on intensity.  The 747 had digital radar, but only one color, green.  The captain told air traffic control he wanted a different heading to go around the "storm".  The controller said he didn't see any weather on his radar.  I was having so much fun watching him fuss with the radar and complain about it, I did not tell him it was a big forest fire.  The radar was working just fine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From Metaphor To Reality

If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, you may remember a discussion about the problem of advancing in a career as a professional pilot seeming to be a metaphoric mountain.

I was just talking to my son, Mike, about a friend of his, who is a mechanical engineer, but is contemplating taking flying lessons and perhaps working toward becoming a pilot.  That reminded my of how things looked and felt when I was at the earlier stages of that process myself.  When you look at the point where we are in the story now, I am a first officer, a co-pilot on a Boeing 747, flying around the world for one of the wealthiest companies in existence.

This struggle, the climbing of this metaphoric mountain, is what this blog is all about.  Remember, the sub-title is How Not To Build An Aviation Career.  Observing the young man sitting in the right seat of that 747 and not knowing the story of the preceding 25 or so years, you could see the achievement as a forgone conclusion.  If you have read the entire blog, you know it was not.

Sometime, during the 5 years I flew the 747, I had a weekend layover in Ontario, California, where UPS had a fairly big west coast hub.  I had learned about a cable tram from Palm Springs California, up the eastern slope of Mt. San Jacinto, during my time flying for Pacific Express Airlines.  The tram rises from about 2,500 ft. above sea level to about 8,500 ft.  From there, you can hike about 5 miles to the summit at 10,800 ft.  The drive, from our layover hotel at that time, to the tram is about 70 miles and a little over an hour, depending on traffic.

These are pictures of the current tram cars.

This car is from the time that I first rode the tram.

I decided to rent a car and drive to Palm Springs to give it a try.  I decided to drag the captain I was flying with, Mark W., out there with me.  He was dumb enough to go for it.  As we were eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant, another 747 captain, Keith, walked in and joined us.  I threw out the lure and he went for it too.

This was probably the most unprepared mountaineering expedition I have ever been on.  It was also my first.  We were wearing our airline pilot layover clothes, shorts, t-shirts and white running shoes.  I may have had a baseball cap to block the sun.  We brought a small duffle bag one of us carried some of our stuff in while traveling and bought bottles of water on the drive to fill it.

As you drive eastward on Interstate 10, you realize this area is really a desert.  Mt. San Jacinto is visible almost immediately, if the sky is clear.  You can also see Mt. San Gorgonio, with the Banning Pass between the 2 mountains.  As you clear the pass and turn toward Palm Springs, you see the wind farm.

This is hog heaven for my lefty friends.

We drove up the steep, 2 lane road to the lower station, parked the car, walked up the steeply inclined parking lot, entered the station and bought our tickets.  There are 2 cars traveling in opposite directions and we did not wait long for our ride.  The transition in topography on this ride is dramatic.  The ride is only about 10 minutes and it quickly takes you from the hot desert to the cool, lush forest above.  

On a later trip, in the winter, there was a cloud layer to be penetrated about halfway up and there was deep snow at the upper station.  We popped out of the clouds and the transition was from a warm, summer like day, to harsh, cold winter.  I always describe it as a Jack In The Beanstalk experience, because it was like a fast trip to another mysterious world.

The upper station is a large, 2 story building with a couple restaurants and a small nature center discussing the wildlife on the mountain.  When you learn that there are black bears and cougars up there, you realize you are not at the top of the food chain.

I have made so many subsequent visits to this station, I don't remember exactly what my 2 fearless captains and I did there on this trip, beyond passing through and starting down the winding, paved path to the trailhead.

After a short walk, we arrived at the ranger station in Round Valley to get our permit.  Off we went, looking like a small group of dorks.  Western trails are not nearly as steep as those in the Appalachian Mountains, back east.  These trails were designed and built for pack animals and were much more humane.  Everything is based on switchbacks, which can be boring, because you feel as if you are not changing scenery very quickly.  They add distance, but they save you from steep climbs.  Because of the higher elevation, breathing was difficult and the switchbacks were appreciated.

We had bought a map, which is always a good idea.  The trail junctions were fairly easy to identify and navigate.  Most of the climb was under the forest canopy and it became a little cooler as we climbed, compensating for the increasing body heat as we burned calories.

Near the summit, we finally broke out of the forest and all that remained was a rock scramble of 100 feet or so on hands and feet.  The view in all directions was spectacular.  We could see Mt. Gorgonio to the north and on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean is visible at Los Angeles, 100 miles west.

This was really cool and I now had some inkling of the thoughts and feelings experienced by those nut jobs who climb dangerous mountains all over the world.  I was hooked.

Somehow, my earlier obsession with the mountain metaphor of my career building experience had now merged with the reality of hiking to the tops of serious mountains.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

NATS Revisited.

I just found an excellent article that I wish I had seen before I wrote my previous blog, 50/50.  It was created by a UPS pilot, who is also a cyber wiz, Ken Hoke.  This gives a very good explanation of the North Atlantic Track System (NATS).  It also talks about the data uplink systems that came into use after the time I was flying the 747-100s at UPS in the early 90s.

North Atlantic Track System


Communication on international flights was always a challenge.  I talked about that previously.   English is the international language of aviation.  That is lucky for those of us who are native English speakers.  It must be a challenge for those who do not to speak English as a first language and there are some funny examples of why it is.  For example, some sadistic so and so named the primary fix we use when transitioning from the North Pacific routes to Japanese airspace Melon.  The Japanese controllers pronounce it Meron and it takes a few times to train you ear for things like that.

Another critical type of communication is that which transpires in the cockpit.  There have been many deadly crashes, because of communication break downs in the cockpit.  One of the reasons for this, was that captains had always been like sky gods in the cockpit.  Copilots often feared them, or feared for their jobs if they crossed them. 

One of the most notable and famous such crashes was the crash between 2 747s on the runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Another was the crash of a United Airlines DC-8 in Portland, Oregon, due to fuel starvation.

There was also a crash of an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 in the Florida Everglades.

These are some of the most famous, but there have been many more crashes that led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to suggest what was first called Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), but has been changed to Crew Resource Management to include cabin crew members, flight attendants.

You can follow all the above hyper links if you want to learn more about all that.

CRM came into existence in the late 70s, but not all airlines were doing it.  The low budget companies I had been working for had never held CRM classes.  UPS eventually initiated a CRM program during the 5 years I was flying the 747, in the early 90s.

You may remember me talking about my old pal, Captain Jack Bingham, who I flew with frequently on the UPS 747.  He is the guy who seemed to think first officers were a voice activated autopilot.  I have a funny story about him with regard to CRM.

Jack and I were flying with a flight engineer named, Jim Miller.  Jim was a good guy.  He was very erudite and articulate.  He was writing a mystery crime thriller during the time we flew together.  He did not particularly like Jack, who thought he was erudite.  I used to say, "We are still looking for a subject about which Jack is not an expert".

Jim had attended one of the very first CRM classes at UPS just prior to our trip.  When I learned that, we were flying over the Pacific to Seoul or Narita, a very long leg.  I started asking Jim questions about CRM and he was providing lots of information and personal insight.

Before long, I noticed that Jack was being uncharacteristically silent.  Then it occurred to me that we had indeed found something about which Jack knew nothing.  (I suspect there were many others, but there is no way he could have logically claimed to be more  knowledgeable than Jim about this one.)  Jim seemed to have broken the code on that also. 

With a wink and a nod, we began having a funny conversation at Jack's expense.  Jim said that the most interesting thing he learned at the CRM class was that most pilots have a much better image of themselves than their fellow pilots have and this was especially true of captains.  We both began laughing at that and enjoyed the look on Jack's face.

When I saw that look, I knew Jack would be in the earliest CRM class possible.  He simply could not go off, flying around the world, risking the possibility that he would be flying with someone who know more about a subject than he could pretend to know.

Several months later, I had flown a Whale into Chicago O'Hare from Anchorage and gone to the hotel.  I was sitting at the hotel bar, having a burger and a beer, when in walks Captain Jack, in uniform.  He ordered a cup of coffee and told me he was flying the jet back to Anchorage.

Jack wasted no time telling me he had attended the CRM class and that the most interesting thing he learned was that there were first officers who had previously been captains and still thought they were captains, like me.  I laughed and thought, "Touche".   

Thursday, December 8, 2016

2 Dads

There was a captain, named Jack Bingham, with whom I flew a lot. We liked doing the same kind of stuff, we were both trying to make as much money as we could and everyone else did not like him. 

I had some issues with him myself.  He was one of those guys who thought the first officer was a voice activated autopilot.  He would reach over and extend the gear or flaps before you called for them.  It pissed me off at first, but once I asked him WTF he was doing (with a smile on my face), he kind of backed off a little.  

Jack was a big, white haired guy and to listen to him, he had done a little bit of everything and was an expert on all things.  I didn't mind that either.  What I liked about him was that he promoted crew esprit de corp on layovers.  For example, we would always make arrangements to meet after we got some sleep, then get together to do something.  It usually involved eating and drinking beer and sometimes an activity like watching a football game on TV.

Jack knew where every buffet in every town was located.  He was retired from the Air Force and when we went to Seoul, we took a bus to an officers club with a big seafood buffet.  Once in Honolulu, we got a couple 6 packs, a cooler and rented a sailboat to sail around Pearl Harbor.  As I write this, it is 75 years and one day after the "date which will live in infamy".  Chuck Hippler, who worked with me at Florida Express, was the flight engineer.  We had a blast, then ate dinner at an O club nearby, probably a buffet.

Real airlines bid for a new schedule every month, 12 times a year.  At UPS, after the first IPA contract, we bid every 8 weeks.  It's a little complicated, but we bid about half as much and the way it was set up, it gave UPS flexibility in planning for their Peak months  November and December.  

What this meant for us was that we had a long time to fly with whichever crew members we matched up with.  This was fantastic if you liked them and terrible if you didn't.  It was still an improvement over the way it was before, when our bid periods were 3 months long.  Geez!

Most of the pilots liked this setup, but I hated it.  They liked not having to bid every month, but I thought it was too challenging to get important events off, especially if you were junior.  Most of our schedules were week on, week off.  With that alternating pattern, you could miss a birthday or anniversary if they didn't fit the pattern.  You had to prioritize and compromise.  Juniority sucks.  I would have preferred bidding every month.  We had lots of time on long legs to do it.

Bidding is set up, so that captains are awarded first, then the first officers and flight engineers the next day.  This gives them a chance to avoid captains they don't like.  There is no way for the captain to avoid crew members he doesn't like, but he or she is the captain.  This is why I ended up flying with Jack so much.  I didn't mind flying with him and we liked doing the same kind of trips, ones that made us the most money.

At this time, UPS had a lousy retirement program for its pilots.  The mandatory retirement age was 60 and for many, they needed to work as much as they could beyond that age to keep the cash flowing in the right direction.  Jack was getting close to 60 and one bid period, we flew with George Gillette, who had been a captain, but continued working as a flight engineer in the 747 after age 60.  There is no mandatory retirement age for engineers.  The 3 of us would be flying together for 8 weeks, week on week off, laying over in Narita, Seoul and Hong Kong.  I always refer to this bid period as the time I was flying with 2 dads.

I was not yet 50 and still had some color in my hair and I was flying around the world, literally, with 2 white haired geezers who were always giving me advice, some good, some not so good.

Jack had just gotten involved in an investment scheme that had something to do with oil fields in Texas.  As I listened to him describe it in glowing terms, it sounded like a Ponzi scheme to me. Jack was trying to talk me into getting into it, but it sounded to me like I would be one of the ones getting in too late.  No matter what I started talking about, Jack was trying to push this scheme on me.  If I said, "Gee, Jack, it looks like the sky is very blue today."  Jack would say, "Gee, Denny, you really need to get into this oil field deal."

Every time Jack would get up to go back to the john or something, George would lean forward and whisper, "Denny, don't do that oil field deal.  It's a bad deal."  I would say, "Don't worry, George.  You have to have extra money to invest and that is not a problem for me."  I was starting to get caught up with my financial recovery from the 2 bankruptcies, but was not quite there yet.

Jack and I liked to go out on the town in the Asian layover cities and eat and drink where the locals did.  That was always easier and more fun in Hong Kong, because it was a British colony and it was full of folks from England, Australia, and New Zealand.  We all spoke the same language, sorta.  George was what we refer to as a slam/clicker.  He always went to his room, slammed the door closed and clicked the lock.  Then he would order room service.  Every meal, every day.

At the end of our 8 weeks together, Jack and I got on George's case about never joining us for dinner and a drink.  He finally relented and we met in the lobby to have a beer.  When we were deciding which restaurant to go to, George insisted on going to a spaghetti restaurant right across the street from our hotel in Kow Loon.  We were so glad he was finally going with us, that we did not complain.  We just sat there in one of the most exotic cities in Asia and ate our Chef Boy freakin' Ardee  spaghetti.


Friday, December 2, 2016

HKG Kai Tak

I spent about 5 years flying the 747 as a first officer (co-pilot).  During the early years, We flew over water flights to Cologne, Germany, Narita (Tokyo), Japan and Honolulu on our regular schedule and flew charters to Amsterdam and Frankfort.  These flights and flights to Anchorage, Alaska are flown under international operating regulations.

Eventually, we started flying to Hong Kong.  HKG was still a British Colony at that time.  To me, it was an even more exotic destination than Tokyo.  For Tokyo, we flew into the Narita International Airport, which was out in the country, away from the center of the city by a 30 to 45 minute train ride.  At Hong Kong, we flew into the Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, which was the area of mainland on the other side of Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island.  This was big city.

Kai Tak Airport was a landfill built out into the harbor.  It was a single runway, with a parallel taxiway.  It had one of the most interesting and challenging approaches to its favored runway, the famous Checkerboard IDS Approach to Runway 13

The video above gives a good overview of the airport and the approach.  We had to fly this approach during training in the simulator before flying it to the actual runway.  As the video explains, the wind is usually a crosswind from the right side of the runway.  

The approach requires flying a typical ILS approach with course and glideslope guidance, toward a mountain with a big checkerboard painted on it.  We fly that to about 660 feet above the runway, then if we break out of the clouds and can see the mountain and more importantly, the runway, we begin a turn to the right of 47 degrees.  Because of that crosswind from the right, it is important to go to a 30 degree bank angle immediately.  Then you look at the runway to see if the turn is lining you up with the runway.  If you are banking too much, you will be to the right of the runway and you can reduce your bank angle a little.  If you did not get enough bank in initially, you will probably drift to the outside of the turn and be too far to the left of the runway.  The wind will be pushing you that way.  This will lead to some excitement and a need to use more bank angle.  I always liked being a little to the inside of the turn and correcting from that.

While all this is being done, you have to concentrate on allowing the plane to continue descending at the same rate at which you were descending before the turn.  This is hard, because there is a tendency to pull a little back pressure on the controls when banking steeply.  If you level your descent too much, you will be too high and have to go around.  There is a light system next to the runway to provide visual glide path information, but it is hard to use that until you are nearly lined up with the runway.  It is desirable to get the turn completed and line up with the runway ASAP, so that you have as much time as possible to concentrate on the landing flare.  If you are still messing around with the turn too late, the landing will suffer.  You will see some of that in the next video.  The narrator is speaking in German, I think.  There are captions in Chinese and in very tiny English at the bottom of the screen.  Go to full screen.

The first few times I flew this approach, it looked like the wing was going down between the tall buildings.  It is a very exciting and fun approach to fly in a big plane like a 747.

As time passed and I had been flying to Hong Kong for years, I began to fly with captains who were new on the plane and had never flown this approach for reals.  Some of them would ask me to fly it the first time and I was more than happy to do so.  One such guy was Jim Romagnolo, with whom I had flown to Cologne several times.  He had lots of experience on the 74, but this was his first and only bid period flying to Asia.  He hated it and was always talking about eating "fish heads and rice".  Jim always gave me that landing.

Jim lived on Connecticut and had a crazy story about one of his neighbors.  This guy was working on his roof and was afraid of falling.  He tied a rope around his waste and ran it over the hip of the roof, but it was tied to the bumper of his car.  His wife did not know these details, got in the car and drove off, dragging him over the hip of the roof, down to the ground and down the driveway.  He survived, but was busted up pretty badly.  I always bugged Jim to tell me he was joking about this, but he insisted it was a true story.

The following are some of my photos from Hong Kong.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Overnight Success

Previously, I discussed the financial difficulties my family and I were dealing with during the early years at UPS.  The pilots had been represented by the Teamsters originally, but a group of leaders among the pilots had broken off from them and formed their own union at great risk.  It's a long, boring and convoluted story, but the unions that represent airline employees fall under the Railway Labor Act.  It was created originally to prevent disruption of the nation's commerce by a railroad strike.  Under the RLA, there is no deadline at which the contract must be settled or the workers go on strike.  There is an amendable date, the employees continue working and eventually an agreement is reached or there is a complex process which may eventually lead to a strike.  Long story short, the government is the dealer and the company holds most of the high cards.

When the original contract between UPS and the Teamsters reached its amendable date, the new union, the Independent Pilots Association was the bargaining agent for the pilots.  I believed that historically, these negotiations only lasted a little more than a year after the amendable date.  This one seemed to drag on for nearly a year.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had been going into deeper and deeper credit card debt every month just to support my family.  There was an expectation that we would get a decent raise and move into the same ballpark as the major airlines, or at least into the neighborhood in which the ballpark was located.  We also expected it would not take more than the average time for such negotiations.

Another thing I mention earlier is all the stories I was being told by other pilots about the draconian and stupid things UPS was doing to the crew members.  Occasionally, I would say that I did not disbelieve any of that, but I always tried to give anyone a free first shot.  I did not like to form solid opinions about people based on stories I had been told.  This was especially true for a company where I hoped to work for the next couple decades.

With all my issues, getting deeper and deeper into debt and knowing that relief was just a contract away,  I was really starting to get pissed at UPS for not making a deal.  I considered this to be their free shot and was now onboard with the rest of the folks who had been there before me.  

Finally, the union announced a tentative agreement.  It was not as good as the major airlines, but I would now be making more annually than I had ever made before.  The best part was that we would be paid retroactively for the increase in pay back to the amendable date, nearly 2 years before.  I used the after tax money as a down payment on a house.  We bought a nice house that needed some work.  Even with that, it was probably a little bit of a stretch, but we are still living in that house and my income, over the years, was able to grow into it and beyond.

We had accumulated about $10,000 in credit card debt.  It felt like a million to me.  The mother of a friend was looking for a place to invest money from an investment that had just matured and loaned me the 10 grand at 8% simple interest.  This was a good deal for both of us at the time.  I paid it off as quickly as I could.

I had taken my first flight lesson in the autumn of 1968, in a Cessna 150, at Zelionople Pennsylvania, with the goal of getting an airline job, earning what airline pilots earn.  Here we were, 23 years later.  Although I had been flying for airlines for 9 years, I was only now near the threshold of achieving that goal late in 1991.  I was still about 4 years from actually crossing the threshold, but I could see it from here.