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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 ...

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

50/50

Frequently, when I start writing one of these chapters, I don't know where I will be going with it and can't think of a title.  As things develop, it becomes apparent what the title will be.  Let's see where we go with this one.

I spent 5 years on the Whale.  It was during this time that we negotiated the first Independent Pilots Association (IPA) contract with UPS.  I was surprised to be flying with captains who did not seem to be bothered enough by the slow pace of negotiations.  In other words, they were still busting their balls to keep the planes moving on time or early and with great efficiency.  I would not advocate deliberately causing delays, but I would just do my job at 100%, back off from the usual 110% and let the chips fall where they lay.  No early departures.  Read your manuals and do things exactly the way they are written there.  If you just did that, there will be delays.  That's just the way it is.  The system depends on pilots taking initiative and going above and beyond the call of duty.

We were flying the 747-100s.  During the Christmas season "Peak" we leased a -200 from a European company and got to see what the 747 performed like when it was not under powered.  The -200 just seemed to leap off the runway, when you rotated, compared to the -100.  We were almost always flying them fully loaded and long distances, so they used lots of runway on takeoff.  We would call V1 (our stop or go decision speed), Rotate, and as the nose came up, we could see that we were close to the end of the runway as it disappeared.  We would roll along for a while, before the wheels lifted off and with 18 wheels, that was a process. I had never flown a plane where I was that close to the end before it lifted off.

The 747 wing was designed for speed.  It was a relatively fast jet, once you got it going.  It climbed at a fast speed, but the climb rate was slow when it was heavy.  Upon leaving Tokyo, there was a fix as we entered the overwater route structure, where we had to be at our initial flight planned altitude,usually FL310 and we struggled to make that.  If we could not, we had to advise the controllers.  Most often we just made it.  Our flights were planned to fly at Mach .84, 84% of the speed of sound, Mach 1.0.  The plane really wanted to fly at .85 or .86.  At .84, if you flew into a down draft, the speed bled off quickly and it took lots of time and fuel to get it back up to speed.  At .85 or greater, that didn't happen.  Guess how fast we usually flew it.




Speed and altitude were critical on the overwater flights, because we were no longer in radar contact and collisions were avoided by using an elaborate position reporting process.  Another issue was that our Very High Frequency (VHF) communication radios were out of range from land based transmitters after about 100 miles, so we had to communicate with Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radios.  These radios had lots of noise and static on them, so we would check in on them before we "coasted out" and advise the radio operators of our Selcal code.  This was a device that had a 4 letter code, specific to our plane and we could avoid listening to all the static, because the operator would ring us up with the Selcal.  We would then turn on the audio for UHF and call to see what they wanted to tell us.  It was usually a handoff to the next controlling authority.

This reminded me of a story that has provided me with the title of this chapter.  As you would expect, I was getting the hang of this international flying business and when I did it, I continued to do the extra things to assure safety and accuracy.  It was my job to help the rest of the crew to avoid mistakes that could harm anyone or get us in legal trouble.

I was on a flight to Cologne with one of my favorite captains, Mickey Finnegan.  Mick was a little older than me, but was very fit.  He was a blonde haired, Southern California surfer dude.  We liked to take long walks for exercise and entertainment on our longer layovers.  I can remember one such walk from our hotel in Narita, through some of the Japanese farm country.  On the flight in question, we were approaching the point where we coasted out at Gander, Newfoundland, when we were advised of a route change on the North Atlantic Tracks.  Unlike the North Pacific, the routes over the North Atlantic change every 12 hours.  This is because the Atlantic passenger flights all leave the US for Europe at about the same time, mid evening, and leave Europe at about the same time for the US, early afternoon.  In order to take advantage of the winds, the Tracks are located near the jet stream for greater airspeed eastbound and away from the jet stream for the westbound flights.




UPS flights were often flown at a time that was not the same as the mass exodus of passenger flights, so we were assigned a route outside the Tracks.  I think there were about 5 or 6 Tracks at any time.  Whether flying in or out of the tracks, our routes were designated by Latitude and Longitude.

On the flight with the Mickster, we had originally been assigned 49 degrees North latitude, 050 degrees West longitude as our initial point over the water.  The revision was to 50 North, 50 West.  We sometimes used a short hand and called it 50/50.

When we enter these fixes into our navigation equipment, one crew member does it and at least one other checks to see if it is correct.  We had a sharp guy as our flight engineer that day, Jim Sampson, and he was watching also.  It wasn't necessary, but I plotted the bearing from the VHF Omnidirectional Radio (VOR) at Gander to the 50/50 fix, then set that course in the window to assure that we were tracking correctly.  

We would be using Inertial Navigation Sytem (INS) equipment only for our over water navigation.   These older planes did not have satellite navigation back then.  INS was accurate enough and we had 3 of them to cross check accuracy with.  It was based on entering your position on the ramp with known coordinates.  Then, as you moved, the INSs sensed the accelerations and knew where you were.  If we flew for a while before coasting out, we could update the position as we flew over a known point.

I drew our new course, and we flew out to 50/50.  We did all the plotting stuff we were supposed to do and then headed for our fix on 40 West.  I don't remember the latitude.  As we called to make our position report, the radio operator told us we were nearly 50 miles north of our 50/50 fix and that a gross navigational error report would be filed against it.  We all felt pretty bad about that and Mickey, who was an excitable guy, was bouncing around the cockpit like a pinball, ping, ping, ping.  I did a comparison check on our 3 INSs and they were very tight.  This made me think there was some kind of mistake.  The fact that we tracked perfectly out my plotted VOR radial toward 50/50 assured me also.  

I tried to calm Mickey and told him all the evidence I had that we were where we thought we were and had tracked out from Gander as I had plotted.  I remember big Jim pointing at the course selector and saying, "Yes, he still has the frequency and course set in the window".  I showed them the plotting line I had draw.  

As we approached 30 West, we got a call from the radio operator, handing us off to the Shanwick Sector and advising us that we had not been off course and they would not be filing a gross navigational error report on us.  We were already pretty certain we were not in trouble, but that was reassuring.

We flew on to Cologne, landed, went to the hotel and had a good sleep.  I woke up and walked to a coffee shop in the morning for my caffein fix and a pastry.  My friend Lloyd, who was flying DC-8s walked in and joined me.  After the usual comments, I mentioned that we had a weird thing happen as we crossed the Atlantic.  He said, "I know".  He told me a crazy story.

He had been flying a DC-8 behind us on their way to Standsted Airport, near London, then on to Cologne.  Both flights had 4 digit call sign numbers, that each had a couple 6s in them.  His flight had received the same route change we did.  Their plane had similar INSs, but only 2.

When you enter the coordinates, you have to enter degrees, minutes and seconds.  50 North is entered N50.00.00  50 West is W050.00.00. Because of the shorthand of talking about this fix as 50/50, Lloyd had entered the North coordinate as N50.50.00, only 10 minutes from 60 North/50 West.  The captain and flight engineer did not catch the error.  It was their flight that had been nearly 60 miles north of the assigned fix, but because of the call sign similarity, the operator called us and nearly gave Mickey a heart attack. 

 Lloyd's crew was advised to call the authorities when they landed at Standsted, which they did.  By this time the controllers and radio operators figured out what happened and because they also screwed up, everyone was off the hook.  If they had called Lloyd's flight when they called us, they could have actually corrected them in time to avoid the problem.

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