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Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Airports have 3 digit identifiers for domestic use.  Some are easy to understand.  PIT is Pittsburgh.  ABQ is Albuquerque.  For international use there are 4 digits.  Some of these won't make sense to you.  When using 3 digits for Cologne, Germany we use CGN, but internationally, it is know as EDDK.  For international purposes, we add a K in front of the normal 3 digit identifiers for airports in the contiguous 48 states.  The PHL for Philadelphia becomes KPHL.

My practice wife, April, was from a Philadelphia suburb, so I was not a big fan of Philly until I started having layovers there on the 747.  There were some great restaurants there and lots of historic sites to visit.  It was also one of the cities for one of my favorite trips on that plane, PHL - OAK - PHL.  You got it, Oakland, California.  What I like about that trip, was that it was all daytime flying and as I became more senior on the plane, I was able to hold that trip on my schedule line, just about any time I wanted to.  This was a nice break from the clock twisting and mind bending schedules of the international flying.

During one flight from PHL to OAK, we were rerouted north of our normal route.  We usually flew south of Pittsburgh, but this time we were going north.  Our new route had us going directly to Elwood City VOR, EWC.  This navigational aid was about 15 miles northwest of my old stomping grounds, Butler Graham Airport.  This meant we would be flying directly over KBTP.  

I'm not sure of the date of this flight, but I had last flown there in the summer of 1978.  This flight was some time in the first half of the 1990s.  As the field passed under the nose of the Whale, I was thinking about the people, back in the mid 70s, when I flew out of there,  who would have never anticipated I would be flying in this airspace in a 747.  I have to admit that I was among them.  It is still an amazing thing for me to think about that transition.

It seemed that there were several times when I woke up in KPHL to bad news stories , in which I had some involvement, on the TV news channels.  For example, once the TV was full of the news that John Heinz, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, had been killed in Philadelphia in a collision between an airplane and a helicopter.  In 1976, the year Heinz first ran for senator, I had been flying his opponent, Bill Green, during the campaign.  Green and Heinz had both been Members of Congress.  Heinz was from Pittsburgh and Green from Philadelphia.  It's a good thing I was apolitical at that time.  Bill Green was a Democrat, but I liked him, his family and his campaign staff.  It was fun traveling with them during the campaign and going to political rallies all over the state.  I flew with them in some nasty winter weather, including a tight nighttime approach into Johnstown, PA in a blizzard.  I even got to spend a night at their home in Washington.  

During one of the bid periods on which I was flying the PHL - OAK trip, I got to fly with two of my favorite guys.  The captain was Tod Nichols and the flight engineer was my old pal Geary Chancey, who I had met when I was in training on the Whale.  Tod was a very smart guy, very articulate and a good debater.  He was a liberal and I was just coming to the full realization that I was a conservative.  We had some blistering arguments, which helped us stay awake while crossing the North Pacific.  Eventually, we realized we liked each other and avoided talking about politics.  

There was a micro brewery in Oakland that we liked to visit for dinner and an interesting, hand crafted brew.  It was called the Pacific Coast Brewing Company and it was a short walk from our layover hotel downtown.  This place had several of its own beers and had a rotating menu of micro brews from other sources.  There were descriptions of the beers that were similar to those you would see about fancy, expensive wines.  We went there once with a guy who ordered an MGD Light, which is something I consider to be 'why bother beer'.  You should have seen the look on the face of the waiter.  Priceless.

Anyway, Geary and I were planning to go there and I needed some walking around cash, so I went to an ATM on the street near the hotel.  I remember hearing Geary standing behind me saying, "I got your 6, Denny".  Oakland has a reputation for being a kind of lawless place.  He was a Marine fighter pilot and having someones 6 means he had my back covered as I was accessing my money.  It was chuckle worthy, as this was in broad daylight.

We had also spent some time in the aviation section of a book store, where we met a guy who was in the early stages of his aviation career.  He was a student at Sierra Academy of Aviation, where my old pal, Dave " Captain Twirly" Orris had attended.  We ended up giving him career advice and I remember the daggers coming from the eyes of his girlfriend, as I told him not to get too tied down before he had gained enough experience to apply to the airlines.

The trip with Tod and Geary lasted about a week and Geary had mentioned several times that he would be on vacation after the trip and would not be with us during the next trip.  He and his wife were planning to take their daughter on a trip on Amtrak from their home in Jacksonville, Florida to New Orleans.  His daughter was 11 and confined to a wheelchair.  He called her their "miracle child", because they had been trying to have children and just about given up hope, when she was born.  This would be her first train ride and Geary was very excited about the trip.  

We had a week off and I deadheaded to Philly to begin the trip.  When I woke up, the news was full of the story of the Amtrak crash north of Mobile Bay.  I thought about Geary, but thought the chances he was on that particular train were slim.  When I met Tod and the new engineer, who was flying in Geary's place, Tod mentioned the crash and the possibility that Geary was on that train.  I told him what I had been thinking, we did not know what day he and his family would be passing through there and there had to be many Amtrak trains passing through there each day.  "What are the chances they were on that train?"  Tod nodded and said, "Yeah, you're probably right".

We flew the rest of our trip and I deadheaded back to Louisville from Philadelphia after it ended.  As I walked into the UPS building upon arrival, I saw a friend who said, "Did you hear one of our guys was on the Amtrak train in Mobile?"  I asked, "Was his name Geary Chancey?"  He said, "Yeah, I think it was".  It was.

I was rattled.  Geary was one of the truly good guys.  His wife had died also, but their daughter had survived.  I would be anticipating seeing his smiling face coming around the corner in that building for months.  The story we got at their funeral, was that Geary had gotten his daughter out of their car, which was submerged, placed her in a safe place, then gone back for his wife.  He never returned to the surface.  He was a Marine hero to the end.  I cried at their funeral.     

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