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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Where do I go from here?

The blog is about the struggle.  It is now at the point where the goal has been achieved.  It began with a night in January of 1966, riding as a passenger on a TWA Constellation from Pittsburgh to Louisville KY.  I was 20 years old and had been drafted into the Army.  Basic Training was completed and I was on my way to begin my Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Knox.  It is what I consider the first night of my adult life.

I remember looking out the window of the plane, at the snow that was visible in the landing lights and wondering what it must be like to fly in these conditions.  This was in the early stages of the Viet Nam War and I realized that my future was uncertain in the extreme.  With all this rattling around in my head, I decided to start taking charge of my life and to stop just sitting back and going with the flow.

As a captain of Boeing airplanes working for UPS, with a contract that had finally gotten me onto the same playing field with industry standard airline pilot pay, I had achieved the goals I had established for my life on that night.  

The goals were not specifically to be an airline pilot in '66, but they were to become someone, something I could be proud of.  The specifics worked themselves out over the decades since.  It was like dying and going to heaven and in the words of my old First Sergeant in the Army, I was in "hog heaven".  As I said recently, if I had met the person I became as a UPS 757 captain back in 1966, I would have been in awe.  Of course, when you finally achieve that status, you are not awed, because you have been around many other people who have reached that level.  No biggy.

With all that in mind, it is hard to know where to go with the blog.  The mountain has been climbed.

Hey, that gives me an idea.  I can talk about some of the activities I became involved in during my leisure time, on layovers.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


The Boeing 757 was the most capable and versatile airplane I had ever flown.  The only problem was that it was so complicated, it took me a while to begin to feel comfortable flying it.  I flew it as a first officer for about one year and because I was relatively senior in my seat, I flew the better lines of flying time, with the more senior and experienced captains on the airplane.  Many of them were instructors on the 757 and in effect, I was able to continue my training on the plane for that year.  When it takes me a while to learn something, I tend to keep my nose to the grindstone and learn that something to a level beyond what most people learn it.  As I flew the 757/767 for the next several years, I could see that I understood how to operate its complex flight management system better than most of the people I flew with.  

The 757 and 767 were designed and built to be very similar, similar enough that they required only one common type rating, with training on the few differences.  They were very different in size, but the sight picture from the cockpit was very similar and my strategies for landing them were very similar.  To be honest with you, they were very similar in landing strategies to the 747s I flew also.  

The airplanes flew their approaches, with the flaps and leading edge devices extended, with the nose up and in a landing attitude.  There was no flare required to get the nose wheel up, so that you could land on the main gear and not "wheel barrow" the plane on the nose wheel.  It just took a little back pressure to reduce the rate of descent slightly, then release that a little to get a touchdown that left some guessing if you had indeed made contact with the runway.

I must admit, I liked the 767 better, because of a more complex and effective aileron and spoiler system for roll control and because it was heavier and more stable at slow speeds.  I made a landing in Ontario California during Santa Ana winds in a 767, that I probably would have aborted in a 757.  It just flew more stably with more roll control.  My first officer said, "You made that look like child's play".  It was the airplane, but I like remembering that.

Anyway, the 757/767 systems provide much more information than any plane I had ever flown.  There were computers that told you things you had to calculate/guesstimate for yourself in the old days.  The plane had triple redundancy on many things, such as autopilots, so that the plane could fly itself to a landing, without you ever seeing the runway.  The plane did all that and we just had to monitor and make sure nothing was going wrong.  The autopilots in older planes were so bad, we alway believed we could do a better job than they did, but on these newer planes, the autopilots were excellent.  They could fly an approach flawlessly, land, the roll to a stop on the centerline of the runway, with zero visibility.  It was all done electronically.  True magic.

In the US, these planes were limited by electronically reported visibility.  A device called Runway Visual Range (RVR) measured visibility at several points on the runway in hundreds of feet and we needed to have at least 600 RVR reported to commence an approach at runways that were designated Category IIIB.  I don't want to bore you and I don't remember all the requirements needed to make a runway, airplane and crew Cat IIIB qualified, but it is extensive and pilots have to train initially in a simulator to be qualified and recurrently every year to maintain that qualification.  The plane and its fantastic systems are flying the approach, but the pilots are monitoring and standing by to take over in the event something goes wrong.  It is very intense.  You are sitting there, depending on all of this magic stuff to be working correctly.  Of course, we have been working our way up to this level of trust in the systems for the entirety of our careers.  I recently listened to an interview of Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR race car driver about his progression.  He said that you work your way up to the 200 mph speeds going into a tight corner at Daytona or Indianapolis.  We were doing these things, because we had been conditioned to do so over many years.

After one year as a first officer, I went back to training to upgrade to captain on the 757.  I requested Helmut as my instructor.  At some point in my simulator instruction, Helmut said, "Denny, you seem like a different guy".  I said, "I am a different guy" and I felt really, really good.  I had beaten this challenge and forced my geezer, old school mentality to learn this plane and this modern method of flying airplanes and I was finally going to be an airline pilot, making airline pilot money.  I can't tell you how important that was to me.  This was the achievement of a goal I had established for myself in 1968.  

I am a guy who carries those moments of defeat forward.  I use them to drive myself to achieve.  I don't fuck around.  When I am like that, don't get in my way.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Eating My Lunch

Just before the bankruptcy of Braniff II, I was hearing stories about how the older, senior pilots were having trouble learning the automation of the Airbus A-320.  They wanted to resort to the old fashioned ways of flying and not do all the flight management and automation stuff.

This caused me a little consternation as I drew closer to beginning my training.  My instructor's name was Helmut.  Thankfully he had a good sense of humor and was very patient.

There were several times when flying the plane with all the computers and automation seemed overwhelming and I had learned that the 757 flew just like an old technology airplane if you turned all that voodoo stuff off.  When I suffered from brain lock, that is what I would do, but Helmut would yell and make me turn it back on.  I understood.  That is what the plane is all about and that is what he had to teach me.

There were these things called route modifications, which would be necessary when Plan A had to be altered for some reason.  Helmut taught us how to do them early in the program.  Later, when he was reviewing them, before signing us off for a check ride, he gave me some route mods to perform.  I was just leaning over the computer, with my finger poised above it, in a kind of freeze.  Helmut said, "Denny, you look like you've never seen these before".  I said, "That's how I feel".

Frankly, I don't remember much about that simulator check ride, but I passed.  I have never failed a test of any kind in my aviation career. 

After that, we were scheduled for Initial Operating Experience (IOE).  (I learned so many acronyms during this training, I could not remember what all the letters stood for.)  I kind of stumbled my way through that.  My first instructor did a good job, but did not seem to have much of a sense of humor.  

My Release To Line check ride was with a management guy named John Fanning.  Good guy.  He flew the first leg, then as I was beginning the descent on my leg, he told me that most people who get in trouble with "this plane" do it because of overload within 15 miles of the destination and sometimes it is best to turn all the automation off and just fly the airplane.  When he said that, I felt the weight of the world lift from my shoulders.  I knew that I could do that.  I also knew that Helmut had to insist on using it, because that was his job.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When You Come To A Fork In The Road, Take It.

The photo above is what I look like today.  It was taken on a recent bike riding outing with friends and family.  As we approached this intersection we were  a little confused by the seemingly contradicting direction signs.  As we rode closer, we realized the direction sign pointing to the right was for opposite direction riders, telling them to turn right on the trail, after crossing the tracks.  Typically, we had thought it was all about us.

My brother and I dreamed up the funny photo and I sent it out to nearly everyone on my email list.  It generated some interesting replies.  My son, Mike, advised me to, "Choose wisely".  A friend sent me the following Robert Frost poem.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Somehow, I think that might be what Yogi Berra was trying to say in the quote I used as the title to this edition.

Another friend, the one who is responsible for me beginning this blog, thought it would be a good basis for a new blog.  At first I thought it was a little too soon in the narrative, but literally slept on it and when I woke up thought it just might be the perfect time.

Remember that the subtitle of my blog is "How Not To Build An Aviation Career".  Looking back on my career, which is what the blog is about, it is obvious, that I took the path less traveled.  It is also one I would not advise.  

The major obstacle in becoming a professional pilot is that it is very expensive.  There are two kinds of expense.  One is money and the other is time.  It might be possible to avoid most of the money expense by joining the military to learn to fly, but that increases the time expense, with a commitment of several years and then there is the risk of injury or loss of life.  Nothing worthwhile is easy or free.  Considering that every airline pilot job virtually requires a college degree, it can be argued that the money and time expenses rival those of becoming a doctor.

The reason I say that this is the perfect time to discuss my road less traveled and that it has made all the difference, is that my story is about to get to the part where all of my decisions at the many and various forks in the road are about to pay off.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I'm back.

I haven't been motivated to write for almost 3 months.  I've thought about it many times, just couldn't get started.  So here we go, with not much of a plan about where I'm going with this one.

I mentioned in my last post that I had been flying the 747 as a first officer for 5 years.  I spent one year as a flight engineer on the DC-8 before that.

During this 6 year period, my kids went from being ages 6 and 4 to 12 and 10.  They were doing well in school and being involved in sports activities.  Early on, they both tried soccer.  Then Mike gravitated toward basketball and baseball.  Caitlin began swimming competitively  for a local pool, where we were members.  The nature of my schedule had pros and cons.  I missed lots of events, but I was able to make lots of events.  I predominantly worked a week on, week off schedule and when I was off, I was off 100%.   I was able to help coach Mike's teams and attend most of Caitlin's swim meets.  

The kids began taking piano lessons shortly after we moved to Louisville.  I became convinced that this opened up circuitry in their minds that might not have otherwise been touched.  I could see indications of speed of thinking in both of them that was very impressive.  They both solved computer game issues much faster than I could.

During these years, both kids began learning to ski.  That didn't take long.  Kids learn that kind of stuff very quickly.  Caitlin had gone with a school group, but I took Mike to a tiny resort in Indiana.  It was the first time I had skied in several years, but it came back quickly.  I showed Mike a few things and he became an excellent skier, until he decided to switch to snow boarding.  

The first time he tried that, I told him I couldn't help him much.  All I could say is that you have to use the edges of the board, as you do with the edges of skis.  We went to the same little resort and I rented him a board and boots.  Mike tried to teach himself, but was having trouble.  When I moved in to check things out, I could see the problem.  His feet were already so long, that the toes of his boots were extending over the edge of the narrow board we rented and dragging in the snow, making it impossible to use the edges.  I had to buy him a double wide board and boots to match.  Over time and with a couple lessons, he became a competent boarder, but I always thought he was an incredible skier.

I knew that I was getting close to being able to upgrade to captain.  I always took upgrades as soon as my seniority allowed.  Some people don't, because of quality of life and other issues.  That transition is usually from being a senior first officer, with lots of bidding advantages, to a junior captain, who is forced to take what is left over after the senior people have finished picking.  I didn't care about that.  I wasn't afraid of the responsibility and hated being the second in command.

There were many issues to consider, but one that was very new to me had to do with the new generation of airplanes.  UPS had planes that were older technology, with analog instruments and they also had Boeing 757s, with Electronic Flight Instruments Systems (EFIS) and computerized Flight Management Systems (FMS).  This required a method of flying that was foreign to geezers like me from the stone age and airplanes with steam gauges.  

I had heard stories about this transition and decided to make it easy on myself.  I had learned long ago that it is best to minimize the number of new things that you are learning in upgrades or transitions.  In other words, don't upgrade to a new airplane type.  Too many things to learn.  The 757 was the junior airplane at that time, so it would be my earliest upgrade opportunity.  I decided to transition to the 75 as a first officer and learn how to fly it on someone else's ticket. 

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.