Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Boy The Coin and The Lie

There is one thing about my job that is hard and will always be hard.  With families and jobs spread out all over the country, we often see unaccompanied minors traveling to a mother, or father, or other family members.  I have witnessed the results of gut wrenching separation as these children have to leave someone they love.  Sometimes these children are so upset they cannot be calmed.  Often when this happens they are sent to the flight deck to hang out with the pilots.

A while back I was saying my goodbyes to passengers when the flight attendant next to me asked if I wanted a coin he was holding in his hand.  It was a medallion really, with the logo of the Oakland Raiders on one side and the insignia of a military unit on the other.  He said some soldier coming home from Iraq gave it to him as he left the airplane the week before.  The soldier simply said, “I don’t need this anymore.” Then he handed it to the flight attendant.  I took the coin, put it in my flight kit and forgot about it.

Months later I was programming the flight deck computers when I heard a child crying and an adult voice saying, “let’s go talk to the pilots.”  I turned and saw a boy about 9 years old crying uncontrollably.  He had just left his mother and he would not see her for three months.  He was devastated.  He did not want to listen to anybody so I let him sit there and cry.  He was escorted to his seat which was the aisle seat closest to the flight deck; I could see him about 10 feet behind me.  Three or four adults seated next to him kept trying to console him which was fruitless.  I called the lead flight attendant up and asked her to tell everyone to just leave him alone.

I was digging around in my flight bag to get a baseball like card of our airplane to give to him when I saw that coin I was given months earlier.  I grabbed the coin and went back to the boy.  I knelt down next to him and got close enough to him so that only he could hear me talking.  I held the coin out and told him I was giving it to him.  I then proceeded to lie.  I told him that the coin was given to me by a soldier who had been fighting the war in Iraq.  I told him that this was no ordinary coin as it seemed to have magical power.  A football player gave the coin to the soldier as a good luck charm to keep the soldier safe.  When the soldier stepped off the plane back home he gave it to me and said he didn’t need it anymore.  The soldier told me that when he was scared or upset he would squeeze the coin real hard in his hand and close his eyes and think about something good.  The charm always worked like magic.  I told the boy that maybe; just maybe if he held the charm and closed his eyes, maybe he would not feel as bad as he did.  All I got was the shake of his head.

I went back to my seat and finished up our preflight checks.  Our final paper work came and as the flight deck door was being closed I saw that the boy had his eyes closed and his hand was squeezing the coin so hard it was trembling.  The door slammed shut and I went to work.

When we got to our destination and we opened the door, there he was, smiling and waving at me.  These unaccompanied minors are the last to leave the aircraft as they are escorted by one of the flight attendants to the waiting parent or responsible adult.  I waved to him to come forward.  He came up and I had him sit in my seat and started showing him the bells and whistles that all kids love.  I asked him if he had any questions.  He launched into nonstop conversation and we eventually told him we had to leave.  I asked him if the coin helped and he gave me the thumbs up sign.  I told him that one day, just like the soldier he would not need it anymore and when that happened, he should pass it on to someone else who may need it.  He stared at the coin, put it in his pocket, looked at me, and said, “I will.”  He was escorted away.  I will never see him again but I think of him whenever I see those sad faces.  I lied to him and I wonder if I did that to make me feel better in the face of his anguish.  I will probably sit on that one for a while.  There are things we all see that make us turn our heads away.  When it comes to the children traveling alone and afraid on my airplane, I like to look them in the eye and let them know there is nothing that I won’t do for them.  Be safe, FlyGuy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Formation Flying

When FlyGuy was learning how to fly the military way, I eventually came to that part of jet training called formation flying.  Formation flying is when you put two or more jets into the sky at the same time and you all fly very close to each other, like 3 feet wing tip to wing tip.  We all looked forward to this part of our training and studied hard before we ever flew any of it.  We would study all aspects of formation flying including what we looked at on the other airplane to stay in the correct position.  The lead airplane would fly all the maneuvers and we would stay in position on them the entire time.  Straight and level, high G turns, loops, upside down, whatever lead did, we did 3 feet away.  It was high pressure, intense, and scary as hell.  My first formation sortie was scheduled on a crisp spring morning.  I saw my name up on the schedule board and went to get my briefing from my instructor.  There at the table, smoking a cigarette was a Jordanian exchange pilot.  His name was major Fanatseh.  Exchange pilots are common throughout the military.  Our allies would send some of their pilots here and we would send some of ours there.  I had seen the major walking the halls of the squadron, smiling, and calling everything “bitchin” as that was a popular saying back then.  This was the first time I had spoken to him.  Major Fanatseh was friendly from the start.  He told me he was trained as a fighter pilot and had been flying for ten years, he had a family living with him here, and I reminded him of his cousin.  The major briefed me on our sortie and we proceeded out to the parachute shop to get our gear and walk out to the flight line.  At this point in my training operating the jet was no big deal.  We got the jet started and taxied out to meet our partner jet for takeoff.  The major took the controls and followed the lead jet onto the runway for takeoff.  There we were lined up on the runway slightly to the right and behind the lead jet.  We used hand signals to communicate with each other, that is how close we were.  We got the signal to run our engines up, then the signal to release our brakes.  We accelerated quickly, the major staying in position as though the two jets were welded together.  The nose of lead came up off the ground and so did ours.  Major Fanatseh magically matched every movement of our leader.  He raised the gear and flaps and accelerated to cruise speed in position.  I was waiting for him to explain to me what I should be looking at, etc.  The instructor pilots were very good at explaining things to you six different ways until you got it.  The major was silent, not uttering a single word.  I was trying to remember the tips and techniques from my training guide but there was a lot going on and we really depended on our instructors for the real hands on stuff.  Text books and pictures only get you so far.

I was sitting there concentrating on what he was doing when with no warning he let go of the controls and said, “Lieutenant, phhht, phhht, fly the jet”.  At that exact moment in time I felt my sphincter and bladder loosen, and my eyeballs bulging out of their sockets.
I grabbed the controls and instantly pitched us up 10 feet with the lead jet mostly disappearing, I over corrected and dropped 20 feet barely missing leads wingtip, now I was looking up at lead, completely under leads jet and desperately trying not to pitch up into them.  All of this is happening at 300 knots by the way.  I tried to move out from under lead and all I did was make his belly look bigger.  I pushed over so hard I banged my head against the canopy.  That really hurt as my neck was arched back looking straight up at them.  The negative Gs caused everything on the floor of the jet like dust, screws lost during maintenance, paper clips, and an old checklist to fly around the cockpit confusing me even more.  I was absolutely sure that in any moment we were all going to be falling flaming debris raining down on the flat plains of Texas.  I was looking at the rivets on the bottom of a jet and did not know how to fix that.  I tried to move out from under lead again and this time I did.  I ended up not 3 feet but about 300 feet away.  I started moving back and realized I was moving into lead too quickly.  What was a jet about the size of my hand was now as big as an SUV and getting bigger.  All of this I have described to you took place in less than 15 seconds, yeah it seemed like forever.  Just when I was sure all hope was lost I heard Fanatseh say, “I have the jet!” and I felt the controls grasped from my sweating and knotted hands.  As quick as you can snap your fingers the major had our jet in position and motionless against lead.  “How the f*c* does he do that?”   I thought.  No sooner than we were in position the major said to me, “Phhht Phhht, fly the jet” and he let go of the controls again.  I flailed just as badly the second time as I did the first; the only difference was that my sphincter tightened this time.  And what was up the “Phhht Phhht” thing?  Once again I thought my life was going end when the major said, “I have the jet!” and snapped back the controls, maneuvering us into the perfect position.  And so it went for about half an hour, the major would utter those same words that started out with Phhht Phhht, and I knew what was coming.  I asked him more than once to tell me what to do and all I was told was, “Fly the jet!”  Soon it was our turn to be lead and that was no big deal as the other guy was now flailing off of me. I was smiling behind my oxygen mask watching my fellow student pilot doing what I had been doing, trying to kill all of us.  The major was flying so all I had to do was watch.  I looked down at the instruments for a second, and when I looked up I saw the other jet was sideways to us and moving towards us, fast.  If I could have crapped I would have but my sphincter was slammed shut and welded closed, god in heaven this was the end for sure.  As quickly as these thoughts were filling my miserable mind, the jet stopped, leveled and dropped into position like a perfectly thrown pass into the end zone.  It was obvious who was flying that jet!  Major Fanatseh was laughing, he yelled at me, “You see, he is not flying the jet!”    As we left the area I felt like I had failed the ride completely and would never be able to fly formation, therefore never get my wings.

During the debrief which only lasted about 30 seconds, Major Fanatseh pulled out a cigarette, lit it, took a long drag on it, blew the smoke out slowly, and said, “Ok, remember always to fly the jet.”  He then got up from the table, I stood and saluted him and he left.  I gathered up all the courage I could and walked to the door of my flight commander’s office.  I knocked on his door and I heard him say, “Enter.”  I walked up to his desk and as I did so I saw two other instructor pilots in the room as well.  I saluted my flight commander and said something like, “Sir, requesting to discuss my last training flight.”  He nodded his head and I said, “Sir, it is my belief that at the hands of major Fanatseh it is a 50-50 chance that I will survive another training flight with him, that my young bride would be devastated and my mother would hound the Air Force until she was laid to rest.  I knew it was risky doing what I was doing but it was my butt I was talking about.  There was silence for a few seconds, and then all three of them started laughing.  I don’t mean a giggle or a ha-ha, I mean on the floor holding their guts laughing, for a while.  FlyGuy was very confused.  After they stopped laughing and wiped the tears from their eyes, I was told that I had been set up to fly with the major.  “We had to send him out with somebody and we chose you because you’re a good stick”, my commander said.  Well that did make me feel a bit better but I still was not happy.  One of the instructors said, “Don’t worry lieutenant; you’ll get your training.”  They were right.  The next time I flew my instructor was one of the best.  He showed me all of the techniques I need to know, the stuff no book can show you.  By the end of the second sortie I was holding my own staying close enough to not kill us and not so far away that I was being badgered to move in closer.  A few lessons later and I was hanging in position while doing high G turns, breaking off and rejoining with lead moving into the right spot and coming to a stop.  I LOVED IT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Eventually I got my wings and my first flying job was as an instructor pilot, teaching the trainees everything I had learned the year before.  I was checked out at Randolph AFB in San Antonio (great city) Texas.  I instructed for three years.  Whenever it came to teaching formation flying for the first time to a student I would always do the same thing.  We would take off with me flying and talking the whole time.  I could see the students squirm and clench their fists as we were uncomfortably close for them as this was all new and scary.  We would get to our training area and when we were in position, I would simply say, “Phhht Phhht, fly the jet” and let go of the controls.  The reaction was the same every time as the panicked and frightened students grabbed the controls and tossed us all over the sky, sometimes screaming in panic.  I would take control after a few seconds trying desperately not to laugh.  I would put us back into position and say, “OK lets try it this way, look at the helmet of the instructor, notice it is aligned with the chevron on the fuselage, also the flap hinge is at the angle where the rotating beacon cannot be seen, if you keep these two references aligned you are horizontally in position, now let’s talk about the vertical……………………” and so it would go until the student got it right.  The end of the formation program was when you took your student out in a two ship flight, the student flying solo in one and me with another instructor or student in the other ship.  Wow, were those some interesting flights!  Those student pilots including me came back from those flights with a higher level of confidence than any other part of the program would give them.  Young and inexperienced but they all had a taste of knowing what it was like to have the right stuff.  Be Safe, FlyGuy.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Meteor Crater

This is a picture of the meteor crater in northern Arizona. About 50,000 years ago moving at 40,000 miles an hour, a meteor about 150 feet across weighing several hundred thousand tons, smashed into the desert floor. The explosive force has been estimated to be greater than 20 million tons of TNT. Traveling at supersonic speed, this impact generated immensely powerful shock waves in the meteorite, the rock and the surrounding atmosphere. In the air, shock waves swept across the level plain devastating all in the meteor's path for a radius of several miles. In the ground, as the meteorite penetrated the rocky plain, pressures rose to over twenty million pounds per square inch, and both iron and rock experienced limited vaporization and extensive melting. Beyond the affected region, an enormous volume of rock underwent complete fragmentation and ejection. The result of these violent conditions was the excavation of a giant bowl shaped cavity. In less than a few seconds, a crater was carved into this once flat rocky plain. During its formation, over 175 million tons of limestone and sandstone were abruptly thrown out to form a continuous blanket of debris surrounding the crater for a distance of over a mile. Large blocks of limestone, the size of small houses were heaved onto the rim. Flat lying beds of rock in the crater walls were overturned in fractions of a second and uplifted permanently 150 feet. As a result of the impact, the crater floor was 700 feet deep; it is now approximately 550. The crater is over 4,000 feet across and 2.4 miles in circumference. You can see this thing from 75 miles away at 35000 feet.

Fast forward 50,000 years to the present day, where man in his great wisdom has built beautiful cities, tackled the physical universe and conquered the skies. The meteor crater has been seen by thousands of travelers on the ground and in the sky. I often point it out to my passengers. I heard a story about a flight crew who was passing by this crater and the pilots told the passengers to look out one side of the airplane to see the crater. A curious flight attendant wanted to see the crater from the flight deck with its 180 degree view. Upon entering the cockpit the pilots showed her the crater as they were just flying by it. She stared at the crater and asked, “What are those little white squares down there?” The captain told her that they were buildings. The flight attendant in a surprised voice said, “No way are those buildings!” The pilot told her that indeed they were buildings as he had visited the crater one time. “There is a museum, an observation deck, and a snack bar along with other buildings”, the pilot said. The flight attendant was still very disbelieving, so much so that she turned to the other pilot and asked if the captain was telling the truth. The copilot said, “Yes he is, if you look closer you can see the road to the crater that comes off the interstate and look at the size of that parking lot down there. That was the location for the movie Starman; there are people and buildings all over that place.” The flight attendant said, “So you’re telling me that all those white squares down there right next to the crater are buildings and there are people in them!” “Yes!” both pilots replied. The flight attendant stared at the crater for several seconds as it went out of sight. She looked at the pilots and said, “They were so lucky!”

I cannot tell you if this is a true story or a flying urban legend, all I know is that I get a laugh every time I think about it. Be safe, FlyGuy