Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hot Gas

The cacophony of a busy airport terminal reminds me of a living, breathing thing, with a mind of its own.  Arriving at these airports is just the start of the experience.   You know that parking your car, or being dropped off, is the easiest part of the painful process, that eventually leads to sitting in a seat, that moves through the sky.


As a commercial airline pilot I get to avoid most of the pain.  We are dropped off and picked up at every airport, our hotel keys are usually waiting for us, we can go to the front of the line at security, we do not have to wait in the gate area to board, it is illegal to enter my office and under the right conditions, a person could be shot if they tried.


Although we are shielded from much of this pain, we can’t help but feel yours.  It is agonizing to watch the flying public endure the constant barrage of ever changing rules, policies, fare structures, monotonous public addresses, lines, more lines, weather delays, cancellations, gate changes, oversells, holiday nightmares, bad food, no food, confiscated items, frustrated parents, beeping electric carts, overflowing bathrooms, expensive food courts, no one in sight to help you, signs that don’t help you, rude employees, no employees, etc.


My company's JFK operation is now spread over 3 terminals and a remote parking pad.  It is possible to go through security at one terminal, only to find out that your flight is actually leaving two terminals away.  My company set up an inter-terminal transportation system to move people from terminal to terminal, thus avoiding having to go through security a second time. The passengers are taken directly to their gate or holding area.  The problem I have recently noticed is that nobody has ever bothered to inform the passengers of this cumbersome process. 


I had one frustrated, angry, and tearful passenger explain to me how she eventually got to the proper gate, which I was waiting at, as I was working the flight to LAX.  She was dropped off at one terminal, spent forever going through security, and emerged into the wrong terminal.  She was told to proceed to the next terminal that was connected.  She did that only to find out she had to be transported from that terminal to the correct one.  She waited for the bus and was transported to a holding area at the next terminal.  There she met me and proceeded to vent.  I completely agreed with her and asked her

not to shoot the messenger, but that her saga was not quite over.  “Our airplane is parked remotely, so we all have to be transported out to it on a big people mover”, I said.  She thought I was joking.  I apologized and told her that once she got on that last bus, her worries were over.  I told her that she was in good hands; that her crew would take care of her and safely do the job that she had paid for.  “When you sit in your seat on my airplane, let go of all of this and relax.”  I gave her two dollars for a headset, so she could watch the 30 channels of entertainment onboard. 


We boarded the bus with the first group of passengers.  I was told there would be three busloads coming to the airplane.  I talked to the passengers near me and told them our flight time to LAX, the weather en-route, and that I anticipated no delays.  I could tell they were listening to everything I was telling them.  Others were straining to hear me.  I am continually humbled by the respect I receive from my passengers, even the angry ones.


With my passengers in their seats and the entry and flight deck doors closed, the time comes that every pilot enjoys, the movement of metal. 




Moving an aircraft around JFK is usually an experience all in itself.  Dozens of aircraft of every size are working their way through the labyrinth of taxiways, intersections, and long lines.  Very long lines.  Throw in some snow or a thunderstorm and we might enjoy a couple of hours of taxi time. Eventually we taxi into the takeoff position at the end of our assigned runway, my right hand would be resting on the throttles, awaiting a take off clearance.


The checklists are complete and we receive our takeoff clearance.  The moment has come to once again witness the miracle of powered flight, and the best part of the miracle, is that I get to make it happen.  As the throttles are slowly moved forward, the engine instruments are monitored as the power in the engines awake in a thundering roar.  Acceleration is fast and steady and I feel the awkward contortions of my aircraft diminish into a determined metallic beast, begging me to let go of its leash.

  My right hand is relaxed on the throttles, ready to reject our takeoff at the last possible moment, if needed.  Critical speeds are called out.  The engines would be howling at maximum power, devouring and shredding tons of air, smashing and compressing it into a hellish conflagration, then releasing it all at once, a fraction of a second later.  With nowhere else to go, the turbulent expanding gases escape from the narrow exhaust cone, pushing the machine faster. 


 These hot gases, produce 90% of the engines thrust by turning the big fan blades you see at the front of the engine.  These engines have accumulated over 26 million flight hours of service since their introduction.  Yeah, they are reliable and one of the reasons flying is so safe.  The thrill and rush of controlling these technological marvels with my fingertips is an experience that never gets old.


Be Safe,