Friday, May 28, 2010

Captain Utah

As in any other profession, we pilots have our distinct class of odd balls and nut jobs, that work amongst us. Very few of these "different " individuals escape our attention. The reason for this, is that we pilots tend to be a harmonious group of people. We expect to have fun and enjoy ourselves, while flying around the planet, doing our job. If were not having fun, something, or someone is wrong.

After thirty years of flying with more individuals than I could ever count, very few pilots I have had anything to do with, fall into the odd ball, nut job category. The pilots I am describing generally include the pilots who live different lifestyles than your average pilot, the pilots that exhibit odd behaviors while working, and the pilots who are simply classified as jerks, assholes, or dumb asses.

In my thirty years of flying I have flown with every type of personality imaginable, but there have been a few pilots who impressed me so much with their unique personalities, their stories need to be told. To cope with a month or more of flying with these individuals, I gave them nicknames and told my friends and family about the quirkiness of the pilots I flew with. All of them were captains.

1.Captain Comfort Food.

Captain Comfort Food always made me feel like I was the most important and finest copilot that existed. He also took great strides to make me as comfortable as I could be. He also loved and always carried, bananas. If I showed up to an aircraft, unsure of who I was flying with, I always knew as soon as I entered the cockpit, that Captain Comfort Food was the man of the hour.

He would always beat me to the airplane. I would always find a blanket with a pillow laying in my seat, put there by Captain Comfort Food. He would take two prepackaged cookies and a banana and lay them on top of the pillow, using the cookies for eyes and the banana for a smiling mouth. In my drink holder would always be a cup of juice with ice. This would happen without fail, every time I flew with him. He also would do the exterior walk around inspection for me as well.

No matter where we had a layover, he somehow managed to always have a large supply of bananas. I asked him once where his never ending supply came from and all I got was, "It's my magic trick", from him. I never asked again. He had large enough banana supply, to offer a crew of flight attendants bananas as well.

He had memorized every aspect of my life, including the names of my children, my ex wife and my most current girlfriend. He would talk to me like Mr Rogers on steroids and instead of a family album, he had pictures of his private airplane collection. He talked without emotion, but I knew his words were meaningful and genuine. He would present me with small gifts to give to my children.

On every layover, Captain Comfort Food would disappear and usually go out to the airport early, in order to do the walk around, blanket, pillow, cookie, banana thing. Oh, yeah and the juice. The only time I ever saw him on a layover was once after flying a red-eye. I was not tired, so I decided to eat breakfast. Captain Comfort Food was in the cafe eating. He signaled me over, stood up when I came to the table and graciously asked me to join him. After eating, he insisted on buying my meal for me.

During the normal tasks of flying, he would politely ask for the reading of a checklist, or any other thing performed in the normal operation of an aircraft. "Thank you very much for reading the checklist, I appreciate how well you did that", he would say. His announcements to the passengers were prolific. He had an uncanny ability to chatter on to the passengers and they loved it.

Captain Comfort Food eventually retired. We were all surprised but happy to see him show up at union meetings in his retirement. The last time I saw him was at one of these meetings and in his hand was a half eaten banana.

2. Captain Art, the Great Hunter.

Art was one pissed off individual. I do not know of one copilot that enjoyed flying with him, except me. Art had no social skills whatsoever and seemed to constantly be putting his foot in his mouth, yet had no idea that that's what he was doing. He flew as often as he could, because in his own words, "I hate my house and the woman that lives in it." Art was not your average happily married guy.

The pilots who had to fly with him, usually complained about his abrasive personality, always demanding things at inappropriate times, and extremely hard to communicate with. I lucked out with my first encounter with Captain Art. I had heard all the griping and harsh rhetoric about the man, so I had built up a large amount of angst.

Captain Art beat me to the airplane and was busy programming the navigation computers. I stepped into the cockpit and introduced myself. Captain Art took one look at me and said, "Let me know if the log book is clean." "Sure, right away" I said. As I started to sit in my seat I noticed a small photo album laying on the center console. It was open and there was a picture of Captain Art, holding a high powered rifle, kneeling next to a huge bear.

"That's a big damn bear, mind if I look" I said. "Go ahead, I just got back from a hunt in Alaska." It just so happened that captain Art and I were on our way to Anchorage, Alaska, for a 24 hour layover. I picked up the photo album and said, "Let me get my work done, then I want to hear all about this." About an hour later, we were cruising at altitude, with hours to go until we landed. Captain Art, obviously enjoyed hunting, so I decided to try to keep him on that topic for as long as I could. It was not hard to do.

As Captain Art's hunting story unfolded, I found myself mesmerized by his experiences. The photo album was full of boring pictures, but behind each one,was a story. The picture of the bush plane, to me was just that. Captain Art told me how the pilot had to land uphill on rough tundra, to get him to his hunting site. Primitive tents and dry food was all they had for days, while they hunted out in the middle of nowhere. No communication whatsoever was to be had in case of an emergency. Five days later the bush pilot landed and carried out as much meat as he could, then came back to carry out Captain Art and his guide, with more meat. The pilot had to takeoff downhill and then drop off a ledge into a steep ravine to pick up enough speed to fly away. That trip was all he talked about on the way to Anchorage.

Once in Anchorage, we made our way to our hotel and went our separate ways. I was in the lobby a short while later, when Captain Art saw me and asked if I wanted to go to his favorite bar. I accepted his offer and I was told we could walk there. Downtown Anchorage is full of great places, but like any city, it has it's seedy side. This was many years ago and the city was not nearly as nice as it is now. Captain Art marched me past the very nice establishments, then the nice establishments, then the OK ones and on to the bad ones and finally the very bad ones. It was summer in Alaska and there was still plenty of light outside for me to notice the passed out drunks, prostitutes and numerous scary men. Art was about as milquetoast as you could get. Tan slacks with short sleeve shirt, tan loafers, with a baseball style hat sporting a fly fisherman on it. The text book example of someone that was prime meat to be rolled.

He pushed his way through the crowd and entered his bar, that had no name that I could see. The bar was large with one long bar, lots of tables and a section dedicated to playing pool. The place was packed and everyone there seemed to be native Alaskans. Captain Art took a stool at the bar and pushed the one next to him, over to me. " I've been coming here for years", he said. "Your the first copilot to have the balls to come to a place like this" he said. I said, "Naw, I'm just not very bright."

The bartender came over and said, "Captain Art, you brought a friend!" I introduced myself and ordered a beer. Seconds later the beer was placed in front of me along with a menu. The food was great and we spent a few hours there. In that time, no less than twenty people came up to Captain Art to say hello, buy him a beer, or ask him about his last hunt. He seemed to be the most popular guy in the bar and also the friendliest. Captain Art was in his place of comfort.

He had indeed been coming here for years. Over time, he got to know some of the workers and patrons and started fishing with them on his layovers. He then started to come up on his days off and take small fishing trips with them. Eventually he was passed on to friends and relatives in the remote villages, who would take him hunting and fishing. The man was respected and adored by these people. In particular, he was esteemed for his fishing and hunting skills. It was something you had to see to believe, this man who no one wanted to fly with, being the most affable guy you could imagine.

One very drunk man, carrying a pool cue, approached Captain Art holding the pool cue as if it was a rifle. The man stood back about six feet, with the tip of the pool cue about 6 inches away from Captain Art's nose. He yelled "Bang!" then lowered the pool cue with a huge grin, showing a mouth with half it's teeth missing. He started to talk, but all he could do was blabber the inaudible words of a drunk. I could clearly hear the words, "great hunter" from him several times. We left the bar at about 1 am and stepped outside to a sky still filled with light. It was the middle of June and the sun was just below the horizon. I thanked Captain Art on the way back to the hotel and told him I would fly with him anytime, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he could be. He stopped walking, looked at me and let out a gut wrenching laugh. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I am the biggest pain in the ass in the world and I have to live with him!' From that moment on, every time I saw him, I called him Captain Art, the Great Hunter.

The next day, we went out to breakfast to a spot not far from the bar. Some of the same people from the night before were already there, having left the bar early in the morning and heading directly to the cafe. The cafe was a one person show, owned and operated for 20 years by the sweetest woman you could ever meet. We sat there and talked over coffee for a couple of hours. He told me of his many hunting expeditions. The stories would make a best seller.

On our way home, Captain Art, fell into his normal routine. Somewhere in that day, I reminded him that by his self admission, he was being a pain in the ass. He looked directly at me and with a quizzical look and honestly said, "I am?"

We flew together several times after that. Captain Art was a very senior pilot, so he mostly flew the Alaska trips and that is where I would normally see him. He always had a new photo album to show off and great stories to go along with it. Captain Art, the Great Hunter eventually retired. His plan in retirement was to mount all the horns, heads, and stuffed bodies he had collected over the years. He was even preparing to buy a separate home to put them in as his wife had always refused to allow any of it in their home.

Captain Art was a diamond in the rough and one of the most skilled pilots I have ever flown with.

3. Captain Bloody Ass

I apologize ahead of time for this spoiler alert. This story is disgusting and may make you nauseous. I had seen Captain Bloody Ass way before I flew with him. He was not hard to miss as he was huge, somewhere in the 350 pound range. I had always heard great things about him and the copilots enjoyed working with him.

He was known for his "information sheets". These were sheets of paper that were filled from top to bottom with valuable information on specific subjects, that were put together by him. He had a sheet on tax deductions, one on all the things to do in Boston and another for touring the Napa Valley. He kept these in his flight kit and if a subject came up that he had relentlessly studied and made a sheet for, he would yank it out and explain it in detail, then give you the copy. I have no idea how many subjects he had covered, but it seemed like a lot.

The first time i flew with him was on a trip that took us from the west coast to Boston. Yes, he had a fact sheet to give me and I used it for years. One of the first things I noticed about him, was that in order for him to sit in his seat, he had to enter the cockpit backwards. He would enter the flight deck with his gear and position that first. Then he would exit and immediately re-enter backwards, quickly maneuvering himself into his seat. It was like watching a Rubik's Cube in fast motion and I never figured out how he did it.

The transition to the twilight zone with him, began just after we leveled off. We were cruising in the mid 30,000s and had about four hours of our flight left. Captain Bloody Ass looked over at me and told me he had something he wanted me to know. I looked over at him and he said, "I have a problem with infections and boils in my crotch area. My doctor told me that it would help if I keep that area dry. I use a hair dryer to do that. I think I used the hair dryer too long today and popped a vein, because I'm bleeding down there. I want you to know that, so in case I pass out, you'll know it is probably from blood loss and you can get me help."

After jacking my jaw back into my skull, several things went through my mind. My first thought went to the 110 volt electrical outlet next to my seat. Airplanes have electrical systems very different from what you have in your home. To allow the mechanics to power some of their tools while working in the cockpit, there is an electrical outlet on the copilots side of the aircraft. I don't know why, but an image of Captain Bloody Ass, bent over holding his ass cheeks apart, with me holding a hair dryer for him as per his doctors orders, popped into my head.

After shaking that nightmare out of my head, I told Captain Bloody Ass that it was hard for me to believe that you could heat a vein up enough to pop and not be screaming in agony. I also told him that there could very well be something deeply wrong with him and he should see a doctor.

Captain Bloody Ass proceeded to tell me about his daughter and her family, who were going to meet him in Boston and stay at the hotel for the two days we were going to be there. "I'll see a doctor as soon as I get back" he said.

I let it go, which was the wrong thing to do. I figured if he did have a problem, I could land the plane by myself. Today, as a captain, I would never put my copilot in that position and certainly not a plane load of passengers.

Captain Bloody Ass went to the bathroom a lot. He would get up out of his seat at least once an hour or more and use the first class lavatory. On his first trip to the bathroom, a flight attendant was in the flight deck to open the door for me. She was standing behind Captain Bloody Asses seat, when I heard her say, "What's that?" I said, "What?" "That" she said, pointing to Captain Bloody Asses seat.

Captain Bloody Ass had taken a gray plastic trash bag and laid it on his seat. A thin layer of blood was spread across the entire plastic bag. I looked at her and in a panicky, loud voice, yelled, "I don't know!" She looked at me like I had worms coming out of my face. Captain Bloody Ass re-entered the cockpit in his usual backwards manner. The remainder of the flight was uneventful until we got to Boston.

After landing, Captain Bloody Ass told me to go ahead to the hotel pickup point. He told me that he walked slowly and it would take him a while to get there. I suggested to him that he go ahead and I would finish the flight deck duties. He agreed and left the aircraft. About 5 minutes later I left the aircraft. I said goodnight to the gate agent and proceeded through the terminal to the pickup point.

There is a long straight stretch of the terminal that you walked through to exit. I was walking through that part of the terminal when about 200 feet in front of me, I spotted Captain Bloody Ass, hobbling his way through the terminal. Between him and I was a cleaning woman. The floor of the terminal was poured and polished acrylic. She was holding a long stick with a rag on the end of it. She was rubbing the scuff marks of the days hurried passengers off the floor. She was facing me, walking backwards, with headphones on. She was in what I would call a Zen state. Music was filling her psyche, overwhelming the reality of constant scuff mark erasure. She almost looked like the finely balanced ice skater moving backwards with such ease, it reminded you of a cool mountain stream, flowing naturally, without effort.

During this time, I was catching up to her and Captain Bloody Ass. I was now about thirty feet away from Captain Bloody Ass and 15 feet away from the cleaning lady. I noticed something protruding from the right leg of Captain Bloody Ass. It was large and getting bigger. All at once, a large blood soaked lump of toilet paper, about the size of two large fists, fell to the floor, from the right pant leg of Captain Bloody Ass.

I saw this as I was passing the cleaning lady, who was aligned with the bloody mass of paper. My second mistake of the day was to make a wide sweeping evasive maneuver to avoid the bloody mass and NOT inform the cleaning woman of her impending CSI like encounter. I just kept moving, trying to obliterate the entire day out of my head.

I have no idea what happened to the cleaning woman. I am sure though, that when she came across the wad of blood soaked toilet paper, she wasn't thinking, "I wonder who's ass this came from?" As for me, that is the end of the story of Captain Bloody Ass. He had a great time with his family and we made it back without him passing out from blood loss. Captain Bloody Ass retired soon after this incident, but not because of his medical condition. Several pilots in his age group left to maximize their retirement.

So, what are the lessons here? I have been trained and tested for thirty years in a career where those above you, give you the experiences that lead you to being the best aviator you can be. I was hired 22 years ago to be a captain someday. Well, here I am, enjoying the best days of my career and I have the captains that tested me, to thank for that.

Captain Comfort Food showed me that no matter who you fly with, turn your spotlight on them and let them know they are appreciated.

Captain Art, The Great Hunter, taught me to look beyond the exterior of those you fly with and to take the time and patience to explore what is beneath.

Captain Bloody Ass helped me define my limits as a captain, around the concept of safety and the need to put all others above my immediate needs.

These are just three individuals of hundreds that have impacted who I am as a pilot. I thank them all and all the pilots who will take my wisdom as part of their future.

As for the title of this story, Captain Utah, well, that is something a young copilot educated me on recently. We were having a great trip and while hovering at a high rate of speed on our way to somewhere, he said to me, "I'm really glad your not a Captain Utah." "Captain Utah?" I said. He said, "Yeah, it stands for Up Tight Ass Hole."

I guess there is still much for me to learn.

Be Safe,



Blogger Mike Kear said...

Thank you for posting this. These are fantastic word pictures of interesting quirky people. It's the quirky ones that make life interesting, even when they're not the most appealing, and you've described some great people.

Thank you

5:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have tears in my eyes from laughing so hard! I think the story of Capt Ass is so funny it takes away from what I think is the point of the post. Holy ShI+, that was a good laugh.... thanks for the post, keep up the good work and "fly safe"


3:19 PM  
Anonymous Air Max 2009 said...

Nice article , thank you for sharing your article. I genuinely enjoyed it.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Magical Button said...

That was actually quite funny, thanks for the post. Hope to see more from you.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Wish there was some new material.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi captain Fly Guy,
It's been over 3 years since this last essay, hope everything is going ok with you.
We REALLY miss your postings, wish to read new episodes sooner.
LOVE you posts and topics.


8:36 AM  

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