From the new book's CHAPTER 1: The Road to India
"Northwest Three Zero, Schiphol Tower. Runway 18 Left, line up and wait."
"Another empty kitchen," says the flight engineer, the crew member behind the pilots' seats.
You and the captain ignore the attempt at humor. It's 1996 and his sexist joke doesn't register. You've heard it a thousand times before.
“Northwest Three Zero. Line up and wait," says the captain. To you, he says, "You have the throttles."
You place your left hand on the three engine power lever knobs. They're like silver, heavy aluminum Tootsie-Rolls, the biggest kind of Tootsie-Roll, welded to the end of stout, eight-inch long, metal stalks. Each "Tootsie-Roll" is smooshed a little around the middle. Finger rests. Your heart rate increases and your muscles, those in your neck and shoulders, tense. But you're not aware of this.
You only focus on immediate and near-future tasks. Emotions and messages from your body are on hold.
As it should be.
"I'll hang onto the tiller. Use whatever power you need," says the captain.
From the cockpit's left seat, the captain steers the airplane with a little steering wheel. Called a tiller, it's mounted under his left side window.
A KLM MD-11 thunders down the runway, moving away from you. Your airplane shakes and rattles. But you don't watch him. You glance the other way, to the approach end of the runway, confirming no traffic.
"Final looks clear to me," says the captain.
Of course he would check too.
By saying “Line up and wait,” you imagine the Schiphol Tower traffic controller double-checking the final approach is safe as well.
She would. Unless she made a mistake. Unless she screwed up.
The captain’s job and the engineer's behind you, and your job too, is to check the traffic controller hasn’t made a mistake.
I may assume, but I must verify all is safe.
Four people checked the safety of the final approach path.
It's a complex system, the airline business. It's a matrix of overlapping areas of responsibility.
But someone, without a doubt, is the person in charge. The captain makes sure any one of many persons hasn’t made a mistake. By regulation and tradition, the captain is the final authority for the safe operation of the flight.
Preparing to fly the 572,000-pound DC-10 airplane, you click off the steps ahead, glancing at the departure chart clipped to your control wheel. Loaded with fuel, cargo, and people, the airplane is at its greatest allowable takeoff weight.
You are the airplane's first officer, the pilot-in-command's co-pilot. You check everyone. You're to bring any irregularities, human and not... even if the irregularity is the captain's... to the PIC's, the captain's, attention.
None so far...
...About fifteen degrees from lining up on Amsterdam’s runway now. The captain says, “You have the airplane. I have the radio.”
Now it’s up to you to steer the machine.
You have become the Pilot Flying and the captain is now the Pilot Monitoring. It’s your leg. You have the airplane. The captain, however, is omniscient like a demigod. At least you hope he is.
You met Chris, the captain, three days ago. He sure doesn't act like any kind of deity. Or potentate.
Couldn't ask for a nicer guy.
Among the stew of procedures, rules, and the gravity of responsibility, he's set a friendly tone.
"We're going to keep it safe," he said, at the end of his initial briefing the day before yesterday in Detroit, "We may expedite, but we'll never hurry. If you ever feel rushed, we'll slow things down. And we're going to have fun. Take care of each other. I want this to be relaxed and easy, like 'three guys are going for an airplane ride.'"
He needs a crew supporting each other.
But I know how the wind blows, you think. The captain holds veto power on all you do...
...The airplane is a few degrees off the runway heading. The captain did not line up on purpose.
You have to apply right rudder pedal pressure to line up the machine. You don’t have a ground steering tiller on your side of the cockpit. With only your rudder pedals you have limited ground steering ability. It's more difficult to ground steer with only the pedals.
That's why he didn't give you a bigger turn.
This thing is big.
You sense the airliner's mass through your feet...
...Now you wait for takeoff clearance from the tower. Anyone sitting on the jump seat behind you would think you, and the two other pilots, exemplified cool; chiseled, relaxed, and emotionless. Your right-hand fingers, however, tap on the control wheel. Your left hand sits poised on top of the throttles, and your pinky and thumb tap the autothrottle disconnect buttons on the number one and three Tootsie-Rolls. Your tendons tense. Waiting.
Checklists done, no more talking. This being a critical phase of flight, the cockpit is sterile. The rule of no unnecessary talk is a good one. Talk can be distracting. Distractions are not good. Distractions can kill.
After a long minute, all traffic is clear. It's your turn to fill your place in the sky.
"Northwest Three Zero, Schipol Tower. Fly the Arnhem One Sierra Departure. Maintain Level Six Zero. Cleared for takeoff. "
The captain repeats, or "reads back," the tower's words as you push the throttles forward, slow and steady. You're putting fuel to the three tongues of fire in the three jet engines. Two engines are under the wings. Another is back in the tail. Directing an inferno, you control thunder. It's intolerable outside. Here in the cockpit though, it's not that loud.
An increasing tempo of bumps telegraphs to your rudder pedals from the twelve wheels below.
Heavy, oh so heavy, your airplane is on the roll.
"Now, just ninety-nine thousand words to go. The new book, Unlearning To Fly's sequel about my airline career, will come. Hang in there, good reader. " -RR