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Unlearning to Fly's Sequel is in the Works. Here's a sample ...

Updated: Feb 4


A Boeing 767-300ER is pictured on the parking ramp at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand (author's photograph)



From the new book's CHAPTER 1: The Road to India ...



“You have the throttles,” says the captain.


You place your left hand on the airplane's three throttle knobs. They're like three silver Tootsie-Rolls, laid on their sides and welded to the end of stout, eight-inch long metal stalks. Your fingers rest in right-size grooves. Finger grooves built into what would be the chocolate. Cool to the touch. The manual calls them "thrust levers" and they function like your car's accelerator. The throttles "make the airplane go."


Having three thrust levers in hand is a new thing for you. You started flying twenty-five years ago. Thus far, you've only operated one and two-engine aircraft. One throttle for each engine.


Man! I've got ahold of a three-engined elephant. A giant. A whole new breed, you think to yourself.


***

Wait a minute. What happened? 


Three-engined elephant? Twenty-five years of flying? No. I Thave the throttles? I do? Me?

How is it I'm here? 


A few minutes ago you picked up a book. A memoir by a pilot. You wanted to enjoy reading for a while, and now, instead of relaxing with a cup by your side, you are in a jet cockpit on the Road to India. Somehow, your mind transported itself to the co-pilot's seat of an airliner. A big airliner. 


You thumb a couple of chapters forward in the book. The pilot's memoir picks up later. Hmm?


I will hang in there. I will not give up on this strange story. Not yet.


Somewhere, you read...in a George R. R. Martin book?..."A reader lives many lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."


 Yes, it was Martin. I remember from the Ice and Fire series.


You thought his idea of many lives a poetic nod, a metaphor. But somehow ... here you are.


Whoa, Nelly! It's not possible.


 You recall an old TV show, Quantum Leap. Somehow, here and now, you have jumped into another person's life.


Am I scared?

 

You check yourself over. 


I’m uncomfortable, not scared.


Have you gone nuts?


Am I okay?


You are yourself. You're also the other person in this cockpit seat. You know everything they know. Almost. A stew of new thoughts bubbles up, each one coming to the surface and then, like a carrot on the boil, blurp, down again.

 

Your thoughts and your internal dialog are a combination of you and the other person; the reader and the pilot. You're a symbiont now, a merger of two lives.

 

Except for the chatter - amazed chatter - in your reading brain about "crossing over," the majority of new thoughts come from the pilot in the book. The pilot brain is not conscious of this new, reworked, mind.


Your self-check finds you are okay. You are okay with this too-real adventure from the pages. You settle in.


The left index finger marks the spot in Chapter 1 where you left off. You flip back. 

I guess this is one of the lives George Martin wrote about. Weird. Oh, well. Here I am. 

I might as well relax, sit back, and enjoy the flight.


***

Your heart rate increases and the muscles in your neck and shoulders tense. You're not aware of this. You only focus on immediate and near-future tasks. Emotions and messages from your body are on hold. They should be on hold. This is "a critical phase of flight."

"Northwest Three-Zero, Runway One-Eight-Left. Line up and wait," says the airport tower operator.


"Another empty kitchen," mumbles the flight engineer behind you.

 

What a dumb bastard, you think. He says the same dumb thing every time a female transmits on the radio. What a wit. He acts like he's the one who invented the stupid line.


Ignoring the engineer's worn-out sexist cliché, Chris, the captain acknowledges the tower and says to you, "I'll hang onto the tiller. Use whatever power you need." His complete, in part unspoken, message to you is, "I will hang onto the tiller here by my side, the little 'steering wheel' connected to the nosewheel, to steer the airplane onto the runway. Use whatever power you need to keep the airplane rolling. Don't stop. It takes a lot of power to start moving again."


I have the context. I understand the shorthand. I don't need the extra words.

 

The professional communication will be succinct all day. Personal stories, jokes, and anecdotes are another thing. They might stretch on.


Another airliner, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines MD-11, thunders down the runway. Your aircraft shakes from the roar. The MD-11 moves away from you on its takeoff roll. However loud and dramatic, you glance the other way, out the window to your left, toward any landing aircraft on final approach to the airport.

 

I'd hate to bumble into an oncoming airplane.


By looking, you confirm the end of the runway and the airspace beyond is clear.

You never want your complacency to land you on cable news.


You haven't noticed the primary airport landscape of concrete, asphalt, and lights. The runways, taxiways, hangars, terminals, and moving trucks and equipment are an unnecessary background to you now, In quieter times, all suggest to you the apex of man over nature.

 

In quieter times, you might have admired the incongruous, longish grass. Grass in unproductive airport fields, along and between the pavement, waving in the ever-present North Sea wind.

 

In quieter times, you remembered sitting in the grass by another, much smaller, runway's edge years ago. You sucked on a sweet blade of fescue while your student accomplished their first solo flight. A young flight instructor sitting in the grass watching their student, alone up in the sky for the first time. You hoped you taught them all they needed. You still did. In quieter times.


The Schipol grass is long enough to make hay. The Dutch don't mow the pavement's verges as often as most American airport operators. A nod to saving fuel, saving the environment? Ironic, given the gross consumption of natural resources in evidence. Gross consumption is the price of launching millions of pounds of commerce into the sky.

 

Above, fast-moving clouds charge in from the direction of the Dogger Bank off England. Far out on the shallows of the North Sea, fishing boats bob in the water, looking for sand eel and haddock as they've done for centuries. Absent the airport, the scene might have come from the seventeenth century's Dutch landscape artist van Ruisdael.

"Final looks clear to me," he says. Chris checked too.

 

Of course you checked, Captain.


The Schiphol traffic controller double-checked the final approach course, too. She would not have issued the clearance without a safe runway.

 

Unless she's made a mistake. Unless she's screwed up.

 

The captain’s job, your job, too, is to check to make sure the controller hasn’t screwed up. So you check everyone, including Chris.


You check everything else, too. You're to bring any irregularities to the captain’s attention. 

People do screw up. But nobody's screwed up so far. Not that I can see. Not yet.


You're a "stand-by captain." Everything Chris in the left seat thinks you should be thinking too, like a backup computer, humming and ready in the background.

 

You assist the pilot-in-command during flight operations, to be sure, doing your non-captain things. Each pilot carries his own set of particular responsibilities.

But you’re there as a backup, too.


But what are the chances of you taking over as captain? A fat chance. Pilot incapacitation is a morbid fantasy of amateur pilots riding as passengers and some co-pilots in the right seat, dreaming about taking over after the skipper eats a bad fish and keels over. Ah, to be a hero.


What are the chances? Statistically insignificant. For you and a million others, it won't happen.


Your turn as boss will come, though. In a few years, after this stint on this aircraft type, after a total of fifteen years or so with the company, you should get your first major airline captain job, the goal of almost every airline pilot. For now, you wait. For now, you fly as a first officer, a "stand-by captain," waiting for your turn to switch on.


The flight engineer behind you faces a busy desk-to-ceiling instrument panel on the right-hand wall. He cranes to check the view out of the pilots' windows.

 

No, he's not a dumb bastard; empty kitchen crack beside. He's doing a good,  professional, job.


The engineer will move up to the left seat one day, too. But his next stop along the way will be your seat. The first officer's seat.


Many people, systems, and checks are in place to ensure safety. Threats can line up like holes in Swiss cheese. A chain of unaddressed threats, if ignored and not caught, grows into real problems. All it takes is an uncaught arrow flying through lined-up holes in Swiss cheese. Ignored threats can be fatal.


You have the airplane, nine other crew members, and two-hundred-ninety-seven passengers behind you.


We need to catch the threats. I need to catch them. Stop them before they get through.


You picture Yogi Berra behind first base. Catching arrows instead of baseballs. 

You keep checking.


In the flying business, it's beneficial to be a pessimist.

 

Wait. Didn't I read about a link between pessimism and depression? 


You recall an article from a magazine that a passenger left on a cabin seat. Cabin seats are where you find most of your newspapers and periodicals.

 

Nobody wants depressed pilots. Or wants to acknowledge depressed pilots. Rather than "pessimist," it might be better to say, "It's good to be a realist."

 

A pessimist might give in to fate, and say, "Oh, what the hell." So, yes, I'll be a realist. 


A realist knows while all is well at the moment, bad things can happen. A realist can be ever on standby, ready to intervene.


Airplanes and cars both have seats, windows, and controls, but airplanes are nothing like cars. In this jet, you don't have a tiller like the one by the left seat. On the ground, you, the first officer in the right-hand cockpit seat, steer with your feet, using two rudder pedals on the floor.

 

You hold the three throttles in your left hand.

 

This machine comes to me through my body: feet, hands, back, and rear end.

 

You sense the incredible mass of half a million pounds of airplane—half the weight is fuel. You sense it in every control action you take and in every movement the machine makes. 

In a car, you don't register its mass. Your car would respond right away to your input. 

In big airplanes, I have to lead and anticipate what I want the jet to do.

All is close to you in your car. Not in this jet. The tail is almost two hundred feet behind you. 

The wings, too, are way behind me. I can't see them from here.

 

Invisible to you, the wings stretch out seventy-five feet on either side of you. 

It's not only the wings.


I can't see much of the airplane at all. I must stay aware and sense every part of this thing. I have to feel the wings, the tail, the nose, and the twelve wheels. 


No, it's not a car. It's more like operating a cruise ship. It's massive.


 You are new to the jet. This is your first trip after completing two months of ground school and flight training to learn the new aircraft type. It is June of 1997. Monsoon season in India. You've never been to India.

 

You've been with the airline for twelve years, flying smaller jets. You started with the company as a first officer, a F/O, on the Douglas DC-9. You next flew as F/O on the state-of-the-art, fly-by-wire Airbus A320.


"See the clouds?" asks Chris. "They're coming in from the northwest. The surface wind here is mostly south. Could have sheer on the climb. Decreasing performance. You did those drills in training. If we get any, it shouldn't be too bad. Bumps for sure. Tops don't look too high. Maybe five thousand. The girls will be seated anyway." 


It should be smoother above the top of the clouds. You'll be above the clouds within five or six minutes after takeoff. The flight attendants, "the girls," though two of the seven are men, will be in their seats and "strapped in" under seat belts until the pilots signal when the flight crosses ten thousand feet of altitude.


"Yup," you say. "We did a lot of wind sheer training."


To the tower, he says, "Any pireps for turbulence on departure?" PIREPs are short for "pilot reports."


"A Transavia seven-three-seven reported moderate turbulence from two to four thousand feet. Ten minutes ago," replied the tower in Dutch-accented English. She tends to stress the first syllable of each word.  The tower operator’s accent is officious, guttural, and beguilling. Charming in a phlegmish way. English became the official language for international aviation in 1944.


"Roger. Thanks." Chris picked up the interphone and rang the purser, the lead flight attendant. "Hi, Lois, it's Chris. Could be bumpy for the first few minutes, so keep everybody seated. Once you get the double chimes from us you'll be okay to get up."

You and Chris recap the windsheer maneuver.


This is your third airliner type, a Douglas DC-10. An airplane of an earlier generation, it first flew in 1970. Your first "heavy jet," your first transocean-capable wide-body machine.

 

It'll take a while before it's like home. 


Long ocean flights won't give you a lot of practice in takeoff and landings. 


The instructor said it takes a couple of hundred flight hours or more to settle in.


All this talking to yourself, this internal dialog is unconscious. Your conscious mind lasers on the task at hand and anticipates what will soon happen. Finding extraneous unconscious thoughts rising to the surface, you quash them. It's like playing Whac-A-Mole.


The jet is about fifteen degrees from the runway heading. Almost, but not quite, lined up on Amsterdam’s One-Eight-Left, one of five of the airport's runways. The captain says, “You have the airplane.” Now, it’s up to you to steer the machine. Steer it with your feet. 

It'll be seven hours and fifty-seven minutes to Mumbai. From here on, you will be the Pilot Flying until the captain, now the Pilot Monitoring, takes back control on the landing rollout. 

Unless conditions change and he wants to take control earlier. I am the pilot flying. But it's his airplane.


You stop when in position for takeoff. You sit for eternity on the end of the runway, an uncomfortable place. This runway is not often used for landing because of aircraft noise over houses. Still, you don't like sitting on an active runway not knowing what's behind you. Lined up and stopped on the runway you'd never see an airplane blundering in and landing on top of you.


You're uncomfortable, too, because, even though you’re only two hours into your eleven-hour workday, you are already so tired your bones seem crushed.


But you really don't wait on the runway for a long time. It's only forty seconds when all is clear for your flight.


"Northwest Three Zero, Schipol Tower. Fly the Arnhem One Sierra Departure. Maintain Level Six Zero. Runway One-Elgith-Left. Cleared for takeoff."

 

It's your turn to take your place in the sky.


The captain repeats the tower's message. You push the throttles forward, putting fuel into three tongues of fire in the three huge jet engines. Directing three infernos, you are a god of thunder.


Heavy, oh so heavy, your airplane begins to move.



"The new book is underway. Now, just ninety=eight thousand more words to go ..." -RR





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