Whoever said, “It’s Never as Good as the First Time,”
Did Something Wrong on his Second
The first time I trained to fly internationally, I was a bloody stroke risk.
We’ve all seen this little “stress inventory,” whereby you score points for any major changes or developments in your life, and as your score climbs, you’re considered increasingly stressed and need to take increasingly sharp corrective actions to avoid health problems.
Well, I know I started to take it sometime in 1999 but gave up midway, since my calculator, along with most of my other worldly possessions, was in storage after I’d vacated, without assistance, my second-story condominium.
I was probably on a flight to or from my base in Miami, my new wife’s old place in Seattle, our new home in Missouri, my storage bin in San Diego, or our training hotel in Dallas, where I’d spent four of the past eight months learning two different jobs on five different models of two very different airplanes operating over two separate route systems.
No, wait, maybe it was—-no, I couldn’t have done it while actually driving the wife’s U-Haul from Seattle, or one junky airport car to, or another back from, Miami, now could I? No, no…
Maybe it was on one of the two-day breaks I had during that first, involuntary trip through 757/767 International training, although I know it couldn’t have been the one we used to find and contract to buy our first house, or the one we used to take possession, or the one in which we got the stuff I’d stored back under my own roof for the first time in six months.
Perhaps it was during the shortened version of our honeymoon—that being the week (less three non-revenue travel days) for which my company so graciously moved my (did I say “involuntary” yet?) training schedule so we could “frolic” in Hawaii (while trying not to think about eight weeks in the company’s most-often-failed program while still on new-hire probation)—-even though my fiancé and I already got to attend that wedding or whatever thing we had going on right before. My chief pilot made it clear that it was quite a bit more than the least they could do, but since the six-week working version on Miami’s South Beach I’d already secured with a deposit was sooo not about to happen, the company still wanted to show me just what family means around there.
I may have even taken the inventory after my training was over and I had yet another sweet-smelling temporary license in my wallet—this one with “B757/767” typed beneath the “AIRLINE TRANSPORT PILOT” I’d still hadn’t stopped taking out just to stare at since I’d earned the “Ph.D of flying.”
Perhaps it was at some other corrupt memory address created in the next nine months I spent commuting two legs to Miami and New York to sit around on reserve, ready to fill-in as relief pilot on all-night transoceanic and trans-Amazon flights for pilots hired at least ten years before me. When I wasn’t learning my new job, or paying off a sleep debt with payday-loan interest rates, I was learning about being a husband, stepdad, father, and home- and aircraft-owner.
Yet, I just can’t recall, for some reason, when or where I was when I took that stress inventory. I don’t recall if any of the warning signs it listed included sleeping with your tongue trapped between clenched teeth, but I do recall awakening more than one morning with the sides of mine looking (and feeling) like someone had pulled it out and tenderized it overnight. Can’t quite figure why.
In any case, that was Then, and this is Now. Well, not any more. Now this is Now. No, wait…
For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever come back to the 767 fleet. The difference in pay didn’t seem to justify the long hours and large workload of unfamiliar duties. But when negotiations on our multi-billions-of-dollars-off, post-9/11 contract (and the $300M management bonus programs it engendered) entered their third year, I began to look for a way to get through the next few years of undeclared impasse without waking up with my tongue black and blue. I noticed that my seniority, and thus the number of days I’d have to spend away from home to bring bacon back, would be the same if I were flying internationally from Miami as it was flying domestically from Chicago. The only difference would be having to take two flights to get to work versus one, but offset by rarely having to show up before 6 p.m.—-for about a 15% pay increase. We pilot types call that a no-brainer.
So I went back to the “schoolhouse,” wiped out the cobwebs, and relearned what I surely once knew so long ago. Big shock—-for some reason, this time it was ever so much easier. The (same) wife and kids (plus one more) were tucked snugly into our same house, and everything that required my personal oversight in life now fits easily onto a thumb drive. Oh, and this time I could, and did, share how I really felt a few times during training, with almost no fear of winding up flying that proverbial cargo plane full of rubber dog poop out of Hong Kong.
In the decade I spent flying domestically, I’d already learned how to fly a jet (really fast, thanks), how autothrottles work (to confuse pilots), and that, to Boeing, the Flight Management System
(FMS) isn’t just a navigation, performance, and datalink communication system. It’s God. Actually, wait, I take that back. A check of my manual here finds that God is, in fact, an uplinking VNAV function accessible through the second page of the ACARS submenu. If you’ve performed a valid preflight alignment, that is.
More importantly, I learned that, at least at this major airline, I shan’t modify checklist challenges or responses like “Navigation Displays” or “Set and checked” to be spoken as “Nav Displays” or “Checked and Set,” lest our obsessively standardized little world crumble down around, er, from beneath us, and I be flogged as a heretic.
Since the last time I went through 767 training, I’d learned well that when almost anything unusual happens, even if I think I fully understand what to do, I shan’t touch anything without specific checklist guidance—unless doing so falls under the amorphic heading of “correcting the ‘obvious’,” in which case you better do it.
Critiquing any number of unwelcome, variable, micromanagerially imposed “techcedures” can make a sim session degrade into a debate tournament at the Tower of Babel. “Go along to get along,” and “cooperate to graduate” are mantras employed by legions of pilot virtuosos to deny their gift and just play as directed, however hackneyed the piece or tone-deaf the conductor may be.
Best of all, I’d already learned that to try to impress anyone would be utterly in vain. Apparently, praising copilots only invites trouble, so self-flaggelation is at all times the appropriate behavior, in response to performances both middling and superior. We may or may not be our own worst critics, but we damned surely have to be our own biggest fans.
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes,
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
With simulator training over, all that remained to be considered a fully-requalified International 767 pilot was to take a trip with an instructor pilot and do nothing that scared him. Having never been to Paris before, that was where it was ordained I go. Darn the luck!
Having gotten quite attached to that wife and those kids, I sure saw things rather differently out there over the North Atlantic last week. The first time I heard the joke about what ETOPS, the acronym for Extended Twin-engine Overwater operations, “really” stands for (Engines Turn Or People Swim) when I was a new husband ten years ago, it just seemed much so much funnier than it was as I tried to catch twenty winks or so on my break.
Greenland’s fjords didn’t used to sound that scary. The Azores used to be just over there to the right, Keflavik a skosh closer on the left. The MTBF, Mean Time Between Failures, for jet engines on an ETOPS-approved maintenance program is such a really ridiculously long time, a three-way mid-air collision with two flying saucers invading Earth is a statistically larger risk than suffering a mechanically-induced dual engine failure.
Smoke in the cockpit? You never used to hear of that happening (SwissAir 111 had just crashed and was then still under investigation). Fire in the cargo hold? Nah—give me something realistic to worry about (Valujet 592, same thing)—now where’s Betty with our hot towels, anyway?
Tonight, at our second ETP, Equal-Time-Point, where our choices of emergency diversion airports switched from Goose Bay, Labrador or Keflavik, Iceland, both more than two hours away, to Lajes Field in the Azores or Shannon, Ireland, also more than two hours distant, it occurred to me as I fought to sleep through as much of my two-hour rest break as possible, just how quickly those two hours could flash by were I were summoned to the cockpit to help work a complex problem—and just how endless a simple, merciless one could make them seem to three “superhuman” pilots and our two-hundred fragile charges.
Sixty-six years ago this April Fool’s Day, my Uncle and his crew lost an engine to flak over their secondary target, far more than a mere two hours from the safety of Dover’s Cliffs. To survive, they had to not only keep their wits about them despite how badly damaged their plane and their bodies were, but also to fight off hypoxia, hypothermia, and any number of German fighters thrilled to use their crippled ship for gunnery practice. They almost made it. Their luck ran out over Reims.
Nothing of the sort occurred to us, however, and not long after I began drooling on my pillow in my comfy chair, beneath my soft, warm blanket, in my air-conditioned, pressurized cabin, dawn seeped through the cracks around my window shade, telling me, “get back to work, Monsieur. Et bienvenue au France.”
The flying Carrikers were back in Europe’s sky.