Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Second Time Around

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 fiancĂ© 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 another sweet-smelling temporary license with “B757/767” typed beneath the “AIRLINE TRANSPORT PILOT,” which I’d just sat and stared at quite a few times in the year since I’d earned the title -- 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 China.

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) computer isn't just a navigation, performance, and datalink communication system. It's God. Actually, no, I take that back. It says here in my manual that God is in fact a VNAV function accessed through the second page of the ACARS submenu -- if you've performed a valid alignment.

More importantly, I learned that, at this 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. I already knew that when almost any bad thing happened, even if I thought I fully understood what to do, I shan't touch anything without specific checklist guidance, unless doing so falls under the amorphic heading of "correcting the 'obvious'." It's a lot like trying to win a debate tournament at the Tower of Babel.

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.

Upward Mobility!

I took this cherished picture, which I call, "Upward Mobility," with my cell phone (yes, while stationary) from a taxiway at O'Hare a few summers ago after a squall line had just passed. I use it as my background on my Twitter home page.


We were about number eighty for takeoff, and this 757 blasted off right in front of us with that moon and clouds kissing softly in the afterglow of a fantastic storm in the background. It was a gorgeous metaphor for how I was feeling about my career in its sixth post-9/11 year: stuck. Idle. Utterly stranded with no credible hope, but with a lovely view of the rest of the world getting on with their lives. In that same frame of mind, I later wrote "The Terrible Teens" and "First Officer, Second Fiddle" about my career's stagnation.

Then, out of nowhere, last December I got a call from Crew Planning, asking if I'd be "willing" to come to an International 767 class on 12/27/09. I finally understood what Einstein was talking about: the speed of light really didn't seem all that fast as my brain dispatched, then recalled a "HELL, YEAH!" followed shortly by the far more airline-pilot-like, "Well, I've got a trip on the 25th, but I don't guess I'd be legal to do that and come to class, so, yeah, I guess that'd be ok." Another call from my union's Professional Standards committee averted...

I reported for class as scheduled and was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually had a little spare time to write my previous post about AQP training. The hardest part was being the only pilot in the training center who was moving up; that, and watching the news about how many people are suffering through job losses and bad economic times, which, of course, those of us in the airline business have known nothing different from for nearly a decade now.

As I post today, I've flown two trips in my new status, one to Paris and the other to Bolivia, but I've been sitting on those posts until I hear back from an aviation website that expressed an interest in my contributing. It's been a week, though, and I've decided to wait less quietly.

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue