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

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Isolation

"Does anyone know where the love of God goes,

when the waves turn the minutes to hours?"

-Gordon Lightfoot,

"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. Never having 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) was when I was a new husband ten years ago, and it just seemed much so much funnier back then than now, as I tried to catch ten winks 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.

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