North Star Over My Shoulder: A Flying Life

( 9 )

Overview

Captain Robert N. Buck retired from TWA after having flown well over two thousand Atlantic crossings and thirty-seven years of service as chief pilot and director of thunderstorm research. During World War II he was engaged in weather research for the U.S. Air Corps, for which he was awarded, as a civilian, the Air Medal by President Harry Truman. More recently, Buck has worked with the International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN's body for aviation — to develop a new ...

See more details below
Paperback (Reprint)
$12.16
BN.com price
(Save 24%)$16.00 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (33) from $1.99   
  • New (11) from $5.98   
  • Used (22) from $1.99   
North Star Over My Shoulder: A Flying Life

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK Study
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.66
BN.com price

Overview

Captain Robert N. Buck retired from TWA after having flown well over two thousand Atlantic crossings and thirty-seven years of service as chief pilot and director of thunderstorm research. During World War II he was engaged in weather research for the U.S. Air Corps, for which he was awarded, as a civilian, the Air Medal by President Harry Truman. More recently, Buck has worked with the International Civil Aviation Organization — the UN's body for aviation — to develop a new plan of world airspace.
In North Star over My Shoulder, Bob Buck tells of a life spent up and over the clouds, and of the wonderful places and marvelous people who have been a part of that life. He captures the feel, taste, and smell of flying's great early era — how the people lived, what they did and felt, and what it was really like to be a part of the world as it grew smaller and smaller. A terrific storyteller and a fascinating man, Bob Buck has turned his well-lived life into a delightful memoir for anyone who remembers when there really was something special in the air.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Bob Buck's life and career encompass the entire history of American commercial aviation; he's flown biplanes, jumbo jets, and everything in between. Inspired by the legendary Charles Lindbergh, Buck flew solo from coast to coast at the tender age of sixteen. Numerous other flight records were set, leading to his hiring by now-departed TWA in 1937. His achievements in aviation unparalleled, he now shares his incredible life of flight with the world.
From the Publisher
Walter J. Boyne, former director, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum An absolutely brilliant book by an aviation pioneer! Bob Buck's beautiful writing style conveys his intimate and loving knowledge of aviation, evoking the best of the past...while keeping us solidly grounded in the present. Buck's memoirs put him in the first rank of aviation writers with Ernie Gann and Charles Lindbergh. Any airman will love this book, and any writer will envy it.

Reeve Lindbergh North Star over My Shoulder provides the connection between the very first pioneers, like my father, and the brave band of young aviators who followed him. [Bob Buck] writes so eloquently about his life and work....It's a wonderful story. A real delight to read.

Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post [Buck] has written a strong, vivid, and wholly engaging memoir of his flying life...a lively, informative book that loses not a bit of its wonder and excitement now that aviation has been transformed from science fiction into everyday reality.

Publishers Weekly
What's not to love about flying? For all the numbing routine, constant danger and bad food, Buck can't find much to complain about. He's been flying since the 1920s and still today, at age 87, takes the occasional glider for a spin. His autobiography is a thumbnail history of the air transport industry, which he's been a part of practically since its inception. The book skips most of Buck's personal life and focuses on airplanes. Buck relates his wide-eyed first flying experience at 16 with an enthusiasm normally relegated to the pages of romance novels. He quickly became a copilot and eventually a pilot for nascent Missouri airline TWA. His descriptions of these early flights in bare-bones vehicles have a white-knuckle intensity, especially when the weather turns bad (one passage tells of the few options pilots had when dealing with ice forming on their windshields: opening a small window at 10,000 feet and scraping it off with a putty knife was one of them). During WWII, Buck flew a special weather-research B-17 around the world and after the war became one of the airline's most senior pilots. In the course of his life, he flies over most of the known world and meets fellow air aficionados Tyrone Power and Howard Hughes. Buck writes in an appealing, no-nonsense manner that only occasionally becomes labored the literary equivalent of one too many friendly punches in the shoulder but this is an exciting memoir from an endearingly obsessed man who has been just about everywhere and can't wait to tell how he got there, and in what kind of plane and at what altitude. (Apr. 11) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A former chief pilot for TWA and the holder of a world distance record for light planes, Buck is also the author of Weather Flying, a classic text for pilots. Here he describes his long life in flying, which mirrors the evolution of aviation in America in its scope and versatility. Buck began his flying career during the age of biplanes and Charles Lindbergh, when navigation consisted of looking down at roads and other landmarks. By 1937 he was a pilot for a major airline. His career lasted for 37 years and included stints as the pilot for several of Hollywood's biggest stars. He conducted weather research during World War II and received the Air Medal as a civilian from President Truman. The author has a knack for storytelling, and his straightforward narrative flows easily from one chapter to the next, giving the reader a feel for what has been called "the golden age" of flying. While this blow-by-blow account may appeal primarily to subject specialists, collections that include aeronautical history will welcome its personal approach to a similar subject. Mark Ellis, Albany State Univ., GA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A longtime commercial pilot recounts his association with airplanes, from open cockpits to 747s, in a voice displaying the surety of a talented surgeon. Buck got his pilot's license when he was a teenager, only three years after Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis from Brooklyn to Brittany. Aviation was still in its infancy: you flew by the seat of your pants, landed on grass runways (if you were lucky)-and forget about radio contact. It was the era of barnstorming, but although Buck pulled a few stunts of his own (he was the youngest pilot to fly coast-to-coast), he was no cowboy. His goal was to become a master, not a casualty, and he takes readers on his journey up through the license grades, learning sight navigation and weather flying, honing his judgment and instincts, making the plane an extension of his person. While he explains the evolution of aviation, Buck works into the story just enough technical material-when high pressure forms over northern Europe, why the tropopause is defined by a layer of dust, the inevitability of being pounded by an intertropical front-to make you realize how difficult it is to fly any airplane. He also talks fondly of decompressing between flights with long walks and good meals in various European cities, and of his days piloting around celebrities for Howard Hughes, who pretty much owned TWA-which in turn pretty much owned Buck. What may well be the most captivating chapter finds Buck walking us from pre-flight through takeoff on a 747, a dance of such intricate choreography that readers will be infused with a decided measure of either comfort or gloom. Illuminates not just the history of commercial aviation, but the whole mysterious process ofgetting a plane off and back on the ground.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743262309
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/1/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 636,653
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Bob Buck is the author of four previous books, including Weather Flying and The Pilot's Burden.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Night Flight
It was late fall, with the brilliant colors already turning dull. The leaves of the large chestnut close by our old stone house lay on the ground, curled and brown and brittle. The sky was overcast, but without definition — no way to identify the clouds, it was simply gray and dreary.
I looked back as I turned the car from the dirt road onto the two-lane blacktop, and waved to my wife, Jean, who was watching me go; she waved back, and after that I only looked ahead.
I felt that emptiness and sadness I always faced when leaving home and family, the nagging feeling of not having had the time for all the important things to do or say.
The country road soon reached the Delaware River; after that the roads grew bigger, and the occasional auto became many as others slid into the flow. Finally the route became the steady nose-to-tail stream of highway leading to New York City and its disheartening surroundings. As home dropped back behind me and the airport loomed, the sad feeling retreated to a quiet place in the mind's back storage, while my primary thoughts turned to the evening's task.
This night I'd fly a Boeing 747 from New York across the Atlantic to Paris, as I did four or five times a month, hauling people, mail, and cargo — a pleasant task despite the problems that weather, crew, and airplane might toss my way. Whenever I drove to an airport the same thoughts occupied my mind, mostly about emergencies and what I would do if one occurred.
The act of flying an airplane is a daily chore and I'd long since become proficient at it, the repeated reactions and movements automatic, but emergencies almost never happen so there's no rehearsal for them except for a few hours twice a year in a simulator. And that doesn't cover all of them — ditching the plane in mid-Atlantic, for example. So you review these things, playing mental games of how to cope if the improbable should come true, and the time spent driving to the airport gives you a good opportunity to do it.
What if an engine catches fire? Pull back the throttle, cut the start lever, call for the emergency checklist. How necessary is this review? I'd been thirty years a captain and only had one fire, on a Constellation — a "Connie" — taking off from Frankfurt, Germany. Just as we broke ground there came the shattering confusion of a loud bell and a bright red light. "Engine fire!" Quick action on the remembered items: throttle closed, fuel mixture off, fire extinguisher lever pulled, "Read the engine fire checklist!" All the pre-trained, well-thought-out operational actions took place, right by the book. But in the back of my mind was the thought of a wing burning off, which told me, "Get the son of a bitch back on the ground as fast as possible."
I wrapped the plane into a tight turn I had learned long ago while flying fast around pylons in small-time air races and stunt shows. "Tell the tower we're coming right back," I said. The tower operator, accustomed to orderly traffic flow procedures, tried to direct us to follow another aircraft, a normal aircraft on a normal flight. A few firm words advised the tower to get others out of the way, that we were in a hurry for terra firma.
We landed okay — total flight time was probably five or six minutes, and the fire was out before we touched down — but it had been a fire, caused by a complicated turbine failing and tearing things up. Those few minutes presented the contrast of carefully taught and programmed reactions versus the kind of seat-of-the-pants flying you store up during long hours of flight time — some call it "fright time," and a pilot needs some of that in his or her dossier. The modern way is right and necessary, but periodically there are difficult and perhaps emergency situations that demand the basic stick and rudder skills of quick, intuitive action.
But now it was time to quit thinking about that day in a Connie, and to come back to the 747 I was going to fly tonight. How about a hydraulic system loss? An electrical? Instruments? I go over each one — and the tough ones, too, like a crash landing with fire, and how to get 400 people off the plane; review your actions, think of the twelve doors, know the other crew members' responsibilities, because they're yours, too. It sounds matter-of-fact in the manual, the drawings all neat and precise, but planes generally don't crack up so neatly; it'd probably be a shambles.
My mind slides back to a noon takeoff from Paris, headed for New York with a light load of only 177 passengers. We climbed toward the Channel because our route was to go over England and north, out to sea over Northern Ireland. There was a scattering of fluffy cumulus clouds around 5,000 feet, the sky above blue, the Normandy countryside green and lush below.
"Flight eight-oh-three, Paris." It was our company radio calling. The copilot answered.
"Go ahead, Paris — eight-oh-three."
"Eight-oh-three, we have a telephone [they never say "call"] saying there is a bomb on your flight set to explode at 1340!"
All eyes to the cockpit clocks — that was about forty-seven minutes from now. Shit!
Scared? No — because I didn't think it was real. The natural reaction of "This wouldn't happen to me" numbs you unless there's a real accident in progress.
Logic also said that a bomb was unlikely, as most such threats are hoaxes. But we're just off the ground with seven hours ahead of us to New York, and hoax or no hoax you have to play it for real.
A quick return — Paris air traffic control (ATC) was cooperative when the problem was explained. "You are cleared direct Orly, number one to land." The French grasp situations quickly and act that way, too.
The purser, Buddy Ledger, an efficient old-timer, was called up front: "It's like this," I explained. "We may have to evacuate, so get 'em all ready." Cool as a cucumber, no more excitement or emotion than if I'd simply wanted a cup of fresh coffee.
We started a descent, dumping fuel as we descended, but there wasn't time to get down to landing weight before arriving; as we neared Orly there were just twelve minutes left before the big bang was scheduled, so no time for hanging around the sky. Orly's runway is long, so an overweight landing was less risky than a possible bomb.
I had briefed the passengers during our return, telling them exactly what was going on: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We've been notified there is a bomb on board set to go off in forty minutes, so we're returning to Orly. I don't think it's for real, but we cannot take the chance. We should be well on the ground before the time. Please follow the instructions of your purser and cabin team."
That was giving it to them straight. I've always believed in being truthful to passengers about problems. Let 'em have it as it is — some might faint, but they'll know the score when we revive 'em.
Safely down, and then on the ground we were directed to a deserted area of the airport; they didn't want us to be at the terminal if we blew up.
How do you feel during all this? Annoyed, mostly, still not believing in the bomb, but playing the game. Judgments, actions, compromises all needed because of a phone call.
Out at our lonesome area on the far end of the field — we were almost out in farm country, the terminal a couple of miles away — I couldn't see any steps being towed out to us. To play the game right we should get out of the airplane fast: evacuate, slide all the passengers down those long chutes that inflate when the door is opened. That's a regrettable procedure, because someone always gets hurt. I look at the copilot and flight engineer; they're staring at me, expecting a decision. "Let's go!" Action: engine shut down, checklist items all done fast. I flip the switch to ring the bell that will tell the cabin team to start the evacuation, but I didn't want any misunderstandings so I also picked up the intercom. "This is it, evacuate the aircraft!"
"Go!" I said to the two crew members, and they disappeared from the cockpit. I took a minute to double-check that we'd turned all the proper things off, set the brakes, and so on. We'd been thorough, so I was mostly satisfied — but not completely because in a big complex airplane there's always a feeling that you may have missed something; it's like leaving your house with that question of "What did I forget?" gnawing at your mind.
Last check done to the best of my ability, I rushed out of the cockpit and down the stairs expecting to see a mob of people headed for the doors, but they were already gone, the cabin empty. What a job Buddy and his gals had done. Just to be sure, I ran, circling the length of the cabin to be certain we hadn't missed anyone, and then got to the front door and its chute. Before jumping into it I hesitated a second — gad, it looked a long way down there; well, it's almost three stories. I jumped, fanny first, feet up, into the chute and slid to the bottom.
The passengers had all been moved away from the airplane and cars and buses were racing out to get them. One man came up to me — sensitive-looking, with eyeglasses, suit and tie, and a worried look.
"My violin, it is very valuable — will it be safe? Please take care of it."
"If the airplane doesn't blow up, your violin is safe."
I turned to Buddy and asked, "Anybody hurt?"
"No. One gal, a dead-heading hostess [a flight attendant not working but traveling along to her next destination], turned her ankle. Everybody else okay, including an eighty-two-year-old lady with a cane."
A big sense of relief, because all the people in that airplane are your worry.
We waited a couple of hours and nothing happened. After long discussions among mechanics, airport police, and Lord knows who else, it was decided the airplane was safe. Somehow I was elected to go back on board first.
At the airplane there was a lift with a platform, and I climbed on accompanied by the commandant of the airport police, a proper Frenchman in full uniform topped by his blue kepi — always neat and impressive. We were raised up to the front door, and in an automatic gesture of politeness I held back for him to go first. Ah, no. He bowed graciously. "Après vous, Capitaine," he said, a hint of amusement in his smile.
We looked around the cabin, toilets, and closets. I searched the overhead racks and found the violin in its case. There were about ten handbags with money and whatever else such bags may hold that the hostesses had left on board; the rule in evacuating is not to worry about belongings, just get yourself off!
I deplaned with ten handbags hanging from my arms and the violin case in hand. The passengers were at the terminal being fed, and when they saw me, the women grabbed the bags for a quick check of their belongings, and the violinist repeatedly bowed and thanked me for his instrument.
Later that night we flew the airplane to New York. You reflect, in the long quiet hours over the sea, how much can be affected by so little: one person — the authorities concluded later it was an angry employee who'd been fired — can disrupt so many.
*
I'm still driving toward JFK, trying to focus on a review of important issues for the flight. The task gets weary and stale; emergency procedures drift out of focus as my mind wanders from airplanes to lighter things: Paris tomorrow, and thoughts of what to do there.
Paris, like any other layover, is a release from responsibility; until the next day I've got nothing to do, nothing to account for except getting to bed for a good rest. I'll have twenty-eight hours to spend in the city I find to be an alluring obsession, one that once you've seen and understood becomes a haven from mundane reality. Experience her with an open mind, and her culture, intellect, beauty, freedom, smells, feeling, and movement will create an almost mystic love. I daydream of an early morning arrival, in the thick mist and cold air that will warm during the day; then the hotel, my room with its brass bed, simple chair, and small marble-topped table of some Louis period, the armoire to store my clothes, a clean bath with the normal fixtures plus a bidet, that civilized apparatus of plumbing and porcelain. The bed has a warm, inviting quilt. From being up all night you will be foggy-tired, relaxed, not concerned about anything in particular and know how good the embrace of that bed will feel.
When people learn that you're an international airline pilot, they often ask how you overcome jet lag. The answer is simple: you don't. No matter how many times you've crossed the sea, jet lag drags on you physically and mentally. You can only get some smarts about it and try to dodge it as much as possible by strategies like napping and thinking ahead to the next period of work and necessary wakefulness.
Sleep will come instantly and the alarm's ring will seem to as well. You've set your clock for 2:00 in the afternoon — it's essential to carry your own alarm; when you ask for an oddball wake-up in mid-afternoon, 90 percent of the time they simply forget. That's more of the smarts that develop with the job.
It's awful to get up after a three- or four-hour sleep; you feel draggy, with an empty, almost sick feeling inside. Gad, it would be good to roll over and go on sleeping, and it would be so easy to do. But no, get up — sleep any longer and you won't be able to go to sleep that night.
Because I've lived this Paris routine so often, the daydreaming on the drive to JFK seems real. Get up, shower, shave, dress, and go out. The immediate goal is something to eat, but not too much because dinner is not far away. Down the slope of Rue Balzac for a block to the Champs-Elysées. The afternoon air will be temperate as the sun shines with frail warmth through the fall haze. The street is busy, with cars going by at great speed in a thunder of engines not unlike the start of an auto race; some are trying to find a parking place on the wide sidewalk. People are walking, all kinds of people. Tourists stroll, looking in windows, but the French are in a hurry. Chic ladies dressed as only the French can hurrying to some destination; young people in jeans and sloppy T-shirts — the world infestation of the jean that homogenizes the young, along with middle-aged folks trying to hold that youth but looking a bit silly; you think of this blue-bottomed army as acting and thinking alike, all with the same values, but that's probably unfair. On Avenue George V, past the Hotels Prince de Galles and George V, fancy cars with chauffeurs wait for fancy people with money. You see them come out: a man in an expensive tailored suit, lovely tie, hair pomaded to slick it down flat and shiny, along with a very fancy blonde with great legs ending in high-heeled shoes, a sexy dress, and makeup to decimal-point perfection. Is she a movie actress or a business girl (to use the French connotation)? Either way, it's amusing.
Then on to a café near the Place de l'Alma; there are chairs and tables outside, a zinc bar inside, the bartender imposing on his elevated floor surrounded by polished machines that make espresso and hot milk. The complexity of the handles, knobs, and dials rivals my 747 instrument panel.
I sit outside. A waiter approaches, small circular tray under his arm, wearing a long white apron and a bored, detached look. I know exactly what I want; I've thought about it since floundering around my hotel room earlier. "Un croque monsieur et un demi-pression, s'il vous plaît" — a sandwich of thin bread buttered on one side, Gruyère cheese and ham between, well grilled so it comes warm with the butter shining on the outside — enough fat to jump the cholesterol reading 100 points in a minute, but very good. The pression is draft beer from Alsace, a province along the Rhine that for a period, until the end of World War I, was German, so the beer is good. I suppose some people would be shocked to think of a pilot drinking before a flight, but a beer isn't much drinking and the next flight is about seventeen hours off.
The company rule says no drinking while on a trip at all. Well, I'm not a drinker — never real booze — but a beer, or wine, in France? It's ridiculous to think I wouldn't have a glass with a meal.
I think about the one time the wine did get away from me, at a simple dinner with my beloved French friends, Riton and André. Riton was a real old-school Frenchman who knew all the ways of living well — work was something one did in order to live and not the other way around. He knew every stone and every street in Paris, was an amusing conversationalist, and got serious only rarely, and then generally to express his total dislike for the grand Charles de Gaulle. Riton was one of the best golfers in France and that's how I'd met him many years back, during the more relaxed days of piston airplanes and less frantic schedules when we had two or even three days' layover in Paris.
On the evening in question they took me to dinner knowing I had to get to bed early for a flight to Tel Aviv the next morning. We dined at the Grand Comptoir, an old bistro on the edge of Les Halles market; the food was very good and the wines excellent, chosen from small vineyards the proprietor knew. Riton ordered a Fleurie, a red wine from the Beaujolais region — my first encounter and, my, it was wonderful and is still one of my favorites. I drank sparingly, knowing I had to fly in the morning. But the conversation was warm and good, and I took little notice that I was drinking more Fleurie than was prudent — Fleurie is a quaffing wine, not one to sip.
At a good hour we departed and they dropped me off at the hotel. I readied myself for bed and crawled in, stretched out, and closed my eyes. A dizziness instantly overcame me, and my eyes popped open. What's this? I wondered. I closed my eyes again and my head spun with a nausea that said if my eyes stayed closed I'd throw up. My eyes opened again and I stared into the darkness. "My God!" I admonished myself. "You're drunk!" Or at the least I had had too much to drink — and in just seven hours the phone would ring for crew call. I couldn't possibly fly that soon. This was terrible. I thought it over, made my plan, and picked up the phone to call the airport.
"This is Captain Buck. I'm ill, I'm sure I ate a spoiled mussel [nothing will flatten you more]. I won't be able to take my flight — have you got someone to cover it for me?"
A pause. "Captain Utgard is set up for eight-oh-one to New York; we can turn him around and send him back to Tel Aviv."
Poor Ed, what a dirty trick I was pulling, but the lie was better than flying "a bit less than efficient," as one old captain put it.
After sleeping until noon the next day I got up well recuperated and flew Ed's 801 to New York in the late afternoon.
Not long after, I saw Ed and apologized for the turnaround I'd caused him and confessed to the real reason. He laughed — but then he thanked me! He was glad of the extra turnaround, it made it possible to pick up some pay time he'd lost because of a previous cancellation. But it was a strong lesson, and something I never repeated.
*
My daydreaming stopped and I awakened to the present, to my automobile on the Belt Parkway. I turned off the parkway into JFK airport. The reverie had served its purpose, to put thoughts of home back in storage, where they couldn't distract me from the job or the days ahead. This was not an instinctive process, but one I developed through the years of going and coming as an airline pilot.
You cannot allow the distraction of thoughts of home and family when you're trying to land through low ceiling and fog, or when battling thunderstorms or snow and ice. Nor can you lose sleep or wrap yourself in melancholy over the separation from family thousands of miles away. A more selfish urge is at work here, too: there are the sights and sounds of foreign places to enjoy, and why spoil the experience by mooning about home? But flying off to distant places wasn't a selfish choice. The overseas flights paid best, and since the flights were long, the flying time built up quickly, and that meant more time off between trips — more time at home. And any hesitation over my enjoyment of the travel was mollified by the thought, "Someday I'll show these places to Jean and the children."
It's a dual life, really, because the airline and its people are a family, too. We were closely knit, knew one another's thoughts, character, and problems. It was an intimate relationship that the family back home wasn't part of.
So pulling open the door to the vestibule that led to the stairs and to the offices on the side of the hangar was also a homecoming. The guard greeted you, other crew members were coming and going, and most you knew and could exchange a quip with by way of hello. You had departed home two hours ago, and here you were, home again — a different home, but home nevertheless.
As a pilot you don't just get to the airport, climb into an airplane, and go; you sneak up on it in stages. Stage one is a stop at the schedule desk, where a clerk sits behind a counter with a telephone receiver seemingly always glued to one ear, calling to notify crews of future duty, or scrounging up someone to fill in for someone else who called in sick, all the while checking in people like me. When I motion I'm aboard, she checks my name off the crew list, gives me a nod — and never misses a word to whomever she's talking to on the phone. I lean over the counter for a closer look at my crew list and note that O.B. Smith is tonight's first officer, or copilot, which makes for a warm feeling because O.B. is quiet, efficient, and a pleasure to be with.
A copilot can make a trip or ruin it; get someone who talks too much, gripes about the company, tries to impress you, tells long and boring anecdotes, or is overly aggressive in suggesting ways to run the flight, and the taste is unpleasant. A1 was one of those. He was a captain on domestic, but bid copilot international and the 747 because it paid more and had the romance of flying to Europe and other distant places. But he couldn't stop being captain and started tuning radios and adjusting navigation items without telling me. I finally had to lecture him strongly: "You bid copilot, now damn it, be a copilot and not a co-captain. We'll do things my way, and if you don't like it bid back to domestic." It worked and he settled down, but his resentment always showed.
Now and then there'd be a milquetoast who wouldn't get things done unless you told him each item you wanted. A good copilot is a balance of these things, following, doing as told, but strong enough to point out any error you may have made.
All in all my copilots were fine, like O.B.: a big man from Iowa farm country who came to flying via the navy. (For some reason, naval aviators always seem to come from farms, way out in the middle of the country, far from the sea.) Farm people impress me because they generally have common sense, and if there's one trait a pilot should have in abundance it's good old-fashioned common sense. Farm people also have a way of recognizing that certain things, even unpleasant things, have to be done; they don't bitch about the chore, or cuss out the company because of some obnoxious procedure, and they don't get vocal or outwardly scared when things get tough like the weather going down at your destination when the fuel reserves are low. If that were to happen, O.B. wouldn't change appearance a mite; he'd just settle in to computing fuel, getting weather information, and being generally useful in a matter-of-fact manner. Yes, it's a good feeling to have O.B. in that right seat beside you.
A glance at the rest of the crew: S. C. Bushy, whom everyone just called Bushy, as flight engineer, or second officer; another good man who knows the airplane's innards and workings. The cabin team is twelve hostesses and a flight manager. A few names I recognize at a glance; a couple of attractive gals with a certain verve who'll burst into the cockpit bringing coffee or food and a wise remark, a spark to wake us up for a few moments during the dull grind of a long night.
Then to the mail room and my mailbox crammed with the latest stuff you have to know before a flight.
Paper, lots of it. We're so damn wasteful — probably one of the worst inventions of all time has been the copier, since it encourages the making and distributing of more copies than are actually needed; computers breed waste, too, as their printers spew long ribbons of paper. For all this paper, the land gets scalped as trees are torn down, and chemicals are dumped into rivers. I've seen the damage from the air, mountainsides made barren, ugly gook flowing out the mouths of rivers and streams into lakes and oceans; acrid smoke that drifts for miles and blots out the sun from a town, city, or countryside. These things can't hide from a pilot's eyes.
I take the papers from my mail folder and lug my black salesmanlike case to a long counter with low stools where pilots sit and bring their operation manuals up to date before flight. The chatter of gossip and tall tales flows from the half-dozen pilots working at the long bench.
The key item in my not-so-briefcase is a beat-up leather-covered six-ring notebook with charts for each airport on route and many off route in case some emergency or bad weather diverts you away from normal routes or places. One packet in the mailbox contains the latest revisions, perhaps a couple of dozen thin paper sheets. There have been changes since you last flew the route and you'd better know about them: a different radio frequency, runway repairs in progress, airport changes; here's one for Geneva, Switzerland — the airport elevation has been changed from 2,000 feet to 2,014 feet. That's the mark of Swiss precision: someone remeasured it, probably with new instruments. The fourteen-foot change doesn't mean much to me, and I'm certain Geneva's airport hasn't suddenly risen fourteen feet, but it has to be corrected. The old page for Geneva is thrown aside and replaced by the new one.
San Francisco: "I left my heart..." Yes, there's still a part of my heart in San Francisco from my young copilot days. On the San Francisco page, a tower frequency change: the old page is tossed out and the new one put in place. The binders and luggage we carry are big because we carry the information for all the places and routes, from San Francisco to Bombay. It seems silly, and a big burden, but internationally one never knows where the route may be.
Our office was part of the hangar, as many are. They're afterthoughts, stuck onto the side and never well ventilated, and not much light gets into them. The hangar is long, and the offices are located along a corridor that stretches from one end of the building to the other. At the end of the corridor is the entrance to Dispatch and Weather. When you pass through that door you're suddenly in the middle of the action: clerks moving about, writing stuff at their desks, gathering messages, handing them to the dispatcher, who sits in the center of it all worrying about airplanes and flights. The right side area is international; Flight 907 is hung up in Bombay with mechanical problems; Milan is fogged in, what happens to the passengers, mail, and cargo? Concerns like that for every destination from New York to Hong Kong. A partition divides the room and on the left is another dispatcher with a cadre of clerks who handle the North Atlantic; the immediate problems of weather, fuel, loads, and air traffic delays. It's where I do business.
Bill Hussey is on duty, a crisp, pleasant, and sharp individual. We shake hands and pass the pleasantries. "You've got plane 310, it came in on eight-oh-one, no mechanical problems — you're all set: 395 passengers; Paris looks a little shaky."
Paris is shaky because it may fog in, but that's nothing unexpected; it's fall and not only is Paris shaky, so is all of Northern Europe — it always is. At this time of year, around October, a high pressure area sits over Europe and gives it those warm hazy days when the light filters through the chestnut trees, creating patterns of soft sunshine and shadow on the ground. But the evening air cools, and as dawn approaches this can form fog — and our flights arrive in the early morning, around 7:00 A.M. As the day warms the fog burns off: in early October it clears by 8:30 or so; in late October, it may hang on until 9:30 or 10:00, by late November, with the longer and cooler nights, the fog is thicker and it's near noon before it burns off. By December it may not burn off at all. I once spent five days in Paris because no airplanes could get in. They weren't days of complete freedom because you had to be handy in case the fog burned off, but the five days weren't a hardship by any means and, as pilots say in such circumstances, I was there so long I thought of running for mayor. Now it's early November, and the fog situation is chancy. The cure is to take on enough fuel so you can go to the warmer south of France — Marseilles, for example. But sometimes the payload, or poor winds, make it difficult to put that much fuel on board.
Now over to the meteorologist and his weather map, the man who will tell me what I'll find en route, up in the high sky with its invisible winds that flow from various directions at different speeds and sometimes tumble and churn, creating turbulence. The meteorologist — we generally call them weathermen — was Terebelski, a man who'd come to the United States from Poland in some shuffle during World War II that I never dug into deeply enough to learn the details. Terebelski was old-world, his Polish accent still much alive. "Good evenink, Keptain." Medium size, thin gray hair, pleasant smile, and all business — which he knew very well.
Terebelski's world was up in the troposphere and stratosphere. The troposphere, where we live, is the space where things happen; jet streams move, low and high pressure areas slide over us with their bad weather or good. It's the world of action, that dome of air above us that's about 30,000 feet thick over the poles, 50,000 feet over the equatorial regions. As we take off and climb in the troposphere the temperature decreases, roughly 2°C for every thousand feet we climb. This varies day to day with weather patterns.
Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends up to about 125,000 feet. It's different from the troposphere in that as we climb in the stratosphere the temperature increases with altitude, gets warmer. The air is dry, too, so the weather is clear.
Where the troposphere and stratosphere meet is called the tropopause; in flying talk it's known as "the trop." It really isn't anything except a point of change from troposphere to stratosphere. Often, at the trop, one can see a fine line of dust particles, stuff from where we live down below that can't go any higher because the warmer stratosphere prevents its climb, just like the pollution in Los Angeles stays there because of an inversion — warmer aloft, like the stratosphere.
What does all this mean to me in a jet airplane? Well, I want to get as high as possible because up high, simply put, we get more miles per gallon. The catch is temperature; if the airplane is heavy, the altitude it can climb to is limited by temperature. If it's too warm for the airplane's weight, performance deteriorates, because warm air is thinner, so it has fewer mole

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Contents

  1. Night Flight
  2. Hooked
  3. Records
  4. Co-Education
  5. Apprentice Time
  6. Early Airplanes and How We Flew Them
  7. Way Out West
  8. Copilot Days and Nights
  9. Checkout
  10. Captain Buck
  11. The Battle of Presque Isle
  12. Intercontinental
  13. Across the North Atlantic
  14. Two Kind Words
  15. Flights of Fancy with a Purpose
  16. Distractions and Adventure
  17. Chief
  18. Around the World
  19. A Brief Debriefing
  20. Chance of a Lifetime
  21. Back on the Line
  22. Paris and Beyond
  23. A Summons from Howard Hughes
  24. Farewell to Propellers and All That Drove Them
  25. 707 Days
  26. SST or Not SST
  27. Home, and Above
  28. Around the World — Upside Down
  29. Grand Dame
  30. Fin

Index
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter 1: Night Flight

It was late fall, with the brilliant colors already turning dull. The leaves of the large chestnut close by our old stone house lay on the ground, curled and brown and brittle. The sky was overcast, but without definition -- no way to identify the clouds, it was simply gray and dreary.

I looked back as I turned the car from the dirt road onto the two-lane blacktop, and waved to my wife, Jean, who was watching me go; she waved back, and after that I only looked ahead.

I felt that emptiness and sadness I always faced when leaving home and family, the nagging feeling of not having had the time for all the important things to do or say.

The country road soon reached the Delaware River; after that the roads grew bigger, and the occasional auto became many as others slid into the flow. Finally the route became the steady nose-to-tail stream of highway leading to New York City and its disheartening surroundings. As home dropped back behind me and the airport loomed, the sad feeling retreated to a quiet place in the mind's back storage, while my primary thoughts turned to the evening's task.

This night I'd fly a Boeing 747 from New York across the Atlantic to Paris, as I did four or five times a month, hauling people, mail, and cargo -- a pleasant task despite the problems that weather, crew, and airplane might toss my way. Whenever I drove to an airport the same thoughts occupied my mind, mostly about emergencies and what I would do if one occurred.

The act of flying an airplane is a daily chore and I'd long since become proficient at it, the repeated reactions and movements automatic, but emergencies almost never happen so there's no rehearsal for them except for a few hours twice a year in a simulator. And that doesn't cover all of them -- ditching the plane in mid-Atlantic, for example. So you review these things, playing mental games of how to cope if the improbable should come true, and the time spent driving to the airport gives you a good opportunity to do it.

What if an engine catches fire? Pull back the throttle, cut the start lever, call for the emergency checklist. How necessary is this review? I'd been thirty years a captain and only had one fire, on a Constellation -- a "Connie" -- taking off from Frankfurt, Germany. Just as we broke ground there came the shattering confusion of a loud bell and a bright red light. "Engine fire!" Quick action on the remembered items: throttle closed, fuel mixture off, fire extinguisher lever pulled, "Read the engine fire checklist!" All the pre-trained, well-thought-out operational actions took place, right by the book. But in the back of my mind was the thought of a wing burning off, which told me, "Get the son of a bitch back on the ground as fast as possible."

I wrapped the plane into a tight turn I had learned long ago while flying fast around pylons in small-time air races and stunt shows. "Tell the tower we're coming right back," I said. The tower operator, accustomed to orderly traffic flow procedures, tried to direct us to follow another aircraft, a normal aircraft on a normal flight. A few firm words advised the tower to get others out of the way, that we were in a hurry for terra firma.

We landed okay -- total flight time was probably five or six minutes, and the fire was out before we touched down -- but it had been a fire, caused by a complicated turbine failing and tearing things up. Those few minutes presented the contrast of carefully taught and programmed reactions versus the kind of seat-of-the-pants flying you store up during long hours of flight time -- some call it "fright time," and a pilot needs some of that in his or her dossier. The modern way is right and necessary, but periodically there are difficult and perhaps emergency situations that demand the basic stick and rudder skills of quick, intuitive action.

But now it was time to quit thinking about that day in a Connie, and to come back to the 747 I was going to fly tonight. How about a hydraulic system loss? An electrical? Instruments? I go over each one -- and the tough ones, too, like a crash landing with fire, and how to get 400 people off the plane; review your actions, think of the twelve doors, know the other crew members' responsibilities, because they're yours, too. It sounds matter-of-fact in the manual, the drawings all neat and precise, but planes generally don't crack up so neatly; it'd probably be a shambles.

My mind slides back to a noon takeoff from Paris, headed for New York with a light load of only 177 passengers. We climbed toward the Channel because our route was to go over England and north, out to sea over Northern Ireland. There was a scattering of fluffy cumulus clouds around 5,000 feet, the sky above blue, the Normandy countryside green and lush below.

"Flight eight-oh-three, Paris." It was our company radio calling. The copilot answered.

"Go ahead, Paris -- eight-oh-three."

"Eight-oh-three, we have a telephone [they never say "call"] saying there is a bomb on your flight set to explode at 1340!"

All eyes to the cockpit clocks -- that was about forty-seven minutes from now. Shit!

Scared? No -- because I didn't think it was real. The natural reaction of "This wouldn't happen to me" numbs you unless there's a real accident in progress.

Logic also said that a bomb was unlikely, as most such threats are hoaxes. But we're just off the ground with seven hours ahead of us to New York, and hoax or no hoax you have to play it for real.

A quick return -- Paris air traffic control (ATC) was cooperative when the problem was explained. "You are cleared direct Orly, number one to land." The French grasp situations quickly and act that way, too.

The purser, Buddy Ledger, an efficient old-timer, was called up front: "It's like this," I explained. "We may have to evacuate, so get 'em all ready." Cool as a cucumber, no more excitement or emotion than if I'd simply wanted a cup of fresh coffee.

We started a descent, dumping fuel as we descended, but there wasn't time to get down to landing weight before arriving; as we neared Orly there were just twelve minutes left before the big bang was scheduled, so no time for hanging around the sky. Orly's runway is long, so an overweight landing was less risky than a possible bomb.

I had briefed the passengers during our return, telling them exactly what was going on: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We've been notified there is a bomb on board set to go off in forty minutes, so we're returning to Orly. I don't think it's for real, but we cannot take the chance. We should be well on the ground before the time. Please follow the instructions of your purser and cabin team."

That was giving it to them straight. I've always believed in being truthful to passengers about problems. Let 'em have it as it is -- some might faint, but they'll know the score when we revive 'em.

Safely down, and then on the ground we were directed to a deserted area of the airport; they didn't want us to be at the terminal if we blew up.

How do you feel during all this? Annoyed, mostly, still not believing in the bomb, but playing the game. Judgments, actions, compromises all needed because of a phone call.

Out at our lonesome area on the far end of the field -- we were almost out in farm country, the terminal a couple of miles away -- I couldn't see any steps being towed out to us. To play the game right we should get out of the airplane fast: evacuate, slide all the passengers down those long chutes that inflate when the door is opened. That's a regrettable procedure, because someone always gets hurt. I look at the copilot and flight engineer; they're staring at me, expecting a decision. "Let's go!" Action: engine shut down, checklist items all done fast. I flip the switch to ring the bell that will tell the cabin team to start the evacuation, but I didn't want any misunderstandings so I also picked up the intercom. "This is it, evacuate the aircraft!"

"Go!" I said to the two crew members, and they disappeared from the cockpit. I took a minute to double-check that we'd turned all the proper things off, set the brakes, and so on. We'd been thorough, so I was mostly satisfied -- but not completely because in a big complex airplane there's always a feeling that you may have missed something; it's like leaving your house with that question of "What did I forget?" gnawing at your mind.

Last check done to the best of my ability, I rushed out of the cockpit and down the stairs expecting to see a mob of people headed for the doors, but they were already gone, the cabin empty. What a job Buddy and his gals had done. Just to be sure, I ran, circling the length of the cabin to be certain we hadn't missed anyone, and then got to the front door and its chute. Before jumping into it I hesitated a second -- gad, it looked a long way down there; well, it's almost three stories. I jumped, fanny first, feet up, into the chute and slid to the bottom.

The passengers had all been moved away from the airplane and cars and buses were racing out to get them. One man came up to me -- sensitive-looking, with eyeglasses, suit and tie, and a worried look.

"My violin, it is very valuable -- will it be safe? Please take care of it."

"If the airplane doesn't blow up, your violin is safe."

I turned to Buddy and asked, "Anybody hurt?"

"No. One gal, a dead-heading hostess [a flight attendant not working but traveling along to her next destination], turned her ankle. Everybody else okay, including an eighty-two-year-old lady with a cane."

A big sense of relief, because all the people in that airplane are your worry.

We waited a couple of hours and nothing happened. After long discussions among mechanics, airport police, and Lord knows who else, it was decided the airplane was safe. Somehow I was elected to go back on board first.

At the airplane there was a lift with a platform, and I climbed on accompanied by the commandant of the airport police, a proper Frenchman in full uniform topped by his blue kepi -- always neat and impressive. We were raised up to the front door, and in an automatic gesture of politeness I held back for him to go first. Ah, no. He bowed graciously. "Après vous, Capitaine," he said, a hint of amusement in his smile.

We looked around the cabin, toilets, and closets. I searched the overhead racks and found the violin in its case. There were about ten handbags with money and whatever else such bags may hold that the hostesses had left on board; the rule in evacuating is not to worry about belongings, just get yourself off!

I deplaned with ten handbags hanging from my arms and the violin case in hand. The passengers were at the terminal being fed, and when they saw me, the women grabbed the bags for a quick check of their belongings, and the violinist repeatedly bowed and thanked me for his instrument.

Later that night we flew the airplane to New York. You reflect, in the long quiet hours over the sea, how much can be affected by so little: one person -- the authorities concluded later it was an angry employee who'd been fired -- can disrupt so many.

*

I'm still driving toward JFK, trying to focus on a review of important issues for the flight. The task gets weary and stale; emergency procedures drift out of focus as my mind wanders from airplanes to lighter things: Paris tomorrow, and thoughts of what to do there.

Paris, like any other layover, is a release from responsibility; until the next day I've got nothing to do, nothing to account for except getting to bed for a good rest. I'll have twenty-eight hours to spend in the city I find to be an alluring obsession, one that once you've seen and understood becomes a haven from mundane reality. Experience her with an open mind, and her culture, intellect, beauty, freedom, smells, feeling, and movement will create an almost mystic love. I daydream of an early morning arrival, in the thick mist and cold air that will warm during the day; then the hotel, my room with its brass bed, simple chair, and small marble-topped table of some Louis period, the armoire to store my clothes, a clean bath with the normal fixtures plus a bidet, that civilized apparatus of plumbing and porcelain. The bed has a warm, inviting quilt. From being up all night you will be foggy-tired, relaxed, not concerned about anything in particular and know how good the embrace of that bed will feel.

When people learn that you're an international airline pilot, they often ask how you overcome jet lag. The answer is simple: you don't. No matter how many times you've crossed the sea, jet lag drags on you physically and mentally. You can only get some smarts about it and try to dodge it as much as possible by strategies like napping and thinking ahead to the next period of work and necessary wakefulness.

Sleep will come instantly and the alarm's ring will seem to as well. You've set your clock for 2:00 in the afternoon -- it's essential to carry your own alarm; when you ask for an oddball wake-up in mid-afternoon, 90 percent of the time they simply forget. That's more of the smarts that develop with the job.

It's awful to get up after a three- or four-hour sleep; you feel draggy, with an empty, almost sick feeling inside. Gad, it would be good to roll over and go on sleeping, and it would be so easy to do. But no, get up -- sleep any longer and you won't be able to go to sleep that night.

Because I've lived this Paris routine so often, the daydreaming on the drive to JFK seems real. Get up, shower, shave, dress, and go out. The immediate goal is something to eat, but not too much because dinner is not far away. Down the slope of Rue Balzac for a block to the Champs-Elysées. The afternoon air will be temperate as the sun shines with frail warmth through the fall haze. The street is busy, with cars going by at great speed in a thunder of engines not unlike the start of an auto race; some are trying to find a parking place on the wide sidewalk. People are walking, all kinds of people. Tourists stroll, looking in windows, but the French are in a hurry. Chic ladies dressed as only the French can hurrying to some destination; young people in jeans and sloppy T-shirts -- the world infestation of the jean that homogenizes the young, along with middle-aged folks trying to hold that youth but looking a bit silly; you think of this blue-bottomed army as acting and thinking alike, all with the same values, but that's probably unfair. On Avenue George V, past the Hotels Prince de Galles and George V, fancy cars with chauffeurs wait for fancy people with money. You see them come out: a man in an expensive tailored suit, lovely tie, hair pomaded to slick it down flat and shiny, along with a very fancy blonde with great legs ending in high-heeled shoes, a sexy dress, and makeup to decimal-point perfection. Is she a movie actress or a business girl (to use the French connotation)? Either way, it's amusing.

Then on to a café near the Place de l'Alma; there are chairs and tables outside, a zinc bar inside, the bartender imposing on his elevated floor surrounded by polished machines that make espresso and hot milk. The complexity of the handles, knobs, and dials rivals my 747 instrument panel.

I sit outside. A waiter approaches, small circular tray under his arm, wearing a long white apron and a bored, detached look. I know exactly what I want; I've thought about it since floundering around my hotel room earlier. "Un croque monsieur et un demi-pression, s'il vous plaît" -- a sandwich of thin bread buttered on one side, Gruyère cheese and ham between, well grilled so it comes warm with the butter shining on the outside -- enough fat to jump the cholesterol reading 100 points in a minute, but very good. The pression is draft beer from Alsace, a province along the Rhine that for a period, until the end of World War I, was German, so the beer is good. I suppose some people would be shocked to think of a pilot drinking before a flight, but a beer isn't much drinking and the next flight is about seventeen hours off.

The company rule says no drinking while on a trip at all. Well, I'm not a drinker -- never real booze -- but a beer, or wine, in France? It's ridiculous to think I wouldn't have a glass with a meal.

I think about the one time the wine did get away from me, at a simple dinner with my beloved French friends, Riton and André. Riton was a real old-school Frenchman who knew all the ways of living well -- work was something one did in order to live and not the other way around. He knew every stone and every street in Paris, was an amusing conversationalist, and got serious only rarely, and then generally to express his total dislike for the grand Charles de Gaulle. Riton was one of the best golfers in France and that's how I'd met him many years back, during the more relaxed days of piston airplanes and less frantic schedules when we had two or even three days' layover in Paris.

On the evening in question they took me to dinner knowing I had to get to bed early for a flight to Tel Aviv the next morning. We dined at the Grand Comptoir, an old bistro on the edge of Les Halles market; the food was very good and the wines excellent, chosen from small vineyards the proprietor knew. Riton ordered a Fleurie, a red wine from the Beaujolais region -- my first encounter and, my, it was wonderful and is still one of my favorites. I drank sparingly, knowing I had to fly in the morning. But the conversation was warm and good, and I took little notice that I was drinking more Fleurie than was prudent -- Fleurie is a quaffing wine, not one to sip.

At a good hour we departed and they dropped me off at the hotel. I readied myself for bed and crawled in, stretched out, and closed my eyes. A dizziness instantly overcame me, and my eyes popped open. What's this? I wondered. I closed my eyes again and my head spun with a nausea that said if my eyes stayed closed I'd throw up. My eyes opened again and I stared into the darkness. "My God!" I admonished myself. "You're drunk!" Or at the least I had had too much to drink -- and in just seven hours the phone would ring for crew call. I couldn't possibly fly that soon. This was terrible. I thought it over, made my plan, and picked up the phone to call the airport.

"This is Captain Buck. I'm ill, I'm sure I ate a spoiled mussel [nothing will flatten you more]. I won't be able to take my flight -- have you got someone to cover it for me?"

A pause. "Captain Utgard is set up for eight-oh-one to New York; we can turn him around and send him back to Tel Aviv."

Poor Ed, what a dirty trick I was pulling, but the lie was better than flying "a bit less than efficient," as one old captain put it.

After sleeping until noon the next day I got up well recuperated and flew Ed's 801 to New York in the late afternoon.

Not long after, I saw Ed and apologized for the turnaround I'd caused him and confessed to the real reason. He laughed -- but then he thanked me! He was glad of the extra turnaround, it made it possible to pick up some pay time he'd lost because of a previous cancellation. But it was a strong lesson, and something I never repeated.

*

My daydreaming stopped and I awakened to the present, to my automobile on the Belt Parkway. I turned off the parkway into JFK airport. The reverie had served its purpose, to put thoughts of home back in storage, where they couldn't distract me from the job or the days ahead. This was not an instinctive process, but one I developed through the years of going and coming as an airline pilot.

You cannot allow the distraction of thoughts of home and family when you're trying to land through low ceiling and fog, or when battling thunderstorms or snow and ice. Nor can you lose sleep or wrap yourself in melancholy over the separation from family thousands of miles away. A more selfish urge is at work here, too: there are the sights and sounds of foreign places to enjoy, and why spoil the experience by mooning about home? But flying off to distant places wasn't a selfish choice. The overseas flights paid best, and since the flights were long, the flying time built up quickly, and that meant more time off between trips -- more time at home. And any hesitation over my enjoyment of the travel was mollified by the thought, "Someday I'll show these places to Jean and the children."

It's a dual life, really, because the airline and its people are a family, too. We were closely knit, knew one another's thoughts, character, and problems. It was an intimate relationship that the family back home wasn't part of.

So pulling open the door to the vestibule that led to the stairs and to the offices on the side of the hangar was also a homecoming. The guard greeted you, other crew members were coming and going, and most you knew and could exchange a quip with by way of hello. You had departed home two hours ago, and here you were, home again -- a different home, but home nevertheless.

As a pilot you don't just get to the airport, climb into an airplane, and go; you sneak up on it in stages. Stage one is a stop at the schedule desk, where a clerk sits behind a counter with a telephone receiver seemingly always glued to one ear, calling to notify crews of future duty, or scrounging up someone to fill in for someone else who called in sick, all the while checking in people like me. When I motion I'm aboard, she checks my name off the crew list, gives me a nod -- and never misses a word to whomever she's talking to on the phone. I lean over the counter for a closer look at my crew list and note that O.B. Smith is tonight's first officer, or copilot, which makes for a warm feeling because O.B. is quiet, efficient, and a pleasure to be with.

A copilot can make a trip or ruin it; get someone who talks too much, gripes about the company, tries to impress you, tells long and boring anecdotes, or is overly aggressive in suggesting ways to run the flight, and the taste is unpleasant. A1 was one of those. He was a captain on domestic, but bid copilot international and the 747 because it paid more and had the romance of flying to Europe and other distant places. But he couldn't stop being captain and started tuning radios and adjusting navigation items without telling me. I finally had to lecture him strongly: "You bid copilot, now damn it, be a copilot and not a co-captain. We'll do things my way, and if you don't like it bid back to domestic." It worked and he settled down, but his resentment always showed.

Now and then there'd be a milquetoast who wouldn't get things done unless you told him each item you wanted. A good copilot is a balance of these things, following, doing as told, but strong enough to point out any error you may have made.

All in all my copilots were fine, like O.B.: a big man from Iowa farm country who came to flying via the navy. (For some reason, naval aviators always seem to come from farms, way out in the middle of the country, far from the sea.) Farm people impress me because they generally have common sense, and if there's one trait a pilot should have in abundance it's good old-fashioned common sense. Farm people also have a way of recognizing that certain things, even unpleasant things, have to be done; they don't bitch about the chore, or cuss out the company because of some obnoxious procedure, and they don't get vocal or outwardly scared when things get tough like the weather going down at your destination when the fuel reserves are low. If that were to happen, O.B. wouldn't change appearance a mite; he'd just settle in to computing fuel, getting weather information, and being generally useful in a matter-of-fact manner. Yes, it's a good feeling to have O.B. in that right seat beside you.

A glance at the rest of the crew: S. C. Bushy, whom everyone just called Bushy, as flight engineer, or second officer; another good man who knows the airplane's innards and workings. The cabin team is twelve hostesses and a flight manager. A few names I recognize at a glance; a couple of attractive gals with a certain verve who'll burst into the cockpit bringing coffee or food and a wise remark, a spark to wake us up for a few moments during the dull grind of a long night.

Then to the mail room and my mailbox crammed with the latest stuff you have to know before a flight.

Paper, lots of it. We're so damn wasteful -- probably one of the worst inventions of all time has been the copier, since it encourages the making and distributing of more copies than are actually needed; computers breed waste, too, as their printers spew long ribbons of paper. For all this paper, the land gets scalped as trees are torn down, and chemicals are dumped into rivers. I've seen the damage from the air, mountainsides made barren, ugly gook flowing out the mouths of rivers and streams into lakes and oceans; acrid smoke that drifts for miles and blots out the sun from a town, city, or countryside. These things can't hide from a pilot's eyes.

I take the papers from my mail folder and lug my black salesmanlike case to a long counter with low stools where pilots sit and bring their operation manuals up to date before flight. The chatter of gossip and tall tales flows from the half-dozen pilots working at the long bench.

The key item in my not-so-briefcase is a beat-up leather-covered six-ring notebook with charts for each airport on route and many off route in case some emergency or bad weather diverts you away from normal routes or places. One packet in the mailbox contains the latest revisions, perhaps a couple of dozen thin paper sheets. There have been changes since you last flew the route and you'd better know about them: a different radio frequency, runway repairs in progress, airport changes; here's one for Geneva, Switzerland -- the airport elevation has been changed from 2,000 feet to 2,014 feet. That's the mark of Swiss precision: someone remeasured it, probably with new instruments. The fourteen-foot change doesn't mean much to me, and I'm certain Geneva's airport hasn't suddenly risen fourteen feet, but it has to be corrected. The old page for Geneva is thrown aside and replaced by the new one.

San Francisco: "I left my heart..." Yes, there's still a part of my heart in San Francisco from my young copilot days. On the San Francisco page, a tower frequency change: the old page is tossed out and the new one put in place. The binders and luggage we carry are big because we carry the information for all the places and routes, from San Francisco to Bombay. It seems silly, and a big burden, but internationally one never knows where the route may be.

Our office was part of the hangar, as many are. They're afterthoughts, stuck onto the side and never well ventilated, and not much light gets into them. The hangar is long, and the offices are located along a corridor that stretches from one end of the building to the other. At the end of the corridor is the entrance to Dispatch and Weather. When you pass through that door you're suddenly in the middle of the action: clerks moving about, writing stuff at their desks, gathering messages, handing them to the dispatcher, who sits in the center of it all worrying about airplanes and flights. The right side area is international; Flight 907 is hung up in Bombay with mechanical problems; Milan is fogged in, what happens to the passengers, mail, and cargo? Concerns like that for every destination from New York to Hong Kong. A partition divides the room and on the left is another dispatcher with a cadre of clerks who handle the North Atlantic; the immediate problems of weather, fuel, loads, and air traffic delays. It's where I do business.

Bill Hussey is on duty, a crisp, pleasant, and sharp individual. We shake hands and pass the pleasantries. "You've got plane 310, it came in on eight-oh-one, no mechanical problems -- you're all set: 395 passengers; Paris looks a little shaky."

Paris is shaky because it may fog in, but that's nothing unexpected; it's fall and not only is Paris shaky, so is all of Northern Europe -- it always is. At this time of year, around October, a high pressure area sits over Europe and gives it those warm hazy days when the light filters through the chestnut trees, creating patterns of soft sunshine and shadow on the ground. But the evening air cools, and as dawn approaches this can form fog -- and our flights arrive in the early morning, around 7:00 A.M. As the day warms the fog burns off: in early October it clears by 8:30 or so; in late October, it may hang on until 9:30 or 10:00, by late November, with the longer and cooler nights, the fog is thicker and it's near noon before it burns off. By December it may not burn off at all. I once spent five days in Paris because no airplanes could get in. They weren't days of complete freedom because you had to be handy in case the fog burned off, but the five days weren't a hardship by any means and, as pilots say in such circumstances, I was there so long I thought of running for mayor. Now it's early November, and the fog situation is chancy. The cure is to take on enough fuel so you can go to the warmer south of France -- Marseilles, for example. But sometimes the payload, or poor winds, make it difficult to put that much fuel on board.

Now over to the meteorologist and his weather map, the man who will tell me what I'll find en route, up in the high sky with its invisible winds that flow from various directions at different speeds and sometimes tumble and churn, creating turbulence. The meteorologist -- we generally call them weathermen -- was Terebelski, a man who'd come to the United States from Poland in some shuffle during World War II that I never dug into deeply enough to learn the details. Terebelski was old-world, his Polish accent still much alive. "Good evenink, Keptain." Medium size, thin gray hair, pleasant smile, and all business -- which he knew very well.

Terebelski's world was up in the troposphere and stratosphere. The troposphere, where we live, is the space where things happen; jet streams move, low and high pressure areas slide over us with their bad weather or good. It's the world of action, that dome of air above us that's about 30,000 feet thick over the poles, 50,000 feet over the equatorial regions. As we take off and climb in the troposphere the temperature decreases, roughly 2°C for every thousand feet we climb. This varies day to day with weather patterns.

Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends up to about 125,000 feet. It's different from the troposphere in that as we climb in the stratosphere the temperature increases with altitude, gets warmer. The air is dry, too, so the weather is clear.

Where the troposphere and stratosphere meet is called the tropopause; in flying talk it's known as "the trop." It really isn't anything except a point of change from troposphere to stratosphere. Often, at the trop, one can see a fine line of dust particles, stuff from where we live down below that can't go any higher because the warmer stratosphere prevents its climb, just like the pollution in Los Angeles stays there because of an inversion -- warmer aloft, like the stratosphere.

What does all this mean to me in a jet airplane? Well, I want to get as high as possible because up high, simply put, we get more miles per gallon. The catch is temperature; if the airplane is heavy, the altitude it can climb to is limited by temperature. If it's too warm for the airplane's weight, performance deteriorates, because warm air is thinner, so it has fewer molecules for the wing to grip and the engine to use. There's no danger, but if you're heavy and beginning a long flight you cannot climb into the warmer stratosphere until enough fuel has been burned to reduce the weight. The game, then, becomes how high can I climb before reaching the stratosphere? Where's the trop?

The trop isn't always at the same altitude or location and varies with the weather conditions under it and the seasons of the year. The stratosphere isn't the badlands; there's less wind and turbulence in it, and if you're westbound against a head wind, getting up into the stratosphere will lessen that head wind. The stratosphere is a lid that keeps the jet streams and turbulence in the troposphere, so lots of times you'd like to get up into the calmer, benign stratosphere, as long as the temperature isn't too high for the airplane's weight. So a pilot wants to know where the trop is and how high, and that's where experts like Terebelski come in.

We look at the weather map he's drawn. It includes the United States, the North Atlantic, and deep into continental Europe. "There is southwest flow New York to Gander [Newfoundland], no turbulence, good tailwind, maybe 70 knots, at 45 west," Terebelski tells me, and his hand moves and his finger points to the area off the coast of Newfoundland, about 380 miles east of Gander. As I listen to Terebelski my eye sweeps over the entire map and from experience I can tell in a glance what the trip is going to be like, but I listen anyway for his thoughts about whether or not the situation is likely to change, and what the chances of that happening are. The bond between pilot and meteorologist is like that between patient and doctor, and can't be understood or appreciated by someone outside the action; one looks to the meteorologist to explain the often unexplainable, and to tell you honestly about what he doesn't and can't know, and why, and what to expect if the unknown appears as you fly toward or through it. This bond started with my earliest flights, and has been the same with all the meteorologists I've dealt with since.

Terebelski continues, "At 45 west the jet stream turns north," and his hand follows it on the map. I know what he'll say next because I know that where the jet stream bends the air will be rough and we'll bounce in turbulence. I wonder how he visualizes this, if his mind makes a picture of the turbulence or if he just thinks in principles and formulae. He isn't thinking of it the way I do, picturing the airplane jouncing, seeing myself reaching to get the seat belt sign on, reducing power so as to slow to turbulence penetration speed, being a little apprehensive in the dark night, hoping it doesn't get real nasty. Much in flying carries such concern: "I've got this under control, I can handle it, but I don't want it to get much worse." I look at the tropopause level and see that it will be up to 35,000 feet, right near my cruise altitude, which will aggravate the turbulence. "There will be turbulence," Terebelski says, "perhaps moderate, but not for long. Beyond that, in stratosphere, no turbulence, but the wind will only be about 30 knots tailwind -- no problem from there to Paris, perhaps a short area of turbulence just before descent where jet stream swings back north, but not so strong." We both stare at the map for a moment longer and he adds, "Possible the jet stream will turn north a little earlier, maybe 50 west." This means the big tailwind might fade away earlier and my speed will slacken so we'll be ten, even twenty minutes longer in the air. I think about that a moment, how it means more fuel burned, less reserve at Paris, less hanging around time before I go off to an alternate if the fog doesn't lift. A little worrisome, but finally just part of the flying facts of life.

I thank Terebelski and walk to the counter where our flight plan will be checked over, but my mind hasn't moved on yet; I'm thinking about the meeting of those forces that will influence my airplane above the North Atlantic, a meeting between winds that cruise for thousands of miles in great sweeps and my 747, a mere speck up in that vastness. The meeting will be, in a way, a contest between those invisible forces and my knowledge and experience, a contest to which I look forward not with fear, but with comfortable anticipation.

Dispatcher Hussey joins me at the counter where the computer flight plan is spread out. O.B. and Bushy are already there, looking down at the printout with its lines showing fuel, 206,500 pounds of it; payload; takeoff weight, 710,000 pounds; time to Paris; the wind component and whether it's a head wind or tailwind. Tonight it's a modest tailwind. The flight legs are listed: JFK to Nantucket, then Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and other towns in the Canadian Maritimes; over Gander, Newfoundland -- and from then on just numbers because we'll be over the ocean, where there are no markers, just the moving sea. The locations there are lines visible only on maps as latitude and longitude, or "Lat-Lon" as the trade calls them. Our flight plan says 50 west/50 north; then 40 west; 30, 20, Cork, Ireland; Land's End, England; Dinard, France, in Brittany; and then Paris.

The first thing you glance at is the flight time: this plan says six hours and fifty-eight minutes from wheels lifting off until touching down on the runway at Orly Field. Hussey says, "We plan Geneva as an alternate." This can be a problem because Geneva, like most of Northern Europe, has its moments of fog in autumn, too; if Paris is too bad for landing, and you chase off to Geneva as an alternate, you risk the chance that it may go bad as you get there -- a situation commonly referred to by pilots as "folding in your face." The anxiety in this situation is that you might run from one deteriorating place to another, never finding weather good enough to land, until the fuel ran out, and that would be disaster. No, the only place that's by-God, for-sure safe would be down on the Mediterranean, a place like Marseilles -- but using that as an alternate takes more fuel and cuts back on any extra fuel available for holding. Holding comes when you arrive over Paris and it's fogged in, but you know it'll clear out, so you hold, circling, waiting for the sun to warm things up and thin the fog enough to sneak in. The strict no-no is holding so long that your reserve fuel is used up and going to Marseilles becomes impossible.

Hussey's view is simpler; he looks over the fuel numbers and says, "That'll give you about an hour hold at Orly, with Geneva alternate." I say to myself, Maybe half that if I use Marseilles. I nod, and realize that asking for more fuel will mean reducing payload, and you hate to do that.

"Okay, we'll go with it," I tell him -- and I think that no matter how carefully the plan had been created, the final decision will come tomorrow morning as we arrive over Europe, gritty-eyed and tired, when Hussey and all the people here in the office are home in bed. Then I, the captain, will make the final decision of whether to hold or go to an alternate, one that I will choose -- but that's what you're paid for.

And now the flight has stirred into reality. All the hack things -- driving to the field, checking in, bringing manuals up to date, reading bulletins, walking down the long corridor -- the motions that lacked substance are done. Now an actual airplane, and the fuel it will carry, the passengers, route, and weather, and time of flight are all pulled together as Flight 800. You're no longer really in New York, nor yet in Paris, but for certain you're going there and part of your psyche is already on the way.

*

The first part of the crew's voyage covers the few miles from the hangar to the terminal, and that's done in an inglorious school bus the company utilizes for such transport. A hostess, sitting across from me, asks, "What kind of flight tonight, Captain?"

I look over at her, a pretty brunette whose eyes are bright with youth, and the sight of her makes everything feel better.

"Peachy," I say, "just peachy." But then I become a little more serious and tell her it will be a fairly quick flight, mostly smooth, and the weather in Paris will be good enough so we'd get in -- even though inside I was a little wary about that. "A little turbulence, but not enough to upset any meal service longer than a few minutes."

By now the bus has stopped at the terminal and we get off. I walk into it and head for the airplane. I pass the counters, with people lined up waiting for ticketing and checking baggage. The line is long and the baggage piled high; I see a young lady in the line, and next to her is a mound of bags. I wonder why anyone a slight five foot two or so would need all that clothing and stuff. The people standing in line reveal their personalities; some are patient and look off into space with the same vacuous gaze you see on cows in a field, and others are fidgeting, looking around and over the ones ahead to see how it's going, moving their luggage a little further along, rudely crowding the person in front; some are talking with friends or traveling companions, animated by the excitement of the coming trip, moving along in the line conscious neither of position nor the passage of time.

I stop by the newsstand and look over newspaper headlines, browse the magazine titles, but decide I'll be better off with the books I have in my suitcase. A man stands next to me, restless, and then says, "Where you going, Captain?"

"Paris -- Flight 800."

"Oh, I'm on your flight." A slight pause and then, "Good weather tonight?"

I can tell immediately he's nervous, worried about flying. "It's fine, we should have a nice flight." I don't mention the chance of Paris being fogged in; he'd stew and fret all night if I did.

"Been doing this a long time?" Now he wants to know how experienced I am, and I know he's looking me over, appraising me. I'm awfully tempted to say it's my first trip, simply from an ingrained dislike of people who submit to fear -- an unfair judgment I suppose -- but despite this distaste I'm not sadistic, so I tell him the truth.

"Long time -- since the war. Well, I've got to get things going, I'll see you later."

Now down a corridor that is like a tube stretching out toward the passenger loading area. The tube is crowded with people coming and going, a mass of motion. People on the move -- how did we develop into such a wandering tribe? Where are these people all going, and why? Isn't anyone satisfied with their own hearth, the quiet and comfort of home? I believe that World War II created a lot of this. The war developed the airplane, released its capabilities, demonstrated that it could fly across oceans and go to far places. In those airplanes were many GIs, learning that the world had no travel restrictions: oceans could be spanned, the tallest mountains crossed. When the war ended the camouflage came off the airplanes and bright commercial colors replaced it; the flight crews took off khaki and put on a blue or some other color uniform resplendent with gold stripes, but we headed out over the same oceans to distant lands and cities of history and renown. The GIs wanted to show their families where they had waged war, and the heretofore provincial American public learned it was easy to go to Paris, Rome, London, and other places. Humanity began its trek toward creating one world, and the airplane did it -- which isn't necessarily something to be proud of, because the mass of tourists we've flown overseas have changed Europe; the individuality, the gentle ways of another land, its customs and culture have been stained by the commercialism designed to attract the tourists and, to some extent, screw them. If one knows a country from before, happily, it's still possible to ferret out the old, to find in quiet corners what the tourist doesn't see: what once was, and still is. But the airplane is creating one world, and often doing it badly.

Near the entrance to the jetway and airplane the crowd has thickened, waiting for boarding. I work my way through the people, a bit self-conscious because so many eyes turn to look me over, to see what they've drawn for a captain. It's a relief to get away from that scrutiny and into the empty jetway, and walk down it toward the airplane.

You'd never know it was an airplane -- all you see is the door and lights inside -- but as I cross the threshold my foot comes down on something solid and familiar. I'm on board and it feels good. Immediately in front is a galley and two hostesses are there checking equipment, fussing with this and that, opening and slamming shut doors after they're certain the food, trays, and all the necessary service stuff is on board. One of them is that pretty young brunette from the bus to the terminal.

The airplane is clean, tidy, and neat before the passengers come aboard. Everything looks ready, seats all proper with the seat belts crossed on each one, a little white napkin on the headrest, pillows and blankets arranged. It's hard to believe that in a few short hours the passengers will have it in shambles.

I address the pretty young lady: "Would you mind nuking a hot dog for me and bringing it up to the cockpit?"

"No, I'll be glad to; only take a few minutes."

I ask for that to hold off hunger; it's after six o'clock and I haven't had time for any dinner. We'll be busy in the cockpit until after departure and in climb; then the cabin team will be serving drinks and getting the passenger dinners served; it'll be ten or eleven o'clock before they have time for mine, so the hot dog to fill the gap.

I walk through the long cabin to chat with the attendants, interrupting them as they go through their checking routine, reviewing everything from the fire extinguisher and first-aid kits to whether or not the caviar is on board. One night it wasn't, and a hostess came into the cockpit that night: "Captain, is there any chance you could come back and talk to a passenger? He's really upset because we don't have any caviar. I'm afraid it's my fault. I thought I checked it, but I guess I didn't."

I smiled, a gesture meant to let her know I wasn't upset about the damn caviar problem. I struggled out of the seat, put on my uniform jacket and cap, and stepped into the first-class section. The man in question was standing by the galley.

"Understand there's a little problem. May I help?"

He proceeded to launch into a tirade about the lack of caviar. He was flying first class and expected it, he'd never ride this airline again, and on and on.

I tried to mollify him and be as pleasant as possible while inwardly feeling repugnance at his asinine attitude. When you consider all the serious factors that go into flying this big airplane across the sea safely and efficiently, and then you're confronted by a jerk who thinks caviar is the most important detail, it's galling. I apologized still, made limp excuses, and asked for his business card. He was VP of some company and almost certainly in first class by way of an expense account. When I got back to New York I worked out a plan with our meal people and had a can of caviar wrapped up fancy and sent by messenger, along with a letter from me, to his office. It took a long time to compose the letter because I wanted to be polite and tell him how sorry we were, but at the same time, between the lines, to let him know what an ass I thought he was. He never acknowledged the gesture.

Tonight there are twelve cabin attendants and I banter and chitchat with each of them, telling them how the trip will be, letting them know if there'll be any turbulence and where because cabin attendants hate turbulence, which often seems to come during meal service when they're juggling meal trays and serving drinks. I also want them to know we aren't sacrosanct in our great perch up front, and to come up if they have problems, we'd be glad to help, and anyway, drop by once in a while. I don't say it, but it's nice to have a pleasant young lady drop by in the long hours of night -- and it works both ways, giving them relief from the squirming mob, in the lower section.

Once I step through the cockpit door, the world changes. The soft lights of the cabin, the decorated interior, the cabin attendants all slick and prettied up -- all that is set aside and now I'm back in the flying world, recognizing once again that this is an airplane with instruments, levers, throttles, circuit breakers, switches, and a multitude of other things that mean serious business. The seat I'll sit in, the cushions beaten down by hours of various rear ends punishing them, pressing them flat so they're uncomfortable, is ready for me. I slide in and adjust it for my height and where I like to sit.

You make thousands of landings over the years, and if you're perceptive you've learned that sitting low tends to make you level off a little too high, while sitting up high tends to make you fly into the ground and not level off enough. No pilot makes good landings all the time. Some days the landings are slickers, and you hardly know when the wheels are on and start turning; other days the landings are firm, meaning one crunches down hard. They come in streaks. For a week or so your landings are perfect -- grease jobs, as the trade calls good ones -- and then for a week or so you cannot seem to get a grease job and every landing is firm. You're like an athlete in a slump. So your notions about where you like to sit are like the way some batters stand, or how high a golfer tees the ball. I like to sit high, and I jack the seat full up so I can see the runway as close to the nose as possible for low-visibility landings -- and this way I don't have to fiddle around trying to find some precise spot; I just sit down and run the seat full up and it's set. It did take me a bit of doing to learn to level off properly and not thump the airplane on the ground. All of which is a lot of conversation just about getting the seat where you want it.

Getting settled in is like creating a nest, putting things where and how you like them for comfort, to be within easy reach and to satisfy habit. I adjust the seat, then place my black brain bag on the floor to the left with its top open so I can easily reach in for the navigation gear when needed, or for a piece of candy I may have stashed there. In the bag is my personal radio headset that I dig out and plug in, adjust to my head, and place the little hearing aid-like piece in my left ear, the right ear free so I can communicate with the copilot and flight engineer or anyone who might come in the cockpit and stand next to me. Wearing the headphone over my left ear for all these years of radio communications and static, before very high frequency radio came in, has made me about half-deaf in that ear, but volume control lets me get it up where I can hear it; at home my wife impatiently repeats things louder. The maps -- the approach plates -- for our New York departure and the confusing taxiways on Kennedy Airport go on a little shelf to my left; earlier I put a pencil in my shirt pocket along with a penlight to use when the cockpit is dark. I adjust and put on the safety belt; I still call them that because that's the terminology I grew up with. For psychological reasons related to not scaring passengers, they're now referred to as seat belts, as in "Please fasten your seat belts." In the cockpit we also have shoulder harnesses, but I don't attach mine until we've started and are ready to taxi. Now I'm settled in, ready for work.

Meanwhile, O.B. is settling his own nest, getting things organized for the night's work. Bushy comes through the door and enters the cockpit. "We're fueled and all else looks good," Bushy tells us. He's studied the logbook, which has a history of recent flights, the notations by previous crews about things that needed fixing -- snags, the Canadians call them -- and the mechanic's guarantee that the gripe had been fixed. He's double-checked the fuel on board. Now he's on board and going with us. Bushy is the kind of man who would do it all thoroughly and conscientiously even if he weren't going along, but knowing he is makes you feel even better.

O.B. is set and holds the checklist in his hand ready to read it, giving me a look that says without comment, "I'm ready when you are."

This is the beginning. "Parking brake?" O.B. calls out, and I reply, after checking it, "On." There are checklists that we read at various times in the flight: the first is a long list of systems and instrument settings, sort of like pre-launch on a space flight; the next is a short "Before Starting Engines" list; then as we taxi to the runway there's a taxi checklist ("Flaps take off, stabilizer set, spoilers down"); and then at the end of the runway we'll read the "Before Takeoff" checklist.

These checklists either demonstrate man's inability to remember all the items, or show that the airplane is now too complicated for the human, who needs crutches like the checklist to keep safety under control. Either way, the checklist is necessary but not infallible. Pilots are sometimes interrupted during the reading of the list by an outside occurrence such as a radio call, and don't pick up at the next checklist item, missing one or two when they resume reading it. A few pilots do silly things like memorizing the checklist so they can spill it out like a litany with all the dangers of forgetting; a few old-timers thought checklists were a poor reflection on their aeronautic prowess and disdained their use, although most of those pilots are gone. But the fallibility of the lists has shown up in a few serious accidents, where simple things like putting the flaps down for takeoff were forgotten. This makes you wonder about modern airplanes and the system they fly in: has it all become more than a human can handle 100 percent of the time? It's a complicated subject and it demands study and argument. I realize that my safety is as much at risk from the weaknesses of the system as anybody's, but I chose the trade and I like it, and I recognize the possibilities -- which makes me thorough and careful, precise and watchful.

We're all settled in now, ready to go as soon as passenger and cargo loading is finished and we're cleared to start. The busy confusion of getting it all together settles down, and in the cockpit for a moment there's nothing to do, a moment of relaxation that doesn't last long as the mechanic on the ground calls me by the telephone that connects the airplane and outside. "Captain, clear to start three." We're alive again, starting each engine as the ground gives us clearance. As the engines come to life, the airplane changes from an inanimate object to a living entity, sensation coursing through its structure, instruments alive, lights glowing. It was a large, dead mass of metal I sat in before starting, but now there is movement, the engines rotating, giving slight motion to the structure, setting the fluids, electrical systems, and air pressures all to flowing. Now I relate to the airplane, am in touch with its soul. There's strength and a pledge that links us, that says together we'll complete the task and complete it well. "All clear, Captain. Have a good flight." The mechanic signs off and tucks the telephone into the nose wheel well, where it stays until the French mechanic takes it out in Paris tomorrow morning and calls up to me, "Bonjour, Captain."

I look out the left side at the ground, where an airline agent stands ready to salute when all is ready to go. It's a formal thing, this salute, something that says, "I release the airplane to you." I return the salute, signifying, "I accept the airplane and the responsibility." I've done this a thousand times, but no matter how common the action, it's a serious moment, a moment that reminds me of the charge and the dignity of the task.

Now we wander through the maze of taxiways at JFK accompanied by a discordant symphony of radio chatter from the tower directed at the various aircraft: a mishmash of voices, instructions, queries, and cautious steering in the dark. All sorts of vehicles dart about as we leave the terminal; this is the most ignoble and worrisome part of the trip, the careful creeping along the taxiway three stories below, being transported on wheels also three stories below and hidden way back under the wing. Approaching the runway end I pull up behind another airplane, an Air France flight also headed for Paris. A long line of aircraft is ahead waiting to take off. I count them: ten planes. There's about a three-minute interval between takeoffs, so three times ten means thirty minutes before our turn comes -- and we're burning precious fuel while we wait. We inch along, one after another, until finally it is our turn.

I pull out on the runway and carefully line up on the pavement that stretches over two miles before us, a pathway through the dark outlined by lights going down the left and right sides. The last "Before Takeoff" checklist is complete, shoulder harness attached, and I make a quick, habitual, personal check of what we call the killer items: takeoff flaps down, stabilizer set, spoilers down, fuel valves on, the directional gyro heading reading the same as the runway direction. The tower clears us for takeoff.

I wiggle and settle in the seat, then carefully push the throttles forward. The noise isn't one of power and thunder in the cockpit; it's more like a big buzz saw. Slowly we gain speed, and then the pace quickens, the runway lights go by faster, the landing gear bangs as we hit rough spots on the runway -- not potholes, but they feel like them. Bushy slides his hand below mine on the throttles and trims them to the takeoff power setting, while I still keep them in hand in case I suddenly have to snap them back and abort the takeoff should something go wrong. Takeoff is a time of intense concentration for all of us, working seriously and tightly together, keeping straight, alert, watching airspeed, checking across the board as needed. And then O.B. calls "Vee one," an announcement that means we've passed the speed at which we could abort; now we must keep going. Then he calls "Vee R," which is the speed to pull back the wheel, rotate the airplane, and let it fly. I double-check the speed as I pull back and raise the plane's nose to 15 degrees as shown on the artificial horizon -- or ADI, as they call it now, for attitude direction indicator, but it will always be an artificial horizon to me. And I think about the instrument I'm using and its symbol for the horizon, a barlike indication only a few inches long. My eyes are clamped on it, making certain I've got the nose at exactly 15 degrees. A three-inch reference to move this big airplane: 700,000 pounds, 200 feet long, 350 passengers, all directed by a little bar not much larger than a toothpick. Little symbols, do your job well.

Then the rumbling noise stops, a smoothness comes over the airplane, and we're in the air. I call for the landing gear to be retracted and O.B. moves the small lever. The collection of big wheels and struts twists and folds into the airplane, the doors clump closed, and the landing gear, still and silent, is in repose until tomorrow when, on command of the same small lever, it will unfold, twist, and finally lock down in position to support us on the runway at Paris.

The departure is a routing of twists and turns, changes in speed, hesitation at various altitudes, all designed to weave us through other traffic, inbound and outbound. The careful, precise task demands high concentration, but finally the air traffic controller tells us we are cleared on course and can climb unrestricted to cruise altitude of 35,000 feet. The power is advanced, the nose pointed up and eastward. We've shaken off the finicky routes and rules for getting away from JFK, and now our wings reach out and take up the broad task of flying across the sea in the cold mysterious thin air high above it. I sit back and relax. New York and the U.S.A. are behind me, off the tail, out of view, out of thought.

*

The tense activity of departure over, we sit back doing small chores as we climb.

This big mass of airplane is pushing its way up at a rate of 2,000 feet per minute to 35,000 feet -- amazing, especially when I think back to Lindbergh staggering into the air at Roosevelt Field on Long Island and heading for Paris. He crawled up to an altitude of 200 feet and stayed there for many hours simply because the Spirit of St. Louis, with its burden of fuel for forty hours, couldn't do much better. And now, forty-three years later, we zoom to 35,000 feet -- impressive progress in such a short time of man's history.

Climbing is one of the three parts of every flight: the climb to altitude, the level-off for cruising, and finally the descent to land. Sometimes climbing isn't easy. I remember being copilot on a DC-2 taking off from Winslow, Arizona, on a dark night before Christmas in the late 1930s. We needed to reach 14,000 feet to be safely above the inhospitable terrain around Flagstaff, and the 12,670-foot Humphreys Peak. At 11,000 feet we're barely climbing, which brought oaths from the captain: "What's wrong with this son of a bitch?" Twelve thousand feet and the climb had almost ceased despite all the power our two engines would allow. In shocking realization it became evident we couldn't get to 14,000 feet -- and we had to, because outside there was no visibility, only clouds and snow. The decision was obvious: we turned back to Winslow. There were two reasons for our inability to climb high. One, which was a theory only, was that air rushing down the mountain slope in the stormy night pulled down the contiguous air the plane was trying to climb in, so we were fighting to climb up a waterfall of air. The second reason, discovered when we were back on the ground, was that the airplane had been overloaded by some 3,000 pounds! Mail and freight were crammed on; in the holiday season's frenzy, there was no thought of checking weight -- just get it on.

But now we've reached 35,000 feet and we level off. The automatic pilot has taken over and keeps the airplane on an even keel and fixed to the altitude. The inertial navigation system (INS) is sending its signals to the autopilot, telling it the course to fly, so all we have to do is sit back and relax. To a casual observer, an airline pilot has a very easy job: get the airplane off the ground, climb to altitude, set up the autopilot, and do nothing until it is time to descend and land. What the casual observer doesn't see is the inside of the pilot's head, where questions consta ntly present themselves, demanding answers. A pilot constantly scans, with eyes and mind: a look at the instrument readings, note the position of switches and levers, check the autopilot to be certain it hasn't wandered off in direction or altitude, scan the distant sky outside searching for other aircraft while at the same time surveying the sky for changes in the clouds that suggest a storm or turbulence ahead. And the questions: Is the airplane in good form, or is there a slight irregularity of some system that's not dramatic at the moment, but still bears watching so you'll know what to do should it get worse? And that Paris weather, how is it doing? How is our fuel use -- normal, so we'll have the proper reserves at Paris, or are we using more than planned due to higher air temperatures or head winds? And in the back of the mind is the "what if" stuff: What if an engine fails? Where's the nearest safe airport, or do I keep going? What if the pressurization goes sour and we need to descend to an altitude at which we'll burn much more fuel -- what then? These questions don't make you worried or even anxious, but the good pilot knows the possibilities, however remote, and your job is to keep them all in mind and know what to do if they happen.

Then there's your sensitivity to that mystical phenomenon called a hunch -- an inexplicable feeling that something isn't right or isn't going as you'd like. Some days you feel it strongly; some days the hunch factor is low, and the flight is more comfortable. Is there something to these hunches, or is it just that your psyche is functioning differently that day? I cannot honestly recall any events I could tie to a hunch, but feeling such uneasiness made me extra diligent, and perhaps that's why nothing ever seemed to happen, at least that I can recall.

At altitude, set for the long cruise ahead, there's a feeling of peace and calm. It's a time to look out at the sky, a change from the cockpit and its intricacy of instruments, switches, lights, knobs, and levers to the vastness outside. A great dome of darkness has covered the sky above us. Night, as one flies east, comes as a curtain rising from the eastern horizon, gradually climbing toward the zenith to darken a quarter of the sky, then half; looking back, westward at this stage, there is still daylight -- the red-orange color of the fading day. The advance of night is quickened by our rushing toward it, increasing the speed by 500 miles an hour; the curtain pulls farther west to cover three quarters of the sky, then finally all of it, and daylight is shut out. The stars and planets appear, becoming visible like fireflies, the nearest and brightest first and, as our eyes adjust to the dark, the less bright become discernible until the sky seems alive with points of light, thousands of them.

At this perch, 35,000 feet above the earth, the air is unstained by haze or pollution and the stars shine with brilliance you rarely see from earth. From the days of celestial navigation I know certain stars as intimate friends: Sirius, Rigel, Arcturus, Altair, Vega, Deneb, Acrux, Antares -- fifty-seven I knew and used, the specific ones depending on our location above the earth, whether we're over the Northern or Southern Hemisphere -- and if north, as we are tonight, Polaris, the North Star. It's not the brightest, but I feel it's the most steadfast because it consistently sits close over the North Pole; a glance at it tells which way you're headed. Tonight it's over my left shoulder, so we're going east.

I like to regard stars the way the ancients did, as parts of constellations, each with its legends, all there to see and recognize. I understand the science, I know about the immense distances of space, the fact that the light of a star I see may have begun its journey a million years ago. But such theories spoil the romance; I prefer to see Cygnus the swan flying across the sky, and Taurus the bull protecting the seven sisters of the Pleiades from the mighty hunter Orion, who is climbing up the eastern sky. There is pleasure in this feeling of detachment from earth and surroundings.

I press my head against the window on the left so I can see out without distraction from the inside. The glass is cool on my forehead and I feel almost as though I'm out in space. The cool glass reminds me that only inches away the temperature is 50 degrees below zero, but this does not detract from the fantasy of being out there in the enormous space that has no limits.

How did fate allow me the good fortune to be here, pilot of a Boeing 747 across the Atlantic, the king of assignments? It all began a long time ago, while I was still a young boy making his first tentative step toward the sky.

Copyright © 2002 by Robert N. Buck

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(6)

4 Star

(3)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 – 10 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2011

    Wonderful

    As a commercial pilot it was wonderful to read Buck's reflections.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2014

    Aurora

    What?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2014

    Aurora

    Bounds to camp

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing 1 – 10 of 9 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)