N is for Night Flight

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Who wants to go for a ride?

No matter how much I complained about having to stay late after work to do a night cross county flight with a student, I loved flying at night. Usually, the air was cool and smooth – perfect for a jaunt around the city – and the view… wow.

Flying at night can be a wondrous experience. There is much less air traffic congesting the sky and, subsequently, the radio frequency. Position lights adorning each craft make them easier to see from a greater distance. Airports are indicated by flashing beacons and are also obvious from farther than they would be during the daylight. All in all, a night flight feels more like a joy ride than work. To me, it always felt serene with the tiniest touch of exhilaration that made my heart sing. Every time.

When I would take a student on their required night cross country flight, I would be sure to take them along the shore of Lake Michigan for what I considered the most important lesson of the flight. In the dark, you cannot see the horizon. Over land, this is not an issue because of lights from the ground. However, there are no lights over water. It is easy to become disoriented when flying over or near water, and I was adamant that all of my students be aware of this fact.

Another reason I love night flights is that I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis on several occasions. The dancing sheets of color never fail to fill me with awe and I could stare at them for hours, if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, my job did not afford me that luxury, as I usually had a deadline, but I always drank in the view while I could.

Maybe that’s the point of life. Find what you love, and do it while you can. Or maybe I’m just full of crap. Anything is possible.

M is for Motherhood, Freightdog Style

This post is behind schedule because I spent all day – literally 12 hours – printing and cutting out trading cards for my son’s school project. While I admit to being a huge control freak, the only reason I did not make him do all of this work himself is that he did, in fact, work on their design for two weeks only to end up losing it all to a corrupt computer file.

He was devastated. I had no choice but to help my freightpup. That’s what moms do.

My friends dubbed him “freightpup” while I was pregnant. I continued to fly the Learjet during the first 6 months of my term, and joked about how many flight hours he accrued during that time. I no longer helped load and unload the aircraft, except for my own increasingly unwieldy body. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a Learjet, you’ll understand what I mean by that. You don’t get in it, you put it on. It was a relief once my doctor excused my from work so that I did not have to climb over the center panel any longer to reach my seat.

Once my son was born, returning to work brought on a whole new set of difficulties. Working a 12 – 14 hour day, at least half of which is spent in the cockpit of an aircraft, is not exactly a lactation friendly environment. In addition, to save money, I would spend all day Monday with my son before working all that night. He would spend the next three days in day care near where my husband worked, and then I would spend all day Friday with him after working all night Thursday. That essentially meant I was up for approximately 28 hours straight twice a week. This proved to be too much for me and I had to find other work.

In my heart, my son will always be my freightpup – much to his eternal embarrassment. Of course, that’s what moms do, too. I think of it as a perk.

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Unless you’re pregnant.

L is for Late

See what I did there? Because “L” was supposed to be posted yesterday? Uh, yeah, anyway…

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Don’t be late!

During freight operations, timing is everything. Everyone – couriers, loaders, pilots, dispatch, even maintenance – works together to complete our deliveries within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time because, in many instances, being late can cost our clients money.

Some delays are unavoidable, such as weather, traffic, headwinds, and unexpected mechanical issues, and we would do our best to work out a viable solution. On one such occasion, I was lucky enough to propose a solution that not only worked, it allowed me to end my work night on time instead of two hours later.

Every so often, due to additional freight volume destined for St. Paul, MN, my captain and I would have to fly that overflow directly out of Columbus, OH, instead of heading home to Chicago, as was our normal route. We were never pleased to have to tack on the additional two hours to our already long twelve hour night, and, in most cases, were unconvinced of the necessity.

On one such night, while we were grudgingly on our way to St. Paul, two other jets were enroute to Chicago. One would continue on to end their shift in St. Paul, and the other would head west to Kansas City. On this night, though, the Learjet destined for Kansas City had mechanical issues which would lead to it being grounded in Chicago and unable to deliver its plane stuffed with freight to its home base.

While dispatch and the captain of the Kansas City plane were discussing options on the company frequency, I had an idea. I keyed the mic without even consulting my captain – bad form, I know, but I couldn’t stop myself – and said, “What if we go direct to Chicago and swap planes? We would be home with a broken plane which could get fixed during the day, Kansas City could take their cargo in our aircraft, and I’m positive we can fit our freight in the St. Paul plane. What do you say?”

Dispatch only hesitated for a moment, before responding with a crisp, “Do it.”

With a whoop of joy, I asked ATC to change our destination to Midway and received a clearance to fly directly there.

Once safely on the ground in Chicago, all the pilots worked diligently with the ground crew to swiftly unload all three jets, sort the cargo according to its final destination, and then reload the two aircraft heading for Kansas City and St. Paul. I was lucky that everything did, in fact, fit in the St. Paul jet, and even luckier that we were able to scramble fast enough to send them both on their way on time.

In all honesty, however, all I really wanted was to not be late for my bedtime.

K is for Ker-SPLAT!

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Not the Learjet I flew, but the danger zones remain the same.

I can occasionally be a bit clumsy when I’m around airplanes. Not so much when I’m in them, just when I’m around them. I have walked into the (very sharp!) stall warning vane attached to the nose of a Learjet which resulted in a nasty bruise. I have closed the top hatch of the entry door on my own head (and you didn’t think it was possible!) and nearly gave myself a concussion. I have tripped down the stairs while exiting. You get the idea. But my most memorable tumble happened on a cold, winter night, right before departing St. Paul, Minnesota.

I was flying a Cessna 310. It’s a light, twin-engine, propeller-driven aircraft which the pilot enters by stepping up on the wing to reach the door. While the ramp crew unloaded and reloaded my aircraft, I took the opportunity to hang out in the building’s warm lobby, use the facilities, check the weather, and get myself a cup of coffee for the next leg of my route.

I had only been doing this route for a few weeks, and I was completely full of myself. Looking back, it’s a miracle I could even fit my big head through the 310’s door. The opportunity was ripe for kismet to knock me down a peg or two. Which, of course, it did.

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Yep. I totally fell off of one of those things.

I grabbed my steaming, hot beverage, secured its lid, and headed out to my aircraft with a sprightly bounce in my step. As soon as I got both feet up on the wing, I slipped and tumbled off, my coffee flying in a graceful arc before plummeting back to Earth to completely coat me in liquid slightly cooler than lava as I lay dazed and flat on my back on the tarmac.

It must have been hilarious – mostly because the only damage I suffered was to my immense ego – but I didn’t stick around to find out. I slunk up into the cockpit with my tail between my legs and pretended the whole thing never happened. It’s possible that no one even saw it happen, or it’s possible that the incident was captured on film and one of the ramp guys won a bazillion dollars on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”  I don’t think I want to know.

J is for Justified

Sometimes, there’s a good reason to break the rules.

Following the horrific events of September 11, 2001, the freight company with which I was employed was one of the first airlines permitted to return to the air. We carried canceled checks for the Federal Reserve, and were subsequently an important part of keeping the economy running. In addition to canceled checks, we were entrusted to transport other time sensitive objects, such as radioactive medications and donated blood.

Late in the evening on September 12, 2001, I was part of a crew which delivered a jet full – and I mean completely full – of boxes of blood for the Red Cross to the New York, NY area.

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1976 Learjet 35A, S/N 073 configured for freight operations

A Learjet configured for cargo operations is essentially gutted of all seats, with the exception of the two in the cockpit, and a small bench seat opposite the entry door. There is a net that spans the interior of the fuselage, separating the cargo from the seating area, and keeping the door clear as an emergency exit.

When we picked up the blood destined for New York, there were too many to fit them all in the cargo area. The thought of leaving those few boxes behind was unacceptable, as the schedule had been thrown into such chaos that we had no idea whether another flight would be dispatched to take them.  So, we agreed to break the rules.

We instructed the ground crew loading the plane to pile the extra boxes on the floor, the bench seat, and up to the ceiling, before securing the door behind us, sealing us in.  Had anything gone wrong and we needed to exit the aircraft quickly, we would have been in serious trouble.  However, in this one instance, we felt that the ends justified the means.

I cannot say for sure that we made a difference that night with our small act of rebellion, but I believe in my heart that we did. And, in my opinion, that’s really all that matters.

H is for Hedonism

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Where people think pilots stay.

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Where pilots really stay.

It seems to me that many people are under the false impression that pilots lead a life of luxury. While that is certainly true in some circumstances – I’m talking about you, Travolta! – in most cases, it is sadly, not.

There are many different types of pilots, but a majority fall into one of four general categories: limo driver (corporate), taxi driver (charter), bus driver (airline), and truck driver (cargo). Now, don’t get me wrong, there are also a plethora of other occupations available for qualified aviators: air ambulance, sightseeing tours, flight instructor, stunt pilots, aerial photography, and the list goes on. But, be honest, when you conjure up an image in your mind of a generic “pilot,” the older, white-haired, Caucasian male, dressed in airline blues with four stripes on each shoulder that you spotted checking into the same 4-star hotel in which you were lucky to score a room eight months ago, is what you imagine.

I have only had experience in two of the four major categories: cargo and charter. The only thing remotely hedonistic about freight operations is the opportunity to sit in the gorgeous, yellow and black, ’67 Shelby Cobra that one of the mechanics is restoring and brought in to show off – and only after a lot of begging on my part, I might add.

Charter is a whole different story. I have taken clients to some amazing places – Nassau, Bahamas; Veracruz, Mexico; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Marco Island, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada – and enjoyed every second of the spectacular accommodations afforded us lowly pilots on those trips by spending a majority of my time lounging by the pool with a cocktail. Oh, fine, several cocktails.

But those trips were few and far between. Most of our clients traveled for business, which meant I spent more time ensconced at Signature Flight Support at Teterboro Airport twiddling my thumbs than on any beach ever. I had a 13 on /5 off schedule, and I was on call for those 13 days – I could be sent anywhere, at any time of day or night, for any length of time – and had to be able to arrive at the airport for duty in an hour. Once I arrived, I had the potential to be on duty for the next 14 hours, which could pose a problem if I were called in at 10:00 at night.  It rarely happened, but it was not outside the realm of possibility. All in all, not a schedule that is conducive a healthy lifestyle, let alone one of luxury.  Stable family life?  What’s that?

So, don’t envy those “hedonistic pilots” enjoying a Porterhouse and a glass of Chianti at the Baleen Restaurant in the Naples LaPlaya Beach Resort. Tomorrow, they will most likely be at Teterboro Airport scavenging the smelly cheese left over from the catering they picked up for the passengers five hours ago. Yep, they’ll be living the dream, all right.

Bright golden wings, heavy metal obligations

At the risk of exposing my own writing as shoddy and inferior, I needed to share this post with you.

nonplussedpilot

With little pageantry and only the slightest touch of flourish, I was handed two sets of golden metal wings today.  Both are to adorn my ‘new’ uniform.  One is larger than the other–set to take its’ place atop my head affixed to my regulation black and gold First Officer’s hat.  The other set of wings will be pinned carefully to my uniform suit jacket.

For as long as aviators have plied the skies, this symbol of flight–usually a stylized interpretation of bird’s wings–has been worn with pride by airmen the world over.  Some are woven from fine thread, others die-cast then plated in precious metal to make them gleam.  Pilots work long and hard for them, amassing many, many hours of careful, cautious flight experience to justify them being pinned proudly to one’s breast by a thankful country or air carrier.  They are usually bestowed with honor befitting a veteran…

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