P is for PIC (Pilot in Command)

PILOT IN COMMAND (PiC) – The pilot responsible for the operation and safety of an aircraft during flight time. The Captain.

I am the PIC of my destiny. I am therefore making an executive decision to cheat just a little bit today by revamping an old post so that I can finish another (way overdue) project.  PIC’s prerogative.

While I was in training for my freight pilot job, one of my favorite instructors would constantly harp on us to “be the captain.”  Unfortunately, most of us didn’t get it, at least not right away.  Some of us didn’t get it until much later in our careers.  A few of us didn’t get it at all and that’s just one of the reasons not everyone made it through training.  I believe I finally understood what he was talking about about a week after my catastrophic (at least to me) check ride with him.

It started out like any other check ride.  I had all the flight plans in order.  I had confirmed that the aircraft was airworthy and ready for flight.  I was nervous, but I knew I could handle whatever he could dish out.  I would pass my test, and be on the next flight to Midway Airport to collect my car and sleep in my own bed.  But I was wrong.  He wasn’t looking for someone with all the right answers, he was looking for someone who could “be the captain.”

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What if the controller is asleep?

He continuously questioned my decisions.  He played on my fears of incompetency.  He insinuated that potential dangers might exist.  He, quite frankly, made me feel like I had no idea what the hell I was doing thinking that I could possibly operate an aircraft  at all.  He morphed into a complete stranger, mockingly twirling the keys to my future on his index finger while saying, “I don’t know….I suppose I’ll have to discuss your performance with my superior before I can determine what to do with you.”

Describing my reaction as “devastated” would be an epic understatement.  I could not comprehend in my wildest imagination what could possibly have gone wrong.  I did whatever he asked, flawlessly.  But that was exactly the opposite of what he wanted.  He wanted me to “be the captain.”

“Being the captain” means assuming the ultimate authority and responsibility for the flight.  The captain makes all the hard decisions.  The captain does whatever it takes to ensure that the flight is successful, safe and efficient.  The captain, is, as far as that particular flight is concerned, God.  He was simply waiting for me to exert my authority as captain and tell him to “kindly shut the hell up.”  The fact that I chose instead to cry like a two-year-old with a boo-boo caused him a considerable amount of consternation.

My point is this: you, too, are the captain.  You have the ultimate authority and responsibility for your life.  Everything is a choice (perhaps some seem more so than others, but they are all choices)  and the final decision rests in your hands.  It’s all up to you.  So, what are you going to do, Captain?

O is for Obama

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Me, my copilot, and Senator Barack Obama 2007

In spite of the title, I promise this is not a political post.  I am merely continuing my aviation theme for the A to Z Challenge.  You see, for an entire week in 2007, I transported Senator Obama and his team around the country while he campaigned for the Democratic nomination. 

I don’t believe any of them were under 6 feet tall, and I was surprised that they had contracted an aircraft as small as a Lear 35 – at 5’2”, I cannot even stand upright in the cabin – to ferry them from place to place. When I commented on this, I was told that the Senator had originally tried to do most of his traveling on the commercial airlines, but as the campaign progressed, it became too difficult to get to events in a timely manner when everyone in the airport wanted to meet him.  Heck, it can be a giant pain to get through the terminal for the Invisible Man, so I was impressed they had even made the attempt in the first place.

During my years as a charter pilot, I have had a wide assortment of passengers, some of whom were more affable than others.  I can honestly say that this was one of the most pleasant experiences of my career.  While the Senator did not have time to do more than pose for a picture and autograph his book for me, his staff was another story.  Throughout the week, I had the opportunity to chat with most of them and even a few of the retired Secret Service agents, when they weren’t accompanying Obama to events.  Every single one of them was cheerful, friendly, and a joy to fly.  They made me feel like one of the team instead of the hired help, and I appreciated that.

A few months later, I was part of a crew sent to Des Moines, IA to pick up passengers and take them to Washington D.C.  That was how I ended up having Obama and his staff members- many of whom greeted me (by name!) like an old friend – as my passengers, one more time.

I don’t care who you are.  That’s just cool.

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.