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Archive for December, 2009

A Piece of the Pilot, by Rob Bach

by on Dec.31, 2009, under Articles, Aviation

People often ask me what it is like being an airline pilot.
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I have no adequate answer really…I supposed if I asked a philosopher the same question about her job, I would get about as much an answer as I could understand.
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The problem I have is that my description will begin in a reverent and joyous depiction but fall into a slow spiral through whistful nostalgia, whining discouragement, and a final full-fledged spinning rant into why airline management are greedy vampires.  I end up sounding like one of the petulant priviledged who knows he’s overpaid but not overpaid enough!

Yet, here I am 23 years in and looking ahead to 17 more.  And, yes in fact, I love my job. And no, I don’t think pilots are paid enough.

 So, to avoid bias, what I will do for you now is open a different door. Let’s look not at the big picture of an airline pilot’s life, but of a fraction of a second of a random slice out of a random flight.

 (This thought occurred to me while pre-flighting my Steed: an 80 ton beauty ready to breath fire from her twin underslung turbofans should I ask it of her.

To me, it was -20 degrees outside: cold enough, I thought, to make Time itself slow to a shuffle and warm its hands in a Quantum muffler. To her it was a balmy +5: windchill she does not feel and she spends most of her time in flight where it is a bracing -54C.)

Rob Bach_Turbo Fan_Airliner

 So let’s pick a piece of time out of this next flight and look at it closely through the mind of Me, your Captain for the Moment.

 We sit, mid day, westbound against the wind (100 knots or so),  370 knots over a frozen Iowa landscape and 38,000 feet of cold clear air between my seat and miles of cornfields below. The stubble of the stalks prick up through the thin cover of snow making the entire state look tired and in need of a shave.

 Just behind me to the east, the Mississippi River is a blood-black ribbon:  a scar left over from a glacier 10,000 years gone.  North is Minnesota and its thousands of lakes where thousands more fisherman wait for the freeze to do its magic. They will build entire towns over the water filled with hope and St Pauli Girl beer.

 South is a hard line of snow-free ground, brown and dormant, sleeping and dreaming of wheat and heat and combines and purpose.

 This is a magic chair I sit in. The higher I fly, the further back Time opens itself to me. I see the patterns geologic history has left in the rills and valleys, the steady rise of the land as we head west toward the Continental Divide. I can almost feel the pressures at work shaping it still, see the silent erosion wind and water work on the land.

Rob Bach captures the viewpoint of an Airline Captain

 A few minutes from now, I’ll see the tops of the Rockies rise on the horizon. But that is a future thought. Now I am monitoring the little jet we’re overtaking just below us bound for Denver and the big jet coming up from behind us heading to Maui. There are four other symbols on Screen 4 of six each marking the progress of other fast movers. These six fly in loose formation with us and will slowly diverge over the next hour or so.

 San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City wait to receive them in turn. Each of these cities know how to do that: their histories were built into the modern age by air mail pioneers and fledgling airline companies of the 30’s: Pickwick, West Coast Air Transport,  Maddux, Gilpin all gone. But the cities don’t mind and they wait for us just the same. These towns have been witness to the slow rise of the mind-stumping complexity that is the air traffic control system.

We are heading for Los Angeles still three hours away. A lot of things have to happen in a more or less  orderly fashion for us to arrive there safely, efficiently, comfortably, and timely.

 I have had to learn about all those things since my first solo flight in an old  Aeronca L3 30-some years ago. The complexity of the machine I’m flying demands it, the environment I’m flying through requires it. Years of sitting in various aircraft building experience, a slew of tests, multiple emergencies, hours and hours and hours of schooling.

Boeing 737 from an Airline Captain's Perspective

During this career, I’ve spent a third of my life asleep, another third on the road, and a third at home mostly aware of what’s going on around me. The first day after a trip, I shed my uniform, my duty, my command. It takes a few days to fully re-integrate back into normalcy. If I manage more than four days in a row at home, I start to feel like I’m missing the game above my head. I am benched, beached, out of the game. I am an alien in my own home. It’s very hard on spouses to live with half a person.

I dream of difficulty, of the challenge of the job. I practice emergencies in my head. I study other pilot’s mistakes, run scenarios, what-ifs. The extra practice has come in handy 14 times in the last 15,000 hours.

And, this instant, over the little town of Chariton, Iowa, is the culmination of all that work.

My goal is to use my experience to avoid having to use my skill.

I want to give my passengers a smooth un-eventful flight but know that no matter how perfectly I fly, I will be judged by the landing.

Realize that some of us land this beast only nine times a month. Some of those landings come after four hours of doing essentially nothing but monitoring systems. The first and last 40 minutes of every flight are the busy times. All that cruising is done with an auto-pilot: a fairly essential piece of equipment when you realize we fly a 500 mph see-saw with 400lbs of people and service carts moving forward and aft along the aisles. One second of inattention allows for a 200 foot altitude deviation and a black mark on our records.

That concentration over a four hour flight is tough to muster after a three-day tour around the time zones sleeping in strange beds, using little soaps, eating irregular food at irregular hours, while trying to keep in touch with our families. But, I am whining now.

Keep in mind when you next fly that what you are doing is fairly miraculous. That some very creative people designed a plane for some very talented people to build that other hard working people maintain for some very highly trained people to fly is just this side of amazing.

Landscape from an Airliner_Rob Bach_Friends of Aviation

So what is it like to be an airline pilot?

Take a moment out of your own life and look at the beauty even in the frustration, the boredom buried in potential excitement, the reward you reap from long study, the contentment from knowing you’ve done what you do better than anyone else, and the pride in yourself for never quitting along the path to that which you most wish to do.

Add  to that: daily geography lessons, an uncomfortable chair, a glorious view out your office window, self-doubt in the face of thunderstorms, fatigue, the joy that comes with remembering the names of all the waitresses in every Denny’s between Chicago and Seattle, missing half of your children’s lives, celebrating Christmas on December 16th because you work every holiday for the first half of your career, and knowing  you’ve helped a thousand people get to their families in time for their own celebrations.

Snow Landscape from the perspective of an Airline Captain in a Boeing 737, Rob Bach

There is constant preparation for annual schooling, twice a year physical exams…wait…there: whining.

It sounds like complaint and maybe it’s simply an unavoidable side affect of the task of telling the tale.

We may be on duty 14 hours a day, three or four days in a row…but I’m only paid for those hours spent in actual flight. Today, I got out of bed at 2:30 am and will fly for 7 hours 50 minutes to finish in another time zone by dinner. Total elapsed time from rising to rest: 16 hours.

For this sequence of three days at work, I’ll get paid 18 hours flight time. We are limited by regulation and fatigue.

Remember the last time you flew on the airlines? That tiredness you felt was from stress, dehydration, and airport food. Multiply that times three per day, three per week and you might get the sense of the conditioning required to perform at a high level year after year.

It is a challenging and rewarding career requiring some level of egoism, narcissism, self-confidence…and humility. When an accident happens, every pilot feels it like Obi Wan feels disturbances in the Force.  We have all lost good friends in this business and it’s hard to keep the Dark Side at bay.

Airplanes are amazing things, true, but I think it more incredible that pilots can manage the fluidness of time, space, and the variables of wind and weather and traffic, and birds as well as we do.

Art of Nature_Rob Bach_Friends of Aviation

Back to Now: the point in spacetime I sit stretches out in four dimensions and I am aware of them all. I calculate mass, speed, acceleration, energy, time remaining, weather. I monitor the machine itself, my emotional and physical state of being and that of those I work with.

Having given you a few hints as to what it’s like to be a pilot for hire, you might think it simply isn’t worth it. I mean, it costs a lot to train yourself up to standard and then spend the next 10 years just trying to get a flying job that pays enough to survive!

Why would I recommend this career to anyone else? If you would fly for free, then come fly with me. The money isn’t so good, but I have 700 little bottles of shampoo towards my retirement and for some reason, that makes me feel good.

Why would I recommend this career to anyone else? If you would fly for free, then come fly with me. The money isn�t so good, but I have 700 little bottles of shampoo towards my retirement and for some reason, that makes me feel good.

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The Art of Flying, by Rob Bach

by on Dec.05, 2009, under Articles, Aviation

First, thanks so much for the excellent responses. They are thoughtful, encouraging, and insightful.

To read words from intelligent minds gives me hope that this sampling is a model for Humans as a whole.

Now, onward:

When people ask, “Hey, this Flying thing – what’s so special about it?”, words tumble out of my brain in a rush to be heard and in doing so, logjam as I stand open-mouthed-silent. Untangling the beautiful mess into something intelligible takes a heartbeat or two.

Where do I start? This is a huge question that has been answered by so many more eloquent than I from every possible point of view through time, I feel like I should simply hand over a card with a list of author’s names on it, smile and turn away.

I’ll try here, though, just for you.

Let me break Flight down into categories:

Science: from the physics involved to the exploration of the feel of the forces on our Selves when we fly to all that is encompassed by meteorology, navigation, geology, geography, the beauty of the air traffic control system, the fluid that is the atmosphere, engineering, the mathematics we use to help us fly efficiently – those of us that love the interaction of all these disciplines get that much more out of a simple jaunt around the patch of sky over our little airports. If we are ignorant of Science, we miss the subtle underpinning of the workings of the world and our part in it.

Not to worry, though. I’m not saying we don’t enjoy our flight for other reasons like;

Art: These machines have inherent in them the lovely forms that allow function. The sweep of a wing, the curve of a rudder, the symmetry in a well-flown formation, the magic of the deep purple of the terminator as night chases day around us. We fly high and see patterns etched in the earth below us, the roil of the tapestry in the clouds above us, the colors steeped in the very air about us.

 

This chair in the air is an intimate place from which to watch uninterrupted beauty: the Art of the World.

History: I enjoy most those airplanes designed in the 1920s through 1950s. There was care in the creation of these machines hand-built to give the flyers of the day a passport to a country restless just above the heads of the timid among them. We can feel that as we fly, open cockpit, noise and wind tearing at our attention, infusing our senses with the smell of – well everything. We are uninsulated from our environment yet connected to those hands that welded steel tube or glued spruce into intricate forms for flight. We can feel them there with us though they themselves may be long gone.

These old wings carried heroes across oceans and dark continents, carried villains in black and white across movie screens. They carried an entire populations’ hopes and dreams around the world with them as the pilots in command tested themselves on the grand stage that is the atmosphere.

These old wings are in themselves time machines. We fly down the Mississippi River on a hazy summer day behind a round engine that first fired in 1939 and we cannot find evidence that it is not 1940. We fly a 1929 Travel Air at corn tassel height in Iowa and cannot be convinced the Great American Flying Circus (established 1922) is not waiting for us just over the slight rise ahead. History is stitched into the wings themselves and they invite us to become a part of it.

Sport: My challenge, every flight , is to fly it perfectly. From engine start to shutdown, I seek the smoothest take-off, the most efficient cruise, the most elegant approach, the most beautiful touchdown. When I fly aerobatics, I strive to carve a lovely line with the minimum of brute force. When I soar, I fly an efficient silent ship, thermal to thermal or ridge-line to mountain wave trying to best my time aloft each flight. My longest so far, 5 hrs 35 mins. Until last week, it was my longest flight in any aircraft. Now, a transcontinental flight in a 737 holds that mark. I will try again.

The sport of flying is about the personal challenge of one’s Self to do more than just stay alive – it is the about the picking up of the gauntlet to Be Alive!

Life: I think of the Aviation World as a small one. When I leave the Earth, I am no longer connected to Anyone – but feel as though I am connected to Everyone.

The kid that waves huge waves at me when I circle slowly over her head. She is my friend now. I’ve nudged her life in a very small way in a subtly new direction.

The passenger I flew over glass-smooth water, our wings lit from below by sunset. She never said a word until 12 years later in a postcard thanking me for showing her what her career should be. She is now an airline Captain and in the crazy machinations this career can throw at you – she is senior to me.

 

Flying has a way of touching Life. There is something in it for everyone that walks the planet with us when we choose to walk. When we choose to fly, we weave patterns irresistible to Fate whose hands then drop quiet suggestion for any witness in reach.

I could go on and on, I suppose, but I want to leave something undiscovered for You to be surprised by, to savor and to share.

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Aviation photography http://skybachs.daportfolio.com
Landscapes and portraits http://bachphoto.daportfolio.com/
Skyscapes and more http://rob-bach.daportfolio.com
Entire Collection http://capcloud.deviantart.com/gallery/

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