page updated 2015-11-21
Talking of Flying
and Especially Flying the 747
Topics by Lastest Update
I spent the decade of my 50s flying 747s for two different airlines. When I try to relate how I feel about that experience, two things happen.
First is an acute sense of loss in no longer doing that. Even now, as I write this, 16 years after retiring, my eyes are tearing. In the first few years of retirement, that sense of loss was at times severe enough to bring forth a sob or two, and there were times that I simply sat and quietly cried.
Next, if I persist in wanting to tell how I feel, is frustration in deciding where to start, how I should organize what I want to say, how much I want to say, and how detailed it should be. I badly miss almost everything about flying, especially flying as I knew it in the decade of the 1990s. That decade was the high point of my life. I was flying 747s on international routes; the world was my playground.
Flying was my life; it defined me, and I hated having to stop. Someone once joked that the best thing to do with a retiring pilot is to walk up behind them after their last flight and shoot them in the head. There's at least a small grain of truth in that. Fortunately I had and still have an understanding spouse. C.J. is the best thing that ever happened to me. To this day, whenever on television or in a theater a 747 is shown, she still squeezes my arm affectionately when I remark, "I could fly that." Whether or not I could actually still do so is open to question, but it would be fun trying.
What I hope to explain here over time is just how great flying was for me, how much fun, how satisfying, and the great sense of being truly useful that it gave me. I don't believe in "callings", people being "called" to do things. I consider it sentimental b.s., but if I did believe in that mythololgy, I would probably have considered myself called to fly. What I do know, though, is that growing up with a flying-father, and handling the controls that I could reach when I was still too short to reach the rudder pedals, gave me a committed sense of that being what I wanted to do. There used to be a saying that I would hear at the airport, an inside jest, but with a bit of truthful attitude. It was simply, "If you're not a pilot, you ain't shit!" I really believed that then. It's not true of course, never was, but to this day, for me, I feel my life would be greatly, overwhelming lesser had I not been a pilot. In short, I really was and still am hung up on flying.
If you're a pilot, do you remember practicing accuracy landings? The way I was taught to do them in 1969 at the Springfield, Oregon airport was to close the throttle on downwind abeam the approach end of the runway. From that point on you if you had to touch the throttle you had failed. Touchdown was to be between the end of the runway and, as I remember, a white mark painted on the side of the runway a couple of hundred feet from the end. There were no other runway markings, not even runway numbers. If you landed beyond that white mark, you had failed. The runway was only 2000 feet long and narrow. If you touched down short of the paved runway you also failed. There were a few feet of gravel before the runway and some level grass before the gravel, so there wasn't real danger in touching down a little short, but there was enough of a lip at the end of the runway pavement to let you know you had indeed landed short. I caught that lip a few times.
My idea of a perfect approach in the 747 would be to do the same thing I had done in accuracy landings in a Cessna 150, except that it would start at the top of descent, typically 35,000 to 39,000 feet. I was never successful in flying that perfect approach. I didn't often get the opportunity to try. The descent and approach environments of the airports 747s operate into usually preclude such. The two airports where I occasionally was able to try were Anchorage International and Tel Aviv Ben Gurion.
topic to be continued....
My route to flying for a living was not direct. Life is what happens to you while you're planning other things. When I graduated from high school in 1956, I planned to get in two years of junior college. At the time the Air Force was requiring two years of college to apply for pilot training. The Navy was requiring a four-year degree. I favored the Air Force. My father favored the Navy because he felt their training was better. Having a degree certainly wouldn't hurt my chances with the Air Force, so my plan included a decision point after completing junior college. I could then try for the Air Force or I could continue on to a degree and then have the potential choice of Air Force or Navy. My back up plan in case I couldn't qualify for flight training in either the Air Force or the Navy was to try for medical school, and that would require the four-year degree.
My carefully thought out plan went out the window when, two weeks after high school graduation, my father died in an aircraft accident. I came close to dying with him. He was at the time an agricultural pilot, a crop duster if you will, and I was working with him as a flagman. He and I and a loader crew had gotten to a landing strip north of Sacramento, CA at first light to spray rice fields. There was a rule that prohibited spraying if the wind was stronger than 10 mph, which it was. Another rule prohibited spraying if the temperature was over 90F. When it became obvious that wind less than 10 mph and a temp less than 90F were not going to coincide, he decided to take the airplane back to the airport. I had the choice of riding back with him or with the loader crew. The plane was an old Stearman converted to a spray plane by replacing the front cockpit with a hopper, and I would often climb into the empty hopper for a flight back to the airport. The Stearman had no starter, so it had to be hand propped. I was too short and too light to do that, so I climbed into the cockpit to operate the magneto, mixture, and throttle controls. My father hand propped the engine. After it started, I got out of the cockpit and climbed into the hopper, but then I decided I wanted to go with the loader crew because they were going to stop for breakfast, and I was hungry, having yet had nothing to eat that morning. I climbed out of the hopper, stood on the lower wing, and yelled into my father's ear that I was going with the loader. He nodded and I left the wing. That was my last moment of seeing him alive, of conversing with him. In a way it was fitting in that I had to yell to overcome the engine noise and was hanging on to the side of the airplane to counter the force of the propwash. He loved flying, and I had grown to love it as well.
Had I been looking in the right direction, I would have seen the accident happen. Shortly after takeoff a large hawk came through the propeller and hit him full in the face. Whether the birdstrike killed him or merely rendered him unconscious is unknown. The airplane was trimmed for level flight, and it flew into one of two 550' radio towers two miles from takeoff, hitting one tower at the 500' level. The engine continued south, the left wings went east, the right wings west, the cockpit came straight down, and radio station KFBK stopped transmitting.
My father's death in 1956 started a chain of events I was unprepared to handle. It's not surprising that a 16-year-old who had just lost his only parent and was now on his own would make mistakes, but the number and severity of the mistakes I made was amazing. It wasn't until I met C.J. in 1975 that I was able to start digging out of the very deep hole I had dug. In 1989 when I eventually slid into the captain's seat of a 727, I figured I was finally out, the hole had been filled. In 1990 when I sat down in the captain's seat of a 747, the hole had been replaced by a mountain, and from my standpoint I was sitting on top of it. Maybe the mountain wasn't as high as it would have been had I been able to fly in the military, but it was definitely a mountain, not just a hill. My dreams had been realized, and that's a very good feeling, one that I have been able to keep with me even though I still very much miss flying.
Kai Tak Airport
Kai Tak at Hong Kong was the airport I most enjoyed operating into, especially the Rwy 13 approach. If you followed the IGS, a modified ILS, all the way to the ground, you'd impact the side of a mountain near some orange and white surfaces arranged in a checkerboard on the mountainside. At minimums you had to have the checkerboard in sight, shortly after which you'd make a 47° right turn to line up with the runway. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kai_Tak_Airport for details.
I went into Kai Tak using that approach for the first time when I was on my 747 captain's IOE so there was a check airman in the right seat. The weather was not good. There were thunderstorm cells along our approach course, heavy rain, lightning, and the ceiling at the airport was just a little above the minimum required to shoot the approach. Other aircraft were ahead of us and continuing their approaches, so I figured the check captain wouldn't criticize me for continuing in the marginal weather. Passenger comfort wasn't an issue as were in a freighter.
We were being vectored in from the north, having come from Chitose, Japan. When we were on what was more or less a downwind leg, the check airman said something like:
I can tell you what you're going to do wrong, but that won't keep you from doing it. Everybody does it wrong the first time, especially in weather like this. When we drop out of the cloud, you're going to see high-rise buildings to your left that are higher than we are, and that's going to make you pull back some. Then you're going to see the airport off to the runway, and you're going to start turning toward it too soon. So, on short final you're going to be too high, too fast, and having to make a last minute turn to line up.
That is exactly what happened, but I got it down. A strong crosswind didn't help. The check captain just laughed. I was glad there weren't any passengers.
I had the next day off, and I took advantage of beautifully clear weather to walk to as close as I could get to the base of the orange and white checkerboard on the mountainside. I stayed there for around three hours watching the approaches. I was particularly interested in how the Cathay Pacific pilots did it since they were based there. They stayed on the localizer or a little to the left of it and delayed their turn to final as late as possible. From that time on, I ran my approaches to Rwy 13 as I had observed them doing.
The Rwy 31 approach was straightforward. We were typically lined up miles out. However, strong winds out of mainland China could make the ride down final very turbulent. There was even a note on the approach plate to that effect. I remember one approach before I had moved to the left seat that was particularly bad. It was the captain's leg, and she (yes, a gal as a 747 captain, relatively rare back then), and she was having a helluva time. At one point I remarked, "What are we in, a Cessna 150?" We were, in fact, in a 747 freighter right up against the max landing weight, but we were moving around more than I ever had in any 150. It was a heavy crosswind to boot. I was happy it was her leg.
topic to be continued....
Landing the 747
The 747 was the easiest airplane I ever flew insofar as getting consistently good landings. Greasers were common.
The 747s I flew were the old -100 and -200 aircraft, the so-called classics. Some of the -100s didn't have talking radar altimeters, in which case the flight engineer would read off the altitudes. Coming down the glidepath on speed in a stabilized approach, flaps 30, nose 5 degrees up, at a typical landing weight, the fuel flow would show about 5,000 lbs per hour for each engine. Radar altimeter calls came at 100, 50, 40, 30, 20, and 10 feet. When I heard the 50 foot call, I'd bring the power back a little and raise the nose 2 degrees. At 10 feet I'd bring the power all the way back while raising the nose another degree, and then I'd wait. I was usually rewarded with nice touchdown of the main gear, both wing and body, within a few seconds. Then a slow relaxation of elevator pressure would put the nose gear on.
When the main gear was on, the speed brakes/spoilers would automatically deploy. The speed brake handle was on the captain's side of the center quadrant. When it came back it made a fair amount of noise. When I'd hear the handle start back, I'd move my right hand to the reverser levers mounted on the thrust levers. When the speed brake handle had moved all the way back, the reversers would unlocked, and I'd lift the reverser levers to a standing position. That deployed the reverser doors but left the engines at idle. If you wanted the reversers to have maximum effect, you had to get them out while the aircraft's speed was still high. If the runway length and the taxiway I wanted permitted, I preferred getting the reverser doors out but not powering up. As the aircraft slowed, the probability that the reversers would blow runway contamination in front of the engines increased, especially if you powered up. Powering up was done by pulling the reverser levers back from their standing position. To come out of reverse you moved the reverser levers forward and then down to their stowed position flush with the thrust levers. That closed the doors and left the engines at idle. Good operating procedure required that you be out of reverse by 80 knots. Below that the probability of blowing runway contaminants forward of the engine air intakes gets too high, and the reversers have will have lost most of their high-speed effect as well.
topic to be continued....
Mile High Club
Back in the late 1970s I was instructing and flying charters out of Eugene, Oregon, and I carried a pager. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were at a movie on a Friday night when the pager went off. I exited the movie, found a phone, called the answering service, and then the number they gave me, which turned out to be the Village Green, a resort hotel in Cottage Grove, a small community about 30 miles south of Eugene. The party I reached wanted to charter an aircraft to get them down to Novato, a town north of San Francisco that had a small airport, and they needed to get there before the night was out. I agreed to do it on condition that I would bring my girlfriend, to which the client replied that that was no problem, that he was with his girlfriend as well. The Cottage Grove airport was just across the highway from the Village Green, and we agreed that I would pick them up there in the airplane, a Cessna 210.
After a pleasant flight, good conversation in the airplane, we landed in Novato around midnight. We noticed that our two passengers left in separate cars. We didn't have enough fuel to get back to Eugene, and there was no fuel available at that time of the night at Novato. However, I knew that Sacramento Executive airport had 24-hour fuel, and we had plenty to get there. While the airplane was being refueled, we went into the still-open restaurant lounge and had drinks—coke for me—and a sandwich.
Thus it was that around two in the morning that we found ourselves at 10,500 on V23 between the Redding VOR and the Fort Jones VOR. Summertime, clear skies, calm air, good autopilot, bodies still reasonably flexible. We moved the two front seats back as far as possible, got naked, and joined the mile high club. I didn't really expect it to be any kind of a turn-on, we were just doing it to be able to say we had done it, but we both remarked afterwards that it had been a real turn-on.
Post Retirement Flying
I retired in 1999. When people asked me why I didn't continue flying for pleasure, my rejoinder was that I was spoiled, that I wanted my four engines, fourteen flight attendants, and oceans to cross. Finally, though, in August 2014 I went out to Hobby Field in Creswell, Oregon and checked out in a Cessna 172.
topic to be continued....
Taxiing the 747
In the air you have no sense of the 747's size, but on the ground you're well aware that it is big in relation to it's environment, and moving it around as it should be done and in the occassional challenging situation was a lot of fun. The 747 is steered on the ground by a tiller to the left of the captain and one to the right of the f.o. The captain pulls back on the tiller to turn left, pushes forward to turn right. The f.o. does the reverse.
Both operators I flew 747s for specified a max taxi speed of 25 knots. I seem to remember Boeing recommending 20 knots. I also remember deliberately exceeding 25 knots when the occassion called for it. When you're in the cockpit, you're high enough (around 29' as I remember) that you seem to be moving more slowly than if you're in a lesser elevated cockpit. A 747 with four engines running at idle power will accerate to greater than 25 knots, actually quite a bit faster if you let it run. The 747s I flew had the old Carousel inertial navigation systems, and we used to monitor our taxi ground speed. Riding the brakes to keep the speed down would lead to brake heating problems, so what you did was let the speed build up to a bit above 25 knots, then use the brakes to bring the speed down to around 10 to 15 knots, and then get off the brakes and start the cycle all over again.
The fastest sustained taxi speed I ever employed was 40 to 45 knots at Narita International, Tokyo. It was a freighter flight, and because of a loading problem we were pushing the 23:00 curfew. We were the last airplane out, and the tower cleared us for takeoff about half way down the parallel taxiway for the runway. We knew, though, that they would rescind that clearance if we didn't start our takeoff roll by 22:59. Narita tower allowed a full minute for a 747 takeoff, and they were always punctual. It was my leg, and when I started slowing to make the two 90 degree turns to line up, the f.o. suggested that he not acknolwledge any further transmissions from the tower until we were airborne. I agreed as I had been thinking the same thing but wasn't going to say it unless necessary. We didn't want to go back to the gate, and we knew nobody else wanted us to even if they would feel duty bound to rescind the takeoff clearance. The tower said nothing, though, and we started our takeoff run a few seconds before 22:59. Being close to max gross weight and with that fast long taxi, we knew the tires would be hot, so I left the gear down for a few minutes after takeoff.
If you're on a narrow taxiway, you can't see the edge of the taxiway out the side cockpit window. If you're on a narrow taxiway coming to a T on another narrow taxiway, the perspective is even more interesting. The nose gear is behind you, so you need to put yourself out over the grass before turning, which means all you saw was grass, both to the side and to the front. This was the case at JFK when coming out of the Tower Air ramp transitioning from taxiway QG into a left turn onto Q. When making a sharp 90° turn you need to slow to five to seven knots, which means that when the turn soaks up your forward motion, you need to apply additional power to keep from coming to a stop in the turn, which, if that happened, would require lots of power to get the turn going again. That would be embarassing. Too much power going into the turn or when actually in it, would risk the nose gear skidding, and that would be embarassing.
I really worked on making that turn well during my time at Tower. The idea was to make it smoothly, once in the turn, without using the right brake or jockeying the power or using the left brake beyond what was absolutely necessary. The taxiway from the ramp was long enough that even at idle power the aircraft was approaching its max taxi speed when getting close to the turn. I'd go for one smooth application of both brakes to bring the speed to five knots just as nothing but grass was out the front or side windows, then I'd crank the tiller hard left while bringing up power on the right outboard engine. About 75 degrees or so into the turn I'd start bringing the power back on the right outboard engine and bringing it up a little on the other three while moving the tiller toward neutral. If I did everything right, we'd straighten out on the centerline at five knots, at which time I'd bring all engines to idle.
I've always been a centerline addict whether taxiing, takeing off, or landing. Sitting as high as you do in a 747 made that a little harder to judge when taxiing. However, if the taxiway had the little metal reflectors metal imbedded in the taxiway centerline, the challenge was to put those reflectors between the two wheels of the nose gear. You could tell you were doing that when a small movement of the tiller either way got you a slight bump.