Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Help! I've Fallen Inside My Head & I Can't Get Up!

Sometimes when I'm flying I think about all the people who have plied this trade before me. This is an especially pertinent thought with an old airplane like our DC-8s, on which many a pilot before me cut their teeth and have since moved on to retirement. The arrival on the scene of the early jet aircraft ushered in a new era of travel, and the DC-8 was among the first. Yet here we are still flying them, even when their early-day stablemates are long gone. I've learned about flying over the past 15 years from a lot of sources, but my time in the DC-8 connects me with a huge body of people who have done this work--manipulated these very controls--before me. Thanks to my time in this airplane, I am legitimately one of the "old guard" who knows how it was back when--luckily, that "back when" still is in a few places. Everything in the cockpit shows this age and use: paint is rubbed away to shiny metal underneath, parts are worn in like a comfortable old shoe and move with an easy smoothness from years of prior operation.

Flying an airplane is a relatively new job description (well, not compared to computer programmer or web administrator), but again and again I'm reminded that so much of airline job rules and practices are traceable to their technological predecessors, the railroads.

As I took my walk along the river today I paused for a few minutes to watch a Canadian National crew switching rail cars at a paper mill just upstream from my house. And it takes only a little squinting to see the roots of my present job in this crew; it's like watching home movies of your parents as young people, before you knew them. In this case, it was only two men: one engineer in the cab and another man in layers of Carhartt outside throwing switches and decoupling cars and connecting air hoses.

But not everything is similar. I had never thought about the little logistical game a crew like this one must play. They bring X number of rail cars loaded with raw materials or fuel oil or what have you, and exchange these cars for empties or cars with finished product. But each car must end up at a very specific place, and cars presently in those places must be moved out of the way to make space for them. But you can't just push them off to the side or pull the engine up alongside and switch from one car to another! And so a dance ensues where cars are abandoned at strategic points, and the engine goes in and grabs cars and removes them to make space, like a linear version of that game where you slide the tiles up & down or side-to-side until you end up with the correct sequence. A train of constantly-varying contents is assembled and disassembled every couple of minutes. The man outside had a radio and would tell the engineer how close he was to the next car they were collecting, and the engineer would precisely control the speed of the train (the weight and length of which were constantly changing) so that these couplings didn't happen too fast and break something. It's all done at a leisurely pace which belies a careful, specific ordering that we spectators are not privileged to know. It looks kind of random, but it surely isn't.

The switch engine they were using--a small engine but still a crushingly massive piece of industrial machinery--was old and tired, in a DC-8 sorta way, and it quietly belched out diesel smoke as it made its rounds. Maintenance of our old airplanes is almost like practicing medicine, and I imagine it is the same with this old diesel locomotive. The amount of fuel and oil it consumes is tracked on a computer program somewhere, and exceeding a certain parameter will raise a flag to cause certain diagnostic procedures to be undertaken: high oil consumption can mean failing main bearings or worn piston rings or whatever, and the maintenance department will be tasked with an oil pressure check or compression check to confirm or deny these suspicions. Incipient problems discovered will cause certain remedial courses of action to be undertaken, all as a normal part of the care and feeding of a very expensive and long-lasting piece of machinery. All this until a decision is made by a manager somewhere that a machine has reached the end of its useful life.

Such things swirl about my head on my little walk.


Esbee said...

I feel much the same way about houses. I loathe new houses. I adore old houses, with their creaks and layers of different paint colors. The house we lived in in Georgetown dated from the 1790s. I loved imagining other people who had lived there before me.

(The house we're in now is 1940s, which is about the youngest I'll take.)

wunelle said...

Wow! 1790! Our house dates from 1870, but that's child's play next to your old one. Such history.

But yeah, it's fascinating to contemplate previous residents. A professor at Lawrence College here in town died in the study of this house a hundred years ago, and before the owners previous to us bought it it had become an apartment house that saw one of Appleton's biggest drug busts. We offer (so far, knock on wood) no such additions to the juicy lore.

Esbee said...

There was a pilot obituary in our local paper today. I thought of you. Not because I wish you were dead, but because I knew you'd know what the hell planes they're talking about.

wunelle said...

So you don't wish me dead? ;-)

"He started his career at Piedmont flying DC-3s, and when he retired in 1985, was flying 727s and 737s."

The DC-3 is the spiritual predecessor to my beloved DC-8. I have not flown a DC-3 (pistons, not jets, and unpressurized; one of THE iconic aircraft designs in history) but have flown with a lot of people who have. I have logged some time in a 727 as a flight engineer. These are all three considered the absolute pinnacle of the "old school" though the 737 continues in new, modern iterations.

From a pilot's perspective, he hit all the high spots.