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The alarm goes off at 2:30. By 3:00 I'm in my car, negotiating the labyrinthine streets to work. Louisville shows its age by not sitting on a conventional grid like, say, Minneapolis (it's an interesting aside that the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul--12 miles apart--have such different characters, one element of which is Minneapolis being largely built on a North-South / East-West grid, while St. Paul seems to have nary a right angle in the whole city. Some of my favorite bus routes to drive connected the two cities, and so I would go, over the course of an hour, from modern and orderly to old and random. That's another state, another job, another time, another post). The major roadways in Louisville seem to trace their origins back to cart paths or foot paths or something that preceded urban planning. It's frustrating at times to drive here because you can't simply will yourself to a destination you've not seen before, at least not the way you can in a more orderly street setup. Other times you have to marvel at the distinct character of the place. It's different from any other city I've seen.
But at 3:am, driving from the crash pad to the Air Services Center, none of this matters. It's a trip I've made a thousand times before, and the old Buick kind of steers herself. The streets have evocative names: Bardstown Road to Eastern Parkway to Poplar Level Road to Grade Lane. Shelbyville Road. Taylorsville Road. Preston Highway. The Outer Loop. Except right downtown, the use of "street" or "avenue" is rare, almost like it's offensive.
At this time of the morning, the streets are eerily empty. There is an occasional cop, and a couple cars at the 24-hour Kroger's. But until I reach the freeway I have the whole street system seemingly to myself. It's warm here, 56°, and I drive along with the window down and the seat heater on and listen to an unidentified piano piece on Kentucky Public Radio. I play the game of trying to sleuth out the piece in question and the composer before the announcer gives the game away; if I happen to already know it, I try to guess the performer. Given the size of the groups from which I must choose, I'm happy to get 50% of the first, and any of the second. Some pianists--Glenn Gould, or Horowitz--are pretty distinctive. But there are a million very talented pianists, so my odds here are not good. It's easier to figure out the composer. Tonight I did OK. I got the composer--Franz Liszt--but not the piece: Berceuse, second version. I'd never even heard of the pianist. One out of three.
When I get to the airport the scene changes dramatically. There are somewhere around 5,000 cars parked around my company's complex, just in the employee lots, and a steady stream of vehicles coming and going--city buses and hotel shuttles and private cars and company vans and hundreds of local and over-the-road trucks loaded to the gills. While the rest of the world sleeps this place is like Manhattan at midday. I park and have the option of catching a shuttle or walking to the security outpost a block or three away (I walk, my roller bag and flight case in tow) where I pass thru the obligatory metal detectors and my bags are scanned. Then another shuttle--this time a multi-car one like a tram at Disney World--carries me thru a maze of trucks and loading and sorting facilities to the hub of airline operations in the center of the complex, the Air Services Center. Before my time it was called the National Air Services Center, and the acronym, NASC (pronounced "Nask" or "Nascque" if you're French), has stuck. This is where our company mailboxes are--which is how we receive a steady stream of updates to the case-full of official documentation we each must carry--and there are a bunch of computers for checking in for flights and printing our schedules and all the non-flying stuff the job requires.
This place hardly ever shuts down. Since a sizeable chunk of the pilot group flies in and out of here each night, most every department with which a pilot may need to deal--Technical Publications, Crew Scheduling, Travel Administration, Uniforms, Dispatch, Flight Operations Administration, on and on--is staffed and functioning in full swing here at 3:30 in the morning. Many of these departments are closed during the day. There is a cafeteria and a company store. Winding through the complex, there are other little cafeterias and breakrooms that are not accessible by car and yet, at this time of the morning, are brightly lit and full of people like an all-night coffee shop. Aircraft mechanics zip hither and thither in a fleet of a hundred white trucks, sharing the roadways with an equal number of supervisor's cars and massive hydraulic loaders used to heft the heavily-loaded containers up and down from the aircraft's open cargo doors. These loaded containers--the real essence of what we do here--are shuttled from airplane to sort facility and back to airplane on specially-designed dollies pulled by a veritable armada of little tractor-tugs. The sheer mass of materiel is astounding. I've contemplated often enough the expense and massive logistical undertaking necessary to run a fleet of 300 large jets; but that's but one aspect of a much, much larger company. 300 airplanes don't hold a candle to some 80,000 trucks.
This morning's assignment: hot standby. A full crew meets here and will be assigned an airplane to preflight and then stand at the ready to rush off and plug a hole somewhere in the system--another broken airplane here or somewhere else, an ill crewmember, some extra package volume needing to go somewhere. There will be "hot crews" for several different aircraft fleet types, and sometimes more than one crew per type. We sign in, get a pager, have some breakfast, settle in and wait for the call. So far, three hours into our shift, there is not an airplane for us to preflight. That may or may not change. Often we won't get an airplane until all the outbounds have departed (in case another DC-8 breaks and that crew is given our airplane instead).
As the sun rises, the odd activity inversion begins to shift. On a Saturday morning the cafeteria closes, and will remain dark until Sunday night--the only time it's not functioning. As the aircraft depart in every direction like chunks thrown from an explosion, the ramps become quiet; the tugs and loaders are parked, dollies moved to their ready positions for the next shift, containers inventoried and placed on acres-large storage lots. This side of the airport becomes quiet, as the passenger side of the field begins its day. At the airport boundary, the freeways are coming to life after the night's quiet.