Friday, July 13, 2007

An Airline Hub At Night

I've probably mentioned somewhere before that the place where we park our cars in Kentucky for work is a block or two from the place where we pilots go thru security as we enter the airport proper. And that security locale (called the "guard shack") is on the perimeter of the airport, while the Air Services Center, where I work out of, is another five or six blocks' distance into the interior of the airport proper. We pilots constitute a fraction of the 20,000-strong workforce for my company in Louisville, and there are many places along this six block path to the Air Services Center where people step off the path to go to their work locales. There is a shuttle provided for us from the parking lots to the guard shack, and another from the other side of the guard shack to the ASC and to (many) points beyond. It's a huge complex, and there are even a couple different shuttle routes, like city bus service, to take people to more remote places in the complex.

I remember my amazement when I was hired at my first airline job at seeing the frenzy of activity at the airline hub overnight. Great Lakes Airlines was at that time headquartered in Spencer, IA, a sleepy little farm town about an hour South of Minnesota's Southwest corner. Not to knock Spencer, but having a regional airline based in the town kind of put the place on the map, causing a number of restaurants and hotels to be built to accommodate the constant flow of trainees coming thru--pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, station agents: virtually all this training was done at the company's headquarters or in rented hotel conference rooms around town. At Great Lakes, as at most small turboprop airlines, all the flight training was done in the actual airplanes (no simulators). Because of this, there was a greater or lesser degree of trepidation about one's trip out to the airport; if you were headed out for training or for a checkride, it could be a really unpleasant place. But if you were headed out to fly an assignment or if you'd just finished a checkride (or, in rare occasions, if you were just going to the airport to watch the operations--what else was there to do in Spencer?), it was a glorious thing to behold. In the middle of the night impossibly expensive machinery sat gleaming in open hangars brilliantly lit with sodium fluoride lights, several airplanes in various states of disassembly, million-dollar engines sitting around on stands, and a full staff of mechanics hard at work thru the night when the airplanes were idle. Beyond the hangars, the night stillness was shattered by the angry white noise of an airplane doing training above or on the otherwise darkened field. Beyond the airport, a couple miles of cornfields and the sleeping town in the distance.

I can remember, having survived the rigorous and very unpleasant training, my thrill and feeling of immense wonder at being a legitimate part of this hive of activity. Rather than it seeming like a job for which one had been hired, it seemed like your number had been drawn and you were rewarded a spot in an exclusive club. Apart from management, who prided themselves on treating all employees equally like shit, there was a sense of awe and respect that came from everyone you came in contact with if you were in your uniform or otherwise recognizable as a pilot; everyone who worked for the airline in this little town understood what a mountain we'd all had to climb to be let into the club, and especially if you wore the captain's fourth stripe (one of the few circumstances I can think of where ANY non-pilot knew, much less cared, what the damn stripes mean). This seemed especially true with mechanics, many of whom were not pilots and NONE of whom were authorized to ever fly the airline's planes. There was thus the odd circumstance where the mechanics were allowed to fix the airplanes but couldn't fly them, and the pilots were to fly the airplanes but could not touch anything remedially.

I have huge respect for the work done by airline mechanics. An airplane, even a small turboprop like the Beech 1900 flown at that time by Great Lakes (still a nearly $5 million airplane), is an amazingly complicated machine--almost an organism in its interrelated complexity--and there is a distinct skill involved in troubleshooting problems. Electronic gremlins are especially challenging, as the symptoms are usually intermittent and can be quite misleading. So we relatively few pilots developed a close working relationship with the relatively few mechanics (relative to the numbers of other workers). We were usually the ones who observed the malfunctions, but they were the ones who had to remedy things; so good communication was essential. But, showing my true machinery geek character yet again, I nonetheless feel (and I think they did too) that actually FLYING the airplane has an almost mystical aspect to it. The mechanics would fire the beast up and taxi out to an area of the airport where they could run the engines up and do checks, but WE were allowed to go out there and release the brakes and let it go. We got to control eight tons of machinery as it hurled down the tarmac at breathtaking speed and, with a deft pull on the yoke, left the ground! Our job was to control the machine doing a thing that, to my mind, still defies nature in some fundamental way. I would sit in my car in the middle of the night watching the activity, and an airplane would come in on an instrument approach, only to get low to the ground and abort the landing. I'd watch the airplane yaw slightly as an engine roared up to full power, and I could see that the other engine was sitting quietly at idle--and I'd know that single-engine flight training was in progress, and someone was getting the screws put to them.

When I moved to Air Wisconsin in 1999, their headquarters (then in Appleton) buzzed in exactly the same fashion, except that this was a considerably larger concern, and the airplanes were all a bit (or a lot) larger. And there was almost no flight training going on at the Appleton airport, with most training now done in simulators. I would drive out to the airport for groundschool, or later to go to work, and the huge Air Wisconsin hangar could be seen from several miles away. Again, it seemed a great privilege to be a little part of the machinery that let the whole business function.

Last night (or technically this morning) I passed thru the guard shack and came outside to wait for the shuttle tram. It was such a beautiful night that I decided to walk into the complex interior, and the view as I walked brought all this back to me. My present airline is headquartered on this spot, as was the case with my previous airlines' home towns. But now the busy airline operation is augmented with a gigantic business operation as well, so the frenzy is many times what I've experienced at other airline hubs. Whereas the passenger business of my previous jobs all occurred elsewhere (well we did offer passenger service out of Spencer and Appleton, though they constituted a tiny part of what the companies did), and was in any case spread out over many cities and times of day, at my current company a very sizable percentage of what the company does passes thru the airline hub from 11:pm to 4:am. It's like a mid-size city that sleeps during the day and explodes into life at night.

Once again it seems an amazing thing, a huge privilege, to be granted a job description where I get to contribute to the functioning of this whole complex thing.

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